In 1550 there appeared in Rome (in the words of the first of its English translators)

a geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, borne in Grenada and brought vp in Barbarie, wherein he hath at large described, not onely the qualities, situations, and true distances of the regions, cities, townes, mountains, rivers, and other places throughout all the north and principall partes of Africa; but also the descents and families of their kings…gathered partly out of his owne diligent obseruations, and partly out of the ancient records and chronicles of the Arabians and Mores.1

Except for rumors and externals, little more is known about the author of this remarkable book, for centuries a shaping force in the European imagination of Africa. He does, indeed, seem to have been born as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, in Grenada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just a few years before or a few after this last bastion of Islam in Spain finally fell to Ferdinand and Isabella’s Castilian Christians. His parents fled with him to Wattasid Fez in Morocco, as part of the great Andalusian migration after the reconquista. He seems to have attended a madrasa there, perhaps even the famous Qarawiyyin, one of the oldest universities in the world. From the time he was sixteen or so he began to accompany his uncle, who was a highly placed aide in the service of the Wattasid sultan, on various embassies across North Africa and into the Sudan, perhaps even to Constantinople and Baghdad, though this has been disputed. And later he journeyed on his own in the sultan’s service, crossing and recrossing the Atlas and Rif mountains (in today’s Morocco) and through the Sahara Desert to Gao and Timbuktu in present-day Mali, and the fabled black empire, the Songhai, then centered there.2 (All these places appear in the texts published under his name, although whether and for how long he actually visited them has been a matter of dispute.)

In 1518, when he would have been in his mid- to late twenties, he was captured at sea, while returning to Fez from Mamluk Cairo, by Spanish corsairs harassing Turkish shipping in the central Mediterranean, and delivered as tribute to Pope Leo X, Giovanni de’ Medici, in Rome. After a brief imprisonment he decided, or was induced, to convert to Christianity by means of a papal ceremony in the basilica of St. Peter’s, taking as his baptismal name Johannes Leo de’ Medicis in Latin, Giovanni Leoni in Italian, Yuhanna al-Asad (asad means “lion”) in Arabic, “Leo Africanus” to the world of learning.

When Leo X died two years later, the new Christian left Rome to travel about Italy, settling for a while in Bologna where he compiled an Arabic-Hebrew-Latin lexicon and a grammar of Arabic, of which only fragments remain.3 By 1526 he was back in Rome under the protection of Pope Clement VII (Guilio de’ Medici, cousin of Leo), at which time he completed the Description which was to make him, posthumously and controversially, famous.

Again, just before or just after the sack of Rome by the imperial forces of Charles V in 1527, he seems to have left the city once more, bound apparently for Tunis where he is said to have reconverted to Islam—at which point, history, such as it is, loses track of him altogether, though legend, needing a proper ending, has it that he died, surrounded by colleagues, at home again, in Fez.

These dim and discontinuous outlines of what in detail must have been a rich and varied, intense and nuanced life, a journey not only across countries and continents but across religions, cultures, and civilizations, invite efforts to connect the dots and fill in the blanks; to produce, somehow, a more comprehensive picture of his mind and experiences than bare fact in itself provides. The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has constructed an “I-Leo” first-person, year-by-year novel around the events of his life (“The Year of the Crossing,” “The Year of Timbuktu,” “The Year of the King of France”). For his doctoral thesis, the great French Orientalist Louis Massignon built up a circumstantial picture of sixteenth-century Fez on the basis of Leo’s scattered descriptions of the city. And W.B. Yeats channeled him in a séance. (“Yet do not doubt that I am also Leo Africanus the traveler.”)4

Natalie Zemon Davis, a historian of early modern Europe who has produced a dazzling series of microhistories describing in detail the life and times of obscure and peripheral figures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,5 takes a different, in some ways even bolder, tack. She gathers around the figure of Leo such a vast amount of circumstantial material about the human environment in which he moved—whom he might have talked to, what he must have read, what he probably saw or heard about or visited—as to cause him to stand out, like a magnetic field passed through iron filings, in a kind of negative relief. Leo is known, fixed, and circumscribed, through the world he inhabited and the company he kept:


Through [Leo’s] example, I could explore how a man moved between different polities, made use of different cultural and social resources, and entangled or separated them so as to survive, discover, write, make relationships, and think about society and himself…. My strategy is to start with persons, places, and texts that good evidence affirms or suggests he knew, and build from additional sources about them what he would have been likely to see or hear or read or do. Throughout I have had to make use of the conditional “would have,” “may have,” “was likely to have,” and the speculative, “perhaps,” “maybe.” These are my invitations to the reader to follow a plausible life story from the materials of the time.


Davis constructs her “perhaps” plausible story against the background of a series of profound cultural contrasts that Leo was forced to negotiate in his passage—she calls them “crossings”—from Africa, Islam, and Arabic to Europe, Christianity, and Italian and back again. She sees him as a “trickster,” a shrewd and tireless shape-shifter constantly changing his exterior self so as to fit in, and thus mediate between, starkly different, and in the case of Islam and Christianity, sharply opposed, ways of being in the world. “My portrait is of a man with a double vision, sustaining two cultural worlds, sometimes imagining two audiences, and using techniques taken from the Arabic and Islamic repertoire while folding in European elements in his own fashion.”

Accordingly, after summarizing Leo’s African journeys and his encounters with “Berbers, Andalusians, Arabs, Jews, and Blacks,” all of which took place before he was captured and taken to Rome (a city, as Davis notes, then little more than half the size of Fez), she attempts to locate Leo within the general history of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean, and most especially within that of Italy, where, for about seven years, he lived as a Christian, a scholar, a foreigner, and a protégé of the Vatican. She points out that “those surrounding [him] at the baptismal font”—a number of cardinals and other princes of the Church, and at their head the Pope himself—were “all eager to efface the religion into which he had been born,” and that he was given the Pope’s family surname, de Medici, as a signal of his ritual kinship to the godfather pope. But Davis follows Africanus’s own practice and calls him by the name he gave himself after his conversion, Yuhanna al-Asad, because “it suggests the entanglement of values, perspectives, and personae in his life in Italy.”

That entanglement, Davis argues, puts the whole question of the depth and dimensions of al-Asad’s—or Leo’s, or Johannes de’ Medici’s—conversion into question. Not only does he not mention either his capture or his conversion in the Description, but he treats all “the religions of Peoples of the Book,” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with a markedly even hand. (He denounces only the Shiites, whom he considers destructive of Muslim unity and as trying to impose their views by force of arms.) Indeed, “it is possible,” Davis says, that his “state of mind was like that of a Jewish Marrano or a Morisco converso: persons forced to convert or conform to one religion while inwardly holding to and even clandestinely practicing their old faith.” She sees him as employing the established Muslim practice of taqiyya, “precautionary dissimulation”: hiding one’s true beliefs beneath an outward show of conformity so as to avoid persecution. “Taqiyya sets up a very simple model for Yuhanna al-Asad’s behavior and mentality in Italy: outside—a false Christian performance; inside—a sincere Muslim.”

That, however, is not the whole story—“this crafty and curious bird… had more in play than taqiyya alone.” Aspects of his life in Rome might genuinely have attracted him. The papacy for instance. “We can imagine [him] weighing the advantages of a centralized Roman structure against the weak and rival caliphs of Sunni Islam.” Or the ceremonies of the Church. As he remembered the myriad candles shimmering in the great mosque of the Qarawiyyin where as a youth he had prayed and studied, “perhaps Catholic ceremony offered [him] a dangerous but exciting performance.” Then there were his associations in Italy, not only with Leo X, but with other “great figures whom he may have served,” such as Prince Alberto Pio, the Vatican librarian, and various “Italian humanists who conversed with him…and whose interests and activities would have been known to him.” And there were the foreign savants like himself, Jews, Maronite Christians, “with whom he had the easiest and friendliest relations.” His “curious eyes and ears,” Davis writes, “saw and heard much else in Rome and in his travels in Italy.” The obscure law student, “who had not yet made his mark in North Africa as a man of authority, became in Italy a sought after scholar and finally a writer with expert status.”


But it was not only his public life that was affected, perhaps even transformed, as, half disguised, half assimilated, he moved among Renaissance personages; his private life was reshaped as well: “[He] may also have discovered aspects of Italy through intimate liaisons. Erotic connections are a well-known channel for cultural crossings.”

Davis writes that Leo, while he was still traveling about Africa as the sultan’s emissary, would have had a wife, a conclusion she reaches on admittedly speculative, but not unreasonable, grounds that any man of his age and public visibility in the Fez of those times—indeed of any times—would of necessity be married; a marriage that, under Muslim law, would have been annulled after a while with the apparently permanent disappearance of the husband. For Davis, his silence on this subject in the generally rather autobiographical Description, like his silence about his capture and conversion, only strengthens her argument: “A Muslim wife back in Fez would have been an embarrassment before his Christian readers in Italy and a reproach before imagined Muslim readers.”

In any case, Leo is hardly more forthcoming concerning his relations with the opposite sex than he is with the other morally delicate aspects of his personal life; he “never repeat[s] conversations he may have had with women he met during his travels.” But in Italy he was nonetheless projected into a “sexual economy” in many ways different from that he had known in the at least publically puritanical world of North African Islam, in which genders were polarized. In the first place, Rome was perhaps 60 percent male because of the large number of churchmen and diplomats there, a fact that gave a particular prominence to prostitution and concubinage…”honest courtesans,” homoerotic relationships, richly illustrated erotica. “Why else do you think Rome is given the name of Babylon?” a contemporary observer wrote of the city; “why else would they call Rome a strumpet?” Surrounded in the papal court and elsewhere by Christian men, “celibate in principle if not always in practice,” the possibility that Leo, “a vigorous man in his thirties,” was unaffected by all this seems to Davis remote. The question is: “Besides learning about sexual networks and intimate relations in Italy, did [he] take part in them?”

Again, direct evidence is lacking and indirect evidence is equivocal. Searching through the thousands of names in a 1527 census of Rome, Davis comes upon one “Ioannes Leo,” and though “it would have made things easier if the census takers had qualified ‘Ioannes Leo’ as ‘africanus,’ I think it reasonable to assume that ‘Ioannes Leo,’ head of household with two other people, is our man.” And further as “it seems unlikely that [he] was directing a household of men…I speculate…that the household included a woman and a young child,” Leo’s wife and child, though it is possible, given the uncertain status of his Muslim marriage in Fez, that the woman was his concubine.


In summing up her view of Leo’s persona when going among the Christians as both a public man and a private one, Davis has recourse to a story he recounts in the Description from a collection of Italian fables, The Book of a Hundred Tales.

Once there was a bird that could live either on land or under the water. He lived in the air with the other birds until the king of the birds came demanding his taxes. Immediately he then flew to the sea and said to the fish, “You know me, I’m always with you. That idle king of the birds has been asking me for taxes.” The fish welcomed him and he stayed with them until the king of the fish came around and asked for taxes, whereupon the bird shot out of the water, flew back to the birds, and told them the same story. And so he continued without ever paying any taxes. Commenting on this story, Davis writes:

“You know me, I am one of you,” says Yuhanna al-Asad’s amphibian bird when he arrives among the fish. He must remain with the fish, resemble them…and yet be distant enough to be ready for quick departure when the tax-collector comes around. So with Yuhanna al-Asad in Italy over the seven years after his conversion. He found ways to be close and to be distant to both his old world and his new one. His curiosity and artfulness allowed him to flourish as a writer, scholarly companion, and perhaps lover without being overwhelmed by guilty conflict and anxiety. And his experiences turned him in unexpected directions.

The question, then, is: How persuasive, how “plausible,” is Davis’s amphibian bird and fish story, constructed as it is out of “may haves” and “maybes”; papal baptism, taqiyya, ritual kinship, and census entries? Did Leo al-Asad in fact sustain a double identity without challenge or criticism for nearly a decade? Did he move so effortlessly between his only apparently effaced Africo-Islamic persona and his only apparently embraced Euro-Christian one? Davis recounts no difficulties of adjustment at all in his life in Italy; no questioning of his bona fides or challenges to his sincerity, no sticky situations when his outer self and his inward one came under pressure. The fish seem oddly unquestioning of this bird in their midst; the trickster’s tricks remarkably effective; the shifting of selves smooth and untroubled.

There is, in all this, virtually no extended and concrete account of Leo’s actual interactions with particular persons in particular encounters, not even with Leo X, and hardly any circumstantial records of his daily life, to say nothing of self-revelations. The historical positivist dedicated to a strict accounting of wie es eigenlicht gewesen ist—“what actually was”—is going to find that much of this goes beyond the available evidence, substituting surmise for observation, guess for data, as well as being somewhat shaped to present concerns. As Leo himself writes in the Description, explaining why he has disclosed the vices of Africa when he has been nourished and raised there: “[It] is necessary for anyone who wants to write to tell things as they are.”

Yet, the historical positivist would be missing the point. Davis’s concern is less with writing a biography of Leo, who, bird, fish, or stranded exile, escapes in the end as he does in the beginning, than with using him as a central point of focus, a foreign particle, and a disturbing force, around which to order and articulate the social and cultural fields through which he moved. Christian Italy and Islamic North Africa, the ideas and institutions that defined them, and the sentiments that drove them are the real subjects of Davis’s history. Pulling together a wide range of material from both sides of the divide—Castiglione and Ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali and Rabelais, Machiavelli and Ibn Arabi (names unlikely to be found together in any other text)—she imagines Leo’s progress through Italy against the background of his account of his travels in Africa. In doing so, she brings the sixteenth- century Mediterranean to life with freshness, vividness, and telling detail.

With the Muslim rollback from the Iberian peninsula and the intrusion of Spaniards and Portuguese into the North African coast in the west and the rising power of the Ottoman-Mamluk empire in the east (against which Leo X thought, rather idly, of raising a crusade), the so-called “clash of civilizations” between the world of Islam and the world of Christianity was, on the one hand, about as sharp and explicit as it has probably ever gotten and, on the other, continuously traversed by merchants, embassies, pirate ships, travelers, scholars, and refugees coursing back and forth across the Mediterranean sea-street, then as now as much a connecting force as a dividing one. Leo was special only in the fact of his having written the Description and the posthumous fame and attention it brought him. Border crossing, to the degree one can say there were borders in this fluid and checkered world, where there were Christian and Jewish pockets in Muslim lands and Muslim pockets in Christian ones, and mobility everywhere, was frequent and pervasive.6

The combination in Davis’s book of an intensified consciousness of religio-cultural difference and increased migration, increased contact, and more and more intimate interaction—distinction and mixing, purity and hybridity, resistence and adaptation—does indeed remind us of the present. Birds among fishes and fishes among birds now seem almost the rule. Leo’s world and ours are hardly the same; nor are the shapes of change and the forms of politics the same. But the intermixture of civilizations in the lives of displaced and peripatetic individuals, born into one tradition and carrying it forward in the homeland of another, intensifies by the day. Movement between ways of being in the world defines our times as much as do contrast and tension between them. The confusion of forms of life is, increasingly, the common state of things.

Whether or not Leo Africanus’s sojourn among the infidels was as smooth and untroubled as Davis, concerned apparently to stress the ease with which even broad cultural gulfs can be bridged, then and now, may be doubted; but that his “case” is nicely illustrative of the complexities and intricacies involved in such crossings and connectings, also then and now, is clear. For all the guessing, probability piled on probability, that is needed to reconstruct his life in Europe, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wazzan, aka Johannes al-Asad, and his great book bear witness, as Davis concludes, “to the possibility of communication and curiosity in a world divided by violence.”

This Issue

March 23, 2006