The Disputed Origin Of The Majorcan Sibil·la

In keeping with the fact that it is listed by Unesco as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, El Cant de la Sibil·la, the Song of the Sybil, attracts an enormous amount of analysis and discussion. The ancient roots of the chant, the assimilation into Catalan culture, the association with church liturgy, the sixteenth century prohibition by the Council of Trent, the subsequent acceptance in Majorca that was to keep the chant alive - these have all been dissected and continue to be.

There were different versions of the Sibil·la. The Majorcan version naturally demands much attention, given that it was Majorca where the tradition of the chant was upheld and became an integral part of Christmas celebrations. Accordingly, there is debate as to what was the oldest and the original Majorcan text and music. The exact location of what is believed to have been the oldest manuscript may come as a surprise. It was a small monastery populated by Augustinian nuns - the Monastery of the Puig de Pollença.

There was a female monastic house in Pollensa from the fourteenth century. It didn't belong to any particular order, but in 1362 the Bishop of Majorca was asked to authorise its establishment at the Puig de Pollença (Puig de María), where a small church and shrine to the Virgin Mary had been built in 1348 - it was intended to plead for protection from the Black Death. Eventually, in 1388, the nuns officially came under the Augustinian Order.

So, this small monastery - it is believed - is where the Majorcan version originated. The manuscript itself came into the possession of the Monastery of the Concepció de Palma. The Council of Trent, around the time that it was prohibiting the Sibil·la, decreed that the nuns in Pollensa had to move. This was all to do with their "living conditions", and so the Palma monastery was in effect a continuance of the monastery on top of the Puig de María.

While this explanation is the one which the current Bishopric supports, there are others, and one of them involves Abd-Al·lah at-Tarjuman al-Mayurqî, aka Anselm Turmeda. A Franciscan monk, who was born in Palma in 1352, he converted to Islam and concluded that all Christianity was false and absurd.

In 1385, Turmeda had some form of religious crisis, although it has also been suggested that he was involved in a legal dispute. Precisely why he decided to convert is a matter of conjecture, but he went to Tunis in 1387 and never returned. There were attempts to make him come back, to renounce Islam and reconvert to Catholicism, but letters and even emissaries despatched by the Aragonese crown failed to persuade him.

Turmeda had been an important Catholic scholar, and it certainly wasn't in the best interests of Christian kings or the Catholic Church for someone of such prominence to have become a follower of Muhammad. For the church, Turmeda was a matter of particular delicacy, given that it was going through the period of the Western Schism, with two or even three popes at one time. The church's reputation was being damaged in any event. A Franciscan from a Catholic bastion - the Crown of Aragon - going off to Tunis and becoming an advocate for Islam was something the church could most definitely have done without.

The curious point about Turmeda was that his most famous work - Llibre dels bons amonestaments - was written eleven years after he arrived in Tunis. It was to later be banned by the Inquisition but it attained some popularity in the Barcelona of the sixteenth century because of its Catalan verse style. The book included the Sibil·la, which is why Turmeda was attributed with having been responsible for the Majorcan version.

It is most unlikely that he was responsible, if for no other reason than it has been accepted that the Sibil·la, in its original fifth century incarnation in the Christmas liturgy, was the work of one Quodvultdeus, the Bishop of Carthage, who had been exiled to Naples. Quodvultdeus had certain targets in mind. His sermon with the Sibil·la was directed against paganism, Arianism and Judaism. Islam didn't of course exist at that time, but had it done, one feels sure that Quodvultdeus would have targeted that as well.

Turmeda was seemingly, therefore, not the source of the Majorcan Sibil·la. The nuns of Pollensa were. But when did the nuns create their version? And based on what? There doesn't appear to be any reference to this until the fifteenth century: after Turmeda's Sibil·la had appeared.

The analysis of the Sibil·la continues; the discussion and debates are unabating.

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