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Lecture | LUCIS What's New?! Series

How to Study a Polymath

Thursday 16 March 2023
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What's New?! Spring Lecture Series 2023
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Ceramic bowl from Samarra

The prison of modern—mostly European—interpretive categories makes it difficult to approach the complexity of many Abbasid authors, who are either casually labelled as polymaths or pigeonholed into one discipline at the expense of the rest. On the other hand, a traditional “life and times” treatment may result in a curated, polished portrayal which is equally reductive. 

This talk proposes an approach to the question which does not downplay an individual’s versatility, but rather exploits it for the investigation of debated issues in Arabic literature and historiography. The case study is Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī (d. 335/947), whose scholarship on poetry and chancery is part of the canon. On the contrary, as an historian he is often considered an observer rather than an interpreter of events for posterity. Investigating the life, times and works of such a complex individual can serve as a fil rouge for tackling broader, contested concepts, such as biography, autobiography, court culture, and written culture. 

About Letizia Osti

Letizia Osti is Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Milan. She has published on classical Arabic prose and narrative techniques in biographical collections, historiography, literature, and intersections thereof. Her recent publications include History and memory in the Abbasid caliphate: writing the past in medieval Arabic literature (Bloomsbury, 2022) and, edited together with Maaike van Berkel, The Historian of Islam at Work: Essays in Honour of Hugh N. Kennedy (Brill, 2022). She is currently working on the socio-cultural aspects of ẓarf in Abbasid Iraq. 

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