Narrating sultanship: the writing of sultanic biography as performance of social status

By Gowaart Van Den Bossche
Submitted to Session P4733 (Old Texts, New Methods: Innovative Methodologies for Medieval History, 2017 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Panegyric biographies from Late Medieval Syro-Egypt have generally been interpreted as legitimizing the reigns of sultans who usurped their way into power or whose position was politically contested. The role of the authors of these biographies is seen as little more than that of a propagandist paying lip service to an official state-induced interpretation of history. This paper argues that far more complex relations of authorship and patronage were at play in the act of narrating the life and times of a sultan. This was not in the first place directed by a supposed need for legitimacy, but by the authorial desire to construct a literary tour de force that displayed the specific mastery of the literary and rhetorical canon required of these authors in their official function as scribes in the d?w?n al-insh?’ (chancery bureau). These biographies often consist as much of praising the sultan’s actions as they do of performing a distinctive insh?’ identity. This paper will specifically look at the ways in which authors made use of such techniques to perform their own “literariness” and, as such, their social pre-eminence.