Trickster Travels: The search for Leo Africanus, By Natalie Zemon Davis

Faber, £10.99
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In 1518, Pope Leo X was presented with a most unusual present: a Moroccan scholar who had been captured by Spanish corsairs. The Ottoman empire was biting ever bigger chunks out of Europe and Africa, and the presence of this academic wunderkind, who could tell of the obscure lands which lay at the tail of the Nile, furnished embattled Christendom with a much-needed tonic. That he was open to baptism also helped. He was born Hassan ibn al-Wazzan in Spain. He is known to history as Leo Africanus.

Well, "known" is perhaps stretching it; as the author admits, we know only the bare facts of his life. Her lively, erudite account stretches as much skin over these bones as can decently be managed. She shows how his great work, The Description of Africa, informed the thinking of many subsequent European thinkers. She understands Leo as part of the tradition of the wise fool in Muslim folklore, disarming oppression with an appearance of wide-eyed ingenuousness. Davis's study is less a biography than a meditation on tolerance in a fraught age. For that alone, this book is welcome.