Medieval Tripoli through the eyes of Christian captives from the Ottoman era: the narrative of the French surgeon Pierre Girard (17th century CE) as a case study

by Aurélien Montel and Louis Fandre


Because of its close relationship to the Arabic world, Libya is a country for the study of which medieval and modern historians instinctively turn to arabic texts. Nowadays, however, there are but a few actual Libyan texts that survived medieval times to reach us.

In Tripoli, the Ottoman era saw the birth of an authentic historiography, locally focused but rich. We also remember that the Tripolitan regency (1551) had reached a truly Mediterranean stature. In this perspective, accounts written by prisoners are highly valuable sources.

Around the text

The text we’re going to present today belongs precisely to this kind of sources. It is kept in the National Library of France (Français 12119 & 12220, apparently a unicum; 2 vols. 225 and 327 ff., 270 x 180). There is no indication other than the text’s title: Histoire chronologique du royaume de Tripoly de Barbarie. It belonged to Gaspard Moyse de Fontanieu (1694-1767, a stateman under Louis XV). On August 27, 1765 he sold his collection of books to the king and our ms. entered the royal collections.

The first volume opens with an especially long and interesting first chapter, describing the kingdom of Tripoly, from the Tunisian border to the Jebel Akhdar. The following chapters recount the history of these territories from the Carthaginian era and the foundation of Oea up until the Islamic conquest. The Ottoman conquest is extensively detailed, as well as the rule of the pashas, for which we are given a precise chronological account up until pasha Sakızlı Osman’s rise to power (r. 1649-1672). The second volume is a long and very detailed account of the years during which the author lived, from 1649 up until 1676 – this last year being the date at which he was freed and came back to France. For documentary reasons, a particular emphasis is put on Tripoly, which is at the center of events and of the author’s attention.

One issue with this text is that it bears no explicit signature. Scattered elements throughout the text allow us to identify an ordinary surgeon from Dauphiné, enlisted in the Royal army during Louis XIV’s rule and taken prisoner at sea by the Turks. The name Girard appears very early thanks to Jacob Spon (1647-1685), an antique dealer and scholar from Lyon.

However, the mystery was recently solved thanks to the remarkable work of the American historian Gillian Weiss, who studies the relationship between modern France and the Maghreb, focusing in particular on prisoners and their ransoming. By combing through the source and meticulously studying French records (especially those from Lyon), she was able to find meaningful evidence that the author was an individual by the name Pierre Girard, known to us thanks to a letter sent from Tripoly to the Huguenot community in Lyon in 1670, which he co-signed. Rémi Dewière confirmed and strenghtened this theory thanks to several documents of the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

In Tripoll Pierre Girard benefitted from being a surgeon, which enabled him to endure a softer detention than his fellow prisoners and to serve the Pasha, living in permanent contact with the elite, all the while spending time with several European key individuals. Among them, the English consul Nathanael Bradley who granted Girard his protection, enabled him to access writing material. We know that, after having been released, Pierre Girard went on to live in his region of origin, but the detail of his activities remain unknown. 

The title page of the text bears the date 1685. Since the latest event explicitely mentioned in the text happened in 1682, ths shows that the book was written in two stages.  Rémi Dewière recently conjectured that the History is actually a four-handed work – a hypothesis which seems to us very likely: although Pierre Girard was clearly the author of a detailed first draft, it is probable that another author intervened, perhaps by adding the references to a strong classical culture: this might have been Jacob Spon himself, for he was a major figure of the protestant community and possessed a renowned classical library. This text is also the work of the many anonymous authors of those “Arabic memoirs”, some of which were “unearthed” by Girard to build his own work.

This text – Histoire chronologique du royaume de Tripoly de Barbarie – was read a lot by historians, challenged and discussed as well. After almost a century, the professor André Laronde wrote that: “the historical parts [of this work], which are mostly a complication, lost almost all kind of interest”.  For many reasons, we cannot subscribe to such an opinion. The main one is that it was given by a scholar in Ancient history. Researchers specialized in Islamic/medieval era did not express any view regarding this text, mainly by lack of interest about medieval Libya. 

Girard also used many oral testimonies, that he received from local people, like the ones he called the “marabous”, al-Murābiṭūn; he probably also received data from the English consulate or other Christian captives held in the city or elsewhere in the eyalet. Moreover, he claims to have used – this is what makes this text absolutely unique – what he calls, in French, “mémoires Arabiques”, that is to say “Arabic histories”, aḫbār ʿarabiyya. He may have used some he saw in the library of the pachas, or received some written especially from him; being not fluent in Arabic or Turkish, he had it translated from him, by Christian secretaries of the chancellery or by other captives. These texts are explicitly mentioned in the foreword, in the course of the text as well. This is why that text seems to be so important in my opinion, especially for the medieval era. Of course, Girard is doing no more than a compilation; but whereas for the Ancient times such compilation does not add anything to the original texts that are still in our possession, for the Middle Ages he uses texts and documents that are now lost. 

What do we have?

The first chapters, from the times of Muḥammad to the Hafsid era, his text is a mistake-full abstract, with very little interest. Dates are wrong, names are wrong, which is not surprising at all since Girard used, to write down those parts, European texts that were written in the Late Middle Ages or the Early modern era, that are themselves full of errors. Sometimes, we can also notice that Girard is using very polemical texts, especially in what regards the life of the Prophet.

Nevertheless, there also are some textual unites that seems different. They were not taken out of European texts, and, for some, Girard clearly indicates that he got them translated from the Arabic. This is the case of three episodes taking place in medieval Cyrenaica. First, a very unique version of the Islamic conquest of Libya – especially of Cyrenaica. Second, a very specific episode taking place under Saladin’s reign, with the conquest of Cyrenaica by a mamluk of his that Girard calls Alaydin, that means ʽAlā’ al-Dīn (Qarāqūš al-Armanī?). Third, a very brief narrative about the Ottoman conquest (or “non-conquest”) of Cyrenaica. Those tree episodes were probably quoted from a relation that Girard received from Benghazi, that was sent to him by another captive named Jean de l’Estoille.

About Tripoli, there are three episodes as well that deserve to be mentioned, because what is said in it is very interesting. First, a very strange narrative after the Crusade of 1270. Second, a long and interesting narration about Tripoli at the end of its independence, before the Spanish conquest (1510). Third, the Christian occupation of Tripoli, by the Spaniards and then by the Knights of Saint-Jean, is relying on what Girard called “mémoires arabiques”, which are quoted for nine different years (1512, 1516, 1517, 1518, 1531, 1537, 1543 et 1546). Those mentions are documenting the impact that had the conquest on the inhabitants of the city, and their daily life under the Christian rule, from the inside. Again, a local text is probably where Girard took all of this.

Provisory conclusion

Scholars interested in medieval Libya being rare, no one really looked into this text and was able to see what makes it useful, like pure gold for us who are lacking of local sources. 

In 2003, André Laronde announced in a paper that a doctoral student of his, Mrs. Amel Buchreida, would publish the text in her PhD dissertation. Although she defended her PhD and graduated in 2017, (Université of Poitiers, France), for many reasons she could not do that job and her work is mostly a presentation of what contains the Girard’s text. 

This is also why we are happy to tell you that we, in the LibMed team but especially Louis Fandre and Aurélien Montel, are currently working on publishing the chapters of this text dealing with medieval Libya. It will come out within the new collection that Brill dedicated to our works, Libya Islamica, that we will soon inaugurate with Hafed’s Abdouli PhD about late antique and early medieval Tripolitania.

This text is actually showing how rich can the modern European texts prove to be, especially the captives’ literature. Of course, Girard’s text is one of a kind, due to its length, its precision, and its will to write the story of the city (more than his own story). But that text is probably not the only one from that era to deal with Libya, maybe with medieval Libya, and we can imagine that some other texts of the same genre are waiting for us to found them, to study them, to publish them.

طرابلس الوسيطة في عيون أسرى مسيحيين من العهد العثماني

رؤية الجرّاح الفرنسي بطرس جيرار (ق 17م) أنموذجا

أوريليان مونتيل (سيهام/الشرق والمتوسط، فرنسا)

لويس فاندر (مرشح للدكتوراه — جامعة باريس 1/السوربون ـ البانثيون، فرنسا)

بما أن ليبيا تنتمي إلى العالم العربي لقد تعود المؤرخون من كلتا الفترتين الوسيطة والحديثة على النظر في النصوص العربية. في إطار الفتح العثماني وإنشاء ولاية طرابلس آنذاك سنة 1551 م أصبحت المنطقة عاملا متوسطيا فعالا الأمر الذي يؤدي إلى الاطلاع على المصادر الأروبية ومنها الأسراء فلتقاييدهم أهمية وقيمة فائقة بما أنها لا تحفظ مصيرهم فقط بل أيضا أخبارا مفقودة أو ذاكرة شعبية

أحدها محفوظ داخل المكتبة الوطنية الفرنسية ويبدو أنها النسخة الوحيدة. يحتوي الجزء الأول على 225 ورقة والثاني على 327 ما يساوي بالإجمال 1104 صفحة. لا نجد إلا العنوان تاريخ مملكة طرابلس البربرية حسب التسلسل الزمني. لا يوجد “إمضاء” واضح للنص. ينبغي لمّ العناصر المبعثرة هنا وهناك لتعريف جراح موظف في البحرية الملكية تحت حكم لويس ال 14 آت أصلا من شرق جنوب فرنسا وقد أسره الأتراك. انطلاقا من ذلك اقترح المؤرخون عدة سيناريوهات لكشف هويته

يذكر الغلاف سنة 1685 للفراغ من الكتابة ونعرف علاوة على ذلك أن آخر حدث مقيد وقع في 1682 ونستنتج أنه أدّى عمله في مرحلتين على الأقل وجيرار نفسه يثبت هذا فهو ابتدأ في إفريقية وانتهى في جبال الألب فاستفاد من إقامته بطرابلس لجمع المصادر والمعلومات والتحاور مع المخبرين أما الإنشاء فجبله وصقله عند عودته إلى فرنسا

يتمتع تاريخ جيرار بسمعة متضاربة للعصر القديم : لا ينفعنا وذلك لأننا نمتلك الآن هذه النصوص والمراجع المحققة والمطبوعة بطريقة علمية إنما الكتاب ثمين للغاية فيما يخص الحقبتين العثمانية بالطبع والقروسطية أيضا. أنّ جيرار جمع وثائق عربية أمر قيّم جدا لأنها كانت متواجدة آنذاك ولكنها مفقودة اليوم

تتميز روايته لتاريخ برقة فينقلها من خبر بُعث إليه في عام 1672 من بنغازي إلى طرابلس على شكل نسخة مترجمة متطابقة. نكتشف فيها سردا قد يكون فريدا أحيانا للفتوحات والعمليات التي أشرف عليها قراقوش باسم صلاح الدين والنظام الأيوبي ووصول العثمانيين. علاوة على ذلك يتضح أن المؤلف استعمل تاريخا محليا طرابلسيا يوفر معلومات متناسقة ومؤطرة بالنسبة إلى استقلالية المنطقة تجاه الحكم الحفصي بين 1460 و1510 ثم السيطرة الإسبانية والحصار العثماني 1551

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Citer ce billet
Sébastien Garnier (2023, 4 juin). Medieval Tripoli through the eyes of Christian captives from the Ottoman era: the narrative of the French surgeon Pierre Girard (17th century CE) as a case study. LibMed. Consulté le 24 février 2024, à l’adresse

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