Pre-modern Arabic texts (particularly chronicles) bear witness to shockingly violent events. The tradition is often primarily concerned with providing records of battles, sieges, invasions and their outcomes. Less common, but still quite present, are accounts of famines and epidemics and their aftermath. Although modern scholarship has discussed the causes and impacts of famine in the pre-modern Middle East, there has been little critical consideration of the Arabic accounts themselves. Anyone who has read an Arabic chronicle, knows that famine is frequently outlined in a formulaic manner, but very occasionally a chronicler provides a longer, more dramatic account.
Through text reuse detection, our project has shown how historians frequently recycle material from earlier historical accounts for their narratives. Ibn al-Athīr’s Kāmil fī-l-Taʾrīkh relies heavily on descriptions from al-Ṭabarī’s famous Taʾrīkh and al-Nuwayrī’s Nihāyat al-Arab recycles material from Ibn al-Athīr’s Kāmil. Other computational methods, such as topic modelling, allow us to see how different events are described across the Arabic textual corpus using the same phrasing (that is, to study how formulaic phrasing is used through a corpus). Through a combination of these methods, this paper will explore how Arabic chroniclers dealt with famine. This will show how, quite contrary to Arabic accounts of battles and sieges, detailed descriptions of famine are rare, and when they do appear they are infrequently reused. This is particularly the case for the most horrific descriptions of famine. These patterns remind us of the humanity of the historians that we study. They lived in a world where famine was a near-constant fear and where an author was likely to witness such an event first-hand or hear about such an event from witnesses. These experiences were likely to impact how they dealt with and reproduced accounts that dealt with similar, traumatic, events.