Just yesterday, a good friend and fellow history student sent me this article, in which Dr. Suzanna Lipscomb made the case for which six historical individuals she would most like to have for dinner, and then challenged me to come up with my own top choices. When I began to think about it, though, a strange thing happened– all my candidates were either explorers, or women, or both! With a bit more thought, however, I’ve compiled a more balanced list of the top six writers, adventurers, and poets (all from the years before 1550 CE) whom I think would make the most entertaining dinner guests.
Zhang Qian: Born in China in the 2nd century BCE, Qian was an explorer sent to find allies who would join China in a campaign against the Xiong-nu, a tribal empire in northwest Central Asia. On his journey, he was made captive by the Xiong-nu for over a decade, married one of their women, escaped from custody, and eventually returned to bring the first detailed intelligence reports of Central Asia back to the imperial court. He introduced alfalfa (for horse fodder), the cultivation of wine grapes, and other exotic products, and also laid out the military capabilities and diplomatic customs of the peoples he visited. A keen observer, well travelled and resourceful, I think he would be a great guest able to regale us with stories of his adventures on the ancient Silk Route.
Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir: Born in Iceland around the year 1,000, Gudrid spent the majority of her life travelling across the north Atlantic from Greenland to Norway and back. At one time married to Eirik the Red’s son Thorsteinn, she travelled with a group of Icelanders to Vinland, where she became the first known European woman to give birth in the New World. Later in life, she went on pilgrimage to Rome and ended her days as a nun in Iceland. Portrayed as strong and intelligent in the sagas, Gudrid could give us an eyewitness retelling of one of the greatest Norse voyages of exploration.
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: Born in the Persian region of Khurasan in the 13th century, Rumi was an educated Muslim theologian, Sufi mystic, and poet who settled in Konya after fleeing from the advance of the Mongols. As a believer in mystical Islam, Rumi pursued the union of the self with God, and was a popular teacher to Christians, Muslims, and Jews during his time in Konya. As an outstanding spiritual guide and consummate artist whose enjoyment of life fills his verse, Rumi would make a vivacious conversationalist at any party.
Taliesin: Lived in what is now Wales during the 6th century, a time of discord and social change as British society adapted to the fall of Rome and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. As a bard, Taliesin composed many poems in praise of Welsh kings and commemorated their victory in battle. His literary skills were so renowned that many poems later became ascribed to him, and he enters legendary stories as a man of mythic origins whose words have magical powers. Trained to entertain war-bands and chieftains during feasts, Taliesin would be able to recite the deeds of the Welsh heroes of the past.
Isidore of Seville: Born in Visigothic Spain in the 6th century, Isidore was one of the most prolific writers of the Middle Ages. His works, ranging from natural philosophy and theology to political science and history, display a formidable intellect out to codify and explain the world around him. As Bishop of Seville, he also encouraged the programmes of education in Spanish churches and was an influential figure in Visigothic politics, presiding over the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633. Educated, with vast curiosity and a perceptive mind, Isidore would bring any number of fascinating discussions with him to the dinner table.
Anna Komnene: Born in Constantinople in 1083, Anna has bequeathed to us an unusual and priceless source both for her life and her times, The Alexiad. Through it, we see her as a woman of excellent education and broad understanding, whose life at the centre of Byzantine politics witnessed some of the greatest events of the Middle Ages. During her lifetime, Anna met crusaders, plotted for the imperial throne, and retired, like Gudrid, to the religious life. Her wit, personality, and ambition have fired the imagination of historians for centuries, and her views on Greek civilisation and palace politics would be utterly absorbing.
So, these are my six, but the fun doesn’t need to end there. Who would you most like to find across from you at a dinner party?
Have a guest, but don’t see them above? Please tell us about them in the comments!