Review: The Ornament of the World

Review: The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twisting the truth but of inventing it.

Ostensibly the book is about Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain—from 711 to 1492—and specifically about the culture of tolerance that flourished during this period. Menocal takes her title from a remark of Hroswitha, the German canoness, who called Córdoba the “Ornament of the World” after meeting with an ambassador. Menocal does not, however, write a conventional, chronological history, but instead a series of vignettes from the time-period. Indeed, her approach is much closer to that of a journalist than a historian, picking out the most captivating personalities and focusing exclusively on them. And even though these vignettes often contain lots of interesting information, their primary aim is not to inform, but to evoke.

Menocal writes in a dreamy, wistful tone, a style that is often seductive enough to deactivate the reader’s critical facility. The land and the people she describes sound so fantastic that you want to believe her. And this, as well as the lack of almost any scholarly apparatus, makes me very suspicious.

It is hard to believe the book was written by a professor at Yale, for it is quite explicitly propagandistic, trying to counter the conventional view of the Middle Ages as backward and intolerant with a vivid portrait of an advanced, integrated civilization. Personally, I agree with both her ideals of tolerance and her desire to acknowledge the accomplishments of Muslim Spain; but this does not excuse a professor from the commitment to scholarship. All the repression and barbarism that existed during the time period is waved away by Menocal’s insistence that it was the work of foreigners, either Berbers from the south or Christians from the north; and everything positive is credited to Andalusian culture. It would be hard to be more partisan.

In short, I have many reservations about recommending this book, because I believe it wasn’t written in good faith, with scrupulous attention to facts, but rather in the effort to influence the public’s perception of Al-Andalus through storytelling. True, all scholarship is somewhat biased; but to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, using this fact to excuse extreme bias is like saying that, since a perfectly antiseptic operating room is impossible, we should just perform surgeries in the sewer.

Keeping the bias in mind, however, this book can be profitably read. There is a lot of fascinating information in these pages. Indeed, I recently revisited Toledo to see some of the things Menocal mentioned, such as Santa Maria la Blanca, a beautiful synagogue built in a Moorish style. And I do think that the story of syncretism, tolerance, and collaboration in Muslim Spain should be told, especially during this era of Islamophobia. It is too easy to forget how crucial the history of Islam is to the history of the “West,” if the two histories can indeed be separated at all. Menocal’s emphasis on the architecture, the poetry, and especially the translations of the Greek philosophers by Muslim and Jewish scholars, counters the common stereotypes of the Muslims as intolerant destroyers. What’s more, I fully understand how Menocal could be swept away in nostalgic awe after seeing the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada; that the people who made those amazing structures could disappear is hard to fathom.

Still, even though I agree with Menocal’s goals, I don’t agree with her means. The bright, rosy structure is built on too flimsy a foundation. Propaganda is a bad long-term strategy, because when people realize they are being manipulated they grow resentful. Much better would have been a balanced, sourced, and footnoted book, acknowledging both the good and the bad. The society Menocal so effusively praised was undeniably great; the best way to praise is simply to describe it. The worst aspect of Menocal’s approach is that it didn’t allow her to say anything insightful about how tolerance arose. And this is important to know, since creating a tolerant society is one of the omnipresent challenges of the modern world.

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Review: Imperial Spain

Imperial Spain, 1469-1716Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 by J.H. Elliott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Already by the end of the sixteenth century many Spaniards seem to have been gripped by that sense of fatalism which would prompt the famous pronouncement of a Junta of theologians in the reign of Philip IV. Summoned to consider a project for the construction of a canal linking the Manzanares and the Tagus, it flatly declared that if God had intended the rivers to be navigable, He would have made them so.

For Anglophone readers interested in the history of Spain, this book is invaluable. Elliott has here accomplished a real feat, of research, of writing, and of analysis. The book ably navigates that forbidding passage between simplifying popular accounts and unreadable scholarly monographs, managing to be both a work of serious intellectual synthesis and an absorbing account of Spain’s history.

Elliott has an astounding ability to seamlessly combine many disparate threads into the same narrative. He pays close attention to economic history: crop yields, interest rates, inflation and deflation, the debasement of currency, the balance of trade, tariffs and regulations. He incorporates social and cultural shifts: changing religious attitudes, demographic trends, class tensions, intellectual movements. And yet he also does not neglect the superlative individuals: Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, the Conde Duque, among others. The only thing conspicuously absent was military history, which suited me just fine.

Although the story of Spain during this time was heavily interwoven with both the New World and the rest of Europe, Elliott’s focus doesn’t stray from the Iberian peninsula. He gives only the most cursory account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and only mentions the struggles of Charles V against the Protestant Reformation. For those looking for a history of Spanish colonization, this book will therefore be disappointing. I must also add that Elliott’s judgment is at its worst in his brief section on the conquistadores. He describes them as glorious conquering heroes of a barren civilization, which I cannot abide in the light of the destruction and exploitation that followed in their wake.

Keeping those exceptions in mind, this book is a superlative account of this period of Spanish history. The competing centrifugal and centralizing forces at play, the conflicting traditions of Castilian and Aragonese governments, the infinitely subtle machinations of power, the gradual emergence of a national identity, the meteoric rise of the Spanish Empire, the cruel, grinding decline that followed, the heroic and hapless individuals struggling with forces beyond their control—all this is related with brevity, insight, and power.

It is difficult not to see the whole story as a morality play writ large. What with the ruthless exploitation of the treasure mines of the New World, the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors, the obsession with purity of blood, and the alignment of religious orthodoxy with central power, it seems as if the collapse of the grand but hollow edifice was the inevitable result of intolerance and folly. But even if we can learn some valuable lessons from this history, it is important to remember that the story is not so simple, and many decisions which in retrospect seem obviously foolish were at the time fairly reasonable (though of course many weren’t).

In short, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this fascinating time and place. It could hardly be better.

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