A Vanished World: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval Spain
© 2005 Chris Lowney
Vanished World sets medieval Spain before the reader with the warning; we may be blessed or cursed by emulating its example. The Iberian peninsula is the very perimeter of western Europe, within a stone’s throw of both the vast continent of Africa and the looming expanse of the Atlantic. Despite its apparent remoteness, Iberia was throughout the ages in the very thick of the action — the pitch wherin civilizations clashed. In an earlier age, Rome and Carthage sparred; a thousand years later, Visigoths and Muslims fought. The invasion of Spain in 711 by the Umayyad caliphate made the former province of the Romans, then yet another ruin ruled by nominally Christian barbarians, into an outpost of a far larger, far more sophisticated civilization, where it enjoyed a golden age that was for Europe a preview of the Renaissance and enlightenment. Here the gifts of the Greeks were preserved and built on; here both Islam and Rabbinic Judaism grew in new directions. Vanished World is a brief and romantic history of medieval Spain, one brimming with hope that we can all just get along.
Until the triumph of Ferdinand and Isabella, who united their kingdoms and created a state commanding the peninsula, Iberia was home to a multitude of peoples and minor states. While many were drawn by commercial cross-traffic, others came to carve out kingdoms, like the Visigoths and their successors from Africa, the Umayyads. Iberia was fractured and destitute, lingering in a winter of civilization that was chased away by an eastern wind. Unlike the barely literate Goths, the Muslim invaders were part of a vibrant, culturally rich civilization on the ascendant. Sweeping over the peninsula, they infused it with new life, creating a social order that allowed their new subjects to participate in it. Although the calpihate would falter after the death of its leader, breaking into squabbling branches that were brushed aside by a Castillian comeback, it reigned for several hundred years and created an environment that brought the best of human passion, creativity, and intelligence to the surface. After an introduction which establishes an outline of Spain’s political history. most of the book is given over to sections which explore different aspects of the civilization that prevailed between the fall of the Goths and the rise of Castille. These include chapters on the growth of science, as Muslim and Jewish scholars built upon Greek knowledge and advanced it considerably, as well as some on religious revolution; the Judeo-Muslim mystical traditions both flourished in the Iberian setting. Downey’s vision for the book is made apparent in contrasting several pairs of legends. The patron saint of Spain. St. James, was remembered alternatively as either a humble and kind apostle who spread the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the continent, or as Santiago the Muslim-Slayer, who was said to have appeared and led a Christian army to victory. A similar contrast is offered by the Song of Roland, depicting Charlemagne as a Christian warrior fighting the fiendish Muslims, and the story of El Cid, who found honor and friendship among the ranks of both. Christian and Muslim need not spar, Downey writes, offering various examples of cross-cultural pollination and episodes of historical cooperation, as when Christian and Muslim powers joined together to fight…other Muslim powers.
Although the subject is fascinating and I wanted badly to like it, in truth the book is limited. Downey is a very casualhistorian, chatty and informal. That can work to a degree, but sometimes retards a reader’s ability to take the text seriously. Assuming one is completely oblivious to intellectual life in the medieval epoch, Vanished World will be quite exciting. Personally, Spangenburg and Moser’s history of science covered this ground too well for me to take much here, though I did find the bits about Sufism and Kabbalah of interest. The history is also heavily sanitized in view of Downey’s objection. It’s a laudable goal, of course, and he does mention a few trifling incidents of unpleasantness, but haranguing Christians for the Crusades is hardly fair when no mention of the Battle of Tours is made. Sixty years after the conquest of Spain by Moorish armies, the Umayyads advanced on France itself, meeting defeat scarcely 150 miles from Paris. Humans will never cease to war with one another, though, regardless of religion; Christians may fight Muslims, but as this and countless other books demonstrate, they will happily dig into one another as well. We’re a hot-blooded species given to destruction. That considering, it’s nice to review the many ways we are capable of working together, as Downey does here, touching on science, art, medicine, and even the invention of cowboys.
Look for a future comparison to Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.