Writing history raises an inevitable challenge: relate events as they were or portray selected elements to emphasize a theme. The former method is often ponderous, the latter often misleading. Menocal has opted for the second option. In her survey of Medieval Spain, she gives us an entertaining and informative look at expressions of the intellectual elite over seven centuries of Muslim rule.
Menocal's approach aims to restore Spanish Islam's blemished reputation. Muslim Spain has endured a scathing censure imposed by "victorious" Christian Europe. In the Christian view, the Reconquista of Spain freed a population from a Muslim yoke. The European invasion of the Western Hemisphere carried that myth across the Atlantic while strengthening the crusading attitude of the conquistadores. Menocal uses romantic poetry, the advancement of selected scholars to high posts under the caliphate, and the literacy of the Muslim and Jewish communities as evidence of high, positive interaction. Even the Christians, normally disdainful of literacy, science and philosophy, joined the chorus of common interests.
Weaving her tale around the Cordovan Umayyad caliphs founded by exiled prince Abn al-Rahmad, she traces the building programs, internal disputes among the Islamic schisms arising along the Mediterranean, and the challenges posed by intruders from the north. For Menocal, the binding force across Islamic Spain was language. Arabic became a lingua franca with the power to transcend religious dogma and jurisdictional disputes. Jews and Christians alike became fluent in this imposed language due to its expressive power. Arabic was also used in the Eastern Mediterranean to recover and spread lost texts of the Greek scholars. Thus, often unattributed, the Muslims kept medicine, astronomy, philosophy and other disciplines alive. Christians would later adapt them joyfully, but the Dark Ages aren't misnamed for the rest of Western Europe.
Menocal might have produced a book of sweeping vision, restoring the image of Muslim Spain as one of civilisation's most noteworthy achievements. Instead, she sinks into a swamp of romantic fervour, highlighting erotic poetry and grandiose architecture. The farmers and small traders who were taxed to support these elitist endeavours likely had a different view. That is, when they weren't in hiding from the nearly continuous wars waged among the Muslims or between the Islamic invaders from the south or the Christian ones from across the Pyrenees.
As she skips over the centuries, Menocal introduces the rising tide of Christian aggressive attitudes culminating in the Jewish/Muslim expulsion. The French monastics at Cluny had adopted the liberal view of philosophy espoused by their Iberian neighbours. Deeper in Europe, however, the Cistercians, ardent crusaders, urged expunging Christianity of any Arabic taint. Viewpoints hardened, as Menocal recounts, through exchanges of essays and books. Menocal doesn't investigate whether these expressions reached the general populace, but the Church hierarchy system ensured local parish priests acted as mouthpieces of the regional bishops. The events of 1492 verified who had the louder voice.
Although tentatively concluding with the background of Columbus' departure, Menocal cannot resist extending her recital to the early 17th Century. How can one write on Spain without folding the La Manchan epic into the story? Finding Arabic roots in Cervantes is neither new nor difficult, but Menocal provides a new twist. Menocal suggests Don Quixote's worldview is that of any thinker of the Muslim period. Identity of any aspect of the world is muddled by a spread of conflicting, if not hostile, attitudes. La Mancha thus becomes the last gasp of an integrated Spanish society that is considered insane by the rigid-minded world that succeeded it.
Given the span of time and involvement of numerous articulate historical figures, one turns to the "Other Readings" at the back with high expectation. Turn the pages carefully, otherwise you'll miss it. Instead of a bibliography rich in selection, there are a few translations by Menocal's lady friends and a few, little known scholars of the subject. If Menocal lacked the ambition, time or knowledge to produce a proper reading list, she might have cited one or two good ones. Instead, there's a paucity of further reading. Except for the few maps, which mostly duplicate each other, the illustrations follow the pattern. A pity. Such an immense topic standing on so feeble a base makes this book good reading, but uninformative. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]