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A wonderful tour through a history
on 31 May 2010
In Moorish Spain Richard Fletcher achieves a significant feat. In a short book he not only chronicles the bones of nearly a millennium of history, but also offers much that adds to our understanding of the social context, both of his chosen era in particular and of history in general.
Moorish Spain does not aspire to scholarly excellence. Richard Fletcher's stated aim is to provide a fuller and more accurate account of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula than the cursory accounts offered in travel books. He also aspires to a treatment of the subject that is more accurate than the romanticised position of nineteenth century travellers, accounts that served to create and then perpetuate myth.
And paramount in this myth is the received opinion that in Moorish al-Andalus all things social were both sweetness and light and pure harmony. Not so, says Fletcher, as he chronicles power struggles, intrigues and repeated conflict. He describes the different interests that ensured that conflict, both small-scale and local or larger-scale and spread across a wider front, was never very far away. When competing parties felt that they could all benefit from interaction and trade, it was, he suggests, largely pragmatism that kept the peace.
His story begins in the early eighth century when the first invasion of what we now call Spain arrived from Morocco. It ends with the expulsion of the Mozarabes in the sixteenth century. In between, in a quite short and accessible book, he illustrates how shifting alliances and opportunity for short-term gain mix with broader views and humanitarian concerns to present a patchwork of history. And this patchwork is characterised, above all, by our inability to generalise. Throughout, it is the particular that is important.
In contrast he presents a number of generalised overviews and illustrates how none of them is more than partially correct. In a short but telling final chapter he offers a generalisation of his own to illustrate how dominant contemporary ideas can filter history in order to enhance its own credibility. Tellingly, he also reminds us of how much chronicled history relates only to the recorded opinions and lives of a wealthy, sometimes educated elite. How much detail of life in the twentieth century USA could be gleaned half a millennium from now if the only source was a telephone poll of Hollywood celebrities?
Richard Fletcher's book therefore transcends its own subject matter. It presents a rounded, carefully reconstructed picture of an immense swathe of history. In such a short account, of course, he can only present a relatively small amount of detail, but what is there goes a long way beyond what the average reader might ever discover from a shallow tourist guide. The style is easy but never racy and the content has a feeling of reliability that suggests a second visit would be worthwhile.