After 9/11 can we learn from Spanish history?
Medieval Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in peace but also collided in violence. Their story could help the modern world choose the better path.
Since Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden's cryptic reference to al-Andalus, Spanish historians have discussed the relevance of medieval Spanish history to the modern world. These discussions unfortunately have been limited to the halls of academia. In "A Vanished World," Chris Lowney successfully brings the story of medieval Spain to a wider audience and draws out of this rich history important lessons for the post-9/11 world.
Although he covers familiar ground, Lowney has arranged the material in an innovative way. Each chapter begins with a short vignette of an important figure, idea, or event. He then adroitly weaves these vignettes throughout the text, making for a coherent and exciting history.
For example, Lowney engages the reader with dramatic anecdotes, like that of Eulogius, the martyr activist, who was beheaded for denouncing Islam and harboring a Muslim apostate in 859. This incident anchors a lively chapter on the flowering of Islamic civilization in Córdoba and the violent reaction of some Córdoban Christians to this situation. Essentially, Eulogius and other activists sought martyrdom to awaken the conscience of their fellow Christians who were increasingly drawn to the dominant Islamic culture. Lowney correctly notes that a reverse situation exists today in parts of the Muslim world.
He also introduces the main intellectual developments (algebra, medicine, philosophy) in medieval Spain and their influence on Western thought through delightful sketches of Pope Sylvester II, Maimonides, Averroes, and others. Such vignettes are effective entryways into the complexities of medieval Iberia, and they help make the material more accessible to nonspecialists than would a traditional chronological approach.
For some readers, this approach might make it harder to discern change over time and to ascertain the processes whereby religious animosity waxed and waned. Still, Lowney gives a solid overview of medieval Spain, covering all the major themes from the Muslim conquest (711) to the Christian reconquest of Granada (1492). Readers interested in learning more about medieval Spain can consult the excellent endnotes for primary sources in translation and the up-to-date bibliography for secondary sources in English.
Lowney's goal, however, is not only to provide an accessible history. He believes that this history has something to teach us today. And, where academic historians tread lightly, Lowney proceeds with gusto. He sees the modern world as a new medieval Spain. War and religious strife grip our world, and yet most modern Muslims, Jews, Christians, and believers of other faiths seem to coexist peacefully.
The doctrinal differences that divide Muslims, Jews, and Christians today are the same differences that afflicted our ancestors. So the stories of Muslims, Jews, and Christians living together from the lowliest peasants sharing an oven to scholars sharing common intellectual pursuits offer abundant proof that irreconcilable doctrinal differences do not necessarily lead to bloodshed. Yet, medieval Spain offers equally abundant evidence of violence and intolerance, from the massacre of Granada's Jews by Muslims in 1066 to Jews' expulsion by the Catholic kings in 1492. For Lowney, medieval Spain presents two possible paths for our future: We can either learn to live harmoniously together or we can let our doctrinal differences and resentments lead to violence.
Lowney skillfully outlines these paths, especially when he compares the French epic "The Song of Roland" and the Spanish epic "Poem of El Cid" to show two visions of how Christian rulers should deal with conquered Muslims and Jews. He deftly argues that these texts, written roughly 100 years apart, represent two strains of medieval thought: one intolerant seeing the world in black and white, and the other at least willing to deal with ambiguity. Lowney acknowledges that this is a gross generalization, but his comparison does capture two mind-sets that existed in medieval Spain and that to a certain extent still exist today.
Some readers will rightfully question the usefulness of such generalizations to teach us concrete, applicable lessons for today. Nevertheless, medieval Spain does provide an interesting historical perspective to think about modern interfaith dialogue and relations.
For Lowney, the fact that for long periods of time, medieval Spaniards, who had irreconcilable differences, did live together is a positive lesson we all need to take to heart, because the alternative violates a tenet revered by the three Abrahamic faiths - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).
• Sean Perrone is an associate professor of history at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.