In the first half of the twentieth century, if you were an American medievalist and wanted to pick a country to specialize in, you would probably pick England, or France. Those were judged to be the most important and influential medieval polities – particularly England, whose language, Common Law, and system of governance were the direct antecedents of America’s own. France, for its part, was the birthplace of Gothic architecture, troubadour poetry, the Crusades, chivalry, “feudalism,” and other such archetypically medieval motifs.
Spain did not enjoy such status. It was on the periphery of Europe, and its New World descendants were all Third World countries.
Obviously, we don’t hold such values anymore; in fact, the positions have reversed. It’s old-school and “conservative” (even “racist“) to specialize in medieval England. Spain is much cooler, reflecting the protected status now afforded to Hispanics in the United States, and the importance we currently place on Diversity.* For medieval Spain was famously Diverse, featuring Muslims, Christians, and Jews living side-by-side in what is known as the Convivencia. The kingdom stands a riposte to the idea that the Middle Ages were characterized by intolerance and fanaticism, and act as a multicultural model for our own day. That this happy situation was brought to an end by Christian fanaticism offers further confirmation of academic prejudice.
Although… was the Convivencia a myth? As with all historical phenomena, opinions differ, and the debate will continue for a long time to come. One dissenter is Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) is reviewed by Lawrence Farley (hat tip: Rachel Brown):
The enthusiasm for the glories of tolerant Islam is suffused throughout modern scholarship, to the point of embarrassment. It is difficult not to conclude, after one looks at the actual historical facts that the scholars ignore and suppress, that their enthusiasm for Islam finds its roots in their distaste for Christianity. It is certainly not rooted in the historical evidence itself.
In this vision of Islamic Spain (renamed by the Muslim conquerors as “al-Andalus”), all three monotheistic faiths got along famously and all three enjoyed cultural flowering and prosperity under the watchful eye of a tolerant Islam.
In this version of history, the Christians of Spain were a benighted, primitive, and ignorant lot, who fortunately for them, ended up under Islam, which then offered them previously undreamt of opportunities to learn tolerance and culture. In this paradise Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in a happy sunlit land, enjoying the benefits of convivencia—at least until the horrible Christians spoiled it all at the Spanish Reconquista, which recovered the land for Christendom and brought again the blight of intolerance and darkness to their land.
Read the whole thing. I like his Gone with the Wind references.
* Not that I’m embittered, mind, but I don’t like it when people who study Spain still complain that their specialty doesn’t get any respect.