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María Rosa Menocal's wafting, ineffably sad The Ornament of the World tells of a time and place--from 786 to 1492, in Andalucía, Spain--that is largely and unjustly overshadowed in most historical chronicles. It was a time when three cultures--Judaic, Islamic, and Christian--forged a relatively stable (though occasionally contentious) coexistence. Such was this period that there remains in Toledo a church with an "homage to Arabic writing on its walls [and] a sumptuous 14th-century synagogue built to look like Granada's Alhambra." Long gone, however, is the Córdoba library--a thousand times larger than any other in Christian Europe. Menocal's history is one of palatine cities, of philosophers, of poets whose work inspired Chaucer and Boccaccio, of weeping fountains, breezy courtyards, and a long-running tolerance "profoundly rooted in the cultivation of the complexities, charms and challenges of contradictions," which ended with the repression of Judaism and Islam the same year Columbus sailed to the New World. --H. O'Billovich
From Library Journal
Menocal (R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and director of Special Programs in the Humanities, Yale Univ.) has previously published The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage, as well as other books on the role of the vernacular in medieval cultures. This book certainly reflects her deep scholarship. Menocal offers persuasive evidence that the Renaissance was strongly foreshadowed by the intellectual climate of Spain in the preceding centuries, starting in 783 with the founding of Andalusia by Abd al-Rahman, an Umayyad from Syria. The culture created was receptive to intellectual pursuits not allowed in the rest of Europe for several centuries, including the creation of impressive libraries and the study and translation of Classical authors. Menocal claims that this environment was largely a result of the tolerance shown by this ruler and his successors toward Christians and Jews and their cultures. Menocal has not given us a history book so much as a demonstration that puritanical cultures of any ilk are detrimental to the development of science, art, and literature. Her arguments are convincing even without the dark background of September 11. Recommended for all libraries. Clay Williams, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
I enjoyed this book. From my limited understanding of the time period and my inability to read history (facts after facts never interest me... the human element, devoid of many historical accounts, does...).
I have read the positive reviews and the negatives. I can understand either. I will say this book is a great introduction. It is romantic, an account of a world seen with Rosy-Tinted Scholarly eyes. Perhaps it is not going to be the greatest book for the nitpicking historians - and hey, I can see their point - but it is a good place to start, to know the names, the dates, and some of the scenery.
I wish more history books were like this. What is 'history' - a story... the word is there within the greater word most scholars will defend, arguing our need to be objective and search for the facts ('just the facts, 'mam'). But isn't that life, "stories" interweaving, facts important sidenotes to the human element. I respect this work because it has introduced me to a world I have heard about before. It will be my choice to move on further and read other works.
Those who have written their one-star reviews have their point. There is a lot missing here. I don't doubt it. But if a work of history introduces and inspires curiosity, is that a bad thing? Ideals are ideals and ideally, this isn't meant for the historian but for the layman. I am a layman, I enjoyed it. If you're looking for an introduction to a fascinating time in Spanish/Western history, this is a fine place to start. I don't know enough to squabble over details or put the author down for 'misreading' history. I'll simply say, Menocal has written a story about a time and place. Her writing is infused with melancholy and wonder, looking back to the golden aspects of a time believed to be harmonious.Read more ›
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My wife and I have a home in Andalusia. We also are enthusiastic but 'minor' league students of Moorish & Jewish history in Spain. So I bought this book as a easy-to-please, generalist and wanna-be fan.
Unfortunately, this book comes up light on two levels: the lack of new insights and the lack of sharp writing spoils the book for me. For example, Menocal provides few new relevations about the role of Moors and Jews in Medieval Spain. Her book also lacks good story telling on the major figures and thought leaders of this 700-year period. I found Menocal's analysis sharp and able, but sometimes overdone. And like too many academics, Menocal is neither a good storyteller nor writer.
More broadly, the fundamental premise of the book: That Arabs, Jews and Christians lived peacefully under Moorish rule, is more romantic than true. Except for a very brief period of 50 or so years around 900 AD, there was more persecution than tolerance over the 700 year Moorish period. Ask the Jews of Granada that were slaughered in 1066, or the thousands of Christians who were deported by the Almoravid dynasty to Morocco as slaves in 1126. During the same period, it is well known the Berbers of Northern Africa would frequently pillage Spain, robbing Andalusian Arabs and Christians alike. Later, of course, a united Christian Spain would deport the heavily taxed and persecuted Moors in 1492; some authorities report Muslims were forced to leave their children behind as slaves for the Christian Monarchs to work in various trades.
I believe the book's only bright light is an interesting and original tale about how the enlightened Arabs and Jews of the period translated and preserved some of the world's best literature and science thought lost after the fall of Rome and Greece.Read more ›
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.Read more ›