28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2008
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.
If history was written from the perspective of the people, not so much the events and politics, I would read more history. But then again, I'm not a historian and this book suits me fine. I'll read further but I am thankful I had this book to open my eyes to an interesting time in human civilization.
The final word: historians, you know enough, so don't read this because you'll probably just write more negative reviews and negativity is really tiring at times. (If you don't have something nice to say, don't say it all all... I've written the odd negative review, so I'm guilty...) Layman and Laywoman, if you have a passion for a literary interpretation of history, enjoy this book. It is like wine for me. I savoured it, I took it in, I will remember and go on to the next. But I value the beginnings of what I have learned. And that's the facts, 'mam.
331 of 407 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2002
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. The works of Aristotle, for example, were translated from Greek to Arab, then several hundred years later by the Christian clergy from Arab to Latin and other romance languages.
An alternative book about Islamic and Jewish influences in Andalusia is Richard Fletcher's "Moorish Spain." Fletcher is considered by some authorities to be the Bernard Lewis of Islamic Spain and his well-written 1990 book remains the one of best efforts covering that period. Another well-written book, but more detailed effort, is L.P. Harvey's "Islamic Spain 1250-1500." A third book, a superior piece of modern travel writing, rich in Moorish and Jewish history, is Gees Nooteboom's "Roads to Santiago."
All three of books are widely available, offer an unvarnished overview of Moorish & Sefardic Spain, and are worth consideration for people seeking a non-academic overview of this classic period.
Good luck and good reading!
60 of 72 people found the following review helpful
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]
38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2002
Not a history in the traditional sense, "The Ornament of the World" presents a number of biographical vignettes displaying the richness of literature, art, science, and philosophy in both al-Andalus and Christian Spain and how this intellectual renaissance resulted from the blending of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian heritages. The stories are valuable and fascinating because they rescue an important legacy from the oblivion of the ill-named "Dark Ages." Unfortunately, this rescue mission is hindered by an ill-conceived and even more poorly executed thesis.
One of the major problems with Menocal's work is that she never tells us what she means by "a culture of tolerance." It is an odd and ambiguous phrase containing two very loaded words. Does "culture" refer to artistic and intellectual life, or to the religious, political, and social climate, or to the entire civilization and its customs and mores? Does "tolerance" merely mean mutual influence (in literature and art) or, more broadly, social acceptance (in everyday life)? On the one hand, the phrase "culture of tolerance" could signify the artistic and intellectual life created by the mixture of three religious heritages. On the other hand, it could mean a climate of economic acceptance and social open-mindedness. Or it could mean something in between: that the fusion of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions resulted from (or perhaps resulted in) a more "tolerant" society.
That the Iberian peninsula experienced an unprecedented tri-cultural fusion during the medieval period is nearly incontrovertible. Al-Andalus (as well as parts of Christian Spain) enjoyed a unique flowering of philosophical, architectural, and literary pursuits underscored by multilingual translation activities. Whether that indicates "tolerance" is another matter. Menocal is a professor of literature and language; as a result, her book focuses on literary and artistic achievements, but she ignores social, urban, economic, religious, and comparative history to the peril of her thesis. In the epilogue, Menocal herself acknowledges that "even when political and ideological circumstances are characterized by strife, artistic and intellectual life prospers" (Germany in the 1920s comes to mind). The simple fact that the Christian kings spoke Arabic and read Muslim translations and adapted Moorish architectural motifs does not mean they were "tolerant." When confronted with evidence that certain poets and intellectuals were in fact not tolerated (i.e., they were exiled or executed), she still tries to shoehorn their achievements into her nebulous thesis of "tolerance."
A case could be made that, relatively speaking, medieval Spain did boast a culture or even climate of tolerance, but Menocal's survey is not broad enough to prove this thesis. She acknowledges in her post -September 11 postscript that "the forces of intolerance were always present and ultimately triumphed" in medieval Spain. Nevertheless, her book highlights the cultural achievements of a few literate, upper-class aesthetes and glosses over pogroms, exiles, persecutions, daily harassment, poll taxes, and slavery--not to mention the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ghettoes. The result is a worthwhile glimpse of a nearly forgotten intellectual tradition but a lopsided view of medieval Spanish "culture."
Finally, Menocal's presentation is hardly improved by her prose style. She persistently and unnecessarily uses the passive voice, she strings together barely related modifiers and clauses to create unreadable run-on sentences, she has a tic of using the word "But" to begin hundreds (no exaggeration) of her sentences, and she is fond of using repeatedly the same cliches and anachronisms ("the center did not hold," "bestseller," "realpolitik") and creating new ones ("memory palaces"). These faults hamper the telling of some otherwise very interesting stories.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
My oh my, reading some of the extremely negative reviews of this book and seeing the obvious bias of some of the reviewers makes me wish that I could come out swinging in Menocal's defense.
Unfortunately, I cannot. While Menocal clearly has deep affinity and love for the subject matter she fails to support her thesis as she only could have done by reaching farther than culture and poetry for reference. She makes some interesting suggestions through anecdotal evidence, but I found it extremely frustrating that she made no effort to more fully flesh out a claim that would have been very interesting, if true. Furthermore, I do not find that the book was contextualized as simply being a piece of the puzzle of Medieval Spain. I find that it made grander claims for itself. This could well be the fault of the publisher, who recognized a timely topic when he/she saw one (the book was published in 2002). But still, it hurt the overall credibility of the work not to strongly delimit in the beginning both what it is and what it is not.
I have heard much said about Menocal's writing style, both positive and negative. I will grant her a smooth hand with prose. Sadly, she does not exhibit anywhere near the same skill with structure. I found the text did not cohere well and tended to be jumpy and difficult to follow.
She clearly loves her poetry from the time, and I am looking forward to reading some of the writers that I discovered through the book. I found the "Other Readings" chapter particularly valuable. She gets an extra star for all the wonderful poetry that I'm anxious to read.
106 of 138 people found the following review helpful
I have been fortunate enough to travel to Spain three times now. Two of my trips have taken me through the southern parts of the country--Andalusia (al-Andalus) and its environs--that make up the setting for much of this story. It is a beautiful part of the world and Menocal has provided us with a wonderful history of the area during the time of its greatest glory: the Middle Ages. From 711 until 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of three different cultures--Jewish, Christian and Muslim--that were often able to co-exist in relative peace. While doing so, they were each able to contribute to a cosmopolitan and melded culture that for a long stretch was the most advanced culture in Western civilization, producing things that remain unique to this day.
This "culture of tolerance" as Menocal calls it was perhaps not as tolerant as she likes to make out and, of course, it ultimately implodes as Christians and Muslims fight for possession of the country. Still, much of the literature, science and philosophy produced of that time remains influential and many of the beautiful places remain to be see by visitors to the area. Anyone traveling to the country would be amiss if he or she did not take a look at this book and get a feel for the achievement of medieval Spain.
Understand that this book is a completely optimistic account of the period and ignores most of the tragedies of the time. Still, in our time of insecurity, it is nice to read something positive. It is beautiful to see what can be achieved when three powerful cultures work together instead of try to destroy each other.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2002
Some reviewers understandably felt this book was too light based on their own prior exposure to this period. For people with a strong background in this era, this will be more of an adjunct-history book than anything new or in depth. For others, such as myself, who have a strong history background in other areas but not in this particular time or place, it is a lovely, lyrical and enchanting tapestry of intersecting faiths, arts, literature, languages and personalities that shaped not only Andalusian Spain but much of the early Renaissance of western Europe. I found it neither chaotic nor badly written--quite the contrary. This may be a matter of style preference: if you are the kind of reader who enjoyed PBS's "Connections" you will love this book. I found it easy to read and most importantly, I learned a lot.
Why not 5 stars? I would've have wished for a time line, an index of key characters with their dates of birth and death, and more maps since the place, period and persons are new to me. Maybe the publisher will consider that for the next edition.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2003
Menocal uses slices of history to convey images of medieval life in Spain's Andalucia, where Arabs ruled over a mixed society of Muslims, Christians and Jews. For centuries, these people of the book managed to live and work together in an atmosphere of relative tolerance. Menocal emphasizes the intellectual and artistic achievements of that era, particularly the translations of Greek and Roman texts from Arabic into Latin and other European languages. Most of her writing is seductively accessible, notably in the earlier chapters. An atmosphere of tragedy seeps in later as Muslim and Christian puritans with little Andalucian experience disrupt the culture of tolerance. Menocal shows sympathy for sophisticated Arabs and scholarly Jews, but is less favorably inclined toward Christians, who are more likely to be portrayed as intolerant. While not an authoritative history, the book is worth reading.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2006
I thought my opinion might be anomalous on this page, but I see many readers agree. Maria Rosa Menorcal wears rose-colored glasses.
The author is a professor of Spanish and Portugese, not a historian. She obviously loves Iberian literature and has fallen under the poets' spells. Naturally a poet is going to glorify that which he loves, so the historian has to read poetic or literary accounts with caution. There is no evidence of incisive critical source analysis in this book, such as one finds, for instance, in recent writings of Roger Collins about medieval Spain. Menorcal passes on old stories as gospel, some of which (such as early accounts of the Muslim invasion of 711) Collins completely takes apart and reinterprets.
I also agree with other readers who lament the writing style. It's fluid, but the structure is hard to follow. Clear lines of development are not drawn. Rather, stories seem to meld into another. One comes away with impressions rather than a clear picture.
This is definitely a popularizing book, not an authoritative history. There's scarcely a footnote to be found, and the bibliography is surprisingly skimpy for a Yale professor's work. Menorcal lists not one of Collins' books.
24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2003
I found it disturbing that this book contained several historical innacuracies. In my opinion, if Ms. Menocal could not accurately document simple historical events or she is ignorant of the facts, she does a great disservice to the contents of this book. She does a greater disservice to those readers who have a new found interest in Spanish medieval history. Ms. Menocal makes reference to several authors who are experts in Spanish medieval history such as Bernard F. Reilly and Richard Fletcher. Ms. Menocal makes references to these authors, however, it seems that she must not have read their books.
A blaring example of an historical innacuracy is located on page 98, when Ms.Menocal states that the town of Medinaceli is "famous and is remembered today as the hometown of the half-legendary warrior called the Cid". Any person with the most rudimentary knowledge of Spanish medieval history knows that the Cid was born in Vivar, located in the province of Burgos, as has been thoroughly researched and established by Spanish historians Gonzalo Martinez Diez, Ramon Menendez Pidal and the aforementioned authors. As a matter of fact, the Poema de Mio Cid, written in the early XIII century, refers to the Cid as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar a countless number of times. DUH! I am amazed how she could have put that in her book. I challenge any reader of this book, should they ever take a trip to Spain, to boldly state to any Spaniard that the Cid's hometown is Medinaceli. You will be summarily laughed at.
An additional innacuracy within the book was located on page 145. Ms. Menocal states that king Alfonso VI had two children from his Moorish concubine Zaida. While it is true she did bear him his only son, Sancho, Zaida did not bear him a daughter Teresa, future queen of Portugal and mother of the first king of Portugal, Afonso Enriquez. Teresa was the offspring of the union of Alfonso VI with another concubine, Jimena Munoz, daughter of the magnate of Bierzo. It is thought that Zaida converted to Christianity, changed her name to Isabel and married king Alfonso VI. Her marriage to Alfonso VI and conversion to Christianity thus legitimized Sancho's future ascension to the throne; however, Sancho died fighting the Moors in the battle of Ucles in 1108.
The rock solid foundation to any good book on history is the accurate documentation of historical facts. If this is lacking, it is in indication that the author, for whatever reason, did a poor job of researching the accurate history of the time period in question. What if anything does it say about the contents of the rest of the book? If a building is constructed on a shaky foundation the rest of the building is in danger of collapse. In my opinion, if an author cannot accurately document historical facts, is ignorant of the facts or is attempting to revise history, this can only damage the contents of a book no matter how noble the purpose of the author in addressing a subject matter. Unfortunately, Ms. Menocal is guilty of at least poor research, which despite her noble purpose in addressing a very important aspect of Spanish medieval history damages the subject matter in her book. You are left wondering what other historical events she got wrong in her book rendering her work a piece of fiction. In conclusion, I am left questioning an author's motivation/purpose in writing a historically innacurate book.