The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

Little Brown and Company 2003  352 pp. 14.95 pb

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Living as we do in a divided culture that pits Judeo-Christians against Muslims, The Ornament of the World reminds us that religion was not always the dividing line between a supposed East and West.  Maria Rosa Menocal demonstrates that acceptance of differences in multicultural Medieval Spain led not only to social order, but also to cultural progress.

Like many grand historical transformations, it seemed like a small thing at the time.  In a factionalized Damascus in 750, the ruling Umayyad caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids.  The Abbasids relocated the capital of their newly minted empire from Damascus to Baghdad, thinking they had completely eliminated the Umayyads.  However, Adb al-Rahman escaped the slaughter and traveled across northern Africa, arriving in 755 in what is now Spain.  With a force of loyal Syrians and North African Berbers, he conquered Cordoba, a victory that “powerfully affected the course of European history and civilization.”

Rather than offering a sustained historical narrative, Menocal has chosen to focus “on cultural rather than political events,” with each chapter a vignette, investigating a specific person or event during the period of Muslim dominance of the Iberian peninsula.  Most of her stories involve the transmission of cultures, telling, for example, the ironic story of how Jewish communities and scholars flourished under Muslim rule after suffering oppression by their Christian predecessors.  

One of the more interesting tales concerns how works of classical Greek culture survived, first through translation into Arabic, then circulation of the texts to the western edge of the Muslim world, and their subsequent dissemination into non-Muslim Europe by sophisticated intellectuals funded by their Cordoban rulers.  We are reminded of familiar stories, such as that of Heloise and Abelard, and entertained by more obscure ones, such as that of Petrus Alfonsi, an Arabized Jew from Huesca in the Pyrenees who converted to Christianity, emigrated to Norman England, and, despite both middling education and intellectual gifts, became the best-selling author of The Priestly Tales, which was to form the source material of later authors, such as Chaucer and Boccaccio.

Although not an historian, I sense that Menocal’s version of the harmony of cultures in Medieval Spain may be a bit too breezily positive, but this book, originally published in 2002 and now available in paperback, will enhance the reader’s understanding not only of Medieval Spain, but of the contemporary possibility of living in harmony, despite our cultural differences.