Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 2002. 315.
Harold Bloom’s foreword characterizes the book as “poignant” but also “to some degree…an idealization.” Menocal portrays how three Abrahamic religions shared lives, cultures, and sovereignties across the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 1605 AD, with an epilogue nostalgically recalling convivencia – ergo Bloom’s conclusion. Her version of the region’s complex history uses stories of people who drastically shaped the written and spoken language, visual arts, scientific or philosophic knowledge, architecture, and clothing of the Iberian Peninsula. While Menocal doesn’t include Portugal’s shared linguistic and cultural history, she briefly explores a few relevant European religio-philosophic movements. Because she draws her biographic snapshots mainly from academic study, the author provides primary source citations and further reading opportunities. While historical context is sprinkled about, readers draw a conclusion mainly of wonderment at fluidity of culture, privilege, and approval across the peninsula for this historical period.
Menocal’s storytelling is approachable and appealing, using primary sources and a deep knowledge of the time periods to spin works of vitriol toward a value of multicultural convivencia. The author celebrates members of a minority religion or culture who succeed within the majority culture, such as Samuel the Nagid, a Jewish vizier, or Bishop Racemundo of Elvira, a Christian diplomat. Similarly, she celebrates Petrus Alvarus and Judah Halevi for producing works that, while being violently Islamophobic, indicate a profound understanding of Islam and the Islamic/Arabic culture of al-Andalus. Most of the way through the book, I understood that the author is saddened by the loss of convivencia or a distinctly multicultural society such as al-Andalus. She seems also to romanticize the poetry written in Arabic and Hebrew from the Islamic period of Spain, and to an extent modern Arabic and Hebrew poetry, for providing a subtle path to reviving the convivencia of al-Andalus. I will use this book to further my reading, and have followed Menocal’s name to another book from my local library.