Medieval Spain is one of those subjects I would like to know more about, so a used copy of Menocal’s book on al-Andalus was an attractive purchase for me. It’s a little more limited than I would like, being more about literary culture than anything else (though there is plenty of architecture, and other high cultural objects as well).

But the ‘how’ (as seen in the subtitle) is generally left out. There is some discussion of how tolerance was built into a lot of early Muslim culture, but nothing on the day-to-day functioning of that tolerance, and nothing really about how it broke down. Most notably, the book largely ends with the fall of Granada, and the promise of religious toleration which is broken mere months later. There’s no real look at the pressures that lead to this final violent end of tolerance.

In the meantime, we are treated to shapshots of what happened in Iberia over ~700 years, taking particular scenes and persons, and exploring them and what they did, and who they knew, what they wrote, and how it was written. Some very interesting things come to light this way. Menocal promotes the idea that languages only have (by custom) certain uses. A language may be so identified with religious uses, that it stops being a language of poetry or storytelling. She identifies Arabic as a language that was used for religion, and yet never lost its non-religious (and religiously prohibited) uses. Jews and Christians living in al-Andalus learned Arabic, and then transmitted this freedom into the post-Latin vernaculars and Hebrew, creating a flowering of literature in those languages. According to Ornament of the World, this is the start of the various Romance vernaculars being taken seriously, and the start of the popular songs that started the ‘courtly love’ tradition in Aquitaine, and I’d like to see a book that traces this in more detail.

It’s a decent book, and if you’re interested, I do recommend it, though I would like to see a more rigorous look at most of the subjects Menocal brings up.