When I was in my first year of university I had to take a medieval history class with a crusty old Jesuit from the midwest who taught me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn: “It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re doing. What matters is that you sound like you know what you’re doing.” He also took to teaching us about medieval life using an old but probably still accurate book on medieval history that possibly is no longer being published. While he covered all the standards–crusades, western expansion, the dark ages, the evolution from Germanic tribes, the black plague–he also got me started with my love for architecture, flying buttresses, arches and how that all came together in the beautiful city of Cordoba.
Where the hell is Cordoba?
Not a lot of people have heard of Cordoba. Nowadays it’s a pretty but quaint town-like city in southern Spain. Back in the day, it was a thriving centre of learning ruled by the Islamic Umayyad empire, a place where different cultures could mix, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together and shared knowledge. Ever since I first heard of the city I wanted to go there. I wanted to see the beautiful ex-mosque with its painted arches, to see the mix of Muslim and Christian architecture, to see the city that was the origin of many of the ideas that are used to this day.
It took me ages to do it, but I finally went. (You can see pictures here.) When I got there I wanted to find a good history book that would give an accurate description of the period and give me a better explanation of the chronology of events that took place. It was difficult for me, until I randomly happened upon a copy of The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spai by María Rosa Menocal in a bookstore in Southeast Asia, of all places. (No, I couldn’t even find one in Spanish in Spain.) Needless to say, I was very excited about this book. I suppose I might have expected too much.
The reading experience
The blurb on the back says that it’s “this enthralling history” but right in the preface the author says first of that it’s not really a history, it’s more a discussion of medieval culture and how the events that transpired in Cordoba, and the culture that it produced, influenced and affected the rest of the medieval world. That sounded great anyway.
I started off really enjoying the book. If you read history and are nerdy about it, you will enjoy even the driest of tomes just because you love the topic. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t hate history but doesn’t really like it either, it has got to be interesting or you’re not going to read it. This book turned into that for me–interesting to begin with then something I was tempted to close later.
Menocal does an excellent job of describing the sights and sounds of the times. Like a storyteller from the Arabian nights she goes into detail about people’s lives, a little bit of their history, about what it was like wherever they went, and how different Spanish cities became what they are. These bits of history are interspersed with the development of Cordoba into the first city where different religions could mix freely and with tolerance in the Western World.
I learnt a lot about religious tolerance and Muslim history, which did away with a lot of preconceived notions that I had. Western history has not always been kind to the “Moors” and it was great to find that not only were they esteemed patrons of the arts but they also (at least in Cordoba) respected the djemme or people of different religions who were also considered to be people of the faith (meaning believing in the same God, more or less) and allowed them to practice their faiths. While conversion was encouraged, there weren’t really any guns being held to their heads and most people kept their faiths and just became culturally “Arabized”-–embracing their love of learning, art and architecture, etc.–much like the way migrants in the US embraced the American culture after arriving from all over Europe.
Eventually though, a lot of the facts became repetitive. Like I don’t need to hear the same fact five times in the same chapter. Repeated throughout the course of the book to remind us is fine, but the same chapter? Some parts would descend into full on thesis-like writing and just when I felt like chucking the book and giving up, it would perk up again and offer up another wonderfully written anecdote on what the times were like in medieval Spain.
This lack of consistency in narration was what ultimately annoyed me in the end. While I learnt quite a bit (Algorithm is an actual person, for instance) my interest was not held through the entire book, largely in part due to the sometimes thesis-like statements and the occasional discussion on philosophy. I must admit that I am not a fan of philosophy but even if you took it out of the book I felt that it would still sound very academic sometimes.
Yay or nay?
Despite the ecstatic reviews, I found it difficult to bring myself to finish the book, but I swore to myself that I would finish it and so I did. In the end I would recommend it only for lovers of history, or if, like me, you are interested in that period, want to learn more about it, or are desperate to find a book about this topic. (On a side note, the reviews do mention that this is possibly one of the first books ever written to discuss this period in history.)
I think that if the author were to write more on this topic–and even then I would still buy it and read it–it might be better if she would tone down the academic in her just a little bit and try to make it a bit more reader friendly. While I like history, no one likes to feel like they’re reading something that should come with an abstract, and it’s a shame that my memory of all her lovely descriptions and well-written anecdotes are blurred by that.