Review: Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher

The author, when writing Moorish Spain, set out on a quest to defuse the popular image of Spain under the Moors as a glamorous, tolerant and enlightened community laid to waste by brute ignoramuses – he states this intention clearly enough in the first chapter.

His success is only partial. Because while the Moors was as brutal and intolerant as the Christians that replaced them this was very much what life was during not only this period of time but the periods preceding and succeeding it, and while the Christians are a known entity to us in western Europe the Moorish Muslims are not. The winner writes the history, and for a very long time the winners had zero interest in preserving anything Muslim. This means very few records or perishable objects are left us from the Moorish era. Thus a lot of our knowledge is guesswork. What objects are left only adds to the enigma. The Alhambra, arab baths, carved objects and learned texts all shows the image of something medieval Europe wasn’t, not to our inner eye.

(This inner image is, of course, a false one. Between the Black Death and the Inquisition there was a place where the seed of science could grow. Not to come to bloom yet, but the ground works were being laid. Part of that came through the area then called al-Andalus in the form of translated and commented texts by Aristotle and the like.)

The book is geared towards the layman, and therefore lacks notes of sources and references. This is both good and bad. It’s good, because it makes the text flow in a pleasant way. It’s almost written as discourse, and he don’t care to hide his disdain for the navel-gazing coteries of historians who spends their time disputing who wrote what in 784 when the real interest lies in why things happened – the patterns and the motivating factors (I happen to share his view).
The lack of footnotes are bad because in some cases references are of interest even to the layman. A special period or person or place has captured your interest, and you want to know more. This is just a minor flaw, though. As a whole it offers a comprehensive overview of early medieval Spain.

If you’re interested in the era this should be a must read.
You should also read this if you’re planning on visiting Spain or Portugal – if you do it will add to the experience and heighten your awareness of what you are seeing (if you venture beyond the beaches of Costa del Sol, that is).

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