“Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation

My department held a round-table and teach-in yesterday in response to post-election Islamophobic and anti-Semitic vandalism on campus. We felt it was important, as scholars in the humanities, to offer a humanistic intellectual response to the changing tenor of campus discourse; we grounded this response within our discipline, with six speakers offering case studies of how different communities have responded to repression within the Spanish-speaking world. (The event was livestreamed and a recording will be available early next week; I’ll post it as and when. Edited on 12/9/16: The video is now available! ) What follows was my intervention:

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I want to let you in on the dirty little secret of my field, Medieval Studies: The Middle Ages is incredibly attractive to white supremacists. For people whose vision of a backwards-looking, great world is one with white Christian men in positions of power and the rest of us put in our places, the Middle Ages is a fertile ground for fantasy, where it seems very easy, at least superficially, to ignore the integral role of an incredibly diverse population. There are legends like King Arthur, images like the Bayeaux Tapestries, and long histories of Crusading that, on the face of it, make the Middle Ages look very white and like a world very divided neatly into categories of “us” and “them.”

This vision of a very white, very Christian Middle Ages has been a part of political rhetoric for rather a long time: Anti-feminist politicians exploit their idea of medieval chivalry and courtly love to give their ideas a historical grounding. The British Nationalist party uses the story of Excalibur to promote its vision of a racially pure England. The Crusades, in particular, have factored into that: Crusaders became a favorite theme of 19th-century Romantic writers and thinkers, whose refashioning of these tales were crucial to the creating the popular vision of a very white Middle Ages. T.E. Lawrence, the young British army officer who would go on to be known as Lawrence of Arabia and reshape the map of the modern Middle East came to that region as a student at Oxford writing about Crusader castles. Various European fascist movements throughout 20th-century have adopted Crusader rhetoric. More recently and in our own country, George W. Bush called for Crusade in the wake of 9/11. And the most recent presidential election saw a proliferation of images that have long circulated more quietly in the darkest, most racist corners of the internet that rely on medieval and Crusading themes and images to support both individual candidates and wider worldviews.

The fall of the last Muslim principality of Spain, Granada, in 1492 is another popular motif for white supremacists. They also love that that was the year when the Jews were expelled; and because it was also the year that Columbus first set forth for the New World, it allows modern white supremacists to translate a late medieval Spanish desire for empire into something rather different, both in Europe and in the Americas.

But it’s not just political rhetoric: Attachment to a white Middle Ages is also an attitude that has absolutely permeated our cultural outlook: Look at something like the TV version of Game of Thrones and you see a kind of fantasy Middle Ages in which the race politics is incredibly uncomplicated, with a lily-white savior and her dragons redeeming the inarticulate, teeming masses of brown barbarians. It’s a rhetoric that politicians can use because it resonates with the population.

But when we look at the actual Middle Ages in all its complexity, the possibility of this fantasy vision evaporates very quickly.

First of all, the idea of “white people” doesn’t work for the Middle Ages. As much as there are definite instances of what we would very easily recognize today as racism against people with dark skin, the idea of a “white” race or people, collectively, simply did not exist in the medieval consciousness. And I would just give a quick shout-out to two blogs run by medievalists that deal a lot with this question: One is In the Medieval Middle and the other is Medieval POC; if you’re interested in finding out more about this, those are both  good, accessible places to start.


In fact, what I’ve called the “dirty secret” of my profession has gotten some publicity in the last few weeks with the stunning Washington Post profile that some of you may have seen of Derek Black, the David Duke godson who had been the heir apparent to the white nationalist group Stormfront, who went to study history at a liberal arts college in Florida to study the glories of white history in order to be able to recreate it — only to discover that the racial categories that he so valued and believed to have roots going back to the Middle Ages and beyond were inventions of the modern world and had basis in neither history nor in biology; he is now pursuing a PhD in medieval history because he sees that kind of knowledge production as a way to reduce racial tensions in the contemporary world.


Even if we ignore the problem of categories or of terminology, the reading that the Middle Ages was a white supremacist paradise divided cleanly along racial and religious lines is just plain wrong. I would like to use the second half of my presentation to give an example of this much more complex situation that we find in the Middle Ages and then to talk very briefly about how a very famous modern reader looked at that situation and used it to ask and answer some very nuanced questions about what it means to belong to a modern nation and maintain a grounded religious identity, too.

Samuel ibn Naghrīla was an eleventh-century Hebrew poet in the Spanish city of Granada. Like many Jewish poets of his day, he wrote in a style of poetry that had been adopted from Arabic poetics in the tenth century and that, by his lifetime, was flourishing amongst Hebrew-language writers and was simply the way to write poetry in Spain. It wasn’t seen as something foreign even though its origins were in the poetic tradition of another language. Samuel was the nagid, or head of the Jewish community, as well as a high-ranking vizier to the Muslim emir of the city-state of Granada. His known in historical sources as “twice the vizier,” which refers to his twin prowess in poetry and in military leadership. The research done by my doctoral advisor at Cornell, Ross Brann, has shown that Samuel was largely held in esteem by his contemporaries; and even when he is the object of religious polemic, these are largely superficial charges that simply conform to the rhetorical standards of the day and by conforming to those standards, authors could actually indicate their esteem for Samuel in between the lines.

Samuel’s son, Joseph, was detested and frequently compared unfavorably to his father. He was the tax collector for the Zirid emir, and he was kind of a jerk about it, which provoked a really strong reaction against him and against those who were closest to him. There are chronicles that detail his role in trying to poison the emir, and the vengeance that the emir’s son sought to bring down on Joseph. Ultimately in 1066 there was a massacre of Joseph and many other Jews. The texts that survive refer to Samuel by name and with respectful epithets; Joseph is only ever called “The Jew.” What this shows is the leveraging of anti-Jewish tropes to condemn an individual rather than the kind of eternal, racialized hatred of Jews that constitutes full-on anti-Semitism.

But if we are thinking about modern readers, the Wikipedia page for this historical event is very instructive. Not only does it get lumped into the category of anti-Semitism, but that is represented with the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear in Germany in the 1930s and 40 during a period of exactly that kind of eternal, racialized, anti-Semitic hatred that led to murder on an unfathomable scale. But that’s not what happened with the case of Joseph ibn Naghrila: It was a jerk of a tax collector being killed in a frenzy that very tragically did consume many members of his community, but Wikipedia makes it a direct step on the path to the Holocaust. It is reading white supremacy into the Middle Ages from the opposite perspective.


This brings me to an essay that is the current subject of some of my research, an essay that was written in a senior seminar in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1950 by a young man named Yehuda Amichai, who only a few years later, would come to be known as one of the greatest poets writing in the modern Hebrew language. The seminar that he took was on medieval Hebrew poetry and he wrote his final essay on the war poetry of Samuel the Nagid. In the essay, he draws many comparisons between medieval and modern war poetry and is also very interested in the idea of Samuel’s poetry being very firmly rooted in Granada itself. He considers Samuel to be as much a part of Spain as anyone else, in spite of the expulsion of Jews from Spain of 1492, in spite of the rise of the modern nation-state that so colored ideas of nationals, and in spite of the fascism and anti-Semitism running rampant in Europe at the time of his writing.

And so I will give the last word to Amichai, who writes about one of Samuel ibn Naghrila’s poems, describing a battle set in an olive grove on the outskirts of Granada and asserts that this Jewish vizier with the Arabic name and the complex political history, is every bit as much a Spanish poet as one of the modern and indisputably Spanish greats. He is a writer who looked back to the Middle Ages but came up with a completely different set of answers than the usual medieval nostalgia that gives way to white supremacy. He shows us that the Middle Ages can be a way to understand our modern nations if we read with care and nuance and generosity of spirit when he writes:




11 thoughts on ““Both Sons of Spain”: Medieval Jews and Muslims in the Imagined Nation

  1. Thanks for an illuminating and moving column. I had seen many memes and images that I deplored during the election, but I missed the ones you showed. I know very little about medieval Spain and am glad to learn from you.

  2. Pingback: The Medieval’s Allure for Racism & Hatred | Words, Words, Words

  3. “George W. Bush called for Crusade in the wake of 9/11”

    That never happened, GWB went out of his way to assure that never happened.

      • And I would just add, I find that locution fascinating. It’s indicative of a post-truth attitude to assert that a politician’s assurance that his own blunder didn’t happen is, itself, evidence that it didn’t happen; it’s allowing a politician to determine the parameters of reality. Thank goodness for video!

      • Obviously a misstep, but I’d hardly say it’s “calling for Crusade”, Just four days later in his joint address to Congress, he want out of his way to assert this was not a holy war:

        “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.”


      • His first reaction, to describe the response to 9/11 as a Crusade, was one amongst the many things that made it so difficult to take his subsequent statement at face value. And the fact that that *was* an early reaction proves my point, which is that the rhetoric of crusading has pervaded contemporary political discourse.

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