Spain, I love you so much. And then you go and do stupid sh¡!t like this.

One of the more challenging aspects of Spain is its ongoing, collective ambivalence about Jews and Muslims. It’s a place that, in the last 20 (or maybe even closer to 30) years has come to embrace its Judaeo-Islamic past — uneasily and and sometimes haltingly — if for nothing else than because it makes for a very attractive draw for tourists and foreign investment; but at the same time, it is still very much a place that hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Jews and Muslims in its midst. (A brief disclaimer here: I’m talking strictly about the public sphere and not the academic one for the purposes of this blog post.)

It’s something that struck me most strongly when I was here in 2015 for a semester and visited Alcalá de Henares, a city that very much plays up the presence of its Jewish and Islamic quarters but also sports a mural that trades in stereotypes about Jews being the shadowy, driving force behind corporate and military America. And, here again for what I have come to call The Great NYU Global-Conference-Conference-Research Trip of 2017, I walked past a shop that was trying to sell highish-end women’s accessories by using the image of a frightening, unindividuated Jew conducting bad business under the table. (And now with added homophobia!)

But the casual, corporate, Jews=money=flashy accessories antisemitism of this marketing campaign pales in comparison to the postcards that are available on sale at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, such as this one:


Girona is easily the best-preserved medieval city I have ever visited and was an important center of Jewish life in the late Middle Ages. Yet even here, even in a medieval city that very much markets itself for Jewish tourism, the old medieval stereotypes are never far below the surface. The “joke” of this postcard is that Isaac “the Blind” of Posquieres, a thirteenth-century kabbalist, is shown selling the lotto tickets that, in Spain, are a concession held by blind and visually impaired people. The not-really-a-joke is that the postcard shows a Jew with a big nose (for anyone who needs a refresher about the medieval origins of this stereotype, see Sara Lipton’s Dark Mirror) enriching himself.

I took a photo of the postcard and showed it on my phone to the women sitting at the entrance desk and explained what I thought the issue was with it; they looked at me very sheepishly, explained that they knew about it but because the bookshop is actually a concession that isn’t operated by the museum, there was nothing they could do about it. They promised to pass my complaint on to the director of the museum, and suggested that it would be helpful if I mentioned it to the owner of the bookshop. Perhaps, they suggested it without really believing it, he just didn’t know.

Of course, the bookshop owner knew. I suspect that this is not the first time that this conversation has proceeded along the edges of this particular triangle: a surprised tourist, the women at the desk, and the owner of the book shop. The shop owner first told me that he doesn’t make the postcards but just orders them; and since the shop orders them in multi-packs and these come in the multi-pack and they are all paid for, he has to sell them. (Nevermind that if it were me and those postcards came in my multi-pack, I’d throw them out even at a loss before I’d sell them  — who’s the greedy Jew now?) He also tried to tell me that Isaac the Blind — the thirteenth-century kabbalist, in case you’d forgotten from a few paragraphs up — wasn’t a Jew, but rather was the owner of a tavern at the edge of the Call, the Jewish quarter, so it wasn’t actually a stereotype of Jews.

The tourist industry here that pours so much energy into remembering long-dead Jews and enticing the living ones to tour their old haunts will never be more than a silly little parody of itself and a pathetic disservice not just to Jewish history but to its own — which are, of course, inextricable from each other — until it actually looks its own history, both medieval and modern, squarely in the face and appreciates it rather than just casting a casual glance in its direction.

My pithy closing sentence was going to be this: I love this country deeply, but I also have to hate it because it still very much hates me. But the use of that word, country, is what opens up the broader question. How much does a modern country owe to what used to be there? To the descendants of the people who used to be there? What is the nature of what is owed? Is there only a choice between forgetting fully and remembering fully, or is there some middle ground? I had planned to end with a barrage of unanswered questions that I’d really like to answer, but I think that would make this a much longer and different post. So for now, I’ll just get on with loving and hating Spain and trying to let that seething tumult wind itself into words.



Onomastics and Minimum Standards

“If my students come away from my class and four years later remember nothing about the Middle Ages but only remember when they pick up a newspaper that not everyone with an Arabic name is Muslim, then that’s enough.”

I’ve said it often enough to colleagues, thought I’d never say it directly to students because I wouldn’t want them to know what my absolute bare minimum standard is — I always want them to exceed it rather than shoot straight for it. It’s a topic that most often comes up in the course of discussing which way we err when we simplify the complex narrative of Andalusi cultural history for introductory-level undergraduates: for the sake of the narrative do we make it seem rosier than the historical reality or more conflictive than it? In an ideal world we would do neither but even a simplified narrative is, realistically, confusing for students who are not yet primed for historical complexity and a narrative helps. I defend my kind of simplification with the logic of what I want students to walk away with. At the end of the day, if they remember only one thing from my class, what should that be? I tend to simplify in the rosy direction because I want my students to remember the cross-cultural pollination that proximity yields; and it is is easier for them to understand that in those rosy terms even if it is equally close conflict that brings about cultural flourishing.

A gruesome tragedy is playing itself out in the local — and even international — headlines: a judge, the first African-American woman to serve on the New York State  Court of Appeals appears to have committed suicide by walking into the Hudson River and letting go. It is by all accounts a tragedy; those who knew her say she was a compassionate person and a sharp legal mind. But an error crept into the first versions of the news reports and has since been replicated worldwide, even though it has been corrected at its source: the judge, whose surname was Abdu-Salam, was initially described as Muslim even though she was not.

A correction explains the source of the error:


Her name.

With very rare exceptions, my students are not going to go on to become medievalists. Some of them take my class because they have a genuine, if lay, interest in the subject, some for reasons of heritage, some because they’ve been to Spain and have seen the Alhambra and don’t quite realize how complex and difficult the class is that they’re about to take, some because they did well in AP European History and don’t know how different my narrative and my methodologies will be; but by far and away, the most common reason I hear from students for taking my class (especially the very introductory, freshman-level lecture class) is: “It fit my schedule.” I have some students who are there because they care about the material, but a much larger percentage who are there to fulfill a requirement. I know that the smaller group will understand the complexities, ask great questions, and retain a lot of the details; but again, trying to be realistic, after the final exam most of them will remember only one big takeaway from my class, and that’s it. (Do I wish it were different? Sure. Just about every day. But you work with what you’ve got.) For those students, as heretical as it may be for me to say so, I’m not sure that the takeaway should be strictly medieval.

And so for me, that takeaway is this: language, art, and literature have no confession. That’s all.

If my students can come away from my class knowing that Christians and Jews can also have abds and ibns and als in their names, that’s enough. It’s enough so that when they are the obituary-writers and the investigative reporters who are shaping public perception and defining the news that is fit to print (nevermind when they are the ones setting immigration policy or dropping bombs), they won’t make silly mistakes based on unfounded biases about what kinds of languages and what kinds of names belong to what kinds of religions.

Paradise Lost

I’ve taken one for the team. I’ve read it so you don’t have to. Yep. That book.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a self-proclaimed corrective to a “wide-spread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers” (2). The book’s author, Darío Fernández-Morera is an associate professor at Northwestern, a critic of Cervantes and other early modern Spanish literati who positions himself as a “Machiavellian” (nope, not kidding, 3) interpreter of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the book is even more politicizing than the work it discusses and tilts, appropriately for a volume written by a Cervantes scholar, at giants that turn out to be nothing more than badly misperceived windmills.

The Myth consists of over 350 pages of what a colleague poetically calls “convivencia sneering,” a resentful drive to first misconstrue nearly 80 years of scholarship on medieval Spain as a mere celebration of the convivencia, or living-togetether-ness of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then tear down the newly constructed straw man. “Convivencia sneering” is often found in two guises, both of which are manifest in The Myth: first, the misrepresentation of scholarship on the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of medieval Spain as a uniformly idealizing and one-dimensional endeavor divorced from research into the real “realidad histórica”; and second, treating works written for a popular audience, most notably María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, as the scholarship in the field while ignoring works written for a scholarly audience and refusing to treat writing for those two audiences as different beasts.

The author claims that contemporary scholarship on medieval Iberia perpetrates the myth of a paradise in with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all more or less got along, and that this view has been deceitfully conveyed to a gullible reading public. His book will set the record straight. In other words, his argument is that a caricature of convivencia has been perpetrated on an unsuspecting audience by scholars who are, in turn, too afraid of the Islamic world and too enamored of it to tell the truth about how horrendous Islam was and is. He supports this claim through a series of misrepresentations of the primary sources and ofthe state of the field facilitated by a desperately poor handle on the relevant secondary bibliography and a blinding need to prove the evil of Islam and the darkness of the Middle Ages.

He positions himself as the maverick outsider who alone can correct the deficiency he perceives in the interpretation of the medieval evidence of interactions between Muslims and others in medieval Spain. However, he does not approach a field that is not his own with the humility required to learn its contours. This is not to say, as Fernández-Morera charges, that everyone must be in agreement. In fact, a quick look at the field shows that a lot of us are in deep disagreement with each other about a lot of things. What it means, though, is that every field of study, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the term to refer to the material itself and not to the body of scholarship that has grown up around it, requires a certain degree of expertise and familiarity that a few years of reading can never yield. What’s wrong with this book is not only its ideology (although I firmly disagree with it), but its methodology and its unfamiliarity with the various genres of text upon which it builds its argument. This is not to say that no scholar should ever cross disciplinary or period boundaries — quite the contrary — but rather, that a first foray into a new field that attempts nothing short of tearing down that field is simply unlikely to be able to distinguish between real problems in that field and phantasms (see, for example, Fernández-Morera’s nonsensical discussion of the relationship between toponymy and language families on pp. 14). To make this kind of critique successfully requires many years immersed in the material rather than a dilettante’s grand tour through it.

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Hold the Bacon — for how long?

I had a great sandwich for lunch. I’m not the type to wax poetic about Danny Meyer’s culinary empire, or the type to use the web in that stereotypical way of announcing what I ate for lunch, but here we are all the same, with me telling you that on my way to the New York Public Library this afternoon,  I stopped for chicken sandwich with bibb lettuce, green tomato, dijonnaise, and a side of jardiniere at Meyer’s new chicken, sandwich, and baked goods shop, Daily Provisions.


The sandwich was supposed to have bacon, but I asked for it without; and that’s really why I’m writing about my lunch on a blog that is supposed to be at least tangentially about life with my head most of the time in medieval Spain.

It’s well established that the preponderance of pork in Spanish food is residual (I mean, not the pork itself because that would just be gross, but the excess of it) from a time when many people were eager to prove that they were most definitely not Jewish or Muslim and did so, at least in part, by making very public displays of pork product procurement. Almost every year have my students read Inquisition testimony in which a woman explains that she ate a lot of fish specifically to avoid mixing milk and meat in violation of Jewish dietary laws but also to avoid not mixing milk and meat and drawing suspicion that she might be secretly Jewish. One anecdote has a qadi eat so many appetizers that he makes himself sick and vomits on the main course of pork so that he and his fellow cyrpto-Muslims at a dinner have a totally plausible excuse for not eating it. And a favorite interpretation of the description of Don Quijote’s Dulcinea del Toboso as having “the best hand at salting pork in all of La Mancha” is that she was trying to hide her Jewish roots with a public display of her talents related to pork preparation.

In fact, my undergraduate adviser, may she rest in peace, spent a lot of time trying to convince me (and later some other Jewish colleagues) that the most authentic way to be Jewish in Spain was to eat a lot of pork rather than to try to avoid it.

All of this brings me back to the sandwich. As I asked for it to be made without the bacon, I began to wonder how long, in the current climate of arsons at mosques and bomb threats at synagogues with no consequences for the perpetrators or for the politicians (and their daughters) who either encourage such activity or at least stand silently while it happens, how long asking a restaurant to hold the bacon will be a feasible thing to do. It has probably always marked me as Jewish to order a dish, hold the bacon, or to substitute pork for tofu in a Chinese restaurant, but I never thought about it until today. I never thought about it as a luxury to be able to go into any restaurant and choose any dish I want, even if it has bacon on it, and simply ask for the bacon to be left off without it becoming a clash of civilizations kind of situation. I wonder when we might have to stop ordering things without bacon, either choosing only dishes that do not contain pork products or making a show of eating something forbidden. As unlikely as it is to happen in New York, it is quite likely to happen some time, somewhere in the homogeneous middle of the country.

It’s not getting shot. It’s not having a visa revoked. It’s just a sandwich. Right now it’s just a potential fear of a future sandwich, at that; but it’s maybe one more little change we’ll have to make in the simplest ways that we live our lives just to protect ourselves from our fellow citizens. It’s one more reminder, one more step towards the revocability of it all.

Production and Publication Schedule

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from friends and colleagues who are a few steps behind me in the tenure-book process, mostly about what the process entails and how the schedule runs. Your mileage, depending on your project and your press, may vary, but this is how my book production schedule played out:

January 2015 — Initial contact with the press and series editor. A colleague introduced me to the editor of the Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies, who invited me to submit a proposal. After I submitted the proposal to him and to an acquisitions editor at the press, I was invited to submit my manuscript for review. (It’s worth mentioning that Indiana was the third press I had approached and had conversations with. I sent out many more proposals cold, but the places where I at least had an initial expression of interest were presses where I had some kind of “in” or contact with someone there or introduction from someone with good contacts. More advanced colleagues told me that it’s completely normal to have to approach two or three presses before finding a good fit. And it really is a question of fit; even though Indiana wasn’t the first press I had thought to approach, I’ve ultimately been really happy with how it places my book within my field and I can’t say enough good things about how the press has been to work with.)

May 2015 — Submitted manuscript for review.

October 2015 — Received comments from reviewers and contract from the press.

March 2016 — Submitted final manuscript after revising according to the reviewers’ suggestions and critiques. (I fully rewrote the introduction and conclusion, added an additional chapter that I had still been writing at the time I submitted the manuscript for review, and refined the argument in the existing chapters per the reviewers’ critiques as well as things that I myself had identified as needing revision. Ideally I would have spent more time on those revisions if I’d had it.)

July 2016 — Got files from copy editor. The typescript of the book came back from the copy editor with questions, corrections, and queries about stylistic inconsistencies, etc. I didn’t have the time (or the funding) to be able to do this, but I think that in the future, when I don’t have such a drop-dead deadline, I would hire an outside copy editor who has worked specifically in my field and whose work and judgment I trust to do a first-pass copy edit before submitting the final manuscript. One final thing: in between the time that I submitted the final manuscript and the copy editor doing his work, I realized that I could put a date on the medieval manuscript that is the main source for my book. Fortunately I was able to add a few paragraphs in at this point to be able to include that information in the book.

Sept 2016 — Worked with copy editor on outstanding questions.

November 2016 — Received proofs from the press. In spite of the instructions only to identify typographical and typesetting errors (of which there were plenty), I definitely did some polishing of the prose that I just didn’t have the time or the distance from the writing to be able to do before my initial submission. This was the moment when it really started to look like a book and the point at which I finally had enough distance to not hate it as much as I had.

December 2016. Returned proofs to press and answered outstanding queries.

January 2017. Proofs to indexer. All advice I received told me to hire someone to do the index for the book, so I did. It didn’t strike me as something particularly onerous, but apparently it is; and to be honest, I’m happy not to have one more thing to have to do for this project. I received a grant from the Humanities Center at NYU to pay my indexer, who is a PhD student in my department who does freelance editorial work.

Spring 2017. Expected publication of book!

Teaching in the Wake of Trump

Last semester, I taught my freshman lecture course, Cultures and Contexts: Muslim Spain, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The morning after the election, virtually everyone present in the class — myself included — was out of our minds with grief. Many students did not attend that day and I instructed my teaching fellows not to take attendance or penalize absences. “If they’re not here,” I said to them, “it’s because they need to be somewhere else.” This was in line with directives that would ultimately come down from the official level at the college, encouraging faculty to take post-election dips in performance into account when calculating grades. Someone else was supposed to have lectured the morning after the  election, but had let me know late the week before that she wouldn’t be able to make it in the end; with one extra lecture to write, I looked at my schedule for the week, figured I’d watch election results with friends until 9 o’clock when Hillary would have it all wrapped up, and then go home and write. Of course that’s not what happened, and I ended up screening the medieval Islam section of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews in class on November 9. It was not my most stellar pedagogical move ever, but it was the best I could do that morning.

At that point in the semester, we were just up to a brief excursus into Christian Spain and France, looking at 1391 as a political and cultural turning point; and because of the nature of the material in the syllabus ringing with such obvious echoes of the hatred being directed first at Muslims, but also at Jews, in those last days of the campaign as throughout it, I thought that I had to address the election and its aftermath in some form.

I struggled over that weekend with how to do that. In a class of 72 mostly-anonymous students in a deeply divided country, I had to assume that some were Trump voters or supporters; and in fact, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic vandalism on campus in the following weeks would prove the audacity of the Trump supporters in our midst. I voted against George W. Bush in the first election I could, but I always hated it when my own college professors would make their political views, as aligned as they were with my own, a part of their teaching. Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I still believe in keeping political views out of the classroom; but at the same time, I think that opposing Trump is a moral choice and not wholly a political one. And for me and for my friends and colleagues who will be targets of a Trump administration and the neo-Nazi affiliates he is choosing to employ, opposing Trump is also an act of self-defense. Opposing those who would treat me as less American because I am Jewish is not a political act. Supporting unequivocally my students who will be treated as less American and perhaps even less human because they are of Mexican descent or African-American or Muslim is not a political act.

Ultimately, I decided to give a historiographic lecture about the materials through which we come to know about the events of 1391 and about how different forms of writing function in charged political circumstances. In particular, I built on the interview given by David Nirenberg in the runup to the election about how his understanding of the function of Twitter in political discourse was informed by his archival practice. This was all very easy to work into the class not only because of the content but also because of the students’ ongoing research essay project, in which I was very much emphasizing attention to genre — both of their sources and their own essays.

Archival practice was implicated in how I delivered the lecture, too. Normally I teach from notes, but since I was straying much further into contemporary issues than I normally do, and even though I did not consider my lecture that day to be a political one, I knew that a possibility existed of a student going to the dean to complain. So instead of lecturing from notes on that Monday after the morning after, I wrote out almost my entire lecture so that I could show the dean verbatim what I had said, were it to come to that. Since I had the whole thing written out, I had thought about posting it ablog, but couldn’t decide, in the end. But at this intersection of Twitter, history, hate, and the archives, with new questions being raised about the implication of Twitter in the destruction of presidential archives, I thought back to this lecture and thought it was time to share it. You’ll find it after the jump:

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Staving Off Panic Through List-Making, Early 2017 Edition

I start teaching on Monday and have hit the point of panicking about how much work I have to get done by the end of the month/first week of February. It’s quite a bit of work, and on top of that I have personal/family commitments that I’m no longer willing to completely sublimate to my academic life. All I want to do is shout, very loudly: “I’m doing the very best that I can to get to everything that everyone needs/wants from me!” Instead, I’m making a list to try to keep track of it all, possibly solicit the occasional sympathetic pat on the head, and, perhaps, passive-aggressively indicate to the world that is waiting on stuff from me that I’m not just being delinquent — I’m really pretty slammed.

— Finish Humanities Initiative team-teaching grant (Draft. Final version.)

— Read/comment on someone else’s Humanities Initiative grant (Not going to happen, so I’m just crossing it off the list.)

— Write paper for Abu Dhabi conference. Possibly in Spanish.

— Finish writing chapter for edited volume on the literary forms of philosophy

— Finish writing chapter for edited volume on Amichai, Lorca, and Ibn Naghrila

— One other miscellaneous writing task for an edited volume

— Finish syllabus for grad seminar on medievalism

—Write syllabus for specialized grad seminar

— Reconcile accounts from Spain trip

— Review essay for LARB

I’m sure there’s something else I’m forgetting at the moment (Oh, right. Finish editing the proposal for an overhauled undergraduate major in the department.)

— Catch up on emails (Some of them. The rest of them.)

— Resist hatred being spewed and encouraged by the new presidential administration.(This, of course, will not be done until 2020, and there are more substantial things to do that mere gestures, but I started out by wearing a bracelet with the Throne Verse written in Arabic while traveling on an airplane as a way to normalize the presence of the language in transit. In the more action-oriented column, I signed up for 10 Actions/100 Days and plan to participate in all the protest actions. ETA1/29: Also attended the emergency protest this week in Washington Square part against the Muslim Ban. ETA 2/2: Added myself to a database of people who can volunteer to translate at the airport.)


My Year in Books: 2016

What with finishing my own book, I didn’t do nearly as much reading for pleasure as I would have liked. Here’s what I did (and didn’t) read in the year that was:

Most delicious alphabet soup of hardware: Feynman’s c-clamp, used to test o-ring resiliency as a member of the Rogers Commission, as described in his Why Do You Care What Other People Think?

It’s very different to listen to an audiobook without having first watched the TV episode based on it rather than the other way around: The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter, read by Kevin Whately

Expected Philip Roth. Got Joseph Roth instead: Jacobo el mutante by Mario Bellatín

Book I wish I  lived my life in such a way so as to be able to have written: Teaching Plato in Palestine by Carlos Fraenkel

Not a guidebook but I put in a ton of sticky notes as I read and then walked around Jerusalem with it all the same: Till We Have Built Jerusalem by Adina Hoffman

I have dragged a copy with me on every single flight to Madrid that I have taken since 2004, this year being no exception (three flights to Madrid), and still haven’t actually managed to read: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Two details about Finland that I found during my visit there to be surprisingly accurate: The close-knit-ness of the Jewish community, as illustrated in Behind God’s Back by Harri Nykanen; and the apparent predilection for hot pepper-flavored foods, as illustrated in The Core of the Sun by Johana Sinisalo

Art forger whose life and work make me want to go on a grand tour of Europe to see all the museums he duped: Reinholt Vasters, as profiled in Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery

Book I started with high hopes but have been put off by the stultifying writing and therefore have no charming little tidbit with which to characterize it and, in fact, may not finish it in 2017: Tolkien and the Great War by John Gath

Favorite source of book recommendations: NPR’s Science Friday occasional science and sci-fi literature episodes

Spoiler alert: 1341.

Sometimes you can have been staring at something completely obvious for nothing short of years without realizing it, and then all of a sudden it comes into very sharp focus. This just happened to me recently, with the copying date of a manuscript I’ve been working with since 2012 suddenly becoming apparent. To be fair, I’m not the first scholar to have worked with the manuscript, so I’m far from the first to have overlooked it. I was in very good company in not having noticed the date. But I also like being the one who noticed that it was there. This blog post, then, is sort of a preview of a ḥiddush, a new discovery, that will be published in my book early next year.

The colophon of Bodleian MS Mich. 50.3 begins with the phrase: “This was completed — praise the lord God! — by the hand of Yoav.” It then has a funny little abbreviation, the Hebrew letters aleph-yud-mem-nun.

colophonWith the help of the dictionary of acronyms, I had already identified the letters as an abbreviation for the biblical phrase: אנא יי מלטה נפשי, which comes from Psalm 116. But it kept nagging at me. Scribes will often cite biblical verses in their colophons, but this one is a little weird and a little obscure. It’s not what I would expect to find in a colophon. And so I kept coming back to it, opening up the image file and staring at the manuscript page on my computer screen. And finally, suddenly, it occurred to me that this phrase might be a chronogram, an abbreviation that indicates a date through the numerical values of the letters. I suspected that it wasn’t — that if it were, someone else would have figured that out by now — but I figured I’d do the math anyway just in case.

The letters in this abbreviation add up like this: aleph = 1, yud = 10, mem =40, nun = 50. Chronograms often omit the leading 5 in the thousands place; so for example, this year is 5777, but it might be indicated with letters that add up to 777. If we restore an extra 5,000 to the numerical value of the chronogram in this colophon, we get 5101, which is the year that runs across 1340-41 of the common era. Up until now, the manuscript has  been dated to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries on the basis of the script, so reading the abbreviation as a chronogram actually comports totally with the paleographic evidence and so it is reasonable to date the copying of the manuscript to that year.

The strangeness of the phrase chosen to yield the chronogram still leaves me with a question, one I can only speculate about at this point. Psalm 116 comes from the hallel cycle of psalms, recited as part of the liturgy at the three major pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Hallel is recited at other time, too, so it’s not as secure an identification, but I wonder whether choosing a phrase from hallel indicates that the scribe, Yo’av, finished copying the manuscript just before one of these holidays, that is, sometime between Sukkot (with the 15th of Tishrei falling on 7 October, 1340) and Shavot (with 6 Sivan falling on May 23, 1341).

So, in case it is useful for anyone to know, the upshot is this: The earliest and most complete surviving copy of Judah ibn Tibbon’s ethical will was copied 150 years after the author’s death and the text’s dissemination in 1190, in the fall of 1340 or the spring of 1341. Ultimately this is a question of the reception and readership of the ethical will and what particular value it might have had for the Jews of Provence and northern France at a particular nadir of Jewish-Christian relations and the end of the Maimonidean Controversie. Being able to date the manuscript gives us some context for the reception and transmission of what is a very Andalusi text to a  wider audience.

“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.

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