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.