02 August 2008

My Journey to Medieval Spain

When I began reading A Patriot’s History of the United States eight months ago, perusing the footnotes quickly carried me astray. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that a long footnote embedded as a two and one-half page sidebar was the critical prompt the motivated my purchase of this text and the beginning of this blogging project (See especially “Patriot’s and People’s Histories” and “Depopulation and Demography”). Footnotes are central to my focus, but the text itself also beckons. I’ve been neglecting the text during my blogging holiday, but have been reading.

This morning’s coffee went down with a narrative lauding the intellectual contributions of Moses Maimonides, Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd (known in European literature as Averroes). Wikipedia describes Ibn Rushd as “the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.” I’m reading a celebration of the development of Western secular thought in a book written by a former Jesuit seminarian whose book on Medieval Spain has much of prescriptive value for the twenty-first century: Chris Lowney, A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Earlier in this book Lowney delves into two classic European texts, Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) c.1100 and Poema de Mio Cid (Poem of My Cid, or commonly called El Cid) c.1201-1207. Lowney writes, “the confrontation between Christianity and Islam forms a overriding preoccupation of both these semi-legendary tales” (119). His narrative offers brief summaries of these texts, including discussion of how their legends square with history. His chief concern through this section, however, highlights the complexity of El Cid in contrast to the simplistic ideology of Roland.
Roland painted a global struggle between Christian right and Muslim wrong as Charlemagne squared off against Baligant, emir of Babylon. Roland’s universal struggle between good and evil contrasts with El Cid’s personalized study of the noble person. What makes the Cid, or anyone, honorable is neither station in life nor religious beliefs but deeds. … In Roland, honor includes religious creed. Some of Roland’s Christian characters may fail the standards expected of honorable men, but all Muslims fail the same standard simply by virtue of their pagan beliefs. … El Cid’s very different outlook is personified in the Muslim Abengalbón, El Cid’s vassal and friend. In a remarkable gesture, the Cid confides his daughters to this Muslim’s care as they journey through Spain’s frontier. Abengalbón serves the Cid’s family “for the love he bore to the Campeador.” In the Cid’s world, so profound a bond as love can even bind Muslim to Christian.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 137.
The more nuanced relationship between Christians and Muslims in El Cid, Lowney argues, reflects the realities of multicultural Spain. But he warns against oversimplification of this point.
It is gross oversimplification to pluck Barbastro and Toledo from the Reconquest’s long history as Exhibit A demonstrating that El Cid offers a more enlightened vision of a multifaith Spain because its authors hailed from Spain, whereas Roland reflects the outsider’s harsher viewpoint. A century separates the epics and three centuries the historical events on which they are based; both bear many authorial fingerprints, from chroniclers determined to advance particular religious or political views to entertainers determined only to tell a good story.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 141.
He goes on to note some practical realities of our world today vis-à-vis Charlemagne’s perspective as depicted in Roland. The notion of a Frankish king invading Spain, driving out the Muslims, and then returning home “is an elegantly simple worldview,” but not one embraced by twelfth- or thirteenth century Spanish monarchs. Yet, “Ferdinand and Isabella’s counselors would goad them into just such a policy and devise ways to make it eminently (if tragically) practical by banishing Jews and Muslims who refused to embrace Christianity” (141).
One is tempted to think that Lowney had the current American adventures in Iraq in mind as he crafted those sentences, and this presumption is borne out on the next page.
[One cannot] forcibly reorder another community’s lives and affairs, then assume, as Charlemagne did, that it will be possible to separate oneself from the consequences and repercussions. To assume the posture of the outsider is as naïve as to imagine that Muslims, Christians, and Jews can today carve out completely separate futures in a world that will continue to grow smaller with each passing generation.
Lowney, A Vanished World, 142.

The Route to Spain from A Patriot’s History

Schweikart and Allen’s A Patriot’s History relies upon Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture for its account of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. Hanson’s depiction of Cortés’s Spain as exemplar of Western Reason was the source for Schweikart and Allen’s image of Spanish proto-republicans. Their views caught me by surprise, which led to my preliminary assessment in “Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images.” There I noted that my own knowledge of Spanish history was shamefully deficient, and I alleged that such deficiency was characteristic of Americanist historians as a group with a handful of exceptions. A Patriot’s History drove me to Hanson; Hanson drove me to Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico and other texts, including Lowney’s A Vanished World. I’ve mentioned a few tidbits from Thomas, including his demythologizing of the story that Cortés burned his boats. Lowney adds a piece of information that further contextualizes this legend. The Muslim conqueror of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, allegedly burned his boats after landing at Gibraltar—a rock named for him, Jabal Tariq, Tariq’s Mountain.
Chroniclers credit Tariq with the gutsy gesture of burning his ships on the spot and weaving his soldiers’ resulting dilemma into a stirring oratorical exhortation: “Whither can you fly,—the enemy is in your front, the sea at your back. By Allah! There is no salvation for you but in your courage and perseverance.”
Lowney, A Vanished World, 30.

The legend of Cortés in Mexico reveals his debt to legends of the Muslim conquest of his native Spain eight centuries earlier. This legacy is not surprising when we contemplate the degree to which Renaissance Europe, and all that is civilized on that continent, to the extent that it can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Romans, also must be traced through Muslim civilization. During the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, science and reason continued its development in Muslim society. It may be simplistic to assert that Europe’s Crusaders that sought to wrest the Holy Land from Muslims brought home the seeds of the Renaissance, but it is far closer to the truth than to assert that Petrarch reinvented classic learning from sources wholly European.

Roland’s Patriots

In response to my “The Sixties: A Patriot’s History,” Historiann quipped regarding Schweikart and Allen, “They want to mislead their readers into believing that Democrats are all bad, and Republicans are all (or mostly) good (if they are "true conservatives," anyway.)” As she understands A Patriot’s History—and I suspect she’s close to the mark, if not right on,—Schweikart and Allen’s narrative resembles a modern day Chanson de Roland. Paraphrasing Lowney, some of Schweikart and Allen’s Republican characters may fail the standards expected of honorable men, but all Democrats fail the same standard simply by virtue of their misguided beliefs. Their simplistic moral tale that distinguishes the true Republicans—Reagan and Bush—from the fallen ones—Nixon and McCain, and all Republicans from Democrats, who can never be right is less nuanced than even that of some of their ideologically driven sources. Hanson, for example, was once a Democrat, and may still be so on paper.
All I can tell you is I'm still a registered Democrat. I have a liberal twin brother who disagrees with everything I write. And I have a far more liberal older brother who not only disagrees with what I write, but I imagine is really bothered by it. I had two conservative Democratic parents who were in the Populist tradition of farmers, sort of William Jennings Bryan types.
Interview with Victor Davis Hanson, The Naval Institute: Proceedings

I will show in blog entries still to come how some of the nuances of Hanson’s history in Carnage and Culture morph into something far more simplistic in the hands of Schweikart and Allen.


Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on your blog a moment ago while looking for primary sources to accompany _Patriot's_. I'm new to the field of history and am planning a course where students read some of _People's_ and _Patriot's_ side by side. I'm excited to read your posts comparing the two. I know there's an anthology designed specifically for the Zinn, I don't think there's a corresponding one for the Schweikart and Allen. I'm curious, do you know of a primary source anthology that works well with _Patriot's_, or an anthology with a similar aim?
Best regards,

James Stripes said...

I do not know of any companions for Patriot's comparable to Zinn's Voices of a People's History. However, I think many official government documents such as Presidential speeches, texts like The Federalist Papers, and the sorts of documents promoted by such groups as the Cato Institute might fit the bill for pieces of their history. Other conservative histories like The Light and the Glory, while as far from primary as you can get (unless you are researching the rise of the New Right in the 1970s and 1980s), might be of some interest.

You might also look at the website for Patriots -- there's a link in the left column of this blog -- which has contact links for Schweikart and Allen.

Although this blog project of mine is ten months old, and has been somewhat anemic the past few months, I'm just starting. Keep checking back, as I may find more suggestions for you along the way.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP