Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain

The Ornament

When you think of tolerance and multiculturalism, does Medieval Europe come to mind? Probably not. Yet, Maria Rosa Menocal's (professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University) book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain makes precisely that claim. Weaving together tales from medieval Spain, Menocal illustrates how three different religions built a "first-rate" culture of tolerance that influenced Europe for centuries to come.

Menocal intertwines "culture of tolerance" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of a "first-rate" mind, writing,

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time ...

[that] contradictions--within oneself, as well as within one's culture--could be positive and productive. (pp. 10-11)

Contradictions, Menocal asserts, were responsible for the flowering of art, intellect, and tolerance towards others in Medieval Spain: Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted openly and freely, keeping a strong sense of identity, yet assimilating features of other cultures that they admired. In Medieval Spain, tolerating contraries led to great philosphers like ibn Rusd and Maimonides, who wrestled with the contraries of faith and reason. Maimonides, with his Second Law, or Mishneh Torah, would be called a "second Moses." Moses of Leon struggled with the traditional Halakah and came up with his Sefer ha-zohar, The Book of Splendor, a systematic compilation of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The study of the living language of Arabic generated once again a Hebrew that was "the language of a vibrant, living poetry" (p. 109).

Such "first-rate" contraries resulted in "authentic multiculturalism." Jews, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel the Nagid, were viziers in an Islamic government. Alongside Arabic--a language of state, love, and religion--existed other religious and vernacular languages. This multicultural environment preferred freedom of religious expression to political correctness; "incongruity in the shaping of individuals" (p. 11) to a "strict harmony of ... cultural identities" (p. 277); "to pose difficult questions rather than to propose easy answers or facile morals" (p. 274); and so on. All of these contraries and others touch upon so many issues in education and modern life, such as assimilation vs. heritage maintenance, multiculturalism vs. traditional canons, political correctness vs. freedom of expression and of religion, bilingual education vs. immersion, and so on.

The authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Spain arose from tolerance of and dialogue with others. Yet, tolerance and dialogue are not givens, as this culture of tolerance eventually fell.

WHAT HAPPENED? HOW AND WHY DOES A CULTURE OF tolerance fall apart? How did a people come to abandon a culture rooted in an ethic of yes and no, so readily able to love and embrace the architecture or the poetry of political enemies or religious rivals, so willing to read good books regardless of the library they came from? All the answers are themselves bundles of contradictions.... Perhaps all that can be said with any conviction is that in the combination of spectacular successes and failures presented by this history lie tales of both warning and encouragement. (p. 266)

The notion of contradictions being essential for tolerance and creativity, and also for learning (see Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction) underscores the need to inject uncertainty and novelty into the classroom, not so much as to be overwhelming but enough to promote the flow of learning.

At the end of the book, Menocal writes, "Every reader will take away different lessons from the tales in this book." Indeed.

Below are some reviews that offer other readings of and lessons from The Ornament of the World