|Cover image, Dario Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016)|
by Chad Leahy
This is the first of three posts by Chad Leahy on Iberianism in today's medieval studies.
Dear reader of ITM: you don’t need me to tell you that an awful lot has been happening in Medieval Studies. I’d wager that most of us can rattle off a list of 2016-2017 highlights that might include #femfog, Leeds IMC, the Brown vs. Kim, Charlottesville, and #AltCrusade17. And even if we aren’t publicly engaged in responding to this moment, I’d guess most of us are at least aware of the work of disciplinary awakening swirling around us: Work to acknowledge and redress the complicity of our silence. Work to reclaim Medieval Studies from the medievalist fantasies of white supremacists and misogynists. Work to confront the disciplinary practices and ideologies of exclusion that mark our past and present for people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups.
You know this already. In fact, the gesture of signaling the moment-ness of the moment is becoming almost routine. So routine that I fear the gesture itself threatens to be replaced by the meta-cliché of complaining about it.
For you, dear reader, let me offer that you are already aware of all of this in part because you are not an Iberianist. Maybe you work on Late Medieval England or Anglo-Saxons, Old Norse or Normans, Gaul or the Franks, Celts or the Crusader States. But Iberia? My question: where are all the Iberianists and Hispanists? What is behind our thundering absence from these conversations?
I think there are a number of ways we might respond to this question, but in what follows, I’d like to entertain just one theory. Maybe we aren’t experiencing the aforementioned moment-ness of the moment in quite the same way as some of our disciplinary cousins simply because we feel that we’ve already been engaged in this sort of business for years, toreando in this plaza at least since 1948, when Américo Castro published España en su historia. (See this overview if you aren’t familiar).
As Nadia Altschul suggested almost a decade ago, Medieval Iberia is “enmeshed in midcoloniality. In contrast to other language-based disciplines, the existence of a so-called ‘multicultural’ Middle Ages is neither counterintuitive nor new within Ibero-Medievalism” (“The future of postcolonial approaches to medieval Iberian Studies” 9). We understand racial, cultural, and confessional complexity to be basic to our field, and long decades of interpretative struggle over those fundamentals have always served as unvarnished referenda on the political and ideological struggles of the present. Whether as a means of decentering Eurocentric historiography or imagining an alternative to the horrors of the Holocaust or refracting anxieties over contemporary extremism, the War on Terror, and Islamophobia or negotiating the essentializing politics of Spanishness under Franco, we’re accustomed to seeing Medieval Iberia as a tool to think through some pretty big, relevant problems. (And this, even though we often default to a position of problematic neutrality that sometimes borders on “criminal non-intervention,” as Simon Doubleday has argued).
So, is it just that we don’t consider more recent developments–especially those surrounding inclusion, violence, race, and nation–to be a disciplinary novelty?
Even if the answer is yes–and I’m not sure it is–I would like to suggest that this shouldn’t exonerate us from remaining engaged. On the contrary, our passivity here has real consequences that we have an obligation to take seriously.
Let me offer just one example of what I mean: why did the publication of Fernández-Morera’s rabidly polemical The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) not give rise to a more vigorous public response by scholars in the field in 2017?
The thesis of this last monograph is, effectively, that al-Andalus was a violently retrograde hellscape of militant jihad, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual slavery, and female circumcision. This, in contradistinction to the relatively more open Christian communities of the North who, despite it all, heroically managed to keep alive the flame of Roman-Visigothic greatness in Hispania. Just think: if it weren’t for the reconquista, today we would be facing the inconceivable horror of a Spain bereft of wine and ham, and if it weren’t for Byzantium there would have been no medieval transmission of Classical knowledge, since on that front, the role of al-Andalus has been hugely exaggerated. The author passionately claims that all of us in the U.S. academy have been deliberately ignoring or misrepresenting this story both because we lack the methodological and linguistic skills to get at the real truth and because, either way, we prefer to remain duped in our ahistorical liberal fantasy of convivencia, which for the author always and only signifies a dreamy amalgam of inter-confessional brotherhood, artistic-intellectual glory, and multicultural tolerance.
The brazen absurdity of this should be patent. To begin with, this argument is built on a gross mischaracterization of what those in the U.S. academy have actually written. Case in point: Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Brian Catlos, Ann Rosemary Christys, David Coleman, Olivia Remie Constable, Jean Dangler, Jerilynn Dodds, Simon Doubleday, Denise Filios, Thomas Glick (with or without Oriol Pi-Sunyer), L. P. Harvey, Richard Hitchcock, Chris Lowney, David Nirenberg, Pamela Patton, Jonathan Ray, Teófilo Ruiz, Janina M. Safran, and Maya Soifer are among just some of the relevant scholars that don’t even appear in the author’s bibliography. It is true that some (very few) of these folks are in fact quoted in the book’s frequent epigraphs, but in de-contextualized ways that in no way constitute a deep engagement with their work. (Carly Fiorina, too, gets an epigraph.) Even more noteworthy: also largely absent is María Rosa Menocal, who I would suggest is nevertheless everywhere here, with The Ornament of the World (2002) operating as a kind of haunting specter or token of everything ever said about al-Andalus in the U.S. academy. As a point of fact, those of us in the field know that there is a robust scholarly consensus about the shortcomings of Menocal’s work and the interpretative trend it embodies. (See, for example, this review article by Anna Akasoy). Fernández-Morera demonstrates no effort to acknowledge such work because, as S. J. Pearce has argued, “The entire book is constructed against a straw man… The Myth’s myth is a myth.” Even my undergraduates just reading a few selections from Constable’s anthology of source materials (Medieval Iberia)–a book I’d hardly call an arcane secret of the forgotten catacomb-archives–already know that the narrative against which Fernández-Morera rails is about as real as cynocephali and sciopods.
As if this weren’t concern enough, what should we make of the fact that The Myth was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute? According to their dogwhistle-laden mission, ISI is dedicated to promoting the advancement of “Western civilization,” a topic evidently under threat and “rarely taught” in the U.S. classroom. ISI also actively promotes “The values, customs, conventions, and norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition” because these “inform and guide a free society” and “[w]ithout such ordinances, society induces its decay by embracing a relativism that rejects an objective moral order.” In brief, this is an Institute with some very loaded ideological axes to grind. And Fernández-Morera is happy to do the grinding. Even if we accept the archaeological reasoning deployed here—i.e., that Fernández-Morera has indeed restored to truth realities hitherto ignored in the archive—the book’s particular rhetoric warmly and dangerously invites an Islamophobia that is in direct harmony with ISI’s political agenda of safeguarding the embattled civilization of Western Judeo-Christianity.
So why are we silent? Why no #MythFail hashtag? Why no #AndalusiaGate? Why no symposia or op-eds to set the record straight?
Maybe the case is simply that we have chosen to not dignify this work with a response. In one of the few negative reviews of the book that I’ve been able to find, self-professed conservative historian Thomas Madden predicts just that: “This book will change few minds. Professional scholars will dismiss it as an angry screed, unworthy of serious attention.”
I agree. But our resulting silence has serious consequences. It is probably not at all surprising that Fernández-Morera would be championed by a conservative publication as their number 3 on a list of “Top Ten Contemporary Academics Helping the Political Right” or lauded in a review by the author of a book called The Left is Never Right. One can imagine how this line of thought might go: see, Muslim tolerance is a liberal myth! Sharia lawyers are coming to force your daughters to wear hijab! Travel ban time (#MAGA)! On the other hand, maybe it is a little surprising that even liberal media outlets like HuffingtonPost approve of the debunking of a myth whose stranglehold on the field itself constitutes a myth. And more injurious still, even some very well-respected Hispanists, like Noël Valis (Yale University) and Antonio Carreño (Brown University, emeritus), contributed publicity blurbs for the dust jacket, praising the book’s iconoclasm. I genuinely trust that this last move reflects their own status as researchers who work primarily outside of Medieval Iberian Studies and who are thus simply less familiar with the broader bibliography that so deeply undermines the book’s claims. And yet, their names are there, communicating scholarly legitimacy.
But the problem that I consider far more upsetting here is that by not more vocally resisting The Myth, we have been party to its weaponization. Through our silence we passively condone the poisonous ideologies that champion Fernández-Morera’s work in places like Occidental Observer (a publication dedicated to “White Identity, Interests and Culture”) or on the white nationalist, neo-Nazi website Stormfront or on /4chan hate forums, where Fernández-Morera is referred to in the most enthusiastic terms. Here’s a sample: “Please—nothing annoys me more than politically-correct dolts that believe the ‘Moorish Occupation of Hispania’ was a magical, multi-cultural Utopia where unwashed, barbarian, Christian Whitey learnt [sic] at the feet of his benevolent, clean, civilised [sic] Arab and Negro Muslim overlords. For any interested in why the ‘benevolent, enlightened Moorish overlords’ thought that the negroes were little more than ‘animals,’ and liked destroying cathedrals and killing Spaniards, I advise Stormfronters to read Darío Fernández-Morera ‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.’” (Note: I refuse to link to such sites). We needn’t even go that far down the rabbit hole. Youtube also houses an abundance of abhorrent responses to The Myth.
The problems here obviously go way beyond the fact that Fernández-Morera’s book suffers from defective methodology or suspect ideological biases. This isn’t about the book itself in a vacuum, but about the social and political practices it underwrites. It’s about a worldview of hatred and violence that draws strength from this book. Even if we are radical believers in academic freedom and don’t want to critique Fernández-Morera’s approach, our silence in not responding to the appropriation of his work by white nationalists and supremacists equates to tacit approval. Are we ok with Fernández-Morera misrepresenting our work? No, but maybe we’d rather not bother fighting scholarship that is so evidently absurd. But what about letting our work be appropriated (via The Myth) by hate groups as a means of justifying their abominable views? Such are the wages of our passivity. This is a real-world problem. This is serious.
So, where are we? That is the question. We appear to have been relatively reluctant to visibly enter the fray in 2017, whether it be over what I earlier called #MythFail or other aspects of our work. I’ve wondered here if this may have been due to a measure of confidence that we are already engaged in relevant struggles. Maybe that’s it, but there is clearly much work left to be done: Work to educate the public and our students. Work to educate even our own colleagues. And, most especially, real work to resist hatred. This is work that we need to acknowledge and embrace. I would like to suggest that we take this work seriously. That we do it visibly, openly, loudly. These struggles are not the proprietary domain of Anglo-Saxonists and specialists in Celts or Vikings. Dear Fellow Iberianists: can we please make some noise?
Chad Leahy is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Denver. His research centers on the politics of Jerusalem in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. He has published on a range of topics including Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the morisco expulsion, and teaches regularly on al-Andalus.