Historians often animate the past with the lifeblood of the present: "As I pondered the wound inflicted on my own native city of New York [on 9/11], I wondered what these medieval Christians, Muslims, and Jews might teach us in a twenty-first century still plagued by enmity among adherents of the world's three great monotheistic religions." For readers unfamiliar with the history of medieval Spain, the resulting lesson may be surprising: the Muslims, Christians, and Jews of medieval Spain "haltingly blazed humanity's trail toward tolerance and mutual respect before finally veering into an overgrown thicket of religious enmity and intolerance." Perhaps "our era, suffering the same schizophrenia that afflicted our ancestors, might heal it by embracing the wisdom that . . . medieval contemporaries uncovered, yet never fully grasped." This book is filled with vivid anecdotes delightfully narrated, but it cannot discover for us a psychotropic medication, since it is itself the product of a bipolar tradition. For centuries, Spanish medieval history has either been presented as an epic "clash of civilizations," a battle to the death between Christianity and Islam, or as an "angenehmes Märchen" (as Herder put it in the late eighteenth century)—a "comforting fairy tale" about a time and place in which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were intimately embraced. Like many today, the author of A Vanished World is attracted to the "far away and long ago" as a source of antidotes to conflicts of the present age. But however comforting, the resulting fairy tales will be necessarily puzzled by their own unhappy endings.
David Nirenberg is professor in the Committee on Social Thought and professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago. His book Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages has appeared in Spanish and French translations and has received prizes from the American Historical Association, the Medieval Academy of America, and the Society for Spanish and Portuguese Studies. He is also author of Wie jüdisch war das Spanien des Mittelalters? Die Perspective der Literatur and The Figure of the Jew: From Ancient Egypt to the Present.