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  • Why Iberia?
  • María Rosa Menocal (bio)

My first instinct was to correct the title and rename this essay “Why Medieval Spain?” rather than “Why Iberia?” After all, I never say I work on or teach about “Iberia.” And yet the editors have got it just right to signal—using the geographic Iberia instead of the national Spain—that the terrible difficulty of finding worthy names is at the heart of the matter here, at the heart of why it is that the study of the cultures and peoples of the Iberian peninsula during the medieval period is as exacting, as stimulating, as important as it is. It is easy enough, and accurate enough too, to point out that the study of all premodern cultures brings with it comparable difficulties, that, for example, before there was a France or an Italy, it is also misleading to talk about what might have been French or Italian, and yet medievalists in those areas, as well as the man on the street, regularly do so. But in the case of the Iberian peninsula the misprisions reflected in the confusion of terms—when we call a Christian kingdom “Spanish” but an Islamic one “Moorish,” to take only one of dozens of egregious examples—are confusions both more severe and more meaningful. It is true that Dante is not an Italian, but rather a Florentine, and the distinction is far from trivial—indeed, for Dante, central. And yet the comparable distinctions in the Iberian peninsula are likely to be more searing, because they involve not just political but religious and ethnic distinctions. If we call Rodrigo Diaz, the Cid, a Spaniard, why not his contemporary Judah Halevi? And why do we so often—even among those of us who “know better”—persist in calling the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula “Moors” or even “Arabs”—thus grossly confusing religion and ethnicity and suggesting, every time we do, that to be a Muslim was always not to be a Spaniard, in the way that being a Christian was, or that confession is equivalent to ethnicity?

Of course, at this late date we all know the largest answer to these and other comparable questions: Spain defined itself as a modern nation through the expulsion not only of its Jewish and Muslim citizens but especially through the expulsion of the memory that they had ever been a part of the real body politic of “Spain.” It is not merely that after 1492 and 1609 (and everything in between) to be a Spaniard was aggressively defined as those who were not (and, better still, had never been) Christian; it is that this early modern definition of the national identity was transferred to the medieval past, and the medieval past rewritten and reimagined accordingly, as if the twelfth century were already longing for the sixteenth. This obliteration of the historical memory of the cultural and religious complexities of the medieval Iberian universe has long meant that the parameters that define how we talk about its languages and cultures are profoundly misshaped, which I mean not as a moral but as a historical statement: Alfonso X would no doubt have been startled by the suggestion that Arabic was not a vital part of the Castilian cultural universe or that Jews were not Toledanos or Sevillanos, nor citizens of his “Spain.” [End Page 7]

It is of course the singular fact in European history—and now the word is out, almost everyone knows it—that the three Abrahamic religions long coexisted, in highly complex and always-shifting ways, in the Iberian peninsula. This has for some years now been both the distinction and the bane of “our” medieval studies, since not only the terminology but the most fundamental epistemological categories at our disposal—things as basic as the languages that are considered the legitimate or necessary ones for a medievalist to study in a department in which Spanish medievalists are trained—are still almost invariably at odds with what, explicitly echoing Americo Castro, we might call la realidad historica. Thus part of the answer to the “Why Iberia” question is that the moment is clearly at hand to begin to undo the damage...