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  • Edging Toward Iberia
  • Jean Dangler (bio)

As I edge toward a complete definition of medieval Iberia, with its constellation of Muslim and Christian realms and Jewish communities from approximately 500 to 1500 CE, I strive for precise word use, for unity and accuracy, but I am always on the perimeter of Iberia’s fullness. I am always at its edge trying to capture it all by researching Castilian kingdoms here and Muslim realms there, or Jewish poets in this instance and Aragonese physicians in that one. Iberia is more than mere geography. Just when I am certain that I have arrived at an airtight definition of the place, its inhabitants, and its cultural production, another contingency emerges to throw my neat design into a state of doubt and disorder. Iberia always eludes me. sI my area of study fully “medieval Iberia?” Do I always consider Portugal after its twelfth-century split from Castile? When dealing with medieval Iberia, how can I separate North Africa from al-Andalus, the name the Muslims gave their Iberian territory? And if I cannot divide them, should my area of study be Iberia and North Africa? Can “Iberia” contain North Africa in its meaning? And where does medieval Iberia fall, in “Christian Europe” (yes), or toward “the Muslim east” (yes), which was not truly “toward the east” at all? How to contain all that diversity in one obligatory word, in one comprehensive toponym?

I wonder if trying to find the perfect name for the diversity of the Iberian Middle Ages is an important or worthy undertaking. Many colleagues are content to use limited terms such as “medieval Spain” or “Hispania,” but I am not. A growing number of scholars, such as María Rosa Menocal [“Visions of al-Andalus” 12] and Anthony Pym [14–15], have recently discussed this difficulty in nomenclature, yet I cannot help but think that this is our own modern preoccupation: medieval people surely did not conceive of medieval Iberia in this way. We invented the Middle Ages. Modern scholars especially from the nineteenth century on determined and maintained, however loosely, chronological breaks between what we call Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and between the medieval and early modern periods.1 In addition, scholars often erroneously applied modern values to the past, as demonstrated in studies by, for instance, Norman F. Cantor, John Dagenais, Umberto Eco, Mark D. Meyerson, and Gabrielle M. Spiegel. These investigations point out many modern presumptions about the medieval period, such as about ethnicity, hierarchies of powerful and marginalized groups, gender relations, nationhood, or authorship and book production in medieval manuscript culture. And while the most useful scholarship avoids the unthinking application of modern concepts to the medieval period, it is evident that scholars are always confined by their own limits and values, even if they wish to describe the past with accuracy. It is like walking a tightrope between the medieval period and the present; it is like being on Iberia’s edge, trying to have that broad scope from the twenty-first century to contain it all. But the tightrope, the edge is [End Page 12] like quicksand that constantly shifts; it is a border without limits. Edging toward Iberia is being outside Iberia, moving around it, toward it, but being in it at the same time.

One example of how modern constructs continue to inform our understanding of the past is the artificial periodization of the era into roughly ten centuries. Yet even the recognition of the medieval period as a modern invention does not change the practical value of terms such as “medieval” or “the Middle Ages,” which are maintained by scholars and the public alike.2 Eco suggests that to some degree we always recast the Middle Ages in our contemporary image, which manifests in modern novels, movies, and scholarship. He calls attention to the constructed quality of the medieval period by delineating ten types of “Middle Ages” made popular nowadays through media and scholarship, including “the Middle Ages as a barbaric age” and “the Middle Ages . . . of occult philosophy” [69, 71].

How do we characterize or study the medieval period in a way that demonstrates medieval issues and values rather than...