- The Problem of Terminology in Medieval Iberian Studies
Jean Dangler’s Edging Toward Iberia intervenes in a field that has historically been referred to as “medieval Spanish” and is currently more likely to been referred to as “medieval Iberian studies” or “Andalusi studies”—even as these terms refer to materials and approaches within slightly different, if largely overlapping, intellectual boundaries. Through the application of a theoretical framework—namely, world-system analysis applied in concert with network theory—that so far has gained little traction in these interlocking fields of study, Dangler aims to, in her words, “get a handle on medieval Iberia” (3). By this, she means to sift through and streamline the cornucopia of definitions of the field and, in particular, the terminology that we use to refer to the time and the place in question. With many theoretical and methodological threads running through the work it is, at its core, a study of the terminology of a field, its development, and its consequences. In doing so, the work implicitly and perhaps even unintentionally foregrounds the question of terminology itself: how can contemporary scholarship best ‘get a handle on’ the intrinsically fuzzy nature of pre-modern concepts?
The particular problem with the terminology that we use to discuss the object of our study, a problem that is still so very far out of hand and that Dangler aims to tame in Edging Toward Iberia, is manifold. A first major question is this: How do we describe the geographic limits of the place we study, when borders have shifted dramatically over the last millennium and the fixity of political boundaries grew out of something far more fluid? The departments of languages and [End Page 461] literatures that most of us inhabit were organized along the lines of modern nation-states, a kind of categorization that serves the study of modern literature well but effaces many kinds of variety that are at the forefront of medieval literature. Although the name Spain, España, comes from the Roman provincial toponym Hispania, and although we have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writings in Latin, Romance, Hebrew, and Arabic that name the place España, they don’t refer, precisely, to the same land mass or the same political entity that we moderns do when we speak of Spain. Thus, part of the problem of terminology that it is not clear what we mean when we use the phrase medieval Spain, which can be used, on one extreme, to foster a teleological view of history, culture, and literature that privileges Castilian over the other Romance and Semitic languages that abounded on the Iberian Peninsula, and on the other extreme, to refer to everything that might be found there whether or not it belongs to a modern view of Spain. Virtually every way of posing this question returns its inquirer to how she understands Spain in the modern period and what impact that has on her historical thinking. Furthermore, it leaves open the issue of what substitutes we might use to name the place: How do we include what is now Portugal, which was only sometimes meaningfully separate from the kingdoms that would ultimately form the territory of Spain? Why separate North Africa on the basis of a narrow body of water and modern prejudices about some very real difference between Europeans and Africans when it was culturally and often politically unified during the European Middle Ages? If we do not use the term medieval Spain, what substitutes might serve our needs? And as a second overarching question, how do we name and conceive of the people who inhabited that land? The volume deals with both modern and medieval terms for the macro, imperial, and geological scale (Islamicate, Hispanicate, Africa, Hispania) as well those on the more personal scale used for describing individuals and populations (mudéjar, morisco); it also ignores a number of natively medieval terms and concepts that might have been useful in resolving some of these crucially important broad questions.
Relying on José Rabasa’s construction of the “non-modern,” Dangler envisions naming the object of our study “non-modern Iberia” and significantly expanding its scope and its integrity as...