- Non-modern Iberia: Notes from a Provincialized Castile
Jean Dangler’s new book, Edging toward Iberia, is, first and foremost, a plea for scholars working on what she calls “non-modern Iberia” (most commonly termed medieval Iberia) to stop and consider our theoretical approaches to the field. A large part of this effort involves examining the assumptions inherent in our terminology and the spatial and temporal limits we set for ourselves. Issues of terminology and its attendant ideology, as well as a preoccupation with establishing non-modern Iberia as a coherent area of study, are also the main focus of S.J. Pearce’s review. The premise shared by both scholars is, therefore, that there is such a thing as non-modern Iberia. Indeed, the most important recent shift in the field—at least within the US—has arguably been the transition from the ill-fitting and, in many cases, plainly fictitious use of “medieval Spain” to that of “medieval Iberia” (or, in Dangler’s proposal, non-modern Iberia) as an object of study.
Because the capacious paradigm of non-modern Iberia has obvious theoretical and practical import, I shall start by commenting on the effects that the shift I have mentioned has had on my own sub-field: the study of Castilian vernacular literatures, which has been one of the main components in the traditional idea of “medieval Spain.” And because perspective is important, I would like to preface these observations by briefly noting my own interests and biases, which undoubtedly help explain their many limitations: I am a literary historian whose main interests lie in the workings and trajectories of cultural artifacts making use of Romance vernaculars that were created within the orbit of the Castilian monarchy, especially as they intersect with cultural and [End Page 480] political developments beyond Castile; as for biases, I will confess to a preference for theoretical frameworks that grow out of our material, intellectual, and affective interactions with those objects. Within and through them, Iberia (in the form of an “España” unbound by the geographical limits of the Iberian Peninsula) exists only as an object of political desire that never matches up with political reality.
To go back to the question of what non-modern Iberia as a field has meant to studies of Castilian vernacular literatures: the move of most scholars of medieval Castile away from the suffocating constraints imposed by Spanish nationalism has been one of many factors contributing to the emergence of medieval Iberia as an object of study; in turn, the availability of medieval Iberia as an increasingly widespread alternate paradigm has been instrumental in furthering that move. It is hard to overstate the benefits that losing the teleological yoke inherent in the notion of “medieval Spanish literature” (always in singular) provides for the study of medieval Castilian cultures, since the concept is intimately linked to ideas about Spanish exceptionalism that have sometimes proved hard to shake. Indeed, much scholarship produced under the older paradigm tended to isolate Castilian vernacular literature (charged with the task of birthing some kind of Spanish identity avant la lettre), in a way that left out or minimized not only non-Christian components of Castilian culture and its relationship with Andalusi and Northern African counterparts, but also its participation in Northern and Southern European literary and cultural systems. Further, from the point of view of scholars working on the latter, if that participation was recognized, it was conceptualized in terms of top-down influence from center to peripheral or, at best, exotic backwater. After all, Spain was supposed to be different.
Framing Castilian history and cultures within the paradigm of non-modern Iberia—or simply outside that of medieval Spain—makes it easier to characterize them more accurately, as dynamic participants in a shifting and complex environment rather than as a self-contained, always already hegemonic monolith. A case in point would be that of the group of poems in monorhymed quatrains written in the Castilian vernacular starting at the turn of the thirteenth century, many of which have been part of the canon of “Spanish medieval literature” since the creation of modern literary studies in the nineteenth century...