A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment

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9780743243599: A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment

In a world troubled by religious strife and division, Chris Lowney's vividly written new book offers a hopeful historical reminder: Muslims, Christians, and Jews once lived together in Spain, creating a centuries-long flowering of commerce, culture, art, and architecture. Written with a narrative drive reminiscent of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, this new work takes us back to a medieval Iberia that prefigured the Renaissance.
In 711, a ragtag army of Muslim North Africans conquered Christian Spain and launched Western Europe's first (and to date only) Islamic state. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella vanquished Spain's last Muslim kingdom, forced Jews to convert or emigrate, and dispatched Christopher Columbus to the New World. In the years between, Spain's Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a golden age for each faith and distanced Spain from a Europe mired in the Dark Ages.
Medieval Spain's pioneering innovations touched every dimension of Western life: Spaniards introduced Europeans to paper manufacture and to the Hindu-Arabic numerals that supplanted the Roman numeral system. Spanish scholars translated what stood for centuries as Europe's standard medical handbook. Spain's farmers adopted irrigation technology from the Near East to nurture Europe's first crops of citrus and cotton. Spanish artisans graced luxurious homes with the fountains, gardens, and decorative tile that remain hallmarks of southern Spain's distinctive decor. Spain's religious scholars authored works that still profoundly influence their respective faiths, from the masterpiece of the Jewish kabbalah to the meditations of Sufism's "greatest master" to the eloquent arguments of Maimonides that humans can successfully marry religious faith and reasoned philosophical inquiry. No less astonishing than medieval Spain's wide-ranging accomplishments was the simple fact its Muslims, Christians, and Jews often managed to live and work side by side, bestowing tolerance and freedom of worship on the religious minorities in their midst.
A Vanished World chronicles this impossibly panoramic sweep of human history and achievement, encompassing both the agony of jihad, Crusades, and Inquisition, and the glory of a multireligious, multicultural civilization that forever changed the West. One gnarled root of today's religious animosities stretches back to medieval Spain, but so does a more nourishing root of much modern religious wisdom. In a world torn by religious antagonism, Chris Lowney offers enduring lessons learned from medieval Spanish villages where Muslims, Christians, and Jews rubbed shoulders on a daily basis.

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About the Author:

Chris Lowney is the author of Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World, the acclaimed history chronicling the transformation of sixteenth-century Jesuits into their era’s most successful “company.” A former Jesuit, Lowney holds degrees in medieval history and philosophy. He later joined J.P. Morgan & Co., serving as a managing director and management committee member in Tokoyo, Singapore, London, and New York. Visit his website at ChrisLowney.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: Spain Before Islam

Imagine a world in which one person could know everything worth knowing. And imagine a world in which everything worth knowing filled a mere few hundred pages. Archbishop Isidore of Seville was such a person, and seventh-century Europe such a world.

Lest Isidore be accused of vanity unbecoming an archbishop, he himself never claimed to be the Man Who Knew Everything. Rather, it was his friend Bishop Braulio of Saragossa who gushed that Isidore's seventh-century encyclopedia comprised "well-nigh everything that ought to be known." Unfortunately, few of Isidore's contemporaries perused that encyclopedia. There were few Europeans to begin with, only a minute fraction of them literate, and books were rare treasures.

Today's Spain enjoys a population of some 40 million. Isidore's Spain was a far lonelier place, with perhaps only a tenth as many people; imagine Utah's sparse population scattered across an expanse twice as large. The written word was an impenetrable mystery to the overwhelming majority of these 4 or 5 million Spaniards. Organized education was nonexistent, save for a few monastic or cathedral schools that labored to equip clerics with the rudimentary skills required for church rituals.

Though Spain's (and Europe's) literate population was tiny, the medieval "publishing industry" struggled to service its few readers. A modern printing press effortlessly churns out many thousands of volumes each day; a medieval scribe would be lucky to turn out two in a year. That was after he and his monastic brethren invested sweaty hours of soaking animal hide, scraping away fat, and stretching, curing, and drying the skin to produce serviceable vellum parchment. No wonder the few texts emerging from this labor-intensive process became precious items. Whereas bibliophiles today might scoop up a handful of used books for the cost of a hamburger, a ninth-century manuscript would have cost the equivalent of "fifteen pigs or four mature sheep."

Spain's illiterate majority was deprived of Isidore's intellectual cornucopia, but they also were spared the depressing realization that they lived in a Dark Age. Perspective was hard to come by in an era when most Europeans knew little of the world beyond the next village and little of the past save what their parents recalled. No Spaniard knew that he lived in a country of some 4 or 5 million people, much less that Spain had sheltered many more before devastating plagues ravaged much of Europe's population. The plummeting population had plunged Spain's (and Europe's) economy into a depression that was exacerbated when barbarian hordes breached the Roman Empire's borders, disrupted trade, and strained the empire's resources to the breaking point.

What was unknown to Spaniards made little practical difference to their daily lives. Peasants scratched out meager livelihoods; surviving the next winter was their major preoccupation. Their horizons were bound by their village and its environs, just as it had been for parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Surviving to a first birthday was no mean feat, and celebrating a fortieth a better than average achievement. The outside world seldom visited them, and they seldom visited the outside world. For all they knew, the world was proceeding as the world always had.

Through the curse of literacy, Bishop Braulio knew better. The few books in his library made reference to classical scholars who had blazed a more enlightened path forward for humanity's earlier generations. But while Braulio knew names like Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy, he also knew that most of their works had long since vanished from circulation, presumably lost forever. Nor had Braulio's century spawned intellectual lights to replace those of ancient Greece and Rome. Most civilizations harbor at least the illusion of progress, that humanity is somehow struggling forward under their generation's collective watch. Braulio was permitted no such illusion, and Isidore became for him a beacon from humanity's happier past: "God raised [Isidore] up in recent times after the many reverses of Spain (I suppose to revive the works of the ancients that we might not always grow duller from boorish rusticity)...we apply to him the famous words of [Cicero] 'While we were strangers in our own city, and were, so to speak, sojourners who had lost our way, your books brought us home, as it were, so that we could at last recognize who and where we were.'"

Ironically, this Isidore who outlined "everything that ought to be known" revealed relatively little about himself. He was born in 560. His parents died young. He had two brothers who both became priests and rose to the rank of bishop. It's difficult to imagine any one family duplicating this episcopal achievement today, but such feats were less astounding in the cozier confines of medieval Spain, where relatively few well-connected, well-endowed, and literate families surfaced regularly in influential church or state positions.

It is generally assumed that Isidore was raised in monastery precincts overseen by his much older brother, Bishop Leander. One might imagine a lonely childhood spent mostly in the company of monks and the precious texts they copied and preserved. The scholarly environment clearly absorbed Isidore, who eventually authored over a dozen major treatises on everything from arithmetic to Holy Scripture to monastic rules. In between sentences he somehow found time to cope with the countless administrative headaches that inevitably plague a bishop.

The encyclopedic work known as the Etymologies was one pinnacle of his scholarly career. Braulio's compliment that it includes "everything that ought to be known" seems at first glance no exaggeration. Isidore's chapter headings map out a comprehensive catalogue of human knowledge: "size of the sun, size of the moon, acute diseases, legal instruments, the seasons, Old and New Testaments, God, monsters, human monstrosities, serpents, worms, small flying creatures, shields, helmets, the circus, gambling, peculiar costumes of certain peoples, head ornaments for women, girdles, footwear, cooking utensils," and so on. Isidore telescoped this encyclopedic gallop through human learning into a relatively slender volume. Centuries before, Greek and Roman attempts at encyclopedias had yielded far bulkier tomes. Pliny the Elder's first-century encyclopedia sprawled to some 2,500 chapters. But Isidore lived in an age when, sad to say, the pool of human knowledge was slowly evaporating. Simply put, humanity knew less than it had six centuries earlier, in Pliny's day.

Scientific method was many centuries in the future, and Isidore did little more than absorb the sources at his fingertips and regurgitate what struck him as plausible. Early in the work, Isidore shares the relatively humdrum observation, "An even number is that which can be divided into two equal parts, as II, IV, VIII." Within a few pages, however, he has departed math's timeless certainties for a fantastic tour of human monstrosities:

The Cynocephali are so called because they have dogs' heads and their very barking betrays them as beasts rather than men. These are born in India...The Blemmyes, born in Libya, are believed to be headless trunks, having mouth and eyes in the breast; others are born without necks, with eyes in their shoulders...They say the Panotii in Scythia have ears of so large a size that they cover the whole body with them...The race of the Sciopodes...have one leg apiece, and are of a marvelous swiftness...in summertime they lie on the ground on their backs and are shaded by the greatness of their feet...The Antipodes in Libya have feet turned backward and eight toes on each foot.

Seville's conscientious shepherd, apparently fretting that this freakish catalogue will render his readers susceptible to believing all sorts of nonsense, closes the chapter by warning against gullibility: "Other fabulous monstrosities of the human race are said to exist, but they do not; they are imaginary."

Isidore and his contemporaries may not have known as much as the Romans and Greeks before them, but what they thought they knew was marvelous. Long before the scientific revolution's rational dissection of natural phenomena turned textbooks into soporific tomes, here was a world of wonders great and small. Isidore's encyclopedia sang of a blazing sun racing across the skies each day, and "after it comes to the west and has bathed itself in ocean, it passes by unknown ways beneath the earth, and again returns to the east." No less entrancing is the lowly bee, "skillful in the business of producing honey...they flee from smoke, and are enraged by noise...A good many have proved by experiment that these spring from the carcasses of cattle."

Still, before dismissing what passed for seventh-century knowledge, one pauses to wonder how well current wisdom will stand up over an equivalent interim. Today's cutting-edge science and technology may by 3400 C.E. seem no less buffoonish than some of Isidore's assertions appear. How will that glorious artifact of twentieth-century technology, the gas-powered automobile, strike Earth's citizens fourteen centuries hence as they tool around in whatever contraptions they've engineered to navigate a planet long since sucked dry of fossil fuels? Indeed, who even one century from now will consult an encyclopedia assembled in 2004? Who today can even find an encyclopedia composed in 1904?

Unlike 1904 encyclopedias, Isidore's Etymologies was consulted a century after its composition, and two centuries later, and eight more centuries later still. No less than ten editions of the Etymologies were published after the 1400s, a striking compliment to this beacon of light shining forth from the Dark Ages. Across a full two-century sweep of the intellectually barren early Middle Ages, Isidore stood alone as western Europe's only major compiler of secular knowledge. When contemporaries eulogized him as saeculorum doctissimus ("the most learned of the ages"), it was not sentimental puffery; there were few other candidates.

Isidore would have been greatly surprised to find scholars consulting his works in the 1500s, as he almost certainly doubted the world would last so long. In the late 500s, Pope Gregory the Great had taken stock of humankind's bleak prospects and solemnly moaned, "The world grows old and hoary and hastens to approaching death." There's every indication Isidore shared His Holiness's outlook. Like many Christian apologists before him, Isidore envisioned history unfolding according to a divinely ordained design. Starting with creation's seven days and continuing with venerably vital Adam, who sired a son at age 230, Isidore charted history's path with striking precision. As he wrote in the 630s, Isidore calculated the world's exact age to be 5,825 years. He dots humanity's time line with a curiously chosen panoply of the famous and infamous: Homer was at work during the world's 4,125th year, Plato in its 4,793rd; Cleopatra (5,150) and Nero (5,266) also merit mention. (In fact, only eight centuries separate Homer [c. eighth century B.C.E.] from Nero [d. 68 C.E.], not the thousand-plus years Isidore supposed. Thus, Isidore overestimated the glorious era of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while shrinking the thousands of years of pre-Homeric civilization into a scant four millennia.)

Vastly more important than this mere tally of years was history's underlying pattern. Though Isidore frequently parroted the few classical works at his disposal, his vision of history notably departs from those pagan sources. Aristotle had noted the planets' ever repeating orbits and ventured in oddly matter-of-fact language the extraordinarily depressing conjecture that "probably each art and science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished." Round and round. Going nowhere.

Isidore demurred, instead hearkening to the fifth-century Christian bishop Augustine, who saw history unfurling purposefully through time toward the goal of creating a City of God on Earth. God had initiated human history by breathing life into Adam's nostrils in Eden; Adam had fallen, but humankind was inexorably making its way back to the Creator. Mighty Rome and all other earthly kingdoms would yield in time to a greater empire dominated by the Christian virtues, "whose king is truth, whose law is love, whose measure is eternity." As Augustine saw it, this Divine City of those following God's will was steadily gaining ground and would win increasing sway over humankind in preparation for that moment when Jesus would return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Like his mentor Augustine, Isidore imagined the drama of human history unfolding in seven great epochs paralleling the biblical days during which God had created all earthly things. As Isidore wrote, the world was deep into what he considered its sixth and (ominously) final age before the figurative seventh or Sabbath day, when the redeemed would rest in God. This sixth age had begun with Jesus's nativity in 5211 and had already stretched far longer than humanity's fourth or fifth eras. Indeed, only the age of long-lived Adam and the other biblical greats had endured longer than a millennium. Still, if Isidore was preparing his readers for the approaching climax of this old and hoary world, even the Man Who Knew Everything didn't dare pinpoint the precise date of the Lord's long-anticipated second coming, for, he tells us, "The remainder of the sixth age is known to God alone."

Although Isidore did not know when the world might end, he was pretty sure that his beloved Spain would be center stage, ruled over since the late fifth century by a dynasty of one-time barbarians known as the Visigoths. To his credit, Isidore admirably restrains himself from excessively fawning over his native country in his Etymologies -- encyclopedias are objective, after all -- but he more than compensates in another work, the History of the Kings of the Goths. Its very first sentence rushes right to the chauvinistic point: "Of all the lands from the west to the Indies, you, Spain, O sacred and always fortunate mother of princes and peoples, are the most beautiful...You are the pride and the ornament of the world, the most illustrious part of the earth...you are rich with olives...your mountains full of trees, and your shores full of fish."

Much of Isidore's History of the Goths seems an exercise in what modern generations would call spin doctoring. The Visigoths had become protectors and supporters of Spain's Christian Church by Isidore's day, and Isidore thought it in the Church's interest to support the Visigoths by burnishing their reputation. This was no easy task, even for the Man Who Knew Everything. For the Visigoths were not really Spaniards, nor, when first reaching Spain during the early fifth century, had they professed the Church's version of Christianity, nor, finally, had Spain prospered on their royal watch. Bishop Braulio had wistfully lamented Spain's "many reverses" over preceding centuries. It fell to Isidore to convince readers that the same Visigoth rulers who had presided over those "many reverses" were worthy of "the most illustrious part" of a world now deep into its decisive sixth age.

That the Visigoths were themselves immigrants hardly made them oddities in Spain's ethnic paella pot. African Iberians and northern European Celts had been filtering into Spain for centuries before Christ's birth. Jews from the Near East may have established small trading communities as early as the first century C.E. The Peninsula remained a polyglot amalgamation of ethnic fiefdoms ...

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