Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher

In Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher achieves a significant feat. In one short book, he not only recounts the bones of nearly a millennium of history, but also offers much that contributes to our understanding of the social context, both of the chosen era in particular and of history in general.

Moorish Spain does not aspire to academic excellence. Richard Fletcher’s stated goal is to provide a more complete and accurate account of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula than the superficial accounts offered in travel books. It also aspires to a more accurate treatment of the subject than the romanticized position of the travelers of the 19th century, stories that served to create and later perpetuate the myth.

And primordial in this myth is the received opinion that in the Moorish al-Andalus everything social was both sweetness and light and pure harmony. Not so, says Fletcher, as he narrates power struggles, intrigues and repeated conflicts. It describes the different interests that ensured that conflict, both on a small and local scale or on a large scale and spread across a broader front, was never very far away. When the competing parties felt that all could benefit from interaction and trade, it was, he suggests, largely pragmatism that kept the peace.

Its history begins at the beginning of the 8th century when the first invasion of what we now call Spain arrived from Morocco. It ends with the expulsion of the Mozarabs in the 16th century. In the middle, in a fairly short and accessible book, he illustrates how shifting alliances and the opportunity for short-term gains mix with broader visions and humanitarian concerns to present a mosaic of history. And this mosaic is characterized, above all, by our inability to generalize. At all times, the particular is the important thing.

Rather, it presents a series of generalized descriptions and illustrates how none of them is more than partially correct. In a short but revealing final chapter, he offers a generalization of his own to illustrate how dominant contemporary ideas can filter the story to enhance his own credibility. Tellingly, it also reminds us how much of the narrated story relates only to the recorded opinions and lives of a wealthy, sometimes educated elite. How many details of life in the twentieth century America could be obtained in half a millennium if the only source were a telephone survey of Hollywood celebrities?

Thus, Richard Fletcher’s book transcends its own theme. It presents a rounded and carefully reconstructed image of a vast swath of history. In such a short story, of course, you can only present a relatively small amount of detail, but what there is goes far beyond what the average reader might discover in a cursory tourist guide. The style is easy but never daring and the content has a sense of trustworthiness that suggests a second visit would be worth it.

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