Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Somewhat Spainful

The Middle Ages arrived indolently late in Spain and ended up having to pull a bit of an all-nighter. The history of Al-Andalus played a significant role in this peculiar shift, yet a newcomer to the topic would only have been partially enlightened by Channel 4's When the Moors Ruled Europe last Saturday: an odd mix of well-researched, insightful TV history overlaid with a Jackanory narrative.

Presenter Bettany Hughes' recent quest for Helen of Troy was the target of a Sunday rant by Bryan Appleyard: "Television, in common with, if I am to be honest, the rest of the media, is currently making a huge mistake. This mistake is to think that, because large parts of the British population are demonstrably stupid, it is therefore safest to assume that everybody is stupid. This assumption leads genres such as TV history to pursue stupid people with the sort of devices stupid people seem to like. But, of course, stupid people are not going to watch a show on Helen of Troy or the second world war. As a result, non-stupid people are just irritated and baffled to find themselves being shown people getting on trains or blowing things up."

Here there was at least an attempt to try to cram two programmes into one - one for the dummies that enjoy the sense of cleverness they can get from the easy-revisionist approach and one for the sort of people that are comfortable with paradox, juxtaposition and unresolved contradiction. Hughes consistently qualified some of her more simplistic assertions, but hardly ever immediately after making them. She began with the Alhambra, Moorish Spain's signature site, and then shunted backwards and as a result the programme lacked shape and dragged a bit.

Anyway, the more interesting facts that cropped up were these: That the capture of Arab singing girls at Barbastro in 1064 by the father of William IX of Aquitaine, acknowledged as the first troubador, may indicate a major Islamic influence on the Western tradition of romantic love. And that the Duchess of Medina-Sidonia claims to have discovered that her original ancestor, Guzman el Bueno, a hero of the Reconquista was himself a Moor. (Though this one is likely to prove shaky.)

To some extent Hughes was attempting to do for the Moors what Peter Addyman did for the Vikings at Jorvik and what the British Museum is currently trying to do for the Persians - setting the record straight about a particular group who may or may not have had a bad historical press or simply been overlooked. But setting up a stereotype as a piñata to bash is a dangerous business. It's rather like starting your expositon with a premise such as "not all black men are muggers". Consequently the programme had to carefully avoid making any mention of Moorish behaviour that might have conformed to the original boiler plate. So the Caliphate "collapsed in chaos", an event more like a natural catastrophe than the result of the politics of a court that made Byzantium look comparatively genteel.

Spanish Muslims were slipped into a replacement template- "sensuous and intellectually curious"- just the sort of people you can imagine wandering around the proportionally perfect moonlit courtyards of the Alhambra - except that in truth they were a unruly lot that conducted their internal affairs with a mafioso mentality. The record reveals that an early and violent death was very much part of the job description for most of the Nasrid rulers in Granada.

Sometimes we were told that the population of Al Andalus consisted of Iberians that just happened to be Muslims, yet on other occasions they were referred to as Arab. Muslim, Moor and Arab were anyway used pretty interchangeably. Ferdinand and Isabella's eventual expulsion of the remaining practitioners of Islam was described as an "act of ethnic cleansing" yet no mention at all was made of the similarly-exiled Sefardi Jews whose own contribution to the cultural exchange and mini-Renaissance in Toledo was surely also important.

Back in 2003 I suggested that "Al-Andalus had an eclectic culture, not because a tolerant, reasonable, non-purist alternative is embedded in Islam (and waiting to be woken up again) but because medieval Spanish Muslims were sucked up by Aristotle and the Greek intellectual legacy."

Prior to this period the peoples of the Iberian peninsula had managed to maintain the cultural levels of the Roman empire for far long than any other region in the West. Yet as Hughes' points out, the Visigothic kingdom was already wobbly when the Moors ventured across the straights in the eighth century. Their ascendency provided a further opportunity to keep the classical world ticking over, not just culturally, but also economically, based on Mediterranean commerce.

But for better or for worse it was the emerging nations of Northern Europe that eventually won the battle for the legacy of the ancients, perhaps in part because they had appreciated far earlier that it was a legacy and because their civilisation was part of a new global model.

In that earlier blog post I concluded that "in the end the open society of Al-Andalus was not simply the victim of simple minded spear-wielding Latins from the north. It was squeezed to death from both sides, as much a victim of Almohad Quran-bashing righteousness before the Castillians were even within striking range."

The makers of this programme wanted to ensure that the Islamophobes amongst were forced to confront the fact that the history of Moorish Iberia demonstrates fairly conclusively that Muslims too can be culturally sophisticated and innovative , given half a chance. Yet in setting out this argument they unnecessarily belittled both Christian Spain and the West's later transcendence of classical achievement. If you offer one side the chance to step out of their monolithic block you really have to extend the favour to everyone else.

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