Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ornament of the World

Spain doesn't figure much in tales of the Vikings. In The Viking Age: A Reader, which I wrote about in an earlier post (here), you can see why. As one medieval chronicler explains, the Vikings, whom the Moors called "Madjus," "arrived in about 80 ships. One might say they had, as it were, filled the ocean with dark red birds, in the same way as they had filled the hearts of men with fear and trembling. After landing at Lisbon, they sailed to Cadiz, then to Sidona, then to Seville. They besieged this city, and took it by storm…" But their success didn't last.

"When war engines were used against them, and reinforcements had arrived from Cordoba, Madjus [the Vikings] were put to flight. They [the Moors] killed about 500 of their men, and took four of their ships with all their cargoes. Ibn-Wazim had these burnt, after selling all that was found in them. Then they [Madjus] were defeated at Talyata on the 25 Safar of this year [11 Nov 844]. Many were killed, others hanged at Seville, others hanged in the palm trees of Talyata, and 30 of their ships were burnt. Those who escaped from the bloodshed embarked. … and were no more heard of."

It's not surprising the Moors repulsed the Vikings so efficiently, for the Muslim caliphate of al-Andalus was the most technologically advanced civilization in Europe at the time. Arabic numerals, the efficient 1-2-3 that replaced the clumsy i-ii-iii, came to the West from Baghdad through al-Andalus during the Viking Age, along with many other advances in mathematics, astronomy, agriculture--even paper-making.

I learned this when writing The Abacus and the Cross, my biography of the pope who reigned when Iceland was converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Pope Sylvester II may even have corresponded with King Olaf Tryggvason, who is credited with christianizing Norway; early historians write of a letter (now lost) in which the pope told the king to quit using runes.

Born Gerbert of Aurillac in about 950, Pope Sylvester II studied mathematics and astronomy near Christian Barcelona from 967-970. (I think of them as his college years.) He learned about Arabic numerals and used them to create a new kind of abacus, or counting board, with which he later taught arithmetic in the cathedral school at Reims, France.

Curious to know more about what Spain was like when young Gerbert arrived, I turned to a book by Maria Menocal of Yale University: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown 2002). Inspired by what I read, I contacted Menocal and requested an interview. She was then in Spain—I wish I had joined her! Instead, I waited until she returned to Yale University and met her there in January of 2008. I attended a lecture she presented and accompanied her and her graduate students to dinner; the next morning I interviewed her about her work.

A year ago, Maria Menocal died of melanoma []. Remembering her insight and her generosity, I want to share a bit of what she taught me about al-Andalus.

 “Cordoba, by the beginning of the tenth century, was an astonishing place, and descriptions by both contemporaries and later historians suffer from the burden of cataloguing the wonders,” she wrote in The Ornament of the World. It was nearly half as big as Baghdad, the largest city of its day. It held hundreds—maybe thousands—of mosques. Running water from aqueducts supplied nine hundred public baths. The goldfish in the palace ponds ate 12,000 loaves of bread. The paved streets were lit all night. The postal service used carrier pigeons. The munitions factory made 20,000 arrows a month. The market held tens of thousands of shops, including bookshops: Seventy scribes worked exclusively on producing Qurans. The Royal Library in Cordoba, just west of the Great Mosque, was said to contain 400,000 books in 976. (By comparison the greatest Christian library of the time, at Bobbio, Italy, held 690 books.)

Menocal took the title of her book from a poem by the nun Hrosvit of Gandersheim, who met an ambassador from Cordoba in 955 at the German court of Otto the Great. “The brilliant ornament of the world shone in the west,” Hrosvit wrote. “Cordoba was its name and it was wealthy and famous and known for its pleasures and resplendent in all things, and especially for its seven streams of wisdom.”

Significantly, only about 50 percent of Cordoba’s 100,000 residents were Muslim. Among the caliph’s viziers, or advisors, was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was Jewish, and Bishop Racemundo (the ambassador Hrosvit met), who was Christian. The Quran teaches that, since Moses and Jesus had both been given books by God, Jews and Christians were fellow “Peoples of the Book,” and thus to be tolerated. In al-Andalus, Menocal explained, they “were dealt with under the special terms of a dhimma, a ‘pact’ or ‘covenant’ between the ruling Muslims and the other book communities living in their territories.” They were not forced to convert, but could practice their religions—as long as they did so quietly and didn’t proselytize. Other than having to pay taxes—which Muslims did not—they were not excluded from the city’s social or economic life. They could, and did, fight in the army. Depending on the ruler’s interpretation of the law, they could advance to the highest political posts, as Hasdai and Racemundo did.

Lecturing on her work in the faux-Gothic humanities center at Yale University, Menocal marveled at the fact that medieval Spain has suddenly become relevant. “We now inhabit a previously inconceivable universe, a universe in which the study of the history of medieval Spain can shed light on modern political problems. What does al-Andalus mean? It’s either about 'conviviencia' or 'reconquista,' either about how the three Abrahamic religions could coexist or how they could not.”

“The issue that’s interesting in this period,” Menocal told me the next morning, as she bustled about her office grabbing up papers to take to a departmental meeting, “is how one carves out the wherewithal to have the coexistence of three monotheistic religions that are by definition intolerant.

“Islam arises under conditions where they’re a priori already dealing with these two other monotheistic religions,” she continued. “Medina had a huge population of Jews. For whatever reasons—and they are real political reasons—Islam created the dhimma. I think it does translate into something we could call tolerance. It’s discriminatory, but pretty good, especially in comparison with the other possibilities.

“In Spain it was applied generously, and it provided the basis for much more complex forms of cultural interaction.” Arabic was the lingua franca, not just the language of religion. “To Christians, it was fascinating and very attractive to have this language that was flexible enough to write erotic poetry with and to speak to God with. There’s this whole unimaginable universe that being Arabophone gave you access to: poetry, all the scientific translations coming from Baghdad…”

Or, as she wrote in The Ornament of the World, “This was the chapter of Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance.” In al-Andalus, “men of unshakable faith saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.”

It was a powerful combination and produced a civilization to whom an attack of the Vikings was like the descent of a flock of red birds--a flock easily chased away.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. To know more about Chief Dr Lucky you can visit his website (
     A friend that suffered from Herpes and was cure with the help of this great herbal doctor Chief Lucky so i decided to contact him for help in getting rid of my families genital herpes virus 1/2 which i did and all i was told to provide was just some useful information and some materials used in preparation of the natural cure and that i did and now i am the happiest person on earth because i am writing this testimony of mine with joy and happiness in my heart to the whole world to know that natural remedy is real because i am a living testimony of Chief Lucky traditional herbal cure and i want you all to contact Chief Lucky via his email: or WhatsApp him +2348132777335 am sure he will help you too.