The best books that capture the paradoxes of medieval Spain

Hussein Fancy Author Of The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon
By Hussein Fancy

Who am I?

Hussein Fancy is a Professor of History at Yale University where he teaches medieval history with a particular focus on medieval Spain and North Africa. His research, writing, and teaching focus on the entwined histories of not only Jews, Christians, and Muslims but also Latin and Arabic in the Middle Ages. He has traveled and lived extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.


I wrote...

The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

By Hussein Fancy,

Book cover of The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

What is my book about?

A multiple award-winning book, The Mercenary Mediterranean tells the history of a motley group of Muslim soldiers from North Africa who joined the armies and became the personal protectors of the Christian kings of the Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages. Grounded in extensive research in Latin, Arabic, and Spanish archival documents, Hussein Fancy unravels the complex dynamics of the relationship between these foreign Muslim soldiers and Christian kings. In doing so, he challenges our understanding of not only the distant past but also the present. 

The books I picked & why

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The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

By María Rosa Menocal,

Book cover of The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

Why this book?

If there’s only one that I could recommend, it’s this brilliant, beautiful, and vexing book by María Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor at Yale University. In a compelling and artful manner, Menocal tells the story of medieval Spain from the arrival of the first Umayyad rulers to Cervantes. Beyond being a useful introduction to the fascinating history, Menocal makes the argument that a culture of tolerance existed in medieval Spain, one that transcended religious and ethnic differences. The principal engine of this culture, she suggests, was the Arabic language. Menocal’s book has received as much praise as criticism, a testament to its enduring power and the contentious quality of medieval Spain.


Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

By David Nirenberg,

Book cover of Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

Why this book?

This is a scholarly book, beautifully written but challenging both in its exposition and argument. Grounded in deep archival research, Nirenberg examines violence against religious minorities—Jews and Muslims—in the lands of the Christian Crown of Aragon in northeastern Spain and southern France. Navigating between rose-tinted and bleak accounts of this past, he makes the surprising argument that the long coexistence between Jews, Christians, and Muslims depended on regular and almost ritualistic violence between them. Violence, he proposes, enabled peace.


The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

By Peter Cole,

Book cover of The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

Why this book?

Among the wonders of medieval Spain is the appearance of the first Hebrew secular poetry since Biblical times. In this masterful and unparalleled set of translations by Peter Cole, we witness the profound, pious, chauvinistic, and indeed, sensual traditions of secular poetry over centuries. A fusion of Arabic and Hebrew traditions, in and of themselves, these poems stand as a metaphor for the Jewish community itself as well as its dynamism and endurance under Muslim and then, Christian rule. 


Medieval Iberia, Second Edition: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources

By Olivia Remie Constable (editor),

Book cover of Medieval Iberia, Second Edition: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources

Why this book?

I have used this collection of translated primary sources for over a decade to teach students. It covers the whole period of medieval Spain, from the arrival of Muslim conquerors in 711 to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and allows one to confront for themselves the paradoxes of coexistence, collaboration, and violence that characterized this place and period. A thoughtful introduction precedes each document.


The Moor's Last Sigh

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of The Moor's Last Sigh

Why this book?

The paradoxes of medieval Spain have not only inspired scholars but also novelists. However different their methods, both share the desire to understand the present through the distant past. I read The Moor’s Last Sigh as an undergraduate, long before I had any idea that I wanted to become a historian. Rushdie’s novel is a family saga that traces a path backward from modern India to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of medieval Spain. It’s a rambling and phantasmagorical tale that meditates on a lost world, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims shared the same time and place.


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Interested in Spain, the Middle Ages, and Muslims?

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