The best books that capture the paradoxes of medieval Spain

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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Hussein Fancy Why did I love 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.

By María Rosa Menocal,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Ornament of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A rich and thriving culture where literature, science and religious tolerance flourished for 700 years is the subject of this enthralling history of medieval Spain.

Living side by side in the Andalusian kingdoms, the 'peoples of the book' produced statesmen, poets and philosophers who influenced the rest of Europe in dramatic ways, giving it the first translations of Plato and Aristotle, love songs and secular poetry plus remarkable feats of architecture and technology. This evocative account explores the lost history whose legacy and lessons have a powerful resonance in today's world.


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

Hussein Fancy Why did I love 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.

By David Nirenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Communities of Violence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the wake of modern genocide, we tend to think of violence against minorities as a sign of intolerance, or, even worse, a prelude to extermination. Violence in the Middle Ages, however, functioned differently, according to David Nirenberg. In this provocative book, he focuses on specific attacks against minorities in fourteenth-century France and the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia). He argues that these attacks--ranging from massacres to verbal assaults against Jews, Muslims, lepers, and prostitutes--were often perpetrated not by irrational masses laboring under inherited ideologies and prejudices, but by groups that manipulated and reshaped the available discourses on…


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

Hussein Fancy Why did I love 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. 

By Peter Cole,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dream of the Poem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hebrew culture experienced a renewal in medieval Spain that produced what is arguably the most powerful body of Jewish poetry written since the Bible. Fusing elements of East and West, Arabic and Hebrew, and the particular and the universal, this verse embodies an extraordinary sensuality and intense faith that transcend the limits of language, place, and time. Peter Cole's translations reveal this remarkable poetic world to English readers in all of its richness, humor, grace, gravity, and wisdom. The Dream of the Poem traces the arc of the entire period, presenting some four hundred poems by fifty-four poets, and including…


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

Hussein Fancy Why did I love 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.

By Olivia Remie Constable (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medieval Iberia, Second Edition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For some historians, medieval Iberian society was one marked by peaceful coexistence and cross-cultural fertilization; others have sketched a harsher picture of Muslims and Christians engaged in an ongoing contest for political, religious, and economic advantage culminating in the fall of Muslim Granada and the expulsion of the Jews in the late fifteenth century. The reality that emerges in Medieval Iberia is more nuanced than either of these scenarios can comprehend. Now in an expanded, second edition, this monumental collection offers unparalleled access to the multicultural complexity of the lands that would become modern Portugal and Spain.
The documents collected…


Book cover of The Moor's Last Sigh

Hussein Fancy Why did I love 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.

By Salman Rushdie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Moor's Last Sigh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author of Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses combines a ferociously witty family saga with a surreally imagined and sometimes blasphemous chronicle of modern India and flavors the mixture with peppery soliloquies on art, ethnicity, religious fanaticism, and the terrifying power of love.

“Fierce, phantasmagorical … a huge, sprawling, exuberant novel.” —The New York Times

Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby, the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords, is also a compulsive storyteller and an exile. As he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he…


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