To Keep or Not to Keep? Weighing the Value of Using Convivencia in Iberia Studies

It cannot be denied that Medieval Iberia represents an incredible example of cultural and intellectual diversity that was unique in Europe and may lack a comparable example elsewhere in the world for the same length of time (711 – 1492CE). However, some historians have overemphasized the harmonious atmosphere between groups on the peninsula by characterizing their coexistence as convivencia – a word that can carry overly positive connotations and might gloss over important political, religious, economic and ethnic competitions between various groups throughout this period. In her text, The Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal upholds the positive image (if not the word) of convivencia in Iberia by examining cultural prosperity in the era of Islamic polities and beyond. Elsewhere, Menocal makes it clear that her invocation of the spirit of the term is polemical in helping to establish a counter-narrative to the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Other historians such as Richard Fletcher prefer to complicate convivencia as having less to do with harmonious coexistence and more to do with simply “living together” – something that was far from a “straightforward business” and may have carried with it an ever-looming possibility of violence.[1] Still others such as Alex Novikoff take the middle road between pedestalizing convivencia and villainizing interreligio-ethnic contests in Iberia, drawing on examples of either tolerance or intolerance. Olivia Remie Constable sees no such value in the term, nor its opposite (Reconquista) which both serve to polarize and thereby simplify our understanding of Iberian history. In contrast, the value of the term is reified by Thomas Glick, who sees its rescue as an opportunity for learning about the process of acculturation and what it says about cultural and social interactions between people in Iberia and our contemporary period. Its reification in spirit (if not name) is also a method used by Janina Safran in her study of identity and differentiation between Christians and Muslims in 9th Century al-Andalus. In my mind, Safran stands with David Nirenberg who seems to belong to the camp of those who advocate the abandonment of a term such as convivencia (and its opposites) because it can obfuscate the multi-layered complexities between identity groups that give rise to both positive and negative realities within one society. To borrow Nirenberg’s language, what is at stake in tallying a society’s “assets and liabilities” is the “commodification” of its historical experiences which usually have less to do with the actual history and more to do with the historian’s current moment.[2]

What is at stake in the term convivencia is whether or not Iberia was unique and if there is something for the historian to learn from its uniqueness with regards to our modern situation. In this paper, I will briefly examine the definition of convivencia from the scholars listed above in greater depth, illuminating the term’s contestation, modification or abandonment among them. In surveying the variant ways in which scholars have made use of the term convivencia, it becomes clear that it has taken on a multiplicity of meaning and layers of complexity that run counter to the idea of it as an oversimplified, reified concept. Ultimately, however, I will side with Menocal (with a few modifications) to show that until the public hegemonic myth that excludes al-Andalus from European history is adequately complicated by examples of Iberian convivencia, abandonment of this term as a historical commodifier runs the risk of historians reneging on a discursive ethical imperative. I will conclude by showing why, in both academic and non-academic circles, commodification or crystallization, is inevitable and thus, why that imperative matters.

In The Ornament of the World, Menocal does not use the word convivencia to refer to Medieval Iberia, a point about her work echoed again in Novikoff’s historiography of the term.[3] In fact, Menocal is clear that her examination of “cultural tolerance and symbiosis” which Europe inherited from al-Andalus is not meant to “replace all the older clichés [of Medieval intolerance and darkness] with another equally simplistic new one” – i.e. a tale of convivencia.[4] However, in reading her text, it becomes very clear that Menocal is not only interested in upholding al-Andalus as the center of multiple medieval golden ages and muffling differences, but that she is also willing to do so by distorting or dismissing the influence of other civilizations such as the Almoravids and the Almohads. Novikoff chalks this paradoxical approach up to the fact that Menocal has not defined what cultural tolerance is, nor is she interested in how it differs from either social or political forms of tolerance. Rather, what is at stake for Menocal is the mythologizing of al-Andalus’ incredible literary, social and artistic achievements by finding their origin in the attitudes of the Ummayads and their demise in the religious fanaticism of both Christians and Muslims.[5] I use the term mythologizing here because, in relation to other works by Menocal, it becomes clear she is employing a conscious program of rewriting history against other, more dominant histories. In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive [sic] societies.”[6] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[7] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as being “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[8] Since this paradigm shift is Menocal’s project, it makes sense that Ornament be read as the development of a counter-myth to hegemony, explaining why her work focuses more on positive outcomes of tolerant, co-existing cultures, rather than seeking to complicate images of that coexistence. This purposeful and selective retelling is in direct resistance to typical European narratives that not only black out everything between antiquity and the Renaissance, but also might view an Arab-centred historical reconstruction with the same disdain felt towards Darwinian evolution theories – that Europeans were “descended from apes.”[9]

Without invoking such pejorative imagery, multiple historians have complicated this view of coexistence, either declaring it inadequate, expanding its meaning to include positive and negative cultural interactions, or abandoning it completely in favour of some other historical lens. Constable claims, in the introduction to her Medieval Iberia Reader, that “the diversities of Iberian history cannot be fully explained by either harmonious convivencia or hostile Reconquista[10]– presumably using each term in its most typical form. Not only did elements of both exist, but each term also represents a mythologizing that, in its overuse, simplifies Iberian history. Her collection of primary source documents that follow are intended to show differences but also points of contact between varying groups.[11] The reader is meant to pass from source to source, drawing their own conclusions organically or in contrast to other historians’ secondary interpretations, and ultimately, what is meant to come through is that no such terms can capture all the different kinds of people, groups, affiliations and so forth that are found in these sources. While this may be true, the uniqueness of the situation in which these documents arose should not be neglected. Without some kind of coexistence, it is hard to imagine the need for texts like “The Pact of ‘Umar,” “The Treaty of Tudmir,” Abraham ibn Daud’s “Book of Tradition,” Samuel Ibn Naghrela’s “Battle of Alfuente” and many more. While there are many counter examples, these simply represent more extreme negotiations of coexistence at different times and in different contexts. A relativist might argue that no historical experience rises above another and, as such, Iberia is not a shining example above Europe and Islamic polities; however, in various documents throughout the text, not only is sharing and coexistence the principle put forth, it is the means by which those documents could even have arisen.

Novikoff’s somewhat tepid contribution to this discussion is simply to say that the academic community can find in Medieval Iberia instances of both tolerance and intolerance, making it a place and time of study that is fruitful for lessons drawn from the past.[12] The presumption is that historians are not just writing history for the sake of recording it, but rather to lend a better understanding to our present moment – something difficult to argue against. Richard Fletcher takes a rather different approach to our contemporary learning than both Menocal and Constable because of a different overall purpose, tackling the issue of convivencia head-on in his chapter of the same name. While he acknowledges the unique cultural and intellectual achievements of Iberian coexistence, using many of the sources we find in Constable’s reader, he is quick to point out that multi-religio-ethnic groups living together is, by no means, an anomaly and can be found elsewhere.[13] What is unique about Iberia is how long-lasting that coexistence was compared to other European examples.[14] And yet, Fletcher falls short of accounting for why it was so long-lasting, other than to say that outright slaughter of one another was not an option due to the economic value of keeping people alive. The implication is that convivencia was undertaken begrudgingly, out of necessity and not attitude, and that – citing the unfortunate tale of Ramon Llull and his slave as evidence – at any moment this fragile balance could be disrupted and made violent.[15] It is harder to know who Fletcher is talking to here, but his work can be taken two ways. Firstly, Fletcher’s characterization of convivencia could be taken as an example of the hard work that went into coexistence for these groups, including cultural and intellectual exchanges, rather than something to be taken for granted. In terms of the current moment, it would signify that such experiments require continuous effort to retain some semblance of cohesion, if not harmony. More skeptically, from the perspective of the hegemonic discourse to which Menocal spoke, such a compromise of the term might be a vindication of Euro-centric discourses, particularly those that amplify the Reconquista narratives of taking back the peninsula from untrustworthy Muslims and Jews who could turn on Christians at any time.

Glick straddles the middle ground between Menocal’s selective cohesive imagery and Fletcher’s more cynical look, while tackling the definitions and the use of the term convivencia directly. Rather than discard the term like Constable, he notes that convivencia has been used as a synonym for coexistence but also “carries connotations of mutual interpenetration and creative influence, even as it also embraces the phenomena of mutual friction, rivalry and suspicion.”[16] He is also careful to point out that even definitions of the term that carry these connotations assume a lot about different religio-ethnic groups, including the fact that people saw themselves as bound by those identities or bound to play the roles ascribed to them. This highlights the permeability of multiple social strata by different individuals, depending on which role was being played at any given time, including interactions structured along the lines of social class, as well.[17] The latter point, coupled with the fact that both Andalusian and Christian-dominated polities may have isolated minorities religiously or ethnically but not economically, added a different dimension of social tension.[18] What convivencia does for Glick is highlight the flexibility of identity depending on the circumstances, challenging the self-affirming image “of a sealed, pristine, pure and uncontaminated culture” that groups use in their discourse, with the realities of a mixed, everyday lived experience.

In “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations,” Nirenberg echoes Glick in examining what Iberia can teach us about the present moment, especially in light of multivalent, multidirectional understandings of identity. Nirenberg also offers a deeper level of understanding to modern conflicts between Muslims and Jews through the lens of coexistence in Iberia. Eyeing the myth of convivencia, without naming it so, Nirenberg explains how Jewish historians of the late 19th century had perpetuated writing about the age of Islamic tolerance, particularly juxtaposed against persecution from (re)conquering Christians and then modern Europeans. However, with the creation of the State of Israel, Muslim-Jewish relations have become much more central in collective consciousness than either of those two groups as they relate to Christians. As such, historians revisiting Medieval Iberia as a case study have sought to uphold the moniker of convivencia in reifying the Jewish Golden Age narrative, or have sought origins of Anti-Semitism among Arabs by examining darker periods of competition, polemics and persecution in Iberia. Nirenberg cuts through both narrative extremes by pointing out that Iberia was, in fact, unique, especially as it regards Jews, because they carried a historical memory of the “relative merits of life under Islam and under Christendom…[and represent] a precious example of a society in which Jews and Muslims were able to engage each other in open competition and conflict as they work out the terms of their own existence.”[19] Thus, Nirenberg does not, after all, outrightly dismiss the possibility of convivencia but seeks to find the factors that coalesced to make a picture of that coexistence less than rosy. Among his conclusions is the fact that Muslim-Jewish dialogue was always mediated by or through Christians, Christianity, Christendom and Christian representations of both groups. Historians relating to the modern period would do well to heed Nirenberg’s warning of forgetting the intruding “third voice” that permeate(s/d) Muslim-Jewish relations, and arguably, mutate(s/d) them.[20]

In “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth Century al-Andalus,” Janina Safran is also careful not to speak explicitly of convivencia, but instead, also shows how a nuanced view of coexistence, such as that espoused in Glick, results in a better understanding of the negotiations of identity for both Muslims and Christians as they dealt with the realities of that coexistence –including acculturation, interfaith marriage and conversion. The picture painted is less about impending violence (though is shown to have happened in Safran’s work, particularly as it relates to the martyrs of Cordoba) and more about the work that goes into living together and issues that arise as a result. Concerns about the corruption of the religion dominated discussions among Muslims, who found legal methods of protecting the religious orthodoxy while accommodating an influx of converts and, to a lesser extent, marriages to dhimmis. Safran’s work stands as a brilliant middle ground between Menocal and Fletcher – giving voice to the cultural-legal achievements of Medieval Islamic polities while showing that cohesion may have required hard work, but violence was not necessarily a given. For Nirenberg, violent competition was also not a determined consequence and it only arose in relation to the presence of a disenfranchised third party, the deposed Christians. For Safran, this might well have been true, but violence was not a given for less cynical reasons than Fletcher: people did not avoid slaughtering each other because it would have made poor economic sense to do so; they kept each other around because, after generations of sharing and intermixing, Muslims, Christians and Jews were not only sharing communities, languages, culture and economic status, but family units too. The work that went into convivencia, however complicated it was and, at times, contradictory to the implied meaning of the term, was undertaken as an attitude of relationality, an experiment (to use Fletcher’s term) which, for a long time, succeeded. Focusing on learning from those successes as they pertain to our modern situation is as admirable an endeavour as a historian can hope to undertake, though I recognize that this is not the raison d’etre of every historian.

The question that then follows is this: if it is possible to have all of these variations (positive and negative) coexist, so to speak, under the banner of convivencia, then why abandon it as Constable has recommended? What is gained in such secondary analyses which do abandon it, like that of Safran and Nirenberg? It might be said that within highly elite historical discourse, the abandonment of the term convivencia with its rosy implications may allow for the brilliant nuanced arguments we see in Safran and Nirenberg, and which are allowed to arise organically from Constable’s assemblage of primary sources. There is no prescribed conclusion from which to start and, as such, an examination of coexistence in Iberia can include everything rosy and not-so-rosy. As an intradisciplinary conversation, this is perfectly acceptable. However, history is not only the task of academics, nor is its relevance only found in scholarly circles and so we must also ask what is lost in the abandonment of convivencia. Arguably, the work done in the agreements, disagreements and amendments by academics contributes to an overall, collective narrative that then trickles down or is forcefully brought to the level of civil policy, education curriculums (including introductory programs at public universities) and other public avenues. The histories told there will invariably do violence to the meticulous work of the historian by virtue of their crystallization (or as Nirenberg terms it, “commodification”).[21] In other words, these crystallizations will serve political purposes for those who employ them and this will almost always lead to manipulation and oppression, as univocal histories cannot help but do, however intentional. Thus, the role of the historian is not only intradisciplinary but can also be extradisciplinary. A translation of academic discourse must take place to compete in the public educational arena where political discourse and power resulting from certain uses of history dominate. As such, I return to Menocal and her project of using convivencia to tell the main narrative of Medieval Iberia, focusing on cultural and intellectual flourishing, as a counter-point to hegemonic narratives that continue to trace the Renaissance in a straight line from Antiquity to the modern era with no Iberian pit-stops in between. However imperfect her conclusions may appear within Iberian academic discourse and however much farther she had to push them (particularly in terms of including the Almohads as part of the intellectual inheritance of Europe), her preliminary stance offers a delightful muddying of illusions of “pure” cultural achievements of transcendental value[22] that arise from within any discipline’s particular ideological rootedness.[23] Convivencia opens a door to Iberian studies and the development of an understanding of intellectual heredity that hegemonic narratives do not even recognize exists. Its relevance to challenging and breaking down the current myths by which powerful political forces dichotomize the East and West and engage in ever violent activity is too salient to ignore, and for historians who recognize history as the weapon that it is, (for either hegemony or resistance) it ought not to be ignored.


Constable, Olivia Remie, ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992)

Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992)

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002)

Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p249-87.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002)

Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Encounters. 11.1-2 (2005).

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. (1992) p 135.

[2] Nirenberg, David. “What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us About Muslim-Jewish Relations?” CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly (Summer, 2002) p 19.

[3] Novikoff, Alex. “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Spain: An Historiographic Enigma,” Medieval Enocunters. 11.1-2 (2005) p 7-8.

[4] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. (2002) p 13.

[5] Novikoff, p 9.

[6] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[7] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[8] Ibid, p 257.

[9] Ibid, p 251.

[10] Constable, Olivia Remie. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, (2012)p xxix.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Novikoff, p 36.

[13] Fletcher, p 134-5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p 155-6.

[16] Glick, Thomas, “Convivencia: An Introductory Note” in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, Mann, Glick, and Dodds, eds. George Braziller Publishing: New York (1992) p 1.

[17] Ibid, p 4.

[18] Ibid

[19] Nirenberg, p 20.

[20] Ibid, p 22.

[21] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Use and Abuse of History. Cosimo Printing: New York. 2005.

[22] Menocal, “The Myth” p 267.

[23] Ibid. p 266.


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