Since Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden's cryptic reference to al- Andalus, Spanish historians have discussed the relevance of medieval Spanish history to the modern world. These discussions unfortunately have been limited to the halls of academia. In "A Vanished World," Chris Lowney successfully brings the story of medieval Spain to a wider audience and draws out of this rich history important lessons for the post-9/11 world.
Although he covers familiar ground, Lowney has arranged the material in an innovative way. Each chapter begins with a short vignette of an important figure, idea, or event. He then adroitly weaves these vignettes throughout the text, making for a coherent and exciting history.
For example, Lowney engages the reader with dramatic anecdotes, like that of Eulogius, the martyr activist, who was beheaded for denouncing Islam and harboring a Muslim apostate in 859. This incident anchors a lively chapter on the flowering of Islamic civilization in Cordoba and the violent reaction of some Cordoban Christians to this situation. Essentially, Eulogius and other activists sought martyrdom to awaken the conscience of their fellow Christians who were increasingly drawn to the dominant Islamic culture. Lowney correctly notes that a reverse situation exists today in parts of the Muslim world.
He also introduces the main intellectual developments (algebra, medicine, philosophy) in medieval Spain and their influence on Western thought through delightful sketches of Pope Sylvester II, Maimonides, Averroes, and others. Such vignettes are effective entryways into the complexities of medieval Iberia, and they help make the material more accessible to nonspecialists than would a traditional chronological approach.
For some readers, this approach might make it harder to discern change over time and to ascertain the processes whereby religious animosity waxed and waned. Still, Lowney gives a solid overview of medieval Spain, covering all the major themes from the Muslim conquest (711) to the Christian reconquest of Granada (1492). Readers interested in learning more about medieval Spain can consult the excellent endnotes for primary sources in translation and the up- to-date bibliography for secondary sources in English.
Lowney's goal, however, is not only to provide an accessible history. He believes that this history has something to teach us today. And, where academic historians tread lightly, Lowney proceeds with gusto. …