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. …