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

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  1,800 ratings  ·  234 reviews
Undoing the familiar notion of the Middle Ages as a period of religious persecution and intellectual stagnation, María Menocal now brings us a portrait of a medieval culture where literature, science, and tolerance flourished for 500 years.The story begins as a young prince in exilethe last heir to an Islamic dynastyfounds a new kingdom on the Iberian peninsula: al-Andalus ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published April 2nd 2003 by Back Bay Books (first published May 2nd 2002)
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3.92  · 
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 ·  1,800 ratings  ·  234 reviews

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Mar 31, 2013 rated it liked it

This book is all about fragmentation. Fragmented are the arguments, fragmented are the contents, fragmented was the society Menocal strives to explore, and fragmented was also the tolerance that the author believes existed in Medieval Spain.

Fragmented remains then my Like/Dislike of the book.

It does not help that in this mosaic of unequal elements the glue that is supposed to bind them together, Menocal’s language, did not seem to coalesce her pieces. Reading her prose, although it is very clea
.”The ornament of the world” is the famous description of Cordoba given to her readers by the tenth-century Saxon writer Hroswitha, who from her far-off convent at Gandersheim perceived the exceptional qualities and the centrality of the Cordoban caliphate.

María Rosa Menocal (1953-2012)

Cuban-born scholar of medieval culture and history and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University … degrees from the University of Pennsylvania ... taught Romance philology at the University of Pennsylva
Sep 15, 2008 rated it liked it
First, some words of warning: do not approach this particular book as a historical documentation of a period, lest you be very frustrated within a few chapters. The Decline and Fall: The Moorish Way this is not. While Menocal does provide an outline of the events, rulers, and major actors of the era in the first chapter, it is nothing more than a quick sketch, intended to explain the backdrop of what she really wishes to talk about. Elsewhere, the historical information is presented in a very sh ...more
Roy Lotz
Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twis
Dan Porter
Mar 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: middle-ages
"The fact that Ferdinand and Isabella did not choose the path of tolerance is seen as an example of the intractability and inevitability of intolerance, especially in the premodern era. But their actions may be far better understood as the failure to make the more difficult decision, to have the courage to cultivate a society that can live with its own flagrant contradictions. They chose instead to go down the modern path, the one defined by an ethic of unity and harmony, and which is largely in ...more
Dec 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: readers of European history
I have to say this book has awoken a thirst to learn much more Medieval history of Spain and Europe as a whole.

I enjoyed this book so much because of the history it provides and how it piqued my interest in learning more about Medieval times in Al-Andalus, Spain, as well as the rest of Europe and Middle East, the development of vernacular languages and developing literature via such authors as Dante, Boccaccio and at the end of the era, Cervantes. I also want to sample some of the books on poet
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviews
Ornament of the World is a book about medieval era in Iberian peninsula. Menocal starts the time at 750, right after the Abbasid massacre of the Umayyad dynasty in Syria and ends it around 1500 after the exile of Jews, Muslims and 'convertos' from the peninsula. In the epilogue the timeline even stretches to the WWII and deliberate destruction of National Library in Sarajevo by Serbian Army.

During the 750 years of time studied, we see the linguistic and cultural development in this part of euro
Menocal's objective is clear from the subtitle of her book: she sets out to demonstrate to a popular audience the culture of convivencia, religious and ethnic co-existence, which predominated in medieval Iberia. There's certainly much to back up her argument, with the presence of Arabic-speaking and writing Christians and Jews; Jewish officials reaching high ranks in Christian governments; the preservation, transmission and transformation of classical knowledge by Muslim translators and scholars ...more
Emma Sea
I just couldn't get in to the writing style of this author:

One has to wonder which among the many fantasies-come-to-life of the palatine city of Madinat al-Zahra would have most stupified the army troops that breached its walls one day in 1009.

I felt intensely on edge all the way to page 91, where I gave up.

I think Kelly's review really nailed my frustration:

. . . do not approach this particular book as a historical documentation of a period, lest you be very frustrated within a few chapters .
Robert Morris
Jan 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a fantastic book. Menocal was a specialist in Medieval history and Literature who chose to distill her deep knowledge of Muslim Spain into this book for popular audiences. She has done a great service. The book is a bit controversial.

The Muslim period in Spain, dating from the early 700s to 1492 is an incredibly diverse period, involving separate conquests, kingdoms, and the slow Spanish Christian reconquest of the peninsula. This Reconquista happened in fits and starts over 700 years. Men
Lyn Elliott
Sep 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: spain, history
This is a must read for any one interested in Spanish history, and in particular the interconnections between Christian, Muslim and Jewish culture in Southern Spain.
I read it a few years ago just before we travelled to Andalucia and was profoundly influenced by it.
Mar 16, 2015 rated it did not like it
A poorly written, dangerously biased account of a place and time in history which could very well have been fabricated by the author.
Halldór Thorgeirsson
Jun 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
It was a pleasure reading this book. The author paints pictures of key individuals shaping this period of cross-fertilization between the three religions and their associated cultures. It is refreshing to come accross a history book that goes below the surface of events and commings and goings of rulers and provides insights into what motivated the key actors and trends. How this culture of tolerance came to an end and what followed fills one with sadness but at the same time demonstrates what i ...more
This was a group read that I missed out on. While the group members read and discussed it, they decided to read Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf together at a later date. The later date came, and I wanted to join them. I started reading Leo Africanus and 20 pages in, decided to set it aside to read this first.

I'm glad I did, although I did feel a bit out of my depth with so much of this history unfamiliar to me. I was unable to read this book with any kind of critical eye, but it did succeed in mak
Aaron Wolfson
Nov 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
An important and enjoyable book, it asks vexing questions of history and contemporary life. Can environments of cultural and religious tolerance obtain, or are they destined to fall apart? Is tolerance even an ideal worth striving for, or are we better to focus on merely avoiding violence and tyranny?

The experiences of the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of medieval al-Andalus provide some answers, but, inevitably, even more questions, about the struggle for tolerance and peace in our own times.
Feb 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: middle-ages, history
Medieval Spain is one of those subjects I would like to know more about, so a used copy of Menocal's book on al-Andalus was an attractive purchase for me. It's a little more limited than I would like, being more about literary culture than anything else (though there is plenty of architecture, and other high cultural objects as well).

But the 'how' (as seen in the subtitle) is generally left out. There is some discussion of how tolerance was built into a lot of early Muslim culture, but nothing o
Apr 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
It is only half-right to call this a history book; it is a eulogy, a panegyric, and a bit of a fable. Menocal writes her history of al-Andalus with a particular purpose: to change the way we view the Middle Ages, or at least part of it. In place of grimy savagery she finds noble enlightenment; instead of blinkered intolerance she portrays a generous commitment to coexistence. The catch is that this portrait does not apply to the entire medieval landscape, only to one shining city on a hill, Córd ...more
Mar 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Stunning in the world it opens and the portrait it paints. The chapter on Don Quixote moved me to tears, and showed me a new side of a novel I've lived in and through since childhood. (I don't have time to re-read Don Quixote. I really don't. And yet...) Menocal's lessons are vital and chilling in equal measure—how a culture of art, philosophy, music, poetry, and—not tolerance, but something bigger, perhaps mutual enrichment?—thrives, how it falls by our own hands, how quickly we forget what's c ...more
Grady McCallie
Jun 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Maria Rosa Menocal's episodic history of medieval Spain is well organized, erudite, and romantic. The book starts with a long chapter that surveys the period, roughly 780 through 1360. Shorter chapters then provide vignettes lifted out of the larger history, focusing on scenes or people whose lives illustrate the broader trends and turning points. Overall, the story consists of three periods: the initial caliphate, which brought Arab and Muslim culture to Spain; the taifa era, in which the fusio ...more
Colleen Clark
Dec 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Very interesting book, well written, accessible to the general reader. Especially in the wake of 9/11/01 it's important to know about a different face of Islam. It was through the Muslims in Spain, for example, that much of the writings of the ancient Greeks came down to us.
It's also relevant for the history of the New World, which I think is where most GoodReads readers live. Southern Spain was the source of much of the migration to the New World, including likely a lot of Jews who had convert
Ha Li
May 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
To the linguistic and historical scholars, or better yet a combination of both, this piece of literature would be as much a treasure to read as its title implies of Medieval Spain when it was dominated by an Islamic world. Those studying Spanish or Arabic as a language or those wanting to know another side that lead up to and during the Reconquista will not be left empty handed.

Menocal's vignette-style of the historical events in this area of history transcends in a movie-like showcase highlight
Sep 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Since I was slow on the draw, I didn't read this until I was already in Andalucia, and didn't finish until I got back from the trip. Menocal's basic thesis, that we are pretty much totally used to considering that period from a Northern European perspective and are probably totally ignorant of the Andalucian renaissance, was completely correct for me, so it was pretty much mind=blown. Makes you nostalgic for that caliphate. I was psyched to return my copy to Brooklyn Public Library with my ticke ...more
Jul 16, 2007 rated it it was ok
Because some of the historical facts I already knew appeared in this book with a certain spin, I never felt quite sure when I was reading history and when I was reading Menocal's opinion. Still an interesting place and time in history.
Jan 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Good work covering an interesting,influential, but rarely covered in depth,era. I was worried that this would not be an unbiased text, but the coverage of the positives and negatives seemed very even. This era can be confusing as many big players had the same names- a lot of X,XI,XII following titles. Solid bibliography. This is a really dynamic time and place, and this book is a good lens to look through. Worth the time, check it out.
Danielle Aleixo
Apr 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book leads us through a journey in Al-Andalus, revealing all the grandors of this civilization. A
descontruction of the Middle Ages as a dark period as we discover in Al- Andalus a center for philosophers, poets and artists and where Jews, Christians and Muslims, for most of the time, could live in a tolerant and fruitful environment.
Sep 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: medieval, islam, spain, art
Ornament of the World is the story of a unique civilization in medieval Europe, one which ultimately disintegrated but left a hopeful legacy. For hundreds of years, Europe hosted a distinctly Islamic polity: Andalusia, the last stand of the Umayyads. The inheritors of Muhammad’s empire, they were driven out by a palace coup and reestablished themselves across the Mediterranean, building a glorious realm of their own. They brought the best of an ascendant civilization and combined it with the re ...more
Izzatur Rahmaniyah
such a mind opener! :)
Marie A.
Sep 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Popular history fans; people traveling to Spain
Shelves: history-of-spain
Menocal's book is an exploration of a corner of medieval history that is still little-known in the U.S. outside academic circles: the multi-ethnic, religiously plural culture of medieval Iberia (that's Spain and Portugal today), with a special focus on the Muslim-dominated part of the peninsula. Menocal was a scholar of peninsular literature, so after a brief overview, her "history" is built around a dozen or so cultural vignettes, all illustrating the circumstances leading to the emergence and ...more
Gijs Grob
'The Ornament of the World' is the fascinating account of El-Andaluz, the Muslim part of Spain that existed between 750 and 1492, first a caliphate occupying almost the complete peninsula, later a bunch of city states occupying half Iberia, and finally, only Grenada and surroundings. Menocal tells us its story through some key players, either Muslim, Jewish or Christian. Her story is therefore a little patchy, but rich in examples, and wide in scope, ranging from politics, via philosophy and sci ...more
Robert Bussell
Jun 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
Menocal makes this history of the Arab empire in the Iberian Peninsula pop by portraying history as series of personal stories. But even though her protagonists are all great in their own ways, this is not exactly a "Great Man Theory" historical treatment that attributes far more to the influence of powerful individuals acting in isolation than plausible (e.g. Reagan single handedly wacks the entire Soviet Union). Instead Menocal uses individual lives to add interest to a complex period of histo ...more
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Middle East/North...: The Ornament of the World (May -Augast 2013) 135 67 Aug 24, 2013 12:25PM  

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María Rosa Menocal is a scholar of medieval culture and history. Menocal earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining the Yale University faculty in 1986, she taught Romance philology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2002, Menocal wrote the book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, wh
“Does poetry - or language or philosophy or music or architecture, even that of our temples - really need to dance to the same tune as our political beliefs or our religious convictions? Is the strict harmony of our cultural identities a virtue to be valued above others that may come from the accommodation of contradictions?” 11 likes
“The fact that Ferdinand and Isabella did not choose the path of tolerance is seen as an example of the intractability and inevitability of intolerance, especially in the premodern era. But their actions may be far better understood as the failure to make the more difficult decision, to have the courage to cultivate a society that can live with its own flagrant contradictions. They chose instead to go down the modern path, the one defined by an ethic of unity and harmony, and which is largely intolerant of contradiction.” 7 likes
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