© 2005 Chris Lowney
Vanished World sets medieval Spain before the reader with the warning; we may be blessed or cursed by emulating its example. The Iberian peninsula is the very perimeter of western Europe, within a stone's throw of both the vast continent of Africa and the looming expanse of the Atlantic. Despite its apparent remoteness, Iberia was throughout the ages in the very thick of the action -- the pitch wherin civilizations clashed. In an earlier age, Rome and Carthage sparred; a thousand years later, Visigoths and Muslims fought. The invasion of Spain in 711 by the Umayyad caliphate made the former province of the Romans, then yet another ruin ruled by nominally Christian barbarians, into an outpost of a far larger, far more sophisticated civilization, where it enjoyed a golden age that was for Europe a preview of the Renaissance and enlightenment. Here the gifts of the Greeks were preserved and built on; here both Islam and Rabbinic Judaism grew in new directions. Vanished World is a brief and romantic history of medieval Spain, one brimming with hope that we can all just get along.
Although the subject is fascinating and I wanted badly to like it, in truth the book is limited. Downey is a very casual historian, chatty and informal. That can work to a degree, but sometimes retards a reader's ability to take the text seriously. Assuming one is completely oblivious to intellectual life in the medieval epoch, Vanished World will be quite exciting. Personally, Spangenburg and Moser's history of science covered this ground too well for me to take much here, though I did find the bits about Sufism and Kabbalah of interest. The history is also heavily sanitized in view of Downey's objection. It's a laudable goal, of course, and he does mention a few trifling incidents of unpleasantness, but haranguing Christians for the Crusades is hardly fair when no mention of the Battle of Tours is made. Sixty years after the conquest of Spain by Moorish armies, the Umayyads advanced on France itself, meeting defeat scarcely 150 miles from Paris. Humans will never cease to war with one another, though, regardless of religion; Christians may fight Muslims, but as this and countless other books demonstrate, they will happily dig into one another as well. We're a hot-blooded species given to destruction. That considering, it's nice to review the many ways we are capable of working together, as Downey does here, touching on science, art, medicine, and even the invention of cowboys.
Look for a future comparison to Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.