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Beyond convivencia: critical reflections on the historiography of interfaith relations in Christian Spain

The Great Mosque of Córdoba turned church after the Reconquista. (Wikipedia)

The Great Mosque of Córdoba turned church after the Reconquista. (Wikipedia)

Beyond convivencia: critical reflections on the historiography of interfaith relations in Christian Spain

Maya Soifer

Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, Volume 1, Issue 1 January 2009 , pages 19 – 35

Abstract

While Americo Castro’s ‘convivencia’ remains an influential concept in medieval Iberian studies, its sway over the field has been lessening in recent years. Despite scholars’ best efforts to rethink and redefine the concept, it has resisted all attempts to transform it into a workable analytical tool. The article explores the malaise affecting convivencia, and suggests that the idea has become more of an impediment than a help to medieval Iberian studies. It argues that convivencia retains some of its former influence because scholars insist on understanding it as a distinctly Ibero-Islamic phenomenon. However, this article suggests that the evidence for Islamic influence on interfaith coexistence in Christian Spain is scarce. Instead of continuing to embrace the nationalist myth of Spain’s unique status in medieval Europe, scholars need to acknowledge the basic similarities in the Christian treatment of religious minorities north and south of the Pyrenees. The article also explores other aspects of convivencia‘s problematic legacy: polarization of the field between “tolerance” and “persecution,” and the inattention to the nuances of social and political power relations that affected Jewish-Christian-Muslim coexistence in Christian Iberia.

As Robert I. Burns once remarked, the frontier – “a heroic place to take one’s stand” – is to any progressively minded person a Good Thing. So, one might presume, is medieval convivencia, the putative “living together” of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Ever since Américo Castro put the concept into wide circulation in 1948, it has been exerting steady influence on the field of medieval Iberian studies. It is easy to see why. Like S.D. Goitein, who felt “quite at home” in the free-trade Mediterranean world of the Geniza collection, professional and lay historians alike were often captivated by the notion of medieval Spain’s religious toleration, which they often painted in broad strokes as a prefiguration of the modern western ideal of inter-religious harmony.

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