Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time

Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time

By Maria Rosa Menocal

Yale Law School Occasional Papers (2000)

Introduction: Even though I have been teaching at Yale for about fifteen years, and even though my office is about a block down Wall Street from the Law School, I first met Anthony Kronman only a few months ago. I actually picked a fight with him after a brilliant talk he gave on the Enlightenment, a period I, as a medievalist, feel ought not to be particularly glorified since it is so conspicuously responsible, along with the Renaissance, for that demonization of the Middle Ages to which we are, unfortunately, the heirs. But Tony obviously enjoyed the fight, and at the dinner after the talk, after multiple glasses of very good wine, he left me speechless when he said his notion of the perfect place to live would be where the religions of the children of Abraham all tolerate each other and where, in the peace of that tolerance, and in the shade and fragrance of orange trees, we could all sit and talk about philosophy and poetry.

That, I said to him, is a place I know very well indeed. It existed in any number of different political configurations over nearly eight hundred years, and it was and has been called many names, all of them imprecise for different reasons: al- Andalus in Arabic, ha-Sefarad in Hebrew; the names of a half-dozen different cities when they were at its center; Castile at other moments. Never–I had to break it to him–had it ever been California, although parts of California’s manmade landscapes do echo and remember many of its loveliest features: the tiles, the courtyards with fountains, even the orange and palm trees. I am here tonight to talk about that place, a remarkable medieval culture rooted in pluralism and shaped by religious tolerance. And to show some of it to you, because despite its having existed in one form or another for nearly eight centuries, it is largely obscured from our view, because we most commonly tell political and ideological rather than cultural history.

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