Whose Golden Age? Some Thoughts on Jewish-Christian in Medieval Iberia

Christian and Jewish disputesWhose Golden Age? Some Thoughts on Jewish-Christian in Medieval Iberia

Jonathan Ray

Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations: Vol 6, No 1 (2011)


The medieval period in Spanish history has alternately been cast as a Golden Age of interfaith harmony and an example of the ultimate incompatibility of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. In this essay, I suggest that a better way to understand interfaith relations in medieval Iberia is to think about these religious communities in less monolithic terms. With regard to Jewish-Christian relations in particular, factors such as wealth, social standing, and intellectual interests were as important as religious identity in shaping the complex bonds between Christians and Jews.

So much of our understanding of Jewish life in the Middle Ages is bound up with our own hopes and fears regarding religious interaction. In Spain, where the medieval period is still regarded as the crucible of modern Spanish society, a longstanding debate continues to rage over the contributions of Jews and Muslims during this formative period. Some have argued that their language and culture is essentially foreign and inimical to the inherently Roman-Catholic spirit of Spanish society. Those who follow this argument have generally seen the religious and political unification of Catholic Spain that took place at the close of the Middle Ages as marking the reali- zation of the nation‘s destiny. Against this view, others have countered that it was precisely in the medieval period, in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews came together to form a dynamic society fueled by cross-cultural interaction, that the true Spanish character was forged. This fac- tion sees the fall of Muslim Granada and the subsequent expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492 as a regrettable collapse of a Golden Age of Spanish society, and the first step on the long road to cultural decline. Every key political issue that has arisen in Spain over the last hundred years, from the Civil War and the long tenure of Francisco Franco to the present debate over North Af- rican immigration, has been read against this highly charged discourse regarding the nature of the country‘s national heritage.

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