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Last Updated on April 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

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In The Ornament of the World, María Rosa Menocal explains how Christians, Jews, and Muslims once lived side-by-side. Their cultures informed and complemented those of the people around them. They had a symbiotic relationship. While these communities later fell apart, there is still evidence of them in medieval texts and architecture. Menocal writes:

But if we retell the story beginning with the narrative of that intrepid young man who miraculously evaded the annihilation of his line and migrated from Damascus to Cordoba, which he then made over into his new homeland, we end up with an altogether different vision of the fundamental parameters of Europe during the Middle Ages. This is a vision still evident today, in the lasting influence of this complex, rich, and unique civilization.

The book is a history of Europe that has a different focus from the dominant narrative, and in that way, it shows a new side of the time period. Menocal explores various cities and cultures through their writings and the way they blend different religious beliefs and habits together. She explains,

Hebrew’s redemption had come at the hands of writers who were masters of Arabic rhetoric, the Andalusian Jews, men as thoroughly and successfully a part of the cult of Arabic grammar, rhetoric, and style as any of their Muslim neighbors and associates. A century before Halevi took his final leave to find Jerusalem, Samuel the Nagid had first made Hebrew perform all the magic tricks that his native tongue, Arabic, could and did. He had been made vizier because his skill in writing letters and court documents in Arabic surpassed that of all others. He then went on to write poems in the new Hebrew style, among them verses recounting his glories leading his taifa’s armies to victory. In one fell swoop, Samuel’s Hebrew poetry, with its Arabic accents and prosody—the features essential to making it alive for the Arabic-speaking Andalusian Jews—vindicated and completely exceeded all the small steps that others had taken in the centuries before him to revive the ancestral language, to reinvent it as a living tongue.

Though many texts were lost and traditions that joined various people together were ended through war and betrayal, one of the problems was that people were kept from speaking languages or practicing their faiths. This ended an awareness of the traditions and languages that flourished in cultures that were friendly and allowed a degree of freedom. When people moved from one place to another as unfriendly governments sent them away, these traditions and cultures spread. She writes:

The new regime was measurably worse: these Islamic fundamentalists imposed dramatic changes on their Andalusian province, none perhaps more transforming than the immediate expulsion of Jews from many of the Andalusian cities.


The fallout from this expatriation of a central part of the Andalusian community was widespread; in one sense, it amounted to a paradoxical series of gifts to other parts of the Muslim world, as well as to the Christian kingdoms to the north. In the northern Christian cities, many of which had not long before been taifas, and before that cities of the caliphate, Jewish immigrants found a society where they were not alone in their Arabized ways, and where they were able to prosper, at least in part because of their familiarity with Muslim culture. In places like Toledo, the Jews continued to be a vital part of a religiously pluralistic and multilingual community, along with the Mozarabs (who were themselves at continuing odds with their non-Arabized Christian brethren) and any number of Mudejars, the Muslims who had never left their home territories when these were annexed by the Christian powers, or those who for other reasons moved into Christian territories.

So, although the people who were expelled weren't Muslim, their understanding of Muslim language, cultures, and traditions let them fit into new areas after they were forced out of the old. They, in turn, helped influence the culture in the new areas they moved to. This led to a blending of traditions, languages, architecture, and behavior. When populations were broken up and made more homogenous, this changed. According to Menocal:

At the same time, the Almohad-controlled cities and regions of the old al-Andalus began to lose some of what had made them distinctive, as their ancient Jewish and Christian populations departed into exile, and as their narrow interpretation of Islam made their scholars far less avid than many Latin readers of that scientific and philosophical library, the memory palace of the Abbasids and the Umayyads. Perhaps the most negative effect of Almohad ideology and its practice in Spain was the harshness embodied in the Almohads’ stridently monolingual, purist Muslim regime. It went a long way toward creating a climate of true Muslim-Christian enmity, something that had been, until then, quite secondary to other forms of hostility and competition.