Summer Reading Reviews, Part 6:
The Arabs and Medieval Europe

Norman Daniel. The Arabs and Medieval Europe. New York: Longman, 1975. Pp. xiv, 378. Four illustrations. $44.00 cloth.

Although now more than twenty years old, much of Norman Daniel's 1975 work, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, still rings true. In this, Daniel argues for a new way of seeing history as fundamentally interconnected—we can no more talk of European history without Muslims than we can talk about Etruscan history without the Greeks or South African history without the Xhosa. Daniel begins his argument by selectively drawing parallels between the entire Arab world and Western Europe, especially England, in the 8th century CE, demonstrating the degree to which both were similar in their philosophical, philological, and scientific endeavors. He then proposes to trace how "the two societies have gradually diverged" (22).

This he does, in a series of well-written and insightful chapters, starting with what might be considered a "fracture point": the sudden, though not unexpected, turn toward martyrdom as a form of protest in Cordoba in the 9th century CE—an impetus that might best be recognized as the ideology behind religious suicide bombings[1] today. From here, Daniel turns to the wider Mediterranean, especially Sicily and Italy, before touching on the rise of the Recoquista in Spain, the impact of the crusades across the Mediterranean on both sides of the religious divide, and the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily toward its most tolerant peak in Frederick II. These discussions lead into an extended examination of the philosophical impact of such fields as courtly love, theology, natural philosophy, and medicine, most of which have been superseded by later, more focused studies.

Although hampered, perhaps, by its predating Said's Orientalism, as well as Daniel's forgivable, though unavoidable, biases toward Islam, The Arabs and Medieval Europe is largely quite useful. His investigation, for example, of the origins of troubadour and courtly love lyrics (101-105), ending in the surprisingly tentative conclusion that "there were certainly some parallel developments [between European and Islamic sources], and these were probably related" (105), seems mostly to be the skeleton on which the arguments of someone like Maria Rosa Menocal have been built. From time to time the evidence seems unconvincing—at one point he seems to base the existence of an Arabic-speaking Christian population in Spain purely on the fact that a number of Latin names "hide" Arabic meanings—but for what was groundbreaking research on a sensitive and largely cloaked topic, this is not out of the question. Still, the heavy bias toward Islam, perhaps rhetorically necessary when this book was first published, is largely regrettable today, since it undercuts the idea that world history of the period between 412 and 1483 CE is unbalanced in favor of Europe. One does not re-balance the scales by throwing everything on the lighter pan. Instead, what must be done is to see that period of history for what it was: a time in which Europe, far from the Enlightenment portrait of the "Middle Ages," was an active member of a vibrant, yet violent, pan-Mediterranean culture, sometimes Muslim, sometimes Christian, yet always, always, looking East.

[1] Not necessarily Muslim suicide bombings; one could easily apply the same standards to IRA bombings in the 1980s.

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