The Medieval Review 10.04.05

Beech, George T. The Brief Eminence and Doomed Fall of Islamic Saragossa: A Great Center of Jewish and Arabic Learning in the Iberian Peninsula during the 11th Century. Serie Estudios Árabes e Islámicos. Zaragoza: Insituto de Estudio Islámicos y del Oriente Próximo, 2008. Pp. 395. . $40.00 ISBN 978-84-95736-11-6.

Reviewed by:

Valerie M. Wilhite
Miami University

When a student handed George Beech a Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum containing a picture of a vase that had been owned by William IX, a quest began for the provenance of the artifact. The search sent Beech beyond France, his usual area of expertise, to Muslim-ruled Saragossa. From this adventure results the book The brief eminence and doomed fall of Islamic Saragossa.

The history of the Taifa of Saragossa is tightly constructed in this presentation. The story of the city is carefully wrapped within a historiographical framework which holds within it a historical frame. Beech presents Saragossa's "brief eminence" as a historiographical phenomenon bookended by Northern Europeans: the book begins with a section entitled, "The Northern European 'Discovery' of 11th century [sic] Saragossa" which reminds the reader that the author of the Occitan Roland à Saragosse says the epic hero "sees Saragossa the great, powerful city..." The greatness of the city's library holdings is what impresses a second contemporary Northern explorer, Hugh of Santalla. In the accounts of these two northern Europeans Beech sees the fate of al-Andalus, the quest for knowledge and the reconquest of territory in the name of Christendom. Beech's monograph ends with a series of appendices, the first of which addresses the view and discussions modern Northern Europeans have of Saragossa. Within this historiographical frame is the history of independent Saragossa, a history that lasts only 100 years from the Caliphate of Cordoba's fall until Saragossa is taken by the Almoravids in 1110 and then Alfonso I of Aragon in December of 1118. It is perhaps not an accident that Beech has chosen to present such a tightly bounded Saragossa in his book for he suggests that, "during most of that remarkably brief period when this magnificent city was nurturing a cultural life of exceptional range, variety, and brilliance, it was, as it were, caught in a vise between two aggressive and more powerful states, and thus heading toward a disaster which must have left its people feeling doomed" (19).

Just as the Saragossa in Beech's book is one tightly boxed in by historical and historiographical frames, Northern Europe, the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, and al-Andalus seem a fuzzy periphery that represents potential danger far more than sources of cultural exchange. This strong focalization to the near-exclusion of the rest of al-Andalus and Europe is perhaps undertaken so as to ensure a place of prestige for the "cultural splendor of the magnificent city/kingdom of 11th century Saragossa" and that it might be seen "as a civilization in its own right, on its own terms" (324). This is not to say that the author does not discuss the relationship between important figures within and without Saragossa. The sections, "Political relations with northern Christian Kingdoms," "Religious contacts with northern Christians," and numerous sections which indicate an interest in situating Saragossa within al-Andalus and Europe do just that. However, these sections present the case of Saragossan citizens or visitors as individuals. Beech uses caution before making claims about what a letter from a man whom he calls "The French Monk" to Almuqtadir, then ruler of Saragossa. As the chapter concludes he writes, "Were it not for the risk of generalizing from insufficient data one might suspect that adherents of the three religions of mid-11th century Saragossa had worked out an unusual degree of accommodation to their respective interests" (97). Here he adds a footnote to Thomas Glick's "Convivencia: an Introductory Note" as well as Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World, though he adds no comment to the note. Beech's history of Saragossa is, in this sense, pure. He does not enter into the theoretical or historiographical conversations being carried on in most other scholarly works on al-Andalus. He avoids the issue and the entire language of convivencia; he quotes titles in which the term is used but does not employ it himself. Indeed Américo Castro does not make it into the bibliography at all.

Despite not entering into the nettle of current Andalusi discussions, George Beech's book makes an argument about the nature of al-Andalus and scholarship on al-Andalus: read the sources, look at the history in the texts and monuments that remain. Not a bad argument, not a simple mandate to follow either, as he well knows having bumped into the first barrier himself: the linguistic threshold. The argument in this sense sheds itself of the digressions on historiography which he situates in the introduction and in the appendix. It is as though history is truly of the past and something that can be presented without the taint of the historian.

The table of contents is found at the end of the book, as is the case with Spanish publications (the norms of capitalization also follow that of Spanish works and I have followed them here in keeping with the text). Also like Spanish books, the table of contents is very informative as it provides the titles of the major chapters but also offers subheadings (up to four entries on a single page can be found in the table of contents). This is particularly helpful as the work does not have an index.

The work is divided into two main sections preceded by an introduction (11-27): Part I The splendor of 11th century Saragossa (31-223) and Part II The downfall of Islamic Saragossa (227-309). The first part presents generalities about the city and its geographical setting. Its main focus is its multiculturalism and its cultural products-- works of science, literature, philosophy, and art--and their distribution throughout al-Andalus and beyond. The second part of the book focuses on the years of Saragossa's long defeat, 1110 to 1118, which Beech narrates with references to sources many a reader will want to examine after reading Beech's descriptions. The work includes an appendix with four sections: A. How modern medievalists have neglected al-Andalus: the example of Saragossa (311); B. Northern European awareness of Andalusi Saragossa (325); J. A. Conde's portrayal of king Imad Addawlah in his 1820 History of Domination of the Arabs in Spain (331); D. The letter episode from Alhulal almawsiyyah. The bibliography is extensive though a few key medievalists or their texts seem to be missing and many items in the bibliography are not fully engaged within the argument of the book. Unfortunately the text could have benefitted from closer care in the editing.

In his work George Beech makes explicit numerous times that he writes to present Saragossa as a unique cultural milieu, for the better understanding of the city and of all al-Andalus for "medievalists" who have, he repeatedly claims, hitherto neglected the Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula of the middle ages. Perhaps because it is published for the Serie Estudios Árabes e Islámicos for the Instituto de Estudios Islámicos y del Oriente Proximo (IEIOP), an entity that brings together the University of Zaragoza, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientficas, and the Cortes de Aragón, the author does not restrain his enthusiasm and excitement for what he considers a new discovery, or a hitherto ignored cultural and historical phenomenon. He speaks of medievalists as other. He speaks of arabists as other. He speaks as though he has returned from a mystical land, on one dimension geographical and real (the photos presented in the book are his own and he says, "I have not approached the history of Saragossa just from the perspective of the outsider" (24) and on another level mysterious and magical (the land of history, historians, arabists, and scholars): "this extraordinary movement and city had escaped the attention of all but the somewhat isolated contemporary Spanish arabists" (27). He will unveil for the reader the mysteries these have kept hidden from them.

Beech defines terms and introduces key figures for the novice Andalusianist or uninitiated. Through some of the text then it seems he is writing for a non-scholarly audience, serving as a spy willing to tell them what "scholars of our day" (139) have to say. Beech cites authors in his footnotes but rarely mentions them within the body of his text. Even lengthy citations are introduced with a reference to "an author" rather than the author's name. For this reason one accustomed to academic conceits might find his discussion strangely disconnected from that of other scholars rather than in dialogue with them. Unlike a popular history however, Beech remains cautious as he presents his interpretation of material. For example, he discusses a tale from twelfth-century Saragossa that describes, or parodies, a monastery. The description of drunken lascivious behavior is then given the following comment, "How to interpret this narrative is a problem. Was the author really so ignorant of Christian monasteries, or is this, as seems more likely, pure farce...At the very least it shows a Saragossan awareness of Christian monasticism, itself hardly surprising in view of the presence of abbeys just to the north of the Ebro (e.g. San Juan de la Peña near Jaca)" (88). The entire presentation of the story--its existence, its summary, its analysis--takes up a single paragraph. Many pieces of evidence are given brief presentation. Other stories, anecdotes, and key historical, literary, or philosophical figures reappear again and again, each time as though the reader had not been introduced to them before.

And yet he says that he is writing for scholars. Many times Beech explains his task as transmitting findings from the Spanish arabists to American and European medievalists while at the same time using Latin and vernacular sources, "rarely if ever exploited by my arabist colleagues" (25). The category of "medievalist" is pitted against that of "arabists," much like what he sees being fostered by Spain's university system: "al-Andalus is the domain of the arabists whereas medievalists, who utilize Latin and Romance documentation, concern themselves with the history of Christian Spain" (312-313). By this definition anyone who starts out as a medievalist and learns Arabic becomes an arabist and leaves their affiliation with medievalists behind. If this is how we define the terms and the fields then there is no way to speak of medievalists who work with Arabic texts or on the Muslim slice of the history of Iberia. This is not to say that the history of medieval Iberian scholarship has not been subject to such a divide. It is simply that the definition he provides is the very one that needs to be reconsidered. I believe it has been in the recent decades and I believe this is exactly what Beech hopes his book will take part in doing.

Unlike the popular history and as is to be expected from a scholarly work, Beech spends time referring to source material, mostly Arabic texts he has read in translation. Throughout one reads the refrain that documentary evidence has been lost, (61) or is contradictory (regarding the fleeing of Imad Addawlah, 261) or no evidence exists because of a silence on the part of contemporary authors (regarding the lack of translations made by Hebrew scholars Ibn Chiquitilla's work, 207). For example, regarding language he says, "The silence of contemporary writers about the languages spoken by people of the day only complicates efforts to answer these questions [for example, he asks, "were these arabized converts bilingual?" and "had members of the upper class also learned Romance and to what extent were they bilingual?"]" (70). Here it might have been interesting to incorporate some of the discussions of language that encompass all of al-Andalus. Perhaps there is nothing left by contemporary authors to indicate the situation of Saragossa specifically, but the topic of linguistic realities within al-Andalus are discussed by authors medieval and modern included in the bibliography but not cited in the discussion (Alvarus of Cordubensis, Ross Brann, Consuelo López- Morillas, and others).

Another section of the book to demonstrate a strange distance from current scholarly discussions is, "The Arabist thesis and the origins of troubadour poetry" where Beech claims that:

Romanists, or scholars of troubadour literature in the Romance languages, have almost unanimously rejected this [Arabist] thesis, maintaining that any similarities derive from independent origins, and at the same time they emphasize the language barrier and the fact that no Occitan poet can be shown to have had contacts with their Andalusi counterparts or to have known their language (213).

Again we see here that he is defining his terms so that his work can be accessible to those unfamiliar with disciplinary or scholarly jargon. However, the claim is odd as he speaks in the present tense of a stance that was held decades ago but no longer stands. The author does not name any among the supposed multitude of scholars who reject or have rejected this thesis. In fact, even Beech seems to recognize that the different periods of scholarship have held various views and even let the question rest for a period as he mentions directly after this statement that the question has been "reopened." What follows is a series of still-dated "proofs" that come from scholars who do believe there to be a link between the Arab and other cultures in the Mediterranean and troubadour literary production. Again, the scholars as well as the dates or names of their publications are not found in the body of the text but only in footnotes. Included in this small list is the contribution, "Versification" by Frank Chambers for the Handbook of the Troubadours edited by F.R.P. Akehurst and Judith M. Davis published over a decade ago. Were the Arabist Thesis so roundly rejected, reference to the connections between Arabic poetic forms and troubadour lyric would hardly have been included in a manual intended to provide the basics for the study of the troubadours. The two pages that discuss the Arabist thesis are followed by a page-long discussion of the Eastern origins of Parzifal. Here Beech laments that medievalists have once again rejected the notion of eastern influence while arabists remain unaware of the hypotheses as a whole. In the conclusion to this chapter on the cultural legacy of Saragossa is a call to scholars to follow a new question. Many scholars have been interested in proposing, rejecting, and then finally accepting the Arabist Thesis though resigning ourselves to the fact that the steps or particular elements that allowed Arabic culture to influence Romance literature and language are perhaps to remain unknown. Beech proposes we ask, "In what ways, and to what degree did the popular and the learned culture of the northerners affect, alter, modify that of the Ebro valley?" (222).

While Beech says his task is to highlight the splendor that was Saragossa his presentation of the fall of Islamic Saragossa which he suggests takes place from 1110-1118 is rich in details of both the military and the psychological powers that led to the kingdom's capture by Alfonso I of Aragon. Beech presents the abandonment of Saragossa by its ruler, Imad Addawlah, as a mystery to be understood through the actions and letters with reference to biographical dictionaries written by contemporaries that give a view on the king's psychological state. The account by Beech reaches depths other works on Saragossa or on Aragon have not. This is not to say that the chapters on cultural phenomena were not as rich, it is simply that the tale of the fall of Saragossa seems to have left more source material and to have occurred in such a way as to permit a linear narrative to be constructed by a historian who invests both time and imagination so as to do so. Beech has done just that.