Tag Archives | Jove’s Witnesses

Middelboe Chronicles, Part 69: Canterbury Tales – Leaving London

The first of three sets of adaptations of episodes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This installment, “Leaving London” (1998), adapts the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Knight’s Tale, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Casting note: Sean Bean’s in this one – and his character doesn’t die!

Convivencia, In My Dreams It Always Seems

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

with fields full of grain
I have to see you
again and again

A Muslim and a Christian playing dueling banjos (13th century).

A Muslim and a Christian playing dueling banjos (13th century).

Mediæval Andalusia, or al-Andalus, was the region of Iberia under Muslim rule, its constantly shifting boundaries comprising, at their greatest extent, the entire territory of modern Spain and Portugal (plus a bit more), and at their smallest extent, just the area around Granada. (So, not quite the same territory as “Andalusia” today.)

This period, known for its many scientific and cultural achievements, has long been hailed as one in which (for much of the period, anyway) Muslims, Christians, and Jews were able to coexist and cooperate on peaceful and productive terms – an island of interfaith toleration and convivencia compared to the Christian kingdoms to the north and the more conservative Berber Muslim kingdoms to the south (both of which made repeated incursions into the region, bringing less tolerant policies with them).

Libertarians in particular will be familiar with Rose Wilder Lane’s enthusiastic endorsement of this thesis; and the beautiful 2007 documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain defends the same viewpoint:

There’ve always been dissenters from this interpretation, of course, and in recent years they’ve grown increasingly vocal. This historical dispute is also very much entangled with contemporary politics; even though nothing about the present-day prospects for peaceful coexistence follows with anything like apodictic necessity from what people a millennium or so ago did or did not manage to achieve (especially given how much all the relevant cultures have changed since then), there’s nevertheless a tendency for those who are optimistic about the prospects for interfaith toleration today to point to al-Andalus as a positive model, while those who adopt a more belligerent clash-of-civilisations view tend to view al-Andalus in a negative light as well.

For those interested in getting an accurate understanding of the period, I recommend the following three books:

As you might guess from their titles, Menocal’s and Fernández-Morera’s books occupy opposing sides in this dispute; Menocal paints an especially rosy picture of the Andalusian convivencia, while Fernández-Morera takes the opposite line, arguing that al-Andalus was not only intolerant and oppressive, but much more intolerant and oppressive than Christian Europe. Cohen, for his part, takes a moderate view, opposing both the “myth of the interfaith utopia” and the “countermyth of Islamic persecution.” (Cohen’s book is both broader and narrower in focus than the other two – broader, in dealing with the Muslim world as a whole rather than just al-Andalus, and narrower, in dealing specifically with the treatment of Jews – but it nevertheless covers much of the same territory. And while the first edition of Cohen’s book came out before those of Menocal and Fernández-Morera, the most recent edition has an introduction specifically addressing their views. Oddly, Fernández-Morera cites Cohen’s work with high praise, as though they were in agreement, which they aren’t.)

I think one will get a juster picture from reading all three of these books than from reading just one. In my view, Menocal greatly exaggerates the virtues of the Andalusian regime, and Fernández-Morera greatly exaggerates its vices. But that makes them both useful if read with caution, because each makes points that serve as useful correctives to the other’s excesses. And then Cohen (whose interpretations seem to me to be generally the most reasonable) takes a more moderate position that serves as a check on both. (But Menocal and Fernández-Morera cover much material that Cohen doesn’t, so one can’t simply steer by Cohen alone.)

A Christian man and a Muslim man playing chess (13th century).
(While I’m no expert, it looks to me as though the Muslim is winning.)

Interestingly, if read carefully the three authors turn out hardly ever to disagree about the historical facts (despite Fernández-Morera’s pose as heroic exposer of the lies of academic orthodoxy); it’s much more a matter of selection and emphasis. There was, in fact, quite a bit of peaceful economic and intellectual cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in al-Andalus; there was also, in fact, quite a bit of oppression and persecution. Which aspect was dominant varied by time and region, as one might expect from a nearly 800-year history comprising multiple changing regimes. I find both Menocal and Fernández-Morera to be a bit slippery in this regard.

As an example of where Menocal is misleading: she downplays some of the worst cases of persecution, such as one series of executions in Córdoba in the 850s, concerning which she suggests that the victims – Christians who had denounced Muhammad as a false prophet – were essentially asking for it; Menocal chillingly dismisses them as “wild-eyed, out-of-control radicals” and “would-be martyrs” who “knew for a certainty that they were forcing the hands of the authorities of the city by expressly choosing to vilify Muhammad.” Here Fernández-Morera includes some details that Menocal conveniently omits:

The first one to die as a martyr was a well-educated monk named Perfectus. In 850 [he] encountered some Muslims he knew, who asked him to explain what Christians thought of Christ and the Prophet Muhammad. He told them that they might not like the answer. When they insisted, Perfectus made them promise not to tell his answer to anyone. He proceeded to cite a passage from the gospel in which Christ declares that “many false prophets will come in my name,” and Perfectus added that Christians believed Muhammad to be one of these false prophets. … Some days later, the same Muslims saw him in the city, pointed him out to the crowds, and accused him of having insulted the Prophet. The monk was arrested and locked in prison [and eventually] was publicly beheaded.

This does not sound like the story of someone seeking martyrdom.

Again, when Menocal speaks blithely of the role of “women who sang for a living, young and attractive entertainers much prized in the Andalusian courts,” Fernández-Morera reminds us that most of these women were in fact slaves, and indeed essentially sex-slaves.

A Muslim woman and a Christian woman playing chess.
We’re in the end game now.

On the other hand, Fernández-Morera (who is incidentally a classical liberal of Austrian bent – gooble gobble, one of us!) for his part downplays the fact that these slave women of the Andalusian courts often fell, whether by sale or by conquest, into Christian hands, in the courts of the Andalusians’ northern neighbours – and their new Christian owners did not choose to free them. So as a special indictment of Muslim as opposed to Christian rule, the example falls short. (And certainly not all the women artists of Islamic courts were slaves.)

There is a still greater obstacle to Fernández-Morera’s suggestion that the Muslims were worse than the Christians in the area of religious oppression. He spends a lot of time talking about the burdensome restrictions placed on Christians by Muslim regimes, and fair enough; but he offers no comparable discussion of restrictions placed on Muslims by Christian regimes. That’s because there’s nothing to tell; in Christian regimes (with the exception of the Crusader kingdoms, whose rulers had to a great extent “gone native”), being a Muslim was illegal. By contrast, in most Muslim regimes, most of the time, being a Christian was not illegal. So if one wants to compare Muslim treatment of Christians with Christian treatment of Muslims, no number of examples of anti-Christian oppression is going to make the Muslims come out looking worse than the Christians’ complete ban on Islam.

And a Jewish man and a Muslim man playing chess.
This game looks a bit harder to call than the first one.

Any comparative thesis with regard to religious oppression is thus going to have to turn instead on the treatment of Jews, a group relegated to second-class status by both Muslims and Christians – and here Cohen shows pretty convincingly that, in general, mediæval Islam was “more tolerant toward nonconforming minorities than Christianity” and that the contrary suggestion “ignores, one might say suppresses, the substantial security – at times verging on social (though not legal) parity – that Jews enjoyed through centuries of existence under Muslim rule.” (And of course when the Christians finally succeeded in driving all the Muslims out of Iberia, they drove all the Jews out along with them; many found refuge in the more tolerant Ottoman Empire.) Cohen’s explanation for Islam’s being more tolerant toward Jews than Christians were is that a religion founded by a merchant is naturally less prone to a certain traditional antisemitic prejudices. Another possibility I would point to is that mainstream Christianity’s distinctive theological doctrines (e.g., trinity and incarnation) render it more different from Islam and Judaism than the latter are from one another. (As for why Muslims tolerated Christians more than Christians tolerated Muslims, I’d assume this is related to the reason that Christians tolerated Jews at all, despite not tolerating Muslims: Christianity and Islam each tolerated the doctrines they regarded as forerunners of their own, but not doctrines that proposed to be their successors. Christianity and Islam each wanted to be the final revelation.)

There’s also a certain terminological slipperiness that both Menocal and Fernández-Morera seem to me to be guilty of. Words like “tolerance” and “toleration,” for example, carry a range of meanings, from grudging sufferance at one extreme (“I don’t like my cousin, but I tolerate him”) to the whole-hearted embrace of diversity and equal rights at the other extreme. Menocal will offer persuasive evidence for the existence of toleration in a weaker sense, and then follow it up with rhetoric appropriate to having shown the existence of toleration in a strong sense. Fernández-Morera, for his part, will offer persuasive evidence for the non-existence of toleration in a strong sense, and then follow it up with rhetoric appropriate to having shown the non-existence of toleration in a weaker sense. Thus the two authors manage to give completely opposite impressions, despite for the most part never literally contradicting each other. (Similar remarks apply to the term convivencia.)

The usually more sober Cohen manages to trip himself up over terminology too. He tells us early on that his book is “not a comparative study of tolerance,” since “[n]either for Islam, nor for Christianity prior to modern times, did tolerance, at least as we in the West have understood it since John Locke, constitute a virtue.” In other words, it makes no sense to ask whether X is more or less tolerant than Y unless we are prepared to say that X and Y both meet some minimum liberal standard for tolerance. But is that really how these words work? Admittedly some terms do work that way; while I think Prague is more beautiful than Kraków, I would not express that by saying that Kraków is uglier than Prague, because that does ordinarily seem to imply that Kraków is ugly, full stop, which it certainly is not. On the other hand, if I say that a mouse is larger than a mosquito, that does not seem to imply that the mouse is large, full stop. It’s not obvious to me that “tolerant” works more like “ugly” than like “large.” In any case, in the rest of his book Cohen cheerfully forgets this opening stricture and speaks regularly of mediæval Muslim societies being more tolerant than their Christian counterparts.

Continuing the terminological theme: Fernández-Morera also seems to think that the common use of the term “Iberia,” rather than “Spain,” to refer to the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, is a “politically correct” subterfuge to avoid offending Muslims (despite the fact that both the subtitle of Menocal’s book and the subtitle of the Cities of Light documentary unembarrassedly say “Spain”). I should have thought the more obvious motivation would be to avoid any confusion that might arise from the fact that “Spain,” today, is the name of a distinct nation-state that shares the Iberian peninsula with another nation-state, Portugal. (I’m leaving aside Andorra and Gibraltar as small enough to be ignored, as San Marino and Vatican City are in speaking of “Italy”; but Portugal is larger and more populous than, say, Austria.)

Another slipperiness I find in Fernández-Morera is this: As he notes, when Muslim regimes in al-Andalus pursued policies of (relative) tolerance, this was typically a decision of kings and princes, often opposed by clerics. But clerics, not kings and princes, Fernández-Morera says, are the true authorised spokesmen for Islam. Hence tolerant policies by Muslim princes do not count as establishing the tolerant character of the regime, because the real policies of any Islamic regime are those favoured by its clerics, not those favoured by its king – even in those cases where the clerics have no power to enforce their preferences, and the king is in a position to simply ignore the clerics. This seems a bit of a stretch – especially considering that in Islam there was no one institution with the authority to declare what was or was not Islamic, comparable to the power claimed (though not unchallenged either, FWIW) by the Catholic church. So it’s unclear why we should regard the clerics’ determinations as more “Islamic” than those of the kings. (Relatedly, Fernández-Morera tells us that “Muslims in al-Andalus lived under a …. hierocracy – a government of clerics”; but for Fernández-Morera this “government of clerics” remains in force even when the king’s decisions, in defiance of the clerics, are the ones that actually carry the day. Fernández-Morera’s clerics sometimes seem to savour a bit of Emperor Norton.)

All this doesn’t mean that Muslim rulers had enlightened and liberal motives for their more-tolerant policies. After all, under Islamic law Jews and Christians paid a tax from which Muslims were exempt, which could plausibly have had the economic effect of weakening any incentive, on the part of those collecting the tax, either to pressure Jews and Christians into conversion or to drive them out. Then again, on the other hand, those raised in a cosmopolitan court atmosphere might well have developed a genuine affinity, even if perhaps more an æsthetic than a moral one, for an atmosphere of diversity and intercultural exchange. In any case, whatever the reasons, Muslim regimes in al-Andalus did foster conditions for such exchange, even if not as thoroughly and consistently as in justice they should have, that their counterparts in Christian Europe did not.

So my final verdict is, broadly, one cheer for Fernández-Morera, two cheers for Menocal, and three cheers for Cohen.

Middelboe Chronicles, Part 61: Abraham

Continuing the Biblical theme from yesterday, this time we have The Handmaid’s Tale: The Prequel; or, Some More Times Jehovah Was a Dick.

Or, sorry, Abraham (“Testament: The Bible in Animation,” 1996):

The story of God demanding the sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac, but then relenting at the last minute and substituting an animal, has a parallel in some (though not all) versions of the Greek myth of Iphigeneia. (Aeschylus tells one version, Euripides another.)

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have both written songs commenting on the story of Abraham and Isaac. (This Cohen performance is different from the one I posted for Leonard Cohen month.)

Middelboe Chronicles, Part 60: Ruth

Yesterday’s shepherdess said she’d follow her chimney sweep anywhere, but it turned out that she didn’t quite mean it. We’ll see whether Ruth (“Testament: The Bible in Animation,” 1996) is more reliable in her similar promise to Naomi:

Don’t Know Much About The Middle Ages

James Burke’s various video series on the history of science and ideas (one series of The Day the Universe Changed and three series of Connections) are among my favourite educational videos, thanks to the combination of beautiful locations, unexpected connections, and Burke’s irreverent attitude.

That’s not to say I don’t have problems with them. Burke often oversimplifies his subject matter or gets certain things just plain wrong; and even when his history is accurate, his philosophical interpretations are often highly questionable. But the shows are so generally good that I like them despite all that.

My absolute favourite of all his videos is this one, “Point of View,” about science, art, and engineering during the Renaissance:

Highly recommended! (It really makes me want to visit Florence.)

However, nearly everything he says in that video about Aristotle is wrong. In particular, Burke describes Aristotle as holding that “the Almighty handcrafted every object in existence” – but of course Aristotle’s Prime Mover does no such thing. The Prime Mover does not engage in any manipulation of material objects, but merely spends its days serenely contemplating itself, thereby inspiring the celestial spheres to imitate its eternal actuality as best they can by engaging in endless circular motion – which, in turn, by alternately heating and cooling the world below, causes the elements to keep intermixing in such a way as to make the natural order possible; but no natural object is deliberately designed.

I didn’t catch any other errors, but I might have if I were more of an expert about the Renaissance.

Some of Burke’s other videos are more problematic. Take, for example, “In the Light of the Above” (admittedly a clever title), about the Middle Ages, a topic on which he takes a rather Rand-like position, with its associated one-sidedness:

Certainly this video is enjoyable and instructive. But it also has me frequently gnashing my teeth and pulling my hair. Some examples:

a) According to Burke, Augustine rejected classical civilisation as a “load of rubbish,” and thereby “set Christian thinking into a kind of drop-out mode for centuries.”

On the contrary, in the battle among early Christians as to whether to embrace the intellectual and cultural heritage of classical Greece and Rome or instead to consign it to the ash heap, Augustine was firmly on the pro-classical side. He himself had been converted to philosophy by reading Cicero; and Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas had played an important role in helping him find his way from Manicheanism back to Christianity. So he was convinced that classical philosophy was of value to Christians – and his own philosophy incorporated Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelean, and Stoic ideas. It is thanks in large part to Augustine that mediæval Christianity was so largely hospitable to pagan ideas; in effect, Augustine was the same kind of champion of the Neoplatonic tradition that Aquinas would later be for the Aristotelean tradition.

Moreover, Augustine’s philosophical dialogues, like On Free Choice of the Will and On the Teacher, were the Middle Ages’ main point of access to the Platonic dialogue form (since the only actual Platonic dialogue they had available was a fragment of the Timæus, which is more of a monologue than a dialogue), and the Augustinian model of rational, civil debate (On Free Choice begins with Evodius asking “Isn’t God the cause of evil?” and Augustine answering, not with fanatical denunciation, but with careful reasoning in a friendly and courteous manner) helped to set the norms for the civilised give-and-take of the later mediæval universities, where students were expected to be able to construct arguments for and against every major proposition, including the existence of God. (Augustine has the reputation of being a grim, censorious, puritanical, fideistic figure, but the Augustine we meet in his dialogues seems much more affable, witty, and urbane, with a firm reverence for reason. I reckon lunch with Augustine would be more like lunch with Voltaire than like lunch with St. Jerome.)

b) Burke gives the impression that the only major classical text to survive into the Middle Ages, besides some bits of Plato and Aristotle, and prior to the 12th-century influx of material from the Arab world, was Martianus Capella’s book on the seven liberal arts. In fact the early mediævals also had works by Cicero, Ovid, Horace, Vergil, Seneca, Apuleius, Lucan, Porphyry, and others.

c) Certainly the transition from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages involved a general decline in prosperity, population, literacy, and scientific knowledge. But Burke nevertheless exaggerates the “darkness” of the period. He describes the northern tribes that invaded and displaced the Roman Empire as a “dangerous bunch of barbarian louts if you came between them and what they were after” – as if that didn’t equally describe the Romans. He also characterises the Frankish, Visigothic, etc. societies of 5th-6th century Europe as a bunch of “illiterate boozers,” and portrays them as living in hovels; one almost expects to hear one of them calling to another, “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!

Yet, as we learn from Gregory of Tours, these ignorant, hovel-dwelling, pre-Carolingian boozers managed to construct some pretty impressive buildings – one with “52 windows, 120 columns, and 8 doors,” and another “150 feet in length [and] 50 in height,” with “42 windows, 70 columns, 8 doors,” and “walls of variegated work adorned with many kinds of marble.”

They also seem to have produced some rather lovely works of art whenever they weren’t rolling about drunkenly in the mud:

d) While Aristotle did defend the knowability and value of the perceptible world, he did not say “believe only your own experience.” He thought that we should trust the “appearances” (at least defeasibly), but those “appearances” included not only the evidence of the senses but also the endoxa or “reputable beliefs,” i.e., the beliefs of the many and/or the wise.

e) Burke suggests that Greco-Roman pagan thought had a “less supernatural, more practical, hard-headed feel” than Christian thought – but this is at least misleading. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Discarded Image, concerning the confrontation between pagan and Christian thought in late antiquity:

The conflict between the old and the new religion was often bitter, and both sides were ready to use coercion when they dared. But at the same time the influence of the one upon the other was very great. … The precise nature and even, in some senses, the width of the chasm which separated the religions can easily be mistaken if we take our ideas solely from political or ecclesiastical histories …. Cultured people on both sides had had the same education, read the same poets, learned the same rhetoric. …

I have read a novel which represents all the Pagans of that day as carefree sensualists, and all the Christians as savage ascetics. It is a grave error. They were in some ways far more like each other than either was like a modern man. The leaders on both sides were monotheists, and both admitted almost an infinity of supernatural beings between God and man. Both were highly intellectual, but also (by our standards) highly superstitious. The last champions of Paganism were not the sort of men that … a modern “humanist’ … would wish them to have been. They were not lusty extroverts recoiling in horror or contempt from a world grown grey with the breath of the ‘pale Galilean’. … A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons. Both alike would have embarrassed him with stories of visions, ecstasies, and apparitions.

f) Burke’s suggestion that the Eucharist is “meaningless” if transubstantiation isn’t literally true would come as a surprise to most Protestants.

g) Burke describes the ideas of Abélard, William (of Conches), and Thierry (of Chartres) as though they were the product of the new texts and ideas coming into Christian Europe from Muslim Andalucia; but that influx did not begin in earnest until the mid-12th century, by which time all three of these thinkers were dead.

Burke also exaggerates their heterodoxy; none of them claimed, for example, that Genesis or the Church Fathers were “wrong” or “contradictory” – they merely claimed that, for example, certain sayings of the Fathers, or certain features of the creation account in Genesis, should be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally – which had been Augustine’s position too. In his commentary on Genesis, Augustine straight-up denied that the process of creation had taken literally seven days. So if the positions of Abélard, William, and Thierry represent rationalist subversion, why don’t Augustine’s?

h) In describing Ibn Rushd’s ideas, he makes it sound as though Ibn Rushd believed in the creation of the universe at a specific point in time, which he certainly did not. Ibn Rushd, like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina before him, thought of the universe as an everlasting emanation from God, with an infinite past.

i) Burke presents the “two truths” doctrine as something the Church embraced as a compromise position in response to Siger of Brabant’s Averroism, when in fact the “two truths” doctrine was a position the Church attributed (whether accurately or not remains unclear) to Siger while condemning it.

Okay, rant over. The episode’s still worth a watch, in any case.

Middelboe Chronicles, Part 35: Elijah

The theme of unreasonable rulers continues with Elijah (“Testament: The Bible in Animation,” 1996). The music is from Mendelssohn’s Elijah Oratorio.

The irony of the Jehovah/Ba’al rivalry is that they appear, from most of the historical evidence, to have originally been the same god under different names, like Jupiter and Zeus, or Odin and Woden.

In popular culture, the name “Jezebel” is most associated with Frankie Laine’s song:

Back in the 1970s in San Diego, my grandmother once shared a cab with Frankie Laine. She only vaguely knew who he was, and he of course had no idea that this sweet little old lady was herself “a devil … born / without a pair of horns.” He gave her free tickets to his show, but she didn’t go. (It didn’t occur to her to give the tickets to, say, her daughter and grandson.)

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