Skip to toolbar


Editors’ note: The following post by Shamma Boyarin appeared originally on “In the Middle” on 17 March 2018. La corónica Commons  has received permission from Boyarin to re-publish his response to two posts by Chad Leahy here and here. LcC´s intention is to bring this topic to our readers and open up additional possibilities for discussion.

You may post your comments on this post below.

The editors at LcC have also created a preliminary bibliography for this topic, and we invite you to add more elements. Email suggestions to the editors at

Putting Iberia in the Middle


Jewish tradition distinguishes (broadly) between to types of arguments: arguments that are not “for the sake of heaven”, where one or both sides are debating for the sake of their own reputation or just out of spite, and those that are “for the sake of heaven” where both sides are looking towards a common goal and are arguing in good faith with the aim of getting closer to understanding or achieving this goal. I see this exchange as an example of the second kind of argument. While I fully believe that the intentions of both Chad Leahy’s post of (Feb 25) ( Dear Fellow Iberianists where are we?) and the editorial board of ITM in running it were good, and while I obviously support the broader context in which this conversation is happening I would like to explain why myself and other Iberianists might take exception. To quote the Andalusi poet and Philosopher Judah Ha-Levi- ניתך מרציה ועמלך גיר מרצי– which means “your intentions are welcome, but your deeds are not welcome”. Further, while Chad has somewhat responded to some of the pushback against his first post in his second post (see here), I feel it’s important to articulate this pushback in a more thorough fashion than had been expressed till now on various social media, both because Chad’s second post makes it clear that such a response was needed, and, perhaps more importnatly in order to make this to be a more inclusive conversation- to give non-Iberianists more context and resources to look at this issue.

I first want to begin with why having ITM host this particular post felt troubling to me and some of my colleagues. It is a well-established fact that in North America anything related to England dominates medieval studies. The majority of jobs, and majority of panels at big conferences (and small specialized conferences) etc. all revolve around England in some way. This of course has understandable reasons, and on some level, makes sense. But because of this, for those of us working in other areas, our topics, interests, areas of expertise, and struggles are often sidelined, marginalized and invisible. ITM, which is run entirely by scholars whose area of expertise is England, and which is considered by many (myself included) to be one of the important online voices in medieval studies cannot be seen as separated from this reality.

I understand that both the editors of ITM and Chad Leahy are aware of this- and that that is why he wished to publish his post in this influential venue, and that the regular contributors of ITM saw this as an opportunity to use the platform ITM has to create the space that in my previous paragraph I argue that we have been fighting for. I also immediately understood that both parties, the author and editors of ITM, viewed this piece as being in line with the active discussion that took place on ITM earlier this summer about similar topics (and to which I contributed as well). But, there is a big difference: all of those earlier pieces were aimed at medieval studies as a whole, even when someone was writing from their specific subfield, the idea was to think about ways in which we all can be part of a general conversation that improves the field as a whole. In that context using ITM as a platform made sense: its centrality to the field was its strength and made conversation across various boundaries possible. This recent piece calls out a specific group (“Iberianists”) for not contributing to a collective discussion: “Look, medieval studies has been having these important conversations, why are you lagging behind? Why don’t you care enough about RFB? AF?” It reinforces the message that we only matter to the extent that we are doing the things that are important to those working on the “real medieval studies.”

The fact that ITM chose to provide space for this touches a nerve, because we have been trying to have these conversations with you, explain why our work matters to these issues long before this summer. Often we have been ignored, sometimes condescended to (“oh yes yes we know Spain is special place… yes yes we know Jews and Arabs and Muslims and all that- but how is that relevant to the rest of Europe?”), and sometimes even actively attacked because we don’t know enough about “issue X”.

Furthermore, because none of those running ITM know enough about Medieval Iberian studies to properly assess some of the issues with the piece and the many ways it comes off as short-sighted.

The general thrust of the post is a call for Iberianists to be more visible in calling out the use of the medieval by white supremacists and other nationalistic groups, particularly when it relates to Spain. The argument is that Iberianists have been tacitly complicit or not vocal enough in the current fight about medieval studies that has become especially fierce because of the pushback against scholars like RFB, AF, and certain events at last year’s IMC Leeds. But what the post fails to account for is that there is a long complex history of Iberianists fighting this fight, in Spain, Europe, and North America. Indeed, for many of us the very choice to become “Iberianists” was a choice to be part of struggle over the identity of not just the Iberian Peninsula but the medieval world.

As Jesús R Velasco wrote (in a discussion responding to the post that took place on my Facebook wall, I’m quoting him with permission):

Iberianists have been making noise for a long time –including university revolts in the late Francoist era, the fight against right-wing politics of literary criticism during the ‘transition’ and beyond, the renewal of archival research, the study of many languages across the Iberian Peninsula, new studies in Medieval and Early Modern models of conflictive ‘coexistence’ for years, etc.” Some these scholars risked their freedom and were forced into exile for the scholarly work. Yes, there is a history of drawing upon accounts of medieval Spain to support fascism, but there is as well a complicated history of resistance that is embedded into much of our scholarship both in Spain and here.

As David Wack notes in a review of the history of the study of medieval Spain in the US:

For those of us working in the US, it was the legacy of Américo Castro that had the greatest impact on this debate. Castro threw down the multicultural gauntlet. It was a real challenge to the field, a call to arms… … Castro’s students and followers in the US, notably Francisco Márquez Villanueva, Sam Armistead, and James Monroe, during the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, all continued to explore the idea that Spain’s literary and vernacular cultures were not simply a reaction to the history of Islam and Judaism in the Peninsula, but were heirs, hybrids, a multicultural product of this history. Consequently, any assessment of medieval Iberian culture that omitted the Peninsula’s Semitic legacy was incomplete at best and patently racist at worst.

Castro’s students, and his students’ students, took up the challenge with great zeal. His multicultural thesis resonated with the brewing US multiculturalism that exploded in the wake of the Vietnam War. James Monroe (Emeritus at UC Berkeley), who took his PhD in Romance Languages at Harvard, went on to almost single-handedly champion Andalusi literary studies outside of Spain, always with the idea that, as he put it, and with only slight exaggeration, “Spanish is a dialect of Arabic.” The late Francisco Márquez-Villanueva (Emeritus at Harvard) wrote extensively on the semitic cultures of the Iberian peninsula and their deep footprint in what would become Castilian and then Spanish literary and intellectual culture. The late Samuel Armistead (Emeritus at UC Davis) dedicated a lifetime to the study of the culture of medieval Iberia and its transformations in the culture of the Sephardic Jews. His student, the late María Rosa Menocal (Yale) famously disrupted the field first with her book The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History in which she championed the so-called thèse arabe of the genesis of troubadour poetry, and also challenged Hispanist approaches to the Andalusi legacy of Peninsular literary culture. More recently Menocal published a popular trade book, titled The Ornament of the World, a multicultural history of medieval Iberia that delighted general readers and sympathetic specialists, and infuriated more orthodox historians who felt that her intervention was an incursion on their territory and a heresy of speculative, even revisionist history in the spirit of her academic grandfather, Américo Castro. The academic grandchildren of Castro, such as Harvard’s Luis Girón-Negrón, Minnesota’s Michelle Hamilton, and Michigan’s Ryan Szpiech, are continuing and nuancing the work begun by Castro and his students, and continue to interrogate linguistic and religious categories of scholarly inquiry.”

(For the full post read here)

I will reiterate in case it has not been clear: Spanish scholars like Américo Castro were in exile because of their ideas. Our field has never not been a site of struggle. For many of us our engagement with medieval Spain as Hebraists or Arabists is a result of the work of Castro and others- and we see it as a direct continuation of it. That is there isn’t a specific moment (last summer for example) when we are engaging these questions- we are always doing so- in our writing, speaking and teaching.

In his post Chad asks “why Fernández-Morera’s rabidly polemical The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) not give rise to a more vigorous public response by scholars in the field in 2017?”  And points to Sarah Pearce’s review of it as the lone exception (read here). 

Sarah Pearce (again on Facebook discussing the ITM post) has suggested that part of the problem with the post is that the author fails to adequately distinguish between “Hispanists” and “Iberianists”. She says: “the former ultimately being the heirs to the national-Catholic foundations of the field in some way or another, who see an integrity to “Spain”, and who work in Spanish and Latin only; and the latter being people who work with more languages and see Spain as part of a broader system that requires a broader historiographic and theoretical approach.” This failure to distinguish re-anacts (perhaps inadvertently) the very problem which the post is trying to mobilize scholars to fight against. The scholars named above by Wacks are what I (and others) would consider “Iberianists.”

As Chad himself suggests in his post many of us imbued this struggle as part of training and its defined our scholarship in significant ways. Chad turns this into a negative worrying that perhaps because we already see Iberia as a complex site of multicultural struggle we are silent when these important conversations are taking place all around us- but its simply not the case-  scholars of Iberia/al-Andlaus/Sepharad have been making noise for a long time in many different ways about these issues. Are you listening?

Some recommendations for going further in this direction:

In addition to the scholars mentioned in the post above also look at the work of Vincent Barletta (Stanford) and Nuria Martínez de Castilla (EPHE, Paris)

A very brief reading list that might be useful:

Monroe, James. The Art of Badi az-Zaman al-Hamadhani as Picarsque Narrative, American University of Beirut, 1984.

Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies 1991

Menocal, Maria Rosa The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Back Bay Books, Little Brown, 2002

 —. Shards of Love: Exile and the origins of the Lyric, Duke UP, 1994

Akbari and Mallette eds. A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, University of Toronto Press, 2013

Pearce, Sarah The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition: The Role of Arabic in Judah ibn Tibbon’s Ethical Will, Indiana Univerist Press 2017

Some shorter pieces:

Gumbrecht. “A Philological Invention of Modernism: Menéndez Pidal, García Lorca, and the Harlem Renaissance,” in The Future of the Middle Ages: Medieval French Literature in the 1990s, ed. William D. Paden (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1994), 32-49.

Ray, Jonathan. (2005). Beyond Tolerance and Persecution: Reassessing Our Approach to Medieval Convivencia. Jewish Social Studies, 11(2), 1–18.

Rojinsky, D. (2010). Companion to Empire: A Genealogy of the Written Word in Spain and New Spain, C.550-1550. Rodopi. (in particular Intro and Postscript):


“In his contrastive Analysis of the Romance and national philological traditions, Gumbrecht (1986) suggested that, Romance Philology might be better understood at the discipline of the outsider, of the exile, the entranced “with the fragmentation, the loveliness and merits of the scattering of the long-lost empire” (Menocal 1994:109). Bearing this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Gumbrecht should also note that the founder of Romance Philology, Friedrich Diez, actually fit the bill himself: Diez was Prussian, and hence a non-native Romance speaker, and born at a time when Germany did not even yet exist as a nation. Moreover, Diez dwelt on Provencal poetry in Languedoc and therefore on a language not correlated with any National boundaries, and in fact a tongue destined for destruction to allow for the emergence of France as a linguistically unified polity. If later nationalistic philological institutions of individual powerful cultures “bound by a specific and particular language” (Menocal 1994:109) stood in contrast to Diez’ apparent love of diasporic fragmentation and languages ‘without homes’, then Romance Philology, in its preoccupation with an essentially atemporal Romania “written in all languages and at all times”, presupposed that for all its practitioners – not least of all in case of Erich Auerbach – the “the logical home is the earth: it can no longer be the nation” (110).

Cerquiglini, B. (1989). Éloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie. Paris: Seuil.

Szpiech, R. (2014). Américo Castro, Erich Auerbach, y la “ciencia” historiográfica. In Encrucijada de culturas: Alfonso X y su tiempo. Homenaje a Francisco Márquez Villanueva. Ed. Emilio González Ferrín, 101–124.

Menocal, Maria Rosa Writing Without Footnotes: The role of the medievalist in contemporary intellectual life

Jones, Nicholas. Cosmetic Ontologies, Cosmetic Subversions: Articulating Black Beauty and Humanity in Luis de Góngora’s “En la fiesta del Santísimo Sacramento”. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2015, pp. 26-54

(I want to thank Sarah Pearce, Jesús R Velasco, David Wacks and Valerie Wilhite for reading drafts of this post and providing great suggestions and information.

Please note that I have a disability that impacts my writing- we have tried to clean things up- but in the interest of making this post available in a timely manner we could not copy edit it as closely as might be necessary. Please don’t let any typos, grammar errors etc influence how you evaluate the post).

Repost of “Putting Iberia in the Middle” by Shamma Boyarin