The Ornament of the World: Why we shouldn’t define people by religion

If you are an avid PBS fan, you may have seen the premier of a new documentary titled Ornament of the World in the last month. It’s a piece about the interfaith world of medieval Spain, and given that I work on the very related field of cross-cultural contact in medieval Sicily, I should have been excited to see it, but, frankly, I was surprised and somewhat exhausted at the thought that this movie had been made. Because not only was its perspective on interreligious contact left behind by the field of medieval studies almost 20 years ago, but its entire approach to the question assumes that peoples of different religions should be inherently separate.

The PBS documentary is based on a book published in 2002 by Maria Rosa Menocal of the same name. Menocal’s work became particularly famous because it championed the idea of Convivencia in medieval Spain, and this is the core issue I have with both the book and the film. Convivencia, literally “living together” is a concept used to describe Spain in the long period when it had a significant Muslim population, between the 8th and 15th centuries. Convivencia describes Spain during this period as a pluralistic society, in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims all lived together as part of one broad community, despite moments of violence and discord. The theory came up in opposition to a somewhat more harmful narrative of the medieval world, which completely overlooked religious diversity and pretended that Europeans were all white Christians who simply discovered Muslims in the 8th, 12th, and 15th centuries, to their great surprise each time. But just because the previous theory was so obviously flawed doesn’t mean that Convivencia is a good way to think about interreligious contact either.

The problem with Convivencia among scholars was that it swung the pendulum too far to the other side. Menocal’s original presentation seemed to completely gloss over moments that are often characterized as religious violence, such as the Crusades, in order to offer an overly rosy image of a pluralistic society. For this reason, Convivencia as a theory has been the source of constant criticism in the almost 20 years since Ornament of the World  was first published, and scholars who write about interreligious conflict have spent more time arguing why it’s wrong than supporting it. In my area of medieval Sicily, prominent scholars such as Jeremy Johns have made a career of showing why things that have been seen as the physical evidence of interreligious collaboration, like blended architectural styles, can just as easily signify colonialism and other forms of cultural conquest that modern scholarship (since Frantz Fanon) views as their own kind of violence.

Interior of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. The palatine chapel is hailed as a blend of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Islamic design, whether out of intentional collaboration, or cultural appropriation.

For me, though, it’s the entire framing of the issue of interreligious contact that makes Convivencia, as well as its predecessors and responders, problematic. All of these theories approach interreligious contact as a situation of clearly defined categories – Christian, Jewish, Muslim. But the medieval world is just as easily categorized by the sectarian divisions within these groups. For instance, the Great Schism between what would become the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches at the very least meant that there were two major Christian groups that had significant differences in their religious doctrine and practices, as well as resulting differences in their cultures, ethnic compositions, and languages. Orthodox – or Greek – Christians saw themselves as very separate from Catholic – or Latin – Christians, to the point that they were two different religions, even though modern viewers simply see them both as Christians. Moreover, medieval Christianity still had a tremendous number of small sects that operated independently from either church and received a tremendous amount of ire from both. This is one of the points that the Ornament of the World  documentary glosses over. Toward the end of the film, it introduces the Inquisition as the absolute end of Convivencia and claimed that the movement of religious interrogation was meant to suss out the secret Jews and Muslims among recent Christian converts after 1492; but the documentary then quietly drops that the Inquisition was begun in 1480 to force the conversion of non-compliant Christians. The reality of medieval and early modern religiously-motivated violence is that when it existed, which was rare, it was much more within a single large religious group than between major religions. This is true of the Crusades as well. Although Ornament of the World suggests that the First Crusade was a Christian movement to eradicate Muslims from Jerusalem, it was very much a political power move by the Pope to take control of the Greek Orthodox church.

There were plenty of significant divisions within the Islamic world as well that make talk of things like “Christian-Muslim relations” difficult to pin down. Most clearly is the Sunni/Shi’i division, which split a huge portion of the Muslim community from the end of the 7th century on over whether its leadership should be based on hereditary qualifications or not. But in the medieval Mediterranean, the label “Muslim” is further complicated by political and religious divisions that were not so clearly defined. Such divisions in North Africa became some of the most significant for the political and military history of the Middle Ages – as the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad lost their tight control over lands to the west, and the remaining ‘Umayyad Caliphate in Spain crumpled, Spain and North Africa became a collection of largely independent and often warring kingdoms, emirates, and mini-empires. On top of this, Berber tribes in North Africa, such as those known as the Almoravids and Almohads, moved between regions and across political systems, sometimes fighting with entire states, sometimes living within them. As within the Christian religious landscape, these Berber groups represent a movement to more tightly define Islam and stamp out those who did not conform to that new standard, either within the religion or without. Within both Christianity and Islam, the two major religions that served as a legitimizing force for political regimes and movements, there were significant divisions and conflicts, and in response there arose fundamentalist reform movements in the 11th and 12th centuries that would seize the narrative.

Although Judaism is typically lumped in as the third religion of this group, medieval Jews were distinct from medieval Christians and Muslims in that they never had political autonomy or hegemony. So while we can look at how Christians and Muslims both systemically treated minorities and themselves lived as minorities, we can’t do the same for Jews. This puts medieval Jews in something of a passive role – we only ever see them responding to treatment, rather than creating policy for how to deal with other groups. At the same time, Jews dominated the economic and intellectual worlds of the medieval Mediterranean. In that sense, it is again difficult to talk about them as a separate or distinct group. Because even as much as Jews often maintained separate communities defined by marriage or behavioral norms such as kashrut (dietary restrictions), so many individuals occupied such prominent or significant roles within Christian and Muslim societies that Jews as a group were inextricable. Joseph Shatzmiller and David Friedenreich have both written about how Jews as individuals and groups served indispensable roles in medieval Christian society, as merchants, art dealers, physicians, translators, and butchers. So although there were actions of collective violence against medieval Jews in Europe, they were most often in-but-not-of the dominant culture and could not be separated.

With all of these divisions and interweavings, then, I find that it makes no sense to still talk about medieval society in terms of these large groups, as if we could pick them apart. Ornament of the World pleads ignorance on this issue. When the documentary gets to the Reconquista, the narrative of military conquest that joined Spain into a single country under Ferdinand and Isabella, the scholars interviewed act like the notion of Reconquista is utterly nonsensical – how could Christians “reconquer” something 700 years after they lost it? They couldn’t possibly have any institutional memory of Christian Spain before the Muslims arrived, or think of themselves as a separate group! This is absolutely true. And yet, by talking about medieval Spain as a collection of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, those very scholars have been supporting exactly that kind of thinking. We can’t refute the ideology of ethnonationalist movements like the Reconquista without also dismantling the major religious divisions that support them. And that starts with seeing the complexity of diversity and pluralism.