Book review: Moorish Spain

moorish spain richard fletcher cover

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Review Moorish Spain

Moorish Spain, authored by historian Richard Fletcher, was published back in the 90s, but it’s still a great introductory book to learn the basics about Muslim Spain, covering from the conquest in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492, with a special emphasis on the cultural heritage that influenced not only Spain but Europe.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

This was one of several books used in a course on “Literature and Culture of Muslim Spain” that I took in 2009. As our professor pointed out, the period from 711 to 1492 is difficult because the Muslim culture flourished early in Iberia and then went into a centuries-long, anticlimactic decline. At the time I took the course I found this book difficult to absorb and much preferred the Maria Rosa Menocal’s book on the same subject. However, post-graduation I’ve had time to read these two books separately and in their entirety. Fletcher’s book has risen mightily in my esteem. While Menocal’s very entertaining collection of essays does make it easy to relate to “Muslim Spain,” Fletcher’s task is far more difficult. He’s trying to help the general reader make sense of a chaotic and scantily-documented period. His basic approach is chronological, but events often were affected by other events happening in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond the Pyrenees, sometimes simultaneously, which often necessitates a little backtracking. Fletcher’s writing is concise. It was often necessary for me to put the book down and think about what I’d read. However, by reading carefully the reader can learn a lot about the historian’s tools. The book would be valuable to me for this reason, if for no other. “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding,” writes Fletcher in the final chapter of this book. As Ms. Menocal’s book so aptly exemplifies, there is a tendency to romanticize al-Andalus. Fletcher romanticizes nothing. His agenda is historical understanding. I’d recommend, if possible, reading both Fletcher’s and Menocal’s books. They reinforce and support each other. Five stars for Fletcher, too.” – Krebsman

Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” is a refreshing tonic against the plethora of books on Islamic Spain idealizing the supposed ‘Convivencia’ (especially, “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Menocal). Fletcher avoids the tendency among many scholars who wish to find an apt, hopeful (albeit unrealistic) Christian-Islamic modus vivendi for Europe’s present-day demographic predicament based on a romaticized model of medieval Spain. Presented in a well-researched, matter-of-fact fashion, the ‘good’ is presented in the context of the ‘bad and the ugly’.” – M. Orbuch

And this is what readers of the Goodreads community say:

An excellent book outlining the history of Moorish Spain! In 711 a relatively small army crossed over from Africa to establish a presence on the Iberian peninsula which was to last for almost a thousand years. Richard Fletcher describes the development of Moorish civilization from its beginnings, its relationship with Christian Europe and the rest of the Islamic world through to its final collapse in 1492. The book also shows how Islamic learning introduced science, agricultural practices and ancient philosophical studies which benefited the then emerging cultures of Christian Europe.

This book gives an insight into a fascinating period of history. Recommended reading!” – Andrew

After reading and being disappointed with Menocal’s famous book on Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World, I decided to take another crack with this book. And I am happy to report that Fletcher’s book is much better.

While Menocal is wistful and romantic, Fletcher is more detached and occasionally wry. While Menocal hardly acknowledges her sources, Fletcher is usually careful to note where he is getting his information from, even if this book lacks a scholarly bibliography. I found this a great relief, as I have been discovering that Moorish Spain is one of the most persistently mythologized periods in history. Washington Irving set the tone for this in his Tales of the Alhambra, but other writers have been following in his romantic footsteps ever since. Thus Fletcher’s dispassionate treatment was refreshing.

The main drawbacks of this book is that it is too short, and too scholarly. Fletcher was explicitly aiming for a popular audience, but the book he wrote would be better suited for an undergraduate class than a tourist. You cannot, for example, find many good vacation ideas in these pages; indeed, if this was your introduction to Moorish Spain, you might not even want to travel there at all.

Instead of focusing on intellectual and cultural history, the majority of this text deals with political and military history—the invasions, battles, territorial expansions, and so on. Admittedly, Fletcher also quotes poems, autobiographies, and includes pictures of famous buildings; he even has a whole chapter on the relations between Christians and Muslims during this time. But this information jostles for space among dozens of unfamiliar names of rulers who I do not much care to remember. Probably, if he wanted a better-selling book, he could have bot expanded it and included more of a personal touch. He is a fine writer and rather opinionated, so it would have served him well, I think, to have written something less formal.

In any case, I doubt there are any better books on the market for the history hungry tourist visiting Andalusia. This book will give you an overview of the period, and in the process inoculate you against much of the nonsense that gets thrown around about al-Andalus. It was not a paradise of tolerance, nor was it a perpetual war of faith against faith. As Fletcher said: “The past, like the present, is for most of the time rather flavourless.” ” – Roy Lotz

Summary of reviews: reviews are very positive, the only criticism I’ve found is that some say it’s too scholarly and the bombardment of dates in a 200-pages book can confuse the general reader. Recommended for those who want to have a general perspective about Muslim Spain.

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