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Top 10 books on Medieval Spain
What I have observed over the years is that there are a ton of misconceptions online about the history of Spain in general, and in particular with many myths about the Middle Ages. One of the reasons I started The History of Spain Podcast in the first place was to debunk myths, and I’m sure that the book recommendations that you will find below will be helpful to understand the political, social and cultural history of Medieval Spain better.
1. Visigothic Spain 409-711
- Visigothic Spain 409 – 711$43.13
Roger Collins is one of the leading historians of the Spanish Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. Visigothic Spain 409-711 is a scholarly account on the history of the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain, covering the period between Roman and Muslim Spain. The history of Visigothic Spain and the Germanic peoples that settled in the Iberian Peninsula is widely unknown, but it’s still indispensible to understand the history of the later Christian Medieval states, since these claimed to be the restorers of the Catholic Visigothic Kingdom as opposed to al-Andalus. In this account Roger Collins provides a chronological overview of the political and military events, aspects of the society of the Visigothic Kingdom and the current state of research on the history and archeology of the period.
2. A History of Medieval Spain
- A History of Medieval SpainSale!
Medievalist historian Joseph F. O’Callaghan writes a comprehensive and in-depth book on the Middle Ages of Spain and Portugal that encompasses the history of Spain from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. For its price, it’s a bargain! Professor O’Callaghan gives primacy to political and military events, but he also covers aspects such as institutions, society, economy, religion and culture. A History of Medieval Spain is the best one-volume book on the history of Medieval Spain, and it’s great for both general history readers and students.
3. Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain
Brian A. Catlos offers a generalist and balanced account on the history of al-Andalus, which is often regarded as the best generalist overview of Muslim Spain. Kingdoms of Faith is a well-written narrative and, unlike Hugh Kennedy’s Muslim Spain and Portugal, Catlos is not only focused on political and military events. Very recommended for those who are looking for neither a very concise nor a very dense account.
4. The Quest for El Cid
- The Quest for El CidSale!
Fletcher presents this well-written and well-researched work on the figure of El Cid, the independent warlord that served both Christian and Muslim states and that eventually conquered Valencia for himself. Moreover, The Quest for El Cid is a biography that debunks the myths and contradictions that surround this character, as during Franco’s regime he was portrayed as a Christian national hero of the Reconquista.
5. The Moor’s Last Stand
- The Moor’s Last Stand$11.28
In 200 pages, Elizabeth Drayson vividly narrates the life of the last Emir of Granada, Boabdil, and the end of the presence of a Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula. The Moor’s Last Stand is a story of war, betrayal, intrigue, heroism and tragedy. It’s easy to read and it’s an exciting account, highly recommended for general readers! For a more serious and academic account, you can check out The Last Crusade of the West by Joseph F. O’Callaghan.
6. Isabella: The Warrior Queen
- Isabella: The Warrior QueenSale!
Kirstin Downey publishes the most recent biography of Queen Isabel / Isabella of Castile, the most important female ruler of Spain and one of the most prominent characters of Spanish history. Under her, the Crowns of Castile and Aragon united, the Reconquista finished with the conquest of the Emirate of Granada, Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain, the Spanish Inquisition was founded, and Spain discovered America. It’s a very good read to understand the context of her time and her character, with her bright and dark sides. Isabella The Warrior Queen is an excellent biography!
7. The Ornament of the World + The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
Okay, I know that these are two different books (therefore the list should be a top 11?), but if you only read one of them you would only get a partial and biased interpretation of how Muslims, Jews and Christians interacted with each other in al-Andalus and how that relationship evolved. The books present the same story but from opposite perspectives, but they are two sides of the same coin. María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World is an engaging and provocative book that presents an idealized vision of al-Andalus, as a multicultural place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony. On the other hand, Darío Fernández-Morera challenges the politically correct idea that al-Andalus was a multicultural paradise and attacks the recent Islamic historiography of the Western academia. While The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a more dry read, I suggest you to read both, since reality was something between these two extremes.
8. Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines
- Conquerors Brides and ConcubinesSale!
Simon Barton writes one of my favorite studies on Muslim-Christian relations. An aspect that is very often neglected in history books is interfaith relations and sex as power, and that’s the focus of this book. Conquerors Brides and Concubines presents the evolution of interfaith relations, from the early conquest to the post-Muslim Spain period, answering difficult questions such as why Christian-Muslim relations became much more tense after the 10th century, or why the heirs of the Umayyad throne were always sons of Christian concubines. It’s a very interesting survey, but only for readers very interested in the evolution and role of sexuality!
9. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
The Jews of Spain presents the history of the Sephardic Jews from the Visigothic Kingdom to their expulsion in 1492, and what happened then to the Sephardic diaspora. A history of more than a thousand years and 500 years of exile that haven’t completely eliminated the Sephardic identity.
10. Spanish Society, 1348-1700
- Spanish Society 1348-1700Sale!
In Spanish Society 1348-1700 Teofilo F. Ruiz examines the social history of Spain from the 14th to the 17th century, the transition of a society from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era. He explains how the Spanish society was stratified, the religious divisions and marginalization of the ethnic and religious minorities, and aspects of everyday life such as sexuality, festivals, dressing, eating, or religion. A must-read to complement with the political history of the period.
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