Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? Lessons from Medieval Interfaith Relations – By Alex J. Novikoff

Alex J. Novikoff on David Nirenberg’s Neighboring Faiths

David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 341pp., $45
David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 341pp., $45

Good fences make good neighbors, or so insisted Robert Frost’s curt and uncompromising neighbor in his aptly titled poem, “Mending Wall.” The deceptively innocuous comment has become something of a modern dictum, which is slightly ironic since Frost’s poem was not intended as an endorsement of those fences, but rather as a shrewd critique of the perceived need to build and maintain them. As it turns out, versions of the same proverb exist in many languages and cultures, a testament to the apparently universal need to construct our identities by demarcating the boundaries of our communities and our selves. But fences, no less than neighbors, have histories, and they have varied greatly with the passage of time.

An abiding lesson of studying the past, David Nirenberg believes, is that it challenges our desire to maintain fences that are in fact more imagined and fluid than real and immutable. Consider medieval Spain: what sort of neighborly relations might be expected of the three religious communities who resided in the same cities and villages, shared communal and sometimes private spaces, spoke common languages but followed different observances, traded in the same economy but practiced different customs, served in each other’s households and governments (sometimes willingly, sometimes forcibly), and received spiritual direction from religious leaders who often went to great lengths to denigrate the very existence of their neighbors, all during a period that spanned seven and a half bloody (but occasionally peaceful) centuries of protracted war, cohabitation, plague, and reconquest? The status of that neighborly relationship may profitably be summed up in another cliché of modern life: it’s complicated. The historian’s challenge is not simply to appreciate that complexity, but to explain what it all means and why we should care.

Medieval Iberia has often been held up as a mirror to our own society, and for quite understandable reasons. For some, this bygone era represents a beacon of interfaith tolerance and cultural exchange of the sort we might learn from today. Convivencia (“living together”) has long been the descriptive term of choice, a word that over the years has achieved a sort of sublime meaninglessness whereby it can effectively mean almost anything that one wants it to mean.

For others, medieval Iberia is best seen as a harsh and unrelenting mill that, through the grating and grinding of competing cultures and hostile takeovers, churned out some of the worst templates of religious intolerance: jihad and crusade, forced conversions, torture and inquisition, racial exclusion, wholesale expulsions, and more. This lachrymose view would seem to offer a prelude of sorts to Samuel Huntington’s much-discussed thesis of a Clash of Civilizations, which, notwithstanding its excessive and deliberate simplicity, continues to resonate with audiences today. (It is telling that Nirenberg both begins and ends with a critique of Huntington.)

Yet other scholars, now quite a few, shun this polarity altogether and favor a more nuanced middle ground of conflict and coexistence. In doing so, however, they must face the uphill battle of formulating a coherent explanatory model that adequately captures the realities of both sides. Studies of this kind focus heavily on the inherent paradox of a pluralistic society where communal coherence was precarious, geographical and ideological borders were always shifting, and allegiances among groups could be as fleeting as the fortunes of battle. Broadly speaking, then, discussions of interfaith relations in pre-modern Spain conform to one of three models: an uplifting lesson in enlightened coexistence, a depressing tale of bloodshed and violence, or a nuanced but unsettling description of cultural hybridity and economic interdependence.

In this stimulating and deeply learned collection of essays (of which all except one have previously been published), medieval historian David Nirenberg reaffirms his mastery as an original and challenging expositor in the third category of historical interpreters. It has been almost twenty years since the publication of his groundbreaking Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (1996), which helped to set in motion a major rethinking of the monolithic nature of medieval persecutory violence. Neighboring Faiths both revisits and expands upon several of the themes of that first book, and while there is assuredly some repetition in the subject matter, there are also some notable differences. The focus remains on the deeply intertwined relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Spain, principally between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, relations that he now chooses to approach through the concept of “neighborly coproduction.”

The comparative anthropological dimension that laced together his earlier analyses of the stabilizing forces of violence here recedes into the background, as does his focus on everyday behaviors and interactions on the societal level. In its place is a greater emphasis on intellectual history, or the history of thought and ideas, an approach that runs parallel to his most recent book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013), rigorously and admiringly reviewed in this venue. Most especially, Nirenberg has migrated from emphasizing the contingency of the historical moment as independent of future events to interrogating how the past and the present operate in a quasi Hegelian dialectic. He develops this argument most fully in the final chapter of the book but it is evident throughout. The neighborly coproduction of religious communities, he maintains, is crucial to the construction of modern identity since “we too are engaged in similar coproductions, making sense of our own world by thinking about ourselves and our neighbors.”

A leitmotif that runs throughout the essays is the notion that the three religions of Iberia took shape through a process of “simultaneous identification and dis-identification” with their rival siblings and neighbors. The same might of course equally be said of the early history of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the Near East (a topic of increasing scholarly attention). Spain, however, provides an especially useful laboratory for dissecting and examining these relations because the historical sources attesting to those interactions are so rich and the ideological consequences of those encounters have powerfully influenced our modern world, including giving rise to theories and vocabularies for what we have learned to call race (which he insists, pace others, comes from the Spanish word raza).

Over the course of nine heavily footnoted chapters Nirenberg marshals a broad array of evidence as he paints dense and captivating vignettes of how these communities have imagined and reimagined themselves and each other. Sources at his disposal include archival records attesting to interfaith sexual relations, narrative chronicles that provide political legitimation of kings and kingdoms, poetic works that play with tropes and stereotypes, polemical broadsides, missionizing sermons, intimate letters, law codes, and a range of other works originating in Latin, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Curiously underrepresented, it must be said, are the strictly theological works that attest to intra-communal belief and praxis. There are many allusions to and occasional quotes from the writings of important churchmen, rabbis, and Muslim religious thinkers, but the majority of Nirenberg’s analysis concentrates on the manipulation of normative religious texts in other contexts rather than on those texts and traditions themselves. There is also surprisingly little about the everyday readers of those texts. This is because, much like in Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg is ultimately more concerned with the formation of the intellectual categories of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish than with the practices and behaviors of those communities. Whether one agrees with him or not, Nirenberg makes the point succinctly: “the cognitive work people could do with these categories depended as much upon the shape of these concepts in their systems of thought as it did on the ‘real’ attributes of these religions or their adherents.”

Since these essays were written for different audiences at different times, they do not build sequentially or chronologically upon one another, but instead provide multiple points of entry into a wide array of related and overlapping topics such as religious pluralism, massacre and mass conversion, assimilation, segregation, and expulsion. Some of the chapters take a broad overview of the issues and look diachronically at the evolution of ideas and language over time. The first chapter, for instance, addresses what Christianity and Islam knew of each other and what impact that may have had on their understandings of each other. Nirenberg concludes that increased proximity to and knowledge of other religious communities is as capable of heightening the power of polemical forms as it is of effacing it, and that in the process “faith was also transformed.”

Other chapters take a more focused look at specific instances of collective self-fashioning and offer a more synchronic view of a topic. In a chapter on “Deviant Politics and Jewish Love,” Nirenberg examines the (probably apocryphal) story of King Alfonso VIII’s involvement with a Jewess of Toledo and the political symbolism that such a liaison conveyed. Chapter 4, “Massacre or Miracle? Valencia, 1391,” is the one previously unpublished essay in the collection. Here Nirenberg reads the minutiae of the documentary record concerning the mass conversion of Jews in the city of Valencia in tandem with twentieth-century (German) political theorists. He finds that the competing claims to the right of deciding the fate of the Jews in fourteenth-century Valencia provoked, through the suspension of law, a “crisis of sovereignty” that holds analogues to the debate about the nature of politics expressed in the writings of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin.

The final chapter, which takes on the challenges posed by modern discussions of Islam and Christendom, contains a particularly outstanding distillation of post-medieval historiography. Starting from Huntington’s provocative thesis and Pope Benedict XVI’s now notorious 2006 Regensburg speech on “Faith, Reason, and the University,” Nirenberg unpacks five hundred years of Western fantasies about Islam, ranging from barbarous invaders to utopian tolerance, a phenomenon he labels the “inseparability of exclusion and inclusion.”

The essays in this book are learned, provocative, and consistently thought-provoking. This being said, it is admittedly not always easy to follow Nirenberg’s sinuous train of thought. Not all, but many of the chapters swarm with theoretical abstractions and recondite digressions on Hegelian dialectics. A parade of political philosophers and cultural critics are marched through the pages, their contributions not always so clearly in step with the subject at hand. I could not, for example, fully follow the stirrings of Giorgio Agamben, Eric Santner, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek in the chapter on the “massacre or miracle” in Valencia or quite grasp all the connections between Foucault and Nietzsche within the discussion of modern notions of race. It will take much effort for most readers to keep up with Nirenberg as he shifts conceptual gears in such rapid succession. This, coupled with the author’s rather heavy-handed use of the perpendicular pronoun (often to emphasize what the author is not saying or how he should not be misunderstood), can make some of the chapters more declarative and demanding than was perhaps necessary.

Conversely, the concept of “neighborly coproduction” might have benefitted from a slightly more precise definition. At times it seems to mean little more than general regional proximity and shared values. Nirenberg is not, for example, talking about members of different faiths contributing to lavish building projects or collaborating on scientific translations, subjects currently very much in vogue. But all of the individual chapters repay attention, in large part because the issues and the stakes remain as important as ever. The copious endnotes, where humanists do their heaviest lifting, are a bibliographic mine of information.

Finally, the subtitle of the volume emphasizes the relation of the medieval past to the modern world. Many who pick up this book will want to know whether Nirenberg has a special message to a modern audience bathed both in the gruesome stories of religiously inspired violence that flood our daily news feeds and in the seemingly endless discussions of the alleged “medieval” behavior of modern fundamentalist groups. In a very meaningful sense Nirenberg does address these issues, but it is to his great credit that he does not stoop down to the level of simplistic teleological explanations or over-indulge in the moralizing lessons that now litter the internet and generally cater to various partisan crowds. He does intend a pedagogical purpose, but his goals are more judicious: “I am not proposing that the past serve us as a model to emulate or avoid. I mean teach rather in the sense of cultivating within us a sensibility that can discover in the past a stimulus to critical awareness about the workings of our assumptions, hopes, and habits of thought.” A profound and abiding lesson indeed, though likely more relevant to those who are not listening than to those who are.

By the close of the book I could not quite tell whether Nirenberg is pessimistic or optimistic about the future of our neighborly relations. Perhaps the Hegelian philosophy of history that he invokes is meant to instill in us a synthesis of the good and the bad. He gently entreats his readers to draw their own conclusions from the terrain that has been mapped and the issues that have been raised. My own conclusion is one that Robert Frost, I suspect, must have known all along: good fences don’t make good neighbors; good neighbors make good neighbors. The fences we build play a more ambiguous role.

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