An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 13, 2018

Emery and Utz, eds: Medievalism

Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz, eds. Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2017.

Reviewed by Micheal Crafton (

Medievalism as a scholarly pursuit is, amazingly, still somewhat controversial, however much less than, say, two decades ago and decreasingly so every year.  Yet the topic can still precipitate in some boisterous arguments with “real medievalists,” concerning the belief that it is faddish, or amateurish, or under-theorized or even over-theorized.  I say this in spite of the wonderful work and legacy of Leslie Workman and Kathleen Verduin and in spite of the amazing industry of Richard Utz, especially in his editorial production and network development.  Some people may never be convinced, but this slim (and now less expensive in paperback) volume with its thirty-two separate essays, providing a wide variety of approaches to the subject, should go a long way to bridging the gap between the ongoing debate over what counts as true medieval studies or what methods are acceptable.

This book has three very useful pieces of apparatus, as we used to say in the textbook trade.  There is a very full index that captures terms not listed elsewhere.  Also, at the end of every one of the thirty-two essays on a key critical term is a list of other key critical terms that the author considers useful and relevant, and finally there is an extraordinarily useful introductory essay that groups key critical terms together for diving deeper into cross themes, such as the divide between what is considered professional and what is considered amateur.  This opening essay is worth pausing over because Professors Emery and Utz have taken pains to briefly retell the history of medievalism from the pioneering work of Workman and Verduin to the development of Studies in Medievalism and This Year’s Work in Medievalism.  (In fact, the volume is dedicated to Kathleen Verduin.)  The rest of the introduction is occupied with threading the various key critical terms into a variety of critical theory or methodology debates.

As the authors demonstrate, however, the negotiations of history and epistemology that occur bringing together the extreme ends of the debates affords some of the best nuanced theorizing in the totality of studies on medieval subjects.  The very issue of who is authorized to speak is taken up in a series of terms: “Authenticity,” “Co-Disciplinarity,” and “Reenactment.”  But it is also taken up in such terms as “Continuity,” “Lingua,” “Simulacrum,” and even, strangely, “Purity.”  What many readers will appreciate is how the authors detail the manner in which medieval studies re-authorizes itself by casting off portions of its former self.  One example that is quite illustrative is quoted by David Matthews’s “Chaucer’s American Accent,” wherein Matthews holds up D.W. Robertson, Jr.’s A Preface to Chaucer as what was once a major pillar of medieval studies but that is now pointed out as an example of where medieval studies “went wrong” (7).  To say this method is an example of where it “went wrong” is to say that the degree of deference shown to this overly narrow reading of all medieval literature and art as a species of patristic exegesis paradigm could not be sustained and wasn’t, but the change was Copernican revolution. There was just about no greater authority than Robertson and the Princeton school, but now rarely anyone would employ this method.  So this notion of a pure form of medieval studies that could look down upon medievalism was always already a myth.

There are many gems in this slim introductory essay, but its main function is to launch readers into the essays that provide an interesting opening to medievalism by exploration of one term.  The essays, each one about eight pages long, present varying approaches to the subjects in terms of theory and method, and they are all useful and provocative.  In fact, the diversity of approach and coverage is itself instructive of the work of medievalism.  Additionally, reading the volume as a set of essays rather than as a glossary, I could see a few central themes emerging.  I would say that nearly all of them touch on one or more of these three themes: legitimacy, temporality, and methodology.  Sometimes an essay will focus a great deal on one, and sometimes the themes are marbled.

Pam Clements takes the subject of medievalism’s legitimacy on clearly, directly and forcefully in her essay “Authenticity.”  After reiterating some of the delegitimizing strategies of medieval studies, which in her economical phrasing define medievalism as “the study of necessarily inauthentic ‘medieval’ matter” (20), she begins with a systematic disclosure of the increasingly problematic nature of periodicity.  The romance of the original or the authentic has been and will remain a powerful motivator for both professional studies (with its reverence for scientific proofs of authorship or age or provenance) and amateur studies (folklore groups, for example, obsessed with the original words and forms of songs and tales).  But ultimately it must be accepted that the authentic Middle Ages is a fiction.  Once this fact is recognized, she points out, the appeal to authenticity is made along different lines, ones that must take into account not only the impossibility of some absolute authenticity but also must explore “registers” or areas of authenticity or integrity.  Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is clearly not an “authentic” medieval work in the sense of being created in the period and therefore not the subject of “authentic” medieval studies.  However, due to the evolving deconstruction of exactly what constitutes the so-called authentic Middle Ages and due to developments in cultural and critical theory, it is no longer remarkable to read medieval subjects representing 19th-century British anxiety about a collapsing empire, as in Idylls, as an authentic approach to the study of a medieval subject.  Tennyson’s reflection on the medieval subject can inform our reflection upon that same subject, thereby opening up more of what may have been the medieval world’s own reflection upon the cultural subject.

The arguments in Professor Clements essay are buttressed by many others in the volume.  Certainly Gwendolyn Morgan’s essay on “Authority” and Jonathan Hsy’s on “Co-Disciplinarity,” provide wonderful and self-reflexive approaches to legitimacy and methodology, as does “Reenactment” by Michael Cramer.  Cramer addresses the reflexivity in a dramatic and perhaps personal way by ventriloquizing the criticism of reenactors, calling them “weird” and “nerds” and “dorks” (207).  Lauryn S. Mayer’s essay on “Simulacrum” is also very effective in making the legitimacy case especially in something of a post-modern sense after the manner of Baudrillard.  One of my personal favorites entries is “Genealogy” by Zrinka Stahuljak.  The topic of genealogy is a rich one from the outset, to be sure, and this essay starts off by revisiting Foucault’s famous essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and its myriad disruptions of what had been the scholarly assumptions of the meaning of this term.  In a brief and impressive display of Foucauldian epistemological disruption, the essay narrows in on George Duby’s 1953 classic La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise.  Stahuljak reads Duby’s work with respect and care in order to demonstrate that he was Foucauldian ahead of his time in demonstrating a decoupling of genealogy with biology.  This essay does what many in this vein do: they help the reader understand the term in question and then demonstrate that the approach in medievalism not only troubles a naïve understanding of historicity but also shows the utility of medievalism as a methodological tool.  Medieval studies is really not complete without medievalism and vice versa.

On the other two themes that I mentioned at the outset, temporality and methodology, there are many excellent essays as well.  I would highly recommend the essay on “Presentism” by Louise D’Arcens.  Not only does she present the struggle with legitimacy concerns viz-a-viz medieval alterity, but also she reads three different texts that would seem to demonstrate three different approaches to the strange dual-consciousness of this work.  The first one is exemplified in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and its many iterations, representing a nearly total superiority of the modern over the old; the second is illustrated by Jean-Marie Poiré’s Les Visiteurs, using the medieval world as a satire of modernity; and finally, the third approach is demonstrated by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), an exploration of time travel so outrageous that it “queries all models of temporality” (186).

One of the most enjoyable and perhaps eminently teachable essays is Karl Fugelso’s on the key term “Continuity.”  After his disarmingly clear opening definition—“To qualify as a legitimate focus for the study of medievalism a subject must refer to the Middle Ages, yet stand apart from the period” (53)—he proceeds to analyze three illustrations of Dante’s Inferno Canto 13: one, a fourteenth-century Italian manuscript, Holkham Miscellanae 48; two, William Blake’s 1824 version, unfinished; and three, Seymour Chast’s 2010 graphic novel Dante’s Divine Comedy.  By analyzing what in each illustration seems to represent as medieval or not medieval in terms of style, he proposes what might be considered a methodology for quantifying the presence of the medieval.  But what it ultimately allows him to demonstrate is the difficulty of proving continuity or even discontinuity, and how we too are imbricated in the hermeneutic enterprise.

I will close this review with one final observation.  Among the essays for the terms, one finds a variety in scope or focus of analysis.  While the majority of the essays address issues across the realms of time, some do not.  Zrinka Stahuljak’s essay on “Genealogy,” for example, focuses almost exclusively on medieval subjects; whereas Elizabeth Fay’s essay on “Troubadour” treats nearly nothing but post-medieval subjects.  One will find very little about the troubadour poets in the latter but rather a great deal about Renaissance, Romantic, and Victorian appropriations of troubadour ideas or conceits.  While this variety to me is interesting and enjoyable, it is something that readers or rather users of this book as a glossary should be aware of.  I firmly believe this book will prove quite useful to students, professors, and the general reader.  The variety of ideas, approaches, and subjects touched upon is stunning and will reward careful reading.

Micheal Crafton
University of West Georgia

October 30, 2017

Baumgardt - Interview with John D. Cressler

Julia Baumgardt (Marian University, Indianapolis)

Interview with John D. Cressler, author of Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City, books one and two of the Anthems of Al-Andalus series

John Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013, viii + 424pp.
John Cressler, Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014, viii + 584pp.

Why did you choose al-Andalus? What got you interested in this period and region?

JDC: My dream has always been to write fiction, and after 5 non-fiction books, the time finally felt right. History is my second love (especially European history), and I really enjoy reading historical fiction, so that became my goal: write a compelling piece of historical fiction. No small feat! First up: setting. After a couple of months of browsing I happened upon some descriptions of Muslim Córdoba at the height of the Golden Age (the end of the 10th century), which totally blew me away! I thought I knew European history pretty well, but somehow I had missed out on this fascinating period, marked not only a truly remarkable flowering of art, literature, science, and medicine, but for a >100 year stretch, convivencia, the relatively peaceful presence of both Jews and Christians living (and practicing) in Muslim Spain (a reminder that Jews today consider the Jewish Golden Age to be that same period within 10-11th century Muslim Spain! Remarkable.). To me, the very existence of convivencia bears an important message for the 21th century. The more I read, the more enthralled I became. And thus I decided on a quest to break open this 800 year Muslim-Spanish history with a series of novels: The Anthems of al-Andalus. While I always intended to write about the Golden Age (10th century), I soon fell in love with the Alhambra Palace, and it seemed like a fantastic place to set a novel, especially an interfaith love story! I went back to the history books and found a pivotal moment in Spanish history (late 14th century, around Pedro the Cruel and the Castilian Civil War to focus on (a time when Muslims fought alongside Christians!). Nicely, that time frame also presented the pinnacle of the Alhambra’s colorful history. So I was off and running!

You write rather emphatically against the erroneous idea of the medieval period as a kind of “dark ages.” Where, in both your personal and professional life, do you still encounter this stereotype and why do you feel that it’s important to combat it?

JDC: Indeed I do. A good clue would be this: in 975 CE in Córdoba, the caliph possessed a library containing over 400,000 volumes in his private collection alone. The largest collection of books at that time in continental Europe was a few hundred volumes. Everyone in Córdoba loved and collected books. The lost books of the ancient Greeks were rediscovered and translated into Arabic. The level of sophistication on 10th century Muslim Spain was staggering. Running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, paved roads, public hospitals, modern agriculture, public baths. This list is long. In my conversations with folks around the US (e.g., as a part of my book gigs), even for well-educated folks I find that most people’s understanding of medieval Muslim Spain is woefully lacking (as was my own). It is tempting to read a history-bending agenda into this educational omission (that Muslims played a huge role in the cultural and intellectual development of Europe?! Whattt?!), but in any case one of my central aims with my novels was to break open this period for modern readers. To reawaken it.

You state in the afterword to Emeralds that your primary aim was to bring “a time and place long dead magically back to life” and to share your own experience of the “truth and holiness and timelessness” of love (360). What of your own story merges with the one you discovered in your research and the ones you have created? Now that you are writing the final book in the series, have your aims changed at all?

JDC: My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn. It seemed to me that love stories would be a powerful way to do this, since love, both then and now, often manages to cross artificial boundaries (religion, culture, ethnicity) with relative ease. I like to think of true love as undeniable. I have been blessed in my life with Great Love (capitals intentional), and thus my life experience with my wife Maria (best friends for >40 years and counting, and married for >35 now) was very much what I drew upon in creating my characters, both for young love (Chandon/Layla; Zafir/Rayhana), and mature love (Samuel/Rebekah). I also discovered that writing love stories is serious fun! Not surprisingly, book 3 in the series (Fortune’s Lament), centers on a love story as well.

What kinds of research did you do before writing the novels? You provide a rather long bibliography at the end of each book. Were there one or two books that really stood out as key to your investigations?

JDC: Not surprisingly, I read everything I could get my hands on related to medieval Muslim Spain. I have a bookshelf 10 feet long filled with them in my office at home where I write! A couple of go-to books for Emeralds and Shadows were:

1)    Salma Jayyusi’s edited double-volume set, The Legacy of Muslim Spain. A comprehensive view of everything related to al-Andalus (life, food, music, art, gardens, religion, you name it), written by the experts in their respective fields. Comprehensive and magical, for both specialists and the seriously curious (me!). I have had the great pleasure of having Salma as a reader/blurber of both books. That she loves my books is high praise indeed.
2)    Maria-Rosa Menocal’s, The Ornament of the World. For general audiences. This is the very first book I read on al-Andalus. Magical. Sadly, Maria-Rosa has since passed away, but I chatted with her and shared my vision of these novels. She loved the idea! And then made me promise in book two to revisit 10th century Córdoba and the rise of al-Mansur. Which I did in Shadows!    
The specificity of detail regarding weaponry and military maneuvers is instantly striking to the reader. Why was it so important to you to communicate concretely the intricacies of medieval warfare?

JDC: Indeed; by intent. I did feel strongly about including the rich details of battle, for a couple of reasons. First, I have always been fascinated by the history of warfare, so it was fun topic to tackle and include. To me, it adds an element of realism and believability to the story. More importantly, however, I wanted to give a realistic depiction of the absolute horror of up-close-and-personal combat in the medieval world. All war is horrible, of course, but with the 21st century’s increased reliance on drones and smart bombs, I felt it was important for the reader to experience a swordfight to the death, and the awfulness in battle that was quite routine during that period. 

I felt similarly about your description of the physical spaces and of the Alhambra in particular. It was clear even before I read your “Reflections” that you had spent a significant amount of time there. What were your impressions of the architecture and the layout of the spaces? (How, what parts, and to what extent) did you hope to make those impressions come alive to your readers?

JDC: The Alhambra holds a very special place in my heart. Yes, I have in fact spent considerable time in the palace, and its surroundings in Granada. Three separate trips; for Emeralds, Shadows, and for Fortune’s Lament (which will be largely set back in Granada at the fall of the kingdom). One of the great gifts in hindsight was doing nine months of research on the Alhambra BEFORE I went, so I knew it backwards and forwards before I stepped foot in the place. I let my imagination churn on the palace and my characters. Seeing it in person was a dream come true. Stepping into the Comares Palace for the first time, seeing Layla’s and Chandon’s rooms over the reflecting pool, the Lion Palace, the other breathtaking buildings, the Generalife. It brought it all alive after percolating so long in my imagination. I knew the layout, obviously, before going, but the sightlines, sounds, smells, feel of the various buildings and locations was so important to my writing about it. The same was true for Madinat al Zahara and Córdoba in Shadows. Same path, same experience. Only exception is that now Madinat al-Zahra is (sadly) largely in ruins. But that did have the benefit of letting my imagination run wild.

You provide a significant amount of historical foregrounding, both before and after the actual text of the novels. What things were important to you to get “right”? Where did you feel there was a bit more room to fictionalize and invent? How did you decide?

My approach to historical fiction is to try and hold tightly to the broad brush of the actual history, to the extent that we know it (much of that history is murky), but in the smaller details to reserve creative license to change things in ways needed to keep the story properly paced and engaging to the reader. That said, I am careful in the back matter to tell you where I deviated from history, and why (rare in historical novels). One main feature in Shadows, for instance, was timeline compression. Two years in the book was really ten years of history, a choice I made to enhance the dramatic weight. The same will be true in Fortune’s Lament.

You make many references to Reconquista and the idea of “renewing” Reconquista in Emeralds. How do you understand the term as a historical, religious and historiographic concept? How does it relate to the use of jihad in Shadows? What historical sources pointed you toward that understanding?

JDC: Simply put, reconquista was a principal aim of the various Christian kingdoms to retake what they viewed as Christian lands lost to the Moors at one time or another; in practice a step-by-step push back of Moorish influence and power. The fact that those “lost lands” were spectacularly wealthy over much of that time played a role in their ambition, of course, but at various times, so did religious conflict. This struggle ebbed and flowed during the 800 years of Muslim Spanish history, of course, but reached crescendos in 1367-69 (Emeralds) during the Castilian Civil War, and of course in the 1482-1492 with Isabella and her power play for Spanish unification (via Castilian dominance, and marrying well). She was an impressively ambitious woman, and clearly had both power and wealth and religion in the mind in her version of reconquista. And, as told in Shadows, al-Mansur’s naked ambitions served to inflame the Christian north in the 10th century. By bringing the Berbers from the Maghreb to Spain, he almost singlehandedly unleashed reconquista, and ultimately the destruction of Moorish Spain (marked first by the Almoravid incursions, then the Almohads, both of which accelerated religious tensions). Without him, it would have been interesting indeed to see how long the tolerant Umayyads would have ruled, and what Spain would have ultimately become.

Many of your staunch religious figures seem to define their practice and spirituality in negative terms; that is, in terms of avoiding specific activities and individuals. In addition, those in power such as Cardinal Coysset, Peter Strobel, and al-Mansur express less actual devotion than they do use of religious dogma as rationale for and means to extend their exercise of power. In your opinion, are tolerance and openness integral aspects to the truest and fullest expression of religious faith? Do religion and power always go together when that faith is expressed conservatively or more dogmatically?

JDC: Yes, that is true. But also historical. Christianity and politics/power were very much intertwined for much of that 800-year history of Moorish Spain. And even for al-Mansur, while history tells us he was a devout Muslim, it is hard to imagine that his power/ego were not what drove him to do the things he did. He used religious dogma to his own advantage. In both cases (Christian and Muslim), dogma and prejudice was at times very much used as a weapon for personal gain and to satisfy egos and control/silence others. The Jews? Well, they were often caught in between. That is not to say that people of sincere faith were not plentiful on both sides (they were), but the big figures of the history of Moorish Spain are chocked with so a complex intermingling of religion/politics/power, which, while sad, makes for good dramatic action. The brief period of convivencia (< 200 years, true, but still very remarkable for the time) enjoyed under the Umayyads was in large measure characterized by religious tolerance, and unprecedented social mobility for all faith traditions in Córdoban society. In my view, tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to. That example, nearly two centuries worth, is a real important reminder for us all in 2017.

Layla, Rayhanna and Rebecca all stand out as exceptionally bright and beautiful women. There are many parallels, in particular each woman’s fierce and stubborn intelligence, integrity, passion, and love of books, as well as the physical similarities in “dancing” hands and unruly curls. Are these women versions or representations of your Maria, to whom you refer several times? If not, what are some of their principle differences as you conceive of them, both from each other and from Maria?

JDC: Hehe. Well, yes, they are exceptionally bright and beautiful women. Busted. I have had the great blessing in my life to be surrounded by bright, beautiful, strong-willed women. So writing about them is quite natural and enjoyable! Are my heroines copies of my Maria? No, although Rayhana and Maria do share the same eyes. Are elements of Maria contained in some of who and what my female characters espouse? Certainly. I will also say that, despite stereotypes of Islam, we have records of a number of exceptionally bright and beautiful women in Moorish Spain, many with exceptional influence on historical events, and with remarkable social mobility.

Who is your favorite character and why?

JDC: I am close to many/most/all of my characters. I think most novelists would say the same. One tidbit I will share. Post Emeralds, Maria did ask me to consider writing about mature love, not just young love (something we two know intimately after 35 years!). Samuel and Rebekah were the outcomes of that request. Both of whom I am very fond of as characters. 

Personification of key objects (the constellations in Emeralds and the books in Shadows) plays a role in each book. Why did you decide to incorporate these elements and what were you hoping to communicate through this device?

JDC: Both novels contain elements of magical realism (the constellations, the books). I felt (and still do) that they add to the sensuous wonder/magic/dream-like character that was Moorish Spain. Fortune’s Lament continues that trend. I will say that I came upon the living constellations somewhat by chance. I added them in only a couple of places in my first draft, as whimsical minor characters. My early readers loved the way they worked in the book, and encouraged me to add more scenes, which I did. I like the result. The living books in Shadows were a deliberate choice. As a lifelong reader, books are very much alive to me. With the setting in the Great Library of Córdoba, it seems like a very important and natural choice to make. I like that result too!

What does the blue flame present between the lovers in both books mean to you?

JDC: Good question. I opted for a magical element bounding the otherworldliness of true love when it is directly experienced (transcendent, divine, life changing would be closer to my life experience). Why blue? Blue, like an electrical spark, a holy flame, divine fire.

Given that the bulk of your professional life is spent in the quite different realm of electrical engineering, what has it been like to venture into Hispanism, medievalism and creative writing? What things have been most rewarding and most challenging about the writing and publishing process on these topics?

JDC: Truthfully, falling in love with Moorish Spain (hook, line and sinker), and getting to creatively write about it, has been a dream come true for me. I love every minute of it, and consider it a great blessing. I live Moorish Spain, I breathe it, and I think constantly about that magical place and time and culture that were so unique, yet so relevant to the modern world and what I wish for our planet and its many peoples: love-filled; no artificial boundaries; the practice of religion as it was originally intended, peaceful and tolerant; filled to the brim with knowledge and culture and reverence. You may also find it interesting to note (I do) that my right-brain centric imagination and creative writing dove-tail beautifully with my scientific research, which, while it may be left-brain centric, requires intuition and imagination to practice well. Hand in glove. 

Is there anything else you’d like me/the reader to know?

JDC: Well, I am hard at work on the third novel in the series, Fortune’s Lament, which tells the story of the lead up to and ultimate collapse of Moorish Spain in 1492. Think Fernando and Isabel, Columbus, the Inquisition. War, politics, betrayal, and yes, love. Danah, my bright, beautiful, strong-willed heroine (!), is working hard to become Granada’s first female physician. Little does she know, love is about to blind-side her! I recently decided to split the story into two books (the plot arc is LARGE and LONG), the first of which should be out late 2017 hopefully, with the conclusion about a year later.

Works Cited

Jayyusi, Salma, editor. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Brill, 1994.

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created
a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra; Shadows in the Shining City

All You Need is Love: A Review of Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City from the Anthems of Al-Andalus series by John Cressler

John Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013, viii + 424pp.
John Cressler, Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014, viii + 584pp.

Reviewed by Julia C. Baumgardt
About his foray into historical fiction with the first two in a series of historical novels centered on Islamicate Iberia, Dr. John D. Cressler, Schlumberger Chair Professor in Electronics and Ken Byers Teaching Fellow in Science and Religion—and author of five additional non-fiction books—states: “My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn.” Richly layered with historical detail and carried forward by casts of extremely loveable characters, Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City roundly achieve this aim. Readers from a general audience will be captivated by what may be a new discovery of the cultural flourishing of medieval Spain and more initiated readers will likely enhance their knowledge of the minutiae of life in Islamicate Iberia.

The first book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, Emeralds in the Alhambra, opens in 1367 in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada under Sultan Muhammad V. With plenty of space given to military endeavors, political intrigue and florid architectural and spatial description, the novel follows the story of two young lovers: the decorated Breton soldier William Chandon and Layla al-Khatib, the daughter of the Sultan’s Gran Vizier. Their story parallels the fight between King Pedro of Castile and the (eventually successful) pretentions of his brother, Enrique of Trastamara, in a Castilian Civil War; the quite longstanding alliance between Nasrid Granada and Castile; as well as the Catholic Church’s meddling in Iberian political and religious life. The novel opens as Chandon, allied with Enrique, prepares his troops for battle at Jaen against the Nasrids, who are allied with Castile. After an impressive display of both knightly valor and swordsmanship, Chandon defeats the Grenadine commander—the Military Vice-Vizier’s nephew—but is then seriously wounded by a cheap shot and taken back to Granada as prisoner. The famous Jewish physician Salamuun heals Chandon and in so doing befriends him and educates him on the sophisticated and heterogeneous culture of Granada. As both a political move and a cultural transaction, the Sultan arranges for Chandon to learn Arabic from his Grand Vizier’s fiercely intelligent and independent daughter, Layla, and for the Breton to teach her English. Through their interactions, they fall in love, Chandon decides to become a Muslim, and the two marry, with the blessing of many—but not all—from the Alhambra community. During their lessons and courtship, Layla is also studying under the great Sufi master, Mansur al-Mussib and, through the latter’s direction, begins to volunteer in the Maristan hospital for the infirm and destitute. It is here that she opens her heart to love—platonic, romantic and spiritual—and has her first experience with Tawhid, mystical union with the divine. The pursuit of and respect for love in its many forms is a central component of this novel, where love is linked to any and all inclusive, non-dogmatic practice of religion and spirituality. In contrast, religious practice characterized by regulation and prohibition is portrayed as love’s antithesis and connected to political machinations, the accumulation of power, and the exclusion of the Other.

Shadows in the Shining City is the second book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, though temporally its prequel, and is set in the “Golden Age” of Al-Andalus, the Caliphate of Cordoba under al-Hakam II. The story’s action begins in 975 and carries to the dissolution of the Caliphate and the time of fitna, all of which occurred historically over the course of a decade but which the novel compresses to a span of two years. Central characters are the historically infamous Muhammad ibn Abi Amir (al-Mansur) and his daughter Rayhanna, as well as their lovers, friends and enemies. Shadows follows the Abi Amir family’s trajectory: Rayhanna’s voracious appetite for books and thirst for knowledge that leads her to the Royal Library, Aristotle’s Book of Optics and replica of his camara obscura, and Zafir; as well as Muhammad ibn Abi Amir’s insatiable desire for wealth, prestige and power that leads to his steady moral decline and that of the Caliphate itself. The political focus is on Muhammad’s illicit introduction into palace life through the beguiling and beguiled Subh (wife of the Caliph and mother of al-Hakam’s only heir), his machinations to secure dominance in Cordoba through alliance with North Africa, and his eventual self-inflicted dehumanization as his quest for power grows. As with Emeralds, Shadows also centers on a love story—and Cressler promises the final installment will continue this tradition—though this time played out in a more complex, tri-part network of protagonists. Rayhanna and her beloved Zafir—a saqaliba with a prominent role as translator of Greek and assistant to the Royal Librarian—are the story’s primary romantic couple. Samuel, the librarian himself, and his wife, Rebekah, are the second set of lovers in Shadows and, as a mature couple, they provide both a fitting complement to the headstrong and hormone-driven young lovers and invaluable assistance in Rayhanna and Zafir’s quest to be united. The third pairing is significantly different from the first two but no less important to the plot: the haunting presence of Ibn Abi Amir’s great love with his late wife, Rayya. The memory of their passion, as well as Rayya’s apparent wish that Rayhanna marry for love, serves as the catalyst for Rayhanna’s grandmother’s timely intervention as the plot develops. It is this intervention that stalls what would have unfolded as a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with poison, faked suicides and a rather unreliable antidote. The spectral memory of Rayya haunts al-Mansur as well, and his tender memories of their love and his devastation at losing her round out his personality by providing a sympathetic backstory and a plausible explanation for his seemingly inhuman hardness and unquenchable ambition. The contrast of a great love lost and the brutal impossibility of recovery after the fact triangulates with the other two couples and provides a much-needed balance and dose of reality to the otherwise rose-colored portrayal of love in both Anthems books.

The plot and characterization of both novels are engaging, though Emeralds’ characters—however loveable—at times come off flat and one-dimensional. Shadows demonstrates a blossoming in Cressler’s narrative craft, with al-Mansur in particular represented in considerably more depth. In addition, the inclusion of certain questionable or outright problematic cultural elements in both novels goes far to balance and nuance the portrayal of an often overly idealized period. Likely the most well-known of the controversial cultural practices is the harem, a space of enclosure-prison for royal women. Shadows’ portrayal of Subh’s unhappiness and isolation within the harem and the Sultan’s near undoing because of his lust for Layla in Emeralds highlights this problematic institution. In addition, the depictions of these more objectionable aspects present a cautionary tale of the volatility of even the most seemingly stable of polities when they are constructed upon the oppression or marginalization of certain groups. The creation and maintenance of eunuchs, an element of the harem often overlooked in popular portrayals, is also brought to light through the character of Jibril and his young protégés. Anthems does also present local responses to such challenges and social problems, such as the existence of the Maristan Hospital and the new hospital Layla founds in Emeralds.

An especially strong area in both novels is the rich historical detail in weaponry and warfare, politics and historical events, and cultural elements such as architecture, contemporary literature, food and bathing practices. Anthems not only creates loveable characters and compelling plots, but also places them within an entire historical world reconstructed meticulously and in vivid color. In the areas of warfare and city geography in particular, the novels take on a more documentary quality, which strengthens their purpose and complements the love stories. It is clear that the series has been thoroughly researched and each book contains not only the text of the novel but also maps, a glossary, several historical primers, notes about facts and fiction in the text, and an extensive bibliography.

Religion in general is rightly given a central place, with an emphasis on tolerance, open-mindedness and love. That Chandon learns Arabic and converts to Islam in Emeralds is an excellent demonstration of the linguistic and religious permeability of the heterogeneous Islamicate culture Anthems celebrates. The same is true for the recognition of social mobility for Jews and Christians (slaves or free) within the Caliphate and Emirate through characters such as Salamuun (the Caliph’s doctor, Emeralds), Reccimund (the Christian Bishop and Vizier of Dhimmi, Shadows), Samuel and Zafir. All the ostensibly good characters in the novels cultivate and practice a kind of open spirituality that expresses itself within a specific Abrahamic faith, whereas religious dogmatism is equated with political quests for power and control. On the portrayal of strict religious observance as incompatible with tolerance, Cressler states that “tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to.” It is noteworthy, and, as Cressler indicates, “historical,” that those characters who influence the plot most negatively seek to limit the possibilities of spiritual expression of both their religious Other and those within their same confessional community, and always do so in the pursuit of power, riches and prestige.

As is fitting, then, both Emeralds and Shadows pay commendably nuanced attention to the intricacies of politics and their intermingling with religion. Throughout both novels, the complex alliances and scheming of various political players take center stage and influence the tide of decisions made by the Emir and the Caliph as well as those of their allies and enemies to the north, the northeast, and the south. The complexity of the political situation in al-Andalus and Castile, Iberia generally, and the Mediterranean more broadly is extremely well-presented given the scope of the novels and their intended readership. Anthems offers a nuanced approximation to the papacy’s pretended political and ecclesial influence through the depiction of the visiting monks of Cluny in Shadows and the Cardinal in Emeralds. In addition, the books rightly complicate what contemporary readers might well have assumed to be a homogenous medieval Christian (i.e. Catholic) church by depicting the unique practices of southern Iberian Christians in the Mozarabic rite. 

While the text proper of the novels is appropriately complex in its approach to the socio-politico-theological matrices of medieval Iberia, the historical summaries and primers surrounding the novels do not appear to be quite so carefully worked. In those texts, the tensions between Iberian Christians, Cluny, and the Papacy, as well as the Castilian Civil War, are presented as “infighting” and “bickering” within otherwise unified groups (Emeralds 406). This oversimplifies the situation as it existed historically and as it is generally depicted in the novels and feeds into an all-too-black-and-white notion of Reconquista as a time-tested, unified, and perdurable impulse. The word “reconquista” itself appears sixteen times in Emeralds in the mouths of a variety of its characters and another nine times in the historiographic materials surrounding the text of the novel. With each use it gestures toward a universally understood and accepted (by all the kingdoms of Iberia, England, France, and Rome) notion of a common, underlying impetus uniting all of Christianity against Islam, in a struggle for both ecclesial domination and territory. While this conception of Reconquista is not by any stretch novel—and may perhaps be an easy way for the uninitiated reader to dive into the historical and historiographical questions surrounding medieval and Early Modern Iberia—the simple use of the term in the mouths of characters is likely an anachronism. Evidence suggests that “restoration” (in ecclesial terms) or “conquest” (more military/territorial) were used in reference to the confessional and military changing of hands of Iberian kingdoms, and according to Ríos Saloma, the earliest extant incidence of the term “reconquista” referring to armed struggle between Christians and Muslims does not appear in Spanish until 1796 (194). This is not to say that the impact of the crusading mentality and rhetoric did not reverberate within Iberia, nor to deny the presence and influence of Jimenez de Rada’s vision of the Christian character and destiny of Iberia—it was he who so firmly connected the dots from Visigoth rule to Pelayo at Covadonga through to the conquest of Toledo and the continuing might of united Christian armies at la Navas de Tolosa. This concept of a slow but steady regrouping of Christians post-711 Muslim “invasion” and the REconquest of “their” territory toward the teleological victory of (Christian) Spain makes for a great story. However, a tape-measure notion of Reconquista as “no illusion…inevitable” (325) as the Military Vizier al-Bistami suggests in Emeralds, involves a fair amount of glossing over the very political, cultural, linguistic, and even religious intricacies that Anthems otherwise works hard to present in their complexities. [1] That the Visigoths were Arians (and thus, heretics) until (at the earliest) the end of the seventh century, that the Mozarabic (Hispanic) rite was banned by the Council of Burgos in the eleventh century but has been practiced continually in some form into the present day, and even, in fact, that a (if not the) principle enemy of the Christian front alongside which the Grenadine army fights at the beginning of Emeralds is Pedro—another Christian ruler—all run the risk of being elided by the repeated emphasis on the term “reconquista.” Perhaps with this the novels pave the way for Anthems’ final installment, which will treat the Catholic Monarchs and the fall of Granada and, as such, will likely (and hopefully) take up the rhetorical strategizing and propaganda campaign around the completion of the Christian conquest of Spain engineered by Isabel the Catholic.

The use of the term “Moor” and “Moorish” in Emeralds and Shadows as a blanket signifier for all Muslims and all things Islamicate on the Iberian Peninsula presents similar misgivings. Cressler acknowledges on the very first page of Emeralds, prior to the text of the novel itself, that “the Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term ‘Moors,’” but fails to acknowledge the racialization of the term and the problems of its continued use. As I and many others have argued, the word “Moor” refers to a monolithic and universalized Muslim Other—an always already imagined figure, a repository of anxiety of the Christian Other, and never a real and contextualized individual (Baumgardt 115; Flesler). While it may be fitting to place the term in the mouth of the Cardinal or Papal envoy, its use in the front or end matter of the novels and in their description might be productively replaced by Hodgson’s “Islamicate” or similar nomenclature.
Overall, the first two novels in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series depict the complexity and heterogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages in vivid color. Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City weave well the varying shades of its immense tapestry and unfold around characters that are alluringly attractive (or despicable) enough to captivate both period specialists and a general readership. Few will want to resist Cressler’s consistent portrayal of love as spiritual experience, as antidote, and as all-powerful force for good. This series is a welcome foray into a period still underrepresented for Anglophone audiences. Its conclusion will be awaited with anticipation.

Julia C. Baumgardt, Marian University, Indianapolis

Works Cited

Baumgardt, Julia C. The Times of Al-Andalus: Performing Alternative Temporalities in Spanish
New Historical Novels, Festive Reenactment, and Conversion Narrative, The Johns
Hopkins University, 2015, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 10302153.

Cressler, John. Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013.

---. Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time.
Princeton UP, 2009.

Flesler, Daniela. The Return of the Moor. Purdue UP, 2000.

Ríos Saloma, Martín F. “La Reconquista: génesis de un mito historiográfico.” Historia y Grafía,
no. 30, 2008, pp. 191-216, Accessed 8
Dec. 2015.

[1] On “tape measure” histories and teleological chronologies, see Dimock.