Comparison and Diffusion

The comparative approach adopted in this book is in part a reaction to the general contrastive bias of medieval Spanish history, to view the two opposing blocs as radically dissimilar in religion, if not always in culture, and as therefore leading to assumptions of difference, rather than similarity, when in doubt. The adoption of this approach, an experiment at best, was suggested by a geographical intuition: the settlement of a unified geographical area by peoples of different cultures. From this perspective, the method works optimally in investigating the organization of formerly Muslim-held lands after they were conquered by Christians, an epoch beginning only in the late eleventh century. Nevertheless, in comparative perspective, there is some truth in the traditionally held view of the history of Christiin Spain from the eighth century on as a preparation for the occupation of the entire peninsula which, when disengaged from the teleological overlay usually given it, further suggests the relevance of a comparative approach.

Because this book is cast in a civilizational perspective, the contact of cultures and the diffusion of discrete elements among them must play a major part in my narrative. But since the flow of elements from one culture to another and the processes by which such elements may have been adopted or rejected are to a great extent dependent on the structures of the societies involved, the comparative study of the two groups -- Muslim and Christian -- perforce presupposes making judgments of comparative or contrastive nature. Behind the constant recurrence of cultural diffusion as a theme of medieval Spanish history is more than a prurient interest in tracking the impact of Islamic upon Christian culture. There is the recognition that in the communication between two societies of unequal levels of socioeconomic integration, the difference in structure of the two [6] societies sets in motion processes that are systemic in nature and exceed in impact the sum of the individual elements (techniques, ideas, institutions) transferred.

From the middle of the ninth century to the end of the period covered in this book (around 1300), the contact was between peoples not only of different cultures, but of different socioeconomic systems. One bloc, the Islamic, dominant until the eleventh century, was an expanding, "urban-artisanal" society, fully implanted in a larger economic network (the Mediterranean, in the first place, and beyond that the Islamic world as a whole). The other bloc, the Christian, was for most of the same period a heavily ruralized region which for the present we can characterize as "static-agrarian."(3)

In each, therefore, all major social features were organized according to very different processes. In Islamic Spain, embedded in an international monetary economy, the cities were able to attract, mobilize, and direct agricultural production and thus to divert natural resources into burgeoning urban-craft industries which in turn required specific instruments of control.(4) In Christian Spain (except for Barcelona, and this rather late in our period) the nature of state and society were shaped by the more rigid structure of the agrarian economy whose surpluses tended to flow, not to the cities, but to rural centers, organized by lay or ecclesiastic lords.

It follows from this dichotomy that the diffusion of any cultural element, whether technological, economic, or institutional, involves its adaptation to a sharply different socio-economic context and may therefore cause ripples throughout the entire system. Here again, comparative analysis is called for; because if cultural diffusion between two societies of unequal socio-economic organization leads to structural changes in the reciplent culture, the structures of both must be understood in order to gauge the impact of diffusion. Thus we shall argue, for example, that contact between al-Andalus and Christian Spain, particularly Castile and Aragon, had the effect of inducing, stimulating, and determining specific forms of urbanization, which cannot be explained adequately without reference to the structure of the urbanized Islamic society.

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