Culture Contact and the Polemic of Spanish Historiography

Spaniards have, of course, been aware since the middle ages that many traits of their culture were acquired from the Muslims. They knew this [7] because of the formalized continuity of certain customary arrangements, exemplified in repeated legal strictures that these were to continue "as was the custom in the time of the Moors." A large number of words in the peninsular Romance tongues were easily recognized as Arabisms, and popular diffusionist notions attributed a "Moorish" origin to a wide variety of objects that looked ancient or different.(5)

In the past century, the English Hispanist Richard Ford was the first to compare the two cultures systematically, and although the literary genre in which he articulated most of his findings -- a tourists' guidebook -- tended to discourage scholars from taking his work seriously, he was nevertheless correctly able to identify as of Islamic provenance a vast range of customs and techniques that he personally observed in Spain during the 1830's.(6) At the turn of the century, the Spanish Arabist Julián Ribera made a significant advance: he argued cohesively, on the basis of theoretical suppositions regarding the nature of cultural diffusion, and by using comparative methodology, that generalized systematic borrowing by Christians of discrete elements of Islamic culture had taken place. To account for similarities between the medieval Aragonese justiciar, or appeals judge, and the Islamic ma%alim, Ribera developed a theory of imitation, whereby two contacting cultures exchange elements, according to the kinds of communication that take place between them, the presence or absence of geographical or cultural barriers to such communication, and social and psychological factors influencing the receiving culture's receptivity to innovation.(7) Ribera was the first, and the last, to attempt a behaviorist, social science approach to the problem of cultural borrowing in medieval Spain.

The present polemic began in 1948 with the publication by Américo Castro, a philologist and literary historian, of a book entitled España en su historia, since revised numerous times.(8) His thesis, as it is generally argued, is that the culture we know as Spanish did not exist before, and came into being as a result of, the interaction of Muslims, Christians, and Jews (the "three castes," he calls them) in the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, and that the resultant culture bore the mark of that interactive process. He was answered in 1956 by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, dean of Spanish medieval historians, in a massive refutation entitled España: Un enigma histórico.(9) Sánchez-Albornoz replied that Castro had exaggerated both the extent and nature of the contact between Muslims and Christians, which was conflictive and therefore not conducive to creative [8] cultural interchange, and that most of the components of "Spanish" culture are either idiosyncratic or consist of Roman, Gothic, or elements of other than Semitic provenance.

I cannot here give an extended critique of these two positions, but will simply outline the main issues as I perceive them, discuss briefly how each of these two scholars has resolved the issue, and then point out the limitations of the debate and the effects it has had on recent historiography. At issue are three related problems:

(1) The nature of cultural substrates. To what extent do enough cultural elements persist over very long periods of time so that one can point to a recognizably "Spanish" or Hispanic culture extending from Iberian times, through the Roman, Visigothic, and medieval periods into modernity?

(2) The process of cultural change. What phenomena stimulate cultural change and govern its rate and direction and, in connection with the previous point, to what extent do prior cultural substrates place limits on the extent of such change?

(3) The impact of cultural contact. Given that contact produces changes in one or both of the contacting societies, what areas of culture are affected and what are the processes governing the selection of those areas?

It is interesting to observe that both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz resolve these problems within the context of models of cultural evolution prevalent in Spanish intellectual circles during the period of their intellectual formation. Castro, heavily influenced by German philosophers of history, took a Hegelian position on social evolution, according to which literacy was a crucial stage in the advancement of the species. Thus Castro believed, in a direct echo of Spengler, that primitive (that is, non-literate) peoples had no history, and -- the opposite side of the coin -- that the decisive processes of cultural change took place on the level of "literary" creation (which he understood broadly as comprising all of high culture). Thus for Castro "before becoming perceptible and ascendant as a fit subject for history, the Spaniard did not exist."(10)

In Sánchez-Albornoz's reasoning, the biological model is explicit, but decidedly anti-evolutionary. He cites Ortega y Gasset on the indemonstrability of the transformation of species (e.g., a tiger is always a tiger) and accepts the monophyletic origin of human races. Modal personality is determined by herencia temperamental, a constellation of characteristics, genetically transmitted, which remain quite constant over the long run, [9] changing only very slowly, if at all. When he admits change, it is phenotypic, not genotypic: "Temperamental inheritance is an operative potential which offers possibilities and sets limits to the action of human communities and individuals, but within the cultural and existential environment in which their history and life transpire; a climate which has never remained static, which continually changes."(11) Social and cultural environments may change, elicting different expressions from the peoples in question who, however, always retain the same "temperamental inheritance." Thus Hispano-Romans, Goths, "Hispano-Muslims," and Castillans, while having distinctive characteristics, were all, nonetheless, Hispanic in their temperamental inheritance. All of this is very much in line with moderate Catholic evolutionism of the late nineteenth century, which admitted change up to, but not beyond, the species level.(12)

Thus Castro is able to admit a far greater potentiality for cultural change than is Sánchez-Albornoz in the three areas outlined above, which each resolves as follows:

(1) Castro is insistent that cultures, with language the primary parameter, change radically over time, creating diachronic boundaries between one another. Therefore German-speaking Visigoths of the eighth century and Castilian speakers of the eleventh cannot both be called "Spanish." For Sánchez-Albornoz, the temperamental inheritance was a permanent substrate that controlled the limits of cultural differentiation; he once boasted that he had "been able to follow the curve of Hispanicity from Seneca to Unamuno."(13)

(2) For Castro, the interchange between one culture, predominantly Arabic-speaking and Islamic (together with a differentiated Jewish element) and another, Romance-speaking and Christian throughout centuries of intimate contact (which he calls convivencia -- literally, "living together") induced changes in Christian culture which clearly differentiated it over time from its Hispano-Roman and Gothic progenitors. These changes were both reactive and imitative in nature. For Sánchez-Albornoz the substratum, however defined, is taken as representing the core of the modal personality, the equivalent of a genotype. One species cannot become another, no matter how many "mimetic trappings" it may take on. Whenever he admits some cultural change, he is then able to deny its significance by alluding to a concept of latency: the Spanish temperamental inheritance may be submerged, but, provide it with a propitious environment, and it will emerge again.(14)

(3) Although Castro cites a stock list of Arabisms in many fields, particularly economic (agriculture, urban crafts), such pursuits do not play a large part in his explanation. He is primarily interested in the processes of cultural differentiation and self-ascription whereby Spaniards began consciously to perceive their ethnic distinctiveness (as Christians, first and foremost, in contradistinction to Muslims). Therefore, Castro is at his best when tracing literary, philosophical, or religious themes. In the latter category, he points out that Christians institutionalized Islamic notions of militant religion, but otherwise he is not interested in institutional history. The doings of common folk, unless reflected (that is, made conscious or perceptible) in literature or art are not "historifiable," not proper objects of historical inquiry. Sánchez-Albornoz, an institutional historian, is naturally more concerned with institutional interchange, which he believes to have been minimal; such Islamic elements as appear are, at best, "mimetic trappings." In his polemical writings he seems generally to accept Castro's definition of what aspects of culture were most "historifiable": religious values, honor, and so forth. Cultural elements not encompassed in the scope of the dominant value-system, or the broad social and economic processes underlying them, are mundanidades and of no interest to the historian.(15)

Sánchez-Albornoz's view of the whole process is conditioned by his perception of Islamic culture in Spain. In his view, no Eastern Islamic elements could have reached the Christian kingdoms (at least before the conquests of the late eleventh century resulted in the ingestion of a large Muslim minority) because the culture of al-Andalus was idiosyncratic, within the bounds of the temperamental inheritance of the Neo-Muslims, the converted Hispano-Romans who formed the majority of the population.(16) Such a view of Islamic culture in al-Andalus is simply and clearly wrong.

It is unfortunate that the focus of the polemic has not been the definition of mechanisms and processes governing culture contact and cultural diffusion but, rather, the issue of modal personality ("national character"). Since both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz were political liberals, exiled after the trauma of. the Spanish Civil War, they were obsessed with explaining what had made modern Spaniards the way they are; both professed to have found the answer in the Christian-Muslim confrontation of the middle ages. It is unfortunate that the debate centers here because it invites all kinds of unsubstantiated and unprovable generalizations. (I [11] be-lieve that modal personalities exist and can be described meaningfully, but only if the characteristics that constitute them can be directly related to social structure. Thus aggressivity or honor may well have characterized Numantines, Visigoths, and medieval Castilians alike, but any connections between them would have to be proved at the level of family structure, the socialization of children, and the like.) It is at this point where history and myth become hopelessly entangled.

Castro perceives in modern Spaniards a feeling of insecurity, and, in regard to the rest of Europe, inferiority, and associates these with the ambivalent, semi-dependent relationship their ancestors had with Muslims and Jews. Many members of Castro's generation subscribed to this characterization of Spanish modal personality (insecure, inferior) and because they did they were prepared to confirm their suspicions arising from recent social traumas with mythic associations with the medieval past. That is why Castro's impact on his own generation of Spanish intellectuals was enormous and Julián Ribera's, whose views on the dynamics of cultural interchange were more coherently and systematically defined than Castro's, was minimal.

I will summarize the balance of the arguments as they relate to this book: substrates are important to philologists but not so much to historians, who understand that historical processes always involve a mixture of change and continuity. Castro points out, with reason, that Visigothic elements in Spanish culture of the tenth through the twelfth centuries are survivals, while the Arabic elements were contemporaneous and living.(17) I do not accept this proposition quite as stated, but would restate it to the effect that elements can be diffused across diachronic, as well as geographical, frontiers and that their mere presence says nothing of their function. The various prelates and statesmen who throughout the middle ages adopted Visigothic anti-semitic strictures, formulated in the Toletan councils of the seventh century, were not acting within the scope of, or in continuity with, Visigothic culture.

As for the processes of acculturation and culture change, the examination of these are foreclosed structurally from Sánchez-Albornoz's point of view. Castro's conclusions are generally acceptable, as far as they go; but he gives the impression that the cultural processes, lumped together under an umbrella-term, convivencia, took place in a social vacuum and were quite independent of social forces. He says as much: Christians achieved total power and were able to do away with Jews and Muslims because the [12] former aspired "to be more, and the Jews and the Moors ... were a serious obstacle in the way of that goal."(18) In Castro's vision, relationships among persons of the three castes were structured on a basis of parity, as if these groups were of equal demographic weight, political and military force, cultural potency, and in complete disregard of the institutional or legal mechanisms controlling access to power. What counts for Castro is not the material strength of each group, but the relative, conscious will of each to succeed.

In the present book, we shall maintain that cultural interactions among the three groups were very sharply structured, in the period extending approximately from 750 to 1085, when there was a stabilized Islamic-Christian frontier, by the relative disequality in the socio-economic structure of the two sides; and, after that period, when the Christian kingdoms acquired substantial Muslim and Jewish enclaves, by a variety of social conventions, legal norms, and governmental institutions that, in great part, determined the nature of cultural interchanges.

Sánchez-Albornoz, in fact, was quick to point out that the symbiosis which Castro stressed seemed a misrepresentation of social reality and underplayed to the point of serious distortion the conflictive nature of the centuries Of Muslim-Christian contact, which would be better characterized as antibiosis. But this notion he uses to bolster the conclusion that very little cultural borrowing went on, failing to realize that "antibiosis" implies a variety of acculturative processes (reactive adaptation, stimulus diffusion across a barrier), no less than does symbiosis.(19)

Because of the excessively valorative judgments concerning what is historically most valuable or worthy, the polemic has had the effect of narrowing the scope of historical investigation considerably. From the point of view of assessing Islamic impact on Christian culture, the best evidence has generally not been used nor recognized for what it was. (I refer, for example, to the pervasive diffusion of eastern craft technologies throughout the entire Mediterranean basin.). In terms of stimulation of research, Castro has mainly influenced literary historians. Sánchez-Albornoz's stimulus to intercultural studies has been so negative as to shut off whole areas of investigation. For example, since he believes that Mozarabs (Arabized Christians who fled Islamic Spain and settled in Christian Spain) were only superficially Arabized and in any case could not transmit elements of eastern culture because there were none in al-Andalus, there has been no research on the social organization of Mozarabs in ninth-century [13] León; no examination of changes that they may have introduced into the dietary regime or agricultural techniques of the country; no examination of their role in the transfer of technology, whether artisanal or agrarian; no study of their impact upon urban institutions and economic life; and a probable playing down of their cultural role in monasteries of Mozarabic foundation. Thus, regrettably, the nineteenth-century view that the Muslims of Iberia exceeded those of the East in culture, has been replaced among Sánchez-Albornoz and his followers by the view, more tendentious if less romantic, that the culture in question was not Eastern at all, but "Spanish."

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