In 1861, a Dutch scholar named Rheinhart Dozy published a work that is entirely dated in its style and approach, has been superseded in much of its analysis, and yet remains gloriously, exuberantly rich in romantic detail and anecdote and passion. A kind of Arabian Nights approach to history. The English reprint of his great work, entitled Muslims in Spain, is more than 750 pages long (fair warning!) but it was probably this book that most powerfully set my imagination to work on the cast of characters I encountered.
Much more modern, much more accessible, are two books by Richard Fletcher, and these would be my suggested starting points for any general reader. Moorish Spain is witty and fast without being trivial, and The Quest for El Cid is a wonderful book that tracks the life and legend of the Iberian hero while also opening a window onto the enormous significance the image of El Cid still has in Spanish intellectual and popular culture.
Researching the debate about this started the line of thought about history and fantasy and the use of ‘real’ people in fiction that comes up in one of my essays posted elsewhere on this site [Webmaster’s note: ‘Home and Away‘]. It also gave me a new intellectual figure to admire, a Spanish historian and cultural analyst named Americo Castro. His major book is called (in English), The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History. It is Castro who represents the strand in Spanish intellectual thought that sees modern Spain as a product of the three cultures that interacted in the middle ages, whereas his intellectual opponents saw – and see – Spain today as emerging from Visogothic society, regarding the Arab centuries, with their Jewish influences as, fundamentally, a trivial interlude leaving little behind today.)
More scholarly than Fletcher, and more narrowly focused in its treatment of a period in the history of Al-Andalus, is David Wasserstein’s The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings. (The party-kings is the awkward name given to the petty statelets and their monarchs formed after the fall of the Caliphate.) The second half of the book has sections entitled ‘The Christians’, ‘The Moslems’ and ‘The Jews’ and examines their respective roles and niches in 11th century society. This is good, highly useful history.
Roger Collin’s Early Medieval Spain seems to be pretty much the standard scholarly introduction to the period up to the year 1000 (I know that’s a risky thing to say and I’m not up-to-date on work in the last several years!) The next volume in the same highly respected series is by Angus MacKay, entitled Spain in the Middle Ages, and takes the story from 1000-1500. I also used T.F. Glick’s, Islamic and Christian Spain in the early Middle Ages, though he isn’t what I would call a fluid prose stylist.
On medicine, I like Nancy G. Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine. A reproduction (page 28 of the University of Chicago edition) of a medieval picture of a woman physician holding a urine flask was obviously a catalyst for me!
There is a magnificent book entitled Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, and the images and essays (the book was written to accompany an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1992) gave me a great deal of material. So did an even more sumptuous exhibition catalogue from a show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: Al-Andalus, the Art of Moslem Spain. Gorgeous book.
I found the wonderful poetry of Moslem and Jewish Spain in many different places and different translations. A. J. Arberry has one such book, entitled Moorish Poetry. It translates an anthology made in the 13th century. The Poem of the Cid, the epic version of the hero’s tale is available widely and in many versions.