In memoriam: María Rosa Menocal

María Rosa Menocal, a renowned scholar and historian of medieval culture and literature, passed away on Oct. 15 after a three-year battle with melanoma.

Menocal, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and former director of the Whitney Humanities Center, focused her research on the literary traditions of the Middle Ages and on the interaction of various religious and cultural groups in medieval Spain.

Her 2002 book, “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,” describes the rich cross-fertilization that took place among those religious groups. The book placed the interactions of Jews, Christians and Muslims at the heart of the formation of a diverse and vibrant Western culture, and posed a vigorous challenge to the notion of inevitable polarization of Islam and the West in the popular imagination. It has been published in numerous languages, and received wide critical acclaim. A documentary for public television based on the book is under development.

Menocal once noted that she was inspired to write the book because "... the medieval period has been, and continues to be, so grossly misrepresented in almost all of our histories — from the fact that we have so little knowledge that medieval European culture included, centrally, the study of Greek philosophy as it was interpreted by hundreds of years of Muslim and Jewish commentaries to the fact that we still use the word medieval to mean 'dark' and 'unenlightened' when, in some respects, Europe has never been as enlightened … as it was then." Read the paper, a precursor to "The Ornament of the World," that Menocal presented at a Yale Law School seminar in 2000.

Among her other books is “Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric,” which finds in the idea of exile the origin of the lyric and the foundation of the genre of the love song. This acclaimed work embraces authors from Ibn ‘Arabi to Judah Halevi, from Dante to Eric Clapton. Her other books include “Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth: From Borges to Boccaccio,” and “The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage.” She is the co-editor (with Raymond Scheindlin and Michael Sells) of “The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Al-Andalus,” a volume that places the Arabic literature of Islamic Spain in the context of the other languages and cultures of the Iberian peninsula. Her latest book, “The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture,” extends these themes through a rich investigation of cross-cultural interactions in language, literature, architecture, and the decorative arts. This work, undertaken in collaboration with art historian Jerrilynn Dodds and Arabist and historian Abigail Krasner Balbale, was named a “Best Book of 2009” by the Times Literary Supplement.

As director of the Whitney Humanities Center from 2001 to 2012, Menocal dramatically expanded the number and intellectual range of fellows at the center, with the goal of representing as many different fields as possible to stimulate dialogue, foster intellectual community, and encourage collaboration in teaching and research. All told, she appointed 285 fellows during her 10-year tenure. These included individuals from the fields of economics, physics, chemistry, medicine, management, architecture, law, and library sciences, as well as all the humanities disciplines. She created new categories of fellowships, such as the Beinecke-Whitney Fellows, the Whitney-British Art Center Fellows, Writers-in-Residence, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows in the Humanities, and Administrative Fellows. She also brought notable individuals from outside the University to serve as visiting fellows at the center.

Among the new programs Menocal introduced at the center are Films at the Whitney (Friday night screenings in 35mm format), a series of readings by major poets, and the Franke Lectures in the Humanities, which bring distinguished scholars and writers to campus for public talks and classroom seminars with students.

Concerning her work at the center, Menocal once said: “By providing a forum for Yale scholars, visiting fellows, and guest lecturers, and programs to enrich the cross-disciplinary education of Yale students, the Whitney not only maintains the humanities as a cornerstone of undergraduate education, it also becomes the University's center for conversations across the arts and sciences.”

Prior to her years as director of the Whitney, Menocal served as director of graduate studies and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and served on numerous university committees.

“María Rosa Menocal was among the most brilliant, creative, and original of Yale’s extraordinary scholars in the humanities,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin. “She was a humanist in the broadest sense of the term. She was passionate about all forms of human expression from literature, the visual arts, and politics to cooking, professional hockey, and the music of troubadours from medieval Provence and al-Andalus to Bob Dylan. Her passions inspired and energized her students and colleagues, and shaped a vibrant community at the Whitney Humanities Center.”

A native of Havana, Cuba, Menocal earned a B.A. in medieval Romance languages, an M.A. in French and a Ph.D. in Romance philology, all at the University of Pennsylvania. She became an assistant professor of Romance languages there in 1980, and also served as acting director of its Center for Italian Studies. She came to Yale in 1986 as a visiting associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, was named an associate professor the following year and was appointed a full professor in 1992. In 1993, she was named the R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and in 2005 she became a Sterling Professor, the highest honor that Yale confers on members of its faculty.

An invited lecturer at universities and conferences throughout the nation and in Europe and the Middle East, Menocal was a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and held distinguished visiting professorships or lectureships at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the American University in Cairo, among others. The Medieval Academy of America named her a fellow in 2011.

Menocal is survived by her parents, Enrique and Rosa Menocal; her siblings, Lucia Pernot, Enrique Javier Menocal, and Elisa Menocal; her husband R. Crosby Kemper III ’74, director of the Kansas City Public Library; her ex-husband George Calhoun; her two children, George “Harry” Calhoun, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and Margaux Calhoun ’12, who is currently employed at the U.S. Department of Justice; and one grandchild, George Bishara Calhoun, the son of Lt. Calhoun and his wife, Maya Calhoun.

Yale community members share their remembrances of María Rosa Menocal.