Only since the nineteenth century has the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control been referred to as the Reconquista, that is, “reconquest.” This has led some scholars to consider the term to be a modern attempt to justify colonization and subjugation by conferring supposedly higher values on the Christian expansion of the Middle Ages. Contemporary evidence does, however, show that the notion of regaining lost political and religious unity was indeed present among some Iberian Christians during the early Middle Ages: at the end of the ninth century, the memory of the vanished Visigothic kingdom was kept alive and its reestablishment propagated through a series of chronicles written during the reign of King Alfonso III of Asturias (866-910) by churchmen probably associated with his court. This Asturian “Neogothism” was an important basis for the Christian expansion of the tenth and eleventh centuries. It caused the borders to Islam to be regarded as only provisional and areas of future expansion to be repeatedly marked out by way of contracts between Christian powers.
The concept of Neogothism (of which the Muslims were aware, as Arab chronicles show) was only rarely linked to the notion of spiritually meritorious warfare. However, some early sources do exist, in which the Reconquista was justified on a religious basis. In certain Asturian and Leonese chronicles of the tenth and eleventh centuries, the conflict is presented as projected and thereby sanctified by God, as a fight to restore an incomplete ecclesiastical order, since the areas to be conquered had been Christian territories with a fully developed church structure before the Muslim conquest. According to these works, victories were attributable to God’s care for his people, and Iberian Christians were associated with the Chosen People of the Old Testament. Until the end of the eleventh century, this opinion does not seem to have been common enough to have strongly influenced actions in the religious borderlands, nor did it attract foreign arms bearers to the Iberian Peninsula. The fronts were not as clearly laid out as often depicted: local rulers, whether Muslims or Christians, formed alliances in changing coalitions, and religion often played a secondary role. Christian rulers frequently preferred Muslim tribute payments (Sp. parias) to warfare, as Muslim chronicles clearly demonstrate. Only toward the end of the eleventh century did the notion of a sanctified, meritorious war on behalf of Christ against the Lord’s foes, combined with the concept of the restoration of the Visigothic kingdom, begin to exert a strong influence on Christian actions. It was not until the beginning of the twelfth century that the Reconquista became a crusade, although even then cases of interreligious alliances and coexistence persisted.
The Reconquista should thus not be understood as an incessant religious war, but rather as a sequence of long periods of peace interrupted by shorter periods of crisis that were marked in varying degrees by religious ideals. Only the border zones were marked by frequent raids and devastation. Nor were Spain and Portugal formed out of the crucible of interreligious strife, although that strife did set the Iberian realms apart from most of Latin Europe.
The year 711 represents a turning point in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. In the early summer a Muslim army under Tāriq ibn Ziyād crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated the Visigoths in the battle of Guadalete on 23 July 711. The invaders, mostly Arabs and islamized North Africans, rapidly succeeded in conquering nearly the entire Iberian Peninsula. The Muslims called the area they controlled al-Andalus (“Land of the Vandals”) and raised the ancient bishopric of Cordoba to be the capital of their own emirate. With time the distance between this realm and the caliphate of Baghdad grew, and in the year 929 Emir ‘Abd al- Rahmān III (912-961) proclaimed the independent caliphate of Cordoba. The realm was far from homogenous: there were areas with a predominantly Berber and others with a mainly Arab Muslim population, and even within these communities one can define separate groups. Many Jews also lived in the peninsula, and the majority of the population, the subjected Christians (Mozarabs), may also be divided into the descendants of the Visigoths and of the Hispano-Romans.
Progress of the Reconquista in Iberia
Only the mountainous, inaccessible border zones in the extreme north of the peninsula remained under Christian rule. Here, five Christian realms developed between the eighth and the eleventh centuries: (1) In the area of Asturias-Cantabria, the kings of Asturias led the exiled Visigothic nobility. Toward the middle of the eighth century they expanded their rule to the west (Galicia) and east (Alava), and by the end of the following century they had crossed the river Duero (Port. Douro) in the south and conquered the town of Leôn, to which the center of the realm, afterward known as the kingdom of Leôn, shifted. (2) At its southeastern flank, the county of Castile gradually slipped from the control of the Leonese kings. By the beginning of the eleventh century, it had become fully established as an independent kingdom. (3) Further east, Navarre also developed into a principality of its own, which was ruled by kings from the beginning of the tenth century onward. (4) Aragon, once a county dependent on Navarre, escaped its control, rising to the status of kingdom after 1035. (5) The last of the five Christian realms was the county of Barcelona. It had been part of the Carolingian Empire, whose southern border it formed, together with a number of other Catalonian counties. In the course of the eleventh century, the count of Barcelona succeeded in becoming the dominant power of the southeastern Pyrenees.
These five realms—Leôn, Castile, Navarra, Aragon, and Barcelona—experienced transformations during the High Middle Ages. On the one hand, the dynastic union between the rulers of Barcelona and Aragon (1137) brought forth the Crown of Aragon (or Aragonese-Catalan Crown). On the other hand, the county of Portugal became independent of Leôn and achieved the rank of a kingdom in 1143. And finally, after a short-lived union (1038-1157), Castile and Leôn were united once and for all in 1230. The existence of four independent kingdoms (Portugal, Castile-Leôn, Navarre, and Aragon) impedes any general account of the “Spanish” history of the Middle Ages. Only with this complicated situation in mind can one attempt to describe the complex process known as Reconquista.
Until the second half of the eleventh century, the Christians’ disputes with the Muslims were still a largely Iberian affair marked by the “neogothic” concept of reconquest, by limited religious zeal, and by border skirmishes of uncertain outcome. At the turn of the first millennium, the vizier and general al-Mansûr billāh (Sp. Almanzor) achieved important military successes, but after his death (1002), the caliphate of Cordoba collapsed and disintegrated (10091031) into a number of petty Muslim realms (the so-called Taifa kingdoms). Some of these polities fought the Christians, while others preferred to sign treaties or make payments of tribute in return for peace. By so doing, these latter may have ultimately helped finance their own destruction, but the parias also show the synchronicity of coexistence and conflict typical for this period. In general the Christian frontier continued to expand south, and on 6 May 1085 King Alfonso VI of Castile-Leôn succeeded in taking the old Visigothic capital, Toledo, without bloodshed by guaranteeing wide-ranging rights (which were soon abrogated) to the Muslim population. The historical figure who best represents the complexities of the Iberian eleventh century is Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (d. 1099), better known to the modern world as El Cid. A vassal of Sancho II and Alfonso VI of Castile, Rodrigo fought against Christians, became involved in disputes between the Muslim rulers of Seville and Granada, and supported the Muslims of Zaragoza against the Christian king of Aragon. In 1094 he gained power over the Muslim town of Valencia, where he established an independent principality, which he successfully defended against attacks by Muslim opponents. The story of the Cid Campeador (from Arab. sayyid, “lord,” and Lat. campi doctor, “victorious fighter”) is only one example of the possibilities that the frontiers of the Iberian Peninsula offered to militarily and politically capable figures.
At this time, however, the struggle also began to draw Christians from beyond the Pyrenees. This change occurred for several reasons: increasing dynastic and feudal ties between the ruling Iberian lineages and noblemen from beyond the Pyrenees; the rising significance of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia as a center of pilgrimage that attracted a constantly growing stream of people, particularly from the eleventh century onward; and the papacy’s mounting interest in the Iberian Peninsula. For a long time, the Roman church’s influence was limited to the Carolingian-dominated eastern Pyrenees. But in the second half of the eleventh century, the zone widened: in 1064 for the first time, a notable contingent of French knights took part in the siege and conquest of an Aragonese town, Barbastro. Pope Alexander II supported this action by promising indulgences and depicting the siege as a war intended and justified by God. In 1068 the kingdom of Aragon placed itself under the protection of the Holy See and accepted the Roman liturgy. Soon Castile, Leôn, and Navarre also followed the Roman rite, and prelates close to Rome took over important ecclesiastical functions after the conquest of Toledo. But the victory of 1085 also had unexpected military consequences: the hard-pressed Muslims called in co-religionists from the North African mainland to assist them: the Almoravids (Arab. al-Murābitūn), zealous Berbers particularly committed to the idea of religious warfare. On 23 October 1086 they gained a sweeping victory over Alfonso VI’s forces at Sagrajas and soon thereafter began taking possession of al-Andalus. By 1095 they had conquered practically all the Taifa kingdoms in the peninsula; El Cid’s Valencia also fell victim to their expansion (1102). An era in the history of the Iberian Peninsula had come to an end. That period had been marked by the predominantly secular and political character of the Reconquista. Now the logic of warfare became more dominated by religious issues on both sides, and the fronts hardened.
With the expansion of the Almoravids in Iberia (1085-1095), the second phase of the Reconquista began. It brought a religiously loaded form of warfare to al-Andalus that also affected Christian concepts and actions. The popes’ commitment increased, and growing numbers of foreign arms bearers crossed the Pyrenees in order to fight against the Muslims. Some of them later took part in the First Crusade (1096-1099). Various factors caused the strangers to participate in the struggle, such as hope for booty or land, political considerations, and feudal ties to Iberian rulers. But the fights were also an expression of growing tensions between Islam and Christianity, which were being particularly aggravated on the Iberian Peninsula and which began to transcend the Pyrenees.
During this period at the end of the eleventh century, at least some elements of the crusade movement become recognizable in the Iberian Peninsula: the religious nature of the struggle was stressed, the papacy’s participation increased, indulgences were conferred, and foreign armed forces participated in the fighting. The situation in the Iberian Peninsula seems to have had a particularly strong effect on the papacy’s attitude toward the use of force against Islam. The Iberian experience, however, neither led directly to the proclamation of the First Crusade, nor was it a crusade in its own right. Some of the latter’s constitutive elements were still absent, such as the crusading vow, the taking of the cross, or the plenary indulgence (Lat. remissio peccatorum). At least regarding the indulgence, however, an important step was taken even before the conquest of Jerusalem: between 1096 and 1099, Pope Urban II specifically promised the Christians who contributed to the reestablishment of the Catalan town of Tarragona the remissio peccatorum. The conjunction between the fight against the Muslims and the plenary indulgence was thus first established in Iberia. In contrast, other features of the crusades entered the Iberian Peninsula as a result of the events in the Middle East. In the year 1101, for example, King Peter I of Aragon rallied his forces under the banner of the cross (Lat. vexillum crucis) when he fought against the Muslims before Zaragoza, where he named a locality after the war cry of the First Crusaders (Jùslibol, after Lat. Deus vult, “God wills it”).
In 1114, the Christians who participated in the conquest of the Balearic Islands were promised indulgences; a papal legate accompanied the expedition; and the participants marked themselves with the sign of the cross. During the conquest of Zaragoza under Alfonso I (the Battler) in the year 1118, foreign combatants were also called upon to assist their co-religionists and were promised indulgences. By this time at the latest, the Iberian wars had taken on the quality of a crusade, at least in the eyes of the papacy and the foreign combatants. It was only logical that in 1121 the arms bearers in Spain were explicitly assured identical indulgences to those of the crusaders in the Holy Land, and at the First Lateran Council of 1123, regulations were applied to those who took the cross to go to either Jerusalem or to Spain. In the Iberian Peninsula, too, the first crusade bull was issued in order to recruit new contingents. Almost at the same time as the establishment of the military orders in Outremer, military confraternities were founded in Aragon (Belchite, Monreal), which combined a form of life under monastic rules with warfare against the Muslims. Thus one can observe mutual influences between the Levant and the Iberian Peninsula. Both were seen as crusading areas.
Literary texts also contributed to fashioning and promoting the idea of Reconquista as crusade. Twelfth-century works like the Chanson de Roland, the Rolandslied des Pfaf- fen Konrad, and the so-called Pseudo-Turpin (Historia Karoli Magni et Rotolandi) represented the eighth-century Iberian campaign of the Emperor Charlemagne as a crusade, and a series of chansons de geste (epic poems) praised the feats of the Christians in Hispania. Only a few Hispanic sources, however, point to an authentic crusading ideal within the Iberian Christian population. This is hardly surprising: the same also applies to the inhabitants of Outremer after the establishment of the crusader kingdoms. For the local Christians, the struggle acquired the character of border warfare, marked by short incursions and raids. The Reconquista’s domestic dimension was also the reason why Iberian Christian rulers apparently felt few reservations about concluding alliances with Muslims against co-religionists or treating the Muslim inhabitants of conquered towns honorably. Christian mercenaries fought for Muslim rulers, and the Iberian frontier was in many senses more permeable than many later historians would assert. The inconsistencies between crusading ideologies, political interests, and economic considerations are recurring elements of the Reconquista, which often antagonized foreign crusaders. Nevertheless, during important campaigns in particular, crusade propaganda and crusading enthusiasm can even be detected in the Iberian sources.
Particularly substantial participation of foreign crusaders occurred in the years 1147-1148 as a result of the diverse elements that made up the Second Crusade. At the same time as an attack on the Muslim state of Damascus launched from the kingdom of Jerusalem and a campaign against the pagan Slavs (Wends) beyond the river Elbe, the Iberian kings undertook a series of offensives against the weakened Almoravid Empire. In Portugal, Lisbon was taken in October 1147; in the same month the Castilian king conquered the important port of Almeria; and shortly afterward (December 1148 and October 1149), the Taifas of Tortosa and Lleida (Lérida) capitulated to the Aragonese-Catalan ruler Count Raymond Berengar IV (1131-1162). For these campaigns, the monarchs sought and received the assistance of foreign contingents: the conquest of Lisbon was achieved thanks to the aid received by Afonso Henriques I of Portugal (1128-1185) from crusaders from England and the Rhineland on their way to the Holy Land. Some of the English crusaders participated in the conquest of Tortosa several months later; they were further supported by a Genoese fleet, which was crucial for the success of the enterprise. Certainly the campaigns of 1147-1148 represented the high point of foreign participation in the Reconquista.
During the following decades, the Iberian monarchs ensured that the influence of external forces diminished. This policy represents a substantial difference between the crusades in the Levant and those of the Iberian Peninsula: while the Franks of the East, few in number relative to the native population, actively sought and urgently required the assistance of their western co-religionists, the Iberian Christians did not depend on external support to a comparable degree. Foreign rulers did undertake crusading initiatives to Spain, including King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, who planned a joint expedition to the Iberian Peninsula in 1159. Nonnative crusaders also took part in several later campaigns (for example, in 1189 in Silves in Portugal, in 1212 leading to Las Navas de Tolosa, in 1217 in Alcacer do Sal in Portugal, and in 1309 at Gibraltar). But it is telling that the initiative of 1159 did not prosper, due to the fact that it was not coordinated with the native mon- archs, who closely monitored later foreign activities. The many military orders founded during this period in the Iberian Peninsula (Calatrava, Alcantara, Santiago, et al.) helped keep alive the crusading ideal and undoubtedly included international elements; but they soon became strongly nationalized institutions and decidedly Iberian in scope. Thus the Reconquista’s international resonance cannot be likened to that of the Eastern crusades, although this in no way contradicts the fact that the Iberian Peninsula was a crusading theater.
By the late twelfth century, a new change of power had occurred in al-Andalus: the Almoravids were displaced by the Almohads (Arab. al-Muwahhidün). These were Sunni reformers like the Almoravids, but belonged to a different Berber tribe. They were particularly critical of the Almoravids, whom they accused of religious laxity and error. By 1148 Morocco was subjugated with extreme violence, and by 1172 al-Andalus had also been conquered. The Almohads achieved their most important military success against the Christians on 9 July 1195 on the battlefield of Alarcos against the troops of Alfonso VIII of Castile (d. 1214). This defeat led the Christians to bury their internal disputes and take common action against the Muslims. They received strong support from Pope Innocent III, who promulgated crusade bulls in favor of the campaign and ordered both processions and prayers to be held far and wide. As a result, a substantial contingent of foreign (above all French) warriors enlarged the united armies led by the kings of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre. Although most of these crusaders withdrew their support when they were kept from plundering the castles that had capitulated, the local Christians triumphed over the Almohad army at Las Navas de Tolosa on 16 July 1212.
After this battle, the Muslims of al-Andalus were never again to achieve a major military success. For this reason Las Navas de Tolosa has been seen as a final turning point in the history of the Reconquista, even if this was hardly apparent to contemporaries. In fact, the expansion slowed down for a short period due to the untimely death of several of the chief political players. Also, Pope Innocent III attempted in 1213 to detach the Reconquista from the crusades to the East by breaking with the tradition of equating both struggles. But after a series of smaller campaigns of lesser importance, the expansion (once again fostered by papal indulgences) gathered momentum in the 1230s. Under King Ferdinand III, the Castilians conquered the most important Andalusian cities, among them Cordoba (1236) and Seville (1248). In the Aragonese-Catalan Crown, King James I the Conqueror (d. 1276) reaped similar successes: in 1228 the island of Mallorca was occupied; in 1238 the town of Valencia fell; and by 1235 and 1246, respectively, the Balearic Islands and the kingdom of Valencia had been subjugated. In Portugal the advance reached the coast of the Algarve by the year 1248. In barely twenty years, therefore, the realms of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon-Catalonia had nearly completed the conquest of al-Andalus. Only in the mountainous area around the Sierra Nevada in the extreme south could a Muslim lordship, the kingdom of Granada governed by the Nasrid dynasty, remain intact, albeit as a vassal state to the kingdom of Castile. For over two centuries it maintained its position between the Muslim Marinids in the south and the Christians in the north.
In the first half of the fourteenth century, the Reconquista flared up once more: an Aragonese-Castilian army wrested Gibraltar from the Marinids in 1309, and on 30 October 1340 a Portuguese-Castilian force achieved an important victory at the river Salado. Foreign crusaders participated in both campaigns, thus acquiring crusading indulgences, and even in later decades, Christians repeatedly crossed the Pyrenees in order to fight the Muslims. But in the meantime these expeditions were strongly (though never exclusively) marked by chivalrous and courtly ideals. To many knights of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, honor and adventure counted just as much as the welfare of their souls. After the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile united under the joint rule of the Catholic Kings (Ferdinand II and Isabella I) in 1469, the kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim realm on Iberian soil, was subjugated in a ten-year war. With its fall on 2 January 1492 the Reconquista was ended. However, the idea lived on and served to justify the Spanish expansion to America.
From a very early period, the Reconquista was accompanied by activities of colonization known as repoblaciôn (resettlement). The majority of the settlers—Mozarabs from al- Andalus or co-religionists from the northern areas—came from the Iberian Peninsula, while foreigners, mostly Frenchmen, became established especially along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. In several waves, the Christians moved into the conquered areas in the course of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, attracted by liberal privileges included in the local law codes (Sp. fueros) conferred by the Christian monarchs. These zones were more or less densely inhabited by local Muslim and, to a far lesser degree, by Jewish communities. These newly subject populations were treated in very much the same way as in Outremer. In both areas, the treatment of the non-Christians was not tolerant in the modern sense but rather pragmatic. The frequently used Spanish term convivencia (that is, cohabitation, the peaceful coexistence of different religions in one territory) suggests a higher level of cooperation and exchange than the sources reveal. Conveniencia (convenience) better describes the interests that lay at the heart of religious coexistence both in Outremer and in the Iberian Peninsula. The Jews and even more so the Muslims under Christian rule (Mudéjars) were relegated to second-class status: they were required to pay a poll tax, were not permitted to carry weapons, and were obliged to dwell in special quarters. In Andalusia, for example, the subjected Muslims had to leave the cities, and their houses were distributed among the victors in the so-called repartimiento (repartition). Still, the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula were mostly allowed to follow their religion and were granted personal safety and limited self-rule. Thus Muslims and Jews appear as subjects with specific (though repeatedly ignored) rights. Just as in Outremer, mission played a subordinated role in Iberia; however, legal restrictions and constant Christian pressure did lead to gradual acculturation and syncretism. Despite this tendency toward absorption, considerable Jewish and Muslim communities still existed at the end of the Recon- quista in the year 1492. They fell victim to the Catholic Mon- archs’ zeal for confessional unity. Those Jews who did not convert to Christianity were expelled in 1492, and the Mudé- jars were obliged to accept baptism shortly later. In the year 1609, the Christian descendants of former Muslims, known as Moriscos, were expelled from Spain.