Post-classical history

Chapter Six

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Reconquista and Rediscovery

Between 1134 and 1146, Christian kings, Almoravid warriors, and Almohad caliphs battle on the Spanish peninsula, while more and more Arabic books reach the west

IN 1134, the Spanish king Alfonso the Battler died after a lifetime on the battlefield.

He had drawn the four Christian kingdoms of Spain—Aragon and Navarre, León and Castile—together under the joined crowns of himself and his wife Urraca. But the south of the Spanish peninsula had never been under his control. For over four hundred years, Muslim dynasties had ruled there instead.

Nearly five decades earlier, a North African sect known as the Almoravids had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into the Spanish peninsula. Within three years, the south of Spain was under Almoravid rule. The Christian kingdoms of the north fought back against the invaders, turning the center of the peninsula into a much contested battlefront. Their resistance gained energy when a church council at Toulouse, in 1118, gave the fight the status of crusade. Instead of traveling east, western noblemen with their private armies could now take the shorter journey west and earn the same spiritual rewards. Military orders—monks with swords—shouldered the task as well.*

But the battlefield was large, and the enemy determined. In the east, crusades were measured in years. The crusade in Spain, the Reconquista, continued for centuries.

By 1134, Almoravid power in Spain had weakened. The Almoravid ruler Ali ibn Yusuf, ruling from North Africa, was more concerned with African territories than with his trans-Mediterranean lands. Meanwhile, Christian strength had grown. Alfonso the Battler, earning his nickname, had pushed the Almoravid front back, and back, and back. For Alfonso, Spain was not merely a political realm. It was a sacred space where Christianity carried on its undying fight against evil. And so, when he died, he left his kingdom to the Knights Templar, the Hospitallers, and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre: three of the military orders established to nurture holy warriors.

His people ignored the bizarre will. The four kingdoms split apart: León and Castile under his stepson Alfonso VII,* Aragon under Alfonso the Battler’s brother Ramiro II (a monk who gave up his vows in order to be king, finding the two incompatible). Navarre, which had been under Aragonese control for nearly sixty years, threw its support behind Garcia Ramirez, a grandson of the legendary Christian warrior El Cid; he would rule an newly independent Navarre for sixteen years, earning himself the title of “the Restorer.”

The separation of the once-united kingdoms could have provided the Almoravids with an opportunity to retake some of the lost land, but rot was spreading farther and farther into their realm. A new challenge to Almoravid power had arisen in Africa itself. A North African prophet named Ibn Tumart, a devout Muslim who had left his homeland to study his faith in Baghdad, had returned with a revelation: the end of time was near, and Ibn Tumart had been called to purify the practice of Islam and to unite its followers in dedication to Islamic law.

At twenty-eight, he was blazingly charismatic, persuasive, and driven. The thirteenth-century historian al-Marrakushi says that on the journey back to North Africa, he preached so unceasingly to the sailors on the ship where he had bought passage that they threw him into the sea (he swam along in the wake until they had second thoughts and hauled him back on board). Before his premature death in 1130, he had managed to gain an enormous following: the al-muwahhidun, or Almohads, the Unified Ones.1

One of Ibn Tumart’s followers, the soldier al-Mu’min, built on his theological groundwork and transformed the religious movement into one of conquest. By 1134, the Almohads had begun to push into the Almoravid land in North Africa. In Almohad eyes, the Almoravids were the enemy as much as the Christians farther north: Muslim but unpurified, corrupt lawbreakers.

Fighting on two fronts, the Almoravids soon found themselves overmatched on both.

On the Spanish peninsula, the Christian front had advanced to the south of Toledo. Toledo itself, hotly contested, was so dangerous a place that Alfonso VII made a nobleman he particularly distrusted its governor, a hopeful move since the previous governors of Toledo had all been killed in battle. The nearby castle of Oreja was an Almoravid base of operations, and in the spring of 1139, Alfonso VII laid siege to it: “The castle was very strong,” says the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, the official chronicle of Alfonso’s reign, “and was well fortified with all kinds of weapons and crossbows. Nevertheless, the emperor ordered his engineers to build siege towers and many engines with which to attack the castle, [and] he ordered sentries to be placed along the riverbank in order that he might destroy them by thirst.”2

An Almoravid army arrived from Marrakesh to help beat Alfonso VII back. But the siege dragged on, until messengers hurried down from Oreja to Marrakesh to ask for further reinforcements. They were, says the Chronica, “confounded, for events were not turning out as they had wished,” and they got no joy from Marrakesh; informed that no more reinforcements were available, they were forced to return to Oreja with the message that they “should not harbour any hope and that they should surrender the castle to the emperor.”3

Oreja surrendered in October. It was a major victory for Alfonso VII, who now set his eyes on Córdoba and Seville. Meanwhile, the Almoravids had suffered an even more serious defeat farther west. Alfonso VII’s cousin Afonso Henriques, who governed the Leonese province known as Portugal, had been carrying on the fight south of his own land. In July, he had won his first major victory against Almoravid armies: the Battle of Ourique, fought on a hilltop not far from the coast.

Few contemporary details of the battle survive; it may have been little more than a large-scale raid into Almoravid-held territory.* But Afonso Henriques, cheered on by his men, declared himself king of Portugal immediately afterwards. This made him, in theory, independent of his royal cousin, and turned Portugal into a kingdom in its own right.

Alfonso VII refused to recognize the title, but he did not immediately invade the rebellious province; he was too busy. By 1144, his army was approaching Córdoba and Seville. The Chronica tells us that they

destroyed all the vines, olive groves and fig trees. They cut down and set alight all the orchards, set fire to their towns, villages and hamlets, and sent up in flames many of their castles. They took their men, women and children captive, and seized a great booty of horses, mares, camels, mules, asses, oxen, cows and every kind of beast, gold and silver, all the valuables which were in their homes. . . . All the kingdom . . . was destroyed.4

The devastating victories placed Spain even more firmly in Christian hands.

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6.1 The Spanish Peninsula, 1144

AROUND THAT SAME YEAR, the Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona traveled to the Spanish peninsula, hoping to find in the libraries of Toledo a copy of the second-century Greek astronomy text known as the Almagest.

He was not the first Western thinker to make the journey. A century and half earlier, the future Pope Sylvester II had traveled to a monastery near the Muslim-Christian border; there, he learned to use the numbering system of the Arabs, discovered by them in their forays into India. Unlike the cumbersome Roman system, these numbers (generally now known as Hindu-Arabic numerals) relied on place for their value. (“The Indians have a most subtle talent,” marveled the monk Vigila, later in the tenth century, “this is clear in the 9 figures with which they are able to designate each and every degree of each order.”) He had been followed by a whole parade of Europeans and the occasional Englishman: among them Robert of Ketton and Hermann of Carinthia, who first translated the entire Qur’an into Latin, and Plato of Tivoli, who did the same with Arabic texts on astronomy and mathematics.5

Now, with Gerard of Cremona, the rediscovery of Arabic texts surged forward. In Toledo, Gerard discovered a treasure trove of books he had never known existed. Among the books he unearthed in the dusty unused stacks of the Toledo libraries were a handful that had been translated from Greek into Arabic, but had never before been read in the Latin-speaking West: the Physics of Aristotle, containing the philosophical explorations of being that the Aristotelian texts on logic did not touch; the Elements of Euclid; the Secrets of the great Greek physician Galen.

“Seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject,” one of his students later wrote, “he learned the Arabic language in order to be able to translate. . . . [T]o the end of his life, he continued to transmit to the Latin world (as if to his own beloved heir) whatever books he thought finest, in many subjects, as accurately and as plainly as he could.” By the time of his death, some thirty years later, Gerard had translated at least seventy-one major works on dialectic, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. A wall between the past and the present had been broken down, and more and more thinkers would step over the rubble into a new way of thinking.6

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6.1 Early thirteenth-century Arabic mansucript, showing Aristotle teaching Turkish astronomers.
Credit: Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY

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* A more detailed account is found in Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 664–666.

* León-Castile had been held by Urraca since 1109; although it was part of the united realm of Alfonso VI, the couple was deeply estranged. When Urraca died in 1126, Alfonso VII (her son with her first husband, Raymond of Burgundy) took her place, still under the overarching authority of his stepfather, Alfonso the Battler.

* In the years afterward, Ourique loomed larger and larger in Portuguese eyes: the number of Almoravid troops killed increased, the Portuguese valor expanded, and the victory swelled, until by the sixteenth century Afonso Henriques had defeated five Muslim kings after seeing, Constantine-like, a vision of Christ promising victory over the pagans. None of these details, however, are contemporary.

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