The history of Christian Spain in this period is that of one long crusade—the rising resolve to expel the Moors. These were rich and strong; they held the most fertile terrain, and had the best government; the Christians were poor and weak, their soil was difficult, their mountain barriers shut them off from the rest of Europe, divided them into petty kingdoms, and encouraged provincial chauvinism and fraternal strife. In this passionate peninsula more Christian blood was shed by Christians than by Moors.
The Moslem invasion of 711 drove the unconquered Goths, Suevi, Christianized Berbers, and Iberian Celts into the Cantabrian Mountains of northwestern Spain. The Moors pursued them, but were defeated at Covadonga (718) by a small force under the Goth Pelayo, who thereupon made himself King of Asturias, and so founded the Spanish monarchy. The repulse of the Moors at Tours allowed Alfonso I (739–57) to extend the Asturian frontiers into Galicia, Lusitania, and Viscaya. His grandson Alfonso II (791-842) annexed the province of Leon, and made Oviedo his capital.
In this reign occurred one of the pivotal events of Spanish history. A shepherd, allegedly guided by a star, found in the mountains a marble coffin whose contents were believed by many to be the remains of the Apostle James, “brother of the Lord.” A chapel was built on the site, and later a splendid cathedral; Santiago de Compostela—“St. James of the Field of the Star”—became a goal of Christian pilgrimage only less sought than Jerusalem and Rome; and the sacred bones proved invaluable in stirring morale, and raising funds, for the wars against the Moors. St. James was made the patron saint of Spain, and spread the name Santiago over three continents. Beliefs make history, especially when they are wrong; it is for errors that men have most nobly died.
East of Asturias, and just south of the Pyrenees, lay Navarre. Its inhabitants were mostly of Basque stock—probably of mixed Celtic Spanish and African Berber blood. Helped by their mountains they successfully defended their independence against Moslems, Franks, and Spaniards; and in 905 Sancho I García founded the kingdom of Navarre, with Pamplona as his capital. Sancho “the Great” (994-1035) won his title by absorbing Leon, Castile, and Aragon; for a time Christian Spain verged on unity; but at his death Sancho undid his life’s work by dividing his realm among his four sons. The kingdom of Aragon dates its existence from this division. By pressing back the Moslems in the south, and peacefully incorporating Navarre in the north (1076), it came by 1095 to include a large part of north-central Spain. Catalonia—northeastern Spain around Barcelona—was conquered by Charlemagne in 788, and was ruled by French counts who made the region a semi-independent “Spanish March”; its language, Catalan, was an interesting compromise between Provençal French and Castilian. Leon, in the northwest, entered history with Sancho the Fat, who was so heavy that he could walk only by leaning upon an attendant. Deposed by the nobles, he went to Cordova, where the famous Jewish physician and statesman Hasdai ben Shaprut cured him of obesity. Now as lithe as Don Quixote, Sancho returned to Leon and reconquered his throne (959).14 Castile, in central Spain, was named from its castles; it fronted Moslem Spain, and lived in continual readiness for war. In 930 its knights refused any longer to obey the kings of Asturias or Leon, and set up an independent state, with its capital at Burgos. Fernando I (1035-65) united Leon and Galicia to Castile, compelled the emirs of Toledo and Seville to pay him yearly tribute, and, like Sancho the Great, canceled his labors with his death by dividing his realm among his three sons, who zealously continued the tradition of internecine war among the Christian Spanish kings.
Agricultural poverty and political disunity kept Christian Spain far behind its Moslem rival in the south and its Frank rival in the north in the amenities and arts of civilization. Even within each little kingdom unity was an interlude; the nobles almost ignored the kings except in war, and ruled their serfs and slaves in feudal sovereignty. The ecclesiastical hierarchy formed a second nobility; bishops, too, owned land, serfs, and slaves, led their own troops in war, usually ignored the popes, and ruled Spanish Christianity as a well-nigh independent church. In 1020 at Leon, nobles and bishops joined in national councils, and legislated as a parliament for the kingdom of Leon. The Council of Leon granted to that city a charter of self-government, making it the first autonomous commune in medieval Europe; similar charters were granted to other Spanish cities, probably to enlist their ardor and funds in the war against the Moors; and a limited urban democracy rose amid the feudalism, and under the monarchies, of Spain.
The career of Rodrigo (Ruy) Diaz illustrates the bravery, chivalry, and chaos of Christian Spain in the eleventh century. He has come down to us rather under the title the Moors gave him of EI Cid (Arabic sayid)—noble or lord—than under his Christian sobriquet of El Campeador—the Challenger or Champion. Born at Bivar near Burgos about 1040, he grew up as a caballero or military adventurer, fighting anywhere for any paying cause; by the age of thirty he was admired throughout Castile for his daring skill in combat, and distrusted for his apparently equal readiness to fight Moors for Christians, or Christians for Moors. Sent by Alfonso VI of Castile to collect tribute due from al-Mutamid, the poet emir of Seville, he was accused, on his return, of keeping part of the tribute, and was banished from Castile (1081). He became a freebooter, organized a small army of soldiers of fortune, and sold his services to Christian or Moslem rulers indifferently. For eight years he served the emir of Saragossa, and extended the Moorish dominion at the expense of Aragon. In 1089, leading 7000 men, mostly Moslems, he captured Valencia, and exacted from it a monthly tribute of 10,000 gold dinars. In 1090 he seized the count of Barcelona, and held him for a ransom of 80,000 dinars. Finding Valencia closed to him on his return from this expedition, he besieged it for a year; when it surrendered (1094) he violated all the conditions on which it had laid down its arms, burned its chief justice alive, divided the possessions of the citizens among his followers, and would have burned the judge’s wife and daughters too had not the city and his own soldiers raised a cry of protest.15 In this and other ways the Cid behaved in the fashion of his times. He atoned for his sins by governing Valencia with ability and justice, and making it a saving rampart against the Almoravid Moors. When he died (1099) his wife Jimena held the city for three years. An admiring posterity transformed him by legend into a knight moved only by a holy zeal to restore Spain to Christ; and his bones at Burgos are revered as those of a saint.16
So divided against itself, Christian Spain achieved its slow reconquista only because Moslem Spain finally surpassed it in fragmèntation and anarchy. The fall of the Cordovan caliphate in 1036 offered an opportunity brilliantly used by Alfonso VI of Castile. With the help of al-Mutamid of Seville he captured Toledo (1085) and made it his capital. He treated the conquered Moslems with Moslem decency, and encouraged the absorption of Moorish culture into Christian Spain.