Military history

Part Two



THE PASSAGE INTO SPAIN WAS EASY FROM THE MOROCCAN SHORE. A narrow body of water, then open beaches gave way to sand and scrub, then to low hills. To the west, the sluggish river Guadalquivir (from the Arabic Wad el-Kebir, the big valley) flowed into the sea at the little port of Sanlucar de Barrameda, where Christopher Columbus would gather his ships in 1498. Upstream lay Seville and Cordoba, the greatest cities of the south. Beyond these were fertile rolling fields until the wooded slopes of the Sierra Morena rose to cut off the lands of the south, which Spaniards still call the frying pan of Spain, from the high cold plateau of central Spain. Only to the east, on the road to Granada and the Sierra Nevada, were there mountains to compare with the Atlas and the Anti-Atlas ranges of North Africa. Even in Granada, the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada rose behind the level fields of the Vega, which was like a verdant carpet rolled out before the city. The pioneering nineteenth-century traveler Richard Ford would catch its character, describing “the eternal rampart of the lovely Vega … The clear mother of pearl outline cuts the blue sky.”1

For North Africans, accustomed to Morocco and Algeria, and the deserts beyond, this was an easy land. Give it water and it flourishes, abundantly. Contrast this home of plenty with the approach into Spain from the north across the Pyrenees. There were few passes through the mountains and none was easy, except where the high peaks diminished toward the Atlantic. Spain below the Pyrenean barrier was rugged and mountainous, and the great rivers, crossing the terrain from east to west, provided a further set of obstacles. The sixteenth-century English traveler James Howell observed that “about a third part of the continent of Spain is made up of huge craggy hills and mountains, amongst which one can feel in some places more difference in point of temper of heat and cold in the air than twixt winter and summer under other Climes.”2

From a northern European perspective, Spain was simply a distant southern extremity, separated from the rest of the continent by the Pyrenean massif. For Spaniards, the mountains have traditionally been their salvation. A folk legend of unknown origin held that when the devil proclaimed his dominion over all the earth to Jesus Christ, Spain was forgotten, concealed from his evil view by the great peaks. Spain possessed four borders: the land frontier with Europe, a coastline on the Atlantic, a long Mediterranean shoreline, and, across a narrow strip of water, Africa. The Muslim conquest of Spain was perhaps inevitable from the day in 681 that an Arab general, Uqba bin Nafi, stood on the shores of the Atlantic, close to the modern town of Agadir. The traditional account of this expedition had the Muslim commander riding into the water up to his horse’s withers, gesturing with his sword toward the empty ocean, and crying, “God is great. If my course were not stopped by this sea, I would still ride on to the unknown kingdoms of the west, preaching the unity of God, and putting to the sword the rebellious nations who worship any other god but Him.”3 While the western ocean posed a barrier to the advance of Islam, the narrow strait between Africa and Europe was inconsequential. Ships constantly crisscrossed between the harbors of North Africa and the ports of southern Spain. The richness and abundance of Spain proved an irresistible lure.4 Thus in the same decade, 710–20, that the Muslim armies encamped before Constantinople for the second time and were defeated, in the West their coreligionists were victorious beyond their wildest imagining. We know the outcome—the seizure of almost all the land from the southern Spanish shore to the Pyrenees (and beyond)—but the process of conquest remains shrouded in mystery. As in the East, the first contact of Muslims and Christians did not attract a chronicler until decades after the event.5

Some facts are undisputed. In 710, an advance party of Berber soldiers was ferried in four small ships across the ten miles of water to an island called Las Palomas, just off the Spanish coast, close to modern Tarifa.6 The commander, Tarif bin Malik, had only 400 infantrymen and 100 horsemen. They were lightly armed, carried only a minimum of food and water, and no heavy equipment. Nonetheless, meeting with virtually no resistance, they soon filled their ships with a huge amount of plunder. Tarif’s sortie indicated that a raid in strength on the Spanish mainland would yield rich pickings. In the following year, his superior commander in Tangier, Tariq bin Zayid, mounted a larger expedition. He sailed from the African shore early in April, and landed his 7,000 men under cover of darkness beneath the mountain that now bears his name, Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq, the mountain of Tariq). In the morning, they marched over the sandy strip separating the rocky peak from the mainland and occupied a wide circle of land beyond the small town now called Algeciras.

This was little different from any of the other speculative expeditions that had characterized the Arab conquest. In the early eighth century, Spain was ruled by a Visigothic dynasty, and although the sources are scanty, we know that the king of Spain, Roderick, quickly came south with a large army to repel the invaders. He was killed in battle not far from the point where the Muslims had landed, close to the old Roman town of Asida Caesarina. The Visigothic army melted away. After the battle there was almost no organized resistance, and Tariq, who commanded little more than 7,000 men, sent a small detachment under a trusted tribesman called Mugith al-Rumi to take Cordoba. When the band arrived on the bank of the river Guadalquivir opposite the city, they learned from a shepherd that the Visigoths had abandoned Cordoba, except for a few hundred men. Al-Rumi also discovered that there was a gap in the defenses. By night he smuggled in a handful of men, who opened the gate to the old Roman bridge. In the early morning his few soldiers took the city.

Meanwhile Tariq pressed north with all speed toward the Visigothic capital at Toledo. He was joined by his senior commander Musa ibn Nasir with much-needed reinforcements. When they reached the walls, they found the gates open and the city virtually empty. The occupation of Spain north of Toledo that followed in subsequent years met with very little more opposition than this first advance. One or two towns resisted and were sacked, but as in the Levant, the Muslim conquest seemed completely irresistible. However, at the time the loss of Spain seemed even less explicable than the loss of the East. The earliest Christian account of the fall of Spain, written about 754, put the loss into a biblical framework, much as the patriarch had done in Jerusalem a century before.7 The Christian chronicler also declared Tariq’s overlord, Musa, to be “altogether pitiless,” for he “burned fair cities, sentenced noble and leading men of the time to be tortured, and had children and nursing mothers beaten to death.” But once he had “filled everyone with such terror, some cities which remained soon sued for peace, and he, with blandishments and mockery and guile, granted these wishes.” For the most part, such agreements were fulfilled. Christian overlordship was quickly and easily replaced by Muslim power.

Over time both Christian and Muslim accounts of this event became tales replete with prophetic utterance, spiced with suggestions of lust and betrayal. The myths provided an explanation of how it was that Tariq, with no more than a few thousand men at his disposal, could have defeated “all the Christian fighting men of Spain,” numbered by some at 100,0. Why had God turned against his people?8 The answer was found in moral depravity that had occasioned divine wrath. The easy victory of the Berbers and their Arab commanders was partly put down by Christian writers to malign fate. But God had abandoned his people because the Visigothic rulers’ moral failures had brought them low. The theme of mordant lust leading to betrayal permeated the account. “In the royal court in Seville, they began to talk, among other things, about the beauty of women. One of those present intervened to say that no woman in the whole world was more lovely than the daughter of Count Julian,” a shadowy character, supposedly the commander of Ceuta, a Byzantine enclave in North Africa. On hearing this, the king asked his chief adviser how he “might secretly send a messenger to her so he might see her.” This man advised, “Send for Julian to come here and spend some days with him eating and drinking.” While Julian was being entertained, the king wrote a letter in Count Julian’s name, accompanied by the count’s personal seal ring, commanding the countess to come to court with her daughter Oliva. When they arrived the king seduced Oliva and “illicitly had intercourse with the girl over several days.”9

The story of the Visigothic king echoed the biblical King David brought low by his passion for Bathsheba.10 The downfall of David in the second book of Samuel began with a prophecy: “The sword shall never depart from thy house; because thou hast despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.” The Hebrew king’s lust brought down punishment upon himself and upon his people. In Spain, all the participants in the catastrophe were equally deep in sin. But the sins of the Christians had allowed an even greater evil—the Muslim invasion—to triumph. The conquest became an elaborate metaphor.

Spain … Her songs were forgotten and her language is changed into foreign and strange words. The Moors of the host wore silks and colourful cloths which they had taken as booty, their horses’ reins were like fire, their faces were as black as pitch, the handsomest among them was as black as the cooking-pot, and their eyes blazed like fire; their horses were as swift as leopards, their horsemen more cruel and hurtful than the wolf that comes by night to the flock of sheep.11

The chronicler’s commination grew more intense and dramatic as he warmed to his task. This physical, moral, and intellectual obliteration of a whole nation, he declared, grew from the inherent evil of Islam. The chronicler was specific: no depravity was beyond these enemies of Christ.12

This was also a history confected to provide a pedigree for the future monarchs of Christian Spain.13 Within these narratives the inborn depravity of the Moors elided with the moral failures of the Visigoths, and they become as one. King Roderick was no longer a true Christian, but became like a Moor in his uncontrollable lust.14 The supreme villain was Bishop Oppa, of the tainted royal line. Oppa had allied himself with the infidels, and sought to persuade a Christian hero leading a small band of patriots—King Pelayo—to submit to the Islamic horde. In the Chronicle of Alfonso III of the Asturias, written in the late ninth century, Oppa came to Pelayo in an icy cave at Covadonga, high in the northwestern mountains. The bishop tried to persuade him to yield. To this Pelayo replied scornfully.

“Have you not read in holy scripture that the church of God can become as small as a grain of mustard and can then, by the grace of God, be made to grow again larger?” The bishop answered: “It is so written.” Pelayo said: “Christ is our hope, that by this tiny hillock which you see, Spain may be saved and the army of the Gothic people restored. I trust therefore that the promise of the Lord may be fulfilled in us as it was announced through David … In the battle with which you have threatened us, we have our Lord Jesus Christ as our advocate before the Father, and He is powerful enough to save us few from them.”15

Pelayo’s contempt for the offer, his noble resistance, and his ultimate triumph led directly to the foundation of the Kingdom of the Asturias, and thence to the royal house of Castile. In this dreamworld of good and evil, Castile exemplified the true heritage of the “good” Visigoths. Roderick and Oppa shared the same blood, but they had lost their inherited virtue and honor through their depravity. They had become crypto-Moors. It was the kings of Castile who carried the honorable heritage of the Visigoths in their veins and it was invariably the Moors or Arabs who were the agency of evil. There were Muslims in these histories who behaved honorably, but these exceptions were used to throw Christian wickedness into a starker relief.

Often these connections between the mythic past and the domain of history are mere conjecture. But in the case of Bishop Oppa we know the popular resonance of the myth. Centuries after the conquest, in 1465, during a civil war in Castile, King Enrique IV was symbolically deposed at Avila by a group of dissident nobles. An effigy of the king was sat upon a chair. The act of deposition had been carried out by Archbishop Carrillo, who took the crown from the head of the king’s effigy; another noble took away the sword from its hand; and a third knocked the effigy headlong from the mock throne.16 The news of this event spread quickly throughout Castile. A few months later Enrique’s own soldiers were besieging the fortress of Simancas, and they put on a pageant to lampoon the events at Avila. But they did not give Carrillo his own name and title, but rather called him Oppa, eliding him with the archtraitor to Pelayo more than seven centuries before.17 By this analogy they made clear the depth of Carrillo’s treachery.

The running thread of evil in these narratives, sometimes on the surface but as often below, was the Moors. They were the trial and test set by God for his people, and they would be destroyed only by a virtuous and godly Christian king, a new Pelayo.18 Like the Jews, who were often seen as their surrogates and accessories, as they had been in the accounts of the fall of Jerusalem, the Muslims were evil incarnate. God used the Moors like a heavy flail to beat his people back to virtue.

WE NEED TO SET THE REALITY OF MUSLIM SPAIN AGAINST THIS ARTFULLY contrived Castilian propaganda. For almost 500 years—from roughly 720 to 1200—Muslims dominated most of the Iberian peninsula. They called it “Al-Andalus,” the land of the Vandals, and their numbers were reinforced at intervals by new waves of conquest from North Africa. But the Muslim conquerors were few in number—no more than 20,000 in the first waves—and thereafter provided only a thin veneer, rather like the Visigothic ruling class, set atop a large Catholic Christian population. But this Muslim layer was itself divided, between Berbers and Arabs. The Berbers were the native inhabitants of the mountain regions of North Africa, whose stubborn resistance had held up the Arab armies advancing from the east. The Berbers’ conversion to Islam was very recent, and many of their pre-Islamic customs were carried forward into their new faith. The Arabs, who traced their connections back to the ancient tribes of the Arabian peninsula, looked down upon the Berbers. It was no accident that the best land and the richest cities in Spain were allocated to Arabs, while the mountain zones and the poorest land were peopled by the Berber clans. This division, although obscured by the outward success of the Muslim governing institutions, was a constant and destabilizing force within the Islamic culture of Spain.

Islamic Spain appeared a strong and unified power, but this was only partly true. There were many fracture lines within the structure. Some were tribal, for the Arabs were always prone to quarreling among themselves. The Berbers were restive and often rebelled against Arab pretensions. And as soon as central authority diminished, the political units fragmented. Thus, over those five centuries there were only three periods of enforced unity and each was of relatively limited duration. The first was under the Emirate, which became the Caliphate of Cordoba in the tenth century. The second and third periods were under the domination of the Moroccan dynasties of the Almorávides and the Almohades during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.19 But these episodes were surrounded by long years of disunity and civil war. In this the Muslim state resembled the Christian kingdoms to the north, which were as prone to fighting against one another as against their putative common enemy.

Although the Muslim states called the entire peninsula “Al-Andalus,” the northern rivers Ebro and Duero soon formed the effective dividing line between Christian and Islamic rule. Faced with the impetuous advance of the Muslims, Pelayo’s small independent Christian statelet survived in the high mountains of northwest Spain. Myth traced an unbroken tradition of Christian rule from these Asturian mountains, where, as Edward Gibbon put it, “A vital spark was still alive; some invincible fugitives preferred a life of poverty and freedom in the Asturian valleys; the hardy mountaineers repulsed the slaves of the caliph.”20 In reality, the Arab columns had been more concerned to push forward across the Pyrenees into France than fight in the mountains. By 717, the Arabs were well established around the city of Narbonne, which they captured in 719. From their southern base, they sent out large-scale raids ever deeper into France until, at the battle of Tours in 732, a Muslim raiding army from Spain was thrown back by the Franks led by Charles Martel.21 In the history of France this event loomed large: “The men of the north stood as motionless as a wall; they were like a belt of ice frozen together, and not to be dissolved, as they slew the Arabs with the sword.”22 The victory over Islam at Tours became in Western eyes an archetypal triumph, charged like the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 or Lepanto in 1571 with a deep symbolic meaning. But in reality, although these northern raids continued for some years after the conquest, the Muslims were content to consolidate their rule farther south. Much of the terrain north of the river line was barren and unproductive. It quickly became a no-man’s-land, dotted with towns and castles—some owing notional allegiance to a Christian king, others to the emir or caliph in Cordoba.

In these northern Spanish lands, the small nucleus in the Asturian mountains expanded eastward to become the Kingdom of Leon, with its capital at Oviedo. The border between Leon and the Muslim south was nicknamed “the land of the castles”—Castile—because it was an area where towers and fortresses populated the landscape. Eventually Castile became larger and more powerful than its parent, Leon. To the east of Castile was the Kingdom of Aragon, which began in the foothills of the Pyrenees and slowly expanded south and east toward the Mediterranean. There it confronted the Frankish County of Barcelona and the border Muslim Kingdom of Valencia. Over time these were incorporated into the patrimony of Aragon. By the mid–fourteenth century, Christian Spain consisted of five kingdoms: Portugal, in the west; Leon-Castile, straddling the center; the tiny Kingdom of Navarre, in part north of the Pyrenees and in part south; Aragon, including Catalonia; and formerly Muslim Valencia (conquered by King James I of Aragon in 1238), which occupied most of the Mediterranean littoral.

The cities and the most productive terrain were in the south and held by the Muslims: Cordoba and later Seville in the flat, fertile land around the river Guadalquivir, Granada with its Vega, growing almost every type of fruit, and the rich orchards and gardens (huerta) around Valencia, described by one writer as paradise.23 The Christian writers also praised their own lands as paradise, but with much less reason, for they possessed little of the superabundance of the Muslim south. Where nature required assistance, the southerners created elaborate systems of irrigation, much like those found in Syria or Egypt. Sun and flowing water made southern Spain one of the best agricultural areas of the known world. The focus of this wealth was the capital city, Cordoba, although all the urban centers, from Saragossa in the north, through Toledo in the heart of the peninsula, to the cities of the east and south, were filled with new buildings and rich possessions.

Much of this “Moorish,” or Islamic, building was created by Christians living under Muslim rule who were known as Mozarabes, meaning “Arabized.” In the first century of the conquest they formed a large majority in the Muslim cities, and in some parts of the countryside. Thus the population of Al-Andalus in the ninth century had four main elements: the Muslim conquerors, Arab or Berber; the Christian Mozarabes; and the Jews. The Mozarabes were descendants of the inhabitants of Roman Spain and the Visigoth invaders who had crossed the Pyrenees in the fifth century. When the Jews first came to Spain is shrouded in mystery. Some claimed that they first arrived at the time of Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C., others that they had migrated west after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The first physical evidence of their presence is a Jewish woman’s tomb at Adra from the third century. The Jewish population suffered severe persecution under the Visigothic kings, so the Muslim conquest represented a release from oppression.

For the most part, apart from the occasional outburst of mutual antagonism, all managed to live side by side. Over the first three centuries of Islamic rule, many Christians converted to Islam and the cultures acquired characteristics in common, while still maintaining their distinct and separate identities.24 As in the Levant, where the Arab Christians became outwardly indistinguishable from the larger Muslim population, so too in Al-Andalus the superficial differences between the different groups diminished. Mozarabes and Jews often adopted Arabic, while the Berbers also abandoned their native dialects for it (apparently, though, retaining a Berber accent).25 Yet the communities remained distinct: they preserved their customs and observed their own laws.26 This was the unique and paradoxical Spanish accommodation to which Américo Castro later gave the name convivencia, “living together.”

Many of the varying interrelationships between Islam and Christendom (as well as Judaism) that played out later elsewhere first appeared in Spain. Yet because of the peninsula’s isolation below the Pyrenees, much of this experience has gone largely unnoticed. However, if we read the experience of Spain against the experience of the Balkans or the Levant, connections, parallels, and analogies begin to surface. Throughout the long history of Al-Andalus, there was a consistent quality that Ron Barkai has called the “enemy in the mirror.”27 For more than 300 years Andalusi Muslims lived with Christians and Jews in their midst.28 Then, during the Moroccan reconquest of Spain under the militantly Islamic Almorávides and Almohades tribesmen, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Christian and Jewish elements in Muslim Spain diminished rapidly. Andalusi Christians either converted to Islam or were forced to migrate north to the Christian lands.29 During those early centuries the model for living together worked well, except for those who wished to accentuate religious differences. But by the thirteenth century, when the principal Christian kingdom, Castile, pushed south to Cordoba, conquering the bulk of the once-Muslim states, convivencia was already moribund, or in many areas of Andalusia had ceased altogether. When the Christians returned to the south, they came as rulers, as the dominant rather than subordinate group. Granada to the east became the last wholly Muslim kingdom in Spain, and a refuge for all Muslims who did not wish to live under a Christian ruler. It quickly extinguished most of the traits of convivencia. But only in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did a triumphalist Christian Spain move steadily toward expunging the non-Christian elements in her population.30

Nonetheless, regardless of Muslim or Christian dominance, the medieval peninsula comprised more than one culture. The fact of three communities, literate and cultivated, existing side by side within the same state was an accident of conquest, and caused infinite problems for both Islamic and Christian scholars, who consistently postulated an unbridgeable gulf between the two worlds. A late-fifteenth-century Muslim scholar from North Africa, al-Wansharishi, described the dangers his coreligionists in Spain faced living in a Christian land, among unbelievers:

One has to beware of the pervasive effect of their way of life, their language, their dress, their objectionable habits, and influence on people living with them over a long period of time, as has occurred with the people of Avila and other places. They have lost their Arabic, and when the Arabic language dies out, so does devotion in it and there is consequential neglect of worship as expressed in words in all its richness and outstanding virtues … Living with unbelievers is not permissible, not so much as for one hour a day, because of all the dirt and filth involved, and the religious as well as secular corruption, which continues all the time.31

Christian scholars expressed similar disgust for Muslims. If so much antagonism was expressed in both directions, how did convivencia once exist (and flourish) over so many centuries, and by extension, what caused it to end?

For Muslims and Christians alike the experience of living in close proximity to unbelievers was disquieting. The social customs of each group invariably sought to minimize contact with the people of other faiths. Each often spoke of the other in terms of fear and sometimes disgust. The regulations in twelfth-century Seville, under the influence of the austere North African Almorávides, stated that Muslim women

shall be prevented from entering their abominable churches, for the priests are evil-doers, fornicators, and sodomites. Frankish women must be forbidden to enter the church except on days of religious services or festivals, for it is their habit to eat and drink and fornicate with the priests, among whom there is not one who has not two or more women with whom he sleeps. This has become a custom among them, for they have permitted what is forbidden and forbidden what is permitted.32

While Christians and Jews might be tolerated in Muslim lands, they were nonetheless to be shunned. The same regulations expressly stated that “a Muslim must not massage a Jew or a Christian nor throw away his refuse nor clean his latrines. The Jew and the Christian are better fitted for such trades, since they are the trades of those who are vile.” Moreover, “a garment belonging to a sick man [probably a leper], a Jew or a Christian must not be sold without indicating its origin; likewise the garment of a debauchee.”33 The reason for this restriction, as with all the others, was practical. All these contacts could cause defilement, all these physical encounters could cross the limit between what was permitted and what was forbidden.

Fears grew out of proximity, but not necessarily from direct experience. Fornicating priests (and Ibn Abdun, who wrote the Seville regulations, improbably insisted that all priests were fornicators) were a metaphor of what would happen when the social boundaries were breached, becoming a threat to Muslim and Christian women alike. Or worse still, a danger to the social order in general, for Muslim, Jewish, and Christian men all regarded women as a point of weakness and a source of peril. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing of the proscriptions in the Jewish Pentateuch, observed,

Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas. Hence any piecemeal interpretation of the pollution rules of another culture is bound to fail. For the only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total structure, whose keystone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation.34

In this structure, religious designations—Jew, Muslim, Christian—delineated the boundaries. Without effective separation there was an uncontrollable risk to communal stability. Without prohibition there was a fear among Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike that the pollution barrier would be crossed. As in many societies, sexual transgression was both the most emotively charged and also the most immediate danger. The Muslim men of the law (ulema) observed the weakness of their own gender when confronted by women, and blamed women for the temptation. The desire for separation was found in each community, which saw the others as potentially dangerous. Yet the desire to keep apart was not necessarily an actively antagonistic or hostile attitude. The communities belonged to distinct and separate castes. The word “caste” is nowadays associated with Indian Hinduism. It was taken by the Portuguese to India in the sixteenth century and they used it to communicate—imperfectly—the complex social structure that they found there. But in the Iberian languages the word means “bloodline” or “clan”: sharing a common connection but also displaying profound differences. The pioneering Spanish philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal, in his early-twentieth-century study of the development of the Spanish language, found that the concept provided a useful analogy to describe the many different elements which made up the linguistic culture of Iberia. Often nothing linked them in terms of ethnicity, but he saw them as separate “castes” within a common cultural framework, interconnected but also separate.35 This accords with more modern definitions of “caste”: a form of social division based solely on lineage that totally constrains a person’s way of life.36 For all these reasons, I have adopted the usage here.

We cannot be entirely sure how Muslims, Christians, and Jews regarded one another. Certainly, statements of enmity predominated, but these may not represent the reality of everyday life.37 But all the evidence suggests that even when there was no active antagonism, the communities wanted to remain separate. Moreover, what David Nirenberg calls the “background static” of violence “never receded from practical consciousness. It influenced the daily actions and strategies of minority and majority alike: what clothes to wear, what route to take to work, how to accuse an enemy of a crime—the list is endless.”38 The negative views each group held about the others were often reciprocal. Muslims believed viscerally in the other castes’ unbridled sexuality.39 Christians believed the same about Jewish and Muslim sexuality. In the last of the Siete Partidas, the Castilian law code of the early fourteenth century, the jurists consider the case of Jewish men who have intercourse with a Christian woman: “Jews who live with Christian women are guilty of great insolence and boldness, for which reason we decree that all Jews who, hereafter, may be convicted of having done such a thing shall be put to death.”40 The Muslims were subject to the same penalties. In all medieval societies sexual transgressions were considered subversive of the entire social order. An English edict of 1417 declared that “the illicit works of their lewd flesh [are] to the great abomination and displeasure of God.”41 But for Christian, Jew, and Muslim alike, sexual acts across the boundaries of caste were a higher order of wickedness, akin to sodomy. Peter Damian’s castigation of sodomitical acts in his Liber Gomorrhianus (c. 1050) conveys an attitude applicable to both manifestations of illicit carnality: “It pollutes the flesh; it extinguishes the light of the mind … it is this which violates sobriety, kills modesty, strangles chastity and butchers irreparable virginity with the dagger of unclean contagion. It defiles everything, staining everything, polluting everything … it permits nothing pure, nothing clean, nothing other than filth.”42

An infinity of traps and entanglements lay at the heart of convivencia. Sexual temptations across the caste boundaries were the most dangerous and contaminating. However, we should read the law codes and prohibitions less as a representation of what actually happened, and more as an effort to prevent the dangers of uncontrolled proximity. Islam never prohibited marriage between Muslim men and women of the other castes, while concubines or slaves were used sexually by men without regard to their faith. By law the children of Muslim men were supposed to follow the faith of their father. But the realities of human life, in the past as in the present, did not always correlate with the prescriptions of the law. All those instances that I have cited are from a period when the very concept of a mixed society had come to seem dangerous in the extreme, and these crimes were, I suspect, as much metaphors of the risks implicit in godless mixing as a serious attempt to prohibit actual conduct.43 In the minds of the pure in spirit only an absolute separation or isolation of Christian, Jew, and Muslim could achieve what they sought to accomplish by writ and the threat of punishment.

THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THE CITY, TOWN, OR VILLAGE IN AL-ANDALUS was divided along invisible lines. Each community had its own zone, which outsiders might enter at their peril. Equally, through a fragile social consensus, other areas would be common ground: these might be a marketplace, a road, places where water was drawn or where clothes were washed.44 In Islamic Spain, the tribal element was added to the presence of the non-Muslim castes, and that too could provoke violence. There was a word in Arabic, nefra’a, to describe the “sudden panicky ‘snapping’ ” that breaks the peace of the suq.45 Convivencia could continue only so long as the physical or cultural barriers were not breached.46 Then there were also episodes of heightened religious or social tension, in which the sense of division between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was accentuated. But the daily practice of life was closer to what Américo Castro described as “integralism.”47 In defining “integralism” Castro fell back on cultural stereotypes for both Christians and Muslims.48 “The Moslem feels himself in things, the Hispano Christian feels things in himself, in his person.” For Castro, Muslims were poets and dreamers, Christians were activists: “The Spaniard speaks of himself, of his body, of his pleasures, and of his afflictions. Everything is justified and takes on value the moment it is referred to his person.”49 He found it hard to define how these two opposites interacted. But applied to these shared communities of Al-Andalus, with their endless internal boundaries and barriers which crisscrossed and intersected with one another, the idea of integralism makes sense. Cordoba or Seville, with its hundreds of districts and quarters, was a patchwork.

Arab, Berber, Christian, and Jewish zones were juxtaposed, their boundaries partly permeable and partly not.50 Linguistically certainly, and to a degree culturally, the various peoples of the cities were integral in the limited sense defined by Castro, but they also remained separate and isolated within their separate groups. Religion was often not the sole determinant: Arabs and Berbers, both Muslim, remained apart in their clans, and frequently fought each other. Christians and Jews stayed within the bounds allocated to them by the laws of Islam, but even within their communities there were distinct gradations of wealth and status.

The success of convivencia depended on this segmentation, on a settled social structure that permitted multiplicity. However, no effective grand theory has emerged from the long history of Al-Andalus after 711, and to talk of convivencia as a fixed and settled entity, as Castro did, is a mistake. It was a structure of concession in which there was a dramatic imbalance of power between the majority and the minorities. When that balance changed, then the former basis for coexistence vanished. In reality, the terms were constantly shifting in the equation between the minority and majority populations.

But it is also true that, with the qualifiers I have already indicated, first Islamic and then Christian states in the peninsula successfully accommodated minority populations. For the first three centuries, Christians coexisted with Muslims in Al-Andalus, and for the second three centuries, the Christian states of the north came to pragmatic arrangements with their Muslim minorities. However, there were two periods of great stress in which compromise was deliberately abrogated. One relates to Christians under challenge as a minority within an Islamic state, and the other to an embattled Muslim community within a Christian state. The first took place in the ninth century in Muslim Cordoba, where Christians deliberately sought martyrdom to redeem their early failure to resist Islam. The second was in Christian Spain throughout the sixteenth century, with its first epicenter in the old Kingdom of Granada. Here the victorious Christians decreed a radical policy of mass conversion. It ended with the ethnic cleansing of all the descendants of the “Moors.” The first episode—the martyrs of Cordoba—I shall discuss now. What came to be called the Morisco problem appears in the succeeding chapters. But both, I believe, revealed the consequences of fracturing the unspoken assumptions that had allowed convivencia to work. Here the lessons for the Balkans and the Levant today are very clear.

The Muslim population in Al-Andalus grew very rapidly during the first two centuries after the conquest. In the eighth century, Muslims were a small and isolated garrison. As they intermarried with the local population the number of Muslims by birth grew steadily. But the bulk of the growing Muslim community were not immigrants from North Africa or their children, but converts from Christianity. There were both individual conversions and the adherence of whole families, and perhaps even whole towns and districts, but there was no pressure for forced conversion. Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their faith but they were marginal, outside the main body of society in both economic and social terms. The demands that Islam made on its adherents were no greater than those of Christianity, and conversion was an attractive option, for non-Muslims were second-class citizens within Islamic society. As we have seen, in practice many of the more rigorous restrictions on Jews and Christians were not enforced, but the sense of inferiority, whether enforced by law or not, did not disappear.

In the mid–ninth century, however, there was an attempt among the more zealous Christians to arrest the erosion in their numbers and to stress the separation between Christians and Muslims. The Christian martyrdoms in Cordoba quickly formed what literary critics would term a topos, an easily recognized point at which a historical incident expanded to assume legendary or mythical proportions. These events for Christians came to epitomize the inevitable hostility between the two cultures. They magnified the antithesis between them so as to dramatize and laud the cultural identity of one community, and to demonize the other. Over time, and by accretion, these tales of a historic reality were transmuted into a potent subliminal sense of a fearsome, dangerous, alien power—a complex image built upon biblical prophecy, upon the shadowy character of the Antichrist, and upon a daily experience of the Muslim presence that seemed to exemplify all of these elements. In this mythopoeia, the events—the Muslim conquest and the martyrdoms—are added like new meat to a stockpot.51 They strengthened the mixture, blending, and eventually merging, into the simmering. In Christian theory this was, indeed, the wonderfully reinvigorating effect of the blood of the martyrs, as it spread and revived the Christian community. The tales of the martyrs, long after their sacrifice, were one of the most potent elements in the spiritual armory of the true believers.

Each individual understood the stories in his or her own way. The process is perhaps explained as “dissemination,” in the way that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida intends the term. In his view, the way that language is used means that each use—dissémination—disrupts any possibility of fixed or settled meanings. Every time a word is employed it generates a new and subtly different accretion. So the use of language is endlessly destabilizing: “The force and form of its disruption explode the semantic horizon.” There is no limit or end to this process of transformation, no telling what its effect might be. Derrida calls it “an irreducible and generative multiplicity.”52

In its historical context, the martyrs of Cordoba movement (like the myths of the hero king Pelayo) provided a “generative multiplicity.” As we shall see, one martyrdom stimulated another, not through any obvious mechanism but apparently spontaneously. Yet the spontaneity was conditioned by the way in which the seed of martyrdom took root, and by the way in which the rapidly evolving legend of the martyrs was disseminated. What becomes significant here is not the fine detail of the events in Cordoba but their mythopoeic potential. These symbolic acts were resonant and effective in the Iberian peninsula long after the precise historical context in which they had emerged had disappeared. By that point they had become generic, and applicable in a multitude of circumstances. Perhaps symbolic acts, myth, and legend are more potent in some cultures than in others. Iberia (like the Balkans and the Levant) seems, over the centuries, to have been highly susceptible to these influences, where the dead past enters the living present. This process is evident in the stories of the fall of the Visigothic kingdom that were disseminated and formed the foundation myth of Christian Spain.

The ease of the conquest and the speed with which many native Christians converted to Islam led to the growth of a flourishing Arabic culture and to the decay of Christian society. In the eyes of zealous Christians, only self-sacrifice could redeem what Christian vice had permitted in the first place. To make the self-destruction of the martyr more plausible, the horrific consequences of the fall had to be accentuated. This was not easy. Al-Andalus, with some exceptions, fulfilled its Qur’anic obligations to its non-Muslim minorities. Jews and Christians paid the poll tax and were allowed to exercise their faiths. The Christian martyr movement of the mid–ninth century was a protest against increasing assimilation, rejecting the slow decay of both their culture and their faith. Among Christians in the great cities of Al-Andalus, Arabic had replaced Latin as the sophisticated language of culture, while an amalgam of Arabic, Romance dialect, and Berber became a language of home and the street.53 A rich young Cordovan, Alvarus, became the biographer of Eulogius, himself the recording angel for the Christian martyrs of Cordoba. Alvarus conveyed a deep sense of loss in Christian culture.

My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammadan theologians and philosophers not in order to refute them, but to acquire correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the prophets, the Apostles? Alas, the young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic … The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found to be able to compose in fair Latin to a friend.54

Alvarus observed two attitudes toward Islam among contemporary Mozarabes. He was not talking about those souls, the muwallid—Christians who had converted to Islam. The majority of Christians recognized the power of Islamic culture, and sought to benefit from it. A minority aimed to create an impenetrable wall around the Christian community. In the manner of dissident and revolutionary groups throughout history, the members of this minority created a demonic enemy as a myth to sustain their resistance. They did so through the traditional weapon of the weak: symbolic action, propaganda by the deed.

The deed was to be martyrdom, which would serve to construct a black legend of an Islam that put the martyrs to death. In this image of Islam, two elements prevailed: the first was sensuality, and the other cruelty. Muslim cruelty, it was suggested, had a habitual viciousness about it. Violation of virgins, destruction of altars and holy books, and wanton slaughter were crimes all on a par. The commission of one implied a propensity for all the others. The factual details of the martyrs’ movement can be simply stated. Over a period of nine years, forty-eight Christians came to the capital of Al-Andalus, Cordoba, and deliberately brought a public death upon themselves by denouncing the Prophet Mohammed as a false prophet. Similarly, blaspheming in a Western Christian country, as did many pagans and heretics, would also have attracted a capital penalty. The first to die was rather different from the others, and his story illustrates the nature of the relationship between the religious groups in the city before the movement for self-martyrdom began. He was a Christian priest called, appropriately, Perfectus. Fluent in Arabic, he often talked with Muslims in the market, and it seems clear that matters of belief and faith were frequently discussed. One day he was asked what he thought of their Prophet. At first he demurred, for he recognized the danger, saying that they intended to entrap him, and have him put to death. They denied this, and guaranteed they would not denounce him. He then told them that Christians considered the Muslims’ Prophet as “the servant of Satan.”

Perfectus overstepped the boundary between what was permissible and what was not. There is no indication in Alvarus’s account of why he took this fatal step. Initially those with whom he had debated let it pass, but by doing so they were implicated in his blasphemy, and later they shouted out in the market that he had blasphemed against the Prophet.55 Perfectus was then taken before the judge (qadi). When his guilt was proved according to the law, he received the only sentence possible: death. After many months, on April 18, 850, he was finally brought out for execution before a ribald crowd celebrating the end of Ramadan. Facing the sword of the headsman, he shouted out loudly time and again, “Yes, I did curse your Prophet, and I curse him now. I curse him as an impostor, an adulterer, a child of Hell. Your religion is of Satan. The pains of Gehenna await you all.” Only the falling blade silenced his firm and strident declarations.

The Christians of the city reclaimed his body from the execution ground and reopened the ancient tomb of St. Acisclus, a saint who had suffered martyrdom under the emperor Diocletian (and who would be reburied, centuries later, in what had become Perfectus’s own church). There, led by the bishop of Cordoba, an elaborate ceremony was held as the corpse was interred as a new martyr amid the hallowed bones of the established saint. This was a deeply symbolic act, physically conjoining the earlier saint, a martyr, with his successor, Perfectus. Soon after, another Christian called John was whipped after being accused of taking the Prophet’s name in vain.56 That he was not condemned to death, although many Muslims demanded it, indicated that the legal authorities were not seeking to conduct a purge of Christians or inflame Christian opinion. Rather, it seems, the reverse. The judge interpreted this new instance as leniently as he could, and was criticized for it.

The judge’s fears were justified. Muslims were becoming roused against Christians, whom they saw as deliberately mocking the Prophet Mohammed. In John’s case this was not true. But among those who deliberately sought martyrdom their denunciations of Islam were now carefully and deliberately contrived to be unpardonable. Christians desiring martyrdom now made a point of coming into the capital to denounce Islam and to achieve salvation. The next was a monk, Isaac, from a wealthy family, and a scholar in Arabic who had been appointed as a government secretary. He came to the qadi in open court and said that he wished to make the Muslim profession of faith. But as the judge was instructing him, Isaac suddenly shouted out, “Your Prophet has lied, he has deceived you; may he be accursed, wretch that he is, who has dragged so many wretches down with him to hell. Why do you not, as a man of sense, abjure these pestilent doctrines?” Infuriated, the qadi struck him across the face, but he was restrained by his advisers, who told him that even a condemned criminal should not be insulted.

Recovering his self-control, the qadi suggested to Isaac that he might be either drunk or mad, since he could not be ignorant that death was the only punishment for blasphemy. “Qadi,” the monk replied quietly, “I am in my right mind, and I have never tasted wine. Burning with the love of truth, I have dared to speak out to you and the others here present. Condemn me to death: far from dreading the sentence, I yearn for it; hath not the Lord said, ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for the truth’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ ”

The qadi tried to avoid imposing the inevitable sentence, but under the law he had no option. Isaac duly met his desired end, on June 3, 851. Thereafter the headsman was kept busy. Two days after Isaac, a man named Sancho blasphemed and lost his head. Two days after that, six monks, among them Isaac’s uncle, came before the qadi and declared, “We also echo the words of our holy brothers Isaac and Sancho.” More followed, until eleven had died as martyrs in less than two months. Many Christians opposed these sacrifices, fearing that they would provoke Muslim anger against the whole Christian minority.

The interests of the Muslim authorities and the wider Christian community in preventing these suicidal confrontations were identical. A church council was summoned to prevent further martyrdoms, but it seemed only to rouse the staunchest Christians to ever more ecstatic zeal. Two monks entered the Great Mosque of Cordoba at Friday prayers, and shouted, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand for the faithful, but for you infidels, hell yawns, and it will shortly open and swallow you up.” They narrowly escaped lynching by the faithful at prayer, and were swiftly judged and decapitated in the marketplace.

The final victims of their own zeal were Bishop Eulogius and a young woman, Leocritia. Eulogius had written a powerful account of the martyrdom movement and sent it north for safekeeping beyond the frontier of Muslim Spain. He was arrested and accused of seeking to convert Leocritia, who had been born of Muslim parents. The qadi was reluctant to condemn so senior a Christian, and ordered him to be whipped for a more minor offense. Then Eulogius denounced the Prophet Mohammed in the most vitriolic terms. But still the magistrate refused formally to condemn him and simply committed him to the court of the vizier, the senior official of Cordoba. One of the court members came to Eulogius and said,

I am not surprised, Eulogius, when madmen and imbeciles offer their heads without cause to the executioner; but how is it that a learned man like yourself, and one who enjoys general esteem, follows their example? What frenzy impels you? Why have you thus plotted against your own life? I pray you heed my words. Bow to the necessity; utter but a single word retracting what you have said before the Qadi, and in that case I will answer for my colleagues and myself that you will have nothing to fear.

But Eulogius refused to recant, and set out to secure a truly memorable martyr’s death. He was formally condemned and sent for execution. A court eunuch abused him and struck him across the face on the way to the killing ground. In accordance with Christian precepts, Eulogius presented the other, unbruised, side of his face, and said, “Smite that also.” The eunuch obliged, and a few minutes later, at a little after nine in the morning on March 1, 859, the bishop lost his head. His body was exposed to be gnawed by scavenging dogs, cats, and rats, until the Christians gained permission to recover it. Leocritia was executed four days later and her body thrown into the river, “to be eaten by fishes.” The demise of so senior a figure as Eulogius made a much greater impact than the deaths of all the more humble martyrs, and when the king of Leon made a treaty with the sultan Mohammed in 883, one of the terms was that the bones of the holy martyrs Eulogius and Leocritia were to be ceded to him.57

THE MOTIVES THAT IMPELLED THE MARTYRS HAVE NEVER BEEN SATISFACTORILY explained.58 Many of them came from mixed families, with both Islamic and Christian beliefs in their background. Many came from the small monastic communities clustered around Cordoba, notably from one foundation at Tabanos that produced no fewer than ten martyrs. As the number of martyrdoms mounted, the Muslim authorities responded with collective punishments. Significantly, the traditional limitations on the minorities were for the first time rigidly enforced. Christians were dismissed from their government posts and forced to wear the distinctive dress prescribed by law. Churches were examined to see if any were newly built and therefore subject to destruction. Even minor repairs or improvements could lead to their demolition. Many Christians turned against the enthusiasts. Eulogius recorded that at first Christians may have been impressed by the martyrdoms, but

when the divine fire inflamed many and led crowds of the faithful to go down to the square and denounce the enemy of the church with the same confession of faith that Isaac made, soon everyone, frightened by the rage of the savage tyrant, with amazing fickleness changed their minds; they disparaged and cursed the martyrs, and declared that both the martyrs and their supporters were the authors of a great crime.59

Eventually, around 854, the martyrs were formally denounced as heretics before the qadi by a group of leading Christians—bishops, abbots, priests, and nobles—in an attempt to prevent further pressure on the Christian community.

The blood of martyrs had sustained the early church, and eventually brought down pagan rule. “The prototype of the Christian saint was the martyr; and as in due course holy men and women who had not died for Christ came to take their place alongside the martyrs, the figure of the martyr still remained the paradigm of the saint. The cult of the saints … had its undisputed origins in the cult of the martyrs.”60 With the conversion of the emperor Constantine, martyrs were no longer needed: but in the face of the infidel (and seemingly unconquerable) power of Islam, this most powerful weapon in the church’s armory was used again. If the precise causes of the martyrs movement lie within the heart of each of them who decided to lay down his or her life, its intention was clear. All the stories of the martyrs under Roman tyranny were a kind of miracle of the faith that would in some way, known only to God, bring about the triumph of the church.

One author, al-Kushani, contrasted Christian zealotry with Islamic reason. He retold the story of a Christian who came before the qadi some sixty years after the martyrs, in 920. The story’s narrator explains that Christians believed this sort of suicide to be a pious act, although Jesus never encouraged any such thing. The qadi reprimanded the Christian for trying to commit suicide; the Christian replied that it would not be he who was killed, but only his image (shabhi), “while I myself will go to heaven.” The qadihad him whipped, then asked on whose back the whip had fallen. “On mine,” the Christian replied. “Just as the sword will fall on your neck,” said the qadi.61 So, although the occasional self-martyr and fanatic was still to be found, by the tenth century something of the old stability had been restored. The envoy of the emperor Otto I, John of Gorze, to the court of Abd al-Rahman III at Cordoba had been brought up on tales of the Cordoban martyrs. He cheerfully expected the same glorious end. Instead, he found Christian clergy who warned him against antagonizing the Muslim authorities and firmly discouraged any provocative acts. The caliph refused to accept the letters sent by the emperor, because he found their tone demeaning and insulting, and instead sent back a Christian civil servant called Recemundus, appointed bishop of Granada, to ask the emperor to withdraw the letters, which he did. Dignity was satisfied, and John of Gorze returned home after a parade in his honor.

Recemundus exemplified the larger numbers among Christians who were determined to function effectively within an Islamic society. He compiled an elaborate Calendar of Cordoba, which combined astronomical, agricultural, and Christian liturgical details. He presented a copy to Abd al-Rahman’s successor, Hakam II. In fact he prepared two versions. The longer contained details of all the martyrs of Cordoba and their feast days and was used by Christians. On the copy presented to the caliph, these details were tactfully (and prudently) omitted. In essence,

the realities of Islamic rule ultimately favoured this kind of compromise … a radical Church appealed to some Christians, but such a Church could only become a focus of more violence. It could not maintain the stable relationship between government and subject population that would allow Christians to go about their daily lives in peace.62

The martyrs movement, attempting to promote a violent reaction among Muslims, used arguments that had already been developed in the Levant. One of the martyrs had come to Spain from the Syrian monastery where John of Damascus had written his polemic against Islam. Many of the same themes were introduced into the Cordoban diatribe against Islam. The Prophet Mohammed was accused of being sexually promiscuous, and ensnared by a preoccupation with the body. Paul Alvarus, who wrote the life of Eulogius, contrasted Christ, who preached peace, with Mohammed, who taught men to fight; while Christ promoted chastity, Mohammed, the glutton for all forms of pleasure, practiced incest.63 All the long catalog of by now traditional insults was offered up:

Muslims are puffed up with pride, languid in the enjoyments of fleshly acts, extravagant in eating, greedy usurpers in the acquisition of possessions … without honour, without truth, unfamiliar with kindness or compassion … fickle, crafty, cunning and indeed not halfway but completely befouled in the dregs of every impurity, deriding humility as insanity, rejecting chastity as though it were filth, disparaging virginity as though it were the uncleanness of harlotry, putting the vices of the body before the virtues of the soul.64

This led naturally to the assertion that Mohammed was a precursor of the Antichrist; in later polemics he became the Antichrist himself.

This wild rhetoric echoed the assaults that Christians had made against the pagan emperors of Rome. These had reminded their own adherents of the evil against which they were struggling. More important, they concealed a weakness in the case for godly martyrdom. For Islam did not demand that Christians worship false idols. Many Muslim scholars were even reluctant to accept converts from Christianity, arguing that they polluted Islam. One scholar, Ibn Haddah, wrote, “They say that temptations will come with the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] and they will be due to them.”65 Although marriage between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman was not forbidden, it was seen as fraught with spiritual danger. A Christian or Jewish wife would be a source of instability and corruption in a Muslim household, for she would inevitably be tempted to lead her children from the true path of Islam.66 In this some Islamic jurists and the Christian Alvarus were in agreement: separation was better than any form of contact.

However, in Cordoba the martyrs were quickly forgotten and the apogee of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the last half of the tenth century was remembered as a golden age. The nineteenth-century historian of Islamic Spain Reinhart Dozy echoed the praise heaped upon the city by contemporary historians, poets, and foreign envoys alike.

The state of the country harmonized with the prosperity of the public treasury. Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, the arts, sciences, all flourished. The traveller’s eyes were gladdened on all sides by the well-cultivated fields, irrigated upon scientific principles, so that what seemed the most sterile soil was rendered fertile … Cordova [sic], with its half million inhabitants, its three thousand mosques, its splendid palaces, its hundred and thirteen thousand houses, its three hundred public baths, and its twenty-eight suburbs, yielded in size and magnificence only to Baghdad … The fame of Cordova penetrated even distant Germany: the Saxon nun Hroswitha, famous in the last half of the tenth century for her Latin poems and dramas, called it the Jewel of the World.67

In the courts of Christian Europe, Cordoba’s products—ivories, silks, bronze vases fancifully shaped as peacocks, stags, and imaginary beasts, chests of gold dinars—all became emblems of a world of incomparable civilization and luxury. Heathen Al-Andalus may have been an enemy of Christ. Nonetheless, it was alluring.68

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!