Category Archives: History and Legends

The Codex Calixtinus—Stolen


[Codex Calixtinus]

Part of a page from the Codex Calixtinus. Photo is in the public domain.

The Codex Calixtinus is a twelfth-century illuminated (illustrated) manuscript with a collection of works related to Saint James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It includes sermons, music, stories about miracles performed by Saint James, and the earliest guidebook to the pilgrimage routes from France.

The best-conserved version of the manuscript (not the only copy), was kept at the Santiago Cathedral.

It’s not there any more. Its absence was first noticed on July 5, 2011, but it may have been stolen any time in the previous week. The manuscript, described as “priceless,” was not insured, since the insurance cost had been estimated at six million euros.

You can read more about the robbery in the Guardian and The Olive Press. There’s also a more recent article from El Correo Gallego in Spanish, that describes how researchers generally used a photographic reproduction of the text, and only consulted the original when they couldn’t make out a subtle but historically and linguistically important detail.

To learn more about the manuscript itself, there’s a helpful Wikipedia article. You can also read the Pilgrim’s Guide section of the manuscript on-line.


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Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part III)


[Le Puy cathedral]

The Muslims were forced to leave Spain, but their legacy lingered in Europe in many ways including Mudejar architecture (shown here in the form of the Le Puy cathedral).

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part II (if you’ve missed the whole series, you might want to start with Part I), things were looking bad for Alfonso VII of Castilla.

On one side, Castilla was under attack by a Christian army from León, which had been joined by Almohad Muslims fighting under one of Alfonso’s own noblemen. Another Christian army from Navarra pressed on Castilla’s other border.

Christians in the rest of Europe were scandalized by this not-atypical Iberian situation. They thought the Christian rulers of Spain should work together to fight the Muslims instead of quarrelling amongst themselves.

The pope excommunicated the rulers involved, emphasized Spain’s crusading zone status, and sent an envoy to bring the kings together.

The Reconquista

After years of diplomatic effort, the Spanish kings came together and launched a joint attack on the Almohads. In 1212, troops from Castilla, Aragón and Navarra fought the Almohads in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. (Originally there had been French troops involved, but most of them abandoned the effort, likely due to the heat.)

The Almohads blocked the narrow canyon they thought the Christians would have had to pass through, but a local shepherd showed the Christian troops a way around. They won what was to prove a decisive victory.

And now the Almohads had more than just the Christian kings to worry about. At the same time as their control in Spain was crumbling, they faced a variety of problems in North Africa.

Three Christian kings, Jaume I of Aragón, Fernando III of Castilla and Sancho II of Portugal, took advantage of the Almohads’ troubles. Over the forty years following Las Navas de Tolosa, most of al-Andalus came under the control of one or another of these Christian kings. Only one small Muslim kingdom, a tributary of Castilla based in Granada, remained.

In some cases Christian troops slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants after they took over a town (just as Muslim troops had sometimes slaughtered Christians during their own conquest), but this doesn’t seem to have been policy—it was because army leaders lost control of their troops. More often, Muslims were taken as slaves by the Christians, or vice versa in the case of Muslim victories.

Some of the Muslims were used as slave labour on the Santiago cathedral, just as Christian slaves helped build the Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakesh.

Of the free population of Muslims, some chose or were forced to leave the peninsula. Others, called Mudejars, stayed on in the newly-enlarged Christian kingdoms in much the same way the Mozarab Christians had lived under Muslim rule.

Laws suggest that the Christian authorities tried to protect the Muslim populations, but there seem to have been some serious tensions. Mudejars—like the Mozarabs before them—were not equal under the law, and they were increasingly forced to behave in Christian ways, though they don’t seem to have been forcibly converted. Sometimes, as in the case of Sevilla, they were expelled from a city, but were soon allowed to return.

The Muslims who could afford to generally immigrated to Granada or North Africa, fracturing communities.

Of those left, some rebelled during the second half of the thirteenth century. After that more Muslims were expelled, and kings used the rebellions as an excuse to go back on the agreements they’d made when Muslim cities had surrendered.

Most of the evidence we have comes from formal documents, so it’s hard to know what was really going on compared to what law-makers hoped was going on. Basically, as historian Richard Fletcher says, it was a mixture of tolerance and persecution, but the exact proportions are hard to identify.

Conquest or Reconquest?

1492 marks an important turning point in Spanish history, and not only because it was the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

The remnants of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula ended in the first days of the year, when los reyes católicos, the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel, accepted Granada’s surrender.

This moment is usually seen as the end of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain.

But historians have argued a lot over whether it can be properly classified as a reconquest, or if it was more of a glorified conquest.

It’s a difficult argument. Some say the Christian kingdoms believed themselves to be fighting a holy war against the Muslims right from the early days of the Muslim conquest, and therefore, for them at least, it really was a reconquest.

It’s certainly true that from the twelfth century onward, once Crusade ideology took hold, the Christians tended to see it as a holy war, and themselves as heirs of the vanquished Christian Visigoths. The Christian conquerors of al-Andalus really did believe it was a reconquest.

On the other hand, “reconquest” doesn’t seem to have been uppermost in the minds of Christian rulers throughout much of the period of Muslim rule, when they were at least as busy fighting each other as anyone else. They didn’t spend the entire nearly-800-year period between the Muslim conquest and the fall of Granada plotting to overthrow the Muslims—they seized any opportunity to gain land, whether from their Christian neighbours or the Muslims to the south.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, disputes over who has a historical or moral right to a land are obviously tricky and I don’t see any reason to wade into that. But I can’t just refer to the Reconquista without discussing the term a little more. “Reconquest” implies that the Christian conquest was somehow more valid than the Arab conquest, when of course it’s a lot more complicated than that.

After all, like the Muslims, the Romans who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula were initially invaders (who, ironically enough, met with the fiercest resistance in the areas that later became Spain’s Christian kingdoms). And Muslims had ruled some part of the peninsula for close to eight centuries when the final act of the Reconquista took place. That’s a lot of generations. (To put it into some sort of perspective, three of my own grandparents were immigrants who came to Canada within the last century, and I feel very Canadian.)

Also, a number of the Muslims who were eventually expelled from Spain would have been descended, at least in part, from muwallads—families with a Hispano-Roman background who had converted to Islam. They were the “original” inhabitants, at least if you only go back as far as the Muslim invasion (which was unambiguously a conquest) in 711.

I suppose it’s a case of the winners writing the history books. To the Christians, it was a reconquest. To the Muslims, it would’ve looked an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill conquest.

The Aftermath of the Reconquista: Muslims and Jews in Spain

Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs, expelled all Jews from Spain a few weeks after they took over Granada. In practical terms, this meant Jews had to either submit to baptism or leave their homes—and they did both.

And then the Catholic monarchs didn’t live up to the promises they made when the accepted Granada’s surrender, and some Muslim groups rebelled.

The rebels were given the choice that had been given to the Jews: convert or leave Spain. But to leave they had to pay a substantial sum and agree to untenable terms, such as leaving their children behind.

Soon the choice was extended to the other Muslims in much of the rest of Spain. A lot of Muslims became reluctant converts to Christianity.

Fernando refused to go along with this policy in Aragón, which he ruled independently. His grandson and successor Carlos V also swore not to force conversions or expel the Muslims in Aragón, but in 1525, he went back on his word.

As of that year, Spain was officially one hundred percent Catholic.

But of course many of the forced converts—Jewish and Muslim—practiced their faiths in secret.

The popularity of pork in Spain is, at least in part, a legacy of this period. Both Judaism and Islam forbade eating pigs. So publicly eating pork became, to some extent, proof of Christianity.

The converts had good reason for such public demonstrations. Convivencia, as much as it ever existed, was over. Converts could be hauled up before the Inquisition if they were suspected of practicing non-Christian beliefs.

And then in the early seventeenth century, King Felipe banished all Muslim converts after a series of rebellions.

Inquisition records show that some stayed on in hiding. But for the most part, the 900-year presence of Moors on the Iberian Peninsula ended in 1614.

Epilogue: The Impact of al-Andalus on the West

Between about 750 and 900, scholars in the Arab world translated writings from the Greeks and Persians. And they didn’t just translate—they added and refined the classical works, based on both their own studies and knowledge they’d gained from China and India.

Science as such didn’t really exist in medieval Europe until its scholars took steps to acquire knowledge from the Muslim world.

The abacus, relatively simple technology, was revolutionary in medieval Europe, making mathematical calculations much faster, with effects on music, architecture and government. The astrolabe, which among other things made voyages like Columbus’s possible, had a bigger impact still.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some Spanish Christians and Jews did quite well for themselves in other parts of Europe, as they spread Andalusi learning. And during the same period, an unorganized translation movement started up in Christian Spain. In some cases, translation was a two-part process: a Mozarab (Christian from al-Andalus) would translate from Arabic to the spoken Romance language, and a Christian from Northern Spain would then write his own translation in Latin.

These translations had a huge impact on the science and philosophy of Christian Europe.

Jewish and Muslim writers like Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from al-Andalus strongly influenced European philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, as did Andalusi translations of Greek philosophers—particularly Aristotle.

Isaac Newton’s work was based on mathematics that came to Europe through Spain. European medical advances in the seventeenth century were built on Arabic studies that were discovered through al-Andalus. A number of English words that come from Arabic (algebra, algorithm, chemistry, and many more) reflect this influence.

Basically, many of the ideas that have become integral to our Western identity are built on the foundation of learning that came to Europe from and through al-Andalus and other parts of the Muslim world.

That seems to me to be worth remembering, in these days when the loudest voices shout only of our differences.

* * *

Here ends my series on the Moors in Spain. Once again, if you’re interested in an overview of the period, I highly recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.


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Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part II)


[The Alhambra]

The Alhambra in Granada.
Photo courtesy Juan Carlos Guijarro Moreno through this Creative Commons license. Esta obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons.

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part I of this three-part series, it was around the year 1000 and al-Mansur, who for all practical purposes ruled al-Andalus, had been raiding the northern Christian kingdoms.

Today, we begin after al-Mansur’s death in 1002. Al-Mansur’s son succeeded him in ruling through the puppet caliph Hisham II. But the son soon died, and Al-Andalus passed into yet another period of civil war and rebellions, at least in part because al-Mansur had upset the previous balance of power and brought in soldiers who weren’t part of Andalusi society.

Out of the chaos that ensued came smaller regional states ruled by emirs whom historians have dubbed the taifa or party kings. (The “party” part means “factions” rather than “fiesta,” but a number of the important taifa rulers actually did party in the wine, women and poetry sense of the word.)

In some places, the new rulers had been Berber generals. In others, they were already lord of the area. Some were regional administrators—often slaves or freedmen—who seized power during the decades of civil war.

The taifa states fought amongst themselves, and the larger took over the smaller. By the 1050s, there were six primary states—Sevilla, Granada, Badajóz, Toledo, Valencia and Zaragoza—and some remaining smaller states.

As would happen later among the city-states of Italy, the taifa states’ jostling for position didn’t only involve warfare. They also tried to outdo each other culturally, building mosques and palaces and competing to attract the best poets and scholars.

Abd al-Rahman III and some of the other Umayyad rulers had also patronized the arts and sciences. However, the taifa period was probably the most culturally and intellectually fertile in Andalusi history, as Muslim and Jewish poets and scholars created important works of poetry, philosophy and science.

Three Faiths in al-Andalus

We don’t know a lot about everyday relations between Muslims and Mozarabs (Christians living under Muslim rule) in the cities during this period—or really, any other period.

Sometimes the Mozarabs lived in their own areas of the city, and sometimes not. What does seem certain is that people of the two faiths frequently came into contact with each other. They traded together, and a man of one religion might work for someone of the other. Apparently, some richer Muslims were also in the habit of stopping by Christian monasteries for a drink of the wine that was forbidden them under Islam.

We know even less about the countryside. Meager evidence suggests that some—possibly very large—areas were inhabited by Christians who never converted and may have resented Muslim rule.

Jewish communities were usually found in cities. In general, they seem to have been large and well-off, and during the eleventh century several of their members rose to prominent positions in state governance.

Samuel ibn Naghrila is probably the best-known of these. He helped Badis, the ruler of Granada, attain that lofty position, and in practice was the first minister, commanding troops and running the city until he died in 1056. He was also a respected rabbi and poet.

His son, who succeeded him to the post, was killed in a pogrom against the Jewish community in Granada. This outburst of violence was a tragic but isolated incident. Like the Mozarabs, Jews had limited rights but weren’t usually subjected to violence—although some criticized rulers like Badis for putting Jews in a position of authority over Muslims, which violated Islamic law. But for the most part, Jewish culture flourished during the eleventh century.

Al-Andalus and the Christian Kingdoms

During the tenth century, al-Andalus had been much stronger than the Christian kingdoms to the north.

That balance of power reversed during the Andalusi civil war and the rise of the taifa states. Christian armies now raided al-Andalus. Over the course of the century, the raids turned into tribute-gathering missions as the taifa rulers paid the northern kings parias—basically protection money.

As in the Umayyad period, alliances weren’t necessarily along religious lines. A Christian king might ally with another Christian ruler against one of the taifa kingdoms—or he might just as easily ally with a taifa ruler against one of the other Christian kings.

Individual adventurers, such as the Christian soldier, diplomat and courtier Rodrigo Díaz (El Cid) and the Muslim poet and courtier Ibn Ammar, acquired their own taifa states.

The Christian kingdoms took over some previously Muslim areas, and competed with each other for the taifa tributes. The more successful they were, the richer they grew.

And the richer they grew, the more they attracted the attention of the rest of Europe, particularly neighbouring France.

The Almoravids

And then Alfonso VI of León captured Toledo, the former Visigothic capital and an important city in its own right.

The taifa kings panicked. Mu’tamid, the ruler of Sevilla, led them in asking for help from the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Islamic sect that had recently risen to power in North Africa. According to the story, Mu’tamid said he “would rather be a camel-driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castilla.” (For Muslims, pigs are unclean.)

The ascetic Almoravid leaders despised the taifa rulers for the poetry and decadence of their courts, the “impurity” of their religion, and their tendency to ally with the northern kings. But they despised the northern kings even more because they were Christians daring to exact tribute from Muslims.

In 1086, led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated Alfonso.

Then Yusuf turned on the taifa rulers because they didn’t support him sufficiently in additional campaigns against the Christian kingdoms. He exiled several of them to North Africa, and took over himself.

Al-Andalus was united again, but this time as a colony under governors that the Almoravid emir sent from Marrakesh.

Fundamentalists in the North and the South

Within al-Andalus, Muslim-Christian relations deteriorated under the fundamentalist Almoravids.

Relations between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms also went downhill. The northern Christians, already upset about the loss of important revenue from tributes since the Almoravids took over, became even more anti-Muslim after the Almoravids exiled a number of Christians to Morocco in retaliation for a Christian raid.

The Christian kingdoms were always anti-Islamic—at least in their rhetoric (as, of course, Muslim rhetoric was anti-Christian)—and to some extent the Reconquista may have developed soon after the Muslim conquest of Spain (it’s a subject that historians debate a lot). But at the same time, the Christians adapted to the Muslim presence over the centuries of Andalusi strength.

Anti-Islamic attitudes intensified during the first half of the twelfth century. To some extent this was likely a result of Almoravid anti-Christian policies. But historian Richard Fletcher argues that the serious French influence on the Spanish Christians may have propelled them even more strongly toward intolerance.

During the second half of the eleventh century, they Spanish kingdoms developed close links to Spain. Their families intermarried with French nobility, and some of them developed close ties with the monastic order of Cluny. And of course, in the same century the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ceased to be primarily a local affair, and drew large numbers of French pilgrims.

For French aristocratic warriors, inspired by the Chanson de Roland (a seriously romanticized account of an earlier fight against the Moors), going to Spain to fight Muslims meant following a path already blazed by the revered Charlemagne.

The idea of a holy war had been part of Christianity for a long time, but the idea that individuals gained merit by fighting “infidels” developed in the eleventh century. In 1123, the Iberian Peninsula became an official crusade zone.

Not coincidentally, the twelfth century seems to be when Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-Slayer) makes his first appearance—at least in the written sources that have come down to us.

One example is the “Diploma of Ramiro I,” a forged document from about the middle of the century. It claims to have been written after a battle at Clavijo in 844, where St. James himself appeared to lead Christian troops to a resounding victory over Moorish armies. In gratitude, the document continues, Ramiro I decreed that all of Christian Spain must make an annual donation to the cathedral, which should also receive a share of any booty taken from the Moors.

Being a forgery, the document isn’t helpful in learning about the ninth century, but as Fletcher points out, it does tell us what at least some influential Christians in the twelfth century believed, or at least wanted others to believe: that St. James championed the Christian struggle against the Muslims.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that Muslim and Christian attitudes toward each other didn’t change all at once. At least one rebel Muslim noble worked with the Christians to oppose the Almoravids, and a Catalan baron named Reverter, after being captured by the Almoravids, became a mercenary who worked for them. Of his two sons who appear in the historical record, one continued his father’s work for the Muslims, and the other went back to Spain to fight under his father’s former master.

The Almohads

Al-Andalus did not fare well under Almoravid rule. While Almoravid leaders were devout, the regular soldiers weren’t. Not only did they fail to take back much of the land the taifa kingdoms had lost to the Christians, but they indulged in forbidden luxuries, looted, persecuted Christian and Jewish minorities, and fought amongst themselves.

Al-Andalus fell apart again after the death of Yusuf’s son and successor in 1145, with more rebellions and civil war, and a second batch of taifa states. The Christian kings took advantage of the chaos to advance into Muslim territory.

In the meantime, a new sect, the Almohads, was challenging Almoravid rule back in North Africa.

And Ibn Qasi, the leader of a new Sufi sect in al-Andalus, invited the Almohads to help him take Sevilla. The Almohads came, but soon the two groups had a falling-out. The Almohads had Ibn Qasi assassinated, and remained in Spain.

By the final quarter of the twelfth century, the Almohads ruled all of Muslim Spain, and pushed back the Christian kings, who were too busy quarrelling amongst themselves to mount a common defence.

Alliances at this time still weren’t primarily dependant on religion. Take King Alfonso VII of Castilla, for example. At one point, one of his borders was under attack by the neighbouring kingdom of León (whose king was a close relative of Alfonso’s), who had invited the Almohads to join them. The Muslim troops were commanded by Pedro Fernández, an important Castilian nobleman who had argued with King Alfonso the year before, and left Castilla to work for the Almohads.

At the same time, Christian troops from Navarra were attacking Castilla’s other border, after the Almohads had encouraged border disputes between the two kingdoms.

It was, when it comes down to it, not an atypical Iberian situation. The Christian and Muslim participants may well have hated each other’s beliefs, but at a practical level, local rivalries came first.

* * *

Thanks for indulging me in my Spanish history fixation. I said last week that this would be the final installment, but I seem to require a Part III. (If I leave out all detail, it gets rather boring—at least to me.)

Much of this information comes from Richard Fletcher’s wonderful Moorish Spain, and some of the information on Santiago Matamoros is from St. James’s Catapult, by the same author. Thomas F. Glick’s Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages is another fascinating read.

I’ve also started to read Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, who isn’t as cautious as Fletcher is about assigning religious motives to pre-twelfth-century warfare on the Iberian Peninsula.

Do keep in mind that a lot of the interpretations—especially when it comes to the interplay between religions—are hotly debated among historians.

Next week: the final installment (really) of this three-part series will address the impact of al-Andalus on Christian Europe and of course the Reconquista.


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Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part I)


[Great Mosque of Córdoba]

The former Great Mosque of Córdoba, now the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.
Photo courtesy Nathan Wong through this Creative Commons license.

My sister Celena, who kindly agreed to read this post even after she realized how long it is, gave it the following ringing endorsement: “History’s got a bad rap, but people will probably find this interesting if anyone actually reads it.”

* * *

If you read a lot about the Camino de Santiago, at some point you’re going to come across references to the Moors—Muslims of Arab and Berber origin who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula in medieval times.

There’s the Camino del Norte, which is said to have developed when Muslim raids made the Camino Francés too dangerous. There’s the Camino Mozárabe from Granada, named after the Mozarabs (Christians who lived in Moorish Spain, or al-Andalus). There are various legends related to battles between Christian and Muslim armies. And then, of course, there’s Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-Slayer, whose image decorates many Camino churches.

So who were the Moors, and what were they doing in Spain? It’s a long but fascinating story. Just sit back, relax, and join me on a journey back to the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711.

The Invasion

At the beginning of 711, most of the peninsula was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had been Romanized and become Christian before arriving in Spain. They were busy fighting a civil war because some noblemen opposed the new king.

At the same time, Muslims in North Africa were casting covetous glances across the Strait of Gibraltar. Throughout much of its history, Southern Spain has been more closely linked with Africa than with the rest of Spain, because the mountains that divide the peninsula are more of a barrier than is the narrow strait. Thus, Spain was a logical next target for the Muslim armies that had recently conquered, and at least nominally converted, the African Berbers.

An army of Berber tribesmen under Arab leadership swept into Spain in 711. Within a decade, the Muslims had killed the Visigothic king and taken over most of the peninsula.

Parts of the conquest were bloody, but others were relatively peaceful. Many local noblemen signed treaties with the Muslims that would allow the lords to continue ruling their lands as long as they paid tribute to their new rulers. By 720, all the regions previously under Visigothic rule were controlled by Muslims.

Living Together

Any look at the medieval history of the Iberian Peninsula is complicated by the fact that the history is incredibly political today.

For more than seven centuries, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in medieval Iberia. Some scholars and others see this as a period of convivencia, a term that means “living together.”

As anyone who’s lived with another person knows, living together is not all sweetness and light, but convivencia advocates tend to see it that way. They emphasize the positive relationships between people of different faiths—which certainly did exist—and downplay things like religiously-motivated massacres and religious intolerance—which are also easy to find in the historical record. Al-Andalus, they say, proves that harmonious relations between the three great monotheistic religions are possible.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the first few centuries of al-Andalus, because of a lack of surviving documents from that period. We do know that Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their faiths, because by Muslim tradition they were considered dhimmi, or Peoples of the Book.

But we also know there were religiously motivated conflicts—although the extent to which the conflicts were based on religious beliefs is debatable.

The Beginning of the Reconquista?

And this brings us to the other tradition of medieval Iberian history: the Spanish nationalist myth.

Originally, the Muslim conquest reached as far as the Asturias region in northern Spain (as well as far into Septimania, or Southern France). Muslim troops soon withdrew from the Asturias, and their departure was linked in some way to a local rebellion led by a Christian nobleman called Pelagius (also known as Pelayo).

According to the Spanish nationalist myth, the uprising was the first blow struck against the Moors in the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain.

In reality, it seems the uprising was quite small. There’s even a possibility it didn’t cause the Muslim troops to leave, but rather was triggered by their departure. The Muslims seem to have deliberately left the area, which was so different from their desert homelands.

But whatever the reasons for the Muslim departure, that small enclave of Christians in the Asturias attracted other Christians who fled from al-Andalus, and it eventually became the kingdom of Castilla y León.

The Umayyad Dynasty

Back in al-Andalus, the Muslims weren’t particularly worried about the Christians in the Asturias. They were too busy fighting each other. The Berbers, whom the Arabs had only recently conquered and converted, were treated as second-class citizens by the minority Arabs. A revolt in the Maghrib (North Africa) spread to al-Andalus, where Berbers were particularly incensed at having been given the worst lands. Civil war swept through the land.

Meanwhile, in the Muslim capital of Damascus, the ruling Umayyad dynasty was facing similar problems. More recent converts, upset at being subordinate to the Arabs, rebelled, slaughtering the Umayyads and bringing in the Abbasid dynasty.

One Umayyad escaped and fled to al-Andalus, a far-flung corner of the Muslim world, and in 756 established his capital in Córdoba. At first, this Umayyad, Abd al-Rahman I, and the followers he brought from Damascas made up just one of many Andalusi factions. But by the time of his death thirty-two years later, he’d brought much of al-Andalus under his control.

His successors, the Umayyad emirs, maintained a tenuous hold over the peninsula. They managed to rule a land fractured by ethnic and religious differences by, historian Roger Collins argues, making the disunity into a strength. They cynically but intelligently played adjacent racial or religious groups off one another, to check the ambitions of each group. In some cases, rebel leaders couldn’t stage an effective rebellion because their potential supporters were too busy feuding with their neighbours.

But between rebellions, revolts, bandits and Viking raids, the Umayyad emirs sometimes lost control of vast stretches of territory. Abd-Allah, who ruled from 888 to 912, had the worst of it. At times he didn’t rule anywhere beyond the city of Córdoba.

And rulers in the developing Christian kingdoms took advantage of Umayyad weakness.

Pelagius’s nephew Alfonso I and his own son Fruela I ravaged a large stretch of land between their Asturian kingdom and the area the Muslims controlled more firmly. They forced its inhabitants to move north to the Asturias and Galicia.

For several hundred years thereafter, the peninsula was made up of Muslim-controlled lands in the south, lands under Christian control in the north, and a fluctuating no-man’s-land between them, the tierras despobladas.

Christians in al-Andalus

A number of Christians emigrated northward around the time of the conquest and for centuries afterward, but a much larger number stayed in the south.

Many—although certainly not all—appear to have converted to Islam. This was not, it would seem, because of any overt pressure (Muslim rulers weren’t allowed to tax other Muslims to the extent they could tax non-Muslims, so they relied on the dhimmi for revenue) or even strong religious convictions. Rather it seems likely the conversions came about as the result of intermarriage, and the social pressure that probably followed the conversion of prominent local families. Conversion also meant fewer taxes, and—at least in cities—more job opportunities.

Some Christian converts, like the Berbers, may have rebelled against their second-class status as non-Arab Muslims. The series of revolts known as the muwallad revolts (converts were called muwallads) seem to have been led by men from convert families. But it’s not actually clear if they revolted because of their treatment as converts, or because they wanted more independence and, during the times when emirs were losing control, thought they could get it.

Not all Christians converted, and in fact a mid-ninth-century martyrdom movement in Córdoba encouraged Christians to publicly condemn Islam and suffer the penalty—death. But at the same time, other prominent Christians encouraged moderation among their followers.

The Umayyad emirate became a caliphate and reached what many consider its peak under Abd al-Rahman III, who ruled from 912 to 961. Because of the emirs’ habit of taking Christian slaves as concubines and marrying Christian princesses, Abd al-Rahman III was genetically three-fourths Hispano-Basque, and is said to have dyed his reddish hair black to look more like an Arab.

Muslim Raids on Christian Lands

Among his many other activities, Abd al-Rahman III led raids on the Christian lands to the north. These were usually successful, but the caliph stopped leading his armies himself after suffering a serious defeat to a Leonese army.

Abd al-Rahman’s raids don’t seem to have been motivated by religion. He certainly wasn’t an intolerant man: he sent the Christian bishop Recemund on diplomatic missions, and the Jewish physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut became one of his chief advisors.

One major motivation behind his raids on the Christian kingdoms (including his relatives, as his mother had been a Navarran princess) may have been partly motivated by keeping an eye on his marcher (border) lords, who were inclined to be rebellious.

And there were strong financial motives as well. Like other European rulers at the time, Abd al-Rahman could replenish his coffers by looting and taking captives. Both Christians and Muslims sold captives of lesser rank as slaves, and high-ranking captives were ransomed to their families. Generally captives were only killed by one side or another if they considered their opponents to have broken the conventions of war.

The Muslims had the upper hand during this period, and could have expanded into Christian territories by settling the lands they raided, but they don’t seem to have been interested in conquering the north.

Later, al-Mansur (known as Almanzor to the Christians), who controlled Abd al-Rahman’s grandson, the puppet caliph Hisham II, escalated the raids.

His raids are often cast in a starkly Muslim versus Christian light. The reality, insofar as historians have been able to read between the lines, may have been somewhat different.

Al-Mansur’s most notorious raid was on Santiago de Compostela in 997, when his troops sacked the city, destroyed the cathedral, and stole its bells.

The event is often seen as an example of the religious basis of his raids, but while that may be partially true, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

It’s true that al-Mansur’s many raids attracted volunteers who were interested in jihad, or holy war—in much the same way, as historian Richard Fletcher notes, that Christian knights several centuries later would spend a few years on crusade. In Islamic countries, Spain was informally referred to as Dar Djihad, the Land of Jihad.

Al-Mansur himself made a show of extreme piety and portrayed his raids as jihad, but it’s hard to be sure how much of that was sincere.

He used large numbers of Christian mercenaries in his armies, something he probably wouldn’t have done if he were an extreme religious fundamentalist. He allied himself with disaffected noblemen from the northern kingdoms who—as was common at the time—made their alliances based on politics, not religion. Without guidance from these noblemen, al-Mansur wouldn’t have found his way to Santiago in the first place. The Christians received their share of booty for their trouble, and don’t appear to have suffered any severe moral qualms about their participation in the raid.

Also, while al-Mansur destroyed the cathedral, he didn’t touch the remains said to belong to St. James—a surprising omission, as Collins points out, if he were truly a religious fanatic.

There’s no question that al-Mansur’s raids were many and bloody, and the Christians had good reason to believe he’d bargained with the devil and to rejoice at his death.

But Fletcher argues that al-Mansur’s raids, while framed as jihad to keep religious leaders happy, were more like Abd al-Rahman’s earlier raids for wealth than like religious warfare.

Al-Mansur had a lot of expenses. He had to keep his supporters happy, and pay off his enemies. He built both a huge palace complex outside Córdoba for himself and his family, and an expensive extension to the city’s Great Mosque. He increased his popularity among the citizenry through tax cuts, and enlarged his armies because of political developments in Africa. He needed some serious money.

Monasteries acted in some ways like medieval banks, where the local nobility would deposit gold and other valuables.

And so, if asked why he really plundered monasteries, al-Mansur might well have given the same answer Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is.”

* * *

The information here largely comes from Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher (a wonderful, very readable book) and Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400-1000 by Roger Collins (it’s more academic, but if you ever wondered about how the Visigoths fit into Spanish history, this one’s for you). If you know something about the history already and want to read excerpts from some original sources, Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable, is a fascinating read.

Be sure to come back next week for the riveting conclusion to “Who Were the Moors Anyway?” It will address such scintillating topics as the rise and fall of the party kings (who really did have a good time when they weren’t being conquered and exiled), the invention of Santiago Matamoros, and whether the Reconquista was actually just a conquista with good PR.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:48 am
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The Thirty Pilgrims: A Miracle of Saint James


[Saint James]

Saint James.

In 1080 AD, so the story goes, thirty men set out together from their homes in the Lorraine area of France. Their destination was the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.

Twenty-nine of the pilgrims swore to help each other along the way. Only one—for reasons unknown—did not join the pact.

When the pilgrims reached Porta Clusa in Gascony in southwest France, one of the twenty-nine fell ill with a terrible sickness. But his companions took him along with them as they had promised. Sometimes the sick pilgrim managed to ride, but other times he was so ill that his companions had to carry him.

The journey to the foot of the Cize Pass in the Pyrenees, which normally took foot soldiers five days, lasted fifteen days as the pilgrims labored to help their ill companion.

And then, tired of the effort, the twenty-eight men who had sworn the oath abandoned the sick pilgrim in the town of Saint-Michel on the French side of the pass. Only the pilgrim who had avoided the pact stayed behind.

The next day, a little rested, the sick pilgrim said he would attempt the pass if the healthy pilgrim would help. The healthy pilgrim said of course he would help, and promised never to leave the sick pilgrim while they both lived.

Toward the end of the day, as they were still climbing the mountain, the sick pilgrim died, and Saint James himself guided him to heaven.

The healthy pilgrim was left alone in the dark with a dead man’s body. This was Basque country, and he had heard terrible stories of barbarous Basques and the things they did to Frenchmen.

Terrified, he cried out to Saint James.

And almost immediately, a rider appeared.

“What are you doing here on the mountain in the dark?” the rider asked.

“I need to bury my companion,” the pilgrim said, “but there’s nowhere in this wasteland to give him a Christian burial.”

“Hand him to me,” the rider said, “and climb up behind.”

The pilgrim did as instructed, and they rode together through the night: the rider, the pilgrim, and the dead man.

As the sun rose, the rider told the pilgrim to dismount, and passed down his dead companion.

“Ask the canons at the cathedral to bury this pilgrim,” the rider said. “And when you next meet up with your twenty-eight faithless companions, which you will do in León, tell them Saint James is unhappy with them, and will not be pleased with their prayers or their pilgrimage until they have done penance for their sins.”

The pilgrim looked around in wonder, and discovered he was only a mile away from the Monte de Gozo monastery, a short walk to Santiago de Compostela. They had done what should have been twelve days’ hard riding in a single night.

The rider, the pilgrim realized, could only be Saint James himself.

He turned to thank the apostle, but found he was alone.

* * *

This is my retelling of the fourth miracle listed in The Miracles of Saint James section of the Codex Calixtenus, a twelfth-century manuscript about Saint James and his pilgrimage.

If you’re interested in more miracles and other historical information about the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago, I highly recommend The Miracles of Saint James: Translations from the Liber Sancti Jacobi.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:20 pm
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Ultreïa!


[Ultreïa! on an albergue window]

These days, buen camino is the most frequent pilgrim greeting along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I always thought ultreïa was more traditional.

Medieval pilgrim #1: Ultreïa!

Medieval pilgrim #2: Et suseïa!

The usual English translation of ultreïa is onward, but that doesn’t seem to get at the heart of it. Keep going and walk further aren’t as elegant, but they show the encouragement that’s an integral part of the word.

Suseia means upward, more or less. So the medieval pilgrims would be telling each other onward and upward!

I heard the song Ultreïa played and sung fairly often on my pilgrimage, mainly along on the Chemin du Puy in France.

The first time, it was only the melody, as an organ and a violinist played a duet in the Conques cathedral. Since then, I heard the song—and sang it—often enough that I memorized the first verse through simple osmosis.

At the time, I didn’t know about its medieval origins. As I just discovered through the miracle of internet research, the words of the song Ultreïa come from the twelfth-century Codex Calixtenus manuscript, a collection of documents about the Santiago pilgrimage and Saint James himself.

At least, the words of the chorus do (more or less, anyway). I suspect the verses are more recent. They certainly wouldn’t have been written in French in the Codex Calixtenus.

The word ultreïa doesn’t look French, either, though it’s found in a French song.

Curious, I spent some time digging around on the internet, where ultreïa‘s origins are alternately given as Latin, Spanish or Galician. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that it’s based on Latin, but not pure Classical Latin, but rather a “degraded” Latin on its way to becoming one of our modern Romance languages.

The most helpful information I found on ultreïa‘s history was from Miguel Perles Alabau, an art historian (though I think he was a student when he wrote this), who asked around at his university for information on the term.

As far as I can understand (and that might not be very far, since my Spanish is a long way from perfect), a Franciscan professor who specializes in medieval history told him the word ultreïa has been mythologized. The part about the chorus in the Codex Calixtenus is true: that song really was sung in the Santiago Cathedral. But the story of ultreïa (together with its counterpart, suseïa) being a common medieval pilgrim greeting is apparently a myth.

And then according to a Latin professor, ultreïa basically meant hallelujah, and was a word pilgrims used when they reached Santiago de Compostela.

When I was walking the Camino, a Swiss pilgrim told me he’d heard that in the mystical Camino tradition, ultreïa represents the journey to Santiago, and suseïa is the trip home.

I’ve come across the same idea a few other places as well. I wonder if it’s an old idea, or if it’s another modern romanticization.

Of course, all this is fascinating, but at least to me, it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t make the word any less special to think that it probably wasn’t used as a medieval pilgrim greeting. It’s obviously been associated with the Camino de Santiago for many centuries, and historically speaking, words change their meanings all the time.

And the song is beautiful. Here it is, for your enjoyment, first in French and then in my not-exactly-poetic English translation. And be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom and watch the video: it’s my favourite of all the Ultreïa versions I found on YouTube.

Wishing you all a wonderful New Year filled with long walks (along pilgrim pathways when possible, of course). Ultreïa!

* * *

Ultreïa (French)

Tous les matins nous prenons le Chemin,
tous les matins nous allons plus loin,
jour après jour la route nous appelle,
c’est la voix de Compostelle!

Chorus:
Ultreïa! Ultreïa! Et sus eia!
Deus adjuva nos!

Chemin de terre et Chemin de foi,
voie millénaire de l’Europe,
la voie lactée de Charlemagne,
c’est le Chemin de tous les jacquets!

Et tout là-bas au bout du continent,
Messire Jacques nous attend,
Depuis toujours son sourire fixe
Le soleil qui meurt au Finisterre.

Ultreïa (English)

(I can’t guarantee the complete accuracy of this translation, but it’s more or less correct, if very unpoetic.)

Every morning we take the Camino,
Every morning we go farther,
Day after day the route calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela!

Chorus:
Onward! Onward! And upward!
God assist us!

Way of earth and way of faith,
Ancient road of Europe,
The Milky Way of Charlemagne,
It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims!

And over there at the end of the continent,
Santiago waits for us,
His smile always fixed
On the sun that dies at Finisterre.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:19 pm
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