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The Land of the Infidel
Castile, that flat expanse of tableland in central Spain, some 300 miles across, derives its lovely, lilting name from the Spanish word castillos, or castles, for so many of these daunting crenellated bastions dot its windswept steppe. From the tenth century onward, they had been built one by one as a protection against the ferocious Moors to the south.
With its principal towns of Ávila, Burgos, Segovia, and Valladolid, the territory of Old Castile was first to be liberated from the Mohammedan horde that had swept north into the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century. In pushing the infidels back, Ferdinand I established his kingdom in a.d. 1037. Not many years later, the province of Le—n to the north was joined to it, and the Kingdom of Castile and Le—n made its capital at Burgos. In the decades after Ferdinand I's death in 1065, the kingdom was expanded south. Toledo was captured in 1085, and Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, and Madrid were taken soon after. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the forces of Christianity were making steady progress in taking back from the Moors land claimed by the Church. The process became known as the Spanish Reconquest.
The Reconquest was a crusade, every bit as intense as the storied crusades of Godfrey of Bouillon and Richard the Lionheart in Palestine. From the days of Charlemagne in the ninth century, the dream of driving the Arab heathens from the Iberian peninsula had been the sacred calling of every Christian king in the north. Ferdinand I had thrust as far south as Seville before retreating, but it was the recapture of Toledo in 1085 that shocked the Islamic world to its core. For several hundred years, as the Berber dynasty of the Almorav’das in Granada gave way to the fanatical Almohades, and eventually to the brilliant Nasarids, and as the great Alhambra was constructed above the bowl of the Andalusian vega, there was thrust and counterthrust between Christians and Muslims. Yet, a kind of stasis was established.
But such detente was not to last. In A.D. 1236, C—rdoba, the seat of Moorish culture since the eighth century, fell to the Christians, followed by Valencia in 1238, and Seville in 1248. In an elegiac lament, the Moorish poet Al-Rundi wrote of the devastation Moorish Spain felt at its defeat by the infidel.
Mosques have become churches
in which only bells and crosses are found . . .
O who will redress the humiliation
of a people who were once powerful?
Yesterday they were kings in their own homes.
But today they are slaves in the land of the Infidel.
By the year 1265 the Mohammedan empire, the glorious Al Andalus, had been reduced to the province of Granada and a line of ports around Cádiz.
Despite this upheaval, the 150 years from the mid-thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth century would be a period of relative tranquility. It was to become the golden age of diversity in medieval Spain. The Christians comprised half the population of the peninsula, the rest being Jews and Moors. The Jewish population, numbering about 120,000, maintained good relations with the Christian kings of Castile. Under the rulers of the Almohades, the Jews had been repressed, and they responded by helping the Castilian kings in their perpetual struggle against the Moors. When the Christians seized more and more Moorish territory, they returned the favor, and Jews soon held numerous important posts in the royal court. Meanwhile, Arabs living under Christian rule (called Mozarabs) were tolerated and nurtured. Through them the wisdom of the Arab world, from its science to its arts, was translated from the Arabic into Latin. This trove of learning was then sent north into the largely illiterate principalities of Central Europe.
The reign of the Castilian king Alfonso X (1252-84) represented the high point of this cross-fertilization. Schooled in Arabic and known as El Sabio, the Learned One, Alfonso was responsible for great cultural and social works. Even as he gave lip service to the traditional obligation of Christian kings to confront and conquer the Moors, he set out to create a Christian culture in the north of Spain that was equal in glory to Moorish culture in the south. He ordered both the Koran and the Talmud to be translated into Latin. And he promoted valuable translations from Arabic astronomy that came to be known as the Alfonsine Tables and that would guide the study of astronomy for the next two hundred years until the revolutionary work of Nicolaus Copernicus changed everything.
These tables were produced by a collaborative effort of fifty astronomers in 1252, including a clutch of Arabic astronomers and an important Jewish astronomer named Yehuda ben Moses Cohen. They sought to plot the path of the planets as a series of intricate and interrelated epicycles and to describe the constellations beyond the planets. In the Alfonsine Tables, the Arabic names for certain stars like Altar, Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Vega were used. Later, Alfonso was said to have remarked, apocryphally no doubt, that if he had been present at creation, he could have given the Good Lord some hints.
Under the Learned One other technical fields were also enriched through the translation of Arabic science. Arabic chemical words came into European languages: alkali, alcohol, camphor, elixir, syrup, talc, and tartar. Mathematical terms like azimith, zero, sine, root, algebra, nadir, and zenith came from the Arabic, as did botanical names like ginger, lilac, jasmine, myrrh, saffron, sesame, lemon, rhubarb, and coffee. Modern Spanish contains approximately eight thousand words derived from Arabic.
The humanities and arts also found their patron in Alfonso. Under this remarkable king a seminal collection of medieval poetry and music was compiled, as well as an illustrated book of games, Libro de los Juegos, about dice and chess played on boards of different sizes. Historical memory was important to him as well. He encouraged the writing of a history called Crónica General, insisting that it be written in the language of the common man. By this simple act, Castilian became the standard for written and spoken Spanish. Alfonso also initiated the formation of a comprehensive legal code, Las Siete Partidas, which among other things removed his kingdom from papal influence. This remarkable achievement had one glaring deficit, however. It associated all Jews with the Antichrist, declaring them to be helpmates of the Devil, and the prime villains in the last days of the coming apocalypse.
Alfonso's cultural influence was to last well beyond his death. Much original literary work, including the prose of Infante Don Juan Manuel and the poetry of the archpriest of Hita, was created in what became known as the School of Alfonso. Better as a man of letters than a leader of men, he nevertheless added the port of Cádiz to the Kingdom of Castile, in an arrangement with his vassal, the Moorish king of Granada.
* * *
After the fall of Córdoba to the Christian side in 1236, the center of Islamic Al Andalus shifted to Granada. Its natural circumstance protected the province of Granada better than Córdoba. Its capital city, also called Granada, was built on the slopes of the massive Sierra Nevada, the highest mountains in all of Spain. These daunting and gorgeous peaks, rising over 11,000 feet, separated Granada from its seaport of Málaga to the south. Their highest peak, the Mulhacén, is named for the father of the last Moorish king. Between the Sierra Nevada and the coast, only fifty miles south, lie the Alpujarras Mountains with their rich and fertile bottomlands. Málaga was then the richest seaport in Spain. It was a bustling hub of trade with North Africa and Venice, Constantinople and Alexandria.
After the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century, the emir of Al Andalus had been a vassal of the caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad. But this western outpost of Islam was the first of the Muslim provinces to break free of its Oriental masters. When the Mongols destroyed the caliphate in Baghdad in 1258, the independence of Al Andalus was solidified, and the Spanish Moors began to relate more to Europe than the Middle East. In arts and agriculture, learning and tolerance, Al Andulus was a beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe. In the fertile valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadina rivers, as well as the terraced slopes of the Alpujarras, agriculture surpassed anything elsewhere on the continent. Moorish filigree silver- and leatherwork became famous throughout the Mediterranean. In engineering, the skill of the Spanish Moors had no parallel, and the splendor of their architecture was manifest in the glorious mosque of Córdoba, the Giralda and Alcazar of Seville, and the Alhambra of Granada. Its excellence in art and literature, mathematics and science, history and philosophy defined this brilliant civilization.
Among its finest achievements was its tolerance. Jews and Christians were welcomed, if not as equals, then as full-fledged citizens. They were permitted to practice their faith and their rituals without interference. This tolerance was in keeping with the principles of the Koran, which taught that Jews and Christians were to be respected as "peoples of the Book" or believers in the word of God. Jews and Christians were assimilated into Islamic culture, and occasionally, Moorish leaders helped to build Christian houses of worship.
In 1248, work began on the colossal Alhambra in Granada. With its thirteen towers and fortified walls above the ravine of the Darro River, the river of gold, the red palace took shape over the next hundred years. The extraordinary rooms of its interior--the Courtyard of the Lions, the Hall of the Two Sisters, the Court of the Myrtles--were finished at the end of the long process under the reign of Yusef I in the mid-fourteenth century. With their arabesque moldings and gold ornament and vegetal carvings, these rooms became the wonder of the world. Most stunning of all was the Courtyard of the Lions, whose Oriental feel was more reminiscent of Japan than the Middle East and whose vision was to replicate the Garden of Paradise.
For all its might and intelligence, creativity and tolerance, the kingdom of the Moors had been steadily shrinking since the beginning of the second millennium of Christ. The Reconquest of Spain by the Christians had pushed south slowly but relentlessly. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Moorish state was in its twilight, reduced to the humiliation of vassalage, enduring only at the sufferance of the Castilian kings, whose might increased year by year.
The question was only who would finish the job . . . and when. The answer was the Catholic sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, in their triumph over the Moors in the apocalypse of 1492.
* * *
If the thirteenth century in Spain represents the apogee of tolerance and cross-fertilization between the three great religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the seeds of later trouble were sown during the same period. For it was early in that century that the institution of the Inquisition was established in earnest.
The problem of wayward belief had bedeviled the Christian Church since its earliest days. And yet, very early on, the attitude toward heretical views was one of forgiveness, tolerance, and exhortation. Christ himself had set the tone in an interchange with the apostle Peter, when Peter asked his Saviour (as recounted in Matthew 18:21) how many times he should forgive one who sinned against him.
"I say not unto thee until seven times," Jesus replied, "but Until seventy times seven."
And later St. Paul addressed the question of heresy in his instructions to Titus, the bishop of Crete (the Epistle of Paul to Titus, 1:10). "Vain talkers and deceivers" polluted the company of true believers, Paul wrote, and the purveyors of "Jewish fables" were among them.
"Reject the man who is a heretic after the first and second admonition, Knowing that he who is so subverted and sinneth condemns himself" (3:11). There was no mention of punishment.
This stance of suasion, admonition, and reconciliation lasted until the fourth century, when the doctrine of the early Church faced its first major challenge with the Manichean heresy. To Manicheans, the world was essentially evil, but through effort and discipline, the individual could achieve perfection. They believed in Christ but denied the Holy Sacraments. They rejected the authority of the pope and replaced him with their own high priest.
To deal with this departure from official doctrine, the Church moved from persuasion to excommunication to confiscation of property and, finally, to corporeal punishment for the heretic. The administration of physical pain, however, was turned over to secular authority. In a.d. 382, the emperor Theodosius decreed that Manichean heretics should be put to death, and their property seized. In the seventh century in Spain, the concept of heresy was extended to Jews when a Spanish Visigoth king ordered that Jewish "heretics" should be threatened with fear into returning to the Church, and if they did not buckle under, their children should be seized. In the eleventh century, Manichean heretics were burned in France.
But it was during the early part of the thirteenth century, with the arrival of St. Dominic, that the treatment of heresy reached a new level of vigilance. Domingo de Guzman hailed from minor Spanish nobility, distantly related to the great House of Guzm‡n in central Castile. Educated at the University of Palencia, he took his religious calling seriously, twice attempting to sell himself into slavery to pay for the liberation of Christian captives in Moorish hands. In 1202, as a deputy to the bishop of Osma, Dominic was sent on a diplomatic mission to Toulouse, where, to his horror, he witnessed the perversions of the Albigensian heresy.
In part, the Albigenses were reacting to the depravity and extravagance of the Catholic priesthood in southern France. Called neo-Manichean, the Albigenses, like their predecessors from the fourth century, saw the world as gripped in an eternal struggle between the forces of good and of evil. They rejected the authority of Rome and railed against the corruption of Catholic priests. They rejected the Old Testament and scrapped the sacraments of baptism for the believers and marriage for their leaders, who were known as the perfecti. The mass of believers, in contrast to their pure leaders, were granted wide moral licence and freed from religious obligations.
From this experience in Toulouse, Dominic conceived the idea of a religious order devoted solely to the goal of combating heresy and propagating the true Catholic faith. As the idea advanced, the pope, Innocent III, declared a crusade against the Albigenses and set the nobility of northern France against that of the south in a bloody civil war that was to last for twenty years. Early in this crusade the papal legate to southern France was said to have uttered the words:
"Slay all. God will know his own."
In the wake of mortal combat, Dominic and his cohorts followed the battle by engaging heretics in debate and seeking to reconcile them to the true faith. In 1215, his followers held their first gathering as an Order of Preachers; they were the first inquisitors. Three years later, they received formal Vatican sanction as an order and established monasteries in Segovia and Madrid. Initially, they were known as the Militia of Christ, and only later, after Dominic's death in 1221 and his beatification as a saint, as the Dominicans. Only much later still did they become known familiarly as the "hounds of God."
From the Hardcover edition.