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In and Of the Mediterranean: Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies

In and Of the Mediterranean: Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies

by Michelle M. Hamilton (Editor), Nuria Silleras-Fernandez (Editor)

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The Iberian Peninsula has always been an integral part of the Mediterranean world, from the age of Tartessos and the Phoenicians to our own era and the Union for the Mediterranean. The cutting-edge essays in this volume examine what it means for medieval and early modern Iberia and its people to be considered as part of the Mediterranean.


The Iberian Peninsula has always been an integral part of the Mediterranean world, from the age of Tartessos and the Phoenicians to our own era and the Union for the Mediterranean. The cutting-edge essays in this volume examine what it means for medieval and early modern Iberia and its people to be considered as part of the Mediterranean.

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Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date:
Hispanic Issues
Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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In and Of the Mediterranean

Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies

By Michelle M. Hamilton, Núria Silleras-Fernández

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2031-9


Christian-Muslim-Jewish Relations, Medieval "Spain," and the Mediterranean: An Historiographical Op-Ed

Brian A. Catlos

... the situation of the Jews in Spain had nothing to do with the Mediterranean but with the very innards of Spanish history.

—Américo Castro, The Spaniards (8)

... the uniqueness of the vital Spanish contexture is unquestionable. Spain differs from the two lineages of historical communities with which it should logically coincide. It cannot be enclosed within the functional structure of the Mediterranean peoples nor of the peoples of the so-called West ...

—Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, Spain, A Historical Enigma (1:26)

For those who have worked on the history and culture of medieval Spain over the last half-century, and particularly on the subject of Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations, it is has been difficult to escape the influence of Américo Castro and Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. These two towering figures defined the debate regarding the nature of Spanish history in the aftermath of the Civil War—a visceral conflict between parties that presented themselves as the embodiments of antithetical and incompatible ideologies. Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz—both of whom were exiled as a consequence of the war—themselves present what appear to be antithetical and incompatible visions of the essence of Spanish history, each of which were related deeply to the encounter between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures in the peninsula. Sánchez-Albornoz believed the "enigma" of Spanish history could be understood in the light of the "eternal Spaniard." For him, this unique peninsular personality, forged by the heat and hammering of a succession of foreign invasions from the Romans onwards on a core of Iberian steel, embodies a coherence and continuity of both physiology and spirit. For Castro, on the other hand, the Spanish character was a product of a succession of cultures, finally emerging in the Middle Ages: formally Christian, but embodying elements of the Islamic and Jewish cultures that it grappled with and internalized.

The intellectual encounter between these two historians was hardly less jarring than the war that made each of them an exile. A tremendous intellectual explosion, it left behind a scarred scholarly landscape littered with the detritus of previous Spanish historiography, rent asunder by their fulminations—detritus that has been fashioned, in the case of Don Américo's ideas, into a nostalgic and idealized vision of intercultural convivencia (typically presented as an anachronistic and moralizing idealization of "tolerance"), whereas that of Don Claudio has been of particular appeal to a nationalistic (if not chauvinistic and xenophobic) Catholic and Castilian Right. What might be described as the "Castro school" has dominated the historiography outside of the peninsula. The tendency among postwar historians and particularly among British historians, but also in the United States, was to accept the essentially Castilian orientation of "Spain," as reflected in the syntheses of scholars such as Angus MacKay and Joseph O'Callaghan. From the late 1970s the monopoly of this paradigm was weakened by the work of scholars such as Thomas Bisson, Thomas F. Glick, J. N. Hillgarth, and Bernard Reilly, who produced their own syntheses, not to mention by Catalan and Valencian historians in Spain. Among non-Spanish historians, the notion of convivencia ("living together," a term which Castro himself adapted from Ramón Menéndez Pidal) came to be framed in terms of the "toleration" which certain Muslim and Christian regimes were held to have exhibited toward members of religious minorities. This model has also fired the popular imagination, particularly in North America, as can be seen in a recent proliferation of nostalgically-flavored works aimed at a popular audience. The present author, for his part, has been critical of this approach, and proposes a new paradigm, conveniencia, or "The Principle of Convenience."

The influence of Sánchez-Albornoz is seen chiefly among nationalist historians (some with a markedly xenophobic and polemical bent), notably Eloy Benito Ruano, A. Cañizares, Serafín Fanjul, Vicente Palacio Atard, and César Vidal Manzanares, many of whom are associated with the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid. This can be seen as one dimension of a broader historiographical/ polemical trend that pits a savage and idealized "Islam" against a virtuous and civilizing "West," as in the later work of Bernard Lewis or the recent efforts of Sylvain Gouggenheim.

In fact, Castro's and Sánchez-Albornoz's fundamental positions on the nature of history, and the historical role of Spain, are for the most part not altogether so different, and it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the ferocity of their opposition and those of their disciples. Each of them begins with the firm conviction that there is something called "Spain" and "Spanishness," that is not only an accidental political arrangement or the consequence of historical coincidence, but a coherent, distinct, fundamentally unified, and even unique historical entity, and that it has its origins in a remote past. Each of them reifies and essentializes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Theirs is history at its most Platonic and teleological—the culmination of a European nationalist historiography that stirred the likes of Edward Gibbon and was most forcefully articulated by Leopold Von Ranke. It is hopelessly outdated, and it is very often—quite simply—wrong. Nevertheless, their ideas, or the spirit behind their respective ideals, has had a profound effect—both illuminating and obfuscating—on subsequent historical and literary scholarship. And if virtually no scholar cites them any more as historians, the sympathizers and partisans of their idealistic positions among historians today remain remarkably easy to spot. Arguments revolving around "tolerance" and "intolerance" in medieval Spain, the nature of the cultural and political encounters between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the peninsula, and of convivencia and "clashes of civilization" all reflect or resonate with the binaries established by these two thinkers.

The point of this essay is not to criticize or dismantle the arguments of either Castro or Sánchez-Albornoz; the debility of their legacy as historians obviates this need and, in any event, much continues to be written on the theme. Rather, it is to examine some of the general presumptions that underlie their views of history, and the history of the Iberian Peninsula, and to propose that in terms of Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations medieval "Spain"—far from being "enigmatic" or "unique"—can be fit into a Mediterranean historical framework, and this exercise can serve both to illuminate peninsular history and that of the region. In other words, this essay is a response to the idea of Spain as defined by the historians' vision—which is to say a Spain which is only ultimately realized as Christian Spain, and more specifically, that particular Christian Spain that is seen as the origin of the modern Spanish nation-state.

Was Medieval Spain Spanish?

Fundamental to the thought of both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz is the idea that categories such as "Spain," "Islam," "Christianity," and "Judaism" represent the fundamental conceptual building blocks of history. Whereas I would not deny the usefulness and validity of such categories, or of their suitability as objects of study and historical forces, they cannot be understood as unified, coherent, immutable, and eternal forms. Each of them is contingent, temporal, multifaceted, and polyvalent. Words are just that. Their meaning and sense shifts with time, context, rhetorical style, author, and audience. History founded on etymologies is a dead end.

True, the Romans and the Visigoths may have referred to something called Hispania, and there was clearly a sense that in some ways inhabitants of the peninsula shared certain characteristics or affectations, but this is hardly evidence that there was something that could be identified as "Spain," or Spanish culture, at least in a concrete and exclusive sense. This is abundantly clear in the Middle Ages, when the Emperors of León invoked a clear plurality by referring to themselves as "Emperors of All of the Spains," and when Christian chroniclers could use the noun Ispanos to refer specifically to the Muslims of al-Andalus. Reconquista and jihad notwithstanding, the Kings of Castile and León and their North African analogues competed to present themselves as the legitimate rulers over both Christians and Muslims, not as the architects of homogenous states.

Moreover, what is one to do with the medieval Spanish societies that were not part of the peninsula? Naples and Sicily were for centuries Aragonese. They were arguably no less "Spanish" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than the Kingdom of Granada or the Kingdom of Valencia, and yet they evidently do not form part of either Castro's or Sánchez-Albornoz's Spanish essence. Twelfth-century Provence was in many ways closer to the Catalan counties, politically, culturally, and economically, than the counties were to contemporary Galicia. Indeed, this reflects a general problem with the Platonizing approach to the history of medieval Spain: much that we identify as "Spanish" was, in fact, characteristic of only parts of the peninsula, whereas other aspects were not limited to the peninsula.

Many of the apparently essential features of medieval "Spanish" culture and history were, in fact, highly localized. The ideology of the Reconquista and the reestablishment of a united Hispania under a supposedly restored Visigothic line was, of course, strongest in the lands of Castile and León; it reverberated also in Aragon and Portugal, but scarcely at all in the Catalan counties or Navarre. So, too, with the particular culture of hidalguía that developed most clearly in the Crown of Castile, or the culture and institutions of the municipal militias, which coalesced across the broad swathe of territory that comprised the frontier between al-Andalus and the Christian principalities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and included specific parts of Portugal, Castile-Leon, Aragon, and Valencia.

Most obvious are the contrasts between the economic and institutional trajectories of the various kingdoms, most particularly the Crowns of Castile and Aragon—the former developing into a polity dominated by a narrow class of magnates and a strong monarchy, and the latter characterized by a weak monarchy, held in check by a parliamentary pactisme and contending with powerful noble and municipal estates. If it is the "plainsman" of the frontier who epitomizes the culture of medieval Castile, one could claim (with the same degree of inaccuracy and oversimplification) that it is the merchant and artisan who personified the Crown of Aragon in the Middle Ages. Both figures were "Spanish," so who would be correct?

Nor does the situation of religious minorities lend itself any more easily to generalization in terms of physical presence, social roles, or cultural influence. The Crown of Aragon, particularly Aragon and Valencia, included a large proportion of Muslim subjects (constituting the numerical majority in these kingdoms to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, respectively). Generally, the mudéjares here were secure and reasonably prosperous, but had little direct political influence and a cultural influence that was apparently limited for the most part to architecture—and in this only in the Kingdom of Aragon. In Valencia, the direct influence of local subject Muslim communities survives chiefly in the quotidian, notably ceramics, cuisine, and so forth. In Portugal and Navarre the situation was similar, although the Muslim populations were both numerically and proportionately quite small. By contrast, the lands of Castile had a relatively small Muslim population, but one that left a strong cultural imprint, not the least on the Castilian language, but also on literary styles. The Arabisms that are the hallmark of the Castilian and Portuguese lexicon are far fewer in Catalan, whereas the Arabisms in Euskara are virtually all Castilian loanwords. Similarly, the development of vernacular literature in the Catalan lands not only predated that of Castile, but drew on distinct sources and influences. The Islamic architectural legacy also was dissimilar in the lands of Castile, where in the later Middle Ages the rulers and elite embraced a Maurophilia that idealized foreign rather than domestic Islamic culture, and which was reflected also in styles of tastes in fashion, and an appetite for the translation and appropriation of Islamic high culture that was all but absent elsewhere in the peninsula. The experience of Jews and the influence of Jewish culture across the peninsula was characterized by an analogous variety of experience, opportunity, and historical trajectory, although the specific cultural influence of the Jewish minorities was distinct from that of subject Muslims.

Much of this is obvious, and little is surprising. The peninsula had never been truly unified or uniform—even under the Romans and Visigoths, and certainly not in the Middle Ages. When the Islamic conquest provoked the emergence of a new order in the Christian lands, this was not predicated on a solidarity of purpose or identity, except in the most vague sense, or one limited to specific and limited rhetorical contexts. Each region, each principality, developed along a distinct if not always dissimilar trajectory, developing their own institutions, seeing the emergence of their own elites with their own agendas and their own popular traditions. In view of this, it is little surprise that neither political alliances nor economic relations corresponded to Christian and Islamic blocs. The political history of early medieval Spain is one of petty principalities and provinces, Christian and Muslim, working to resist the domination of Córdoba, whereas that of later medieval Spain is as much as contest between the Crown of Castile, the Crown of Aragon, and Portugal, as between Christian powers and Islamic powers. This is even clearer when commercial relations are considered; these were characterized by integration and interdependence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews within the Spanish kingdoms and between the dar al-Islam and the lands of Latin Christendom. Castile and Portugal would develop powerful and important commercial ties with Granada and the Maghrib (in part through the mediation of Genoa), and the Crown of Aragon with Granada, Tunisia, and Mamluk Egypt. The famous frontier between Christendom and Islam, often imagined as a constant in the medieval history of the peninsula, was elusive, contextual, and porous—a condition reflected in the epic literature, diplomatic relations, and archival evidence of the time.

And yet, in the imagination of Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz and their intellectual heirs, "Spain" is essentially Greater Castile-León, and that which is essentially "Spanish" is Castilian-Leonese. In other words, this represents a remarkable example of retroactive teleological thinking: it presents a facile paradigm that may seem to correspond to the Spain of the twentieth century, but is of limited use for illuminating the medieval history of the peninsula and its inhabitants. It effaces the subtlety of historical change, the richness of historical variety, and invites the misapplication of the conclusions drawn from evidence originating in one narrow area to the region as a whole. Of course, this view of Spain and Spanish history is not a twentieth-century invention; it has its roots in the myths of the Reconquest and Visigothic continuity fabricated by the twelfth-century Gallic clergymen who presented this as a justification for the political claims of their patrons—the Kings of Castile-León. But a myth, however ancient it may be, is still a myth.


Excerpted from In and Of the Mediterranean by Michelle M. Hamilton, Núria Silleras-Fernández. Copyright © 2015 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Meet the Author

Michelle M. Hamilton, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, is the author of Representing Others in Medieval Iberian Literature.

Nuria Silleras-Fernandez, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the author of Power, Piety and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna.

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