The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

by Hussein Fancy


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Sometime in April 1285, five Muslim horsemen crossed from the Islamic kingdom of Granada into the realms of the Christian Crown of Aragon to meet with the king of Aragon, who showered them with gifts, including sumptuous cloth and decorative saddles, for agreeing to enter the Crown’s service.
They were not the first or only Muslim soldiers to do so. Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Christian kings of Aragon recruited thousands of foreign Muslim soldiers to serve in their armies and as members of their royal courts. Based on extensive research in Arabic, Latin, and Romance sources, The Mercenary Mediterranean explores this little-known and misunderstood history. Far from marking the triumph of toleration, Hussein Fancy argues, the alliance of Christian kings and Muslim soldiers depended on and reproduced ideas of religious difference. Their shared history represents a unique opportunity to reconsider the relation of medieval religion to politics, and to demonstrate how modern assumptions about this relationship have impeded our understanding of both past and present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226597898
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/28/2018
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 791,328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Hussein Fancy is assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Read an Excerpt


Etymologies and Etiologies

The scholar reading through the chancery registers in the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, turning page after page of brittle paper, will find the Latin and Romance terms jenetus and genet (as well as a handful of other orthographic variants) scattered throughout the copious thirteenth- and fourteenth-century documentation, terms referring to certain but not all Muslim soldiers. By and large, historians have ignored these words in this context. In his handwritten, partial eighteenth-century catalog to the registers — the only such guide for contemporary researchers — the archivist Jeroni Alterachs y Avarilló mistakenly read jenet as a surname belonging to a Mudéjar, a subject Muslim. And thus, these soldiers have remained mostly buried in these paper books. Only four scholars have seen something more.

In these four earlier studies, however, the identity of the jenets has been a matter of confusion. For Andrés Giménez Soler, writing in 1905, their origin seemed obvious: they were Zanata Berbers from North Africa. He saw the word jenet as a Romanization of the name of the tribe. In 1927, when Faustino Gazulla wrote a second study of the jenets, he followed his predecessor on the matter of origin. A significant entanglement, however, arises from this etymological claim. To say that the jenets were Zanata Berbers — a broad ethnic category — is only slightly more revealing than calling them North African. After all, from which Zanata tribes did they come? And how, when, and why did they end up in the Iberian Peninsula? The two more recent studies have challenged this North African origin. In 1978, Elena Lourie suggested that the jenets were in fact Iberian Muslim cavalry soldiers, members of the Banu Ashqilula who had rebelled against the Nasrid rulers of Muslim Granada and were therefore predisposed to trade allegiances. And in 2003, Brian Catlos suggested that although the word jenet derived from the name of the Berber tribe, by the thirteenth century it "became a generic term for all foreign Muslim soldiers." Each of these possibilities would lead to drastically different readings of this history. Therefore, it is worth asking the deceptively simple question: Who were the jenets?

Jennets for Germans

The confusion surrounding and scant scholarly attention upon the jenets stands in sharp contrast to the wide diffusion of the term and its linguistic descendants across the early modern and modern periods. Tracing the word forward from the Middle Ages reveals a rapid dilation of its meaning and a web of significations. In thirteenth-century Iberian Latin and Romance sources, the first to use the term, jenet referred only to specific Muslim soldiers and their military accoutrements: jenet saddles, jenet stirrups, and jenet lances. However opaque to readers centuries later, the word had been specific in this context. By the early modern period, jenet had already expanded in meaning, referring to both Muslim and Christian cavalry, the so-called jinetes, who rode in the fashion of these earlier soldiers. According to Covarrubias in his 1611 dictionary, the Tesoro, it meant "a man on horseback, who fights with a spear and a leather shield, his feet gathered into short stirrups, which do not reach below the belly of the horse." And by the time one reaches modern Castilian and Catalan, even this degree of specificity had dissolved. The linguistic descendants of jenet — the Castilian jinete and the Catalan genet — simply and generically mean "horseman," a fact that might explain why so many scholars have passed over the term in earlier sources: it seemed unremarkable and obvious. Precisely because of this linguistic genericide, a steady semantic slippage toward generality, I have chosen to use the term jenet (a truncated form of the Latin jenetus) in order to refer to this particular thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Muslim cavalryman, to avoid confusion with these later variants.

Beyond the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in French and English, the term evolved differently, demonstrating again how "the words of things entangle and confuse." From at least the early modern period, the term transferred its meaning from rider to mount: jennet refers to a diminutive and much prized horse or palfrey (roncino) of mixed Spanish and North African stock. That detail makes sense of Iago's famous barb about Othello: "[Y]ou'll have/coursers for cousins and jennets for germans!" The breeding of jennet horses made them a ready symbol of not only racial transgression but also sexual excess throughout early modern literature, propelling the semantic afterlife of the jenets forward in new ways: "A breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud," according to Venus and Adonis; "Glew'd like a neighing Gennet to her Stallion," for salacious Massinger in Renegado; or in Fletcher's Thierry and Theodoret, "power they may love, and like Spanish Jennetts Commit with such a gust." It is worth mentioning that hippological metaphors for race were not an innovation of early modern literature. In late medieval Iberia, the Castilian word raza — from which the English "race" derives — referred first to the breeding of horses before it moved to men. But jennet horses were not only "good to think" in the early modern and modern periods. They also carried the Spanish conquistadors to the New World. Wealthy European gentlemen prized them for their speed and strength as well as their multitude of colors and patterns, their beauty, which made them a regular feature in eighteenth-century portraiture and literature. In Ivanhoe, for instance, one reads: "A lay brother, one of those who followed in the train, had, for his use upon other occasions, one of the most handsome Spanish jennets ever bred in Andalusia, which merchants used at that time to import, with great trouble and risk, for the use of persons of wealth and distinction." And if only for the irrepressible pleasure of pulling a loose thread, even later in English, the word also attached itself to a mule, the modern jenny. Thus, from jenets riding mules, we come to jenets as mules.

The contorted afterlife of the word jenet is rather like the scattershot cosmic microwave background, the remnants of an explosion, in this case, one that leads back to the medieval Iberian Peninsula. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Christian Iberian knights rode into battle in the manner of heavy cavalry. They sat low in their saddles, anchored with their legs outstretched — a style known as a la brida — in order to bear the weight of their armor and long lances. And while these soldiers were expensive and slow, like high-maintenance armored vehicles, they could deliver granite blows to their enemies. Although the cause of this transformation is not well understood, by the late medieval or early modern period in Iberia and Europe more widely, this style had shifted. The majority of Iberian Christian knights were now lightly armored. They rode smaller horses, bearing the so-called jineta saddle, with a low pommel and short stirrups, which allowed them to stand when in gallop. These saddles also gave cavalry soldiers the striking appearance of having their legs trussed beneath them, like chickens heading to the oven, making them readily identifiable and easily distinguishable from heavy cavalry in the famous sixteenth-century murals depicting the Battle of Higueruela (1431) in the Sala de Batallas of the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial (fig. 1). This new Spanish knight carried a short throwing lance, called a jineta, as well as small leather shield, called an adarga (derived from the Arabic daraqa, meaning "shield"). His military advantage lay in the ability to attack and flee, a tactic known as tornafuye, which allowed him to harass and scatter heavy cavalry without engaging them directly. As sixteenth- and seventeenth-century riding manuals like Tapia y Salcedo's Exercicios de la gineta demonstrate, the steady diffusion of this style — appropriately called a la jineta — led to the decline of heavy cavalry, which had dominated Iberia. Indeed, so thorough and successful was this revolution that eventually in Spain jinete and genet simply came to mean horseman.

As is well attested to in Arabic sources, this lightly armed style of riding as well as the tactic of attacking and fleeing (known as al-karr wa'l-farr) began among the Arabs and Berbers of North Africa, in particular members of the Zanata tribes. According to the eleventh-century historian Ibn Hayyan (d. 1097), lightly armored Berber troops rode on saddles with low pommels, the so-called sarj 'udwiyy (racing saddle), that allowed them greater maneuverability on horseback. While seeing this technique as strategically and morally inferior to closed formations, which had been the style employed by the early Islamic armies, Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) confirmed that light cavalry was the only style employed in the Maghrib in his time: "Fighting in closed formation (zahf) is steadier and fiercer than attacking and fleeing. ... [But] the fighting of people of their country [i.e., North Africa] is all attacking and fleeing."

This North African origin was not lost upon early modern Spaniards. In 1599, Juan de Mariana recommended the technique for training Christian princes while nevertheless admitting its "Moorish (Mauricae)" derivation. A year later, Bernardo de Vargas Machuca bragged of this style's effectiveness in combatting the "barbarians" of the New World while also acknowledging — without a hint of irony — the fact that the Berbers, who were once Greece's quintessential "barbarians," had first innovated this technique: "Although it is true that Barbary (Berberia) first gave it to Spain, and Spain to the Indies, it has been perfected here more than elsewhere." And Covarrubias recorded that some in his time ascribed the style specifically to "a certain nation or caste of Arabs called 'Cenetas' or 'Cenetes,' who lived in the mountains of Africa." Despite the willingness of Spanish noblemen and princes to adapt and adopt this Moorish style, the popularity of riding a la jineta struck foreign travelers to Spain as something strange and exotic. So, the thirteenth-century jenets stood at the heart of the transfer of this effective but culturally troubling cavalry style to the Iberian Peninsula, a significant military transformation in need of an explanation. And it thus might make sense to leap to the conclusion, as Giménez Soler did in 1905, that the jenets were Zanata Berbers.

There are at least two problems with this leap. First, as noted earlier, to say that the jenets were Zanata Berbers — a broad ethnic group — reveals little. Second, given the wide-ranging path of the term jenet, one must ask: by the time the word reached the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, had it already swung out of orbit, coming to signify the light style of riding over the ethnicity of the rider? For instance, writing in the thirteenth century, Ramon Lull (ca. 1232–1315), the Mallorcan mystic, described all Iberian Muslim cavalry — not just Berbers — as lightly armed: "They neither arm their bodies nor horses but rather ride into battle almost nude." The same generalization, but with admiration, was made later by Don Juan Manuel (1282–1348) in his Libro de los Estados. In other words, even if the Berber Zanata inspired the term, it does not follow that the thirteenth-century jenets were Zanata.

To press this point as far as it goes: the etymology upon which Giménez Soler relied in fact reflects this ambiguity precisely. Although philologists and historians have generally accepted that the words jinete and genet (as well as related terms) derive from Zanata, the transformation of one word into the other — Zanata into jinete — presents a difficulty for linguists. In only one other case has an Arabic word with the letter zay entered into Castilian with a c or Catalan with an s. Thus, for instance, the name of the Zanata tribe was rendered in medieval Castilian as Cenete. What the curious initial letter might suggest is that the path from the Arabic Zanata to jinete and genet was indirect, passing through some intermediary language. Using contemporary evidence, Helmut Lüdtke has proposed that the word was brought to Spain in the mouths and on the tongues of Berber tribesmen, who pronounced the Arabic zay in a fashion that more closely approximated the Castilian j (z) or Catalan g (z) in jinete and genet. While this is a tempting and elegant explanation, the likeliest one, it also has to be admitted that other paths remain open. Indeed, in the one other case — the transformation of the Arabic zarafa (giraffe) into the Castilian jirafa and the Catalan girafa — the Italian giraffa served as an intermediary. Thus, again, although the word jenet likely derived from the Berber Zanata, there is no reason to conclude that Berbers directly introduced the term into Romance, or that the first jenets were themselves Zanata. In brief, this etymology tells us more about the importance of the style of the jenets, their unacknowledged impact on military history, than about the identity of the thirteenth-century jenets themselves.

A Threshold of Indistinction

Although they have never been employed in etymological studies, the earliest references to the word jenet appear in the thirteenth-century Latin and Romance sources of the Archive of the Crown of Aragon. Before examining this evidence, however, the words of Arlette Farge are worth remembering: "History is never the simple repetition of archival content, but a pulling away from it, in which we never stop asking how and why these words came to wash ashore on the manuscript page."

The records of the Crown of Aragon are a miracle of sorts. Unlike the French royal archives, they avoided destruction in the medieval and modern periods, providing us with a near continuous record of the Barcelonan counts and Aragonese kings' activities through the fifteenth century. The earliest documentation relates to the ninth-century counts of Barcelona, and the first explicit mention of an "archive," which is to say, of a conscious effort to maintain royal documents, dates to the reign of King Alfons I (r. 1164–1196). Across its history, the Crown's administrators held on to royal letters, account books, court records, and an often-overlooked but vital collection of Arabic charters, the so-called Cartas árabes, which hold correspondence with and from Muslim rulers. Nevertheless, the importance of the Archive of the Crown of Aragon rests principally upon the wealth of its paper registers, a wealth that borders on scribomania. After the conquest of Islamic Valencia (and its paper mills) in 1236, and in imitation of the Papacy and French kings, King Jaume I (r. 1213–1276) adopted this practice of maintaining registers. Jaume's registers, thirty-three in total, begin as brief but increasingly become more extensive summaries of the most important letters and orders sealed and dispatched by the royal chancery. Jaume's successor and son, King Pere II (r. 1276–1285), later redacted these early records, raising the specter of manipulation, but he also recognized the value of these records and expanded the practice of keeping registers. At this stage, organizational habits remained inchoate. Rather than self-consciously burnishing the image of the king, the first eighty registers record unexpected details such as what the prince and princess ate and wore each day. This remained the practice until King Jaume II, whose reign (r. 1291–1327) corresponded with the greatest expansion of royal power and administrative prowess. He ordered all the existing registers as well as records from the royal treasurers, some of which remained in the private hands, be brought under one roof, an archive in the former chapel of Great Royal Palace. Simultaneously, he ordered royal scribes to copy systematically and completely all correspondence, leading to the production of 342 registers. By the reign of Alfons III (r. 1327–1336), these paper registers would grow in size to 1,240, becoming impossible for a single scholar to survey, particularly in the absence of a catalog. This shifting terrain of paper is our principal source for the early history of the jenets, where we first find them riding. What do these Latin and Romance registers reveal about these Muslim soldiers?


Excerpted from "The Mercenary Mediterranean"
by .
Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
On Names, Places, Dates, and Transcriptions

Introduction: A Mercenary Logic
Chapter One: Etymologies and Etiologies
Chapter Two: A Sovereign Crisis
Chapter Three: Sovereigns and Slaves
Chapter Four: A Mercenary Economy
Chapter Five: The Unpaid Debt
Chapter Six: The Worst Men in the World
Epilogue: Medievalism and Secularism


Customer Reviews