The period between 722, when Pelayo defeated the Moors in the mountain vale of Covadonga, and 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella captured Granada, is called La Reconquista. It covered a period of eight centuries. It should be made plain that no other country in Europe went through any similar period in its history. The reconquest was unique to Spain. Not only was it a war against foreign invaders who had occupied the land of Spain, it was also a war against an unacceptable religion, Islam, and in Spain these were fused in one: religious war. It is true that during the early centuries of the reconquest the acquisition of land, wealth, and slaves was perhaps more important than defeating Islam, but as time passed religious supremacy became an increasing issue. The Moslems themselves contributed to this with the invasion from North Africa of the wave of fanatical Almoravides in 1086 and that of the Almohades in 1146.
Spanish historians all agree that the reconquest gave Spanish history a singularity among the nations of Europe. Spanish character was fashioned anew under the long arm of this crusade. The church promised heaven for those who fell in battle, and the spoils of war always enriched the victorious soldier. Men came to die and live for the ideal of the “Christian soldier.” Who would soil his hands with menial labor when marching off to war offered a greater and far nobler reward? Individual prowess and faith became keystones of the Spanish nation that was slowly emerging behind the moving frontiers.
The first fighters from Asturias were not Visigoths. They were of older Hispanic stock, a hardy people who in later years would pour onto the plains of León and Castile in the repopulation of these abandoned lands. They would carry their spirit with them, and this spirit would shape the character of Spain. Of course, the eight centuries of reconquest were not eight centuries of constant war. These years also represented an interplay and fusion of social and cultural forces between the two sides, as well as an outfight opposition of these forces.
Asturias, the site of Pelayo’s victory, was the first Christian kingdom of northern Spain. A capital was established at Oviedo in 791, but even before this there was a dynasty of Asturian kings. It must be emphasized that this was not a continuation of the Visigoth line, but was something very autochthonous, rooted in the Spanish earth. The next kingdoms to emerge were Galicia and León. By the year 900 the Christians had pushed out beyond their ring of mountains and had spread onto the plains of León, farther south. By 914 they no longer felt the need of a mountain barrier to protect them, and so, uniting their kingdoms, they moved their capital to León, forming the single kingdom of León. The initiative now had clearly passed into the Christian camp; the Moors would never again hold the upper hand.
Just as León had emerged from the southward expansion of Asturias and Galicia, Castile emerged from the southward expansion of León. At first only a small principality, within a generation or two Castile became a land of warriors who would not bow before any man, Christian or Moor.
The Castilians suffered few defeats, and won many startling victories. In the end, they made the reconquest possible. In order to protect themselves on their open and barren plains they lived in a line of castles which marked the southern Christian frontier, and from this was derived the name, Castilla, which means “land of castles.”
The other Christian kingdoms of Spain were León, Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia, bringing the grand total to five. In the early centuries of the reconquest these Christian kingdoms fought almost as much among themselves as they did against the Moors. In those days the term España was used to refer to that part of the peninsula occupied by the Moors.
By the year 1230 there were two principal Christian kingdoms left in Spain, made up of the following combinations: León-Castilla and Aragon-Catalonia. Almost a century and a half more was to pass before these two states would merge into the single combination of Castilla-Aragon, which was to signify the unity of all Christian Spain. It was this final union which defeated and drove the Moors from their last stronghold of Granada.
Religion was to become a weapon, the mightiest weapon of all, in the epic struggle between the two cultures. Spanish Catholicism found its answer to the aggressive faith of the Moors in its cult of St. James. It was this cult, carefully nurtured and intensively believed, that made the reconquest possible. The cult was a purely Spanish invention; it existed in no other Catholic country of the world. History adduces almost no evidence in support of the miraculous event that gave rise to the cult of St. James, but in this case historic evidence is unimportant. What is important is that the story was believed, and this belief became so militant that it moved men to accomplish incredible deeds.
The legend is as follows: St. James the Greater, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, was believed to have come to Spain to preach the gospel for a period of six years. After that he returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by king Herod. His devotees embalmed his body and with it boarded a ship bound for Spain. They disembarked at the old Roman port of Iria Flavia on the Galician coast and proceeded inland to the site of the present city of Santiago, where the body was buried. For several years the tomb was a place of pilgrimage but when Roman persecution of the Spanish Christians became intolerable the holy spot was neglected, and for six centuries the memory of it was forgotten. Tradition then recounts that early in the ninth century an altar and the graves of three persons, one of them decapitated, was found. The king Alfonso II, the Chaste, corroborated the miraculous discovery, and established a church on the spot. Pilgrims began to arrive to venerate the holy remains, and the town of Santiago arose around the church, which became one of the three great shrines of medieval days. The other two were Rome and Jerusalem.
From this time on Santiago was regarded as the patron of Spain, and the special protector of Christian soldiers in the war of the Reconquest. Faith in him turned the tide in many a battle in favor of the Christian, and gave medieval Spanish a unique flavor. In the eleventh century the apostle began to be called Santiago, Matamores (St. James, Slayer of Moors).
As most of the pilgrims passed through southern France on their way to Santiago, the French Benedictine order of Cluny took over the management and protection of the pilgrimages. These monks kept the road in good repair, established inns and monasteries at regular intervals, and gave protection against attacks by bandits. The road to Santiago became an international highway and began to be known as the camino francés, or “French road,” a name it still bears.
The pilgrims carried many European influences into Spain, particularly those of the French church and perhaps literary influences of Provence. When they returned to their homes they carried much knowledge of Spanish-Arabic culture back with them. The intellectual achievements of the Moors thus became widely known throughout Europe. The large numbers of pilgrims who came to Spain helped to focus attention on the Moorish wars and brought recruits and money for the Spanish cause.
In the twelfth century several military order were organized in Spain to help carry on the fight against the Moors. These orders were all established on a religious as well as a military basis, following the indication of St. James, “Moors Slayer” himself. The church did not originally look with favor on holy men taking arms, but with the invasion of the Moorish Almoravides (“those vowed to God”) in 1086, the blending of religion and war among the Moors was again brought to attention of Spanish Christians who could not help realizing the effectiveness of the idea. Holy war, therefore, became the mission of the Church Militant. Among these orders were the Knights of Santiago, Calatrava, Alcantara, the Knights Templar, and the Hospitalers. At the end of the fifteenth century, under Ferdinand and Isabella, such core groups constituted the bone and sinew of the Christian army.
The national hero of early medieval Spain is the Cid. His story is told in the earliest preserved epic of Spanish literature, The Poem of the Cid, 1140. The Cid was a historic figure of the eleventh century; he lived from about 1043 to 1099, so the poem was written only forty years after his death, when his exploits were still fresh and clear in memory. The author of the poem, probably a Spanish monk living in the Moorish kingdom of Saragossa somewhere near the Christian frontier, had obviously read the Song of Roland, and several earlier Spanish epics which have been lost. Thus inspired he composed a poem which sticks very close to historic events, and give a faithful picture of life along the frontier in those days. The Cid emerges as a man of flesh and blood, a man who, through his own will and effort, achieves epic grandeur. He is one of the first “self-made men in history”. He is the heroic individual Castilian warrior who, feeling the exaltation of the whole man, can bring about incredible results. He is indeed a pattern which any courageous Castilian can follow. He is the noble epitome of every soldier among them.
Just as the figure of the Cid overshadows that of the legendary Pelayo, who defeated the Moors at Covadonga, so in the eleventh century does Castile overshadow the kingdom of León and the mountain provinces. It is supremely important to emphasize that during those crucial years when Spanish character was being molded Castile was the dwelling place where the great process went on. And Castilian was to become the language of all Spain.
Castile was the dynamic part of Spain in the Middle Ages. León represented conservatism. It was already in the in the backwash of military action; it represented tradition, the old Visigothic monarchy governed by Visigothic law. Castile was always in the path of danger. Its rebellion against León and the consequent rivalry between the two kingdoms was inevitable, and led to many bitter conflicts.
The Castilian frontier, just taken from the Moors, represented a kind of no man’s land into which it was still risky to venture. It became necessary for the central government to encourage settlers to go into this border territory to establish homes, build towns, put down their roots. In order to achieve permanent colonization settlers were granted special rights and privileges called fueros (forum). They were given a measure of personal freedom not known elsewhere in Spain during that epoch. Many of these fueros, embodying the rights, privileges, and duties of the citizens of the border towns, included Jews and Moslems as well as Christians. In those days one did not have to be a Christian in order to be a Spaniard.
The hundreds of newly established towns brought another element into the country’s political life. The nobles had always been a severe aggravation to the king. They had come to hold great territories, and very naturally allied themselves with the church and with the military orders, also big landholders. They frequently disputed the succession to the throne, and their support usually decided who would wear the crown. The ancient Spanish parliament called Cortes (courts) brought the townfolk into the national political body and thus balanced the power. The first Cortes was established in Aragon in 1162; that of León dates from 1188; Castile had its first Cortes in 1250. Thus the earliest Spanish parliament antedates that of England (which met in 1295) by 132 years. The democratically elected town councils of both León and Castile came into being around 1220. Unfortunately, this vigorous nascent democracy of the Middle Ages was not to endure for many years after the final conquest of the Moors and the establishment of the Inquisition, which led to a centralized monarchy.
In 1212, Alfonso VIII of Castile, joined by the forces of Navarre, Aragon, and Portugal, and without the support of León, won a stunning victory on the plains of Tolosa (Las Navas de Tolosa), which was the coup de grace for Moorish military dominion in the peninsula. His successor, Fernando III, el Santo, followed up this victory and took Córdoba in 1236; Valencia fell in 1238, and Seville was taken in 1248. This left only the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which was forced to pay a heavy tribute to the crown of Castile. Fernando III at first attempted to expel the Moors in mass from Seville and Córdoba, but the entire economy of the region fell apart, and he was forced to reconsider his position. This more tolerant policy led to a reinstatement of the high esteem in which talented Moors and Jews had formerly been held at the Court of Castile. Fernando’s son, Alfonso X, el Sabio, (The Learned) (1252-1284), continued and expanded this tolerance, and his court became a notable gathering place for the outstanding scholars and scientists of his epoch, regardless of their religion.
The Christians and their allies, therefore, had pitted themselves against a civilization which was technically, economically, and intellectually superior to their own. And they had won. The reason is that they were superior in individual drive, in stubborn will, and indefatigable energy. The forward thrust of their collective might was irresistible. With the psychology of soldiers they were now compelled to come to grips with problems which were cultural, political, and social. Neither Ferdinand the saint, nor his son Alfonso the Learned, nor any of their successors on the throne of Castile and León was able to complete this task effectively. Not until Castile and Aragon merged in union, with Ferdinand de Aragon as king and Isabella of Castile as queen, did the Christians have sufficient energies or sufficient solidarity to solve this problem. Even then, the solution was not the best one; it was merely a cutting of the Gordian knot that was Spain, sloughing off its Moslems and Jewish inhabitants.
Alfonso X did not pussyfoot or straddle the fence; he had the thrust and resolution of a good Castilian; he meant to incorporate this culture into his own. His task was to mold a Spanish culture out of roots that were Greco-Roman, Islamic, Hebraic, as well as Christian and Castilian, and he went about it with strong will and a real wisdom. He would gather around him a group of savants unparalleled in any medieval court; he would be known as Spain scholar king. He would place a premium on culture, that vital aspect of a nation’s life by which it is remembered. He would use every man and every tool at his disposal, and there were many.
Whereas in the previous century many thousands of Christians had been living in Moorish territory, now the situation was reversed and thousands of Moors and Islamized Spaniards were living in the kingdoms of Christendom. Thus the influence of Arabic culture was never more strongly felt. Wandering scholars from all over Europe came to Toledo to see and learn. The Greek classics, which had been turned into Arabic, were now translated again into Latin and in that form were made known in the rest of Europe. The Jewish savant was a key man in this process, for he was the only one who knew both Arabic and Latin.
Although the court at Toledo was the center of this revival of learning, the establishment of universities in Spain (Salamanca circa 1243) encouraged still further the medieval thirst for knowledge. Alfonso X directed the translation of many famous works of antiquity into Spanish: the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the Cabala, Indian fables, etc. The king was also interested in astronomy and published two books in that field; ha also put out a book on chess, a game the Spaniards had learned from the Moors. Alchemy was a particular fascination for him, and he delved into it assiduously. During his reign Alfonso also decreed that Castilian was the official language of his realm.