This is episode 29 called Kingdom of Pamplona and County of Aragon and in this episode you will learn:
- Why Vasconia has always been subject to external attacks
- How the Carolingian Empire and Emirate of Córdoba fought to control Iberian Vasconia and how that led to the emergence of pro-Frankish and pro-Umayyad Basque parties
- The assassination of the Banu Qasi governor of Pamplona, led by Velasco the Basque who represented the pro-Frankish party
- How Íñigo Arista, supported by the Banu Qasi and Córdoba, gained control of Pamplona
- Why the Kingdom of Pamplona is not considered a kingdom and the game of double legimitacy
- The origins of the County of Aragon, briefly under the Carolingian Empire and how García the Bad made the County of Aragon a vassal of Pamplona instead
- The last attempt of the Carolingian Empire to regain control over the Western Pyrenees, the Second Battle of Roncesvalles and its consequences
- What kind of relationship did the Banu Qasi and Arista-Íñigo dynasty had
- The political history of the County of Aragon in the 9th century and the origins of surnames like Sánchez or García
- Brief talk about social and economic aspects of the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County of Aragon
- What are the origins of the Basques (genetic studies)
- The external history of the Basque language, why its usage declined and the current situation of Euskera
- Reflection on the pragmatic relationship between the Kingdom of Pamplona and the Banu Qasi
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 29 called Kingdom of Pamplona and County of Aragon. In this episode you will learn about what was happening in the Western Pyrenees, with the foundation of the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County of Aragon, and the origins of the Basque people and language. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
In previous episodes I’ve talked about the Emirate of Córdoba, the Kingdom of Asturias and the Carolingian Marca Hispanica. However, in the early 9th century other new political actors appeared in the fragmented Iberian Peninsula. These political actors appeared in areas that had either defended their autonomy for centuries, as in the case of the Basques, or that had been quite independent from direct Cordoban control. I must warn you before we start that the history of the smallest of the Christian states of this period, the Kingdom of Pamplona, is very obscure. Unlike the Kingdom of Asturias, the Kingdom of Pamplona, the germ of the Kingdom of Navarre, produced no chronicles earlier than the 12th century. Most of what we know about its origins comes from Frankish and Arabic sources or from genealogies. The same lack of sources happens with the County of Aragon, which was at that time a frontier vassal county, as it happened to the other great state of later medieval Spain, Castile.
The first question that must be raised is, why the region inhabited by the Basques has always been subject to external attacks? Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Franks and Asturians have all made an effort to control this region, some with more success than others. The answer to this question is the Roncesvalles Pass. In Roman and Medieval times people that wanted to cross the Pyrenees usually used the Roncesvalles Pass, rather than entering the Iberian Peninsula through the coastal and border Basque town of Irun, or through the Eastern and Central Pyrenees that were more inaccessible. And which was the key fortified settlement to control that mountain pass? Right, Pamplona. The Franks had gained control over the Eastern Pyrenees by establishing the Marca Hispanica, to prevent Muslim attacks in core Frankish territory, among other reason. The Western Pyrenees was as important as the other half, that’s why within the context of struggle between the Carolingian Empire and the Emirate of Córdoba the Iberian region of the Basques suffered great external pressures. The Basque chieftains had to choose which form of submission they preferred, to serve the Franks as Counts and become vassals, or pay tribute to the Emirate of Córdoba but with a higher degree of autonomy.
Those external pressures led to bitter power struggles among the Basques, as the Basque chieftains allied with external forces to beat their rivals. The ruralization and later fall of the Western Roman Empire led to the disarticulation of cities as administrative territorial centers. For the region of Vasconia that meant that Pamplona didn’t control the Basques of rural areas anymore, now the Basque chieftains fought to control the city. The fact that Pamplona was constantly changing hands and allegiances only proves this point. Soon, two rival families stood out, the Velascos and the Íñigos. These dynamics are also indicative of an evolution of the tribal Basque society and economy, transforming the old tribal aristocracy into a landlord class that required a more powerful leader to protect their interests.
During the early reign of al-Hakam Pamplona revolted, as Velasco the Basque led the assassination of the Umayyad governor of the city, who was actually a member of the Banu Qasi dynasty. If you remember them, the Banu Qasi were this Muladi family that later dominated half of modern Aragon, and it’s during the reign of al-Hakam when they started to show their lack of loyalty towards the Emir, but more on that later in this episode. As I was saying, this Banu Qasi governor still loyal to the Emirate of Córdoba was assassinated by Velasco the Basque. Velasco was a pro-Frankish Basque chieftain, and simultaneously with the establishment of the Spanish March this meant that the Carolingian Empire had vassals and allies in both extremes of the Pyrenees. However, the pro-Umayyad Íñigos, who had kinship ties with the Banu Qasi, wouldn’t just sit and let the Velascos control Pamplona. The Íñigos, led by Íñigo Arista, would remain quiet and be on the defensive until the Emirate of Córdoba could regain strength to send an expedition against the pro-Frankish Pamplona.
Al-Hakam was able to send an expedition in 816, and after several days of fighting Velasco and his allies were defeated. On Velasco’s side there were both Christian and Pagan Basques, and also Alavese Basques of the Kingdom of Asturias. An Arab chronicle mentions that a relative of Alfonso II, someone named García López, was either killed or captured. This defeat supposed a blow for Frankish interests in the region, and although sources aren’t clear we can assume that in 816 the Basque chieftain Íñigo Arista started to rule Pamplona.
Notice how I’m not saying that Íñigo Arista was the first King of Pamplona, as he was traditionally considered. Modern historians consider that the Kingdom of Pamplona under the Arista-Íñigo dynasty, that ruled until 905, cannot be considered a kingdom. As I said when I spoke about the Kingdom of Asturias under its founder Pelayo, the early Kings of Pamplona were caudillos or strong military leaders rather than kings. As I always say, the frontier between what’s a state and what’s not wasn’t as clear as it is now. Like in other frontier societies, the Arista-Íñigos had to sustain a difficult balance of double legitimacy. Outwards the Íñigos had to recognize that they were vassals of the Emirate of Córdoba and pay tribute, otherwise the Andalusis would come and launch raids against them. Inwards though, the Íñigos were the governors of a mostly Christian society, and to legitimize themselves they adopted symbols of royal power. This game of double legitimacy wasn’t easy, because one wrong gesture could make Córdoba perceive them as rebels or the opposite, could make them seem like traitors in the eyes of their subjects.
Now let’s see the origins of the County of Aragon and what was happening parallelly to these events of Pamplona, because the political arena of the Western Pyrenees was very interconnected. The County of Aragon was originally a very small county with its capital in Jaca, located in a valley of the Central Pyrenees and right next to the modern province of Navarre. The County of Aragon derives its name from the Aragón river that flows through that region until it joins the Ebro near Tudela, the second most important city of Navarre. To the south it lays Huesca, a city controlled at that time by the Banu Amrus family loyal to the Emirate of Córdoba, but due to the mountainous nature of the county and the low economic interest that it had the County of Aragon didn’t suffer as many attacks as other more accessible Christian regions.
As it happens with the Catalan Counties, we don’t know if the County of Aragon was established following a previous Visigothic administrative division, but we know that this county was established by the Franks in the late 8th or early 9th century. The Carolingian Empire designated Count Aureolus to rule it, although he died in 809 and the Basque Aznar Galíndez I succeeded him. Aznar Galíndez established his own indigenous hereditary dynasty in the County of Aragon, although he remained loyal to the Franks. Aznar Galíndez married a daughter of Íñigo Arista and had four children, including the future Count Galindo Aznárez I and Matrona, the wife of García el Malo or the Bad who as we will now see overthrew his father-in-law.
The pro-Umayyad rebellion led by Íñigo Arista extended to Aragon too. García Galíndez, also known as García the Bad, killed his brother-in-law and repudiated his wife Matrona because they had made fun of him on the feast of Saint John the Baptist. That’s why you should never make fun of someone if you are not sure how he or she will react. García the Bad quickly formed an alliance with the Banu Qasi and the caudillo of Pamplona, Íñigo Arista. With their support García the Bad was able to overthrow Count Aznar Galíndez I and replace him as Count of Aragon in 820. After that, the County of Aragon never returned to Frankish hands and remained a vassal county of Pamplona, and from time to time they also paid tribute directly to the Banu Amrus of Huesca. The deposed count sought refuge in French Gascony and the Emperor Louis the Pious appointed him Count of the Catalan Counties of Urgell and Cerdanya.
Under these circumstances, Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious launched in 824 the last expedition to attempt to regain control over the Western Pyrenees. With the objective to reinstall a pro-Frankish governor in Aragon and Pamplona, Count Aznar and Eblo led an army made up of Basques of Gascony. It’s not clear if this Count Aznar was the deposed Count of Aragon or Aznar Sánchez, the Duke of Gascony, which probably makes more sense. Anyway, this intervention led to the Second Battle of Roncesvalles, where Íñigo Arista and his allies the Banu Qasi and García the Bad set up an ambush. The Frankish Basque army was massacred, and the two counts were captured. Count Eblo was sent to Córdoba as a trophy, while Count Aznar was sent back to Gascony due to the ancestral ties with the Basques of the other side of the Pyrenees. The Second Battle of Roncesvalles was more relevant than the more famous first battle, because it marked the end of Frankish interventions in the Western Pyrenees and it kept Pamplona closer to al-Andalus than to other Christian political entities for almost a century.
The outcome of the Second Battle of Roncesvalles also gives us interesting interpretations about key aspects of the Spanish Basque region and about the blurred religious lines of this period in general. Opposition to Carolingian expansion was happening in other parts of Christian Europe, even though the Carolingian dynasty tried to make inseparable their political order with the unity of Christianity. Although the Basques of the Iberian Peninsula were predominantly Christian, the Basque faction friendly with the Emirate of Córdoba won over the pro-Frankish one. This was nothing new, because in 778 the Franks had showed their distrust in relation to Pamplona by tearing down its walls, and the Basques paid them back in the First Battle of Roncesvalles. The same had happened initially in Septimania, where the native Hispano-Goths didn’t receive the Franks as liberators because the Franks gave less guarantees of no-interference compared to the Muslims. The fact that Muslim presence in the region was weak only made the choice of allying with Córdoba easier for Pamplona, because the Franks were more threatening to their political autonomy. Again, political pragmatism beats religious or ideological differences.
I’ve mentioned a few times how the Banu Qasi family sealed an alliance with Íñigo Arista and García the Bad, but even though they acted autonomously they would remain loyal to the Umayyads of Córdoba until 841, when the most prominent member of the family, Musa ibn Musa, openly rebelled. That rebellion and rise of the Banu Qasi will be covered in a future episode, but you have to know already that Musa ibn Musa was actually a maternal half-brother of Íñigo Arista, because the widow of Íñigo’s father later married a Banu Qasi. Because of these family ties and their mutual interests, the two families supported each other and never let the other interfere in their respective area of influence. At that time the Banu Qasis led by Musa ibn Musa had their strongholds in Arnedo, La Rioja, and Tudela, in modern Navarre, while Íñigo Arista dominated Pamplona and the nearby Pyrenean valleys to the north and east. Maybe because of these close ties archeologists have found a Muslim necropolis in Pamplona, and the Christian necropolis had notable people buried with items with Arabic inscriptions.
After 824, since Frankish interventions in the Western Pyrenees ended and most of our sources are Frankish, we have a period of remarkable lack of documentation about what was happening in Pamplona and the County of Aragon. I will not mention in this episode the few events that we know about the Kingdom of Pamplona under the Arista-Íñigo dynasty, because these intertwine with the history of the Emirate of Córdoba, the Banu Qasi and the Kingdom of Asturias. However, I can talk about the political history of the County of Aragon of the whole 9th century because it remained away from the main conflicts of this period. At the time of the Second Battle of Roncesvalles García the Bad was still the Count of Aragon, until he died in 833 and was succeeded by his son Galindo Garcés. I know, the names of the counts seem to have been chosen to be confusing, but it has an explanation. Most Spanish and Portuguese surnames ending with the suffix -ez or -es have a patronymic origin, meaning that they mean son of. So Sánchez means son of Sancho, Rodríguez son of Rodrigo, López son of Lope, or Hernández son of Hernán. In this case, Garcés means son of García, Galíndez son of Galindo, and I could go on and on, but I guess you get it already. To go back to the point, the only thing that we know about the reign of Galindo Garcés is that he made a donation to the Abbey of San Pedro de Siresa, the most important monastery of the county. Monasteries were key intellectual, cultural, economic and social centers, like it happened in other Christian frontier political entities. The Mozarab martyr Eulogio of Córdoba wrote about the magnificent library of San Pedro de Siresa, and he said that he could find Greco-Latin works that he couldn’t find in the Emirate of Córdoba. The Abbey of San Pedro de Siresa exploited economically the nearby valleys and towns thanks to the up-to-date knowledge that the monastery preserved, so again the monasteries of the Christian bastions were both cultural and production centers.
Apart from that donation, we know that Galindo Garcés died in 844 without descendancy, so he left the County of Aragon to the son of the deposed Count Aznar Galíndez I. The new count was Galindo Aznárez I, and to give you a bit of background he succeeded his pro-Frankish father as Count of Urgell and Cerdanya, but he then usurped the counties of Pallars and Ribagorza, in modern northeastern Aragon and northwestern Catalonia. Because of that the Carolingian Empire stripped him of his rank and his ambition costed him both the counties of his father and the counties he had usurped. Luckily for him he was able to become Count of Aragon while recognizing the vassal status of the county in relation to Pamplona. Then in 867 Galindo Aznárez was succeeded by Aznar Galíndez II, who married the daughter of the King of Pamplona. This marriage only reinforced the dependency of the County of Aragon in relation to Pamplona, although it was still autonomous in terms of domestic policy. On the other hand, Aznar Galíndez II had a daughter who married the Muslim governor of Huesca to secure peace, a common practice in this period of Islamic hegemony, although this marriage didn’t prevent a Muslim raid against Aragon. I will stop telling Aragonese history here, since Aznar Galíndez II died in 893 and was succeeded by Galindo Aznárez II, who was more active in foreign policy.
Now let’s leave the political talk aside and talk about social and economic aspects of the early Kingdom of Pamplona and County of Aragon. Andalusi sources talk about the region inhabited by the Basques in these terms: “it’s a not much favored land, its inhabitants are poor, they don’t eat enough and because of that they are prone to brigandage. Most of them speak the Basque language, which makes them incomprehensible.” This is an accurate depiction of how was life like in Vasconia. The substantial lack of Romanization and agriculture explains why in Visigothic Spain I was always talking about how the Basques launched raids to pillage in the Ebro Valley. They were growing demographically, but their extremely rudimentary economy wasn’t able to satisfy the material needs of a booming population.
The economy of Aragon was similarly poor. The small county only controlled a few valleys of the northwestern extreme of modern Aragon, so few areas were suitable for agriculture and animal husbandry was the main economic activity in this subsistence economy. Manufacturing was mostly done by families to cover their own needs and trade was almost inexistent. In the County of Aragon people lived in small villages or in isolated houses, and it’s only in the late 9th century and early 10th century that we start to see an increase in the concentration of people in castles, mainly due to an increase of military conflicts. Most people were small landowners and since the County of Aragon quickly got rid of Frankish influence we don’t see the same levels of development of feudalism as in the Marca Hispanica.
Okay, so since the lack of sources is evident, I can’t talk more about the political, social or economic history of early Pamplona or Aragon. Because of that I’ve decided to research about the mysterious origins of the Basque people and language, since it links greatly with the last episode where I explained the origins and development of the Spanish Romance languages. However, I must warn you that there’s no academic consensus on this topic and there will probably never be, so there are theories and speculation but there are few unequivocal facts. I’m going to present the information based on research in the fields of anthropology, genetics and linguistics, with up-to-date information. So to start with the origins of the Basques we must rely on genetics to study them. There have been different studies to compare the DNA of modern Basques with that of other Spaniards, other European people and ancient DNAs. I will discuss the results of two of these studies.
We have a study reported in 2015 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Leading researchers analyzed DNA from 3000 to 5000 years old skeletons found in the famous Prehistoric site of Atapuerca, in Burgos. They compared the genomes of these remains to modern European genomes and ancient genomes of other parts of Western and Central Europe. The results suggest that modern Basques are not descendants of ancient hunter-gatherers that managed to survive, rather they are the closest descendants of early Iberian farmers. Agriculture and therefore the Neolithic Revolution apparently spread mostly through migrations, therefore these early Iberian farmers would have come from other parts of Europe and mixed with the local hunter-gatherers. However, after this mixing, the ancestors of the Basques became more isolated and Vasconia remained much less affected by subsequent migrations compared to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula or Europe. Here I’m referring to the Romans, Visigoths, or Arabs and Berbers. The same happened in the island of Sardinia, and it’s clear that geography played a role in keeping the Basques and Sardinians more genetically unchanged compared to other peoples of Europe.
In a more recent study of 2019, published in Science Magazine, results show that the Basques of the Iron Age were not genetically distinct from other peoples of the Iberian Peninsula. Nonetheless, the study confirms that Vasconia remained genetically quite unchanged to the arrival of Romans, Germans and North Africans, even though that doesn’t mean that Basques didn’t change in terms of culture. Still, the Basque language, or Euskera, managed to survive and become the only pre-Indo-European language that is still alive in Europe. But why was that the case? Why and how did the Basque language manage to survive? The dense forests and mountainous landscapes have played a major role in preserving the language, but also the lack of economic and urban development until recent times, the weak and late Romanization and Christianization, and the very fact that Proto-Basque and Aquitanian were completely different from the rest of Iberian languages or Latin.
About the external history of the Basque language, as I said in a previous episode, ancient Vasconic languages were spoken in a wider territory compared to modern Basque. Based on historical, anthroponymic and toponymic evidence we know that ancient Vasconic dialects were spoken in modern Basque Country, Navarre, La Rioja, northern Aragon, the northwestern extreme of Catalonia, and the region of Gascony in France. During the Visigothic period the Basques experienced a demographic growth, and they colonized new lands as subjects of the Kingdom of Pamplona and the County and later Kingdom of Castile. However, even though Basque people expanded, their language receded and declined in usage. So the question is, why was that the case?
The most important reason for the decline of Basque was the lack of prestige of the language. Before 1980, Basque hadn’t been used in any political and administrative division, and Basque had not been taught in schools before 1975. Even the Kingdom of Pamplona didn’t use Basque as the official language of the administration, which can be surprising considering that the common people predominantly spoke Basque. They used either Classical Latin, Occitan or Navarro-Aragonese, in all cases following the administrative Latin tradition that was the only one that most Medieval European states knew. Since neither the administration nor the literate clergy class used Basque, there are barely any written texts in Basque before the Counterreformation of the 16th century. It was only in the late 19th century, with the rise of Basque nationalism and the interest of philologists in the mysterious Basque language, that there appeared a growing consciousness about the need to preserve Basque.
Nonetheless, there was a problem. There were different dialects of the Basque language to the point that Basque speakers from different regions had difficulties to understand each other. These different dialects appeared due to the lack of codification of grammar and usage of Basque and the lack of social prestige. With the idea of modern nation states, compulsory education and the arrival of waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, or French-speakers in the case of French Gascony, Basque was truly on its way to extinction. The language politics of Francoist Spain only made the threat more real, so to increase the chances of survival a group of Basque linguists created between 1968 and the 1970s the Standard Basque, known as Euskera Batúa. Something similar had happened in Italy in the 19th century, where there were multiple dialects of Italian and there was a need to codify and unify the language. The problem with that is that these kinds of codifications create a sort of artificial language, although in the case of Euskera Batúa most of the language rules were based on the central dialect of Gipuzkoa. About the current situation of Basque, it has grown in usage because it’s taught in schools and used by the administration of Basque Country and northern Navarre, however in France it has continued to decline. Currently there are more than 800,000 Basque speakers fully able to speak the language, while more than a million are considered passive speakers, meaning that they can understand the language, but they don’t use it. Because of this situation, UNESCO still considers Basque a vulnerable language.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss, again, the blurred religious lines of the Upper Ebro Valley. I say again because I had already discussed this issue in previous episodes, but the Kingdom of Pamplona might be the Christian Iberian state with the more relaxed attitude towards Muslims. While the Kingdom of Asturias was isolated and had to fight alone and the Franks established the Marca Hispanica as a buffer zone, the Kingdom of Pamplona was born precisely to maintain their independence from the Carolingian Empire. The faction of the Basques represented by Íñigo Arista, although predominantly Christian, was rather pragmatic. They knew that the Emirate of Córdoba couldn’t exert direct influence over them at the moment, while the Carolingian Empire had the ambition to subdue all the Christian states and they were more capable to subdue Pamplona through attacks from Gascony. Heck, even the Kingdom of Asturias was more threatening for the Basques of the area of Pamplona. Therefore, the Arista-Íñigos allied with the Banu Qasi, another rather pragmatic dynasty of the Ebro Valley. Their religious differences were never an issue that caused friction between the two families, as what matter for them was only one thing: autonomy and power. And with that, The Verdict ends.
The next episode will be a Q&A, so please remember to send me as many questions as you wish about the history of Spain, Spanish culture or about me through social media or contacting me at [email protected]. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and material to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
EARLY MEDIEVAL SPAIN: UNITY IN DIVERSITY, 400-1000. Roger Collins
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
CALIPHS AND KINGS, 796-1031. Roger Collins
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA IV. ESPAÑA MUSULMANA (711-1031). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
HISTORIA MUNDIAL DE ESPAÑA. Xosé M. Núñez Seixas
HISTORIA DEL REINO DE NAVARRA EN LA EDAD MEDIA. José M. Lacarra
T. Günther, et al. Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques. PNAS, 112 (38), 11917-11922, 2015.
I. Olade, et al., The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years. Science Magazine, 363 (6432), 1230-1234, 2019.
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license