This is episode 27 called Marca Hispanica and in this episode you will learn:
- The dynastic struggle between al-Hakam and the brothers of former Emir Hisham, Sulayman and Abd Allah
- The conspiracy of Córdoba in 805 led by Maliki jurists and scholars
- The formation of a feared bodyguard known as The Mutes
- The story of the Day of the Moat, following the revolt of Toledo
- The revolts of the other capitals of the marches, Mérida and Zaragoza
- How Alfonso II of Asturias strengthened ties with the Carolingian Empire
- Why the Carolingian Empire wanted to control the Pyrenees
- The Frankish conquest of Barcelona in 801, that led to the establishment of the Marca Hispanica
- How the Spanish March was administered and colonized
- What feudalism is
- A reflection on why the Marca Hispanica and later Catalan Counties barely expanded for three centuries
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 27 called Marca Hispanica. In this episode you will learn about the establishment of the Frankish Marca Hispanica, the contacts between the Carolingian Empire and the Kingdom of Asturias, and the early events and issues of the reigns of al-Hakam of Córdoba and Alfonso II of Asturias. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
The ascetic and pious Hisham died prematurely being 40 years old, and he was succeeded in 796 by his second son al-Hakam, who was then 26 years old. The internal peace that the Emirate of Córdoba enjoyed during the reign of Hisham ceased immediately after al-Hakam acceded to the throne. The reign of al-Hakam, from 796 to 822, was full of turbulence, conspiracies and open rebellions. Although it’s a bit tiring to explain the incessant and recurring rebellions of al-Andalus, you will have to get used to it. First of all, all emirs and caliphs had to deal with rebellions, but some could effectively crush them and move on, while others could only go on from rebellion to rebellion. Those whose reigns were marked by internal strife could not dedicate resources to an aggressive foreign policy and they sometimes had to leave Christian attacks and expansion unanswered. Such was the case of al-Hakam. Infighting is precisely what allowed the Christian kingdoms to expand slowly at the expense of the Spanish Muslims and eventually finish the Reconquista.
The internal problems of al-Hakam started with a dynastic struggle, not one started by his elder brother since he was in jail, but by his uncles Sulayman and Abd Allah. Yes, the old conflict of succession of the reign of Hisham revived seven years later. If you remember it, the conflict ended with the forced exile of Sulayman and Abd Allah in Maghreb, but the two preferred to go back to al-Andalus. So, when they saw their chance, they moved to the peninsular East, in the region of Valencia, to attempt to gain supporters to their cause. Abd Allah went to Zaragoza, in the Upper March, but the local leaders wanted autonomy, not to place someone on the Cordoban throne. Therefore, Abd Allah tried his luck paying a visit to Charlemagne, but he was unable to get his support. With very few supporters, he agitated a few towns of the region of modern Aragon and Valencia, but seeing that his efforts were futile, Abd Allah contacted al-Hakam and engaged in peace negotiations that lasted three years. Those negotiations ended with al-Hakam being magnanimous and sending the prestigious Maliki qadi Yahya ibn Yahya to pardon him, under the condition of not moving from Valencia and of remaining loyal from then on. The revolt went right for Abd Allah, since he even ruled Valencia and received a generous income. This arrangement worked well for both parties, since the area of Valencia had never been under effective Cordoban control, but now it was. One of Abd Allah’s sons even became a loyal and successful general of the aceifas against the Christians, so this branch of the Umayyad dynasty reconciled with the ruling line.
The other instigator, the elder brother of Hisham, was not so lucky. Sulayman landed in southeastern Spain too, but he decided to attack Córdoba. For two years, his army of Berbers and the army of al-Hakam clashed in Andalucía, but every time Sulayman was defeated. He was eventually forced to withdraw to Mérida, where he was defeated, captured and executed by the Berber governor of the city. Maybe since he was the elder brother of the former emir, al-Hakam felt that Sulayman was much more threatening than Abd Allah, that’s why he may have suffered this fate. Sulayman’s head was sent to Córdoba and al-Hakam paraded the head on a pike around the streets of Córdoba, before his remains were interred in the royal Umayyad mausoleum. He may have been a traitor, but he was still an Umayyad.
The most serious challenge to al-Hakam’s rule appeared in Córdoba itself, with one conspiracy in 805 and a major revolt in 818, although I won’t cover the later in this episode. The capital of the Emirate had changed much after the arrival of the Muslims and especially since the reign of Abd al-Rahman I. Córdoba continued to grow, with an expanded mosque and new neighborhoods outside the city walls. Hisham had rebuilt the Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir river, so the river wasn’t an impediment anymore to extend Córdoba on the left bank. There a very populated arrabal, or suburb, appeared in what used to be the Roman village of Secunda. The suburb was inhabited by very diverse groups, including plebs, artisans, small merchants, Christians, Jews and Maliki jurists and scholars. Soon enough the suburb of Secunda became the center of opposition within the capital, and Cordobans of all neighborhoods and social classes showed discontent as well. Few liked the despotic rule of al-Hakam, more prone to violence than moderation, or the ever-increasing tax burden.
An organized and influential group was particularly discontented, the Maliki jurists and scholars. They were angry because they had enjoyed privileges and the patronage of Emir Hisham, but his son had severely restricted their political influence. The Maliki jurists started to backbite against the Emir, accusing him of tyranny, drunkenness and irreligion. They contacted a cousin of al-Hakam and proposed to depose al-Hakam and put the cousin on the throne. What they couldn’t expect is that the cousin would remain loyal to the Emir and immediately unveiled the conspiracy to al-Hakam, to show that he was a truly faithful Umayyad. Al-Hakam didn’t waste time and executed 72 conspirators that same day. Rumors spread in the streets of Córdoba about how al-Hakam had executed some notables and that he would expose their crucified corpses on the right bank of the Guadalquivir. The Cordobans were agitated in public meetings and they feared to conspire, as they were in a state of collective paranoia, seeing spies everywhere.
Meanwhile, the Emir was preparing for the worst, by repairing the walls of Córdoba, accumulating weapons in the royal palace and forming a bodyguard made up of more than 2,000 foreign mercenaries and slaves, including Slavs, Franks, and Black Africans. The Cordobans referred to the bodyguard of al-Hakam as “the Mutes”, since none of them spoke Arabic or the Romance language of the Mozarabs, something that was very useful to keep them loyal to the Emir. The Mutes were led by the Mozarab Count Rabi, and they were used not only to protect al-Hakam, but also to spy and collect taxes in Córdoba. Social tensions and agitation were palpable, but people wouldn’t burst yet.
In the meantime, al-Hakam faced more domestic opposition in the three capitals of the peripheral marches. In 797, the Muladis of Toledo, that is the Muslim Hispano-Goths of the capital of the Middle March, expelled the Arab governor of the city. As the story goes, al-Hakam notified to the rebel Toledan authorities that he was willing to send a Muladi governor if they ceased the rebellion. The rebels agreed and the Emir of Córdoba appointed Amrus ibn Yusuf for the charge. Amrus ibn Yusuf had previously proved his loyalty by handing over rebels of Zaragoza to Córdoba, and the Emir and Amrus came up with a Machiavellian plan to trick the Toledan rebels. Amrus ibn Yusuf made the rebels believe that he, as a fellow Muladi, despised the Arab emir as much as they did. Having earned their trust, Amrus announced that he would be holding a banquet to honor the visit of the 14-year-old heir to the throne, the future Abd al-Rahman II. The prince arrived and the rebels were instructed to enter in small groups and separately to the feast held in the Alcázar, or castle, of Toledo. As many banquets of world history, this was a trap, and each group was executed in front of the young prince and their bodies dumped into the moat. According to chronicles as many as 700 notables were executed in what’s known as the Day of the Moat, although some historians say that the story is fictional.
The story of the Day of the Moat is in any case an example of the ruthlessness and implacability of Emir al-Hakam. Chronicles portray al-Hakam as a tall man with a very Arab look, in contrast to his father. He personally led his troops in some encounters, he greatly enjoyed wine and women, in fact al-Hakam had close to 20 sons and 20 daughters, and he was a good orator and poet. However, al-Hakam is better remembered for his cunning ruthlessness, with the aim of strengthening central power always behind his actions. He was a resolved man that trusted no one, but he could be as generous as brutal.
Going back to the revolts in the marches, in the Lower March, the same Berber governor that had handed over Sulayman to al-Hakam sensed that central authority was weakening and broke his allegiance in 805, a revolt started by Berbers, Mozarabs and Muladis that wasn’t completely suppressed until 817. But before that, the endemically rebellious capital of the Upper March, Zaragoza, again rebelled in 798. The leader of the rebellion was a Basque Muladi, and he extended the rebellion to Huesca, until al-Hakam sent his faithful and effective general Amrus ibn Yusuf to put down the revolt and capture and execute the instigators. He did so in 802 and Amrus strengthened the walls of Huesca and refounded what would be a key stronghold of the Ebro Valley, the city of Tudela. It wasn’t until the death of Amrus ibn Yusuf in 812 that al-Hakam had to worry again about the loyalty of the Upper March.
Before al-Hakam had to concentrate his efforts on suppressing rebellions, in the summer of 796 he was able to send an aceifa against the primitive region of Castile, in eastern Cantabria, and towns like Calahorra and Santander were sacked. But after that, Alfonso II had his hands free for several years to do as he pleased due to the internal turmoil of Muslim Spain. Therefore, in 798 the Asturian king sacked and temporarily occupied Lisbon, although the Muslims retook Lisbon and even more northern urban centers like Coimbra in 809. Alfonso went as close to Córdoba as Seville to capture booty and rescue Christian slaves and hostages, and even though al-Hakam launched two new aceifas in 801 and 803, those ended up in fiasco. Alfonso II took advantage of both the recently successful campaigns and the Asturian condemnation of Spanish Adoptionism to establish friendly relations with the Carolingian Empire. Alfonso sent several embassies to the Carolingian heir and King of Aquitaine, Louis, and to Charlemagne, to whom the Asturians brought presents as a form of tribute and submission.
Although this alliance or vassalage had few practical effects, the Carolingian Empire decided to again expand southwards to secure the frontier with the Emirate of Córdoba, with the establishment of buffer vassal states and the domination of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the area. The start of the 9th century supposed the intensification of the struggle between the Carolingian Empire and the Emirate of Córdoba, with the extensive Pyrenean area as the main political and military battleground. From the Muslim point of view, the domination of the Pyrenean space was necessary to defend from Frankish aggressions, while for the Franks it was necessary to form buffer states to prevent Muslim raids, like those that had happened in the 8th century.
Due to this situation of being between two great powers, the highlanders of the Pyrenees maintained a delicate equilibrium of alliances with the disproportionately more powerful Emirate of Córdoba and Muladi families of the Upper March, unlike it happened with the isolated Kingdom of Asturias that frontally opposed the Muslims. These circumstances were determinant for the development of the politics and societies of the Pyrenees, but we also need to consider other factors, such as the mountainous environment and the condition of living in a frontier, all that mixed with the lack of internal coherence of both the Carolingian and Cordoban states. By lack of internal coherence, I mean that in the Muslim state you had a profoundly divided society, due to religious and ethnic factors, while in the other side of the Pyrenees Gascony and Septimania were not very integrated within the power structures of the Carolingian Empire.
The question now is, what kind of societies did the Pyrenees and northeastern Spain had before the Carolingian conquest? First, we need to distinguish between the territories of the eastern Pyrenees and the sub-Pyrenean and Catalan coast. In the eastern Pyrenees there were a few vestiges of Pre-Roman languages and of Pagan beliefs, although in general the eastern Pyrenees of modern northern Catalonia had been Romanized lately. On the other hand, sub-Pyrenean Catalonia had been one of the first regions of Spain to get Romanized and therefore it had the typical Roman and later Visigothic institutions. Throughout the 8th century there were migrations from this region and Septimania to the more secure regions of southern modern France, to flee from the Muslim expeditions and raids. That produced a kind of social breakup in relation to Antiquity, and it disarticulated to a certain degree the productive and institutional organization of the region. However, these migrations were key to later allow for the recolonization and implementation of new administrative and social structures in modern Catalonia.
The Carolingian Empire had already incorporated pacifically Girona, in eastern Catalonia, in 785. However, it wasn’t until around 795 that the Frankish monarchy became interested in using its resources to exert more influence over Spain, through both the western and eastern ends of the Pyrenees, although today I’m going to cover the much more successful story of the Frankish expansion through the eastern Pyrenees. Between 795 and 798 the Franks annexed northern and central Catalonia, while in 798 a Muslim fleet of the Emirate of Córdoba ravaged the Balearic Islands, that had not been and continued to be under no central authority. Therefore, the notables of the Balearic Islands decided to send an embassy to Charlemagne to seek his help, and the Franks did start to protect the Balearic Islands, although the archipelago kept being independent and under no centralized rule for centuries.
Nonetheless, the most important Frankish conquest was the conquest of Barcelona in 801. The story is similar to that of Zaragoza in 778, but this time the Franks didn’t fail to take it. It all started with the rebel governor of Barcelona seeking military aid and promising to open the gates to the Franks as means to protect his autonomy from Córdoba. Charlemagne probably shuddered, as he must have thought that this would lead to a disaster like the pointless expedition to Zaragoza that ended up with a Basque ambush at Roncesvalles. Despite his fears, he sent his successor, the King of Aquitaine Louis, to capture Barcelona, but the governor of Barcelona refused to open the gates, just as it had happened in Zaragoza a few years back. The good thing is that the Franks learned from experience and this time they were ready for a siege. The rebel governor tried to flee but he was captured, and he was succeeded by a man named Harun. The Gothic count Bera, along the counts of Toulouse and Girona, participated in the siege, a siege that lasted almost 2 years. The Frankish troops ravaged and burned the countryside around Barcelona, all while Harun was making futile efforts to get the aid of Emir al-Hakam. Harun wanted to resist to the last consequences, but the Hispano-Goths of the city succumbed to famine and betrayed Harun. The survivors of the siege surrendered Barcelona to Louis the Pious in April 801.
Bera was appointed Count of Barcelona, which would become the hegemonic county of the Marca Hispanica, or Spanish March, known at the time as limes hispanicus. Count Bera led three different Frankish campaigns against the stronghold of Tortosa, to extent the frontier to the Ebro river. Nonetheless, a Muslim army led by the heir to the Cordoban throne, the future Abd al-Rahman II, made the Franks retreat and set the Marca Hispanica in the Llobregat river of Barcelona. This frontier would barely move in the next three centuries, and this ill-defined frontier, much like it happened with Asturias, created a no man’s land between the Llobregat and Ebro rivers. Because of these failures, the Emirate of Córdoba and the Carolingian Empire agreed to sign a truce in 812, a truce that was broken in 815 when the Muslims attempted to seize Barcelona but failed in their pretensions.
Now let’s focus on the administrative and social aspects of the Marca Hispanica, as well as how it was colonized. The first thing to know is that the Franks divided the Spanish March into several counties, that were ruled by counts initially appointed from the central Carolingian administration, although later the position of the counts became hereditary as Carolingian power declined. There were several counties that formed part of the Marca Hispanica, including Urgell, Cerdanya, Ampurias, Ausona, Girona and Barcelona. The counties of Ribagorza and Pallars were also part of the Spanish March, although these two were administered by the Frankish counts of Toulouse. We are not sure if the Frankish counties had any continuity with preexisting counties of the Visigothic period. But while the Kingdom of Asturias and later Pamplona were born from a native tribal military elite, the Marca Hispanica counties imported the perfectly defined political institutions of the Carolingian Empire. It’s important to note that the Spanish March counties continued to use the Visigothic laws of the Code of Recceswinth, and this is very related with the origins of the settlers.
Settlers came mainly from Septimania to repopulate the counties of the Spanish March, and many of them were descendants of the Spaniards who had fled from Spain when the Muslims conquered the Visigothic Kingdom. They occupied the land following the principle of squatters’ rights, known as aprisio, meaning that whoever settled in a land for several decades gained legal ownership of the land. Therefore, the initiative of private groups of peasants produced the expansion and consolidation of the Marca Hispanica, not the nobles who later appropriated these communities and lands. At first settlers usually occupied mountainous lands, since they were already used to them and they were more secure in case of Muslim raids. However, as the population grew to the point of overpopulation in the Pyrenees and the Muslim threat apparently diminished, settlers occupied the most fertile lands of the valleys and plains, not without building before castles and fortifications, as it happened in the militarized region of Castile. Apart from the aprisio, another way to colonize and own land appeared, the fiefs. I’m going to get there in a moment, but as feudalism consolidated in Catalonia, many descendants of those who had settled as freemen became serfs. That meant that, although free peasants were predominant in the Marca Hispanica, the Catalan Counties of the 11th and 12th centuries became dominated by large landowners.
Because of the Frankish conquest, the counties of the Marca Hispanica adopted Carolingian feudalism. But what is exactly feudalism? There are many definitions and there is no academic consensus, some even question the existence of such thing. Despite that, I will stick with the most common definition, that says that feudalism is defined by the relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for military service, tributes and labor. We can say that the foundations of the Carolingian government and society rested upon private contracts between the sovereign and the magnates, who in turn were lords of vassals. This is similar to the oaths of fidelity and dependent tenures that existed in Visigothic Spain, but those relationships weren’t nearly as institutionalized as in the case of the Carolingian territories. Vassals pledged fealty to their lord with the obligation to serve in the private armies or militias of the lord and to pay a rent or tribute, and in exchange the lord offered protection and maintenance. Maintenance took the form of an estate to exploit in the case of non-free peasants, or a public office to hold. On the other hand, the lord was entitled to receive rents from his tenants and to exercise public functions and judicial power over them. This system meant that royal authority was weak and depended upon the strength of the feudal ties, that’s why Europe became so politically fragmented and there were so many aristocratic wars.
While this model of feudalism was perfectly implemented in the Spanish March, first administratively and later economically, the same didn’t happen in the purely Iberian Christian kingdoms. The Kingdom of Asturias, that later evolved into León and Castile, had a stronger monarchy and a relatively large class of freemen. The continuous attacks of the Muslims helped to maintain the power of the monarchs of Asturias and León, and with each new conquest the Christian kings could reserve more estates for the monarchy while rewarding their followers. Those who repopulated new lands were most of the time small, free proprietors, since such privilege was the only way to convince someone to settle in a frontier land prone to Muslim raids. These details are very important to take into account, to understand why in the Late Medieval period the monarchy of the Crown of Castile remained more centralized and powerful than that of the Crown of Aragon.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to analyze why the Marca Hispanica and later independent Catalan Counties barely expanded from the 9th to the early 12th century. That’s an important discussion, because if one sees a political map of the Iberian Peninsula of these centuries, you will notice how the Kingdom of Asturias and later León and the County of Castile slowly expanded at the expense of the Muslims, while the same didn’t happen with the Catalan Counties, the County of Aragon or the Kingdom of Pamplona. The reason behind the halt of Christian expansion in the Pyrenean region is not because they were worse than Asturias-León or Castile. First of all, we need to consider that the Marca Hispanica was founded as a defensive wall to protect the Franks from the Muslims. Since the original purpose was defensive, an offensive approach would have been unnatural. Another reason is that, to a certain degree, there was a demographic desert between the Ebro and Llobregat rivers, much like the Desert of the Duero, but the area is much smaller than that of the Duero. The Duero Valley was a Lebensraum for Astur-leonese expansion, but even central Spain and northern Portugal were sparsely populated, so the potential area to settle was much greater for the interests of Asturias-León. Instead, the Ebro Valley was easier to defend due to geographical factors and it was densely populated by Muladis, Arabs and Berbers, so it was very difficult for the Catalan Counties and the other Pyrenean Christian kingdoms to expand at their expense. On the other hand, there were external reasons. The demographic, military and economic power of Muslim Spain remained superior to that of Christian Spain until the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba, and the only power that could have rivaled them was the Carolingian Empire. However, the Carolingian Empire started to disintegrate after the death of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, so the Iberian kingdoms and counties were left alone fighting the Muslims, that’s also why the Reconquista took so many centuries to be finished. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the Revolt of Arrabal, the alleged discovery of the tomb of James the Great and the development of the Spanish Romance languages. 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
KINGDOMS OF FAITH. A NEW HISTORY OF ISLAMIC SPAIN. Brian A. Catlos
MUSLIM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL. Hugh Kennedy
HISTORIA DE LA ESPAÑA DE LA EDAD MEDIA. Vicente Ángel Álvarez Palenzuela
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 MEDIEVAL DE LA ESPAÑA CRISTIANA. Editorial Cátedra
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