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Book review: The Mercenary Mediterranean

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Review The Mercenary Mediterranean

Hussein Fancy’s The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon presents the complexity of Christian and Muslim relationships, specifically talking about the Muslim mercenaries who served the Christian Crown of Aragon. This challenges the black-and-white perception that we sometimes have while reading about Medieval Spain.

These are some quotes extracted from academic reviews of the book:

“Fancy has put forward a deeply learned and beautifully woven argument, in a thought-provoking and discomforting study that constitutes a major contribution to the history of medieval Spain.” – American Historical Review

“Readers are confronted with multilayered loyalties, military needs, and powerful ambitions that defy the habitual designations of reconquest, crusade, and jihad to this kind of state policy making. . . . Highly recommended.” – Choice

“Fascinating. . . . The Mercenary Mediterranean has made a remarkable number of major contributions . . . and offers valuable lessons for any scholar interested in medieval ethno-religious relations, royal/imperial authority, or the political history of the western Mediterranean.” – Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

“The Archive of the Crown of Aragon has served as a reliable source for scholars to produce groundbreaking studies on interfaith relations. To a list that includes Burns, Boswell, Nirenberg, and others, we must add Hussein Fancy, whose present volume will be essential reading not only for the discipline of interfaith relations, but of religious history as well.”- Medieval Encounters

“Like David Nirenberg’s now-classic Communities of Violence and Olivia Remie Constable’s vital work in this area, The Mercenary Mediterranean will be of immense importance to historians of medieval Iberia. Original and intellectually ambitious, this book will likely become a landmark for scholars in the field, placing Fancy at the forefront of the new generation of Mediterraneanists working in medieval literary and cultural studies.” – Vincent Barletta, Stanford University

The Mercenary Mediterranean fundamentally advances our understanding of soldiers recruited from North Africa to fight for the Crown of Aragon. More than just another example of border-crossing or the malleability of religious identity, the case of the jenets demonstrates the paradoxes and strangeness of medieval warfare and faith. Fancy argues convincingly that religion, far from being shoved aside by other factors, remains central to comprehending warfare, cultural conflict, cultural rapprochement and ideas of empire. This is among the most important and thought-provoking books on Mediterranean and Iberian history of recent years.” – Paul Freedman, Yale University

“Fancy begins this extraordinary journey with a pawned sword and five men on mules at the borders of Valencia. By its end he has ranged across mountain, sea, and desert, across centuries and languages, in pursuit–like some relentless historical posse–of mercenary bands of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. His narrative is everywhere astonishing, as he shows us how medieval power was woven out of their migrations across the western Mediterranean, and in the process makes us question the nature of our own modern world.” – David Nirenberg, University of Chicago

Summary of reviews: all the academic reviews signal how thought-provoking The Mercenary Mediterranean is, although without making unfounded revisionist claims. It’s very recommended if you want to learn a specific case of interfaith relations of Medieval Spain.

Book review: Caliphs and Kings

caliphs and kings roger collins

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Review Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031

Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031 is one of the works of Hispanist Roger Collins on Medieval Spain. Roger Collins talks about the different Medieval states of the Iberian Peninsula before the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba. This includes chapters focused on the Caliphate of Cordoba, the Kingdom of Asturias, the Kingdom of Leon, the County of Castile, the Counties of the Pyrenees and the Kingdom of Navarre. But not everything is about politics, in this book Roger Collins also debunks the theory that Muslim-dominated Spain was a place of religious tolerance and harmony between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Nonetheless, he also dmystifies some Christian Spanish nationalists theories about this period.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

“This book SHATTERS the myth that Islamic Spain was a land of tolerance between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because the book is very scholarly and it’s pretty dry in parts because of it. On a slightly cerebral note, I didn’t count the number of decapitated heads mentioned in this book, but it’d be a very high number. Someone needs to write a popular history of this time period with the same content because more people need to know what really happened in Al-Andalus.” – Anonymous Amazon customer

This new volume in the series “A History of Spain” follows in the footsteps of the two previous ones (“Visigothic Spain 409-711” and “The Arab Conquest of Spain, 711-797”), written by the same author. The later volume was first published in 1989 and the former on the Visigoths in Spain in 2006. Roger Collins uses Caliphs and Kings to revisit the Arab Conquest of Spain some 20 years later, and revisit some of the themes that he developed at the time, in the light of recent historical literature and archaeological findings. His thesis, summarized in the introduction, is that the Visigothic Kingdom was caught at a moment of weakness, rather than being in decline, or even decadent, when the Arab Conquest happened. Moreover, he shows that the Conquest was so swift because of a conjunction of events: a troubled and violent succession coupled with a civil war, the death of the King in battle against the invaders and the swift occupation of Toledo, the Kingdom’s capital, so that no other fully legitimate King could be crowned again.

He also shows that, beyond the Conquest, there were some fundamental changes but also many elements of continuity. Many families belonging to the elite submitted to the invaders were allowed to keep their lands and most of the political and economic power and converted within a few generations. However, Reilly also states that the Arab Conquest put an end, once and for all, to the political unity of the Iberian Peninsula. Never again would it be unified under a single authority. In addition, he also presents the Omayyad regime of Muslim Spain as having to almost continuously fight the separatist tendencies of numerous regional governors and warlords, especially (but not only) in the three Marches. The general impression that is conveyed is that of a relatively divided, heterogeneous and potentially weak Muslim regime that only the strongest among the Omayyad leaders could successfully hold together. Another component is to show what must have been at least one of the reasons for such endemic unrest. The taxes and tributes that the Emirs’ and then the Caliphs’ administration raised were essentially for their own exclusive benefit, and not for that of their subject. Also, the Emirate and then Caliphate was plagued by succession conflicts as all sons of the reigning monarch (and often all of his brothers as well) could stake a claim to the throne.

Despite this, and despite losing the conquered territories beyond the Pyrenees to the Franks by the end of the 8th century, and Barcelona by the beginning of the 9th, the Muslim regime in Spain is shown to have been much stronger than the small Christian kingdoms that were initially entrenched in the mountains of northern Spain. The attitude of the Ommayads and of the Muslims more generally, towards these kingdoms seems to have been rather ambivalent. After an initial failure to conquer them, they raided them regularly in the name of Holy War, destroying and pillaging what they came across but without seeking to conquer and obliterate these kingdoms once and for all. As Reilly shows rather well, this was both because such a conquest was probably not worth the effort and because these regular raids served the political purpose of demonstrating the Ommayads supremacy within their own territory over their own unruly military and often semi-independent and rebellious governors. Over time, however, the Christian kingdoms expanded and became stronger, taking advantage of the periods of weakness of the Caliphate until the later imploded into multiple successor states (the “taïfa” kingdoms).

Despite the author being a scholar and a specialist of the period, but sometimes also because of this, the book is somewhat difficult to read. They are a number of repetitions, especially when considering the various Christian Kingdoms and Counties, as the same event happens to be considered several times when each of the nascent kingdoms is analysed. Further confusion is introduced with many of the Christian leaders bearing similar names, fighting against each other or allying with each other against a third party as least as much as they fought against Muslim raiders and neighbouring warlords, or with them. An additional difficulty for a “general reader” is the book’s structure. In particular, the last four chapters, which cover the 10th and early 11th century, are not entirely chronological since they present an overview of major events and reigns in Al Andalus, Leon, Navarre and the Pyrenean counties and in the County of Castile. As a result, there is some hardly avoidable jumping back and forth which can be nonetheless confusing.

Interestingly, the volume includes a significant amount of discussion on both the Christian and the Muslim sources with the limitations of both categories of sources being highlighted. For the former, which are largely made up of charters, many of these, and in some cases up to half of them, are either 12th century forgeries or have been heavily interpolated during the 12th century in order to make good specific claims. Reilly also shows that some of the chronicles are quite unreliable and tend to “reconstruct” events or even invent genealogies in order to reinforce the claims and legitimacy of some of the monarchs under which they were written. Muslim “historians” are often no more reliable, although they do often preserve excerpts of older sources within their chronicles. This is largely because their purpose was not to tell history as we would understand it nowadays, but to tell – sometimes mythical and mostly embellished – stories. This is why, for instance, Reilly dismisses as a fiction the story of the vengeful “Count Julian”, Lord of Ceuta, who allegedly ferried the Muslim army of Tariq to Spain.

To conclude, this is a valuable book that displays impressive scholarship and develops interesting and, at times, fascinating theses and assumptions. Unfortunately, both the topic itself (Caliphs AND Kings) and the way it is treated also make this book hard to read and somewhat difficult to access for a “general” reader that does not have a particular interest in the topic. Such as reader might prefer to start with other narratives which have the benefit of being simpler and clearer, even if they are less comprehensive than this one, such as Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.” – JPS (top 1000 reviewer)

And this is what a member of the Goodreads community said:

I don’t know how the hell I always get mixed up with these rigorously academic studies. I think the concept always intrigues me and then when I start reading I’m like Larry David, I just can’t abandon it until I’m done. No offense to Dr. Collin’s either, it’s just that you can tell he’s been grinding through the gears of academia his entire life; the sentences have all the indicative traces of it. Unfortunately this gets my eyes very bleary, and when their at that state I tend to think irrational thoughts, like, “this book deserves a one star rating” or “I should burn down my local university”. Of course, both of these statements are unfair, and, in one case, exceptionally illegal…

SO LETS GET DOWN TO BUSINESS

In “Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031” (2014), the intention of Roger Collins is, in a broad sense, to lay the framework for a historical understanding of the Umayyad rule in Spain during his chosen time frame (796-1031). Yep, a general history. But rest assured folks, Dr. Collin’s isn’t anywhere near this shallow, he’s got other things on his mind as well. Collins makes it crystal clear that he’s not fond of a popular vein of historiography associated with the period, mainly those that push the notion that this was some sort of perfect ‘golden age’ of mutual toleration (pg.2). Throughout the work Collins always takes great pains to try and argue against such a ‘rosy’ outlook, and the nice thing is, he does so with a fair degree of success. Collins is one of those valuable historians that actually cares a good deal about the scholarly treatment of the sources he is assessing, and he even knows how to point out things that seem particularly misleading.

For those not up to date with the historiographical traditions of Spanish high medieval history (who the hell is), you should know that the idea of convivencio (i.e. ‘La Convivencia), or coexistence, is vitally important to the portions of Collins argument’s that concern the degree of interaction/toleration during the Umayyad rule. Convivencio is something he cannot afford to skip discussing if he wants to be taken seriously, and yet, strangely enough, the actual word is never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the text. Even before the chapter devoted specifically to this topic, i.e. “The Christians of al-Andalus”, we only come into very subtle contact with his thoughts on such perceived collaboration. Collins asserts that, on a political level, Umayyad behavior in the 9th and 10th century, especially there deliberate attempt to not capture more territory (pg.23), is an example, not of Christian/Muslim collaboration or understanding, but rather the lack of aggression (strategic and diplomatic jihad tactic, pg.26) on the side of the Umayyad’s. On a more social level, he says that Muslim influences on Christian ideas were less pronounced then once was thought to believe. He denounces the ‘Mozarabic style’ (pg.119) from having a particularly heavy effect on Spanish architecture, while also claiming that class tensions were higher than ever (pg.169) in the ‘golden age’ of “Abd al-Rahman III”. It should already be easy to see that Collins’ approach doesn’t position itself statically in the comfortable realm of simple political history. If that’s what you wanted out of such a book I suggest looking elsewhere, since he’d rather examine the cultural contact through a constantly questioning investigative lens.

In convivencio arguments he often proves his points by comparing and contrasting scholarly opinions on the ideas put forth, while also heavily criticising what he considers weakness in the source material. Collins will talk in-depth about his thoughts concerning the strength of the sources, an approach that tends to be to his advantage. This is because, more often than not, his position will rely on the ability of his argument to compare and contrast with different scholarly treatment. This type of inquiry can only be executed admirably if the writer has a strong grasp of all of the surrounding causes, secondary authorities, and primary source knowledge, or it would look sloppy and superfluous. Luckily for the reader, Collins usually possesses all three. A case that illustrates this strength can be clearly seen in his ch.7 discussion of the stature of ethnic variance (pg.174-176) in the later Al-Andalus period (‘golden age’). In his analysis he does not concede the idea of a total ethnic convivencio easily. Collins makes it a point to include, not just Christian treatment in the total sum, but rather represent all levels of social variance (Jewish, Arabic, Berbers, etc). By employing this type of comparative approach Collins can argue for a much fuller image of potential coexistence, because it allows him to compare the treatment each social group receives within the realm of the others.

The study isn’t perfect though. A potential weakness in some of Collins’ argumentative chapters can also stem from his heavy reference on sources. Chapter 3 seems to spend too much time trying to compare both Muslim and Christian mental sentiments through the exclusive guiding force of upper class behavior (in the primary source material). The effect this has on his Christian coexistence argument is somewhat negative, as it comes off as forcing a link that is perhaps too exclusive to be as tangible as he would like it to seem. In Chapter 3, he argues that even if the physical reality (i.e. actual attempts) surrounding potential revivals of Christian martyrdom in Al-Andalus was faked or blown out of proportion (pg. 89), the fact that it was a distinctive feature in upper class thought is enough to suggest bad Christian sentiments towards Muslim interaction. This argument is an example of how contrasting too heavily between certain groups can lead the argument into a dead end, as the constant reference to upper class (pg. 86-87) attempts at martyrdom cannot possibly account for the entire social perspective for this behaviour. Furthermore, some of his own arguments in this section tend to go against him, but I won’t press the issue.

Let me just say that the way Dr. Collins organizes his writing is fairly offbeat, switching chapter topics in a way that forces the reader to lose focus. On top of that, some chapters cover history that is in no way related to the previous block of writing (e.g. chapter 6 crammed in between two Al-Andalus discussions). All this makes the work choppy, but I must admit Collins himself has a defense for this when he states that to approach each discussion in the same fashion would be repetitive and “probably impossible” (pg.2) anyway, leaving further inquiry to lean on his bibliography. I guess he assumed this style of approach will suit his work just fine since, as mentioned, one of his key strengths lies in his vast congregation of source material(it has hundreds of footnotes and a forest of a bibliography). I can’t be too angry with his response, simply because of how many things he looks into. His scope is not limited to (often times sketchy) primary source readings but uses basically everything. For example, in his study of the blurry Asturian succession (8th century), he applies the use of legal charters and even physical culture (pg.59) such as coins to come to his conclusions, while in another instance he studies urban planning to a certain degree, so he may figure out the implications of houses that are built over pre-existing Roman roads (29).

Through Collins’ discussion we learn that, if anything, the idea of convivencio is not as clear cut as much of the historiography makes its legacy out to be. Even if we don’t agree with his arguments directly, he’s among an admirable group of new historians who has spotlighted just how much grey area is wrapped around the particular areas of contention in this historical field.

I guess what really irks me about all this is that the book, like the rest of the titles in the History of Spain series it’s featured in, are marketed like popular history and written like extended scholarly papers. If you want a synthesis of academic knowledge on this period, I guess this will work, otherwise, prepare for your eyes to turn grey.” – Petruccio Hambasket IV

Summary of reviews: Roger Collins’ work is criticized for being a bit too scholarly and for some of his arguments against the theory of “convivencia” in the Muslim-dominated Spain, but still his work is considered quite good and everyone recognizes that Collins is a very professional historian.

Book review: Moorish Spain

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Review Moorish Spain

Moorish Spain, authored by historian Richard Fletcher, was published back in the 90s, but it’s still a great introductory book to learn the basics about Muslim Spain, covering from the conquest in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492, with a special emphasis on the cultural heritage that influenced not only Spain but Europe.

This is what customers on Amazon say:

This was one of several books used in a course on “Literature and Culture of Muslim Spain” that I took in 2009. As our professor pointed out, the period from 711 to 1492 is difficult because the Muslim culture flourished early in Iberia and then went into a centuries-long, anticlimactic decline. At the time I took the course I found this book difficult to absorb and much preferred the Maria Rosa Menocal’s book on the same subject. However, post-graduation I’ve had time to read these two books separately and in their entirety. Fletcher’s book has risen mightily in my esteem. While Menocal’s very entertaining collection of essays does make it easy to relate to “Muslim Spain,” Fletcher’s task is far more difficult. He’s trying to help the general reader make sense of a chaotic and scantily-documented period. His basic approach is chronological, but events often were affected by other events happening in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond the Pyrenees, sometimes simultaneously, which often necessitates a little backtracking. Fletcher’s writing is concise. It was often necessary for me to put the book down and think about what I’d read. However, by reading carefully the reader can learn a lot about the historian’s tools. The book would be valuable to me for this reason, if for no other. “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding,” writes Fletcher in the final chapter of this book. As Ms. Menocal’s book so aptly exemplifies, there is a tendency to romanticize al-Andalus. Fletcher romanticizes nothing. His agenda is historical understanding. I’d recommend, if possible, reading both Fletcher’s and Menocal’s books. They reinforce and support each other. Five stars for Fletcher, too.” – Krebsman

Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” is a refreshing tonic against the plethora of books on Islamic Spain idealizing the supposed ‘Convivencia’ (especially, “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Menocal). Fletcher avoids the tendency among many scholars who wish to find an apt, hopeful (albeit unrealistic) Christian-Islamic modus vivendi for Europe’s present-day demographic predicament based on a romaticized model of medieval Spain. Presented in a well-researched, matter-of-fact fashion, the ‘good’ is presented in the context of the ‘bad and the ugly’.” – M. Orbuch

And this is what readers of the Goodreads community say:

An excellent book outlining the history of Moorish Spain! In 711 a relatively small army crossed over from Africa to establish a presence on the Iberian peninsula which was to last for almost a thousand years. Richard Fletcher describes the development of Moorish civilization from its beginnings, its relationship with Christian Europe and the rest of the Islamic world through to its final collapse in 1492. The book also shows how Islamic learning introduced science, agricultural practices and ancient philosophical studies which benefited the then emerging cultures of Christian Europe.

This book gives an insight into a fascinating period of history. Recommended reading!” – Andrew

After reading and being disappointed with Menocal’s famous book on Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World, I decided to take another crack with this book. And I am happy to report that Fletcher’s book is much better.

While Menocal is wistful and romantic, Fletcher is more detached and occasionally wry. While Menocal hardly acknowledges her sources, Fletcher is usually careful to note where he is getting his information from, even if this book lacks a scholarly bibliography. I found this a great relief, as I have been discovering that Moorish Spain is one of the most persistently mythologized periods in history. Washington Irving set the tone for this in his Tales of the Alhambra, but other writers have been following in his romantic footsteps ever since. Thus Fletcher’s dispassionate treatment was refreshing.

The main drawbacks of this book is that it is too short, and too scholarly. Fletcher was explicitly aiming for a popular audience, but the book he wrote would be better suited for an undergraduate class than a tourist. You cannot, for example, find many good vacation ideas in these pages; indeed, if this was your introduction to Moorish Spain, you might not even want to travel there at all.

Instead of focusing on intellectual and cultural history, the majority of this text deals with political and military history—the invasions, battles, territorial expansions, and so on. Admittedly, Fletcher also quotes poems, autobiographies, and includes pictures of famous buildings; he even has a whole chapter on the relations between Christians and Muslims during this time. But this information jostles for space among dozens of unfamiliar names of rulers who I do not much care to remember. Probably, if he wanted a better-selling book, he could have bot expanded it and included more of a personal touch. He is a fine writer and rather opinionated, so it would have served him well, I think, to have written something less formal.

In any case, I doubt there are any better books on the market for the history hungry tourist visiting Andalusia. This book will give you an overview of the period, and in the process inoculate you against much of the nonsense that gets thrown around about al-Andalus. It was not a paradise of tolerance, nor was it a perpetual war of faith against faith. As Fletcher said: “The past, like the present, is for most of the time rather flavourless.” ” – Roy Lotz

Summary of reviews: reviews are very positive, the only criticism I’ve found is that some say it’s too scholarly and the bombardment of dates in a 200-pages book can confuse the general reader. Recommended for those who want to have a general perspective about Muslim Spain.

Book review: Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus

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Review Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus

Conquistadores, emires y califas: Los omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus is a Spanish history book written by Eduardo Manzano Moreno in 2011. Professor Eduardo Manzano studies the three centuries that follow the Muslim Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, from the conquest started in 711 to the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The work is based on Latin and Arabic sources, as well as recent archeological and numismatic findings to provide an accurate and objective approximation to the evolution of al-Andalus until the fall of the Caliphate.

This is what academic reviews say about this work:

“It is, in short, a work of very high quality, developed with the right tools by an author who is well versed in the issues he deals with and who has patently put the greatest interest on it. But as important or more than its intrinsic value will be its ability to provoke new debates that revivify the scope of the history of al-Andalus, since, among other virtues not negligible, it will put before the eyes of the Arabists all the contributions that from other fields have been done in recent years, so we can not continue to ignore them -this has been the mainstream position-, but we will have to take advantage of the good that they contain and confront once and for all the lost theories that have gone growing before the disdainful silence, but not for that reason less accomplice, of the union of the Arabists.” – Luis Molina

This is what buyers on Amazon say:

“This book is an exhaustive study on the history of the origin, development and fall of Al-Andalus, with an introduction about the Visigoths. The worst, there are few images, but it is a small detail that can be ignored if the objective is to know in-depth the origin of the Andalusian culture” – Helena

“A well-explained and easy-to-consult book.” – Fernando Cevallos

Summary of reviews: there are some objections to Manzano’s work, like the lack of information about Andalusian wars (because there’s a lack of that in Andalusian historiography) or the exaggerated importance of the Ulama, the Islamic scholars, but overall the work is appreciated as exhaustive and comprehensive.