This is episode 32 called Vikings in Spain and Mozarabs and in this episode you will learn:
- The context and causes of the Viking Age
- The first targets of the Vikings in Spain and Portugal: Asturias, Galicia and Lisbon
- The Viking raid on Seville and the decisive victory of the Andalusi forces in the Battle of Tablada
- What consequences did the Viking attack of 844 have
- Why the Vikings weren’t as successful in al-Andalus as they were in the British Islands or France
- The second Viking raid on the Iberian Peninsula led by two sons of Ragnar Lodbrok in 858/859
- Which were the lasting consequences of the Vikings in Spain
- Which were the causes and spark of the Mozarab martyr movement known as the Martyrs of Córdoba
- The religious tensions within and between the Chrisitan and Islamic communities of al-Andalus, as religious lines blurred
- The challenges that the new Muslims (Muladis) had to face and how the profound divisions within the Andalusi society gave rise to widespread rebellions and the anarchy that the Emirate of Córdoba had to face in the following 50 years
- A reflection on the psychology of martyrdom
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 32 called Vikings in Spain and Mozarabs. In this episode you will learn about the first wave of Viking raids in the Iberian Peninsula and the Martyrs of Córdoba. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
Okay, so let’s start with a brief overview of the Viking expansion across Europe. The Vikings, or Norsemen, were raiders, traders and colonists from Scandinavia, in northern Europe. The so-called Viking Age is generally considered to start in 793, when a group of Vikings raided a monastery of the British Islands, and their golden age ended in 1066 when the King of Norway was defeated in England. Several factors played a role in the Viking expansion: demographic boom, the will to explore and dominate new trade routes, and the attempts of Charlemagne to spread Christianity further east and north. Developments in sailing technology, the political weakness of certain areas of Europe or the centralization of power in Scandinavia are often cite as reasons to explain the Viking expansion too. Viking raiders and colonists mainly attacked and settled in England, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, and northern and western France. Precisely their settlements of the Loire river and Gascony served as their bases to attack the Iberian Peninsula.
In the summer of 844, after sacking Bordeaux and Toulouse, 54 Viking dragon ships and some smaller vessels first attempted a landing at Gijón, Asturias, and later Galicia, but Ramiro I of Asturias repelled them in both occasions. Nonetheless, the real objective of the expedition wasn’t the poor Kingdom of Asturias. The real objective was further south, a kingdom filled with riches, the increasingly prosperous Emirate of Córdoba. The first target of al-Andalus was the estuary of the Tagus or Tajo river. Lisbon was a major commercial hub of Muslim Spain, but unfortunately the Vikings did a lot of damage and looted the city for thirteen days. The only good thing is that the governor of Lisbon hurried to notify the Emir about the coming of the Vikings, so Abd al-Rahman II was able to respond pretty swiftly and effectively against the attacks. The Emir knew about all the problems the Norsemen were causing up north, so he took the matter seriously and summoned troops from all over the Emirate, making a general mobilization that even affected the Upper March. It was a good way to test the loyalty of the Banu Qasi, and the Andalusis knew that they could force an open field battle and prove their superiority.
When the Vikings became contented with the booty captured in Lisbon, they moved further south and sacked Cádiz and Medina Sidonia before sailing up the Guadalquivir river. The Norsemen set up a camp near Seville, and then launched an attack on Seville in October. Seville wasn’t a minor urban center at the time, it was the most important city of al-Andalus after Córdoba. It was a rich city that functioned as a marketplace for the surrounding region, thanks to its commercial port that connected the Guadalquivir and the Atlantic. The town had enjoyed peace since the early Muslim conquest, when it temporarily became the capital of al-Andalus, but due to its location the idea of walling Seville never came to the minds of Muslim rulers. That proved to be a problem, because the Andalusis had no easy way to defend it and reinforcements from other parts of the Emirate were still on their way.
The Pagans from the north arrived in Seville, while the army from Córdoba had yet to arrive. Some Sevillians tried to organize a resistance, but they couldn’t do much, so instead the governor of Seville decided to evacuate as many people as he could to the fortified city of Carmona. For seven days, the Vikings burned buildings, looted and pillaged, and captured people with impunity. The only good thing is that they couldn’t capture the citadel nor burn the recently constructed Mosque of Seville. Then the raiders withdrew to their camp filled with booty and slaves, only to go back to Seville a few days later. But this time they found the city completely emptied, so they decided to head for another direction. The only problem was that they couldn’t navigate the Guadalquivir any further north, and they were forced to advance on foot. That removed one of the advantages of the Vikings, and the Muslims could use their numerical advantage to crush them.
Hosts from the capital, the south, and the marches gathered to repulse the invaders. The Andalusi armies were led by very prominent men, among them Musa ibn Musa of the Banu Qasi, the hajib or prime minister of Córdoba, Muhammad ibn Rustam of the Rustamid dynasty of Algeria, and eunuch Nasr who later became a very influential man of the court. For about a month there were a series of inconclusive skirmishes, until November 11, 844, when the Cordoban forces decisively defeated the Norsemen raiders. Thanks to the Umayyad cavalry and the use of Greek fire against their ships, which was a napalm-like substance, the Battle of Tablada was a major success for Córdoba. Sources mention that 1500 Vikings were killed, 400 were captured and 30 ships were destroyed. Heads of Norsemen hanged in the palm trees of Seville and the victory was celebrated throughout al-Andalus. Most of the surviving Vikings returned to their ships and went back to Gascony, and they agreed to return part of the booty and captured slaves in exchange for a peaceful return home, food and clothes. A few raided the coasts of Morocco, but more interestingly some decided to settle in the lower Guadalquivir river. Those who stayed pacifically embraced Islam and breed goats to produce and sell milk and cheese. The lesson here is that if a fearsome Viking can change his lifestyle, you can change too.
Okay, so now the question is what consequences did the Viking attack of 844 have? The most obvious one was that both Seville and Lisbon were left in ruins. The Emirate had to make a major effort to rebuild the cities and towns attacked by the Vikings. After this experience, Abd al-Rahman II built up the military and navy, in perfect harmony with the centralist and strengthening sprit of the ruler. The Emir adopted measures to improve the defenses of al-Andalus, for instance Seville was walled, the Andalusis established a network of watchtowers and messengers across the Atlantic coastline, and they built shipyards and a major standing fleet. The defense of al-Andalus against the invading Norsemen had been quite successful, but it hadn’t been perfect. In the end, major cities had been destroyed. Despite that, we can still say that the Emirate of Córdoba was effective facing an unexpected attack by a quite unknown enemy, and that swift response of the Andalusis contrasts with the feeble and chaotic mobilization made by Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian rulers. In political terms, it was a victory that showed the strength of the Umayyads to their subjects and abroad too, making the Emirate of Córdoba more respected. The Algerian Prince Muhammad ibn Rustam was acclaimed as a hero and savior of Seville, and the eunuch Nasr gained much influence in the court of Córdoba afterwards.
The other good question is, why the Vikings weren’t as successful in al-Andalus as they were in the British Islands or France? The answer to that includes multiple factors. The first reason is that the Emirate of Córdoba wasn’t in the mid of a civil war, even though there were revolts here and there. Another factor is that news about the raids of the Vikings had arrived in al-Andalus way before this first attack of 844, and the governor of Lisbon did a very good job letting the Emir know about the arrival of the Vikings. Finally, the third reason is purely geographic. The Iberian Peninsula lays further south from the original territory of the Norsemen, and the lack of navigable rivers is very obvious, that’s why the Vikings were unable to penetrate deeply into the country and they were forced to fight inland, where they didn’t have an advantage.
The newly established war fleet didn’t only serve defensive purposes, it was also used to project the power of the Emirate of Córdoba in the Western Mediterranean, one of the key objectives of the reign of Abd al-Rahman. In 848 the Emir sent the war fleet to the Balearic Islands to demand tribute. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands have been first protected by the Byzantine Empire and later the Carolingian Empire. But since the Franks were busy dealing with their own problems, the Balearic Islands were left unprotected and their inhabitants had no choice but to accept the demands of the Emir. Still, it won’t be until 902 that the Balearic Islands would be really incorporated into the Emirate of Córdoba, but this expedition was important to reaffirm the supremacy of Córdoba and put the archipelago under their sphere of influence. Andalusi ships were also used to attack the ports of Septimania and Provence, but we don’t know if these ships belonged to pirates that acted on their own, like the pirates who founded the Emirate of Crete, or if these attacks were part of a deliberate policy of Córdoba to control the Western Mediterranean.
Nonetheless, the Vikings returned not too long after 844, since they came back to the Iberian Peninsula in 858 or 859. This time the Emirate of Córdoba under Muhammad I was ready, although Ordoño of Asturias had to deal with them first in Galicia. The Cordoban squadron was guarding the coasts of Portugal when they intercepted the fleet of two sons of the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok. The Vikings barely lost any ship in the encounter, but they had to abort their plans to ravage the Guadalquivir valley when they heard that the Emir had gathered an army to meet them. Instead, the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok sacked the region of the Strait of Gibraltar and Murcia. The Vikings used the strategic city of Algeciras as a temporary base to attack the Emirate of Nekor, in the other side of the Strait. If you remember it, the Emirate of Nekor was a small vassal state of Córdoba located in northern Morocco, so an attack on them was an indirect attack on Córdoba too. The Vikings sacked the capital and captured some women of the royal family, that were later released because the Umayyads of Córdoba paid the ransom. Then the Vikings attacked the Balearic Islands, the Spanish March, Frankish Septimania and Provence, and Italy.
When the Norsemen sailed back to al-Andalus, they attempted to attack again the Balearic Islands but this time the Cordoban fleet caught them. Since the Vikings didn’t want to risk more losses after such a long expedition, they decided to sail up the Ebro to go home and leave the Andalusi fleet behind. The Vikings didn’t face any serious setbacks while sailing through the Ebro and crossing Banu Qasi territory and onward to Vasconia. In the Kingdom of Pamplona, they captured the caudillo García Íñiguez, son of Íñigo Arista, and held him hostage for an enormous ransom, and as we will see in a future episode Musa ibn Musa and the Emir Muhammad took advantage of the chaotic situation of Pamplona to attack. Then they reached the Bay of Biscay, reconstituted a fleet, and sailed home to the estuary of the Loire with an abundant booty and many slaves.
The lasting consequences of the Viking raids on the Iberian Peninsula were few. One was the development of the Cordoban navy and a system of watchtowers and communications to react fast in case of new sightings of Vikings. However, the Cordoban navy wasn’t only strengthened to deal with the Norsemen, the consolidation of a war fleet was necessary to project the power of the Emirate in the Western Mediterranean and not to fall behind the advances in Italy of the rival Aghlabid dynasty. The threat of Viking raids also encouraged the building of new fortifications in both the Kingdom of Asturias and the Emirate of Córdoba, while in the Kingdom of Pamplona the Vikings weakened the power of the Aristas. Moreover, King Ordoño I of Asturias and the Galician ecclesiastical authorities agreed to transfer the episcopal see from Iria Flavia to Santiago de Compostela, due to the destruction brought by the Vikings. In general, Viking activity in the Iberian Peninsula was only sporadic and with the intention to sack, not to conquer and settle, that’s why there aren’t any known Viking settlements or trading posts in the Iberian Peninsula. After the attacks of the 850s, the Vikings wouldn’t attack the Iberian Peninsula again until a century later, but the following raids weren’t as important as the two that I covered today.
With that I end the first half of the episode about the Vikings in Spain, and now it’s time to tell the story of the Martyrs of Córdoba. The Martyrs of Córdoba are almost an anecdote, a symptom of very important changes that were happening within the Christian community of al-Andalus. That’s where the essence of the story is. It’s the year 850, two years prior to the death of Emir Abd al-Rahman II. Some Christian Hispano-Goths had converted to Islam and adopted Arab customes, thus becoming Muladis. Some Hispano-Goths that remained Christian were horrified to see how their coreligionists were abandoning their ancestral faith and culture. They saw the growing Islamization and Arabization as a threat. After more than a century of Muslim presence, the Umayyad regime seemed irreversible and some indigenous people, especially the wealthy and educated ones, were starting to feel the effects of the loss of Visigothic and Catholic Spain. It was truly a national identity crisis.
Some Mozarabs felt that the Spanish Christian hierarchies were too friendly with the Muslim authorities and accused them of collaborationism. They felt that the clergy had betrayed the Catholic faith, and in response the Mozarabs needed to take radical actions against the Umayyad regime. The radical response was the individual and voluntary martyrdom to protest the process of assimilation and acculturation. Martyrdom was an assertion of the Christian and Hispano-Gothic identity, inspired by the early Christians that became martyrs of the repressive and Pagan Roman Empire.
The spark of the movement was the death sentence of a priest condemned for blasphemy. He was a former civil servant that later became a monk, and he appeared in person at the palace of the Emir and repeatedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Abd al-Rahman II and his courtiers had been friends of the man, so they tried to justify it. Maybe he was drunk? Maybe he was mentally ill? But the monk didn’t stop, so the Emir couldn’t ignore it anymore and in accordance to Sharia law the Christian monk was beheaded. That triggered a wave of Christian immolations. Some Mozarabs, most of them monks, publicly insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic and in front of the Muslim authorities. Within two months, 11 Christians had been decapitated or crucified after intentionally blaspheming in public against the Prophet Muhammad, or for committing apostasy in the case of some Muladis. The more than 40 Martyrs of Córdoba consciously prepared their self-sacrifice and death. They were arrested, resisted offers of clemency, and proudly accepted their executions. The Martyrs of Córdoba were fanatics of self-sacrifice, and hoped that their acts would provoke a massive Mozarab uprising against the Emirate of Córdoba.
The Mozarab martyr movement didn’t just come out of the blue, it was an intellectually organized movement. Eulogio and Álvaro of Córdoba spread their views among a small circle of followers, with the help of the written word too. Eulogio of Córdoba gained a few followers in the capital, but he didn’t achieve much influence outside of Córdoba. The vast majority of Christians didn’t support the radical acts of the most exalted Cordoban Mozarabs, and they started to fear for their safety, fearing reprisals from the Cordoban government or the Muslim population. For sure, thousands of Mozarabs were against the Islamization and Arabization of the Hispano-Goths, but not all were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Other zealous Mozarabs opted instead to leave al-Andalus and migrate to the Kingdom of Asturias. The Muslim authorities were worried about this rebellious movement, so the Emir summoned a council in 852 to request the categorical disapproval of the Mozarab bishops against the martyrdoms. Abd al-Rahman II handled it smartly. He didn’t fall into the trap of punishing the whole Christian community as the radical Mozarabs probably expected. The Mozarab martyr movement was ultimately unsuccessful in inspiring a major Christian uprising against Umayyad rule and by the year 860 the movement was dead. It was all forgotten pretty quickly, until the works of Eulogio and his remains were brought to the Kingdom of Asturias of Alfonso III, as it served his political agenda.
However, the story of the Martyrs of Córdoba reflects tensions as much within as between the Christian and Islamic communities of al-Andalus. Both the zealous and die-hard Christians and Muslims were alarmed to see how the lines between the faiths were blurring. Arabic was increasingly spoken by the upper and middle classes regardless of their faith, to the point that the Christian clergy translated religious texts into Arabic. Hispano-Goths, both Muladis and Mozarabs, were clearly under a process of Orientalization that made them adopt the clothing, diet and social habits of the Arabs. In the opposite way, Mozarabic became spoken by low class Muslims too, and Christians and Muslims took part together in public ceremonies and religious festivals, including the end of Ramadan, Christmas and Saint John’s Day. Nowhere was the religious fraternization more problematic than in homes, with mixed marriages and conversions that were forbidden by both Christian and Muslim authorities. These prohibitions weren’t always strictly enforced, and that created problems. For instance, five of those martyrs executed for apostasy were women whose mothers were Christian, and two were daughters of Muslim women who adopted the faith of their Christian father.
Yet Christianity in al-Andalus was in crisis, abandoned by the indigenous nobility and short on learned clergy to enforce Christian orthodoxy. The Mozarab community was divided between those who opted for a collaborationist approach and benefited from it, and those who felt that it was a Christian duty to resist the infidels at any cost. Those priests who sympathized with the martyrs were accused of heresy by the collaborationist bishops, while the intransigent Christians accused them of being puppets of the Umayyad regime. And meanwhile, Christianity was inevitably falling in a downward spiral. The process of Islamization and Arabization seemed unstoppable.
There is no reliable data, but conservative estimates calculate that 20% of the Andalusis were Muslim by 850. A more credible figure is probably around 30%, although the proportion of Muslims wasn’t uniform. Córdoba, some major cities of southern Spain, and the colonies of Arabs and Berbers were predominantly Muslim, while the rural population or cities like Toledo were disproportionately Christian. The 9th century was precisely the time when Muslim rulers and jurists were elaborating stricter rules that limited the freedoms of the dhimmis. I talked already in episode 21 ‘Formation and Society of al-Andalus’ about such measures, which included the prohibition to build new churches, to ring bells, or restrictions on what the Christians and Jews could wear. In general, just like in matters of interfaith marriages, these laws weren’t strictly observed, especially in the suburbs and rural areas. However, where they were energetically enforced these laws made the life of Christians uneasy and it served as an incentive for the Mozarabs to migrate northwards.
On the other hand, Christian collaborators and even those who decided to convert faced their own challenges too. The established Muslim elite saw newcomers as a threat to their monopoly on power or suspected false and superficial conversions. It’s exactly the same phenomenon that would happen centuries later in Christian Spain, where there was a distinction between old Christians and new Christians. The new Muslims were suspected to be opportunists who just wanted to reach influential positions within the Andalusi society. For example, a Christian advisor and scribe was told that the Emir couldn’t place a Christian in the position of chief scribe. Because of that, the scribe converted to have the chance to be promoted, but then Muslim courtiers accused him of being a false convert and pressured the Emir Muhammad I to remove him from the court and confiscate his properties. The Arabs also conspired to remove the magistrate of Córdoba just for purely racists reasons, because his family was of Muladi origin. Therefore, identity was not merely based on religion, ethnicity mattered a lot, and also social class, clan affiliation, or networks of patronage.
One last aspect about the Mozarabs worth to comment in this episode is the fact that the learned Christian clergy of al-Andalus continued the legacy of Visigothic intellectuals such as Isidore of Seville. That was very important to keep the memory of the Visigothic Kingdom alive, and as a result the Mozarab clergy that fled to the Kingdom of Asturias and later León created Neogothicism. If you remember it, Neogothicism is essentially the idea behind the Reconquista, it consists in linking the Visigothic Kingdom with Asturias, León, Castile, and to some extent the Catalan counties too. Their monarchs claimed to be the restorers of the Visigothic Kingdom and thus they were legitimized to reconquer the lands previously conquered by the Muslims. Going back to the point, one of the main reasons why Neogothicism developed is the conscious maintaining of the Visigothic intellectual tradition and the feeling that the Catholic and Hispano-Gothic cultural past was in danger. Therefore, we can say that the continuation of the Visigothic past was decisive to both help in the development of the Martyr movement of Córdoba and to develop Neogothicism to legitimize the Christian conquests.
To sum it up, al-Andalus was a profoundly divided society, in social classes, ethnicity and religion. Even though they kept being a majority for more than a century, the Mozarabs were the least relevant group in political terms, along the Jews. There weren’t many Mozarab revolts in al-Andalus, and those Mozarabs who preferred to preserve their culture and fight against Islam moved to the Christian north instead. As for those who stayed in al-Andalus, what happened in al-Andalus with the acculturation of Hispano-Goths is similar to what happened centuries later with the Spaniards in the Americas. In both cases, a tiny minority spreads its religion and culture to the conquered peoples. More importantly, the old Hispano-Gothic aristocracy collaborated with the new ruling elite and converted to Islam for their own interest. The new Muslims, aristocrats and plebs alike, had high expectations for what their faith could provide to them. But they had to face a reality that wasn’t as ideal as the Quran said. The Muladis were looked upon with suspicion and contempt by the Arabs, and they didn’t have the same opportunities to attain high positions in government or society. That reality and the weakness of central power allowed the rise of widespread armed rebellions led by Muladis. These rebellions of the Muladis lasted 50 years and they nearly destroyed the Emirate of Córdoba.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the psychology of martyrdom. This is a dense topic, but radical convictions play a major role. These convictions can be political or religious, as in the case of the Martyrs of Córdoba, but people also sacrifice themselves in heroic acts for the greater good and because of that they are posthumously venerated. Political fanaticism and honor codes are important too, and both explain for instance the Japanese Kamikazes during WW2. Martyrs ask themselves important questions, such as what’s the meaning of life, why are we alive, and what’s the purpose of our existence. People want to feel that their existence has some deep meaning, that they will leave their mark in this world, and that their memory won’t be forgotten. In the end, these are issues that most human beings face throughout their lifetime, and the answer of martyrs to these questions is to sacrifice their life for what they believe to be a greater cause. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I will cover the rise of rebellious movements led by Muladis during the reign of Muhammad I of Córdoba, including those of Musa ibn Musa, Ibn Marwan and Umar ibn Hafsun. 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!
A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
CALIPHS AND KINGS, 796-1031. Roger Collins
KINGDOMS OF FAITH. Brian A. Catlos
MUSLIM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL. Hugh Kennedy
MOZARABS IN MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN SPAIN. Richard Hitchcock
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA IV. ESPAÑA MUSULMANA (711-1031). Ramón Menéndez Pidal
HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA. AL-ANDALUS: MUSULMANES Y CRISTIANOS (SIGLOS VIII-XIII). Editorial Planeta
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