«Reconquista», a tendentious and simplistic concept

The heavy burden of poisonous Catholic Nationalist ideology borne by the concept of Reconquista is one of the main reasons for rejecting this concept altogether

Alejandro García Sanjuán
Universidad de Huelva

Header of the Carlist newspaper La Reconquista, February 10, 1873.

In Spain, the concept of Reconquista has traditionally been considered the starting point of any attempt to explain medieval Iberia, and one that fully articulates the historical process that unfolded between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, from the 711 Islamic conquest to the 1492 conquest of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs.

The concept enjoyed wide scholarly success over much of the 20th century thanks to the work of the well-known Spanish historian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (1893-1984). The ever-increasing vehemence with which he extolled the Reconquista over the course of his scholarly career, brought it to prominence as one of the keys to the history of Spain. Given the strong influence of Catholicism and Nationalism in his scholarship, it would not be an exaggeration to brand him as the most vocal representative of National Catholic historical writing. The highly ideological nature of his work notwithstanding, much of later Spanish scholarship built on his work and uncritically followed up on his approach to Reconquista.

On the grounds that the notion of Reconquista still remains all-pervasive and influential, both in academic and non-academic circles, I believe that there are reasons to call it into question. In what follows, my aim is to provide an overview of some of these reasons which, to my mind, justify a much more critical approach.

The Christian project to conquer al-Andalus in medieval texts

Early in the 8th century, in the wake of the Islamic conquest of Iberia, Latin sources produced in the territories of Northern Iberia outside Islamic control called for a fight against the Muslims and for their eventual expulsion. These texts were written by Christian clerics in the service of the emerging Northern Iberian polities, which were trying to consolidate their authority in the face of the much more powerful Umayyad rulers of Córdoba.

The earliest expression of this idea appears in sources coming from the court of Oviedo, the capital city of the Kingdom of Asturias. As a late ninth-century chronicle points out, the Christians wage war against the Muslims by day and night «until divine predestination commands that they be driven cruelly thence» (Crónica Albeldense, completed in 881; transl. J. O’Callaghan).

Later 11th-century Arabic texts reveal a clear Islamic awareness of the Christian project for the wiping out of the Muslims. The so-called Memoires of ‛Abd Allāh, the last Zirid ruler of the Berber taifa of Granada, includes one of the most its eloquent renderings. On the occasion of his visit to Granada, Sisnando, acting as the vizier of King Alfonso VI of Castile and León, told ‛Abd Allāh the following:

«I was fully aware of his policy because his wazīrs had informed me of it. I was told as much by Sisnando in the course of this campaign: ‘Al-Andalus originally belonged to the Christians. Then they were defeated by the Arabs and driven to the most inhospitable region, Jillīqiya. Now that they are strong and capable, the Christians desire to recover what they have lost by force. This can only be achieved by weakness and encroachment. In the long run, when it has neither men nor money, we’ll be able to recover it without any difficulty» (Tibi, 1986: 90).

There is a second, very similar, text, also composed in the 11th century, although it was recorded by a much later Arabic author, the Maghrebi chronicler Ibn ‛Idhārī. In this case, King Ferdinand I, Count of Castile and King of León, informed the people of Toledo of the tributes and taxes they owed him. As usual in the Taifa context, the Muslims argued they did not have so much money and showed some reluctance to pay, to which the King replied:

«We seek only our own lands which you conquered from us in times past at the beginning of your history. Now you have dwelled in them for the time allotted to you and we have become victorious over you as a result of your own wickedness. So go to your own side of the straits (of Gibraltar) and leave our lands to us, for no good will come to you from dwelling here with us after today. For we shall not hold back from you until God decides between us» (Wasserstein, 1985: 250).

These and many other similar texts offer compelling evidence for the Christian project of capturing Islamic Iberian territory and eventually driving the Muslims out of their lands, a well-documented historical reality apparently resistant to any objection to the concept of Reconquista. Yet modern Spanish scholarship has traditionally understood something very different by Reconquista, which covers the medieval idea of legitimate conquest but, most importantly, goes much further to draw on a heavily nationalist approach. Therefore the medieval idea of a legitimate takeover of Islamic territories and the modern scholarly concept of Reconquista should not by any means be conflated.

Reconquista in modern scholarship

To begin with, the first difference between the medieval and the modern concepts is their use of vocabulary. With a few, rare exceptions, the word reconquista (or its Latin equivalents) is hardly ever used to name the project of capturing al-Andalus. Therefore, reconquista is not a medieval word naming the war against the Muslims, nor does it represent the ideology on which that project would have been based.

Those in favour of the notion of Reconquista argue with the difference between name and concept: while the word certainly hardly ever appears in medieval texts, the idea does, however, appear in the sources. This is a problematic approach. As the Mexican historian M. Ríos pointed out, «the concept did not appear in the Middle Ages, but in the 19th century. And words can only name and describe things that exist: if the word reconquest hardly ever named the conflict between the Christian kingdoms and al-Andalus before the 18th century, it is because the concept itself did not exist either» (Ríos Saloma, 2011: 324).

A quick glance at some of the most popular definitions of the concept might be helpful in appreciating the soundness of Ríos’ argument. Let’s look, first, at the most basic definition. The earliest inclusion of the idea of Reconquista (within the specific medieval framework) in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy came very late, in 1936, and it read as follows: «recovery of the Spanish territory invaded by the Muslims which ended up with the 1492 taking of Granada».

The notion of «recovery of invaded Spanish territory» raises two issues: first, that Spain already existed at the time of the Islamic conquest and, second, that the Muslims illegitimately seized that territory. This definition stands as an extremely accurate rendering of the prevailing idea of Reconquista at that time and perfectly fits within the ideological National Catholic framework. Small wonder then, that Franco took up the notion of Reconquista to legitimize his 1936 coup d’état against the Republic, becoming «caudillo de la nueva Reconquista» (leader of the new Reconquista), according to a well-known poem by Manuel Machado: if the medieval Reconquista freed «Spain» from the Moors, Franco did the same in the case of reds, atheists, and Freemasons.

As we have already mentioned, Sánchez-Albornoz was another glaring instance of the compatibility between Reconquista and National Catholicism, and this narrow connection could hardly be considered as a mere fluke. Far from being a medieval notion, Reconquista first surfaces as the product of 19th-century National Catholic thinking.

Its heavy ideological burden represents a serious argument when it comes to calling into question the notion of Reconquista as a valid and legitimate scholarly concept. Claiming that National Catholicism vanished with the end of Francoism, some specialists currently plead for a neutral version of the concept, stripped of its ideological burden. In reality, this is a highly debatable and problematic argument. While it holds true that Francoist National Catholicism no longer represents the prevalent ideological framework, the toxicity of Reconquista has not lost its force. In the last few years, it has been replanted in new and more fertile ideological ground, the Clash of Civilizations. A quick glance at social media would be more than enough to show that Reconquista has of late become a key feature of far-right and white supremacism worldwide.

In Spain, on the other hand, the traditional idea of the Reconquista as a national liberation struggle remains live in the scholarly arena. Such is the case, for instance, of Serafín Fanjul’s Al-Andalus contra España. La forja del mito (2000), in which the author claims that «in no other European country did the need to wage war against the infidels feel a collective task to the extent that it did in Spain. «Great and small men alike knew that historical restoration required a long-term effort» (Fanjul, 2000). Describing «the war against the infidels» in terms of a «collective endeavour» acknowledged by both «great and small» is merely an updated reformulation of the Reconquista in terms of a national liberation struggle. Such a «collective endeavour», in fact, never existed, since warfare remained an exclusive matter of the social elite, namely, kings, noblemen, and clerics.

Fanjul cannot be considered a unique case. A few years ago, the medievalist J. Valdeón released a book eloquently titled La Reconquista. El concepto de España: unidad y diversidad (2006). It is rather hard to avoid feeling that the connection between the Reconquista and the idea of Spain remains in force in current Spanish scholarship. This connection becomes ever more widespread outside the academy and remains fully in force among large social, political, and media outlets. This is, for instance, suggested by the recent book La Reconquista y España (2018), by a well-known far-right pseudo-historian.

To my mind, the Reconquista could be arguably compared to Francoism: upon the dictator’s demise, many thought his ideology would eventually fade away. In fact, as we well know, Franco died in 1975, but not Francoism.

The Reconquista in the face of complex medieval historical reality

In its National Catholic nature, the idea of Reconquista departs from historical reality and, therefore, is of scarcely any value in understanding it. In what follows, I will attempt to provide an overview of the main reasons why the Reconquista can no longer be considered a valid scholarly notion.

The traditional notion of Reconquista regards the Islamic presence in the Peninsula as simply the object of conquest and this inevitably leads to ignoring or marginalising the Islamic side of the story. Reducing medieval Iberia to a project for the expulsion of the Muslims is an extremely simplistic approach and results in a biased and one-sided narrative. A clearer understanding of the historical process entails paying the same attention to both societies.

Further, does not speaking in terms of «re-conquest» instead of simply, «conquest», ultimately involve an unconscious and unintentional legitimation of the Christian ideological project? Thus the notion of Reconquista leads easily into delegitimization of the Islamic presence and legitimation of its destruction, which might well be considered at odds with the mere possibility of that «neutral» version for which some of its current proponents plead, indicating instead their inherent bias.

Overlooking the extremely complex nature of medieval Iberia has had unfavourable consequences for historical knowledge. Unflinchingly clinging to the notion of Reconquista, the scholarly field of Spanish medieval studies has largely ignored the Islamic side of the story, thus dismissing a substantial part of its logical field of research. While this situation has changed over the last few years, the fact remains that the vast majority of experts are engaged in the study of Christian Iberia, while al-Andalus is still a marginal presence. Even into the 21st century, this awkward problem continues to have serious negative effects on scholarship.

Similarly, the notion of Reconquista tends to see the historical process as a falsely linear one, which obviously raises further problems. The project of ending Muslim rule over the Peninsula could not be achieved without hesitations, changes, and strategic alliances. As early as 1921, J. Ortega y Gasset argued against the unbroken continuity and unity of such a long-drawn-out historical process by claiming: «I do not see how you can call a thing a Reconquest when it lasted eight centuries» (Ortega y Gasset, 1974: 80). The false continuity introduced by the idea of Reconquista mitigates against the extremely complex reality of the medieval period, which is another good reason to call it into question.

The notion of Reconquista is not just a gross oversimplification, but a misrepresentation of the medieval Iberian historical process and, more specifically, of the Christian conquest of al-Andalus. This is particularly true in the case of cities such as Murcia, Almería o Badajoz, founded by the Muslims: on what grounds can we speak in terms of «reconquest» when dealing with cities which in fact were never «conquered» but were built after the arrival of Islam in 711? In all likelihood, Granada stands as the most significant case in point: founded by the Muslims, its conquest by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 has been traditionally considered as the culmination of the Reconquista.

This approach becomes even more of a distortion when, as often happens, a narrow association is made between the conquest of al-Andalus and the restoration of Iberian unity. Albeit that the project of eradicating the Muslims involved a sense of territorial unification, it is equally true that this could never be achieved. However effective the political unification reached by the Visigothic monarchy might have been, Hispania became a highly splintered territory after 711 and division remained a key feature across the medieval period and beyond. Even the dynastic union between the Crowns of Castile and Aragon achieved by the Catholic Monarchs late in the 15th century did not overcome Hispania’s division, because Portugal had been firmly established as an independent kingdom since the 12th century.

The former Roman and Visigothic Hispania never regained political unity after 711. With the aim of setting an unbroken continuity between Hispania and Spain, 19th-century Spanish nationalism brought in the concept of Reconquista, which was highly misleading, because such continuity is purely fictional and does not correspond with historical reality. Hispania and Spain remained largely different historical entities; the Christian conquest of al-Andalus did not succeed in overcoming the rupture between them.

In short, the Reconquista is, at best, an oversimplifying and biased concept which accounts only for the Christian perspective on the medieval Iberian historical process, ignoring the Islamic side of the story. What is even worse, at its most ideological, the concept represents the fullest expression of the National Catholic myth of the origins of Spain, still heavily burdened with a highly toxic ideology that feeds into sectarian and xenophobic political agendas. On both these counts, it seems reasonable to drop, once and for all, the idea of Reconquista.

Works cited:

  • Fanjul. S. 2000. Andalus contra España. La forja del mito. Madrid: Siglo XXI.
  • Gerli, E. M. 2003. Medieval Iberia. An Encyclopedia. Routledge.
  • Ortega y Gasset, J. 1974. Invertebrate Spain. New York: Howard Ferting.
  • Ríos Saloma, M. F. 2011. La Reconquista: una construcción historiográfica, siglos XVI-XIX. Madrid: Marcial Pons.
  • Tibi, A. T. 1986. The Tibyān. Memoirs of ‘Abd Allāh b. Buluggīn, last Zīrid Amīr of Granada. Leiden: Brill.
  • Wasserstein, D. 1985. The Rise and Fall of the Party Kings. Politics and Society in Islamic Spain, 1002-1086. Princeton University Press.

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