Can we still talk about «Reconquest»? Birth and development of an ideology

It was not until the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th century that the ideology of the «reconquest» was fully articulated at the court of Oviedo.

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Miniature of don Pelayo in the Corpus Pelagianum, National Library of Spain, ms. 2805.

The term «reconquest» —Reconquista—, although its relevance has been, and may continue to be, questioned, has become firmly entrenched as a historiographical tool in common use.  It designates an ideological construct conceived in the early years of the kingdom of Asturias. From that first formulation, its content was progressively developed and nuanced, serving throughout the Middle Ages to legitimise processes of military expansion and political centralisation in the various Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula —and particularly in the Castilian-Leonese monarchy, on which we are going to focus. The ultimate aim was to restore an idealised politico-religious unity that the Visigothic monarchy was supposed to have embodied over the whole of Hispania; to do this, obviously, it was essential to expel the Muslims who, as invaders  of Hispanic soil, were held responsible for the loss of the politico-religious unity of the Peninsula.

It is not unreasonable to say that the logic of such an approach might be better suited to the term «restoration» than «reconquest», and indeed, the former occasionally appears in medieval sources to describe this ideological model of legitimisation. On the other hand, the term «reconquest», which appeared very late —it did not appear before the end of the eighteenth century—, ended up being imposed and popularised in the second half of the nineteenth century, when conservative intellectuals of the Bourbon restoration wanted to differentiate between what they considered a process that had forged national identity —the «reconquest»— and the legitimating reality of their own political period, that of the «restoration». A century later, General Franco’s dictatorship, in the search for a national spirit forged in the militarisation of Christian essences, reactivated the idea of the «reconquest» turning it into the guiding thread of a tapestry of patriotic sentiments: a common past for the Spanish people as a whole, who had succeeded in building, in the face of the invading Muslims, a genuinely differentiated and distinctly Christian European identity. It was no longer a legitimising ideology concocted by those in power, but a heroic reality, which for 800 years forged the very essence of the Spanish nation at war. It is obvious that we are dealing with gross distortion, to which Spanish historiography, reinvigorated since the end of the 1970s, has understandably reacted by questioning the term itself.

Today, however, purified of the self-interested ideologies to which it has been subjected since the 19th century, the word «reconquest» may be more than adequate to designate the ideology that at very different times in the peninsular Middle Ages served Hispanic monarchs to legitimise a power that knew how to make militarism and territorial  expansion the basis of its own justification; This, we insist, consisted of converting the unitary past of the former Visigothic Hispania into a challenge for the future, and to this end the ideologists of «reconquest» did not hesitate to present the kings they served as the legitimate heirs and effective continuators of that past, which had to be recovered or «reconquered». In fact, the latter expression occasionally appears in medieval documentation to refer to the phenomenon.

It is obviously not the first time that an ideological construct, crystallised into a concept, precedes the term that finally prevails in designating it. And this fact does not authorise us to dismiss this latter term as «unscientific», because then, among other things, we could never have affirmed that Urban II preached the «crusade» at the Council of Clermont in 1095, simply because this word is not documented until the beginning of the 13th century.

When was the «reconquest» born as a conceptual reality? We would have to wait until the so-called historiographical cycle of Alfonso III, i.e. the late 9th and early 10th centuries, to find a fully articulated discourse on such an ideology, a discourse, therefore, elaborated in the Asturian court of Oviedo and stimulated by the perspective of the intellectual circles of Christians from al-Andalus, but which would only later, in the last third of the 10th century, be completed and fed into the Riojan nucleus of the emerging kingdom of Pamplona. By then, the outline of the plot was perfectly delineated: a glorious past, that of the Hispano-Visigothic monarchy, is brought down by the infectious perversion of its last kings; God’s punishment is imposed through the provident action of the Muslims, but, at the same time, his mercy allows a just remnant of the sinful people, represented by Pelayo, a nobleman of royal descent, to initiate a victorious counter-offensive that begins with the miraculous day of Covadonga, a counter-offensive that his successors would keep alive and which would not end until  the Muslims were expelled from the Peninsula, something that the so-called Prophetic Chronicle, one of those that form part of the aforementioned historiographical cycle, predicted would take place during the reign of Alfonso III himself, who would end up reigning «over the whole of Spain«. In this way, the Church and the old political institutions of the Gothic kingdom would recover their realm and the leadership of a reunified country.

In this primitive model of political legitimisation that reconquest ideology implied, the figure of the apostle St. James already played an extraordinarily important role. His cult in the Peninsula and the recognition of his evangelising role predates the fall of the Visigothic kingdom, but his political characterisation as patron saint of Hispania dates from the end of the 8th century. The inventio of his tomb in the first decades of the 9th century helped the Asturian authorities to confirm the reception of the Visigothic legacy, but above all to assert their independence in the face of the pressure exerted by the Carolingian Empire and its patron, the Pope of Rome. Faced with them, St James became a point of reference for Hispanic identity that helped to justify, without interference, the recovery of a territory consecrated by his apostolic preaching.

The reconquest scheme, forged in the neo-Gothicism of the Asturias and Pamplona, would receive an important boost at the beginning of the 12th century when an anonymous cleric from León, author of the so-called Historia Silense, sought to revitalise the ideological discourse of the reconquest by stressing the Gothic ancestry of King Alfonso VI, dedicating his entire work to praise of the king. The chronological context accounts for the chronicler’s focus. The Almoravids were disembarking onto the Peninsula, gravely threatening the kingdom. These «barbarians», who had once shattered the cultural splendour of the  Golden Age of the Visigothic Catholic monarchy, were now once again threatening the emerging reality of Hispania. From this nostalgic and restorationist perspective, this heir to the glorious Recaredo, and himself «orthodox emperor of Hispania», stood out as  having been responsible for the expansion of the kingdom by recovering the territories wrested from the sacrilegious hands of the «barbarians».

By now the development of the crusader ideology of the Roman pontificate was already known in the Peninsula. It was already present in the frequently defined «proto-crusade» of Barbastro in 1064 and, in general, in the intense impact with which Rome and its reformist approach burst into the Hispanic reality from the last third of the 11th century onwards. The crusade would be the hallmark of this pontifical reform, and it must have influenced peninsular reality and the meaning of the confrontation between Christians and Muslims. The 12th century saw the adaptation and reinterpretation of reconquest ideology along Crusader lines. In fact, from a pontifical point of view, the two categories were in no way incompatible: in 1063, only thirty years before the preaching of Clermont, when the concept of pontifical reconquest was preparing the ideological environment for the formulation of crusade, Pope Alexander II openly proclaimed that it was right to fight the Muslims in the Peninsula because they had previously expelled the Christians from their lands and cities. The ideology of reconquest ceased  being an endogamous issue of political legitimisation for the Hispanic kings and became a moral question that affected the whole of Christendom and the interests of the Church itself, which, moreover, since the First Lateran Council in 1123, had no objection to solemnly equating the offensive against the Muslims of al-Andalus with the  pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

On the other hand, the Iberian Christian princes were aware of the positive effects that could be derived from the application of the concept of crusade, and its  economic  and propaganda benefits, to the old reconquest ideology. Indeed, the Hispanic monarchies needed to increase the legitimising potential of a reconquest which, from the mid-11th century onwards, had ceased to be an explanatory expression of a war of survival, always easy to justify, and had become a fully-fledged offensive against Islam, an offensive which, moreover, was not always based on the exemplary evidence of military effort: think, for example, of the pressure of the pariahs.

All this created a favourable atmosphere for the reconquest finally to turn into a crusade. We can already see this in the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, written shortly before 1149. In it we can see a vision of reconquest leading to a crusade, but a Hispanic crusade, in which the brilliance of the figure of the Pope could not out-shine the prominence of the kings, a crusade that, under the iron leadership of its peninsular leaders, would be capable of reconquering the lands held by the Muslim usurpers and thus returning to Christendom, conceived as the sum of its kingdoms, what rightfully belonged to it. Thus, the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, in contrast to the purely restorationist and reconquering logic of the Historia Silense, accentuates the ideological nature of the struggle against the Muslims, turning it into a crusade, but within the strict framework of peninsular warfare.

None of this means that the ideological discourse of the reconquest had abandoned its traditional neo-Gothic roots at this time. The Crónica Najerense, probably written around 1180, is a good example, although its novel Castilian focus, undoubtedly promoted by the court of Alfonso VIII, tended to emphasise more and more strongly the centrality of his kingdom in the ideology of reconquest with the addition of an epic treatment of local leaders —and specifically El Cid—, comparable from then on with the traditional mythification of the great ultramontane heroes.

In any case, the second half of the twelfth century was of extraordinary importance in refining the moral basis of the discourse of reconquest, and especially for the role of the kingdom of Castile in this arena. The pontificate which, from the middle of the century onwards, recognised the fight against Islam on the peninsula as being proper to the Hispanic kings —as Hadrian IV made clear to Louis VII of France in 1159. He made a decisive contribution to this formulation by proclaiming unequivocally that the recovery of lands unjustly occupied by the Muslims belonged to the «law of nations» —iure gentium— and that, consequently, the fact that Christians persecuted and exterminated the Saracens in order to recover the inheritance of their fathers was perfectly compatible with the Catholic

faith. It was in these terms that Pope Celestine III addressed the archbishop of Toledo in 1192. In any case, this ideological symbiosis —and also the convergence of interests— between papal strategies and the reconquest objectives of the Hispanic kings created the scenario which, in terms of legitimisation, made possible the victorious crusade of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

Yet Roman tutelage once again weighed too heavily on kings who wanted their offensive objectives against Islam to enjoy the autonomy of their accustomed  strategies of reconquest, albeit with the advantages of their being considered a crusade. One more turn of the screw of neo-Gothicism was needed to finish Hispanicising the crusade, a turn that was applied by some of the great ideologues of the kingdoms of León and Castile, which after seventy years of separation were reunited again in 1230. Among these ideologues, the Toledan archbishop Jiménez de Rada stands out. In his Historia Gothica, he was able to synthesise the neo-Gothic understanding of the discourse of reconquest with the legitimising notion of the crusade as no one had done before. The ideological programme of the «reconquest» becomes exemplary thanks, among other things, to a literary interpretation of the old theme of the «loss of Hispania», already present in the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754. This loss and lamentations for it are masterfully presented as the inevitable stimulus for a process of recovery that seeks the «salvation of Spain», an expression we already find in   the chronicle material of the cycle of Alfonso III. Old themes are thus integrated politically as the common enterprise of all Spaniards led by Castile. Albertus Magnus, the learned Dominican doctor from the University of Paris, observing the Peninsula from outside, knew how to interpret this message properly when, echoing the conquest of Seville in 1248, he stated that «Arab Hispalis» had now been «restored  to the Spaniards».

By then it was obvious, therefore, that «reconquest», understood as the fruit of a re-Christianising restoration of lost Hispano-Gothic unity, was only one part of a discourse of Castilian hegemony. Jiménez de Rada had laid the foundations, but it was the Estoria de Espanna, known as the First General Chronicle, written in the scriptorium of Alfonso X of Castile, which would definitively consolidate that perspective and project it into the future. For the Wise King, the ideological scheme of the «reconquest» would not only form an integral part of the fact of Spain that he intended to historicise, but also of his own political programme.

By the time of Alfonso X’s death, peninsular Islam was reduced to a small emirate with its capital at Granada. Its formal dependence as the vassal of Castile did not ensure peace on the border, and for more than two hundred years the Christian kingdom maintained a measure of hostility towards the Nasrid regime. Such a long chronological sequence can be explained by Granada’s skilful policy of alliances and also by Castilian limitations, but perhaps also because the existence of an active peninsular frontier with Islam made it possible to perpetuate the age-old discourse of the «reconquest» that had provided so much political gain for the Castilian monarchs. Be this as it may, this discourse was still alive when the Catholic Monarchs decided shortly before 1480 to put an end to Islamic Granada. We see this clearly in contemporary court chronicles, especially in Fernando del Pulgar, who spares neither reference to Pelayo as the initiator of the reconquest process nor condemnation of the Muslims for having occupied a territory that belonged to the legitimate heirs of the Hispano-Gothic monarchy. And all of this, impregnated with an unmistakable crusader flavour, characterises in a particularly intense way, and with enthusiastic pontifical support, these last manifestations of the reconquest discourse. Ferdinand the Catholic expressed this very well when in January 1492 he

wrote to Pope Innocent VIII that «this kingdom of Granada, which for seven hundred and eighty years had been occupied by the infidels, in your days and with your help» had finally been wrested from the «enemies of our holy Catholic faith».

Further reading:

  • García Fitz, Francisco, La Reconquista, Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2010.
  • Ayala Martínez, C. de, «La Reconquista: ¿ficción o realidad historiográfica?», in Ángel Gordo Molina and Diego Melo Carrasco (coords.), La Edad Media peninsular. Aproximaciones y problemas, Ediciones Trea, 2017, pp. 127-142.