While exploring the beautiful town of Burgos in northern Spain, the traveler will be struck by the many medieval sites, including the monumental Cathedral and the ruins of the fortress. In addition to the remnants of actual structure from the medieval periods, many plaques, street names, pamphlets, and books that one encounters throughout Burgos celebrates the medieval history of the town, with particular attention to the deeds of its past kings, nobles, and prominent citizens.
(Catedral de Santa María in Burgos, constructed between the early 13th and 16th centuries . Source)
The past week (March 23rd to be exact) marked the 650th anniversary of the assassination of Pedro I of Castile-León (r. 1350-1369), one of medieval Iberia’s most controversial, enigmatic and interesting sovereigns. For some, he represents a vicious tyrant whose repressive policies were catastrophic for Castile. Meanwhile, others have memorialized him as a sovereign who promoted a culture of toleration, employed Jews and Muslims in significant numbers within his administration, and sought to curb the power of the nobility. Far from attempting to grapple with or unpack his complex legacy, this post introduces the English-speaking reader to this complicated sovereign in order to encourage further inquiry into his life and times.
The “medieval Islamic world” is a difficult concept to define. Traditionally, scholars have used the phrase dār al-Islām (literally the “Abode of Islam”) to denote the lands under Muslim rule or, alternatively, the lands in which Muslim institutions were maintained. In the dār al-Islām, we are told, borders were porous and freedom of movement was expected for all Muslims to such a degree that, in theory, one could travel from Iberia to the foothills of the Himalayas largely unimpeded. Most significantly, within the dār al-Islām, religious identity (Muslim vs. non-Muslim) was—in theory—a far more important defining marker than any concept of race, class or ethnicity. As such, in many ways the term dār al-Islām designates a cultural or religious unity (or an idealized notion of that unity) rather than a unified political entity. Dār al-Islām was usually defined in explicit contradistinction to the dār al-harb (literally “the abode of war”), denoting the region where non-Muslims ruled. According to various Islamic political theorists and jurists in the Middle Ages, it was the objective of Muslims to bring the dār al-harb within the sphere of dār al-Islām. The instrument through which this would be accomplished was either jihad (military expansion) or da‘wa (missionary activity).
This framework for understanding medieval Islamic history certainly mirrors the understanding of medieval Muslim historians, jurists, geographers and political thinkers. However, the reference to the medieval Islamic world through the (Islamic) juristic construction of “dār al-Islām,” while certainly important to understand, is unsatisfactory for the modern historian for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it fails to take into account that for the greater part of the medieval period many of the lands designated as “Islamic lands” were, in fact, populated by significant communities (or majorities, in some regions) of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others. The utilization of “dār al-Islām” generally ignores the presence, institutions, contributions and significance of these communities. Another reason for the inadequacy of the term is that it enforces the theoretical notion that religious identity was the supreme defining marker of the regions being discussed while ignoring the increasing important of sectarian, social, cultural and linguistic identity. While most certainly important as an idealized notion among Muslims, the notion of the “ummah” is not the most useful analytical category for a historian seeking to understand the diversity of the medieval world. In any case, this remains an open question for me and the utilization of the phrase “medieval Islamic world” is not necessarily more satisfactory than the traditional framework nor do I view the term “Islamicate” as a particularly significant improvement.
This is the third and final installment of my short series on the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris (for part I: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/the-coronation-of-1135-and-the-question-of-empire-in-kingdom-of-castile-leon-in-the-12th-century/ and part II: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/the-chronica-adefonsi-imperatoris-ca-1148-cluniac-historiography-and-imperial-sovereignty-in-12th-century-iberia/) which has sought to explore some of the implications of Alfonso VII’s imperial coronation in 1135 in both contemporary chronicles as well as modern scholarship. In this piece, I want to look a bit more concretely at how the Chronica seeks to represent the authority of Alfonso VII by looking particularly at two elements: the role of military leadership and the role of Alfonso VII as a “holy warrior” against Islam in the Iberian peninsula.
Royal Authority and Rebellious Nobles: Alfonso VII as Virtuous Christian Prince and Pacifier of the Realm
From the outset, it is important to note that the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris is not the only source in which Alfonso VII is designated as imperator, since this title appears to have been utilized quite regularly from 1126 onwards in royal charters issued in the kingdom of León.  However, the Chronica is perhaps the most important twelfth-century text which clarifies in concrete terms what this title was intended to convey with regard to royal sovereignty. The chronicler declares that God worked His will through Alfonso VII “so that the salvation of the people of Christ in the midst of the earth might be achieved” in order to underscore the relationship between his sovereign’s reign and the divinely-ordained destiny of the Christian peoples in the Iberian peninsula. Alfonso is also depicted as succeeding his mother, Queen Urraca (r. 1109–1126), and acceding to the throne of León with divine endorsement. He is represented throughout the text as a just sovereign who is concerned with peace and security throughout the realm since it was conducive to Christian unity in the face of an increasingly-powerful Muslim threat.