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Reconquista

By:
Simon Barton
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Reconquista

First coined in the nineteenth century, the term reconquista (reconquest) denotes the gradual and complex process of territorial expansion by which, between c.720 and 1492, the Christian states of the Iberian Peninsula wrested control of the region from Islamic authority. For those who espouse the idea of the “historical unity” of Spain, the reconquista represents a patriotic and religious movement, aimed at restoring the unity of Christian Hispania that had been destroyed by the Islamic conquest of the Visigothic kingdom in 711, and whose outcome was the creation of the modern Spanish state. During the past quarter century, however, scholars have shied away from this overtly nationalistic discourse to emphasize instead the importance of pragmatic politics and socioeconomic forces in driving Christian expansionism.

The reconquista is traditionally considered to have begun in the northern region of Asturias, where in 718 (or 722) a group of Christian rebels led by a refugee Visigothic noble, Pelayo, defeated and killed the local Muslim governor in battle at Covadonga. This Christian enclave survived, and was even able to expand into Cantabria to the east and Galicia to the west, largely because during the 720s and 730s Muslim military energies were focused on southern Gaul. Furthermore, an Arab-Berber civil war in al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia) and North Africa during the 740s, and the severe effects of drought and famine during the 750s, prompted the Berber tribes to evacuate the northern strongholds they had occupied following the Islamic conquest. A century later, renewed turmoil in al-Andalus allowed the Asturian kingdom, under kings Ordoño I (850–866) and Alfonso III (866–910), to advance southward onto the lightly populated plains of the Duero basin, which by then acted as a buffer between the Christian and Muslim territories, and in 910 the chief royal center of the kingdom moved from Oviedo to the old Roman city of León.

Chroniclers viewed the nascent Asturian-Leonese kingdom as the legitimate successor to the Visigothic monarchy and the battle at Covadonga as a divinely guided step towards the Christian reunification of the Peninsula. Political realities were far more complex, however. During the eighth and ninth centuries other centers of Christian power began to emerge in the north. In the Basque territories of the western Pyrenees a realm based in the city of Pamplona—later known as the Kingdom of Navarre—had come into being by the second quarter of the ninth century, despite attempts by Franks and Muslims to bring the region under their respective authority. In neighboring Aragon, another Christian territory came into the orbit of the kings of Pamplona, until it was established as a separate kingdom in 1035. In that same year, the county of Castile, based around Burgos and the Upper Ebro, which had broken away from Leonese overlordship during the late tenth century, also achieved regnal status. At the eastern end of the Pyrenees, meanwhile, in what is now Catalonia, Frankish armies had captured Gerona (785) and Barcelona (802), and established a protectorate, known as the Marca Hispanica (Spanish March), which was ruled by crown appointees. When Frankish power waned during the second half of the ninth century, the counts of the March drifted into independence. However, for the first three centuries after the Islamic conquest, none of the Christian states was powerful enough to challenge al-Andalus for peninsular hegemony. During the tenth century, when the Umayyad caliphate reached the peak of its power, the Christian states were reduced by diplomacy and force to little more than client kingdoms, but there was no attempt to recover the northern territories for Islam.

The eleventh century saw a profound shift in the balance of power in Iberia. Between 1009 and 1031 the caliphate disintegrated, to be replaced by a multiplicity of Islamic city-states (taifas) of varying size and resources. The Christians exploited the endemic political instability and military weakness of the taifas by forcing them to pay sizeable sums in tribute in return for military “protection.” The Christians were also able to make important territorial gains. Most spectacular of all, in 1085 Alfonso VI of León-Castile (r. 1065–1109) conquered the Muslim taifa of Toledo and with it a vast swath of central Spain. Another to profit from the kaleidoscopic political scene was the Castilian noble Rodrigo Díaz, better known as El Cid, who conquered the taifa of Valencia in 1094. The fall of Toledo sent shock waves throughout al-Andalus, prompting the Almoravids, a Berber Muslim sect, to intervene and defeat Alfonso VI in battle near Badajoz in 1086; they subsequently brought the remaining taifas under their authority.

The wars of the late eleventh century rekindled the ideology of reconquista, itself further sharpened by the introduction of the ideas and institutions of crusade. Encouraged by papal pronouncements, which began to equate the Iberian campaigns against Islam with the crusading expeditions to the Holy Land, the idea that military activity against Muslims had a penitential value took root in the Peninsula. It was thus with contingents of foreign crusaders that Alfonso I of Aragon (r. 1104–1134) conquered Saragossa in 1118; Alfonso VII of León-Castile (r. 1126–1157) seized Almería and Afonso I, the first king of Portugal (r. 1128–1185), captured Lisbon, both in 1147; and Ramón Berenguer IV (r. 131–1162) of Aragon-Catalonia captured Tortosa and Lérida in 1148 and 1149, respectively. The crumbling of Almoravid authority in al-Andalus and North Africa facilitated the Christian advances of the 1140s, but further expansion into the area south of the Tagus and Ebro rivers was hindered by infighting among the Christian states and the arrival of a new Berber power in al-Andalus, the Almohads. During the second half of the twelfth century, the Almohads launched numerous attacks against Christian positions and inflicted a major defeat on Alfonso VIII of Castile (r. 1158–1214) at Alarcos in 1195. However, the southern Christian frontier was bolstered by the foundation of a number of indigenous military orders—particularly those of Calatrava (1158), Santiago (1170), and Alcántara (1176)—and by the expertise of the local town militias, whose raiding expeditions devastated the economy of the exposed Muslim communities to the south. In July 1212, Alfonso VIII, with papal backing and Navarrese and Aragonese support, crushed the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa and opened the road to southern Spain.

Christian fortunes were further assisted by the death of the Almohad caliph Yūsuf II (1213–1224), which prompted an intense struggle for power within the ruling dynasty. As Almohad authority crumbled during the 1220s, a new generation of taifas emerged to fill the power vacuum and the Christian states, furnished with fresh crusading indulgences, went on the offensive. To the east, James I of Aragon (r. 1213–1276) conquered the Balearic Islands (1229–1235) and overran the taifa of Valencia (1232–1245). To the west, Alfonso IX of León (r. 1188–1230) annexed what is now Spanish Extremadura, conquering Cáceres (1227) and Mérida and Badajoz (1230). His son Fernando III (r. 1217–1252), who reunited León and Castile in 1230, advanced down the Guadalquivir valley, capturing Córdoba (1236), Jaén (1246), and Seville (1248), and receiving the submission of the kingdom of Murcia in 1243–1244. In the far west, the Portuguese fulfilled their own territorial ambitions by occupying the Algarve in 1249. By the mid-thirteenth century, Muslim authority in Iberia had been extinguished with the exception of the Nasrid emirate of Granada and a handful of puny enclaves on the Atlantic seaboard. That Granada was able to maintain its independence thereafter owed much to its readiness to buy peace from Castile in return for tribute, to the political turmoil which regularly convulsed the Christian states, and the Nasrid rulers’ skill in shifting allegiance between Castile, Aragon, and the Berber Marinids, the dominant power in North Africa. Castilian military operations thereafter focused on controlling the ports that dominated the Straits of Gibraltar. Thus, Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295) captured Tarifa in 1291 and Alfonso XI (r. 1312–1350) reinforced that control by defeating the Marinids at the River Salado in 1340 and by conquering Algeciras in 1344.

Thereafter, the conquest of Muslim Granada ceased to become a pressing objective for Castile, as dynastic wars, as well as famine and epidemics, took their toll. It was not until the reigns of Isabella I of Castile (r. 1474–1504) and her consort Ferdinand II of Aragon (r. 1479–1516), who both saw a campaign against Granada as an opportunity to instill loyalty to the monarchy, that the final act of the reconquista was played out. Encouraged by dynastic infighting within the Nasrid royal house and supported by new crusading indulgences, massive subsidies from the Church, and the arrival of foreign volunteers, the Christian forces engaged in a ten-year war of attrition leading to the fall of Granada in January 1492. Even with Islam defeated, the ideology of the reconquista continued to be felt. It contributed to the increasingly sectarian attitude toward Muslims, Jews, and Moriscos (Muslim converts) that characterized sixteenth-century Castilian society, just as it also fueled Spanish imperial ideology, which saw the creation of an overseas empire—in the Americas and elsewhere—as the fulfillment of the manifest destiny of Christian Spain foreshadowed centuries before.

Bibliography

  • Collins, R.Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400–1000. 2d ed.London, 1995.
  • Kennedy, H.Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. London, 1996.
  • Lomax, D. W.The Reconquest of Spain. London, 1978.
  • MacKay, A.Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000–1500. London, 1977.
  • O’Callaghan, J. F.A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca, 1975.
  • O’Callaghan, J. F.Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain. Philadelphia, 2003.
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