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To Live Like a Moor, Olivia Remie Constable

To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain, by Olivia Remie Constable, University of Pennsylvania Press, 226 pp, £45, ISBN: 978-0812249484

In late medieval Spain there were clear expectations that Jews, Christians and Muslims should be distinguishable from each other in their dress. It was also expected, throughout the medieval world and indeed in the ancient world, that social and economic distinctions would be evident from dress, hairstyle, jewellery, veils and belts. It is not difficult to imagine that this was conducive to social harmony and reduced the likelihood of misunderstandings, particularly between the sexes, with everyone knowing their place and everyone’s place plain to see by all.

Problems, however, could arise when peoples intermingled as a result of politics, especially as a result of conquest or invasion. To take one example, the Normans invaded in Ireland and, after some time, discovered they were being absorbed by the indigenous population. This was seen by those who had not been absorbed as a major political danger. Their fears were well-founded; absorption involved significant political redirection. In 1366, in an attempt to reverse things, the Statutes of Kilkenny forbade the wearing of Irish dress, intermarriage, use of Irish law, Irish storytelling, granting church positions to Irish clerics, Irish names and Irish games such as hocaí.

This long list suggests that a high level of cultural assimilation had occurred. Indeed, these new regulations seem more aspirational than capable of enforcement. It could be said that the future was not looking good for the remaining non-absorbed element. However, their luck turned.

The Reformation was politically, and for some of this cohort no doubt literally, a godsend which, along with new waves of settlement, saw a reversal of the earlier process and the beginning of a long process of de-Gaelicisation. By the late nineteenth century this process was almost complete. But surprisingly the cultural transformation did not lead to political acquiescence and absorption, quite the opposite. It seems we can conclude that absorption or the lack of it will not have predictable outcomes, that the relationship between culture and politics is not straightforward and that drawing political conclusions from cultural practices in an inexact business.

We are loyal to the king, he may ask us for all that we have and we will give it to him, so long as he does not order that we uncover the faces of our women.

The speaker of these words was a former Muslim from Granada and one of those who chose conversion over expulsion following the collapse of Muslim Spain. The message is just leave us to follow our most honoured customs, particularly those affecting women, and we will give political loyalty. That seems fairly straightforward except that the speaker went on to say that New Christians like himself outnumbered Old Christians in Granada four to one, a statement which carried a threat, albeit unspecific. How much credence, his auditors must have wondered, could be given to such declarations of loyalty?

In 1492 the Muslim kingdom of Granada surrendered to the forces of the Spanish monarchy on condition that they be allowed to continue to practise their religion. This brought the entire Iberian peninsula under Christian control for the first time since the Muslim conquests of 711, which is to say the Muslims had been there for 781 years, certainly sufficient time to develop some specifically and ingrained Granadian Muslim customs.

Within a few years the promise of religious freedom was broken, with Muslims required to choose between expulsion from the peninsula and conversion. Clearly the monarchy of Castile was not willing to risk a large Muslim population within its territory. Tens of thousands chose conversion, becoming Moriscos or New Christians. The monarchy’s objective was to achieve security through enforced conformity. It was an ineffective policy and one they came to abandon after a century of nearly continuous regulation.

The conformity desired extended beyond religious affiliation to the requirement that New Christians abandon their long-standing customs, cultural practices and traditions. Things which caused suspicion among the leaders of the Inquisition included visiting public baths, dress, food, traditional songs, speaking Arabic and possessing books in Arabic.

Olivia Remie Constable tells us:

[T]he first archbishop of Granada, Hernando de Talavera … advised that New Christians should conform outwardly to Christian ways of life, and lest they be suspected of harbouring Muslim beliefs in their hearts, they should appear as good and honest Christians in their dress, shoes and hairstyles.

In 1567 a law was passed in Granada that Moriscos “may not wear Moorish clothing” and that they should wear the same dress as the Old Christians. One official charged with enforcing this law said that it was “dishonest and it did not look right that Christian women should go around dressed like moras”.

The fear was that the Moriscos would constitute a fifth column, potentially assisting the ambitions of North African Muslim leaders and perhaps even of the Ottoman Sultan. It was this fear which lay behind the numerous rules and measures introduced throughout the sixteenth century designed to suppress the culture of the former Granadian Muslims.

Christianisation was to prove a long and unsatisfactory struggle. In the end it was decided that that no matter how many regulations were passed, real assimilation would never take place. But the danger, probably a real danger, remained in the eyes of Spanish rulers. A blunt new direction was sought. In response to these fears and the failure of the assimilation policy the entire Morisco population was expelled between 1609 and 1614 under the rule of Felipe II.



In this painting by Vicent Mestre, Embaraque de los moriscos en el Puerto de Denia (1611), we see the Morisco women (separated from the men) in culturally celebratory and assertive mode, in traditional dress, dancing and wearing the traditional white head coverings, which, we can see, did not extend to the face. The men too seem confident, playing wrestling games on the dock as they wait embarkation. Some 781 years of culture are not casually cast aside.

Expulsions to politically determined homelands are rarely happy affairs. As they continued, it perhaps became known in Spain that the deported Moriscos were encountering difficulties. In any event Vicent Mestre’s painting two years later, Desembarco de los moriscos en el Puerto de Orán, showed the sophisticated Granadians arriving in North Africa only to be attacked, robbed and murdered by savage natives.

It is uncertain whether there is any truth in Mestre’s artistic speculations but it is known that large numbers of the expelled returned to Spain when the opportunity arose. It would appear that these eventually intermingled with the local population, as did Muslims from other parts of Spain, and in time were absorbed both culturally and politically. Genetic testing shows that among Spaniards there is the highest European level of North African markers.

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