Medieval Iberia was a region constantly looking elsewhere. It was first a highly-Romanized client state, then the destination for mass movements from Central Europe during the Migration Period. The Umayyad invasion of 711 CE set up the great historical dynamic that characterizes Medieval Spain beyond any other — the creation of al-Andalus, and its interface with the “Christian world”. Only with the fragmentation of the unified Islamic government in the 11th century and the acceleration of the Reconquista, was the door to unification opened — and even then, it was no certainty.
The Ancient Origins of Medieval Spain
Medieval Spain’s unique political culture was the result of its position at the borderland of the Islamic and the Western Christian worlds. If we look back at the history of the peninsula, we can see how it was formed from a melting pot of heterodox trends, from Rome to Islam — like a mayonnaise of modernity.
Hispania was one of the Roman Republic’s first overseas colonies, and it was heavily integrated into the economy of Roman Empire as three regions: Tarraconensis in the north, Baetica in the west, and Lusitania in the south. It supplied Emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and was strongly Romanized for over 600 years, with a lasting cultural and material inheritance.
With the dawn of the 5th century, Imperial influence had contracted to the point where it could no longer manage the migration of peoples into and out of its nominal territories — and in the 5th century, several Germanic ethnic groups from Northern Europe made their way south into the fertile lands of Hispania. Beginning in 409 CE, large numbers of Central European Vandals, Northern European Suebi and Iranian Alans crossed the Pyrenees and settled in now-ex-Roman Hispania. By the middle of the 6th century, post-Roman Iberia contained three main powers: the sprawling Kingdom of the Visigoths, the smaller Kingdom of the Suebi in modern northern Portugal, and a Byzantine client state called Spania along the Mediterranean coast.
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Many historians see the history of Medieval Spain as having been largely determined by the next event in our brief tour of Medieval Spain: the Umayyad conquest. The Visigoths never successfully “Visigothized” Hispania. They only ever made up the ruling-class, no more than a few percent of the population. A series of succession disputes and a general crisis of legitimacy between the Visigoths and the local Iberians gave the perfect opportunity for the Umayyad Caliphate to invade.
The Umayyads had built on the spectacular conquests of the earlier Islamic empires to become truly world-spanning, stretching from Morocco in the West, to Transoxania in modern Tajikistan. Although we have frustratingly few sources from either the Umayyads or the Visigoths in this period, in 711 CE the Umayyad Caliphs launched a concerted invasion into Medieval Spain, aimed at toppling the Visigothic Kingdom and making into a vassal. The invasion force was mostly Berber, hailing from the Umayyad’s North African domains, and they represented an intensification of the constant raiding by Berbers on the Hispanic coast. It speaks to the weakness and division of post-Roman Hispania that this force, which numbered probably no more than 15,000, was able to have such spectacular success.
When King Roderic I of the Visigoths met the Umayyads at the Battle of Guadalete, a bloodbath ensued — although sources are sparse and largely written sometime after the fact, they all agree that while Muslims casualties were heavy, the Visigoths were slaughtered almost to a man. Roderic was slain, possibly even betrayed by his own allies, and the Umayyad army swept through Medieval Spain, receiving the submission of local elites. The Umayyads would displace the Visigothic ruling class throughout at least three-quarters of the peninsula within just seven short years. They were not satisfied with conquering merely Iberia either — from their staging posts in northern Hispania they crossed the Pyrenees in 717 and carved a foothold in Gaul which lasted until 756.
Occupation or Overlordship?
Far from being an occupation by “barbarians”, as some reactionary historians have characterized it, the Umayyad government of the province of al-Andalus was highly cultured and sophisticated. The regional governors, appointed centrally from the Umayyad capital at Medina, ruled through a series of treaties with local leaders, who were left to observe their own faith and largely manage their own affairs, in return for paying the jizya, a tax predicated on their status as non-Muslims.
Cordoba became the administrative capital of the region, and it flourished, becoming a European center of learning and artisan crafts. When the Umayyads were deposed in Medina by the Abbasid Revolution in 750 CE, the now-outlawed Umayyads in Al-Andalus were powerful and wealthy enough to establish their own independent Emirate. The only surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty, Prince Abd ar-Rahman, fled to Córdoba and established himself in opposition to the Abbasids in Baghdad.
The Emirate of Córdoba was far from isolationist, receiving dignitaries and philosophers from Syria and Byzantium, a full participant in the Islamic Golden Age of the 9th century. The Umayyads and their regional governors built spectacular alcazars (Islamic-style fortified palaces), as well as mosques and public infrastructure, which would persist throughout Medieval Spain and survive into the modern era. In 936 CE, Emir Abd ar-Rahman III declared that the Córdoban state was no mere Emirate, but a Caliphate equal to the Abbasids — claiming universal representation of the Muslim world (although it was not anywhere near capable of realizing such a rule).
However, the glory of Umayyad Medieval Spain was not to last. The Umayyad line saw a series of weak caliphs in the late 10th century, and eventually the Caliphate dissolved into a series of squabbling taifas (independent kingdoms) in a civil war known as the Fitna of al-Andalus, with the Amoravid and Hammudid dynasties contending with independent-minded regional governors for control. Like the Visigothic disunity in 8th century Hispania, this fragmentation provided the opportunity for the sidelined Christian kingdoms in the North to re-assert their independence against the Caliphate.
The Northern Kingdoms
The crucible of small states jockeying for position, not only against al-Andalus but also between themselves, would be the forge that fired the united Christian state of Medieval Spain. These kingdoms have their origins in the conflicts spawned in marginal regions by the Umayyad conquest.
In the north-west, the Astures people never really submitted to Umayyad rule, leading to a continuous rebellion which carved out an independent state under a leader called Pelayo in around 734 CE. It is interesting to note that the surviving material culture of this region shows they explicitly rejected Roman, Visigothic, and Umayyad rule in a long tradition of self-determination. Eventually, the Asturian kings established hegemony over much of the north-east, and the death of Alfonso the Great in 910 CE led to the division of his kingdom between his three sons, creating the kingdoms of Galicia and León.
A Basque-t Case
In the north-east, the only region to successfully resist the Umayyads were the Basque regions, centered around the northern reaches of the River Ebro. As a vital border region between the Umayyads and the Carolingian Empire to the north, this zone was heavily contested. In 824 CE, Iñigo Arista, a Basque leader, declared himself King in Pamplona, founding what would become the Kingdom of Navarre. The Navarrese state has a fascinating historical role, playing a knife-edge political game, both resisting and accomodating Umayyad rule. The early history of the “Christian” kingdoms should remind us that this was not a story of a “clash of civilizations”, but a far more pragmatic game of politics, in which religious concerns could easily be sublimated to realpolitik.
Barcelona, to the east of Navarre, was held more firmly by the Carolingians of France, but frequent neglect by the Carolingians as their own empire narrowed meant that eventually the Counts of Barcelona began governing independently. In 985 CE, the dynamic Umayyad chancellor Almanzor led an invasion which burned Barcelona — and the Franks failed to send aid. When the Capetian dynasty took over the Frankish kingdom from the extinct Carolingian line, the Counts of Barcelona did not even bother sending a representative to swear fealty.
The Reconquista: Setting the Scene for Reunification
Though the small Hispanic kingdoms had made some inroads in pushing back Islamic government, the Fitna beginning in 1009 CE was a turning point. Due to internal strife, the governors of al-Andalus could no longer bring all of their forces to bear against each of the kingdoms in a unified fashion, leading to fatal disunity. From the middle of the 11th century, the Reconquista Kingdoms of the north began to expand steadily southward, even agreeing between each other spheres of influence in which they could each expand into unconquered territory. However, none of the Kingdoms we have mentioned so far would lead the ultimate unification of Medieval Spain. That honor goes to two younger Spanish kingdoms: Aragon and Castile — the scions of whom would be Ferdinand and Isabella respectively, four hundred years later.
Castile, literally “the land of castles”, emerged in the 9th century formed from a collection of small polities in central northern Spain. It was initially the younger brother to the Kingdom of León, to whom its counts owed feudal loyalty. As a succession of capable rulers expanded its influence, it eventually seceded from Leonian influence under Ferdinand I in 1029. Though it would pass in and out of León’s control, the plucky little kingdom successfully executed the capture of the social and political powerhouse of Toledo from the taifa kingdom in 1085, marking a turning-point in the long process of Reconquista. Through some clever wrangling, Ferdinand III of Castile succeeded to the throne of León in 1230, uniting both of the crowns in a personal union and establishing lasting overlordship over both (my, how the tables have turned). By the 15th century, Castile was by far the largest and wealthiest of the Spanish kingdoms, but it was outnumbered by its neighbours and desperately sought to secure its supremacy.
An Upstart Catalan Vassal
Aragon and Castile both trace their origins back to the same event: the dispersal of the holdings of Sancho III “The Great” of Navarre upon his death in 1029 CE. His first son, Ferdinand, received the Castilian portion of his vast kingdom and became Ferdinand I of Castile, while the rather less impressive mountainous region of Aragon went to his third son Ramiro — who styled himself Ramiro I, King of Aragon. While the Castilians sought Toledo in central Spain, Aragonese rulers expanded eastwards and south, taking the city of Zaragosa from the Berber Almoravid dynasty in 1118 CE, with King Alphonso I seating his capital there.
However, soon afterward Aragon fell under the sphere of influence of the Catalan Counts of Barcelona, to be used as a buffer zone between themselves and the aggressively expansionist Kingdom of Castile. Unlike the Castilians, the Aragonese had designs on Mediterranean holdings, initiating a bloody revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in 1282 — after which the Kings of Aragon added the island of Sicily to their portfolio.
Unifying Medieval Spain: An Inevitable Victory?
It is easy, in retrospect, to see the collapse of Islamic authority over al-Andalus as a given conclusion; as inevitable. But this is far from the case. Even disunited, the Islamic taifas were incredibly effective in government and in the field. Their use of foreign saqaliba mercenaries meant that they were an extremely tough nut to crack, and the Kingdoms suffered some precipitous defeats and reversals, such as the so-called “Disaster of Alarcos” in 1195 CE, which led to the Almohad dynasty seriously endangering the Kingdom of Castile. The constant dynastic infighting between the Christian kingdoms was a serious hamstring — but, ultimately, at critical junctures, the northern Kingdoms were able to overcome their differences long enough to wage unified military campaigns. At the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 CE, the Kings of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre all took to the field together in a unified front against the Almohads, inflicting a stunning defeat.
In 1236 CE, the city of Córdoba, the seat of the Islamic government in al-Andalus for over 500 years, fell to the siege of Ferdinand III, King of Castile and León. Although by no means did this make the outcome of the Reconquista inevitable, it was a watershed moment — and one without which there would’ve been no chance of a unified Spain.