Tales from the Estoria (iii) — An eye for an eye, quite literally

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The book of Exodus left its mark with the expression “an eye for an eye”. I can’t claim to be sufficiently versed in theology to comment on the phrase itself: I’m sure there are many possible interpretations. I do feel the expression, regardless of how it is interpreted, has universal resonance outside of a purely Biblical context. Most recently I came across a very literal case of “an eye for an eye” in an episode from the thirteenth-century Spanish chronicle, the Estoria de Espanna.

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Of great interest to king Alfonso X (1252-1284) was the restoration of Medieval Spain to its former glory. Islam had long been a great contender of Christian Spain, arriving in the Peninsula in the year over five hundred years before Alfonso’s time. In 711 the Muslims crossed the Gibraltar Straits and quickly defeated the Christian Visigoths. The Visigoths were largely seen by Medieval Christians as having been the rightful rulers of Spain. The Visigothic kings were Catholic, and later historians felt God had placed them in power in the fifth century (as the Roman Empire collapsed). Alfonso X ensured the Visigoths had their place in his history of Spain; he wanted to establish a link between himself — in the thirteenth century — and the Gothic kings from centuries before.

Where does “an eye for an eye” fit into all this? Well, in Alfonso’s manuscript we find a section on the life of the last of the Visigoths, king Roderic. He came to power in the early eighth century, taking the crown from his rival, named Wittiza. There had been bad blood between Roderic and Wittiza for a long time. King Wittiza had fought with Roderic’s father and maimed him in the most unpleasant of ways: by removing both his eyes. Avenging this terrible attack on his father, Roderic exacted the same agony upon his enemy: Roderic had Wittiza’s eyes cut out in retaliation! With Wittiza blinded, Roderic took power and was crowned king. His own defeat came soon after, as the Muslims of North Africa and Arabia swept across the Iberian Peninsula.

This narrative is the true epitome of “an eye for an eye”. The chroniclers writing the Estoria intended the story to speak volumes. The tearing out of the eyes was not just it a vicious act of brutality against an enemy: it was symptomatic of the downfall of the Visigoths. Medieval historians quickly decided that the Muslim invasion was a punishment from God. They felt the Visigoths had fallen into sin and shameful disarray, fighting amongst each other and neglecting the Lord God. The last Visigoths were blinded (no pun intended) by power struggles and self-indulgence; the ultimate penalty was the loss of Iberia to the Muslim. It was Alfonso X’s desire to fully restore the pride of Christian Spain, five hundred years after the fall of the Visigoths. Writing history was a huge part of that cultural project.

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