Text four: why would the Estoria de Espanna contain the origins of Islam?

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Our latest text might seem like a curious episode to include in a history of Spain. As we have seen, the first half of the Estoria contains much material which is fundamentally Roman history, and this often doesn’t even mention Spain. It then goes on to give us the history of the Goths, which takes us up to 711, the fall of Visigothic Spain and the reign of Pelayo. In one sense, then, it is a history of fall and redemption which leads up to Alfonso’s present day, in the late thirteenth century, when the Christian ruler of Castile and León, and therefore the principal monarch in Espanna, dominates all of the Peninsula. As Inés Fernández-Ordóñez has pointed out,  the Estoria de Espanna is the history of the legitimate lineage which ruled over Spain, a lineage which runs from Spain’s legendary beginnings, through the Romans and the Visigoths and all the way through to the 1270s when Alfonso X is the legitimate inheritor of this tradition.

Given this, it seems like a reasonable question to ask why, in the middle of the reign of the Visigothic king Sisebut, who reigned from 612-621, we find the following passage:

Of how Muhammad took the Quraysh and what he ordered be done to the Moors.

1 In the fourth year of the reign of Sisebut, which was in the the era of six hundred and fifty seven, and in the year of Our Lord six hundred and nineteen, and the eleventh year of the empire of Heraclius, Muhammad had been in Yatrib for five years as we have said, and he left there and went to Mecca. 2 But because the Quraysh, which worshipped idols, still controlled the greater part of the city of Mecca, he did not dare to walk openly through the town, but rather went about under cover and very humbly, so that for some time he did not do or say anything to be taken for or known as a prophet. 3 So he went from there and returned to Yatrib, and gathered a great group of people, both from his relatives and others. 4 And when he saw that he had a great crowd with him, he returned to Mecca and he entered the city fearlessly and he overcame by force the Quraysh and and of those of their lineage. 5 Then he addressed them and spoke to them as though in disdain: “What can I do with you now?” 6 And they said to him: “Whatever you say is fitting, for you are frank and courtly”. 7 He then pardoned them and freed them, and from then forward they were humble and obedient to him. 8 Following this, Muhammad ordered that a moor should go up to the towers where the bells of Christians used to be, and that instead of ringing bells he should call out to all those of their sect so that they should come to prayer, just as you see they do to this day. 9 Furthermore, he ordered that in the month that the moors call Ramadan they should fast for thirty days,  and for a further thirty days in the month that they call Almoharran. And this is the month of June, 10 but the moors count months only by the phase of the moon, so for this reason we cannot say exactly which time or month it is.  11 And the moors, to please Muhammad, made a mosque of the house where he was born, in his honour. 

No doubt you will have your own view on quite why the origins of Islam are to be found in the Estoria. Obviously the presence of Islam in the Peninsula could not be ignored, and although the Estoria does not regard the Islamic rulers as legitimate -thus they do not figure in the lineage referred to above, it does show sufficient interest in all Spaniards (whatever that term might have meant in the thirteenth century) to recount at significant depth the background to the presence of Islam in Spain. The same is true of the histories of the great archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (117-1247), which provided the Estoria with much of its source material. One of Rodrigo’s chronicles, the Historia Arabum, is dedicated entirely to this subject.

The passage is interesting in many ways – not least the differences it presents between this version and the standard account (Muhammad returned back to Mecca after six years but did not enter the city. He returned a year later and overtook the Grand Mosque. Yes, an African did climb the mosque and call for prayer, but there were no bells and there were no Christians in Mecca at all during that period. Ramadan was indeed ordained, but that was before he had entered Mecca, and Muslims do not fast for a further 30 days – thanks to Hasan Patel for pointing these out). You might want to consider these apparently small differences, and what they say about the narrative that the Estoria de Espanna is trying to create.

The (relative) lack of hostility, is also interesting. The stereotype of medieval Iberia is that of hostile religious kingdoms, constantly at war with each other. But in fact, medieval Spain was a much more complex place than that. This passage, and many others in the chronicle, is an indication of familiarity, as much as anything else – people of all religions were familiar with others and their customs. They were not equal, in any society, but there was a recognition, and varying degrees of acceptance, of difference. Knowing about the origins of Islam is a partial indication of this. However, other passages in the Estoria are much more hostile to Islam and Muhammad in particular. Some of these issues will arise in future blog posts, feel free to contribute to the discussion.

This passage challenges twenty-first century readers in many ways. Some of the terms used (“moros”) are derogatory. However, we have left them this way because they are authentic. This is a project which deals with original evidence, and part of what we are (all) doing is to understand that evidence in context. But while we make no apology about the nature of the medieval evidence, we do ask that all discussions of what can be sensitive material is carried out in a respectful manner.

Our fourth passage also contains some interesting manuscript features. Many of you will be familiar with this, but have you all noticed the words in a red box “fueron alçadas como” at the bottom of the left hand folio? The more observant of you will notice that the same words appear at the top of the first column on the facing folio. If you don’t know why this might be, the answer, and a host of other palaeographical questions – including how to transcribe them, will be in tomorrow’s blog post.

In the mean time: happy transcribing!

And remember: if you wish to transcribe further sections of the text, please do so – it will help our future research!

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