Words and religion in the Estoria de España

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As has already been explained in previous entries on this blog, two significant matters for Christian and Muslim religious history are included in the Estoria de Espanna. The chapter entitled ‘On the events of the fourteenth year, when the true cross was found’ describes the discovery by Helena of the place where Jesus was crucified, and the fourth transcription passage, ‘Of how Muhammad took the Quraysh and what he ordered be done to the Moors’ is centred on the entry of Mohammed into Mecca. 

Thus, one would imagine, that in these texts there would appear terms and proper nouns related to both religions. In the first group we could include the participle crucifigado ‘crucified’. This form with the phoneme /k/ voiced should not be a surprise, as it is not rare in Alfonsine historiography: it is found in the Estoria de España (Edition by Pedro Sánchez-Prieto, 2002) and in the Partidas, but also in the Duelos de la Virgen y Milagros de Nuestra Señora, by Gonzalo de Berceo (circa 1198 – circa 1264) and in two biblical translations of the same century, all of which is shown in the CORDE database. Another term related to religion is ídolo, ‘image of a deity object of worship’, from the Greek εἴδωλον (‘imagen’, DCECH, (image)): ‘ídolos de Venus’ (‘idols of Venus’). In this case is it usual to apply ídolo to pagan representations. In the General Estoria, for example, it is used when speaking of the religious customs of pre-Christian peoples such as the Egyptians (‘ídolo de Apis’), Romans (‘ídolo de Júpiter’) and ancient Jews (‘ídolo del vezerro’). This meaning is recognised very clearly by Covarrubias (1611): ‘está contrahido a sinificar alguna figura, o estatua: la qual se venera por semejança de algún dios falso, como Iupiter, Mercurio (…)’ – ‘it is used to signify a figure or statue, which is venerated for its likeness to a false God, such as Jupiter or Mercury(…)’.

We also draw your attention to the use of romería to mean ‘religious pilgrimage’: ‘la muy sancta Emperadriz Elena estando en Roma enuiol mandado en uision muchas uezes el nuestro sennor dios que fuesse a tierra de iherusalem otra uez en Romeria’ (EE, Ms. E1) (‘to the very holy Empress Helena, whilst in Rome, our Lord God sent as a vision several times that she should go to Jerusalem again as a religious pilgrimage’). If the meaning given in the DLE is a ‘journey or pilgrimage’ for devotional purposes, what is certain is that in the thirteenth century the term was applied to all types of journey to a sacred place, including remote destinations such as the Holy Land, and that the Alfonsine historians extended the term to non-Christian beliefs, for example in a fragment of the General Estoria, which recounts the ‘romería’ or Oedipus to the temple of Apollo. This usage would endure in the works of much later authors, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who speaks of the custom of going as a ‘romería’ to see the ‘idol of Cholula’ (c. 1568 – 1575) [1]. Lastly, in the final part of the chapter, it is recounted that Helena put a part of the wood from the cross in a  chest and left it in a ‘monesterio de virgines’, a ‘monastery of virgins’ (Ms. C). The word monesterio / monasterio comes from the Late Latin MONASTERIUM, and is used indiscriminately for the houses of members of religious orders of either sex. The word vírgenes needs no explanation, but here it should be said that in this text it is used to refer to abbesses or nuns.

A text about the venture to the Holy Land should have some toponyms: the inevitable iherusalem (Ms. E1), ‘Jerusalem’, as well as the starting point, Roma, Rome. The proper names that appear are Elena, Helena, the emperadriz, empress, and later the reina, queen, and her son the emperor Constantino, Constantine.

The following text has in its leading role Mohammed in the holy city. Toponyms appear, which are related to its sacred history, such as Yatrib, the ancient name for Medina, and Meca, Mecca. Furthermore, we see the proper name for the prophet known as Mahomat, Mohammed, something habitual in medieval Castilian texts, for both the prophet himself and for other people who bear his name (‘Don Mahomat Aban Mahomat Aben Hut, rey de Murçia’, 1253)[2]. To signal the time period in which these events took place, the reign of Sisebuto, Sisebut, is mentioned, the Visigothic monarch who died in 621 (Ms. E1).

Interesting to note is the presentation of aspects of the Muslim religion using the Castilian words of this period; we see Ramadán, Ramadan, and almoharrán, terms about which the authors write in the following way: “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.” Both terms also appear in in the Libros del Astrolabio llano, by Rabí Zag (c. 1277, CORDE), where they are mentioned within an explanation of what they call the ‘meses moriscos’, the ‘Moorish months’. On almoharrán it says that it is the ‘first month’. Whilst Ramadán was included in early dictionaries (Covarrubias 1611), almoharrán  was not so lucky, and is not included in the lexicographical works of the era. Well known is the mezquita, from the Arabic másǧid, ‘chapel, temple’ (DCECH), found in numerous medieval books, and also abundantly in the chancellery documentation.[3].

One of the biggest lexical curiosities is the mention of the Quraysh people, called in the Estoria the coraxinos, or in C the coroxinos as a variant form. We do not have information about the origin of this name, and it only tells us that they were the inhabitants of Mecca, and apparently pagans, given that they ‘aoravan los ydolos’, or ‘adored idols’ (Ms E1).

In conclusion, these two texts, although different in their content, provide interesting data about Alfonsine Castilian, vocabulary in particular, and even more so, through the presentation of Arabisms, proof of the thirteenth-century Castilian authors’ knowledge of Muslim culture.

Delfina Vázquez


[1] Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España. Edition by Carmelo Saéz de Santa María. Madrid: CSIC, 1982. Available in the CORDE database.

[2] Donation letter. Documentos del rey Alfonso X dirigidos al Reino de Murcia. Published by Mª Teresa Herrera y Nieves Sánchez. Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, Madison, 1999. Available in the CORDE database.

[3] We give as earlier examples the document by Barbastro about the Mezquita (1102) or the distribution of Murcia (1257-1270), amongst others recorded in the CORDE database.


CORDE= RAE: Corpus Diacrónico del Español, <http://www.rae.es/recursos/banco-de-datos/corde>.

Covarrubias, Sebastián de (1611) : Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. Madrid, Luis Sánchez.

DCECH = Corominas, Joan and Juan Antonio Pascual (1980): Diccionario Crítico Etimológico Castellano e Hispánico. Madrid: Gredos.

DLE = RAE: Diccionario de la Lengua Española. <http: //www.rae.es>


Delfina Vázquez Balonga has a doctorate in Spanish Language Studies (2015). She is currently a lecturer at the University of Alcalá. Her research interests are lexis, onomastics and syntax in archived documents from the 16th to the 19th century. She has published various books and articles on the material she studies.


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