Henry VII and King Arthur: Unifying and Divisive Figures

Henry VII King Arthur collage.jpg

Henry VII, King of England, Lord of Ireland and first monarch of the Tudor Dynasty was a fan of medieval romances. Like most men of the era, he wanted to be seen as the embodiment of the chivalric virtues that his heroes displayed in these tales, primarily King Arthur.

At the time of his birth, a prophecy was made. Its origins lay with an older prophecy that foretold the coming of a king who would unite Britain under his banner and bring order to chaos.

Avid readers of fantasy probably know where this is going. Almost every fantasy writer has used this device. Their protagonists have no idea until they do.  They set out on a dangerous journey where they face every major obstacle known to man, until they fulfill their destiny.  Unlike modern fantasies where the hero almost always wins at the end, medieval romances paralleled Greek tragedies.

The heroes complete their tasks, but it comes at a great cost. Such is Mallory’s take on the Arthurian legend. Prior to its publication, the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table was made up of fragments. Storytellers tried to put their own spin on the legend by focusing on one or two characters (at the most). If such a man existed, he must have originated from Wales., where the tale was born. Like many popular folk tales and legends, the conquerors added their own spin to it. After England became united, the tale was absorbed into English lore and Arthur became more than just a Welsh folk tale, but an English hero.

Published fourteen years after his death, Le Morte deArthur remains to this day the definitive account of King Arthur’s reign and the template for many fantasy authors who have continued to add more to this Welsh-Anglicized myth.

Written during the wars of the roses, some scholars believe that it was a political critique meant to reflect the general sentiment towards both warring Houses, Lancaster and York; the disillusionment from the nobles regarding Edward IV’s union with the fair Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Sir John Grey of Groby, and rewarding her family by marrying them to the high aristocracy; and lastly, the author’s own regarding both Houses.

Henry Tudor was fourteen at the time of the author’s death. He would have cared very little about one more former Lancastrian’s death, except for a passing sorrow given that he had fought on their side during the Lancastrian Readeption. Sir Thomas Mallory’s claim to fame came with this mammoth novel. When it was published, the House of York was in shambles.

What was once seen as England’s greatest hope had now become a source of dread. People looked for an alternative and they found one in the form of Henry Tudor, the exiled Earl of Richmond.

Forced to flee England with his uncle following the defeat of his cousin’s armies and his uncle’s death, Henry and Jasper landed in Brittany where they remained for thirteen years before spending their last year of exile in France.

Henry VII King Arthur

THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED

Seeing a window of opportunity with the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, Henry changed his tune from fighting in their name, to fighting in his name. On Christmas of 1483, at Vannes Cathedral (other sources say Rennes), he swore that he would smite the usurper and marry his fair niece, Elizabeth of York, thus uniting both houses and putting an end to the terrible war.

Henry cast himself in the role of the knight in shining armor, the chosen one who had been chosen by God to rule over their realm. Drawing from other Welsh myths and legends, he had the red dragon that represented Cadwaladr on his main standard.

When he was born, Welsh bards sang songs about him. His father, uncle, and grandfather were beloved in Wales, and they saw Owen Tudor’s descendant as part of a prophecy which foretold the return of King Arthur and of another legendary King, which would rule over all the British Isles.

Henry capitalized on people’s superstitions to build his growing legend. He was the exile who crossed the narrow sea; the heir to a once great House, who had come with a ragtag team of soldiers, fledglings, and mercenaries, to fight a greater army led by a tyrant.

These elements were common in every medieval romance. Henry Tudor claimed descent from King Arthur. He was not the first nor the last to do this. His father-in-law, Elizabeth of York’s father, had done this as well. Out of all of them however, it was Henry who pushed the envelope further by portraying his reign as one of peace, unity, law, and order.

Mallory’s version of King Arthur is far from perfect. He remains a flawed character, with Camelot ending up as nothing more than a fair reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The entire story is bittersweet. And therein lies another sad comparison, one that Henry probably thought he could avoid.

Tudor Rose 4

Henry’s device -which became a national symbol of England and a representation of his dynasty- known as the ‘Tudor Rose’ told an alternative tale of the wars of the roses. As with Arthur who had proven his worth by taking the sword out of the stone, having Excalibur granted to him by the lady of the lake, and other magical tokens; Henry Tudor proved himself in the battlefield. He beat Richard, defeated the rebels, and every pretender that came his way. He was the first English King in hundreds of years to sign a peace with Scotland, remaining on good terms with his ancestral rival and neighbor until his death. Henry also financed the first maritime voyages to the new world. Though not successful like those sponsored by the Queen of Castile and King of Aragon, the Catholic Kings (Isabella I and Ferdinand II), they opened the door for future explorers.
Seeing how well the first Yorkist King’s economic policies had worked, he kept some of them, albeit making them better. Like him, he recognized he had to keep the nobles under a tight leash. Instead of marrying them to his wife’s family, he took their private liveries away. Private liveries gave them the right to a private army. Without one, they posed no serious threat.

Henry VII tomb and Arthur's death

THE END OF CAMELOT

But not all was well in paradise. Like his legendary hero, Henry lost most of his loved ones. His uncle Jasper, his firstborn, and his beloved wife and their infant daughter. This last loss broke him. He became a recluse, and like King Arthur, another bitter reminder of what once was and what could have yet might have been.

Survived by his mother, Henry passed away on April 1509. The last book of Le Morte dArthur has Arthur his illegitimate son to the death. Mordred is slain but Arthur is mortally wounded. Seeing the splatter of brains and other body parts, he weeps and laments his reign. One of his men takes him to a barge where he is watched over by three magical queens who take him to the land of Avalon, where he will rest for eternity. The novel ends with a promise. One day Arthur will rise from the grave and come in the form of a just man to make things right again.

Many English Kings did not see the tale of King Arthur as a cautionary tale. They saw Arthur as their role model. Due to his paternal family’s ties to Wales and his peculiar journeys, Henry believed he had more in common with him, and was worthier than his predecessors to take up his mantle.
Henry was right, the year the novel was printed, was the year his reign began. But rather than having celebrated the similarities, he should have been wary of them.

Henry VII’s crown was inherited by his remaining son, Henry VIII. Unlike the terrible state England had been left in by Arthur’s death, Tudor England did not have to worry about that because in our version of the tale, Merlin was still around to help the next generation before he too passed away. In this version, Merlin was not a wise old man but a woman. Henry VII’s mother ensured that her son had a peaceful transition of power. When he reached his age of majority, she retired and passed away quickly.

The age of Camelot had come to an end. Camelot had become a land of nightmares. After the Tudor dynasty died out and the crown was inherited by a Junior branch (that descended from his eldest daughter) chroniclers took a different view of Henry VII’s reign. Henry VII’s last years in power came to define him, with him being portrayed as the miser-king, a dastardly figure whose mother was equally terrible.

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ONCE AND FUTURE KINGS

Like all the Tudors, Henry VII is a fascinating figure. Le Morte dArthur gives us an Arthur we can all root for and empathize with. He is flawed, and it is those flaws that make him relatable because he is human. Similarly, it is (ironically) thanks to all the bashing that Henry VII has received that has made him one of the more relatable monarchs of his dynasty.

They remain the once and future kings. Nobodies who beat the odds to become England’s celebrated figures, but who ultimately were helpless in the face of personal tragedy. Their dream of a perfect kingdom was inherited by their descendants but died with them. Ultimately though, despite his best efforts, his story took a tragic turn. Unlike his hero, he did not die at the hands of his son, nor see his kingdom descend into chaos. He had his Merlin (in the form of Margaret Beaufort) to thank for that; but he did lose many of his loved ones.Over a century later when the geo-political landscape of the British Isles changed, so did his appeal among chroniclers. Chroniclers began to see him in a negative light, painting him and his mother as a stain in English history and shifting the pendulum to the other side when it came to his rivals (primarily Richard).
In a way, this parallels with Arthur’s demise at the hands of his son, Mordred. At the end Mallory’s novel, Arthur regretfully tells two of his knights after he kills Mordred, that his glory has been snatched from him. Though Henry died of natural causes, recent efforts to vilify his name can be seen as a way of destroying his legacy.

Ironically though, novelists and chroniclers’ efforts to make him into a villain, only serve to make him more appealing. Who wants to be interested in a perfect character? Someone who has no flaws and you can’t relate to when you have a man who beat the odds and became King of England?

Subsequent Kings and Queens would delight themselves with tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table but they were far wiser in how they approached this tale. Instead of seeing Arthur as a role model, they regarded him as a cautionary tale; the perfect example of what happens when someone lets himself be overpowered by his vices.

Sources:

  • de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • Mallory, Thomas. Le Morte dArthur. 1485.
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Book Review: Everyman & Other Miracle and Morality Plays

everyman (1)

Art has always been a powerful medium. Some see it as a form of protest, injecting their political thought, to convince others of their ideology (or in this case, instill the fear of God in them), while others see it as another means of expression where political thought isn’t necessary.

Medieval art was no difference. What movies and TV shows are for us today, these plays were for the medieval average Joe and Jane. They were their form of escapism, a distraction from their everyday hard lives.

These plays also worked like fables. There was a lesson to be learned at the end of every tale. And like fables, the protagonist had to go through many obstacles, to realize what was truly important.

Among the few medieval plays that have survived is “Everyman” which this edition heavily focuses on. My advice is that you read every play, not just Everyman.

everyman death2

Each play is a retelling of biblical stories, with some being an original story where protagonist face some sort of obstacle they must overcome with the help of supernatural beings (like with “Everyman”). If these plays had relied solely on scary imagery, the audience would have felt little encouragement to stay through the whole event. Similarly, if the Merchant’s Guild (who financed these plays) had not thrown in something funny, the people would have felt just like they did at church.

The commons were eager for the arrival of the holiday season because it meant they would get to be part of another spectacle. Unlike movies today where you have to pay to see them, these plays were free.

At the time that “Everyman” was released, England had been embroiled in a civil war. The two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty, York and Lancaster, been fighting each other off for over three centuries. Although Lancaster had been wiped off, one scion remained.

Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was seen as the new hope for the House of Lancaster. Those who had fought with his uncle and his fierce queen, fled England and joined him in exile. Henry promised that he would beat Richard and crown himself King, and marry the King’s niece, the Yorkist Princess, Elizabeth Plantagenet. Their union would bring the two sides together, thus, ending the conflict. This oath brought many disaffected Edwardian Yorkists to his side.

After Henry became King of England, there was an outbreak of sweating sickness. People were once again reminded of their stark reality. More than ever, these plays became necessary. They needed something to bring them respite from their everyday hardships.

More than escapism, these plays also offered them a sense of comfort. The common man could see himself in the protagonist, or identify with the other characters and go back home, thinking that like them, if they put enough trust in God, things would get better.

Book Review: Edward III by W.M. Ormrod

Edward III ormond

An excellent biography on one of the middle ages greatest kings, Edward III of England. What makes this biography different from others is that it offers a new perspective on Edward without the need of being condescending to other historians and biographers.

Ormrod acknowledges that many of Edward’s policies were innovative, and praises his maverick nature but he points out that much of the former were nothing new. He simply built on what his predecessors had done, altering some of their statues and regulations to ensure a more stable government.

The Edward that emerges from Ormrod’s biography is ambitious, scheming (plotting with the pope and other councilors to get rid of Mortimer) but also pragmatic and a great military commander who had a great team of administrators and above all, a man not afraid to compromise when the occasion called for it. Ormrod also puts his flaws, while a careful administrator and able leader, his taxation crippled many and there were times when he was forced to submit to Parliament’s rule and the commons’ representatives. This is not a sign of weakness, as Edward was a great negotiator and nothing he did came without a price.

The last years of his reign however after his wife and eldest son died, became decadent and this is seen through the demands of the Good Parliament that Ormrod goes over in various sections. I like the narrative, and that he went step by step explaining how each group was relevant in medieval society and how much it influenced or was affected by Edward’s policies. I only wish it had more details, it seemed as if each part was a short summary and he kept repeating himself at times. Nonetheless, it was still a good book.

Book Review: Demon’s Brood: A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty by Desmond Seward

Plantagenet demons brood by seward
The Plantagenet dynasty will never cease to fascinate us. With the recent explosion of novels and TV shows, people have become more interested in them.
In spite of this, historians are careful not to treat their subjects as modern day celebrities. Many insist in treating them as we would any other historical subject, by being as objective as we can be. However, bias will always exist and as much as I enjoyed this biography, I found that the author perpetuates a lot of the old Victorian myths and stereotypes about these kings and queens.
Desmond Seward subscribes to the view that the celebrated heroes of this dynasty who continued to be revered as national icons, only became famous because of their success in battle and being surrounded by good councilors.
He is quick to tear down through the myths of the most famous of them all, Henry V, by pointing out that he was a far cry from the noble and reluctant hero of Shakespeare’s play of the same name when he invaded France. For this, I was grateful. I partly agree with him. When Henry V invaded France, he ordered his men to leave civilians alone but his soldiers being desperate, and to avoid them turning against him, he turned a blind eye to their crimes. When one town refused to open its doors to him, he charged against his inhabitants. The survivors fled to a fortress where it ended up capitulating to Henry V who had little qualms about the fate of the townspeople.
This is cruel behavior but it is the type of behavior you’d expect from a fifteenth century monarch. Classifying him as a murderer, zealot, power-hungry, and amoral while turning a blind eye to similar atrocities other monarchs engaged in, makes little sense
I also noticed that when it comes to searching for evidence to support his views, he engages in confirmation bias by heavily relying on secondary sources. While I can see the value in these, to place them in higher regard than primary sources is problematic. This is largely in part because they come from a later period where the social and religious background had changed, making this person(s) views quite different from someone living in that era. 
Do not get me wrong. This is not a bad book. Not at all! But it is not great either. History buffs looking for a good book on the Plantagenets might be disappointed in this one. It is entertaining and accessible for newcomers; something you could consider giving to your students if you are an educator or to a friend if you want to introduce him or her to this era.

 

The Myth of Convivencia: Nostalgic Storytelling

medieval convivencia

It is a popular myth that there was a period of religious tolerance among the three Abrahamic faiths during the middle ages which end came with the aftermath of the “Reconquista”. The Reconquista or Reconquest was the Spaniards’ efforts to recover the lands that had been taken by Muslim invaders in 711. At the time that Isabella became Queen of Castile and later her husband and cousin, Ferdinand, became King of Aragon and other territories he inherited from his father; there was only one Taifa (Moorish) kingdom in Spain. It was the last remnant of what some historians refer to as ‘Spain’s golden age’. This is none other than Granada.

While their Muslim invaders tried to do away with their culture, the more committed Spaniards pushed back. The term ‘Andalusia’ as Dario Fernandez-Morera explains in the next paragraph of his book “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval  Spain”, never took hold and in spite of the Christians and Jews submitting to their new masters, they still adhered to their cultural practices.

Al Andalusia 1024px-La_civilització_del_califat_de_Còrdova_en_temps_d'Abd-al-Rahman_III

“Medieval Christians considered the lands Islam had conquered to be part of Spain, not part of Islam, and therefore not as al-Andalus. Their chronicles refer to “Spannia,” avoiding the Arabic term. The mid-thirteenth century Poema de Fernan Gonzales which signs in medieval Spanish the deeds of a tenth-century Castilian hero, specifies that Castile is the best of the lands of Spannia and that Fernand Ggonzals fought even against the Christian kings of Spannia. In fact,  Christians in the North of Spain initially referred to Chrisian dhimmis in Islami Spain as Spani -that is, as Spaniards. “Until the twelfth century,” the historian Miguel Anel Ldero Quesade writes, “Christians, especially those in the Pyrenean area, frequently called the lands of ‘al-Andalus’ Hispani, and so did the ‘gothicists’ from the kindom of Leon, since they considered it unliberated territory.” Valve Bernejo and fellow historian Reinhart ozy have pointd out that the Latin chronicles by Christians in the North of Spain designated as Spania recisely the land that Muslims had conquered.
Significantly, these political references to the land as Spain occurred despite the fact that in the Midle Ages there was no single “kingdom of Spain.” Nonetheless, in 1077 Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile called himself “imperator totius hispaniae” (emperor of the whole of Spain). Another chronicle calls Sancho II of Leon and  Castile (1036-1072) “rex totius Castelle et dominator Hispaniae” (king of Castile and dominator of Spain.) … Christian historians as early as 754, in the Chronica mozarabica, were lamenting “the loss of Spain.” … Julian of Toledo, a prelate of Jewish origin who became bishop of all Visigoth Spain, wrote a History of King Wamba (Historia Wambae), which has been considered a “nationalistic work” defending the patria and the people of Spain in contrast to those of such “foreign lands” as Francia. Muslims themselves often used the word Sspain rather than al-Andalus … Archaeology confirms this Muslim usage: numismatics tells us that the earliest Muslim coins in  Spain, dating from the first half of the eighth century, a few years after the conquest, show on one side the name Alandalus in Arabic and on the other, for proper identification, the Latin abbreviation SPAN -that is,Spania.”
(Fernandez-Morera, The Myth of Andalusia)

Furthermore, there seems to be some misunderstanding among popular historians, who confuse religious taxation with acceptance of religious minorities. Simply put, there was no such thing as love between any of these groups. While people can point to some exceptions, these were extremely rare. For the most part, when Christian or Muslim rulers accepted peoples of a different faith, especially those the latter referred to as “people of the book” (those belonging to any of the Abrahamic faiths), it was because they offered a financial incentive (i.e. they could be taxed).

The special tax religious minorities, including the remaining few who still practiced the Zoroastrian faith, was known as the Jizyah. It can be found in the Quran, Sura (chapter( 9, section 4, verse 29: “Fight against such of the people who despite having been given the Scripture do not really believe in Allah and the Last Day, and who do not hold unlawful that Allah and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, and do not subscribe to the true faith, until they pay the Jizyah, provided they cannot afford it, and they are content with their state of subjection …”

Furthermore, Muslim legalist scholar and Jurist, Abu Yusuf added: “After Abu Ubaydah concluded a peace treaty with the people of Syria and had collected from them the jyzya and the tax for agrarian land, he was informed that the Romans were readying for battle against him and that the situation had become critical for him and the Muslims. Abu Ubaydah then wrote to the governors of the cities with whom pacts had been concluded they must return the sums collected from jizya and kharja and say to their subjects: “We return to you your money because we have been informed that troops are being raised against us. In our agreement you stipulated that we protect you, but we are unable to do so. Therefore, we now return to you what we have taken from you, and we will abide by the stipulation and what has been written down, if God grants us the victory over them.”

While this may seem like a ‘fair’ treatment in an otherwise unfair era, you must not let the eloquence of this holy book and this Jurist fool you. In an earlier Surah, it reminds those who follow the path of Islam that they should be merciful to the unbeliever, but after a certain while, if this fails to convert them, they should turn against them and strike them down for rejecting conversion.

Quran Birmingham_Quran_manuscript“Verily, those who conceal the clear evidences and the guidance which We have revealed, after We have explained them to the people in this Book, these it is whom Allah deprives of His mercy and also disapprove all those who can disapprove, except such (of them) as repent and mend (themselves) and declare clearly (the truth which they used to hide), it is they to whom I shall tur with mercy, for I am the Oft-Returning (with compassion and) the Ever Merciful. But those who persist in disbelief and die while they are disbelievers, these are the ones upon whom be the disapproval of Allah and of the angels and of people and (in short) of all of them. They shall remain in this (state of disapproval) for long. Their punishment shall not be reduced for the, and no respite shall be given to them. And your God is One God, there is no other, cannot be and will never be one worthy f worship but He, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful.” (Quran, Sura 2, verses 59-63)

In her biography on Isabella, Kirstin Downey mentions the violent end that Jews suffered in Granada in 1066, at the supposed height of Spain’s golden age of religious toleration. As preached in the Quran, if a non-believer refuses conversion, he or she should no longer be treated with mercy. In this case, upon suffering an economic collapse, Muslims looked for someone to blame and who better than foreigners whom all of a sudden, it was forgotten how they were also affected by this crisis, and that in spite of facing continuous discrimination by their Muslim peers, they still followed the law.
Specifically, Muslim commons targeted Jews.

“In 1066, Muslims rioted and destroyed the entire Jewish community in Granada, killing thousands more, in fact, than the numbers killed by Christians in the Rhineland at the beginning of the first Crusade. In the twelfth century, the Muslims expelled the entire population of Christians living in the cities of Malaga and Granada and sent them to Morroco.” (Downey, Isabella: the Warrior Queen)

No Jew was spared. Neither were Christians who were captured in raids and sold off to slavery. Of the few that managed to escape and tell the tale is of Georgius of Hungary. After he became a priest, he wrote a memoir where he revealed the horrific details that he and his fellow Christians went through.

“In all the provinces, just as for other sorts of trafficking, a particular public place is held for buying and selling human beings, and places legally assigned for this purpose. To this location and public selling ground, the poor captives are brought, bound with ropes and chains, as if sheep for slaughter. There, they are examined and stripped naked. There, a rational creature made in the image of God is compared and sold for the cheapest price like a dumb animal. There (and this is a shameful thing to say) the genitals of both men and women are handled publicly by all an shown in the open. They are forced to walk naked in front of everyone, to run, walk, leap, so that it becomes plainly evident, whether each is weak or strong, male or female, old or young (and, for women,) virgin or corrupted. If they see someone blush with shame, they stand around to urge those on even more, beating them with staves, punching them, so that they do by force that which of their own free will they would be ashamed to do in front of everyone.
There a son is sold with his mother watching and grieving.  There, a mother is bought in the presence and to the dismay of her son. In that place, a wife is made sport of, like a prostitute, as her husband grows ashamed, and she is given to another man.  There a small boy is seized from the bosom of his mother, and his mother is separated from him. There no dignity is granted, nor is any social class spared. There a holy man and a commoner are sold at the same price. There a soldier and a country bumpkin are weighed in the same balance. Furthermore, this is just the beginning of their evils …
Oh how many, unwilling to bear the crisis of such an experience, fell to the depth of desperation! Oh how many, exposing themselves to die in various ways, fled into the hills and woods and perished because of starvation or thirst, an there’s also this final evil: taking their own hands against themselves, they either wrung out their own lives with a noose, or hurling themselves into the river, they lost the life of their body and spirit at the same time.”

As noted above in Georgius’ memoir, virgins were in high demand. Many of the Sultans’ mothers happened to be Christian women who rose through the ranks, becoming chief concubine or legal wife of their lord and master, the Sultan. Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada fought with his father over his new favorite concubine who had been sold off into slavery to the Sultan. As it happened in such environments where women have to compete against one another so they could become the highest ranking woman in the harem, earning power and respect that they would not have otherwise (unless they were born in the aristocracy); Boabdil’s mother, Aixa felt threatened by his father’s (Abul-Hasan Ali) new concubine, Isabel de Solis. A beautiful Castilian who was the daughter of nobleman Sancho Jimenez de Solis, she was kidnapped by border raiders led by the Abul-Hasan Ali’s brother. Being the first to notice her beauty, he gave her as a present to his brother who was captivated with her on the spot. As a result, Boabdil and his mother sought to undermine her influence. When this didn’t work, they sought the aid of the Catholic Kings.

1492 Granada TCK
Conniving and astute, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, gave him his support, finding it easier to play the Nasrid dynasty against one another so when the right moment came to strike and recover the last piece of lands the Muslims had taken from them, they’d have an easier job doing so.
Their plan worked. As the old saying goes, Isabella and Ferdinand’s arduous campaign and plots paid off. On the 2nd of January 1492, Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan of the last Taifa Kingdom in Spain, surrendered to his once allies turned adversaries.
Isabel de Solis returned to Castile, re-converted to Christianity and lived a quiet life. The same cannot be said for other women. Many had to convert to Islam and adapt to their new surroundings. Boys for their part also faced many struggles. Some like Suleiman I -known as Suleiman “Muhtesem”, “the Magnificent”- former slave, Ibrahim, managed to rise through the ranks and become members of the aristocracy and were free to reconnect with their families, even inviting them to live with them. But once again, these cases were rare and the families had to convert and adopt Islamic practices or else, they wouldn’t be allowed to live with them.

As part of this religious harmonious society, Jews,  Christians and Zoroastrians were segregated. If the person was sickly, a priest, old, a woman or child, he or she would be exempt from paying the tax. Able-bodied men -unless they weren’t financially stable or joined the military- would be obligated to pay the tax if they wanted to be left in peace. However, they could not hold certain offices or walk on certain parts of the street or put their business in a place where it competed with local Muslim businesses.
Also, religious minorities were prohibited of living in the same neighborhood as their Muslim peers. The dead were also segregated. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians had to have separate cemeteries.

One aspect that is often criticized of medieval Europe is the treatment of conversos of Moriskos, that is, Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Rarely, the same attention is given to the religious minorities that converted to Islam. As their counterparts in Christian Europe, these new converts were always seen with suspicion (and envy whenever they rose higher than their Muslim peers). Ibrahim, the aforementioned favorite of Suleiman I is proof of that. Jealous of his rise, they convinced Suleiman that he was a threat. Suleiman, threatened by his former slave’s popularity, believed them and he ordered his execution.

High or low, converts or still part of the religious minority; regardless of how productive they were or how much they achieved, they were never seen by their Muslim peers as their equals.

In his dissertation, Spanish scholar Eduardo Manzano-Moreno criticizes the proliferation of this myth, stating that it is nothing more than wishful thinking.
“El de Convivencia es un concepto que ha sido poco elaborado.”
(The concept of Convivencia is a concept that hasn’t been fully elaborated.)

He is right. “Convivencia” is a symptom of nostalgic story-telling. It is how some wish to remember the past instead of accepting it as yet another complicated era of human history.

Sources:

  • Downey, Kirstin. Isabella: The Warrior Queen. 2014.
  • Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
  • Fernandez-Morera, Dario. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. Intercollegiate Studies. 2016.
  • The Quran (Modern English Translation)
  • Manzano Moreno, Eduardo. Qurtuba: Algunas Reflexiones criticas sobre el califato de Cordoba y el mito de la Convivencia. Awraq n7, 2013. ( http://www.awraq.es/blob.aspx?idx=5&nId=96&hash=ac20943d589408c5a0a3cd2c1e0908a4 )
  • Tremlett, Giles. Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen. Bloomsbury USA. 2017.
  • I also recommend my co-author’s blog where my article is linked to her take on this subject. HERE