From Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête party to Ukrainian nationalists, the term reconquista has become a popular one. Without reference to specific political projects, as a ‘brand,’ the Reconquista’s appeal seems to lie in its romantic evocation of the Middle Ages and the idea of clashing civilizational spheres, as well as of regaining what has been lost.
The following is meant as an introduction to the historical process this word describes, illuminating its lessons with a view to further exploration.
“Restauratio” and The Lost Kingdom
It was recently the 1,300th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Reconquista, a process that ended in 1492 with the taking of Granada.
Tradition holds that the nearly eight centuries-long campaign to end Arab rule over the Iberian Peninsula was set-off by a single man: don Pelayo. In the year 722, on a 27th and 28th of May, he led an insurrectionist cadre of northern refugees to victory against the newly arrived Muslim authorities and their local allies. This would henceforth be remembered as the battle of Covadonga.
Today, however, in its comprehensive pursuit of cultural entropy, Spain’s prevailing deconstructionist intellectual climate is committed to denying the existence of a Reconquista per se, arguing that this term (a relatively modern coinage, granted) denotes a mythic construct rather than objective historical fact.
Indeed, the Reconquista is a myth, but not one invented after the fact. Rather it inspired the pursuit of, and ended up coinciding with, historical reality. The ideal it describes became prevalent in the course of those events which it describes, not post hoc:
The truth is that, since the High Middle Ages and long before the Reconquista entered its last stretch, the legendary construction of those events and motives surrounding the loss of Spain to Muslim troops had become a matter of chronological and historiographical accounts across the whole length and breadth of the Peninsula.
In deference to these “chronological and historiographical accounts,” we should prefer the more comprehensive term of Restauratio—“Restoration”—conforming as it does to the chronicles and poetry of the period in question, which describe Spain as a lost kingdom in need of being restored. Reconquista, properly speaking, would correspond specifically to the military labor involved in Restoration. We may add a further, third, term: what historians call the Repoblamiento—the re-populating of southern territories with Christian settlers from the north—to describe the Restoration’s demographic and societal facet.
The sense in which Reconquista is usually used by historians, however, is not merely martial, and de facto refers to the medieval concept of Restauratio. This is the case in the following passage by historian Claudio Sanchez Albornoz (whose translation I am rendering wordier than the original for the sake of clarity):
The Reconquista spared us from being a minor player in Islamic civilization, at this far-off peninsula of the great peninsula that is Europe. Without the Reconquista, our past and our present would be inexplicable. Is this term an exact one? I do not hesitate in answering that it is. “Reconquista” describes the ambitious pretension to recover the Spanish motherland.
Albornoz goes on to draw our attention to the medieval Chronicle of Alfonso III, dating to the year 886, which tells the story of the Restoration’s harbinger, don Pelayo, and the beginning of many centuries of struggle. This chronicle cites Pelayo as speaking the following words to a traitorous bishop called Oppas, who had come to talk him out of his insurgency:
It is our hope in Christ that, from this mountain you see before you, we might achieve the salvation of Spain.
To the medievals, Spain was something in need of saving. Theirs was a conscious struggle on behalf of a specific identity.
Consistency and Consciousness of Restoration
Medieval chronicles depict Spain as a national, religious, and political project. In these sources, “Spain” refers to the peninsular unity that existed under the Visigothic monarchy with its capital in Toledo (itself a continuation of the Roman diocese of Hispania), and the Muslim invasion is described in terms of the near ubiquitous theme of “the loss of Spain” (la perdida de España).
In this context, we may reference a wealth of sources, from the 8th century Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, the late 9th century Albeldense chronicle, the early 12th century Silense chronicle, the late 12th century Najarense chronicle, the Chronicon Mundi by Lucas de Tuy from about the same period, and the 13th century De rebus Hispaniae by the Archbishop of Toledo Ximenez de Rada (apart from the afore-cited Chronicle of Alfonso III). We also have Alfonso X’s mammoth 13th century Estoria de España, drawing all relevant sources together.
We may also cite Spanish epic poems whose heroic knight or king advances the Reconquista, such as the 13th century Poem of Fernán Gonzalez on the founding of Castile, or the Catalan Llibre dels Fets (the earliest manuscript of which dates to the 14th century), with their explicit references to Spain as opposed to those territories under Moorish rule.
Finally, Queen Isabel herself will refer to the taking of Granada in 1492 as the restoration of the kingdom of Toledo, linking it to the 711 defeat of the Visigoths by the Muslims, and thereby articulating a comprehensive national mythos concerning the Restauratio, one to which, again, historical reality had been made to conform.
The concept of Restoration is, therefore, intimately tied to the old Visigothic kingdom. This yearning for the fallen Regnum of the Goths has been described by historians as the “neo-Gothic ideal.”
Again, this comes through clearly in medieval sources. In ecclesial and palatial matters for instance, King Alfonso II (d. 842) arranged his realm according to the old Gothic order, just the same as it had been in Toledo (“omnemque Gotorum ordinem, sicuti Toleto fuerat, tam in ecclesia quam palatio in Ouetao cuncta statuit,” as we read in the Albeldense chronicle). Similarly, the Chronicle of Alfonso III longs for that “Spain, governed by a single law, under the kingdom of the Goths, whose wisdom and sciences shined over other lands.” Following Alfonso II, Asturian monarchs adopted a clear policy of southward military advance, beginning with the 9th century King Ordoño I (d. 866) and his son, Alfonso III (d. 910).
And this work of kings and courts in the north was met by that of scattered, captive communities and their chroniclers in the south.
The so-called Mozarabs—that is, Hispano-Roman Christians living under Arab Muslim rulers—were to be instrumental in retaining the memory of that old, Visigothic political order; a memory to which they remained committed in part owing to their general political disempowerment and economic deprivation under Arab elites and with respect to North African, Muslim colonists, resistance to which was often met by severe reppraisals, including crucifixion.
Even Hispano-Roman converts to Islam, or Muladis, were at times deprived of their rights as compared to foreign colonists. Abd al-Rahman II, for example, Emir of Cordoba between 822 and 852, worked to block indigenous Muslims from positions of political responsibility. Unsurprisingly, then, Mozarab resistance movements were accompanied by Muladi protests (those of the year 880 in Cordoba constitute a prominent example, but Muladi insurrections against the authorities of Cordoba are common in the history of al-Andalus).
The Mozarabs would serve as a ubiquitous demos, loyal to northern poleis, allowing Christian kings to project themselves towards the south, confident of the support of a portion of the population. Like the Biblical Israel, these Hispano-Romans constitute a scattered and captive body politic longing for the lost city of Toledo and the realm it represented.
To paraphrase historian Daniel Gomez Aragones’ Toledo: Biography of a Sacred City, “Toledo is our Jerusalem and our Rome.”
Reconquista against Rapine
The prospect faced by medieval Spaniards of becoming “a minor player in Islamic civilization” as our historian, Sanchez Albornoz, put it, is significant: for the most part, those polities helmed by Muslims in Iberia had no concept of ‘Spain’ and deprivileged local peoples with respect to outsiders. Al-Andalus was (in general, and granting its long, diverse history) the geographical extension of political structures whose centers of power were elsewhere, and its political protagonist, so to speak, was a colonizing demos.
A political project which treated the territory of the Iberian Peninsula and its people as an appendage, rather than preserving and integrating its pre-existent polity, corresponded to the overall cultural displacement of local, Latin forms, including language, and the relative social disenfranchisement of natives.
In addition, we may point out that, whatever its virtues, the civilization that entered Iberia in 711 included female sex-slavery and the production of male eunuchs (in which context male sexual slavery and pederasty was well represented, including in poetry, in al-Andalus, a point of stark contrast to the Christian north). However contrary to a thorough application of Islamic law these aberrations might be, they have been consistently engaged in throughout Muslim history (in the case of eunechs, for example, the practice to get around legal prohibitions was to have non-Muslims perform the castration, after which Muslims would purchase the castrated slave).
During certain periods, such as under al-Mansur (latinized Almanzor), from 978 to 1002, the Muslims engaged in frequent northbound slave-capturing expeditions. The advance of the Reconquista and expansion of its northern kingdoms put an end to these practices. Of course, European medieval society could practice slavery as well. But the sheer scale of this practice in Muslim al-Andalus, and its manifestation as sexual captivity and the production of eunechs must be taken into account when understanding what the Reconquista was replacing.
In this vein, the Akhbar Majmu’a, an early 11th century compendium of accounts concerning the conquest of al-Andalus, speaks of a single raid from which Musa ibn Nusayr, the first Arab lord of Iberia, captured more loot and prisoners than had been seen before; Ibn-Qutaybah al-Dinawari writes of the craftsmanship of a table taken by Musa to Damascus, the likes of which Muslims had never encountered. We find similar expressions of wonder in ibn-al-Faradhi and ibn-Idhari al-Marrakushi. Al-Razi and al-Qutiyya also provide accounts of voluptuous rapine, including “a cascade of emeralds and rubies in such abundance as no man had seen before,” indicating the wealth and sophistication of Visigothic Spain, to which may be added references to engineering works, such as a bridge over the Tagus River, that impressed the newcomers.
Later, Musa ibn Nusayr went to Damascus to pay homage to the caliph, bringing spoils consisting of a litany of jewelry, as well as “eleven hundred prisoners, men, women and children, of whom four hundred were princes of the royal blood,” per a certain Abu Jafar al-Qurtubi. Musa himself is recorded as telling Caliph Suleyman ibn-Abd al-Malik that the people of “Ishban” (Hispania—the Arabs would only later come to refer to Iberia as “al-Andalus”) have dissolute lords but brave knights.
The Myth of al-Andalus
There is a tendency, in some quarters, to romanticize al-Andalus as a place and period characterized by overall tolerance and great progress (an idea several historians on whose work I am drawing have endeavored to refute, albeit they have their own biases). This tendency accompanies an emphasis on the degree to which knowledge in an array of specialized fields entered Europe from the Muslim world through Spain. Without denying this, we should, however, point out that Visigothic Spain had already produced encyclopedias of the likes of St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and the Liber Glossarum (c. 600-625).
Indeed, an opposite enrichment of Islamic civilization by the Gothic kingdom is attested early on, for example, in a chronicle attributed to the above mentioned al-Qurtubi, who records how, upon entering the Gothic capital of Toledo, the Muslim conqueror Tariq found
books treating of the manner of using plants, minerals and animals advantageously for man, besides many wonderful talismans, the work of ancient philosophers, and another work on the great art (which teaches the construction of talismans), and its roots and elixirs; all these precious objects, together with an immense quantity of rubies and other colored gems, stored in golden and silver urns of beautiful workmanship.
The bias towards interpreting the (at times exaggerated) refinements of al-Andalus as eastern contributions to the West also occurs, for example, when discussing so emblematic a legacy of al-Andalus as the Alhambra palace in Granada. Here, again, it is necessary to dispel certain myths. Alhambra is an example of Andalusi architecture, characterized in part by its horse-shoe arches, a Roman feature inherited by the Spanish Visigoths. After encountering this element, Muslim architects began using the horse-shoe arch as far as Egypt, but generally no farther east. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which showcases many styles from various periods, features few such arches, and these in late, Ottoman structures. Monumental Arabian architecture (such as might be found in Yemen) is altogether different.
In other essays, I have written that the decline of imperial structures at the level of institutional power can correspond to their rise as delimited cultural and civilizational spaces, no longer able to convincingly project ambitions to world hegemony, but retaining the vision of ecumenic, universal order—one which is now expressed in terms of pursuing harmonious relations, both internally and along with fellow, ecumenically-endowed civilizations (this approach owes a great deal to Eric Voegelin). The ideal of empire becomes identified with harmony rather than hegemony, which allows for a truer understanding of universal order, for we risk idolatry when transcendent principles are reified and connected exclusively with a single, imminent center of power.
In the European context, this occurred in the case of the founding myth of Rome, with various peoples, including as far-afield as Iceland, coming to identify with Virgil’s Trojans. This represents “the translatio of Trojan Empire, not the expansion … the imperium they celebrate is not that of ultramarine conquest, but of national sovereignty,” in Wilson-Okumara’s words, a characterization we can agree with, up to a point. In the same vein, Frances Yates writes that the Roman Empire’s “revivals, not excluding that of Charlemagne, were never politically real or politically lasting; it was their phantoms which endured and exercised an almost undying influence.”
Spain’s Restauratio involves just such a translatio.
It is striking that the people who actually fought for the Reconquista, and who settled in the land which they won from the lords of Cordoba and others, carrying out the Repoblamiento of these territories, were often northern barbarians who had remained somewhat outside both the Roman and Visigothic spheres, namely the Asturians, Cantabrians, Bardulians, Basques, and other folks along Iberia’s north Atlantic. These societies had, of course, already begun transforming, becoming Roman and medieval, but they had been the last to do so, and, in some cases, had not done so fully at the time of the Arab conquest.
Yet they would finally take up the mantle of Roman and Gothic authority which they had previously resisted, becoming its champions.
The integration of this savage-civilized duality is like that of northern political kingdoms and southern, stateless Christians that we discussed previously. The magnetism between these forces pushed the Reconquista forward.
Reconquista and Repoblamiento
These peoples would be the agents of a historically consistent policy of population replacement, by means of which a politically loyal, culturally Latin, and religiously Christian population came to fortify and inhabit central and southern Iberia. As the Rotensis chronicle puts it descriptively in the context of the city of Gijón, with a certain rhyming assonance whose musicality suggests a kind of pithy mission statement, “tunc populatur patria, restauratur eclesia” (its land is populated, as the Church is restored).
This explains why modern population analyses find an east-west, rather than north-south, clinal spread in Spain’s genetic structure: southeastern populations descend from northeastern ones, and southwestern populations descend from northwestern ones.
The term populare is often used in the chronicles. Indeed, at a certain point, much of Spain—prominently Castile—had been won by popular militias who established fortified villages organized through the direct-democracy of open councils. This political structure was detailed in the 13th century by King Alfonso X in one of the most sophisticated medieval works of legal thought, the Partidas (interestingly, Hernán Cortés would invoke this provision in Castilian law to justify his founding of Veracruz and entry into Mesoamerica, despite the governor of Cuba’s opposition).
The Repoblamiento was largely carried out through the issuance of cartas pueblas by kings and lords, as well as ecclesial authorities. These were documents that guaranteed certain rights to specific groups of people in return for their settling in specific areas (including the no-man’s land that had formed between the Christian north and Muslim south). Feudalism was thus excluded, and free communities loyal to the crown under whose auspices they had been mobilized were established.
The emphasis on the autogestion (“self-management”) of the municipio (“municipality”) in Spanish political thought, therefore, constitutes a medieval inheritance, down to the anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish civil war or VOX spokesman Jorge Buxade’s reference to the importance of municipal, local communities as centers of resistance against globalist monoculture in his recent speech at CPAC in Budapest.
The Reconquista represents a conscious, multi-generational project. It attests to the ability of the human collective to determine its identity in the face of contrary forces, and to do so without strict political unity, but on the basis of a shared ideal. It is also evidence that history is not all “on the surface”—there are subterranean streams whose waters run underground for long stretches before emerging once more. The past has not passed. The past to which we pledge ourselves can lie ahead.