Thursday, May 7, 2015


When Musa left al-Andalus for Syria his armies had already occupied virtually all the Iberian peninsula except for a few remote areas in the far north, including the mountains of Asturias. It was here in about 722 that a Christian force led by a certain Pelayo won a small victory against the Muslims at a place called Covadonga. Possibly, as the late ninth century ‘Chronicle of Alfonso III’ claims, Pelayo was King Rodrigo’s noble sword-bearer and stood for the old Visigothic order; but more probably he was a local leader of the mountain peoples who traditionally resisted all invaders. Whatever the truth, after Covadonga the Muslim authorities made no serious attempt to subdue Pelayo, who was duly proclaimed king by his following, and whose small remote kingdom became a nucleus of Christian resistance and future reconquest. Within a century, Covadonga had been transformed by Christian imagination into a miraculous happening in which Muslim missiles were turned back by the intervention of the Virgin Mary.

In Portugal, the Reconquest – the long, drawn-out process whereby al-Andalus was gradually recovered from Islam by Christian forces advancing from the north – took over five centuries to complete from the time of Covadonga to the surrender of the last Muslim enclave in 1249. Religious differences always underlay the Reconquest; but the early Christian rhetoric was nevertheless as much political as credal. In the Asturian chronicles of the ninth and tenth centuries, the struggle was presented as ‘just’ because it was waged to reclaim a stolen Visigothic inheritance. But in practice more mundane motives were often foremost, including the desire for booty and protection money.

These basic drives, and the fact that cultural interaction with the Muslim world was considerable, not infrequently led to deals and understandings that blurred the lines of faith. There were long interludes of relative peace, broken by periods of heightened conflict. As Fernández-Armesto has shown, the sense of a long, continuing struggle between good and evil – Christianity and Islam – was strong at the Leonese court around the year 1000. But it was not until the late eleventh century that religious fanaticism might be considered the dominant driving force of the Reconquest – and even then, it was far from being the only spur. The territorial ambitions of Christian leaders, sometimes involving intense competition, was another factor of growing importance.

The emergence of the kingdom of Portugal was a long-term by-product of Christian expansion that had its roots in Asturias. After Covadonga the eighth century Asturian kings consolidated their realm, incorporating neighbouring Galicia and the Basque country. Pelayo’s successor, Alfonso I (739–57), declared his descent from Leovigild, effectively laying claim to the Visigothic inheritance. Soon Asturian raiders were penetrating as far south as the Douro valley, laying waste the countryside and plundering Muslim-held towns, including Portucale, Braga, Chaves and Viseu. Unable to hold these places, Alfonso is said to have forced their Christian inhabitants to move north, leaving a deserted buffer zone separating Christian and Muslim territory known as the ermamento. The extent of the ermamento, whether it arose more from forced or spontaneous depopulation, and indeed whether it existed at all, are contested issues among historians. However, it seems that while many people did migrate from the region to safer areas, others remained, and in the late eighth century the ermamento was a virtually autonomous no-man’s land outside the control of either side.40 But in the ninth century, when the emirate in Cordoba was weak and troubled by internal revolts, the Asturian kings were able to move in and establish a presence in the area.

Parts of northern Portugal, notably Minho and Trás-os-Montes, began to be incorporated into the kingdom of Asturias from about the 850s. Subsequently, Alfonso III (866–911) extended his control over most territory north of the Douro – and even into some areas between the Douro and Mondego, regions in which Cordoba apparently showed little interest. The processes of settling these lands and establishing an administrative framework were then pressed forward in the late ninth century. Two important landmark achievements were the seizure of the towns of Portucale in 868 and Coimbra in 879. Vímara Peres, the captor of Portucale, was appointed its count with responsibility for most of Entre Douro e Minho, the area between the Minho and Douro rivers. He was granted generous benefices, and his family remained pre-eminent in the region until 1071.

Under the Peres family, Portucale became a flourishing town and already had its own bishop by the end of the ninth century. Braga, the old capital of Gallaecia, was much decayed; but efforts were now made to restore it, though it was over a century before its bishop returned. A monastery and fortress were also now constructed at the villa of Guimarães, which developed into the spiritual shrine and principal military stronghold of the Peres family. The counts of Portucale worked hard to repopulate Entre Douro e Minho by attracting to it Christian settlers from the north as well as Mozarabs from the south. Meanwhile, counts were also appointed to other important centres in the re-occupied territories, including Chaves and Coimbra. Coimbra was the key to the Mondego valley, but was close to the frontier and therefore vulnerable to Muslim attack. Having been substantially Islamised, it for long retained a predominantly Mozarab population. To Count Hermenegildo Guterres of Coimbra, and his descendants, cultural tolerance and good relations with Cordoba were therefore particularly important.

The counts of Portucale and Coimbra have traditionally been regarded as playing significant if perhaps unwitting roles as precursors of the Portuguese kingdom. In particular, the counts of Portucale have attracted attention because of their association with the place that gave the kingdom its name. The word ‘Portucale’ (Portugal) is derived from the Latin Portus Cale. In Roman times, Cale was a settlement on the left bank of the Douro near its mouth, where the river met the road coming up from the south. There was also a small port on the right bank, and there the Suevi later built a fortress, around which the town grew. Located in fertile country and at a major communications junction, it eventually became Porto, Portugal’s second city; but in the ninth and tenth centuries it was usually called Portucale. The term ‘Portucale’ was also sometimes applied to the entire region between the Minho and Mondego rivers – eventually giving its name to the kingdom of Portugal itself.

Meanwhile, after the death of Alfonso III in 910, the kings of Asturias had shifted their court down to Leon on the Spanish meseta, and the kingdom itself had become known as Leon. The move signalled increasing Christian self-confidence and greater commitment to the permanent occupation of reconquered land. Coincidently the accession of Abd al-Rahman III in al-Andalus helped to stabilise for the time being the western border between Christian and Muslim territory on the line of the Mondego; but when conflict returned in the era of al-Mansur, it was the Muslim side that took the initiative. The period of al-Mansur’s supremacy (980–1002) constituted a terrifying interlude for the Christian north. Repeated raids into Leonese territory wrought widespread destruction and resulted in the capture and enslavement of large numbers of Christian prisoners. In 987 al-Mansur retook Coimbra, then captured and destroyed the city of Leon. King Vermudo II (982–99) was forced to submit and marry his daughter to al-Mansur. In 997, al-Mansur launched a great raid into what is now northern Portugal and Galicia where he captured and burned the pilgrim city of Compostela. Though he spared the shrine of St. James, he carried off the cathedral’s bells and doors to Cordoba, where they were melted down to make chandeliers for the great mosque. Large tracts of the Christian north were ravaged over the next few years, and the border with al-Andalus was pushed back to the Douro.

However, despite the widespread panic and mayhem caused by al-Mansur, his campaigns were more predatory and prestige-building than imperial. Al-Mansur was a master of the razia in the classic Muslim tradition; but he showed little interest in permanently extending al-Andalus beyond the Douro or in sponsoring Muslim re-settlement. Consequently the impact of his campaigns, though momentarily stunning, soon faded. Moreover, after 1008 conflict between Andalusis and the imported Berber soldiery enveloped al-Andalus, bringing its spectacular military revival to a rapid end. Within a decade or two of al-Mansur’s death, the nightmare of his career for the Christians was over, and their advance had resumed.

Leon meanwhile was becoming overshadowed by the growing size and importance of Christian Castile. In 1035 Castile was transformed from a semiautonomous county on the eastern frontier of Leon into an independent kingdom which rapidly assumed leadership within Christian Iberia. Fernando I ‘the Great’ of Castile (1037–65) married the sister and heiress of the king of Leon, and the latter kingdom was absorbed into its larger neighbour. Fernando was now the pre-eminent Christian figure in Iberia, and he styled himself emperor, claiming a general overlordship. A consequence of Fernando’s ascendancy was a shift in the focus of Christian power from the north of the peninsula towards Castile.

On the other side of the frontier, al-Andalus in the early eleventh century had dissolved into a patchwork of taifa principalities with much reduced capacity to resist military pressure. Consequently, all the Christian losses sustained in the time of al-Mansur were soon recovered. In 1064, the Christians re-occupied Coimbra and then went on to extend the frontier to the Tagus. Fernando entrusted reoccupied Coimbra to one of his confidential aides, the Mozarab Sisnando Davidis. Sisnando had been educated at the taifa court in Seville and was thoroughly familiar with Islamic culture. A tolerant broadminded governor, he was respected by the Muslims and Mozarabs under his charge and ruled Entre Douro e Mondego with considerable sensitivity until his death in 1091. Nevertheless, the reconquered lands of northern Portugal remained politically fragmented. The counts of Portucale and Coimbra, whose domains were separated by the Douro, were rivals often at loggerheads. Like other counts they focussed on their own territories and interests, and their careers betray no consciousness of a nascent Portuguese nationhood. As late as the eleventh century there were still no leaders who identified with ‘Portugal’.

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