The decisive battle of the Reconquista was the Batte of las Navas de Tolosa which delivered Toledo and central Spain to the Christians. The Battle of the Puig illustrated here was fought two decades later (1237). The battle opened the way for the Aragonese conquest of Valencia (1237). The Arogonese royal forces were led by Bernat Guillem d'Entença who fought the forces of the Taifa of Valencia commanded by Zayyan ibn Mardanish. The red and yellow were the colors of Aragon and would eventually become the colors of the Spanish flag. The battle was a decisive victory for the Aragonese as the Christian forces of the Reconquista pushed relentlessly south. The painting is attributed to Andrés Marçal de Sax about 1400-20. Holding: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The impact of the crusades on the way Europeans fought was far-ranging. Contact with Byzantium and the Near East affected western European fortification and siegecraft, leading directly to the construction of castle complexes and ways to reduce them. Tactically, the invading mounted cavalry would meet their greatest challenge in the incumbent weapon system of the Near East, light cavalry. The conflict between these two cavalries would teach valuable lessons to the western Europeans about the strengths and weaknesses of their own mounted shock combat and the importance of combined arms when dealing with enemy light cavalry. But these lessons were not only learned in the Levant. On the Iberian peninsula, Christian commanders adapted to the novel tactics and technologies of the Moors in their four-and-a-half-century struggle with Islam known to history as the Reconquista, or ‘Reconquest’ of Spain.
In the early summer of 711, Muslim invaders from north Africa had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and attacked the Iberian peninsula. This Arab-led Berber army crossed from Morocco to the southernmost tip of Spain, landing on a huge rock the Arabs named Jebel Tariq (‘Rock of Tariq’), after their commanding general, from which the modern-day Gibraltar derives its name. General Tariq ibn Ziyad’s military expedition was the latest of a series of Islamic conquests that brought lands stretching from Morocco to Persia under the banner of the Crescent Moon.
Although Tariq was an Arab, he commanded an army that was made up mostly of Berbers, a north African people recently converted to Islam. After gathering more Arab reinforcements from north Africa, the Muslim army swept north, defeating the army of the Christian Visigothic king Rodrigo at Guadelete in July, then marched north again and seized the Christian capital at Toledo. Visigothic resistance melted away and by 714 nearly the entire peninsula lay under Arab rule. The Arab conquerors quickly established an Islamic state in what they called Al-Andalus, known to historians as Moorish Spain.
After the rival Abbasid dynasty ended the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus in 750, the surviving Umayyad ruler set up an independent caliphate in Spain, but was held in check by the Spanish March put in place by Charlemagne in the 770s. But as the Carolingian Empire began to lose its power and influence in the middle of the ninth century, this Spanish March became vulnerable to Moorish attacks. Christian Barcelona was sacked in 852, and the Spanish March fractured into what would become the smaller kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, Castile and Leon.
In 1031 the Umayyad Caliphate disintegrated into twenty-three small and relatively weak states, called the Taifa kingdoms. No longer threatened by a strong centralized Islamic state to the south, the small Christian kingdoms in northern Spain were finally able to attempt expansion. In 1064 the duke of Aquitaine joined the Catalonians and Aragonese and attacked Barbastro, cutting its water supply and taking the city after a forty-day siege. The Christians massacred the Muslim men and enslaved their women and children. And although Barbastro was retaken by the Muslims, this attack is usually considered the opening phase of the Spanish Reconquista. What began as a regional conflict eventually evolved into a pan-European crusading movement, complete with military orders and papal sponsorship.
Like Carolingian France, Christian Spain adopted feudalism in an attempt to meet its manpower needs, but the term ‘feudal’ should be used sparingly here. Although there was an institutionalized requirement for lords to provide troops for their monarchs, it was a far cry from the strict Frankish feudal system developed north of the Pyrenees, mostly because of its uneven application by the various Spanish kingdoms. The Spanish rulers in Aragon, Navarre, Castile and Leon maintained the right to summon armies in times of need, but the overall effectiveness of these peasant levies was suspect, and these monarchs’ reliance on mercenaries (both Christian and Muslim) began to take a toll on the combat effectiveness of their armies. However, through the use of milites (professional, full-time soldiers, armed with lance and spear) and caballeros villanos (non-noble knights supported by termed benefices), these Spanish kings created capable armies for the reconquest of central and southern Spain and Portugal.
As the Christians pushed south of the sierras and onto the high plains, long-distance raiding or cabalgadas increased in importance. Military campaigns involved raiding and the besieging and capture of cities. And once land was liberated from the infidel, these same Christian monarchs used captured castles and fortified towns or built new ones to pacify recently conquered land or as bases to launch raids deeper into enemy territory. This expanding Spanish frontier became, in the words of one well-respected historian, ‘a society organized for war’.
Eventually, as towns were liberated, they were divided by their new Christian landlords into cabalerias (cavalry portions exempt from taxation) and peonias (infantry portions where taxes were paid), and areas of land were granted to settlers (peones) who were willing to provide the assigned obligation. Peones who became rich enough could become caballeros villanos. The numerous Muslim Andalusian troops who remained to serve in Christian armies were simply listed as non-noble cavallers or horsemen.
With access to more land to support cavalry, the composition of the Christian feudal army began to change, with lords fielding more cavalry at the expense of infantry. Spanish lords did utilize Frankish-style heavy cavalry, but added a lighter version to their tactical mix. These light cavalry mounts were thoroughbreds (jinetes) equipped with low saddles, shorter stirrups, and specially shaped palate bits for increased control (and therefore mobility). This new bit allowed for neck reining, which gave the rider more control over his mount. The short stirrup and low saddle differed from those of knights from the rest of Europe who sat securely straight-legged on high saddles, a position ideal for shock combat using lances. This new Spanish light cavalry’s short stirrup and low saddle also allowed for quick remounting, and the smaller and faster mounts were better suited to counter the lighter and more agile Muslim light cavalry horse archers and mounted javelineers that used the karr-wa-farr (simulated flight) as their best offence. This new Christian light horse went so far as to adopt a similar feigned retreat, known to the Spanish as torna-fuye.
The Christians fought with a combined-arms tactical system which included unarticulated heavy infantry, light infantry bowmen and javelineers, northern European-style heavy cavalry and the new, Moorish-inspired light cavalry. Christian troops were usually better armoured than their Muslim counterparts, with noble and non-noble milites and cavallers wearing mail hauberks, separate mail coifs and metal helmets, and armed with maces, cavalry axes, sword and, if properly saddled, lances.
The Islamic forces engaged against the Spanish Christians were primarily cavalry, with mounted soldiers outnumbering the foot soldiers. Muslim and Christian light troops, both mounted and unmounted, used javelins (weapons discarded north of the Pyrenees after the Viking age) and powerful composite bows effectively, but Muslim light cavalry and light infantry generally went to war unarmoured. The Muslims also utilized an ancient Berber strategy of using camel laagers as a screen from which to launch attacks (the smell of Berber camels confused Christian horses untrained to work with this type of animal), and were still using stationary infantry phalanxes as a defensive formation, supported by light infantry bowmen and javelineers. North African Berber troops, like Mongol warriors centuries later, were also trained to manoeuvre silently to the sound of massed drums, a sight which no doubt unsettled their Christian adversaries.