‘Convivencia’ and the limitations of a macro lens

From the Libro de ajedrez, dados tables – Alfonso X; Biblioteca de la Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid



Yes, I’m going back down the well-trodden path. Apologies in advance.

Convivencia is probably the most contentious word in medieval Iberian studies.

While debate around it and its usage has died down in recent years, it still underpins much of the scholarship on al-Andalus and the presence of Islam in Iberia until the invasion and conquest of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. Despite their differing theses, large-scale scholarly projects on the level of Castro (1948), Sánchez-Albornoz (1956), Glick, Menocal (2002) and Lowney (2006) all have one inevitable tendency in common: their desire to unpack convivencia, the ‘co-existence of multiple religious identities’ in al-Andalus in its totality as a cultural phenomenon.

More recent works assess individual case studies of religio-cultural co-existence without overt generalisation, such as Mark Abate’s impressive new edited collection Convivencia and Medieval Spain (2018). The study is wide-ranging yet specific, although I’d caution that its fundamental lack of literary or, more generally, artistic analysis limits its vision and scope. Abate’s valuable overview of the debate present in the introduction notes the politicisation of the debate thus far, as well as the nostalgia redolent in works by scholars such as Lowney, suggesting that convivencia has in fact become a metonymy for varying politicised approaches to historiography:

Convivencia became something of a banner for a certain political and social orientation: one which saw an inherent value in ethnoreligious diversity and a critique of the status of traditionally hegemonic groups”. (2018, ix)

Every scholar mentioned here has made excellent discoveries and progress by assessing numerous individual cases of life in al-Andalus and the Spanish kingdoms, yet a common thread still persists: to seek to draw these cases together to make a conclusion. To find a pattern. And, in some cases, to glean a lesson for the 21st Century.

It thus raises the question of why, as literary scholars and historians, we use a ‘macro’ viewpoint when it is impossible to accurately generalise so many lives over so many years? It is as if we are personifying an ‘Iberia’ or an ‘al-Andalus’ that never existed, constructed entities that cannot be defined en masse. Even the most recent and arguably best examples of these studies, such as those by Menocal and Lowney, still assume a wide-spread, even monolithic, understanding of ‘difference’. Rarely is an attempt made to unpack what ‘difference’ meant to the medieval Jewish, Christian, or Muslim Iberian, or interrogate the extent to which difference was conceptualised solidly in individual medieval communities.

Menocal makes salient point that acknowledges the importance of unconscious (and therefore historically somewhat unverifiable) thought during periods of coexistence, suggesting that tolerance in al-Andalus was a result not of a progressive political movement but rather an “often unconscious acceptance that contradictions – within oneself as well as within one’s culture- could be positive and productive” (2002, 11) yet on behalf of whom is this acceptance is being assumed? Of every individual living in medieval al-Andalus? Of al-Andalus as a kind of personified, feeling land mass?

To think of it another way, if we were to jump forward eight hundred years and find historians trying to make broad conclusions on contemporary attitudes towards migration to Europe from the global south, and subsequent ‘multiculturalism’ (again, a highly contentious and often reductive term), we’d be confounded by their simplicity.

The same tendency to ascertain the beliefs en-masse of a given ‘culture’ occurs in the early modern period in historiographical writing on the post-1492 era, one that was defined by the Inquisition, forced conversion and the eventual expulsion of Jews and Muslims, as well as the beginnings of Spain’s imperio-colonial conquests. Barbara Fuchs’ excellent work on maurophilia in early modern Spain seeks to demonstrate how:

“A hybrid, Moorish-influenced culture survives in sixteenth-century Spain […] and it represents an often unacknowledged challenge to the official narratives of a new national identity.” (2009,  269)

There’s no denying that the ‘official narratives’ that seek to propagate a purely Catholic Spanish national identity with Visigothic roots are misguided and politically-driven. However, is it helpful to then retort with the opposite: instead of a national identity, seek patterns to define the implicit existence of an unspoken ‘culture’ that resists the imperial fallacy? Does this run the risk of ignoring reciprocal cultural exchange, given moriscos had been living relatively freely in Castile since the second wave of the Christian Reconquest (see Dadson 2014).

It’s moreover unclear whether more recent scholars are advocating an unconscious influence of Moorish culture in artistic and/or literary works, or a conscious acceptance on behalf of ‘ordinary’ people.

These are just some preliminary thoughts or, rather, concerns that have plagued me in the course of beginning my thesis work. I am still struggling to come up with an alternative to what I have outlined above: if we cannot generalise or really know the truth of societies that were politically extant for a set period, can we conclude anything historical? Is conclusive, ‘accurate’ historiography that draws together evidence to find a pattern in the past impossible? And if sweeping conclusions are the only way for academic historians and scholars of historical literature to reach the general public, are we doomed to a windowless echo chamber?


Works Cited

Abate, Mark T. 2018. ed. Convivencia and Medieval Spain: Essays in Honor of Thomas F. Glick. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Castro, Américo. 1948. España en su historia: Cristianos, moros y judíos. Buenos Aires: Losada

Dadson, Trevor. 2014. Tolerance and Coexistence in Early Modern Spain: Old Christians and Moriscos in the Campo de Calatrava. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer

Fuchs, Barbara. 2009. “Maurophilia And The Morisco Subject”. The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond, ed. Kevin Ingram. pp. 269-286. Leiden: Brill.

— 2011. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Glick, Thomas F. 1979. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Lowney, Chris. 2006. A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Menocal, María Rosa. 2002. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. London: Little, Brown

Sánchez-Albornoz, Claudio. 1956. España, un enigma histórico . Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana


Lope de Vega’s Muslims & the problem with “tópicos convencionales”

From Hadith Bayad (MS Arab. 368, Vatican Library)


I recently read a relatively new dissertation written on sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish literature that depicts the Muslim, Moorish inhabitants of al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. In their analysis of one particular play, the author – unprompted and not quoting the original text – refers to a Moorish man, described as being of small stature, as a “criatura“. A creature. I was at once taken aback and horrified by the loaded, dehumanising nature of the scholar’s choice to use the term. Did they think they were adding a ‘baroque flavour’ to their criticism by embodying what they presume were the beliefs of either the play’s Christian characters or Christian author? Or was this a case of present-day prejudice echoing back several centuries? Either way, I resolved then and there that it’s time for a wholesale rethink of how we approach the literatura fronteriza of the Golden Age starting with Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of the period.

The comedias fronterizas and comedias moriscas (referring to plays of a historical nature that deal with the medieval Moors of al-Andalus, and those that portray moriscos – Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the fall of Granada in 1492 – respectively) still remain an under-studied group of plays from Lope’s vast oeuvre. I venture to say that together with the rest of the plays thematising Spain’s medieval history they’ve suffered from the widely-held critical belief that Lope’s attitude towards the Middle Ages was merely nostalgic, at worst idealised and lacking complexity – readings that are often tied up with misguided notions of literary ‘quality’. That is, something along the lines of “if I can’t find something aesthetically innovative or at least allegorical, I’ll go ahead and call a literary work sub-standard, completely ignoring the possibility that it could be my own inadequacies or prejudices that are preventing me from really reading a text.” (Excuse my crude paraphrasing, but it happens all too often in some strains of criticism).

For many it’s a foregone conclusion that Lope’s portrayal of Moorish, Muslim characters is nothing more than maurophilia, a term defined by Barbara Fuchs as “the corpus of sixteenth century texts that portray Moors in a positive fashion” which is often “dismissed […] as idealising and remote from the realities of early modern Spain or the marginalised moriscos” (2011, 4).  This is concordant with Thomas Case’s view of Lope de Vega, who in the monograph Lope & Islam (1993) reinforces the idea that for Lope,

“There was little or no interest in protesting political and social ills or in promoting liberal reform as we know it today. Any attempt to show that Lope and his fellow dramatists were seriously thinking about sociology […] would end in failure.” (1993, 5)

Now I’m not proposing that Lope’s comedias moriscas or fronterizas are somehow revolutionary or anachronistically ‘liberal’ in their scope. What I do think is necessary is a re-think of how we employ the term maurophilia, not as a catch-all by-word for romantic nostalgia but rather a problematic and self-reflexive literary form in the context of Christian-authored texts at the time of the morisco expulsion from Spain, which took place in 1609-14.

Fuchs has already rightly worked to reinterpret supposed maurophile texts by suggesting they are not merely nostalgic; on the contrary, they “participate fully in the urgent negotiation of Moorishness that is not only a historiographical relic but a vivid presence in quotidian Spanish culture” in the sixteenth century (2011, 5). I’d venture that the same can be said of Lope’s comedias moriscas. Take, for example, El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero, a play in which the eponymous protagonist plays with paradigms of Moorish and Christian identity from the outset as a borderland bandit, ready to physically and linguistically disguise himself as Muslim. Pedro has Muslim friends in Granada, Cerbín and Hamete, both of whom are depicted struggling with the ethical question of whether kinship loyalty to another human being ought to triumph over their religious affiliation. Yet the portrayal of Muslims in this play has thus far been deemed a collection of well-known maurophile tropes, “tópicos convencionales”, simply because they are Moorish men of high social standing who are on friendly terms with Christians and are not wholly morally degenerate.

Such an idea was first suggested in the early scholarship of the 1920s, which seems to have stuck to this day. For example, Montesinos argued that:

“La configuración de los personajes moros se resiente, pues carecen de identidad propia, por esto Cerbín no es sino ‘un noble vestido a la morisca.'”

[The characterisation of Moorish characters is weak and they lack an individual identity, meaning Cerbín is nothing but a ‘noble dressed in morisco style.’] (1929, 186)

Such an interpretation is reductive in the case of  Pedro Carbonero, as it simplifies the portrayal of Moorish characters and their experiences on the basis of subjective literary quality. It’s also often justified by a biographical reading that assumes Lope’s Christianity meant that he wouldn’t put any effort into the characterisation of Muslims beyond a few well-worn tropes. Yet more space is given to the thematising of inter-Muslim conflict between the Abencerraje family and those nobles of lower socio-economic means, than to the exploits of Pedro and his retinue. Pedro thinks so highly of his close Muslim friend Cerbín that he goes out of his way to save him from a treacherous death, despite the latter ultimately aligning himself to the rulers of Granada. Meanwhile, the characterisation of Pedro’s vassal Hamete goes far beyond the stereotypical ‘moro gracioso’: despite his lack of noble status he is granted substantial portions of dialogue to moralise against the essential importance of religious identity, and ultimately commits himself to die alongside Pedro.

A further example is Lope’s recasting of medieval epic legend in El bastardo Mudarra, which in its thirteenth-century chronicle form as Los siete infantes de Lara can be read as highly critical of the Christian, Castilian milieu it depicts in contrast to the entirely morally upstanding Muslims of al-Andalus. Los siete infantes de Lara goes beyond fetishisation and basic maurophilia, revealing a crisis of consciousness on the part of the male, Castilian nobility.  Lope noted the tone of the medieval text and expanded upon it by including a new character in El bastardo Mudarra, Lope de Vivar, a Christian in Moorish disguise akin to Pedro Carbonero. Lope therefore overtly acknowledges the performative and constructed nature of cultural identity. El bastardo Mudarra resists Maurophilia which is in fact a simplistic topos that would hypothetically reinforce the difference that the text thematically works to efface.

I therefore propose that more attention ought to be paid to Lope’s construction of Moorish identity to move away from the assumption that the playwright never went beyond stereotype. The catch-all concept of maurophilia cannot be used to explain away the presence and actions of Moorish, Muslim characters who are in many cases as complex as their Christian counterparts. Moreover, Lope acknowledges the performativity of identity and creates physical, visual tension on stage through the use of disguise. The flimsy nature of the cultural categories Christian and Moor therefore becomes an open secret between playwright and audience; an idealistic view of cultural identity as nothing more than a physical costume that can be cast off or worn at will.


Works cited

Case, Thomas. 1993. Lope and Islam: Islamic personages in his Comedias. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta

Fuchs, Barbara. 2011. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Montesinos, Jose Fernandez. 1929. El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero. Madrid, Centro de Estudios Históricos