Reconquest/Reconquista: Appropriate term? Myth?

April 18, 2014 Historia  No comments


The term Spanish Reconquista covers a historical period of about eight centuries. The origin of the Reconquista goes back to the existence of a Visigoth kingdom (s. V -VII) and its conquest by the Arab empire (between 711-714). Subsequent centuries until 1492 would be what has traditionally been called ‘La Reconquista’: the struggle of the Spanish Christian kingdoms, legitimate self-proclaimed heirs of Gothic Spain, to expel the invading Muslim forces and restore the ancient kingdom of the Goths, Spain.

In recent decades and particularly during the last years, many have questioned the validity of this concept. We found both teachers, scholars and amateurs. The latter, to my knowledge, was Professor at the University of Burgos, Javier Peña. More difficult is to find defenders of it, or at least supporters able to articulate a solid defense based on sources. There are very strong defenses Reconquista concept among some of the leading specialists in medieval Spanish history, but they are very accademic for a common reader. I’m thinking of J. I. Ruiz de la Peña (La monarquía asturiana, 2001) and Armando Besga (Orígenes hispanogodos del reino de Asturias, 2000); but European historians and intellectuals support the concept too: T. Deswarte (De la destruction a la restauration, 2003) , D. W. Lomax (Reconquest of Spain, 1978) or A. P. Bronisch (Reconquista y guerra santa, 2007). Almost all of them works from the year 2000 onwards. The problem is that these works are not accessible to the public, but a minority of historians interested in the subject.

The grounds for criticizing the existence of the Reconquista are two, maybe some more, but I ‘ll stick to these (for now) for lack of space: one is that the term Reconquista was not used in medieval times; the other is that there was no pre-nineteenth century Spanish nation, so it couldn’t have been a eight century struggle to reunite it, because it’s anachronic.

La_rendición_de_GranadaTo begin, as regards the term Reconquista, does anyone really doubt that noone in the Middle Ages used it ? There is no discovery, but a known evidence by all specialists in the period. The term was coined in the eighteenth century by the French Enlightenment. Is it legitimate to use the term Middle Ages to refer to the Middle Ages? No one in the Middle Ages used it. It was invented by later humanists, but it is a valid and useful concept to refer to a concrete period of history. Middle Age is, if anything, more artificial than Reconquest, for in those centuries no one ever imagined living in a historical phase bridge between Antiquity and Modernity. But there was an awareness of the recovery of the lost kingdom of the Goths and the Christian Hispania. Therefore, to speak of Reconquista is more legitimate than it is to Middle Ages. The word Reconquista wasn’t use during the Middle Ages, but this doesn’t mean anything, because there was a willingness to undertake it. And what is most important and definitive: it existed in its consequences, for Spain today is not today a Muslim sultanate but a European democracy. Somehow, the evolutionary path of the ancient Roman province of Hispania was cut short and wide in the eighth century, and by the efforts of our medieval ancestors returned to normal space (western Greco-Roman and Christian culture) along all the Middle Ages and after much suffering. And by that I do not want to detract from the achievements of the Andalusian civilization, arguably the most brilliant in the history of Islam. It is simply the historical reality. If we reject the concept of Reconquista, how then we call the process that took place 800 years in Spain and ended with the expulsion of the Moors? The Moors who occupied 90 % of the Iberian Peninsula at the height of 750 and where expelled in 1492? We can change the name , but will not change the facts. Reconquista is a useful and necessary concept to understand the history of Spain.

Other examples of historical periods, political entities, cultural movements that were never called as we now know, for example, were: the Investiture controversy, Gothic art, the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of Asturias, the 100 years war … perfectly useful and necessary to approximate the knowledge and study of medieval topics.

770px-Taifas2The other common problem when it comes to face this kind of reflection is to the nation. No less important, since when can we speak of a nation? Several decades ago we would say that the nation emerged in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. But in recent years the debate and historical research has drawn attention to the existence of national consciousness long before. At this point we must distinguish Nation and State. The first refers to a group of people with a common origin, shared language, culture, concerns, same history, territory, etc. The second is a political superstructure over a given territory and its people. Indeed , Spain is not a nation-state until the nineteenth century, perhaps until the eighteenth depending on who valued. But there was a Spanish or Hispanic nation before these centuries, for example, in the Middle Ages? Let’s see what a specialist as R. Fédou says over the nations in the Middle Ages (‘El Estado en la Edad Media’, 1977):

‘There has been a long time when sages denied that we could speak in the Middle Ages of  national awareness or national feelings (…) This claim has been reduced to its proper proportions because of a vigorous counteroffensive in recent decades (…) for a course of action very characteristic of current historical research, it even tends to reverse the growing phenomenon; after being located in the Middle Ages timid beginnings of the idea of ​​nation, has set its birth date in the twelfth century , birth that would just be an awakening of nations whose origins should be sought in the eighth and ninth centuries.’ (p.180)

R. Fédou has words for the specific case of Spain :

The Iberian Peninsula, where the fight against the infidel had gathered the Christian kingdoms and in which the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 prepared a unit is completed in 1492 with the conquest the kingdom of Granada , waiting for the proper absorption of Navarra. But still territorially incomplete (left Portugal) and politically flawed. Marriage is just personal, and explain the many regional jurisdictions still long to keep talking about ‘the Spains’. (pp.191 -192)

It is therefore legitimate to speak of nations in the Middle Ages, always knowing to differentiate them from other levels of national consciousness and militancy of our own times and that would be anachronistic to move to the Middle Ages, such as nationalism. In addition, the Spanish nation and the phenomenon of the Reconquista are closely related. As a medievalist and scholar of the Middle Ages I share the view of some (as M. Rouche) suggesting that the birth of the idea of ​​Spanish nation is closely related to the Reconquista. And the key point of the birth of this idea is definitely the ‘loss of Spain’ that the chroniclers of the eighth and ninth centuries lamented. Seized by a religious and foreign enemy, full recovery of the territory of Hispania became the overriding aim of the kings (some were more aware than others of this mission), inspired by the cult clergy, almost a sense of biblical prophecy would eventually be met: the restoration of Hispania. An anonymous chronicle of the ninth century, called ‘Prophetic History ‘ by Manuel Gómez Moreno, said it was soon time when Alfonso III of Asturias would reign over all Spain: hic noster princebs gloriosus Domnus Adefonsus proximiori in omni tempore predicetur regnaturus Spania (this our prince Don Alfonso soon will reign throughout all Spain).

All that said, I think I can say that talking about Reconquista is no anachronism. It was a real, active phenomenon while there was Muslim presence in the peninsula, and also triumphant, because it finished serving its purpose: restoring the Western European civilization in the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, descendant of the Greco-Roman culture, which Hispania had participated for at least seven centuries before being truncated. And during those eight centuries of struggle the first phase of creating the Spanish nation was settled, whose seed can be traced back to Visigothic era but hatches as a result of carrying on the common cause of all Hispanics: the liberation of the territory peninsular of Muslim occupation.

Updates 21/7/2014: after writing this entry I found an article of professor M. A. Ladero Quesada which focuses in the problems we saw in the previous lines. Sadly, it is only in Spanish: ”Patria, nación y Estado en la Edad Media”, en Patria, Nación, Estado, Instituto de Historia y Cultura Militar, Madrid, 2005, pp. 33-58.


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