Saturday 21 September 2019

Crusades and Reconquests

I have noted before that part of the background to the Spanish invasion of Mexico is the Reconquista, the recapture of mainland Spain from the Moorish kingdoms. In fact, this ideology also applies to the Portuguese and their adventures down the west coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean in attempts to outflank the Islamic powers.

I have been reading again, in vague preparation for a few battles set in the latter part for the Reconquista, as background to the things I am thinking about in terms of Aztecs and Conquistadores, as a follow up to the book I discussed here a while ago about Queen Isabella,  and, well, because reading is part of who I am. The book in question this time is:

O'Callaghan, J. F., The Last Crusade in the West: Castile and the Conquest of Granada (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2014).

This is, apparently, the third in a trilogy of books devoted to the subject of the rise and fall of Muslim Spain; alternatively, we could describe it as a trilogy on the fall and rise of Christian Spain. It is all a bit of a matter of perspective, I suppose. I am sure you know the story – the rapid expansion of Islam across the straits from North Africa led to the destruction of the Visigoth kingdom and the capture of almost all of Spain by Islamic polities. The exceptions were on the northern edge of Spain and these kingdoms proceeded to start to recapture the peninsular – El Cid and all that stuff.

This volume covers the period from about 1350 to 1492 when Granada surrendered to the forces of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. It is far from a straightforward tale, and a fair bit of it was rather confusing to the amateur, or someone with little clue about medieval Spain.

Anyway, the campaigns against the Moors of Granada (for that is what the Muslim kingdoms had been reduced to) proceeded in fits and starts, depending on what else was going on. There were dynastic issues on both sides of the border, with civil war being more frequent, often, than cross border warfare. The situation was complicated, of course, by cross-border raiding and by the fact that various assorted emirs of Granada had accepted vassalage in order to get out of sticky situations. The Castilian monarchs could always claim that the bonds of vassalage had been broken and launch a campaign.

Further complications arose, of course, from international situations. The emirs of Morocco and Granada sometime cooperated, sometimes did not. The Kings of Castile, Portugal and Aragon sometimes worked together; oftentimes they fought and, sometimes were in alliance with either Granada or Morocco against one or the other of the Christian kingdoms. Add to this mix the involvement of Aragon with Sicily and the Pope declaring crusades against the Moors and the Turks and you have a rather heady atmosphere wherein religion, money and ambition came together.

Being mostly an early modern wargamer, of course, my interest is more in the later stages of the wars, that launched by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1482. They had an advantage in that the thrones of Aragon and Castile were united in their marriage and that they managed to come to an agreement with Portugal (albeit after armed confrontation) over some tricky issues, such as who really owned North Africa, the Canary Islands and the succession in Castile. Once this lot was settled, the campaign against Granada was set in motion.

As the Christian side was unified, the Moorish side collapsed into civil war. The genealogies list seven kings of Aragon and eight of Castile between 1300 and 1480 (or thereabouts). In the same time frame, twenty-three Emirs of Granada are listed, indicating a fair bit of unstable governance, to say the least. In fact, a number of the Emirs ruled for more than one chunk of time, usually aided and abetted by the Castilians in either losing or gaining their throne. A simple matter of Islam versus Christianity the wars are not.

Given the disunity on the Moorish side, Ferdinand (as commander in chief; Isabella probably had influence on the direction of the war) managed to besiege and capture, over the years, the previously impregnable fortresses of Granada. The first move seems to have been the surprise seizure of Alhama, which is between Granada and Malaga. This was a very exposed location for the Christians and considerable effort had to be put into keeping it, supplying it and defending it; the Grenadines subjected it to several sieges.

The campaigns are usually depicted as ones of siege, raid and counter-raid, and that is accurate as far as I can tell. I suspect this is why the Reconquista, at least in this stage, gets limited wargame interest. However, logistics and the new-fangled powerful siege artillery deployed by the Catholic monarchs do give the activities some interest. If the Moors had been less fissiparous then field actions would have been more frequent. Even the raiding forces could amount to a decent sized army.

Other factors also come into play for the imaginative wargamer. The Moors appealed for aid from Morocco and from Egypt. The Christians had to deploy naval forces in the Straits of Gibraltar to prevent reinforcements crossing; indeed, some did and stood a particularly grim siege in, I think, Malaga (but don’t quote me on that). Additionally, of course, the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, and landed at Otranto in 1480. Whatever the ins and outs of the situation between the religions, Western Europe was in a fairly parlous state, although that was insufficient to make the western leaders actually work together much .

The book, except for the last two chapters, is a good effort at a narrative history of the sometimes confusing events of the latter end of the Reconquista. The penultimate chapter summarises and discusses organisation, finances and so on across the period. The last chapter, I feel, slips a little in trying to analyse the wars as religious. There are, the author admits, other reasons but with crusades and jihads being declared frequently, they had a distinctly religious overtone. That is fair enough, but I suspect that other issues, particularly the emergence of the concept of the “modern” nation stage as a geographically coherent entity might have had a bit more to do with it than O’Callaghan argues. Certainly, despite what happened to the Muslim Moorish community later in the sixteenth century, while Isabella was alive they seem, in my view, to have been treated fairly well for a medieval defeated polity. It was only a bit later that religious issues, as well as financial exactions, began  to bite and, later, warfare with the Ottomans raised alarm over a ‘fifth column’ within territorial Spain itself.

Now, where did I put those jinites?

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