The Multidirectional Memories of Medieval Iberia in the Hispanophone World

Dr. Rebecca de Souza, Freie Universität Berlin

Zusammenfassung: Wie, wann and warum wurde die mittelalterliche iberische Halbinsel nach 1492 erinnert? Genauer, wie gedachte man dort der Periode andalusischer Vorherrschaft, vor allem der des Kalifats von Cordoba, in der späteren Kulturproduktion des mittelalterlichen Iberiens und des modernen Spaniens? Was bedeutet es Jahrhunderte später oder sogar in postkolonialer Diaspora eine dichterische Form des ersteren nicht nur wieder aufzugreifen, sondern sie neu zu interpretieren? Mit diesen Fragen setzt sich Dr. Rebecca de Souza’s Forschung auseinander, indem sie die kulturelle Erinnerung des Mittelalters in der spanischsprachigen Kulturproduktion weltweit in den Blick nimmt.

Abstract: How, when, and why has medieval Iberia been remembered after 1492? Specifically, how is the period of Andalusi domination on the Peninsula, particularly under the Caliphate of Cordoba, recalled in later cultural production in medieval Iberia and modern Spain? What does it mean to return to and reinterpret a medieval Iberian poetic form in later centuries, or even in postcolonial locations and diaspora? Dr. Rebecca de Souza’s research addresses these questions by focusing on the cultural memory of the Middle Ages in Hispanophone cultural production worldwide.

Ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, the Caliphate of Cordoba dominated the Iberian Peninsula from its foundation in 929 until its collapse in 1031. The Caliphate was the apogee of al-Andalus, not only in terms of population but also with respect to its economic and cultural achievements. Its first and longest ruling Caliph ʻAbd al- Rahmān III (r. 929-961) oversaw the extensive architectural developments of Cordoba’s Mosque and the magnificent palace complex Madīnat al-Zahrāʾ, the minting of gold, and an intellectual project spanning historiography, religious and legal scholarship. Modern historians have waxed lyrical on the Caliphate’s fabled convivencia, a notion first coined by Américo Castro to describe “el modelo prestigioso de la tolerancia islámica” towards the Christian and Jewish communities of al-Andalus.1 Castro’s ideas were famously taken up by María Rosa Menocal, for whom the Umayyads “defined their version of Islam as one that loved its dialogues with other traditions”.2 Many have since problematised the concept, however, particularly given “los datos que tenemos sobre las comunidades judía y cristiana en época del Califato de Córdoba son muy escasos”3 and the Caliphate’s recourse to violence to deal with social unrest.4 The Caliphate’s social, cultural, and economic advances are undeniable, as is its successful territorial hold over the Peninsula, even if its internal social formation was more complicated than the utopian convivencia model would have us believe.

The contested history of the Caliphate is not solely of interest to modern scholars. Some three centuries after its decline, in the chronicle project known as the Estoria de España (c. 1260-1289), Castilian historians in the courts of Kings Alfonso X and his son Sancho IV sought to narrate their kingdom’s interactions with the Caliphate in this period – a time when Castile was a mere county. Central to their historiographical reconstruction of the late-tenth century was a local, faction-based story set on the County of Castile’s border with Cordoba, known as the Siete infantes de Lara, set c. 990. The medieval chronicle versions of this story narrate a familial – rather than regional or proto-national – conflict that markedly features intercultural interaction between Christian Castilians and Muslim Andalusis that is not predicated upon conflict but on personal relationships across porous frontiers. It contrasts to other medieval legends that have proven popular subjects of rewriting, such as that of King Rodrigo or the Poema de mio Cid, which frame cross-border alliances as treachery and depict largely cross-border conflict respectively. The Siete infantes tells of a familial betrayal by a Castilian nobleman who leverages his cross-border alliance with the Umayyad Caliphate to oust his brother-in-law and nephews. The betrayal is only avenged by the reverse border-crossing by the illegitimate child of the brother-in- law, fathered in Cordoba, who returns to put an end to the internal Castilian conflict and converts to Christianity from Islam.

My doctoral research set out to identify how and why this story of a weak, conflictual county of Castile, dependent socioeconomically and morally upon Andalusi intervention, is repeatedly rewritten in an increasingly racially and religiously homogeneous medieval Iberia and, later, Spain. To do so, I selected a series of temporally and formally diverse rewritings: three chronicles from the thirteenth-fifteenth centuries, hitherto undiscussed romances from early modern Spain and the Sephardic diaspora, two comedias, and nineteenth-century Romantic works. Each work retains a borderland setting, conducive to identity change, and depicts peaceable interracial interactions. Rewritings of the Siete infantes are therefore not simply nostalgic invocations of a stable collective memory; they in fact leverage the tenth century to question dominant ideologies of identity and difference, drawing on the complex, lived reality of medieval Iberia and its shifting borders. Throughout literary history, neomedievalism has therefore served as a productive, prescient discourse of cultural memory through which chroniclers, poets, playwrights, and authors can look forward and question the inevitability of Christian-Castilian colonial hegemony by invoking a narrative of Christian Iberia’s own subjugation.

Photo: Prince Mudarra says goodbye to his mother to start looking for his father, in: Otto Van Veen, Historia septem infantium de Lara, 1612, Object number: RP-P-H-OB-44.035, URL: [].

  1. Castro, Américo. 1954. La realidad histórica de España (Mexico: Editorial Porrúa), p. 97. []
  2. Menocal, Maria Rosa. 2002. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown), p. 21 []
  3. Manzano Moreno, Eduardo. 2013. ‘Qurtuba: algunas reflexiones críticas sobre el Califato de Córdoba y el mito de la convivencia’, Revista Awraq, 7, p. 239 []
  4. Fierro, Maribel. 2005. ʿAbd Al-Rahman III: The First Cordoban Caliph (Oxford: Oneworld), 2005, pp. 107-108 []
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