The Spanish Reconquista was the most successful example of European Middle Ages expansionism. Christian European forces eventually took the whole peninsula, permanently. The origins of the movement, however, were exceedingly modest. From the 730s, the tiny Kingdom of Asturias, centered on Oviedo, had survived as a sole Christian state in Spain, exposed to continuous Muslim raiding. This was in addition to Charlemagne's March in Catalonia on the Pyrenees. In the early 900s, the Asturias king took advantage of Muslim infighting to move his capital south to Leon and the County of Castile. Though not a Crusader-type state and content to work with Muslim amirs in order to survive, its leaders began to attract freemen as colonists with generous offers of agricultural land and tax rebates. Warring with Muslims when it suited them, Castilian leaders were not at this point fighting a holy war. Good relations with the Ummayad Caliphate in Cordoba were maintained. By 1034, Sancho the Great had incorporated Aragon, Sobrarbe, Barcelona, as well as Asturian Leon and Castile. /PARGRAPH By 1000, Muslim Spain was the most developed part of Europe. The countryside was prosperous, and large numbers of Christians had converted to Islam. The area contained the largest cities of Europe, which were connected to the Levantine and far eastern trade routes. Basically, the Muslims had occupied only the best parts of Spain. Leaving he cold, damp mountains of the north to the Christians, the Islamic states had emerged in the east coast, the south, as well as the arid, high central mesta areas. In the Christian areas of the north, eleventh-century society was similar to its French counterpart. Mostly peasant populated, there was a small aristocracy and several independent political units. The western Kingdom of Leon/Castile and the Kingdom of Navarre were mostly small, with simple government structures. At the beginning of the eleventh century they were unable to stand against the Muslim states, and hadn't the ideological inclination to do so. A somewhat civil relation emerged between the two confessional groups, taking advantage of the fact that the Iberian Muslims never maintained political unity for long. Andalusia broke into a number of small units at this time--the taifa states--and since the Christian Spaniards were not yet ideologically inclined towards reconquest, they would often work for different Muslim rulers as mercenaries. This was before the era of the reform Papacy, so holy war as such was not yet an element in Christian Iberian thinking. Still, working as mercenaries or allies of various Muslim amirs, Christian leaders levied protection money on the Muslim kings, and portions of al-Anadalus' fantastic wealth began to go northward. The Muslim kings got these funds by taxing the Muslim peasants. As this was quite questionable in Islamic terms, it was only a matter of time before there would be a backlash, and the peaceable relationship between Muslim and Christian kings would end.

This came from two sides. First, the reform movement of the Church began to seep into northern Spain. Though the Spanish church in the beginning of the eleventh century was corrupt with a non-standardized monastic system, the Cluny monasteries were just across the French border. By the 1030s, the kings of Navarre and Leon invited Cluniac monks to reform the monasteries. Going beyond this, Ferdinand I of Leon began appointing French monks as Spanish bishops from the 1050s. These monks were not as impressed with Muslim grandeur as the Spaniards had been, and the Church reformation gave the Spaniards a reinvigorated Christian identity, highlighting confessional differences from the Muslims, with whom they culturally shared much. Indeed, Cluniac monks began clamoring for reconquest of Christian lands as a holy duty.

Reaction also came from the Muslim side. With the large amounts of gold going to Christian Spain from the south, monasteries were built in larger numbers. More importantly, a societal change emerged--more Spaniards could afford to be full-time professional soldiers. Spanish military strength thus improved. In 1085, Alfonso VI of Leon took Toledo. This evoked a Muslim backlash. Already opposing Muslim rulers' taxing of peasants, Andalusian Muslims welcomed a new dynasty to Iberia. The Almoravids originated in the Atlas mountain areas of North Africa, and were rigidly puritanical in their interpretation of Islam. They arrived to fight off the Christians in 1086. At the Battle of Sagrajas they routed Alfonso's forces, and created a new unified Muslim state in Andalusia. Alfonso still held Toledo though, by establishing fortified towns. To attract settlers, people were offered freedom or amnesties, and were granted a house, some land, and local self-government. What emerged, then was a wild west-like environment, the chief means of subsistence being sheep-raising and inter-confessional warfare. Towns developed civil militias for both defensive and offensive purposes, so that raiding, animal husbandry, and trading were the natural occupations of people living on the mesta. Tremendous social mobility developed. The aristocracy was very small, and peasants maintained their freedom. Initially the sole purpose was to win booty and more land, but increasingly the combat on both sides was surrounded by religious symbols. By the time of Gregory VII, it was referred to as a holy campaign against infidels, and during the Crusading period of Urban II and after, Spanish knights were exempted from taking up the Cross for Jerusalem, as they were said to be fighting their own Crusade in Iberia.

During the time of Alfonso VII (1126-1157), he saw that mere raiding for booty was going so well as to facilitate conquest of surrounding Muslim towns. In 1145, though, the Almoravids were overthrown by another Islamic revivalist group from North Africa, the Almohads. With an even more literalist interpretation of Islam, they would have no truck with the encroaching Christians. In 1148 they arrived in Spain and shored up the Muslim defenses, retaking towns lost to the Christians. In 1157, Alfonso VII died fleeing in the Pyrenees passes from Almohad forces. By this time, however, Christian control had extended to the center of the Peninsula. The Reconquista then stopped into the thirteenth century, mostly due to the lack of Christian political unity. Upon Alfonso's death, the Castilian lands were divided between Leon and Castile, while Portugal had already emerged and Navarre and Aragon had split in 1134.

The beginning of the thirteenth century saw a Christian Spanish refinement corresponding in its vigor to the Almoravids and Almohads. Warrior-monks began to arrive from Palestine. There were two chief orders, those of Santiago, and Calatrava. These were knights who took all the monastic vows and one more--to fight the Muslim infidels. In 1211, after the Calatravans had lost their headquarters in one of the continuing back and forth raids between them and the Almohads, Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) decided to try an offensive. He met the Almohads in battle at Las Navas de Tolosa, where the Muslims were defeated. As he died two years later, Castile did not immediately exploit the victory. The Almohads were so orthodox and unbending in their interpretation of Islam, however, as to alienate Muslim urban elites. Thus, they were not able to maintain political ascendancy in Muslim Andalusia, and were eventually forced out. In the 1220s, then, Muslim Spain began to politically fragment all over again, at the same time as Ferdinand III of Castile was reaching majority, and James of Aragon was coming into his own. Starting from 1229 and lasting to 1250, the majority of Spain was retaken for the Christians. This was bracketed by the 1235 fall of Cordoba, once the Ummayad capital, and the 1248 conquest of Seville by Ferdinand. Only the Muslim kingdom of Grenada persisted in the southern coast of Spain. Leon/Castile took the central regions, while Aragon took the east coast. The whole era was characterized by sieges and negotiations with Muslim inhabitants whereby surrender allowed indigenous Hispano-Arabs to keep their property and religion. Thus, in the thirteenth century, the Christian kingdoms in Spain had mostly Muslim-Jewish populations. to attract Christians, kings had recourse to the same preferential policies as were used from Alfonso on, including land and legal freedoms better than feudal arrangements elsewhere. A Christian land rush into Iberia emerged in the 1240s- 1260s, providing the demographic backbone and elites for the expanding Christian states into the fourteenth century.

Popular pages: High Middle Ages (1000-1200)