The Medieval Review 11.10.31

O'Callaghan, Joseph F. The Gibraltar Crusade: Castile and the Battle for the Strait. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 392. $55. ISBN 978-0-8122-4302-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Donald Kagay
Albany State University

As a second step in a large project focusing on the relationship of the crusade to the Spanish reconquest from its peninsular and Papal origins to the final conquest on January 1, 1492 of Spain's last Muslim outpost, Granada, this fine work by Joseph F. O'Callaghan, one of the deans of medieval Iberian studies in America, takes as its subject the fascinating military and diplomatic struggle for the control of the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow passage of the Mediterranean between Gibraltar on the Spanish coast and Ceuta on the Moroccan litoral. This doorway to Andalusia, which stretched up the Guadalquivir River Basin from Cadiz to Jerez to Seville, was long seen as crucial by Castilian and Portuguese rulers as well as by their Muslim counterparts in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada and the Marinid state of the western African coastline. The Christian powers quickly came to view the Strait as a zone of peril that could be utilized by all sorts of Muslim forces; Muslim leaders, on the other hand, saw it as a staging point for a recovery of the "lost province" of Al-Andalus.

In the first part of the book, O'Callaghan reviews the relationship of Alfonso X of Castile (r.1252-1282) to the Strait. The southern wars of this great Iberian polymath--later nicknamed "the Wise" (el Sabio)--began with full-blown crusades in 1252 against the strip of African territory opposite Granada and eight years later against the Moroccan port of Salé. In the midst of these ostensibly international ventures that gained no land for Castile, Alfonso achieved the significant conquest of Jerez in 1260. This outpost provided a safe mustering point from which the rest of the marshy land down to the mouth of the Guadalquivir River could be won in short order. With a widespread mudejar revolt in 1264, the Castilian king and his Aragonese father-in-law, Jaume I (r.1214-1276), quickly overran the Muslim principality of Murcia on Spain's southeastern Mediterranean coast, effectively surrounding Granada and making the war for the Strait even more intense. Despite four Marinid invasions and a revolt of his eldest son, Sancho, during the next two decades, Alfonso strengthened his hold on the territory below Jerez, thus setting the stage for the battles royal over the region in the fourteenth century.

In the next chapters, O'Callaghan focuses on the constant Christian skirmishes and infrequent crusades against the Muslim outposts of Algeciras and Gibraltar. These actions were largely mounted by the Castilian sovereigns, Sancho IV (r.1284-1296) and Alfonso XI (r.1312- 1350). Both monarchs used crusading funds and manpower to fuel a persistent war on Granada's western territories and its Marinid allies. Sancho followed his father's example by conquering down the Guadalquivir to overrun Tarifa in 1294. His subsequent campaigns pointed the way to Algeciras, but this prize was denied him by his death in the following year. The Castilian sweep across the lands bordering the Strait was continued by Sancho's grandson, Alfonso XI, reaching its culmination in 1344 with the Castilian conquest of Algeciras and Gibraltar, only to see a Muslim force win back the later outpost and hold it for over a century. With his stunning victory over a Granadan-Marinid force at Salado in 1340, Alfonso paved the way for the domination of the Strait and even for the ultimate conquest of Granada itself. These dreams were dashed in 1350 at the siege of Gibraltar with the sudden death of Alfonso XI, the highest-placed fatality of the Black Death.

In his last major chapter, O'Callaghan uses the surfeit of primary sources associated with Alfonso's Gibraltar campaign to trace the general structures of Iberian warfare in the fourteenth century. In this discussion, he reviews the general organizational and leadership structure of Alfonso's army and navy, the general strategy the king inherited and developed to overcome his Muslim adversaries, the various forms for funding, clerical and lay, local and international, he raised to keep his troops in the field, the distribution of plunder to his army after he attained a final victory, and finally the methods by which the king established truces or formally negotiated treaties of peace with his principal Muslim rival on the Peninsula, the Nasrid kingdom of Granada.

This work is a worthy successor to Dr. O'Callaghan's Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain (2003), a work that has successfully changed the debate about the relationship of Christian Spain's war on Islam with that of Latin East. Through a meticulous choice and interpretation of Arabic, Catalan, Castilian, English, and Latin chronicles and ecclesiastical, municipal, and royal notarial records, O'Callaghan lays out with consummate care and with great detail the story of the brutal struggle for control of the Strait of Gibraltar--a struggle that would ultimately seal the fate of Spanish Islam. With two parts of the story of the Castilian victory against Iberia's Muslim polities now expertly told, the reader can only hope that Dr. O'Callaghan will now turn his attention to last chapter of Spain's long reconquest narrative--the conquest of Granada.