The Medieval Review 10.01.03

Echevarría, Ana. Knights on the Frontier: The Moorish Guard of the Kings of Castile (1410-1467). The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xx, 358. $176 ISBN- 978-90-04-17110-7. .

Reviewed by:

Hussein Fancy
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

At the heart of Ana Echevarría's recent work, which is now available in translation to an English-language readership, lies a confounding image: Moorish soldiers in martial and sartorial splendor--turquoise hoods made from London cloth, sheepskin garments, doublets, and laced boots, as well as brightly decorated horses, saddles, shields, swords, and lances--looking, in short, like militarized peacocks, and traveling in the entourage of the Castilian king, Enrique IV (1454-1474). As Echevarría's previous book, The Fortress of Faith: The Attitudes Toward Muslims in Fifteenth Century Spain (Leiden: Brill, 1999), argued, in this period, Castile was becoming increasingly intolerant toward its Muslim population--the mudéjares. It was preparing to purge itself of its lingering Muslim (and Jewish) problem. So, how then does one read this rather conspicuous intimacy between Moorish soldiers and the Christian Castilian sovereign? At the Sentence of Medina del Campo in 1465, Enrique's noblemen would accuse him of Islamophilia and homosexuality, effectively dismantling his Moorish guard. Relying principally on a single set of archival sources, the "Raciones moriscas" from the Archivo General de Simancas, a series of account books recording payments to Muslims in the employ of the court, Echevarría aims simultaneously to deepen our understanding of the Moorish guard of the Trastámaras, Juan II (1406-1454) and Enrique IV, and place this institution within the broader historical, political, and social context that make Medina del Campo meaningful. At its finest, this work demonstrates that a history of nearly continuous exchange between Castile, Granada, and North Africa paralleled and was inextricable from the increasingly polemical and violent evolution of fifteenth-century Spain.

Chapter One, "Christians, Mudejars and Granadans: Three Sides of One Political Reality," while somewhat lengthy, aims in essence to describe the political situation that made the migration of Granadan and North African soldiers into Castile strategically and economically advantageous in the fifteenth century. On the one hand, the Trastámaras, in the wake of Alváro de Luna, relied increasingly on elite Jews and Muslims in their courts to gain leverage over Castilian nobleman. On the other hand, Granada, during the reigns of Juan II and Enrique IV, entered a period of instability, in which ten sultans ruled in quick succession. Chapter Two, "The Moorish Knights, From Frontier to the Court," examines the military-aristocratic elite on the Granadan frontier, who would provide the majority of the Moorish guard. Echoing Robert Ignatius Burns, Echevarría argues that "[t]he military ambit seems to have been particularly conducive to this kind of process of adaptation, perhaps because an enemy's bravery counted more than his religion, and also because converts, protected by the monarch, went straight into a new army without any change to their rank or social status" (81), which is to say that military status transcended religious loyalty for elites. Echevarría also pays some attention to the possible antecedents of the Moorish guard from the Roman praetorian guard to the Mamluks, the Christian elches of the Granadan sultans, and the jenets of the Crown of Aragon. In main, however, the overly general comparisons tends to obscure the specificity of the Moorish guard. In this respect, Echevarría could have dealt more directly with the jenets of the Crown of Aragon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as examined by Faustino Gazulla, Elena Lourie, Maria Teresa Ferrer i Mallol, and Brian Catlos. Chapter Three, "The King's 'Foreign' Guard," examines with rigorous detail the organization and transformation of the Castilian army in the fifteenth century, including changes in dress, strategy, and style that were influenced by the Moorish guard. Echevarría's treatment of ceremonies, in particular gifts of cloth, that accompanied soldiers' integration into the guard or conversion to Christianity is among the highlights of the work. And it is here that Echevarría makes her central claim that the Moorish guard was principally a means of conversion and highlights the curious paradox, which I return to below, that despite their conversion, the soldiers remained Moorish, which is to say, Muslim in appearance. Chapter Four, "The Conversion of the Moorish Knights," traces the various paths to the eventual conversion of Moorish knights. Echevarría's claim that "there were basically two types of Muslims who sought conversion to Christianity in the kingdom of Castile: the Mudejars who did so from personal conviction, and the adventurers, mercenaries, and men of fortune who lived on the geographical and political frontier of the Nasrid kingdom" (143) seems overly reductive given her detailed and subtle examples. The same claim could be made of her final assessment that "Conversos with very different backgrounds, from Banu Marin prince to rich aristocrats and Granadan merchants, musicians and even a number of Jewish converts, rubbed shoulders with Granadan knights of every possible allegiance in the Nasrid kingdom, as well as the families of ambassadors and judicial elite of the Castilian Mudejar aljamas. The contact made between these men and their relations with the monarchs...created the possibility of a golden age" (190). Nevertheless, the chapter is also a testament to Echevarría's hard-nosed research, in which she successfully traces families, such as members of the Banu Marin, which is to say, the Marinid royal family, across three generations of service. The final chapter, Chapter Five, "The Dissolution of the Moorish Guard," highlights the power struggle between the Crown and the Castilian nobility leading up to the Sentence of Medina del Campo in 1465, which called for the guard's dissolution. Echevarría argues that "[g]iven that most of the Moorish knights were no longer even Muslims by 1464, a call for the dissolution of the corps of guards made little apparent sense at the time. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that there must have been other motives for such a direct attack by the league of nobles on the sovereign's personal guard" (194). The soldiers' religious identity, in other words, played no role in the institution's collapse but merely masked the confrontation between an authoritarian Castilian royalty and their nobles. The book concludes with an one-hundred-and-sixteen page documentary appendix, which underscores Echevarría extraordinary research skills--her ability to draw out gems from a rather barren looking mine--and alone merits tremendous praise. Overall, the English translation is functional but occasionally problematic, and I found myself looking back to the Spanish edition to make sense on certain occasions.

Despite the fascinating topic and remarkable research, I did find myself wanting Echevarría to push her analysis of the Moorish guard further, which she views as a means of assimilation and integration for elite Muslims. Within the general evolution toward hostility over the fifteenth century, she sees the guard as evidence that "in the years between 1400 and 1480 a great number of people in the Iberian kingdoms managed to live peacefully, carry out their professions, have families and pray in their own temples regardless of the nature of their religious creed" (xi). Thus, just as religion played no role in motivating the decision of soldiers to enter the service of the Castilian kings, which was fundamentally opportunistic, religion similarly played no role in the Moorish guard's dissolution, which was fundamentally political. Convivencia, one might say, could coexist with other, less tolerant forms of interaction. But this conclusion, which effectively sweeps religion under the rug, seems to rest uneasily with Echevarría at times. Muslim soldiers were also recruited because of their relationships with Granada and Castile's mudéjar population, which is to say that their incorporation into Castile also depended to some degree upon their religious affiliations, their status as outsiders. Perhaps, this paradox is nowhere more clear than in the fact that despite the eventual conversion of many of the members of the guard, they all remained "Moorish" or Muslim in appearance. If the institution served principally as a means encouraging assimilation and conversion, then this gesture seems to run against that current, to continue to hold these soldiers at a distance. Regardless of how one might approach or resolve these problems, frontier institutions like the Moorish guard resist easy readings, highlight the exhaustion of our critical vocabulary, and provide scholars with unique challenges for theorizing the connection between religion, violence, and political authority in the late Middle Ages.

Echevarría's work, including her current research on the mudéjar population of ávila, has rightly distinguished her as a Spanish scholar of note for some time. As such, this translation is a more than welcome academic and pedagogic contribution to the study of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Simply put, Knights on the Frontier is an essential addition to any library collection.