The Medieval Review 10.01.13

Pérez, Juan Abellán . Dávila, Joseph Ángelo. Historia de Xerez de la Frontera: Estudio preliminar, ediciÓn anotada e índices de Juan Abellán Pérez. Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae. Humaniora 351. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2008. Pp. 298. . $50 ISBN 978-951-41-1022-1.

Reviewed by:

Donald J. Kagay
Albany State University
dkagay1@netzero.net

The vagaries of academic publishing hardly prepare one for the surprises contained in this small work. Its publication history is the first strange thing about it. Though attributed to Joseph Ángelo Dávila (the scion of an important Xerex family), the authorship of this work is in serious doubt. Its publication date--September 21, 1562 "on the day of the apostle and evangelist, Saint Matthew"--is not at all in question. The organizations responsible for the reprinting of the Historia, the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Finland and the Finland Society of Arts and Sciences, seem at first mismatched to the academic task at hand until the reader casts his or her eye over the list of extremely varied works on linguistics, medieval and modern history, sociology, and political science brought into print under the escutcheon of the Academia Scientarum Fennica and on which the Historia is now included.

As it is, the Historia is a treasure-trove of courtly and military detail that leads the reader from the fall of Xerex as a Muslim outpost before Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1282) to the period of remarkable political and social instability that broke out during the early reign of the first Hapsburg ruler, Charles V (Carlos I) (1516-1556). Divided into thirty-eight chapters, Ángelo Dávila's work seems to combine the elements of a royal chronicle with those of a company narrative. This was certainly so because of the author's choice of sources, which included many a king's and private individual's chronicle as well as a great deal of primary documentation drawn from the notarial records of the Xerex city council. Even with its loose chronological organization, the Historia seems hard-pressed at times in logically arranging the record of its home-city's almost constant fight for survival against local and Granadan Muslims and its increasingly important function as a geographical linchpin in the incessant conflict between the Castilian crown and the over-mighty subjects of the Xerex region, the marquis of Cadiz and the duke of Medina Sidonia. As a backdrop for these highly significant but distant events, the Historia describes in loving detail the inner workings of Xerez's city council or cabildo in meeting the local and international challenges that constantly faced it.

By far the largest focus of the Historia was Xerez's involvement in organized raids (cabalgadas) or emergency military responses (apellidos) in which the city militia answered the call to a Muslim foray into the Castilian frontier that stretched opposite Granada. In all of these vignettes, the author of the Historia recreates in loving detail a reconquest script that always seems to contain the same elements: the unjust attack of Muslim forces, the rapid muster of city forces behind Xerez's beloved banners in order to wreak vengeance on the invaders, the extremely strange martial dance of two opposing forces--one Christian and the other Muslim--which seemed determined to avoid open conflict at all costs, and a meticulous listing of all classes of plunder, the most prized of which were captives (who would be sold as slaves or held for ransom) or cattle. Despite the occasional ferocity such exchanges caused, there seemed to be an unspoken limit of belligerence over which neither side would step. Only widespread hunger erased this line, for as the author of the Historia opined in chapter 22, during such black times "it was always easier to incline men to evil." During many of the military expeditions chronicled by the Xerez author, the urban soldiers worked not for themselves but for the great aristocrats of the region to whom they were feudally subordinated as well as for such Castilian monarchs as Alfonso XI (1312-1350), Enrique IV (1354-1374) and the Catholic Kings. The quarry of such expeditions was much grander, consisting of great fortified towns and castles such as Alhama (chap. 24) and Zahara (chap. 31), but the Historia seemed much more interested in describing the smaller skirmishes in which the Xerex contingents took part as well as the salary the townsmen drew from their noble or royal overlords.

A second major component of the Historia, supported by the inclusion of a great number of primary sources, was the minute portrayal of aristocratic vendettas between the duke of Medina Sidonia and the marquis of Cadiz that dominated the Andalusian scene from the 1460s to the 1520s. The most interesting of the Historia's chapters that chronicled these events were those that focused on the revolutionary era of 1520-1521 when Iberian town forces, known collectively as the Comuneros, rose up against the foreign government of Spain's first Hapsburg ruler, Carlos I. Rather than joining this grass-roots insurrection, Xerex, along with most of the major cities and towns of the lower Guadalquavir river basin, sought royal permission from the king to form a "brotherhood" to deal directly with the "great evils and damages...[which had led] to the deaths of men, destruction of houses, arson, robbery, extortion, as well as unprecedented and great theft and expropriation" (chap. 38). This urban peacekeeping organization came int being on November 25, 1520 and the Historia proudly included full citations of all records connected with it.

The functioning of Xerex's council is drawn in bright colors by the author of the Historia who sees the calido of his home city as an essential foundation and source of explanation for the military and political history of late-medieval and early-modern Andalusia. The importance of these larger events are matched by the local story that the Historia dutifully sets out to celebrate. The deeds of Xerez's great men both on the battlefield and in the council chamber thus represents for the author one of the principal reasons for writing the Historia.

For the modern reader equipped with some proficiency in Spanish, this work is a surprisingly readable account of both local and national history in the Iberian Peninsula on the eve of Spain's emergence as a world power. The Academia Scientarum Fennica is be congratulated for this re-issue of an important work which has been out-of-print since the sixteenth century in a beautifully produced new edition decorated with color reproductions of Andalusian views painted by the Dutch traveler, Hoefinagle, during the same period in which the Historia was composed and published.