The Preface to Peter Linehan's latest book augurs well for those of us who have chafed against the weight of the historiographical authority that the paradigm of "Spain" (read "Castile"), as a fundamental unity and a historical inevitability, exercises over the history of Iberia, whether in the "bad cop" guise of Sanchez Albornoz's vision of the irrepressible and combative "eternal Spaniard," or the "good cop" of Castro's no less enigmatic, rose-tinted image of innocent convivencia. Spanish unity was not a given in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and thus Linehan pledges not to treat the peninsula's kingdoms as "uncoupled parts of a Visigothic whole suspended in 711, or as anticipating the unity of...1469" (ix). The story he presents, instead, is of an Iberia defined by a multitude of superimposed arrays of disunity: geographic, legal, political, social, confessional, of conflicting agendas, of contradictions, and of frequent self-contradictions--"a society disorganized by war" (xi). The tale is told over the course of eight chapters that follow a more-or-less straight-forward chronological progression from the 1150s to 1300.
The first chapter, "1157-1179," sets the stage for the next century and a half, surveying the panorama of a Christian Iberia composed of an array of principalities: Portugal, Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Barcelona and the Catalan counties, each of which by this time had been established as legitimate, sovereign political entities. The narrative itself begins with the accession of Alfonso VIII of Castile to the throne in 1159 at the age of three. Predictably this circumstance provided an opportunity for the various rulers of rival kingdoms to claw back some of the gains which had been made by the "Emperor" Alfonso VII and for the peninsular nobility to assert their own power over that of their sovereigns. The two key events of the period were 1179's Treaty of Cazola, a sort of Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact between Aragon and Castile, in which they partitioned the yet-unconquered Muslim lands of the peninsula, and the Crown of Aragon's loss of Murcia, which foreshadowed greater usurpations it would suffer at the hands of Castile.
Chapter Two, "The Age of Las Navas" holds that the battle of 1212 was not viewed at the time as the watershed event it would later be regarded as. The battle came close on the heels of the great Berber victory at Alarcos (1195) and, even after their defeat, the Almohads continued to constitute a real threat. In the aftermath of the Christian victory--which was not the grand pan-peninsular alliance it has often been portrayed as--Castile was left exhausted and bankrupt, and within a year Aragon had been infeudated to a Papacy entrusted with the crown of its orphaned five-year-old heir. The impression that the tide had turned decisively if not inevitably in the favor of the Christians developed largely thanks to the PR work of the indefatigable Toledan primate, Rodrigo Jimenéz de Rada, who championed the idea of a triumphant Christian Hispania, unified in faith and purpose--a notion reflected if not by reality then at least by the popular vernacular epic, the Cantar de Mio Cid, which was set down in its most elaborate and enduring form at this time.
Next, "1214-1248" traces the rocky succession to Alfonso VIII's fifty-six year reign, which unleashed a feud amongst the various members of the extended family who ruled over Castile, León and Portugal. When the dust eventually settled, Castile was in the hands of Alfonso's nephew, Ferdinand III, who also inherited, with some resistance, the Kingdom of León. The king's good fortune was augmented by the fact that the Almohads had all but abandoned what remained of al-Andalus to its fate, and the detached, vulnerable and rich Islamic heartland of the Guadalquivir proved easy pickings even for Ferdinand's unenthusiastic subjects. Castile's victories in the south were paralleled by the accomplishments of Aragon under James I, who forced the submission of Islamic Mallorca and Valencia, albeit at the price of antagonizing his resolutely independent Aragonese aristocracy. But whereas Ferdinand staked Castile's future on the mainland by moving his capital to Seville, James and his Catalan heirs turned to the sea: the Balaerics, Tunisia, and Sicily. "Black pudding or fish?" (103) is how in the next chapter, Linehan pithily sums up the respective orientations of the two realms.
In "Some Permanent Features," the chronological narrative breaks to consider pan-peninsular characteristics, namely the presence of large numbers of Jews and Muslims. Both Castile-León and the Crown of Aragon had important Jewish communities--so important to the rulers, in fact, that despite papal injunctions and their own declarations of piety, the kings of both realms cultivated and protected a privileged Jewish elite which served them as administrators and financiers. The stirrings of popular discontent surfaced occasionally, but this was often an expression of antipathy aimed not so much at the Jews themselves, but their royal patrons. The Muslims found themselves in an equally ambiguous position: scorned as infidels, distrusted as enemies, prized as allies, and valued as a workforce.
The balance of the book represents in essence a study of the course and impact of Alfonso X's long and problematic reign, in the context of peninsular, European and Mediterranean politics and culture. "1252-9" traces the origins of Alfonso's imperial ambitions, exculpating the king for having failed--as he has been accused--of dereliction of duty for not having completed the "Reconquest." Linehan argues that the political equilibrium which had obtained in mid-thirteenth century Iberia and the Western Mediterranean, coupled with the apparent responsiveness of a near majority of the Electors, made the venture seem a not reasonable one. Alfonso's imperial ambitions abroad were reflected in imperial policies at home, notably the would-be emperor's flurry of legislative innovation, designed to stamp out local liberties, and elaborated with an obsession for detail that invites parody.
Chapter Six, "1259-74," considers cultural and political events for the most part internal to Alfonso's dominions. First among these was the scholarly renaissance of Toledo which had begun a century earlier, and which had reached its apogee in the late 1250s. By this point the failure of the king's imperial ambitions had rendered it obsolete, although not without the collateral benefit of having established Castilian over Latin as the language of culture in his realms. In the meanwhile, these realms were beginning to fall apart, as evidenced by the Muslim uprising in Murcia of the 1260s, the feuding of his grandees, and the stirrings of widespread rebellion.
"1275-84" recounts the period in which Alfonso's imperial chickens came home to roost. While he was absent from Spain in pursuit of the title, Castile was attacked by the Merinids, the Almohads' successors, in an invasion that not only decimated the Christian army, but killed off the king's most important aristocratic ally. The situation was saved by Alfonso's son, Sancho, whose emergence as a popular hero enabled him to usurp the right to succession of his orphaned nephew, Alfonso de la Cerda, prompting a bitter struggle between the self-declared heir and his father, which the "Learned" king would take to his deathbed.
The eighth and concluding chapter, "The Changed Balance," contemplates the long shadow cast by Alfonso X's reign, not the least his last will and testament, which reinforced the position of Alfonso de la Cerda, pretender to the throne and tool of Castile's rival, Aragon. In the meantime, Sancho busily undid his father's policies, repressing the urban hermandades, resurrecting the power of the magnates, and moving the center of the kingdom back up north. In the Aragonese realms, beleaguered, beset, repeatedly partitioned, and burdened by the riches of Sicily, the nobility and the urban collectives were able to impose their will on their monarchs. Castile's turn would come in the 1290s with the widespread revolts that Sancho's son, Fernando IV, faced. Thus, Spain would meet the close of its long thirteenth century as it had dawned, "as divided as at any time over the previous century and a half" (233), with the exception, perhaps, of a shift in political and social conceptions--a legacy of the cultural projects of Alfonso X--which entrenched the notion that the Castilian kings were indeed the heirs of the Visigothic king, Rodrigo.
The book therefore, ends up being very a much a history of Castile and of Alfonso X, a fact which the author is himself aware (xi). That said, the fates of Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal are integrated into the narrative to an extent which few histories of Spain manage. Most impressive is the contextualization of peninsular events in the broader history of Europe, the Mediterranean, and--to a limited extent--the Islamic world. It is, for the most part, a history of ruling elites, of "great men" and "great women," based on the literature of the elite, including chronicles, court poetry, legal codes and scientific and literary works. Not all readers may be satisfied with this approach, which as Linehan admits, leaves much out, but it is certainly a legitimate one (xi).
The book is written in Linehan's trademark style, which readers will either find entertaining, frustrating or both. (The present reviewer falls into the first category.) It is dense and detailed, written in breathless prose, peppered with ironies and inside jokes. The narrative presents Medieval Iberia as picaresque, peopled by conniving bishops, lusty old aristocrats, negligent wet-nurses and a parade of kings who serve as a catalog of human frailties. Royal babies are dropped from windows or have stones dropped on them, Sancho IV spends Christmas with his Jewish friends, Nasrid notables stand in for altar-boys in the re-consecrated former Almohad mosque of Seville, and the Quixotic Alfonso X tilts single-mindedly at the windmill of the imperial crown. The account is packed with amusing, surprising and unexpected details, enough to send the reader back to the reference books. All but occasionally, the facts do check out (e.g.: Alfonso III of Aragon did not marry princess Eleanor of England, but died before the ceremony ), but such occasional slips occur in the best of scholarship. More problematic is the fairly constant series of asides and allusions to events, characters and circumstances which the author clearly understands the significance of, but most readers will not. Nor do the footnotes, which are typically limited to citations, provide any illumination. Too much is left unsaid or unenunciated. This may be a consequence of the severe policies of today's scholarly publishing houses vis-à-vis manuscript length, but whatever the cause, it points to the greatest weakness of the book, which relates to the question of audience. This is too complex and too difficult a book to assign to anyone but a graduate student in a course on Medieval Spain. The present reviewer both enjoyed and learned from the book, but the present reviewer is hardly a layman when it comes to the history of Iberia in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, if it is a book intended for a scholarly, specialist audience, one wonders if its readers, however much they might appreciate and agree with Linehan's synthesis, will find enough new in the book--particularly in terms of the conclusion, or of any reformulation of Iberian history--to leave them satisfied.