16.08.19, Todesca, ed., The Emergence of León-Castile c. 1065-1500

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Maya Soifer Irish

The Medieval Review 16.08.19

Todesca, James J., ed. The Emergence of León-Castile c. 1065-1500: Essays Presented to J. F. O'Callaghan. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. pp. xx, 188. ISBN: 978-1-40942-035-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Maya Soifer Irish
Rice University

In the preface to The Emergence of León-Castile c. 1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O'Callaghan, the editor, James J. Todesca, quotes a mid-twentieth century British travel writer, in whose view medieval Castile was "a Spain of confusing kinglets, of Sanchos and Alfonsos, and of ladies names Berengaria, Constance and Urraca." If only the exotic-sounding names of Castilian royalty and the bewildering number of kings named Alfonso were Castilianists' only problem. Watching their colleagues, historians of Aragon-Catalonia, mine the archival riches of the Crown of Aragon and produce groundbreaking works that successfully challenge the dominance of England, France, and Germany in medieval studies, scholars of León-Castile strain to reconstruct their kingdom's rich seven-centuries-long history from a frugal fare of royal charters, legal codes, and chronicles, spiced-up with a sprinkle of property transactions and a dash of literary works. In the Anglophone scholarship at least, Castile is the stepchild of medieval Iberian historiography. A common perception is that Castile in the Middle Ages was insular, poor, brutish ("organized for war"), and peripheral.

If this perception is ever to be dispelled, the field needs many more volumes such as this collection dedicated to the distinguished historian of Castilian institutions and the Reconquest, Joseph F. O'Callaghan. Originating in the sessions held to celebrate O'Callaghan's eightieth birthday at the Kalamazoo Congress in 2009, and in the papers delivered at the AHA meeting in 2011, the volume's eleven essays aim to both highlight the unique features of Castile's development in the Middle Ages and to "recognize the political, economic and cultural ties between the Christian states of Iberia and the rest of Latin Europe," the latter goal described as O'Callaghan's "long-held ambition" (xiii, xx). Notwithstanding the word "emergence" in the volume's title, the origins of the joint Castilian-Leonese kingdom in the eleventh century are not the main focus of the collection. Arranged chronologically, the essays encompass five hundred years of Castilian history, and half of them deal with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

All the contributors except for one are North American Castilianists, and despite being at different stages in their careers, all of them have left a mark on the field of medieval Castilian history. In the introductory chapter, "Medieval Iberian Studies in the United States," Bernard F. Reilly provides a brief overview of medieval Spanish historiography since World War II, focusing specifically on the contributions of Charles Julian Bishko, Robert I. Burns, and of course Joseph O'Callaghan. Particularly noteworthy are Reilly's recollections of his personal encounters with all three scholars (we learn, for example, that behind the wheel of a car, Father Burns "had the instincts of an Indy 500 contestant") (3). The next two articles, by James Todesca ("The Crown Renewed: The Administration of Coinage in León-Castile c. 1085-1200), and James F. Powers ("Towns on the Edge: Twelfth-Century Municipal War Policy in León-Castile and France"), take an aim at the notion of León-Castile's insularity by highlighting remarkable parallels in the institutional development between the Iberian kingdom and its counterparts north of the Pyrenees. Todesca argues that the monetary policies pursued by the kings of León in the twelfth century were as efficient as those of the contemporary English kings. Meanwhile, Powers notes strong similarities in the way Angevin kings in northwestern France and Castilian kings in Spain organized urban militias. He speculates that the granting of municipal freedoms in exchange for military service to towns on the Plantagenet-Capetian frontier may have been the result of direct borrowing of the Castilian model by the English kings.

With Janna Bianchini's transitional article, "Foreigners and Foes in the Leonese Succession Crisis of 1230," the volume enters the thirteenth century. Examining the royal succession dispute that preceded the unification of León and Castile, Bianchini rejects the dominant theories that attribute Fernando III's accession to the support of towns or the misogyny of the Leonese nobles, who were supposedly lukewarm to the idea of having the infantas Sancha and Dulce rule over them. Rather, Bianchini persuasively argues, Fernando prevailed because the Leonese magnates, anxious about being dominated by foreigners--be they Portuguese or Castilian--sat out the crisis and did not endorse anyone.

Thirteenth-century Castilian kingship is further examined in the articles by Manuel González Jiménez (the volume's only Spanish contributor) and James William Brodman, both of whom focus on the reign of Alfonso X. In "Alfonso X and His Brothers: A Story of Not Very Fraternal Relations," Jiménez explores Alfonso's troubled relations with Enrique, Fadrique, Felipe, and Manuel, attributing Alfonso's failure to maintain rapport with his brothers to "a combination of his errors, their errors and their individual characters" (80). In "The Siete partidas and the Law of Charity in Thirteenth-Century Castile," Brodman argues that Alfonso's famed legal code sought to boost royal authority by incorporating the religious concept of charity "into the ideology and policy of the medieval state" (82).

The next three chapters of the volume prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Castilian history in the fourteenth century was as full of power-hungry characters and spectacular plot twists as the most riveting episode of the "Game of Thrones." Teofilo Ruiz in "Towards a Symbolic History of Alfonso XI of Castile: Power, Ceremony, and Triumph," and Nicolás Agrait in "The Castilian Navy in the Reign of Alfonso XI" turn their attention to one of the most understudied and underappreciated medieval monarchs. Ruiz examines Alfonso's calculated use of political violence against the "selfish nobility" (broken bones, cut-off extremities, and summary executions abound in the article), and his deft deployment of rituals and ceremonies to shore up royal power against both the nobles and the Church. Agrait focuses on the king's efforts to equip and maintain the "astronomically expensive" Castilian navy by tapping into various traditional and extraordinary sources of revenue (oddly, the rather substantial tributes from Castile's religious minorities, especially the Jews, are not mentioned). The next chapter, Donald Kagay's "Shifting Alliances: The Unstable Bond between Castile and Aragon in the Late-Fourteenth Century," describes in fascinating detail the toxic mix of diplomacy, dynastic rivalries, assassinations, border skirmishes, open warfare, and volatile alliances that characterized relations between the Crown of Aragon and the much-weakened kingdom of Castile between 1356 and 1379.

With Teresa Earenfight's "Trastámara Kings, Queens, and the Gender Dynamics of Monarchy" and L. J. Andrew Villalon's "Don Alvaro de Luna and the Indictment against Royal Favoritism in Late Medieval Castile" the volume moves into the equally turbulent fifteenth century. Building on the premise that the Castilian monarchy was "a dynamic relationship that involved the entire royal family," Earenfight shows that the wives and daughters of Enrique III of Castile and Fernando I of Aragon were deeply involved in the politics of the day and actively contributed to governance (155). In fact, Earenfight argues, their effectiveness as royal consorts and regents inadvertently upset the gender balance in the institution of the monarchy and further undermined the reputation of Juan II, who was already perceived as "feminine" because of his excessive reliance on the royal favorite, Alvaro de Luna. The latter is also the subject of Villalon's article, which examines the rise and fall of Castile's most famous privado ("minister-favorite"). Focusing on the aristocracy's several attempts to topple Alvaro de Luna, who was the kingdom's de facto ruler for almost 30 years, Villalon argues that the minister's enduring influence damaged royal authority and worsened political instability in Castile.

This cohesive and valuable volume is a fitting tribute to the scholarship of Joseph O'Callaghan. The legacy of his transformative contribution to León-Castile's political and institutional history is apparent in every essay included in the collection. What the volume does not attempt, however, is to look to the future and identify new directions in research on medieval Castile. In fact, some of the editor's statements seem decidedly out of step with the current state of the field. While his professed intention is to incorporate Spain into the mainstream of medieval studies by highlighting Castile's ties to Northern Europe, there is no corresponding objective to study the kingdom within the broader context of the medieval Mediterranean. For Todesca, to consider Spain as part of the North African cultural and commercial network means to promote the old adage that "Europe stops at Pyrenees" (xiii). By insisting that Spain's position in the medieval world ought to be defined vis-à-vis Latin Europe, he affirms the same traditional narrative about the center and the periphery that he ostensibly seeks to challenge. Another, minor, criticism of the collection is the absence of an updated bibliography of Joseph O'Callaghan's works. A list of publications by one of the leading historians of medieval Spain would have been a valuable resource both for non-specialists seeking a primer on Castilian history, and for seasoned researchers who may want to jolt their memory.

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