18.06.11, Constable, To Live Like a Moor

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Ken Wolf

The Medieval Review 18.06.11

Constable, Olivia Remie. To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 248. ISBN: 9780812249484 (hardback) 9780812294675 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Ken Wolf
Pomona College

This book is a history of Christian perceptions of Islam that takes as its subject matter Mudejar and Morisco customs practiced in Spain from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, customs that were not explicitly rooted in religion yet came to be associated in the Iberian Christian mind with Muslims and Muslim converts to Christianity. As noted in the editor's preface, there have been many studies of Christian views of Islam, but the vast majority of these have focused on the more theoretical aspects of the subject captured in theological texts. Constable's work sets itself apart because it focuses on the "complexities of the lived—as opposed to idealized—experience" (xiii) captured in a wide variety of sources including legal texts, chronicles, travel accounts, cookbooks, poetry, and visual art. In the process the book engages with questions of medieval religious identity and its complicated relationship with observable behavior.

In an effort to harness such disparate social historical data, Constable chose as her point of departure a fascinating memorandum from 1567 challenging a decision by the Christian government of Granada to criminalize the use of "Moorish" clothing, hairstyles, bath houses, and language. The aim of this edict, like so many earlier legal efforts, was to erase the differences between Old Christians (that is, those who could claim generations of Christian ancestry) and New Christians (that is, the descendants of recently converted Muslims who in many cases had submitted to baptism in order to avoid deportation in 1502). The author of the memorandum, an elderly Morisco named Francisco Núñez Muley, argued that the behaviors in question should be treated as innocuous cultural markers rather than telling religious ones. Constable's book might then be described an extended gloss on Núñez Muley's arguments, offering a history of some of these suspiciously "Moorish" behaviors dating back to the eleventh century, when Muslim populations in Spain first found themselves subject to regulation by Christian rulers. But while Núñez Muley's intent was patently to disclaim any and all residual religious content in the newly-proscribed customs, Constable's is to show how regional practice, cultural borrowing, the balance of power, economic factors, and, yes, religion, all shaped how Christians might interpret these practices at any given moment in time. By considering her subject over the longue durée Constable is able to show how markers that were originally employed to indicate boundaries between the three Iberian religious communities were ultimately enlisted to enforce Christian homogeneity.

Constable's chapter dedicated to "clothing and appearance" challenges Núñez Muley's optimistic contention that "dressing like a Moor" ought not to be taken as an indication of religious identity. Influenced by the sumptuary canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), subsequent Spanish Christian legislation seemed intent on making it easier to distinguish Christians, Muslims, and Jews on the basis of appearance. As Constable observed, however, the "ongoing evidence of muddled visual identity" seems to fly in the face of the "relentless rhetoric" that such distinctions actually existed much less could be enforced (45). After 1502 when the inhabitants of Castile and Aragon were, by definition, Christian, the same notion that one's choice of clothing said something about religious identity informed Old Christian efforts to legislate uniformity in dress. Regardless of whether the legislation in question was designed to allow for coexistence between different religious communities (as in the thirteenth century) or to promote homogeneity within one religious community (as in the sixteenth), the focus was consistently on behavior as a proxy for belief. This chapter ends with a close consideration of the sixteenth-century shift to specifically female fashion markers, with particular attention to veiling and the use of henna.

In the chapter on "Bathing and Hygiene," Constable provides a fascinating history of the bathhouse in medieval Spain over the five hundred years before Núñez Muley tried to get the authorities in Granada to reconsider their closure. As the data shows, Iberian Muslims and Christians shared a long tradition of frequenting bathhouses dating back to Alfonso VI's conquest of Muslim Toledo in 1085. Despite perennial concerns in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries about the physical mixing of the religions and the potential for sexual impropriety, bathhouse culture continued unabated in Castile until the fifteenth century when bathing came to be regarded as more of a domestic matter. In Granada bathhouses would continue to play an important role until they came to be seen by the inquisitors as venues for the surreptitious practice of ritual ablutions. A heightened sexualization of the bathhouse in the Christian imagination of the fifteenth century and its predictable associations with loose women, particularly Moriscas, proved to be additional nails in the coffin of the Iberian bathhouse.

"Food and Foodways" is the chapter in which Constable reconstructs the history of perhaps the most important behavioral marker in medieval Iberia. Though Núñez Muley's memorandum was silent on this point, it turns out that he had previously complained about restrictions imposed on Morisco butchering in a petition to Charles V. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries concerns about butchers in Christian Spain tended to cluster around the problem of Christians frequenting halal (and kosher) butchers, but with the forced conversions of the sixteenth century a new challenge occupied legal minds: how to get Moriscos to accept the meats offered them at the now exclusively Christian butcher shops. Beyond the dietary concerns that were clearly rooted in Islam was a whole range of foods and food-related practices that only became important, legislatively speaking, when New Christians were expected to behave like Old Christians; for instance, eating couscous from a common bowl with one's fingers. Consistent with the "bathhouse" chapter, much of Constable's "butcher shop" evidence comes from the documentation produced by Christian authorities as they attempted to regulate and profit from the industry regardless of the religious status of the butchers and their customers. As in the case of communal bathing, Constable notes here how thin the line was between disparaging Morisco foodways for their supposed religious implications and deriding them for their imagined carnality and bestiality.

This is an important and highly readable book that belongs at the end of any syllabus treating the history of medieval Spain from "coexistence" to "conversion." Its great value from my perspective is the way in which a vast and complex data set is gathered within the ingenious framework provided by an old Morisco chafing under one more Old Christian attempt to legislate his culture away. It almost seems as if Constable is providing the response that Núñez Muley never managed to elicit from the city government. Just as Núñez Muley comes to life in these pages, so the wonderful panoply of medieval Iberian life in its most quotidian forms is palpable here. As sad as it is to accept the fact that this is Remie Constable's last book, it is hard to imagine a more perfect epilogue to a scholarly life well lived and dedicated to medieval Spain. Her editor and former student is to be commended for his own deep knowledge and gentle touch, and of course his determination to bring this project to fruition.

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