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21.06.10 Wacks, Medieval Iberian Crusade Fiction and the Mediterranean World

The Medieval Review

21.06.10 Wacks, Medieval Iberian Crusade Fiction and the Mediterranean World


The Crusades, particularly the campaigns in the Levant, have long been recognized as a transformative moment in the history of the medieval Mediterranean, and particularly in the history of interfaith contact and conflict. Christian efforts to conquer Muslim-ruled territories in the Iberian Peninsula have their own history, one that is distinct from yet interconnected with the history of crusading. No individual place in the Iberian Peninsula had quite the religious resonance of the city of Jerusalem. Moreover, conflicts within the Iberian Peninsula rarely proceeded along purely religious lines: intra-faith hostility and cross-confessional alliances marked centuries of warfare. Nevertheless, the annexing of Muslim territories received formal papal recognition as a holy war equivalent to the Jerusalem crusade. Increasingly, historians have recognized that we can better understand both crusading ideology and the Iberian campaigns of Christian conquest by incorporating the Iberian Peninsula into the study of the Crusades. In Medieval Iberian Crusade Fiction and the Mediterranean World, David Wacks uses the lens of crusading as a new way to explore Iberian literature. How does the multilingual, multi-confessional, and multi-national Mediterranean literary context, and particularly the genre of crusade fiction, shape Iberian literature? And what does this literature tell us about the development and articulation of a "specifically Iberian crusade culture" (38)?

After an introduction which provides context on crusade, conquests, and conversion in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond, each chapter of the book is centered on a particular literary work that exemplifies some aspect of Iberian crusade fiction. The selection of case studies is deliberately multilingual, including texts written in Arabic, Castilian, Catalan, and Valencian, and bi-confessional, including one Muslim-authored text alongside four Christian exemplars. The sole Muslim-authored text, Ziyad ibn 'Amir al-Kinani, is the subject of the first chapter. In itself, this work--which Wacks describes as "the only known Arabic chivalric romance from the Iberian Peninsula" (8)--highlights the intercultural and interfaith connectivity of the Iberian Peninsula. The author blends Arabic epics with French chivalric romances in order to craft a narrative in which a Muslim crusading hero battles and converts "pagan" (implicitly Christian) enemies. Wacks suggests that the work functions as "fictional wish fulfilment" (41). It was composed in the mid thirteenth century; by 1248, Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula had seen Islamic al-Andalus reduced to the single Muslim-ruled kingdom of Granada, which in essence functioned as a client kingdom of Castile-Léon. The author of Ziyad imagined an alternative universe, one in which the Muslim hero supplants the Christian crusader and triumphs in both conquest and conversion. As an example of a cross-confessional literary culture, Ziyad is not unique in either the Iberian Peninsula or the Mediterranean. But the Muslim adaptation of a crusading imaginary fundamentally hostile to Islam is particularly intriguing as an example of selective acculturation. Another project might place Ziyad in the context of interfaith polemics, which shared vocabulary even while promoting the conquest and conversion of other faiths.

The remaining four case studies all come out of a specifically Christian Iberian context, and reveal a variety of ways in which fiction allowed Iberian Christians to grapple with the realities of living in a multi-confessional society over the course of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula participated in a shared culture and were deeply familiar with one another--but at the same time, Christian authorities worked to legally maintain religious hierarchies, and members of all three faiths sought to preserve boundaries, sometimes through violence. Iberian Christian crusade fiction demonstrates the intimacy of interfaith contact and conflict in a way that distinguishes it from other crusading literatures. The Libro del cavallero Zifar, which forms the subject of chapter 2, is set in the east but--as Wacks argues--reveals concerns that are fundamentally embedded in the context of the Iberian conquest of al-Andalus. Wacks reads Zifar as a narrative about the commodification of both concrete and symbolic spoils of crusading: Christian relics, often taken from the Byzantine Empire, and Arabic learning, in the form of texts from al-Andalus. For Wacks, both functioned as "arms and currency in a pan-Mediterranean struggle for military, spiritual, and economic supremacy between Latin Christendom and Islam" (61). The collection and translation of Arabic texts, however, was particularly rooted in "a uniquely Castilian intellectual and political identity" (81). While the commodification of crusading spoils belongs to crusade fiction at large, the intellectual and cultural connectivity seen in attitudes toward Andalusi learning is particularly Iberian.

In chapter 3, Wacks tackles a crucial difference between crusading ideology in Iberia and the Levant: the place of conversion. Crusade rhetoric did not emphasize conversion until the thirteenth century--precisely the moment in which crusades to the Levant were on the wane. Louis IX of France might have agreed that "crusaders were the military vanguard of mission" (85), but his largely unsuccessful crusade was among the last to make a significant effort to conquer the Holy Land for Christendom. In the Iberian Pensinsula, in contrast, conversion and crusading were already linked by the mid-twelfth century, and mass conversion remained both a meaningful goal and a potentially practical project. Indeed, mass conversions of Jews, mostly obtained through violence, would transform the religious landscape of the Iberian Peninsula in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Ramon Llull was a major advocate for conversion, albeit through persuasion rather than force, and his Blaquerna--the subject of the third chapter--fused military crusading ideals with the dream of conversion. As Wacks argues, Blaquerna allowed Llull through fiction to successfully accomplish his "fantasy of education, disputation, and conversion (we might call it conquest from within)" (104) which he failed to realize outside of his fictional universe. His fusion of military crusading, the project of conversion through reason, and chivalric ideals makes Blaquerna a particularly Iberian example of crusade fiction.

Conversion as well as romance is at the center of chapter 4, which explores the Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor. The narrative of this text centers on an alternative history, in which romance makes mass conversion possible. Fiction allowed the author to tell history not as it was, but as he thought it should have been. Flores y Blancaflor tells the story of the Muslim boy Flores and the Christian girl Blancaflor, who are raised together as children and eventually fall in love--a love that ultimately results in not only Flores' own conversion to Christianity, but the mass conversion of his entire kingdom. The text also strengthens the link between the Iberian crusading project and the illustrious figure of Charlemagne, here imagined as a descendant of Flores and Blancaflor. However, while the text intertwines French and Iberian crusading ideals, it once again exhibits a particularly Iberian perspective. It is particularly striking that while French romances telling essentially the same story treat skin color as a marker of difference between Christians and Muslims, Flores y Blancaflor and other Iberian romances speak to the familiarity of multi-confessional families and acknowledge that the overt differences between Christians and Muslims were displayed through language and clothing, not through skin color. Despite this incorporation of Iberian lived experiences, however, the work is nevertheless a fiction which simplifies several centuries of Iberian history by transforming it into "a tale of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy converts for girl" (130).

The final chapter, on the Valencian novel Tirant lo Blanch, takes us into the fifteenth century--a very different moment in Iberian history, particularly in the Crown of Aragon. Imagined mass conversion has become reality, albeit not entirely as hoped: conversos might live as and look like Christians, but mass conversion had sparked new anxieties about whether Jewishness was entirely wiped away with baptism. At the same time, the Crown of Aragon was also grappling with the loss of their Mediterranean possessions at the hands of an expanding Ottoman empire. Tirant lo Blanch imagines both a Christian conquest of Constantinople and mass conversions, the latter of which, Wacks suggests, "is less a fantasy than a rehearsal" (151) for the expulsion or conversion of all Jews in the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, as well as the 1502 mass conversion of Muslims. These victories are placed in an idealized Arthurian chivalric world, through both literary conventions and a dream vision in which Arthur himself imparts wisdom to the hero. Arthurian chivalric fiction allows the authors to imagine an Iberian world that is less complicated and more unequivocally marked by Christian success than the reality.

Wacks' scholarship represents a crucial contribution to our understanding of crusade ideology in the medieval Iberian Peninsula, while also making a compelling argument for the value of crusade as an interpretive tool for reading Iberian literature. At the same time, his framework raises further questions. The introduction in particular emphasizes the importance of seeing Iberian literature as Mediterranean literature, yet the intersections with northern French crusading imaginaries that addressed but were not entirely of the Mediterranean raises the possibility that the Mediterranean might not be wide enough. What kind of insights might be yielded by further expanding our analytical lens to explore cross-regional connections as well as multi-national and interfaith links? On the subject of interfaith links, the book includes an example of a Muslim-authored work of crusade fiction; do Jews ever appear as subjects rather than mere objects in crusading literature, and if not, why? Finally, while Wacks focuses on the power of fiction to express crusading ideals, a wide variety of textual and visual sources beyond fictional literature speak to the way people in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond understood crusade. Is there something unique about the crusading imaginary of fiction--or might crossing the boundaries of genre also prove fruitful?