Medieval Geopolitics: The Iberian Crusades

Medieval Geopolitics: The Iberian Crusades

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By Andrew Latham

The pre-history of the Iberian Crusades can be traced to the disintegration of Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031 and the subsequent emergence of a constellation of weak successor kingdoms – Badajoz, Seville, Grenada, Málaga, Toledo, Valencia, Denia, the Balearic Islands, Zaragosa and Lérida – known as taifas.

Locked in intense internecine competition, these emirates soon began to seek the “protection” of the militarily stronger Christian kingdoms of León, Castille, Navarre, Aragón and Catalonia. In turn, these Christian kingdoms began to vie with one another for the tributary payments (parias) paid by the taifas for protection. In this complex regional system, the geopolitical fault-lines were not always drawn along religious or civilizational lines: Muslim kings sometimes concluded that it was prudent to become vassals of their Christian neighbors, just as Christian princes sometimes made alliances with their Muslims neighbors.

Nor were they stable: alliances and tributary arrangements changed as perceptions of advantage or insecurity shifted. And while territorial expansion at the expense of the taifas was certainly part of the dynamic of this system (witness Fernando I’s conquest of the town of Coimbra from the taifa of Badajoz in 1064), it was not its defining characteristic. Rather, the dominant logic of Iberian geopolitics during this period was maneuvering for advantage among the taifa statelets coupled with competition over the parias among the now-dominant Christian principalities.

It was against this backdrop that in 1063 Pope Alexander II encouraged Christian knights from within and beyond Iberia to wage war on the taifas. Reflecting his worldview as one of the early reform popes, Alexander was greatly concerned by the general military threat posed to Christendom by Islam. Indeed, in common with Gregory VII and Urban II, Alexander considered the struggle in Iberia as being at least as important as that of wars occurring in the Holy Land.

Sensing an opportunity to liberate at least some of the once-Christian lands of the peninsula from Muslim rule, Alexander responded to an appeal for assistance from the Christian king of Aragón by issuing a bull – Clero Vultutnensi – that offered relief from penance and remission of sin to any and all Christian warriors participating in his planned expedition against the taifa of Zaragosa. In response, a large number of knights from Burgundy, Normandy, Aquitaine, Italy, and all over Christian Iberia journeyed to Aragón to take part in the campaign. The fort at Barbastro – a strategically important site about sixty miles north of the town of Zaragosa – was subsequently taken by this army and held until recaptured by Muslim forces in late 1065.

Reconquista – A Perpetual Crusade

Following several lesser actions in which Pope Gregory VII may have offered similar religious inducements to fight, in 1089 another major proto-crusade was launched by Pope Urban II. The geopolitical context within which this campaign was undertaken was quite different from that prevailing in the 1060s. In 1085, King Alfonso VI of Castile captured Toledo, convincing the emirs of the taifa statelets that they faced an increasingly lethal threat to their existence. They subsequently appealed to the Almoravids – a puritanical Sunni sect that had recently subjugated Morocco – to help them resist the Christian campaign of reconquest. Responding to this appeal, but also acting on their belief that the taifas were decadent and in need of their particular brand of religious reinvigoration, the Almoravids crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and entered Iberia in force.

In 1087, they routed King Alfonso’s army at the battle of Sagrajas near Badajoz, thereby stemming the Christian advance, ending the parias system and so simultaneously dealing a severe geopolitical and economic blow to the Christian principalities. Over the next two decades or so, the Almoravids then proceeded to incorporate the remaining taifas into their empire. These developments gravely concerned Church officials, who saw in them not only a reversal of the re-conquest, but a growing threat to Christian Spain, southern France and, ultimately, all of Christendom. In a bid to “create a wall and bastion against the Saracens”, the pope offered remission of sins to those Catalan nobles who undertook to liberate and restore a number of important metropolitan sees under Muslim control (Braga, Mérida, Seville and Tarragona). While not yielding immediate successes, the call nevertheless resulted in the mobilization of considerable number of knights committed to the goal of liberating Tarragona. In some ways anticipating the future evolution of the Military Orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, etc.), it even led to the creation of novel form of “military confraternity” – comprising knights living communally in frontier fortresses – dedicated to liberating and restoring the See in return for the remission of their sins.

These early campaigns are significant for two reasons. First, they contributed to the evolution of the crusade proper as a defining element of the geopolitical system of medieval Latin Christendom. During these campaigns, many of the elements that were later to coalesce into the institution of the crusade were first developed: the use of papal bulls to mobilize the armed laity, the remission of sins in return for service, the invocation of the Peace of God in order to secure the internal tranquility necessary for campaigning against the Muslims, and the trans-local nature of the forces responding to the call all anticipated the character of crusading proper. While there is no denying that some of the institution’s defining elements – such as the vow and the sense of pilgrimage – were not present in these pre-1095 campaigns, there is also no denying that these experiments laid the institutional groundwork for the First Crusade to the Holy Land.

Second, these campaigns initiated a process of transformation that radically altered the overall character of the Reconquista. Space limitations preclude a detailed account of this broader process. Suffice it to say, however, that whereas prior to the 1060s the re-conquest was driven by the intertwined logics of lordly political accumulation and princely state-building, after the Barbastro campaign it was increasingly driven by the logic of religious defense and expansion (defensio and dilatio) as well. To be sure, the more mundane dynamics of the Reconquista never disappeared: it was always in some substantial measure about the extent, wealth and power of the peninsula’s Christian kingdoms and lesser principalities. After 1063, however, a significant new religious dimension was introduced that profoundly transformed the causes, character and correlates of war in the region. If not completely reconfiguring the Reconquista into a sort of perpetual crusade, this development clearly reshaped the basic patterns of violent political conflict in the peninsula for centuries to come.

The next phase of Iberian crusading (running from 1095-1123) was a period of adaptation and innovation during which the ideal of the crusade – forged decisively during the successful expedition to Jerusalem in 1099 – was introduced to Iberia. As with the experiments before 1095, the impulse to introduce crusading proper to the peninsula was provided primarily by developments in the Islamic world – specifically, by the continuing successes of the Almoravids in both weakening the Christian kingdoms and consolidating their own. By 1110, this process was completed with the incorporation of the last remaining taifa – Zaragosa – into their empire. With internal consolidation complete, the Almoravids were free to intensify their pressure on the Christian kingdoms of Léon-Castile and Aragón, prompting the rulers of these kingdoms in turn to appeal to the papacy for assistance.

The reform popes of the period (Urban II, Paschal II, Gelasius II, Calixtus II), viewing the threat in Iberia in its broader eschatological context, responded to this appeal by mobilizing the only military instrument then available to them: the crusader army. Drawing on the constitutive ideal of the successful 1095 expedition to Jerusalem, the papacy almost immediately began to introduce the formal apparatus of crusading – bull, preaching, vow, indulgence, privilege, signing with the cross – to the Iberian region in order to mobilize the martial resources of Christendom against the Almoravids.

This resulted in two crusades between 1113 and 1118. The first of these, authorized by Pope Paschal in 1113, was a joint Pisan-French-Catalan expedition to liberate Christian captives being held in the Balearic Islands; the second, proclaimed in 1118 and led by King Alfonso I of Aragón-Navarre, was a campaign to capture Zaragosa. While there is some debate as to whether they were full-fledged crusades or merely a type of Iberian proto-crusade, these two campaigns clearly reflected the Church’s newfound desire not merely to sanctify and encourage the Reconquista, but to use its recently acquired and distinctive war-making capacity to advance its own interests in the region.

The final stage, from 1123 onwards, was that of Iberian crusading in maturity. As argued above, crusading in Iberia prior to 1123 involved either innovations that anticipated the First Crusade of 1095 or, after 1099, piecemeal applications of crusading practices that had crystallized as a result of that campaign. In 1123, however, the First Lateran Council decisively ruled that the Iberian crusades were of a piece with those to the Holy Land. From this point on, the crusades in Iberia were seen as part of a wider conflict against Islam – usually as a kind of “second front”, though sometimes as an alternate route to the East – and steps were often taken to coordinate (or at least “de-conflict”) crusades in the two theaters. As importantly, with the full application of the increasingly well-defined crusade institution in Iberia, crusader armies could be more readily mobilized by the Church to advance its interests in the peninsula. Taking advantage of this new capacity, the papacy authorized a number of Iberian campaigns – one conducted by Alfonso VII of Castile against Almería on the southern coast of Granada 1147; another, conducted by a joint Catalan-Genoese force, against Tortosa at the mouth of the Ebro in 1148 – in support of the Second Crusade (1145-9). Popes Eugenius III and Anastasius IV also authorized a crusade by Count Ramon Berenguer IV to consolidate control of the Ebro valley between 1152 and 1154, and one by King Alfonso VII to capture Andújar in 1155.

The path to Las Navas de Tolosa

From the mid-1100s onward, however, the Church was increasingly concerned with the threat to Christendom posed by the Almohads, a fundamentalist Islamic sect originating in Morocco that had begun displacing the Almoravids as rulers of Muslim Iberia. Against the backdrop of continuing rivalry among the Christian principalities, for several decades this new empire reversed the geopolitical dynamic in the peninsula, winning several important battles, and retaking territory that had been lost in the later years of the Almoravid regime.

In 1172, the Almohads seized the last Almoravid emirate in Iberia. The period of Almohad expansion was not to last for long, however. Faced with the grave threat to Christian Iberia posed by the resurgent Muslim forces, the Christian princes (with papal encouragement) began to employ a number of religious military orders as a bulwark against further Almohad advances. As Norman Houlsey observes, this phenomenon had both a local and translocal dimension. On the one hand, each of the Christian kingdoms (except Navarre) created its own orders. These included the larger and more long-lived orders such as Alcántara, Calatrava, and Santiago, as well as more ephemeral ones such as Le Merced, Monte Gaudio, San Jorge de Alfama, and Trujillo. On the other hand, the Templars and the Hospitallers, both iconic translocal orders, had a significant presence in the peninsula, especially in Aragón and Catalonia. Taken together, these orders provided a permanent defensive carapace along the frontier – a carapace that contributed substantially to the frustration of the Almohad advance in the latter part of the 12th century.

Not content with merely stabilizing the frontier in Iberia, during this period successive popes offered remission of sins and other spiritual inducements to those fighting to drive the Muslims out of Iberia. In 1175, Pope Alexander III used the promise of the same indulgence given to crusaders to the Holy Land to encourage Christian rulers of Léon, Castile and Aragón to go on the offensive against the Almohads. In an effort to prevent any large-scale departure of penitential warriors from Spain to the Holy Land following the proclamation of the Third Crusade (to liberate Jerusalem, which fallen in 1187), Pope Clement III extended the scope of that crusade to include Iberia. In response, Alfonso VIII went on the offensive south of the Guadiana River and, more importantly, non-Iberian crusaders on their way to the Holy Land engaged in a joint venture with Sancho I of Portugal to capture the town of Silves (the Crusade of Silves, 1189).

Also encouraged by the extension of the Crusade bull to Iberia, Alfonso VIII embarked upon the ill-fated Crusade of Alarcos (1193). Against the backdrop of successful and crucial papal efforts to end the internecine struggles among the peninsula’s Christian princes, the Crusade of Las Navas de Tolosa was launched in 1212. Culminating in a decisive Christian victory, the campaign effectively broke the back of the Almohad empire and constituted a tipping point of sorts in the long conflict in Iberia. The preceding century or so had been one of geopolitical stalemate, with the frontier whipsawing back and forth according the always-shifting balance of forces between the Muslim and Christian powers. After Las Navas, however, the Almohads never again managed to recover their footing, and their empire entered into a period of terminal decline. Four decades (and several crusades) later, al-Andalus had been all but extinguished and almost all of Iberia had been permanently reincorporated into the Latin Christian world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, over the course of several centuries the Iberian Crusades developed their own distinctive character: “pilgrimage” was far less important than in the crusades to the Holy Land; they were closely controlled by Iberian monarchies (especially Léon-Castile); they were more successful than those in the East (especially after the Battle of Las Navas in 1212); they were more reliant on both regional and trans-regional military orders; and the Iberian “crusader states” – unlike those in the Holy Land – developed strong fiscal and administrative bases from which to launch both geopolitically motivated wars and crusades.

But they were nevertheless also clear expressions of a form of war that transcended the Iberian sub-system: they reflected the distinctive war-making capacity of the Church (the crusader army and the military religious orders); they expressed the interests of the reform papacy (the restoration of once-Christian lands in Spain to the Latin Christian fold); and they were made possible by the institution of the crusade (constituting the Church as a legitimate war-making entity and the “crusader” as a recognizable form of agent with a defined portfolio of religious interests). Of course, this does not explain the totality of the historical process known as the Reconquista. It does, however, highlight the distinctively ecclesiastical or religious dimension of the process – a dimension that was organic to the geopolitics of later medieval Latin Christendom.

Top Image: A Ptolemiac map of Iberia, created at Reichenbach Monastery in 1467

Watch the video: The Crusades in 5 Minutes (May 2022).