Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia

Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia

Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia

Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia

Synopsis

Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines investigates the political and cultural significance of marriages and other sexual encounters between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Islamic conquest in the early eighth century to the end of Muslim rule in 1492. Interfaith liaisons carried powerful resonances, as such unions could function as a tool of diplomacy, the catalyst for conversion, or potent psychological propaganda. Examining a wide range of source material including legal documents, historical narratives, polemical and hagiographic works, poetry, music, and visual art, Simon Barton presents a nuanced reading of the ways interfaith couplings were perceived, tolerated, or feared, depending upon the precise political and social contexts in which they occurred.

Religious boundaries in the Peninsula were complex and actively policed, often shaped by an overriding fear of excessive social interaction or assimilation of the three faiths that coexisted within the region. Barton traces the protective cultural, legal, and mental boundaries that the rival faiths of Iberia erected, and the processes by which women, as legitimate wives or slave concubines, physically traversed those borders. Through a close examination of the realities and the imagination of interfaith relations, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines highlights the extent to which sex, power, and identity were closely bound up with one another.

Excerpt

Every year, on the Sunday before 5 October, the feast day of St. Froilán, the inhabitants of the northern Spanish city of León celebrate a curious and eyecatching popular festival known simply as Las Cantaderas. The purpose of the fiesta is to commemorate the agreement supposedly reached by the Christian kings of Asturias in the late eighth century, by which they undertook to deliver one hundred maidens (cien doncellas) to the emir of Muslim-ruled Iberia, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān I (756–88), in annual payment of tribute. Tradition records that this humiliating obligation was later expunged by King Ramiro I (842–50), who, with the miraculous assistance of St. James, defeated a large Muslim army at Clavijo in the Rioja in 844. During the Leonese festivities, a theatrical ceremony takes place, as a group of young women (the cantaderas themselves), demurely dressed in medieval costume, are instructed to dance by a woman known as the sotadera, usually veiled, whose task it supposedly is to lead them on the long journey southward to join the emir’s harem in Córdoba. However, the sotadera takes the group on an alternative route, from the square in front of the old town hall, accompanied by local dignitaries and mace bearers, as far as the cathedral. There, further singing and dancing take place, speeches are delivered by the great and the good, Mass is held, and offerings are made to the Virgin Mary to give thanks for the safe delivery of the women from the clutches of the infidel.

The origins of the festival of Las Cantaderas, which until relatively recently was held on Assumption Day (15 August), can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century. By 1596, when Atanasio de Lobera published his history of the city and church of León, the festival was already well established and the celebrations stretched over three days, combining both popular and religious elements. Lobera’s description of Las Cantaderas records that the four principal parishes of León—San Marcelo, Santa Ana, San Martín, and Nuestra Señora del Mercado—each sent twelve girls to the procession every year, all of . . .

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