To Live like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

To Live like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

To Live like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

To Live like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain


What do clothing, bathing, or dining habits reveal about one's personal religious beliefs? Nothing, of course, unless such outward bodily concerns are perceived to hold some sort of spiritual significance. Such was the case in the multireligious world of medieval Spain, where the ways in which one dressed, washed, and fed the body were seen as potential indicators of religious affiliation. True faith might be a matter of the soul, but faith identity could also literally be worn on the sleeve or reinforced through performance of the most intimate functions of daily life.

The significance of these practices changed over time in the eyes of Christian warriors, priests, and common citizens who came to dominate all corners of the Iberian peninsula by the end of the fifteenth century. Certain "Moorish" fashions occasionally crossed over religious lines, while visits to a local bathhouse and indulgence in a wide range of exotic foods were frequently enjoyed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. Yet at the end of the Middle Ages, attitudes hardened. With the fall of Granada, and the eventual forced baptism of all Spain's remaining Muslims, any perceived retention of traditional "Moorish" lifestyles might take on a sinister overtone of disloyalty and resistance. Distinctive clothing choices, hygienic practices, and culinary tastes could now lead to charges of secret allegiance to Islam. Repressive legislation, inquisitions, and ultimately mass deportations followed.

To Live Like a Moor traces the many shifts in Christian perceptions of Islam-associated ways of life which took place across the centuries between early Reconquista efforts of the eleventh century and the final expulsions of Spain's converted yet poorly assimilated Morisco population in the seventeenth. Using a wealth of social, legal, literary, and religious documentation in this, her last book, Olivia Remie Constable revealed the complexities and contradictions underlying a historically notorious transition from pluralism to intolerance.


David Nirenberg

In 1492 Fernando and Isabel accepted the surrender of the city-kingdom of Granada, the last redoubt of Muslim political power on the Iberian Peninsula, granting in return to the conquered the right to continue practicing their religion. in 1501 officials of the same monarchs broke that promise and offered the region’s Muslims a “choice” between conversion to Christianity or expulsion from their homes and lands in the Peninsula. Tens of thousands chose conversion, giving birth to what would become a new religious category in Spain, that of the Moriscos, as the converts and their descendants came to be known.

The creation of this new category (made much larger over time by the eventual forced conversion of Muslims living in Valencia, Aragon, and other regions of the Peninsula) raised any number of new questions. Among these were questions of what it meant to be Muslim, what it meant to be Christian, and what aspects of a person’s behavior or belief needed to change in order to make the transition from the one to the other. Today we often speak of “religious identity” as if the phrase—with its etymological implication of the subject’s religious “oneness,” “unity,” or “sameness”—were unproblematic. But what these mass conversions of Muslims to Christianity catalyzed was a debate about precisely what such spiritual “oneness” required of the individual. This basic question, already posed sharply a century earlier but in a different flavor with the forced conversion of the Peninsula’s Jews to Christianity, was the bellows that raised the issue of Christian perceptions of Muslim identity to a red-hot heat.

Addressing the converts at around the time of their baptism, Hernando de Talavera, Granada’s first archbishop, took a position on this question: “So that no one might think that you still adhere to the sect of Muhammad in . . .

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