Source: The Guardian
Two books, one by Elizabeth Drayson and one by Matthew Carr, investigate the harsh fate of the Moors and their heirs from the 15th to 17th centuries
or centuries, visitors from the rest of Europe were disgusted by Spain. The problem was not that city streets remained unpaved, or that its rough mountain roads could not accept wheeled carriages. What turned visitors’ stomachs was the way Spain tolerated religious minorities. Until the end of the 15th century, thriving populations of Jews and Muslims – almost 10% of the population – practised their religion openly and proudly. “We Germans call them rats,” scoffed one visitor.
The insinuation was that Spain was not a proper European country. How could it be, if it put up with such people? Europeans were meant to be Christians. So when Isabella of Castile – the remarkable queen who helped shape Spain’s identity – and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon expelled “their” Jews in 1492, they did so to loud applause from elsewhere. England, for example, had done the same thing two centuries earlier. The conquest of the last Muslim kingdom of Spain in Granada – whose king, Boabdil, is the subject of Elizabeth Drayson’s charming and eye-opening The Moor’s Last Stand – provoked even wilder joy that same year. Isabella and her husband followed this up with forcible conversions of Spanish Muslims. Yet even that was not enough for purists such as Martin Luther or the supposedly saintly Thomas More, who damned Spaniards as “faithless Jews and baptised Moors”. As if in reply, Philip III expelled 300,000 descendants of Spain’s Muslim population who had converted to Christianity, the “moriscos”, early in the 17th century. The human cost was ghastly. But, it was thought, Spain was finally pure.
In the intolerant times of Brexit, Le Pen and Trump, all this might sound familiar. Matthew Carr, whose magnificent Blood and Faith charts the tragic end of the moriscos, sees clear parallels with current “bitter, acrimonious, and often bigoted debates”. The morisco expulsion of 1609 was “a monumental historical crime” from which he seeks lessons for today.
Spain had long hosted the three religions of the book. Jews appeared first, while Roman legionaries brought Christianity and Islam arrived with overwhelming force when north African invaders swept across Spain in the 8th century – giving rise to the long Christian reconquista that Isabella and Ferdinand finished off in Granada. In Muslim Cordoba, scribes produced 60,000 books a year, while the largest library elsewhere in Europe boasted just 600. The inscriptions on the tomb of King Ferdinand III of Castile, who died in 1252, are written in Latin, Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew. Spain, meanwhile, came to boast the world’s largest population of Jews.
Giles Tremlett’s Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen is published by Bloomsbury.
• The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End is published by Profile. To order a copy for £15.29 (RRP £17.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain 1492-1614 is published by Hurst. To order a copy for £12.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.