Mailvox: A brief history of the Reconquista

In which Toni corrects me concerning my observations concerning the Reconquista of Spain and the current invasion of European America:

You mention the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD. You say: “Consider how small, in comparison to the present number of invaders, the earlier immigration was,” after mentioning a force of no more than 15,000 men.

Of course, those populations were smaller. But it was not a one-time event and that number greatly underestimates the whole inflow. The Muslims sent wave after wave against the peninsula.  You also mention that “the people invaded at the time also did not realize it was an invasion that was taking place around them”. That’s not exactly the case. In a way, it’s worse than that.

In 711 AD, the peninsula was under Visigoth rule. Even before the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, several Germanic tribes had invaded the peninsula (Suebi, Vandals, etc). Eventually, around 410 AD, one of these, the Visigoths (the Western Goths), managed to retain the control of the territory. Rome actually encouraged the Visigoths to pacify the peninsula against the other Germanic tribes.

But the Visigoths were a foreign minority (not more than 200,000) ruling over a larger and already diverse population. A demoralized and tired population that had recently gone through the fall of ‘their’ Empire (a few Roman emperors were actually from Hispania) and through successive invasions.

The Visigoth ruling elite was plagued by constant infighting. They had an elective monarchy and in late 710 AD they elected Rodrigo as their king. However, some Visigoth noblemen chose to side with Agila II instead. Agila II did effectively rule the Visigoth provinces of Iberia and Septimania, that is, the former Roman provinces of Tarraconense and Narbonense (northeastern Spain and southern France). Rodrigo ruled from Toledo, the Visigoth capital in the center of the peninsula.

The pro-Agila II faction sent envoys to North Africa to get military support in their fight against Rodrigo. In early 711 AD, Arab, Syrian, and Berber mercenaries crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Africa to fight for Agila II. These Muslim forces broke their agreement with Agila II and decided to stay in the peninsula.

It is not that the locals couldn’t tell the difference between trading ships and an invading army (one has to admire Muslim historiography). It’s that the invading army was originally fighting for one of the ruling factions. And most importantly, all ruling factions were made up of foreigners anyway. So:

  1. The locals had little to no attachment to their leaders.
  2. The leaders were too busy fighting among themselves to care for the people (they were not their people after all).
  3. The invaders were disloyal to the “king” that had hired them—a king who had been disloyal to his own rightful king. Compare this to the Roman attitude “Rome does not pay traitors who kill their chief”.

About the size of the invasion:

The Muslim invasion received wave after wave of new blood both from Africa and Arabia. It usually went like this: some new Muslim leader appeared in North Africa advocating a purer observance of Islamic law. They set their eyes on Al-Andalus (the Muslim invaded Iberian Peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal), a land of wealth, were the Muslim leaders often lived in decadence, corruption, and infighting in a soup of racial tensions between Arabs and Africans. The new sect got plenty of followers in North Africa and easily overthrew the Muslim elite in Al-Andalus, only to repeat the cycle… The newcomers were always numerous and ready to fight and far more fanatical.

In 1162, for instance, Abd-al-Mumin launched a new campaign from Africa to purify Al-Andalus and fight the Christians. Ibn Abi Zar says there were “300,000 horsemen, 80,000 volunteers, and 100,000 infantrymen.” In 1184, Abu Yakub Yusuf also crossed the Straits attempting to attack Lisbon with 100,000 men. In 1195, Yusuf II crossed the Straits with 300,000 men (mostly Berbers and black slave foot soldiers, archers, and Arab horsemen) and marched towards Toledo, Alfonso VII tried to stop them with his heavy cavalry of 10,000 men while reinforcements from Leon and Navarra were on their way. (That’s just a sample of about one million ‘”immigrants”” in less than 40 years in a context of almost 800 years). Etc…

When the Muslims crossed the Pyrenees, the Franks led by Charles Martel very soon managed to stop them at the Battle of Poitiers in 733 AD. Then the Muslims had to abandon their goal of crushing the Christendom from the Western front and retreated back to the Iberian Peninsula. The Franks set a protectorate north and south of the Eastern Pyrenees, the Spanish March, in present-day Catalonia and southern France (roughly, what Agila II had controlled, and would later become the Crown of Aragon, one of the founding kingdoms of Spain). And ‘Europe’ forgot about the peninsula. Indeed the peninsula looked like a lost cause to the European Christians, as local Christians retained only a few microscopic kingdoms up north in the cold mountain ridges that used to be Celtic.

So Europe, unlike Africa and Arabia, did not send wave after wave of new blood. Only when the Spanish and Portuguese Christians had managed to reconquer a significant size of the territory did some fellow Europeans join the fight, in Almeria and Lisbon, for example, but never in the overwhelming numbers of the relentless Muslim tide.

By the way, it is because of these difficulties that feudal serfdom never took root in Spain and Portugal. (Medieval Europe and Feudalism are not synonyms). Most of the Reconquista was actually achieved by dirt poor free men who rode southward to retake the plains and the towns, founded free cities and charter cities, years ahead of the royal armies, the religious orders, and even the hidalgos, who were exempt from paying taxes and had a right to bear arms because they fought.

Three final notes,

  1. A recurring topic in the history of (and prelude to) the Reconquista is infighting (first among the Visigoths, and then among the Christians Kingdoms and in Muslim Taifas). This is commonly referred to in Spain as “Reinos de Taifas”. As soon as 740 AD, the Muslims in the peninsula were fighting among themselves. (The Musa you mention was condemned to death by his superiors for taking too much booty for himself, the death sentence was commuted, but eventually he was murdered in a mosque in Damascus anyway in 716. His son married Rodrigo’s widow, converted to Catholicism, and was also murdered, his head sent to Damascus. Musa’s lieutenant, Tarik ibn Ziyad —Gibraltar is named after him, Jabal Tarik, Mountain of Tarik—was also murdered by his own people.)
  2. In 1492, when the Reconquista was completed with the liberation of Granada, the plan was to take the fight all the way to Mecca and rid the world of Islam. But in that same year the very same kings who rode into Granada also funded an expedition that stumbled into a New World, and then Christians decided that Islam was not such a big deal after all and that there were more exciting adventures ahead.
  3. As late as 1756, the Spanish navy was still fighting off Muslim pirates raiding the coast, without much help from anyone as usual. A thousand years had passed since the invasion of 711 AD.  Fifty years after that, an American president refused to pay the ransom that the Muslim African pirates were demanding to free the enslaved American mariners.

So there was a large native population being politically dominated by a small immigrant elite that encourages an invasion by a much larger group of immigrants that turns out to be disloyal to that elite. The historical analogy between 700s Spain and 2000s America may not be precise, but it is even more similar than the one I had previously drawn. In either case, it should be encouraging to traditional Americans to know that after 780 years of invasion and occupation, Spanish Christians were able to reconquer their own country.