Unmillennial issues

Despite the day-job, it’s been a while since I put any numismatic content here apart from that exhibition notice. I don’t usually have much dealing with the medieval parts of the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but this record had a mistake in it that needed fixing and the coin just struck me.

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.1192


Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

Quite apart from the fact that it’s rather splendid (though in its 22mm-wide, 4 gram actual size maybe less so than it looks here), this coin is an unwitting anchor point for a whole range of historical changes. For us, perhaps, the first thing that sticks out is the date: it’s a coin of the Millennium, about which we are sometimes asked to believe most of Western Christianity was in a ferment at the time when this coin was struck. But that piece of chronology is of course only a Christian fixation and this is a Muslim coin, struck in the name of one of the various claimants of the time to the succession to Muhammad’s leadership of all Muslims. Nonetheless, that claimant, Hishām ibn al-Hakām al-Mucayad, is something of a millennial figure in the colloquial sense, because it was under him that the Caliphate of al-Andalus, in whose name the coin is struck (al-Andalus, Spain itself, which we believe to have been the signature of the Córdoba mint but which may have been used in several places), shattered, never to recover.

Hishām, though the grandson of perhaps the most powerful Spanish Muslim ruler of all, ruled as a puppet, the real government being in the hands of his hājib (roughly, first minister), Abu Āmir Muhammad ibn Abdullah Ibn Abi Āmir, better known as al-Mansur. For twenty years or more al-Mansur had most of Northern Spain cowering in fear of his armies, and of course it was in Hishām’s name that Barcelona was sacked by those armies in 985, but by the time this coin was struck he was facing an alliance of the northern principalities under King García Sanches II of Navarre, and by 1002 he was dead. His son cAbd al-Malik proved less able, and anyway died in 1008. He managed before that to get Hishām, who had no children (having never been provided with a wife), to make his son cAbd al-Rahmān (‘Sanchuelo’, because he was son of García Sanches’s sister Sancha) the recognised heir. So recognised, however, Sanchuelo mounted a coup and took over, having his father killed; the populace of Córdoba then rose against him and the caliph under one Muhammad II al-Mahdi, who was not only of the blood royal but as you can see from his byname claimed to be the Mahdi, the mythical figure who is prophesied to redeem Islam. Muhammad was not the first person to make such a claim by any means, and he will surely not be the last, but it’s that Millennial theme again all the same.

By then, al-Andalus was in full-scale civil war between military commanders of slave troops or mercenary contingents, with the old nobility and their private, dare I say, feudal, levies getting involved in various ways too. So despite his Messianic claims al-Mahdi was deposed within the year by Sulaiman V al-Mustacīn, another royal claimant backed by the Berber factions. Al-Mahdi therefore got fled to Toledo and got help, from none other than Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona and his brother Count Ermengol I of Urgell, the two sons of my pet count Borrell II, and they gathered a very large army, negotiated a very large pay contract and marched on Córdoba itself. Sulaiman had meanwhile enlisted help from Castile (why no, the Catalans weren’t part of that Northern alliance I mentioned, now that you ask) and the two armies met outside the Andalusi capital, at the time perhaps the largest city in Europe, and although the Catalans took very heavy losses (including Ermengol and two bishops, another dying on the way back) Sulaiman broke first, leaving the Catalans to plunder the city in pursuit of their defaulted pay (and simple looting of course). Almost as soon as they were gone however the Slavic troops of the Caliphate broke good old Hishām out of prison in what was left of Córdoba and put him back on the throne again, perhaps eager for his first real chance at power albeit under the protection of the Slav general al-Wahdid. Sulaiman didn’t give in, however, and in 1013 his Berber troops followed the Catalan suit and plundered the capital; Hishām was killed in the sack, and Sulaiman succeeded again, but to a state whose integrity was already ruined, the various leaders having been joined by a host of local princes setting up on their own, to become what we now call the Taifas, the `party’ kings. So ended mighty al-Andalus.

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, during the rule of Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

Marble bathing basin probably made at and for the Caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra', during the rule of 'Abd al-Malik ibn al-Mansur (1002-1008) and therefore the Caliphate, and residence at the palace, of Hishām II; Dar Si Saïd Museum, Marrakesh, Museum With No Frontiers MWNF MO 07

The coin doesn’t really have much of all that in it. When it was struck Hishām was a respected if powerless figure, and his coinage would continue to circulate through not just Islamic but Christian Spain; from the 970s onwards Barcelona documents are increasingly full of mentions of “mancuses” which are nothing more than Arabic dinars substituting in high-value transactions for the low-value silver deniers of the day. This is one of those coins, and it’s entirely traditional in design, weight and fabric. Coins like this had been being made in Spain for probably forty years and in the Middle East, to a slightly heavier and older weight standard, for centuries. Islamic Spain, now plugged into Saharan Africa and its gold trade, was an economic powerhouse, not least because of having one of the few functional tax systems of early medieval Europe which made these coins and their silver counterparts a necessity. It was a military power greatly to be feared, too, but it was also a state where top-down power was crystallised around a very few people and large armies served them as they saw fit. whether its fall was inevitable or really can be blamed on a few bad rulers, or somewhere between the two, is a question for someone else; I just like the way that the date on this splendid gold coin unwittingly prefigures the collapse soon to follow it, but only to a Western Christian (yet Arabic-reading) mind. It’s little straws of paradox like this that make the human disaster implicit in such events navigable don’t you think?


There isn’t really reading you can do that would cover this all in one go. Not the smallest reason for this is that the Catalan-Castilian battle at Córdoba gets elided from one side or the other in almost all historical writing about it, the Catalans omitting the Castilians and the Castilians the Catalans so as to better preserve their own myth of triumphant reconquest from the rather sordid tang of mercenary fratricide. This in turn affects English-language writing about it, which tends to have been raised in one or other school; for example, Derek W. Lomax, The Reconquest of Spain (London 1978), pp. 49-51, omits the Catalans, and you won’t find any mentions of the Castilians in any of the places where Paul Freedman’s work touches 1010 as far as I know. You also get pro-Muslim work from the Arabists that tries to miss out the sack entirely. It’s crazy. On the coin, however, some day you’ll be able to see Anna M. Balaguer & Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge forthcoming), Chapter 3, and given the partisan state of the historical discourse, that may even be the best guide in English to these events outside of Wikipedia. Sometimes we historians could really do better…

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7 responses to “Unmillennial issues

  1. There were Slavs in Andalus at that time? Where did they come from? Is there any literature about them? I assume they are mercenaries, converted to Islam?

  2. Er, kind of. Mostly they were slave soldiers, and they came to form a very large part of the army with their own generals, of whom al-Wahdid was one and al-Mansur’s contemporary Ghalib another. For literature, well, here’s a chunk of quote from a general book:

    [speaking of administrators in the Caliphate] The second group were saqāliba [slaves of the Umayyad ruling family], who were mostly recent arrivals in al-Andalus. These had been employed by the Umayyads since the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān II, but it was not until the time of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III that they became a prominent force in the administration and the military, and their numbers are said to have increased from 3,750 to 13,750 in the course of the reign. These slaves were generally known as saqāliba, a word which was usually applied to the Slav peoples of eastern Europe, although it was also loosely applied to slaves of northern European origin. From the ninth century it seems that pagan Slavs captured in the eastern campaigns of the Franks were exported to Spain. The time of the Ottonian emperors of Germany in the tenth century saw the trade reach its height, slaves being bought in Prague or Verdun by Jewish merchants and taken south. Some of them were castrated and these eunuchs were used for both domestic and administrative functions by the Caliph. Some clearly remained intact, as dynasties of siqlabī origin were to appear in the next century. According to Ibn Hawqal, some of these were re-exported to the east.

    Those who remained in al_Andalus were often referred to as ghilmān (sing. ghulām). This word originally meant young man or page, but it was used throughout the Muslim world from the ninth century onwards to describe such slave soldiers, usually of Turkish origin in the east and Slavic in the west. Senior individuals were still known as fatā (young man), however old and battle-hardened they might be, and they were given distinctive personal names like Badr (full moon), Najā (deliverance) or Durrī (brilliant) which were quite different from the conventional Arabic names…. In general, the fatās did not occupy important positions in the civil administration and are mostly found in military commands or holding positions in the para-military shurta or police. Al-Andalus did not at this stage, however, show the sharp division between military and civil elites characteristic of later Islamic societies like Mamluke Egypt.

    This is Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal. A Political History of al-Andalus (Harlow 1996), pp. 85-6, and he goes on further but that’s as much as I can be bothered to transcribe. He cites Charles Verlinden’s L’Esclavage dans l’Europe Médiévale (Bruges 1955), pp. 211-27; there must be more up-to-date stuff but all I can immediately find is in Spanish and about the top men at court, not the Slav importation in general. However, that’s probably enough to be going on with I hope!

  3. “the coin just struck me”

    Pun intended? ;-)

  4. Thanks for the reference! I’m currently reading the Res Gestae Saxonum, with all those campaigns against Slavic tribes and principalities, and it’s interesting to see that part of the captives were sold to Muslim Spain.

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