711 and All That (conference report)

Still months and months behind but by now more amused than regretful at my own dislocation from the present, I now bring you a report on a thing that happened in Oxford on 17th June this year, which was a mini-conference in the Institute of Archaeology entitled 711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th year. The organiser, Javier Martínez, who deserves all credit for organising this and letting me slip in having registered late, pointed out that to the best of his knowledge this was the only commemoration of that event worldwide, which seems rather strange, as we were all largely of the opinion that it was quite important. (Was he right? Surely not. Aha, here’s one for starters.) But, who were ‘we’, or rather, ‘they’, since I was only heckling? Well, here’s the program.

711: reassessing the Arab conquest of Spain in its 1300th anniversary year

Friday 17 June 2011
Lecture Room, Institute of Archaeology (36 Beaumont Street)

  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Arab conquest of Spain”
  • Nicola Clarke, “Caliphs and Conquerors: images of the Marwanids in the Islamic conquest of Spain”
  • Laura Carlson, “Negotiating the Borderlands: Frankish-Iberian relations in the wake of 711″
  • Graham Barrett, “Latin Letters under Arab Rule”
  • Javier Martínez, “Changing Urban Monumentality: Visigoths vs. Umayyads”
  • Erica Buchberger, “Gothic Identity before and after 711″
  • Rob Portass, “Galicia before and after 711″
  • Chris Wickham, “Economy and Trade after 711″
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Response”
  • Javier Martínez, “Conclusions”

You would have to know the Oxford Hispanist establishment (though we do actually have one!) to know, but what we have here, small and perfectly formed which is just as well given that the Lecture Room in Beaumont Street is small and somewhat oppressive is basically two superstars bracketing a party of local research students. Now, some of these guys probably will themselves be superstars in due course and I already have to keep a close eye on Graham Barrett in case he ever starts wondering about Catalonia (local running joke, sorry), but I will confess that I had largely come to see Eduardo Manzano Moreno. He is one of the long string of people who set me to doing, directly or indirectly, what I now do. I know I’ve blamed a lot of people for this but one of them, David Abulafia, set me two of Professor Manzano’s articles when I was studying under him, and then I liked them so much that I came up with a Catalonia-focussed mini-project while studying under another of these people, Rosamond McKitterick, and that became the core of my doctoral proposal, so there you are. The two articles plus his first book more or less said everything you could usefully say at that time about the Christian-Muslim frontier, and I quickly found there was little to add to them, but it started me off.1 So I’ve always wanted to meet him, and apart from the fact that he insists all his old work is rubbish and outdated—which as you can see doesn’t stop me citing it—it was an absolute pleasure. He broke down the questions of 711 into a set of issues, which were roughly as follows:

  1. The Arab conquest of Spain is not the weird one—we have lots of parallels where a rapid military assault knocks over a failing political order, including the Arab conquests in the Middle East—but it’s not like the immediately-preceding Arab conquest of Africa, where resistance is stiffer and collapse much slower.
  2. Although later stories of it make it a chance venture that got really really lucky, it plainly wasn’t: the attacks were coordinated, they had mints set up striking hybrid coin within weeks, governors appointed and generally an infrastructure plan was ready to roll.
  3. The armies of conquest were organised on tribal lines but they were not established thus, other things like lineages or territories were more important. (Here he clashed explicitly with Pierre Guichard‘s work on this, and there was a lot of scepticism about this point in questions.2)
  4. The conquest is usually seen as ‘pactual’, but the pacts have two very different outcomes: some local aristocracies are integrated into an Arabic one, but others are left in place for a while, until the ninth-century rebellions that effectively end their limited independence. Al-Andalus was not, in other words, a unified hierarchical polity until surprisingly long after its formation.
  5. Relatedly, that is when most of the writing about the conquest comes from, when its results were being remodelled. That shouldn’t surprise us, really, but it is something that is often not thought about.
  6. The continuity versus rupture debate is impossible to answer from a position equipped with hindsight; we need to think instead about when change comes and how people react in the circumstances of the day, not as if someone was working towards a goal of a new caliphate already in 715. 711 is the biggest of many points of change that eventually lead to that point.

This was an odd presentation in as much as it seemed to be an attempt to start six separate arguments rather than substantiate one. In fact, that’s exactly what it was, and Chris Wickham joined in happily at the end, with various hecklers asking ‘stimulating’ questions when agreement seemed too near. Between the two, however, we had Nicola Clarke, picking up in a way on point five of Manzano’s paper with reference to the way that the portrayal of the actual conquerors, Mūsā ibn Nusayr and Tarīq ibn Zayīd, changed in historical writing from the quasi-independents they probably were to loyal or disloyal servants of the Umayyad Caliphs, in sources of course written under Umayyad rule in Spain. We had Laura Carlson, flying some tentative kites about diplomatic contacts between Carolingians and Arab rulers in Spain, and reminding us that from an eighth-century Frankish perspective the Arabs were not the only problem people on that border, and that the centre was not necessarily the point they need to negotiate with.3 We had Graham Barrett, being as interesting as ever and this time about the few bits of evidence for Latin document-writing under Arab rule, all three of them, two of which relate to Catalonia so obviously I had to discourage him in questions, but I didn’t know about the third, which is from Portugal.4 And we had Javier Martínez taking a brief moment in the spotlight, or at least the projector glare, talking about the change from polis to madina, as Hugh Kennedy put it long ago, as perpetrated upon the Visigothic attempt to shore up Roman building traditions and even spread them between the fifth and eighth centuries, seeing between the two sets of projects a difference in audiences, from the civic public to the governing élites; this was a very subtle paper and full of impressive illustration that actually made up part of the argument.5 Then we got Erica Buchberger, talking about the political value of the Gothic ethnicity in Spain and arguing more or less that, despite the name of the chronicler Ibn al-Qutīya (`son of the Gothic woman’), politically it was the Visigoths that killed Gothicness and that only where Toledo had had least impact, i. e. the far north, did this seem like what the identity of the fallen kingdom had been. And we got Rob Portass, addressing the supposed isolation of Galicia and arguing that it was in fact more isolated from its neighbours by both geography and politics than from the old and new centres of power further south, but that the Arabs didn’t really ever try to integrate it because the perceived worth of doing so was so low.


Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), obverse Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), reverse

Transitional dinar of the al-Andalus mint, 716x717, Fitzwilliam Museum, PG.13217 (Philip Grierson Collection), with Arabic obverse and Latin reverse

And then there was Chris Wickham, who talked about ceramic distributions and where the gaps in our knowledge of economic change in this period are: in so doing he argued as strongly as he does in Framing of the Early Middle Ages for an Iberian peninsula broken into regions where things happen almost disconnectedly, so that the far north could carry on making and using fine pottery long after the economy along the west coast of what’s now Spain had broken down to the most basic regional level, that the area where the Muslims centred their government was somehow better connected to Mediterranean trade even when they did so and revived complexity quicker but didn’t necessarily spread this till much later, and various other things.6 In the course of this he offhandedly denied that al-Andalus had a functioning tax system, however, and here he met some opposition, not least from Professor Manzano but from others too; the position eventually reached was that tax, too, was probably regional and may only have worked in the west. (I have notes here that paraphrase the argument as, “WICKHAM: It’s not much of a tax system. MANZANO: Yes it is!” We were nearly at that level, but all good-humouredly, it was good fun to watch.) In his response Professor Manzano repeatedly stressed that it was the ninth century that we needed to watch, when cities that had collapsed revived (though not all of the same ones!), when tax is spread more thoroughly, when rule is tightened and enclaves closed down. 711 is only the start of a long process, and we jump to the parts of Andalusi history that we can see clearly much too easily; in fact, as Javier Martínez said in summing up, despite its reputation as a polity of tolerance, enlightenment and scholarship, al-Andalus emerges almost fully-formed from something quite like a Dark Age as far as our knowledge is concerned, and that Dark Age includes 711 and its aftermath, rather than ending with it.7


1. E. Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading 1994), pp. 83-96; Manzano, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); idem, “The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, eighth to twelfth centuries” in Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 32-52. The extensive coverage and erudition of those didn’t stop me adding my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127, of course, and if I could squeeze in there may yet be more room, but I cannot at the moment see where it is.

2. Guichard’s work most famously encapsulated in his Al-Andalus: estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente, Archivum 53 (Barcelona 1976), transl. as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977), but he has kept busy since then.

3. It is very strange that really very little has been published on this since F. W. Buckler’s Harun al-Rashid and Charles the Great (Cambridge MA 1931), but because he is an old friend I must at least mention Thomas Kitchen’s “The Muslim World in Western European Diplomacy from the Rise of Islam to the death of Louis the Pious” (unpublished M. Phil. thesis, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge 2004), which last I heard was still under review somewhere or other but which is the kind of careful work we would want done on this.

4. Both the Catalan ones, oddly, have been discussed separately by Roger Collins, one in his “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), VI, with text and translation in the original (and maybe in the reprint), and the other in his “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism, XVI, with facsimile in the original if I remember correctly.

5. The Kennedy article his “From Polis to Madina: urban change in late Antique and Early Islamic Syria” in Past and Present no. 106 (Oxford 1985), pp. 3-27, repr. in Colin Chant & David Goodman (edd.), Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology (London 1999), pp. 94-98 and in Kennedy, The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East, Variorum Collected Studies 860 (Aldershot 2006), I.

6. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 488-495, 656-665 & 741-758.

7. And then we all went to the pub and gossiped nineteen to the dozen, but none of that needs reporting here really. Encouraging, though!

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7 responses to “711 and All That (conference report)

  1. That looks like a _very_ interesting program. I’ve been impressed with Graham Barrett ever since I heard him present on slate finds in the Spanish Meseta in Kalamazoo a couple of years ago. The man was profoundly prepared and had complete command of the topic. Unfortunately, other than a couple of books by Roger Collins and O’Callaghan’s old (but still quite good IMO) survey, I haven’t read much on al-Andalus.

    • Well, I discovered in Googling Pierre Guichard that he has a new-ish English-language survey out, which is probably worthwhile if one wants population movements and social processes over events. (Not having seen it, that may be praise too faint.) For a political history Hugh Kennedy’s little volume, Muslim Spain and Portugal: a political history is still perfectly good, and also fairly cheap! I agree that Callaghan’s book holds up well, though. The main thing that’s changed is the extent to which we now problematise and deal with the Arabic narratives.

      • Returning a bit late to this but have you taken a look at the latest issue of EME? I should be able to get some reading in now.

        • I am so badly behind with EME that I don’t even want to admit it, but a quick look at the contents shows me exactly why you mention it. Sadly, I can’t make this a priority to read at the moment, which shows how things are I guess.

          • My situation is similar I’m afraid (I just looked at it yesterday after quickly going through the previous issue) though I did print off Juan Castillo’s article from August. Since it’s on my desk in actual paper form I’ll likely get to it at some point.

  2. Pingback: Seminar CX: words in use in the other part of Christian Spain | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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