A troublesome snippet of information

Recently while passing briefly through Cambridge University Library I found myself at one of those points on a project where you think you’ve run something down only to find it’s just run round a corner you hadn’t seen and is about to disappear again. You know the ones? Where your elaborate metaphor collapses as soon as you try and rescue the paragraph? That’s the one. Anyway, I discovered that it is said as follows, if I translate from the Castilian:

Isa ben Áhmad says: ‘and in this year [280 == 893] Alfonso son of Ordoño, king of Galicia, betook himself to the city of Zamora, then depopulated, and rebuilt it and urbanized it, and fortified it and populated it with Christians, and restored all its ramparts. Its constructors were people of Toledo, and its defences were erected at the expense of a man called Agemí, from among them. Thus, indeed, from that moment the city began to flourish, and its peoples were united one unto another, and the peoples of the frontier came to settle in it.’

Why is this troublesome, you may be asking? The short answer is, because of Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz again. The long answer is the same but with an explanation, but given how much of dear Don Claudio you’ve had recently you should at least be warned. Okay? Right then.

View over some vineyards in the Duero Valley

View over some vineyards in the Duero Valley

Don Claudio’s most famous work is probably his Despoblación y Repoblación del Valle del Duero (Buenos Aires 1966), in which he claimed that the kings of Asturias and León began the ‘Reconquest’ in the eighth and ninth centuries when they rode into Muslim Spain and drove populations out of the frontier cities into their own territories, and then later on started moving their consequently abundant people into the relatively deserted no-man’s land in the Duero Valley. Since, well, the late 1980s (once everyone was sure he was dead I DIDN’T WRITE THAT), this work has been deprecated because of varying sorts of evidence that the frontier territories were never really all that deserted; territorial boundaries continue and so someone must be there to remember them, churches that are still standing apparently remain in use and so forth.1 So evidence that says this sort of thing, about the repopulating endeavours of the kings, are problems because they make Don Claudio right and the new scholarship wrong. Usually the answer is simple: the Christian sources all date from an era of glory in which the king, usually Alfonso III, was winning battles hand over fist and everyone was sure he was going to reconquer the whole of Spain in the next five minutes, and were generally a bit Messianic about the whole thing.2 When you look into it, as I have, this literature that makes these claims is actually rather hard to find, and you have to conclude that really it’s what Sánchez-Albornoz and Ramón Menéndez Pidal wanted to have happened more than what is actually evidenced by authors who had an objective perspective. (As so many do. Yes anyway.)

Trouble is of course, this is an Arabic author, because it supposedly comes from the al-Muqtabas of the 11th-century chronicler Abu Marwān ibn Khalaf Ibn Hayyān, and as you can see he is quoted as quoting the ninth-/tenth-century Cordoban chronicler, judge and doctor cIsā ibn Āhmad al-Razī, who was at least in a position to know what he was talking about and who had no great reason to laud Alfonso’s achievements. It’s odd that the text calls him King of Galicia, because he was king of Asturias in fact, but since he also ruled Galicia and Zamora is in Galicia, perhaps al-Razī thought that was the relevant territory to put him in. Anyway. This, too, is troublesome, troublesome because the text is impossible to find. I got the reference, you see, from Richard Hitchcock’s Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008), p. 55 n. 9, who cites two earlier works saying that “both quote Miguel Asín’s translation of a passage of Ibn Hayyān as source”. But what translation of Asín’s was this, I wondered? I’d not seen any sign of this text before you see. And the relevant portion of the al-Muqtabas, Book IV, is sadly lost, and I certainly don’t know of a translation and I feel sure Arabists would know if it was out there anywhere. So what’s the cite?

The later medieval cathedral of Zamora

The later medieval cathedral of Zamora

I went and looked up the first of the authors, who was, ineluctably, Don Claudio in his Despoblación, pp. 273-4, and it turns out he just cites the other author rather than any primary reference. (This is not untypical; he was quite good at hiding his sources in plain sight.) The other author, then, was Manuel Gómez Moreno in his Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), 2 vols, I. p. 107, and there as n. 1 he gave the Castilian of Asín that I’ve translated above. It seems that Asín translated it specially for Gómez, from ‘the Oxford manuscript’. I have no clue what this Oxford manuscript might be, the Bodleian Library‘s catalogue not covering manuscripts as yet, and if I found it, ironically, of course I wouldn’t be able to read it to check, not having any Arabic. So dead end: I can’t find that this text really existed and was really Ibn Hayyān, and so I don’t know whether to believe it or not. There’s nothing too difficult about believing simultaneously that the frontier was peopled but uncontrolled and that Alfonso III managed to attract some rich settlers from Toledo who came and made Zamora into a new frontier fortress; Toledo spent about two-thirds of its time in rebellion anyway so political exiles from there are quite plausible, no matter what the frontier was like generally.3 But I wouldn’t mind enough citation to be able to check.

1. For example, Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, eighth to twelfth centuries” in Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (eds), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 32-52; Mickey Abel, “Strategic Domaine: Reconquest Romanesque along the Douro”, paper presented to the 4th Conference of Historians of Medieval Iberia, University of Exeter, 15th September 2005.

2. The maddest of the relevant texts is called the Prophetic Chronicle and does terrible maths to try and make it clear that Alfonso is going to restore the old Spain in less than a year. He didn’t. Whether this emigré Southerner remained a credible person at court thereafter is not recorded. The text can be found in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe Siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987), pp. 2-9, commentary pp. 60-67, manuscript discussion pp. LX-LXIII and further comments pp. LXXXVI-XCIII; cf. J. Gil Fernández, “Introducción” in idem (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985), p. 104. While you’re there see if you can find any sign of this supposed neo-Gothic triumphalism in the others. No, thought not.

3. Manzano, La Frontera de al-Andalus en Época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), pp. 259-310.


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