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Devaney. Thomas. Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460-1492 (Morera)

  • 23 Aug 2016 9:37 AM
    Message # 4205958
    Simon Doubleday (Administrator)

    Thomas Devaney. Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460-1492. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. viii + 246.  Illustrations, introduction, bibliography, notes, glossary, index. ISBN:  978-0-8922-1413-8. 


    Reviewed by Luis X. Morera, Baylor University  


    In this extremely readable and engaging work, Thomas Devaney provides a lucid exploration of the changing attitudes of Christians towards religious minorities, in late medieval Castile, as viewed through the lens of public spectacles. Structurally, the book is divided into two parts. The first is comprised of two chapters, each providing an exposition on the definition and operational parameters for the study of two related phenomena: spectacle and urban spaces. The second is comprised of three chapters, each providing a case study examining programs of spectacle in Jaén, Córdoba, and Murcia.


    The author begins with the premise that to properly understand the relationship between public spectacles and the cultural attitudes that characterized these urban communities, one has to place them within their “frontier” context. Thus, he argues that urban communities occurring in the borderland between the kingdoms of Castile and Granada were defined by an atmosphere of insecurity, “which stemmed both from the constant threat of physical attack and an awareness that there was a significant gap between ideologies of Christian dominance and the reality of acculturation” (13). These tensions resulted in what Devaney calls “amiable enmity,” a sort of equilibrium that saw conflicted attitudes and pronounced contradictions between belief and day-to-day cross-cultural experience.


    Each of the case-study chapters of Part II examines how Christians, in a particular city, under particular circumstances, at a particular time, negotiated these conflicting tensions that characterized the frontier, and how these social negotiations and compromises broke down between 1460 and 1492. In chapter 3, “Knights, Magi, and Muslims: Miguel Lucas de Iranzo and the People of Jaén,” Devaney does a wonderful job of contextualizing the choice of Miguel Lucas de Iranzo in establishing his court in the frontier city of Jaén, the frequency and exuberance of the public spectacles he organized there, and especially “the interplay between sponsor and audience” that these spectacles saw (83). Devaney argues that with his pageants, Iranzo sought “to articulate a vision of war against Islam in which the victors would not eradicate or expel the Muslims, but would instead force their conversion” (82). The reception of these pageants was conditioned, however, by the receptivity of various audiences. Suiting their own agendas, the more powerful and obdurate enemies of Iranzo characterized his support of individual Jewish conversos as favoritism as a means to gain support and conspire against him. After an initial plot that failed in 1468, they succeeded in killing him in 1473. Ultimately, then, Iranzo’s message, articulated through spectacle, was rejected.


    In chapter 4, “A ‘Chance Act’: Córdoba in 1473,” the author unpacks an intriguing breakdown of amiable enmity. The episode entailed a procession of an effigy of the Virgin Mary, which was (inadvertently) splashed with some liquid by a young girl taking in the spectacle from a window. Because the house was owned by a converso, one Alonso Rodríguez, a local blacksmith, interpreted the incident as a deliberate Jewish plot to defile the holy object with urine, an act that required immediate retribution. Riots, lootings, and murders ensued. Devaney does his best work in this chapter when he unpacks the nature of the Christian community’s distrust of conversos, particularly as it centered on behavior and orthopraxy, which were assumed to be a reasonable measure of orthodoxy (one imagines this often functioned in the negative—so that if someone refused to eat pork, they were presumed to be Jewish or Muslim).


    Chapter 5, “Murcia and the Body of Christ Triumphant,” follows the trajectory of Jewish and Muslim populations in a city with a unique constellation of circumstances. Unlike Jaén or Córdoba, Murcia saw frequent land warfare and maritime raids, as well as economic and political forces that pulled the city in multiple directions (toward Islamic Granada, as well as Christian Castile and the Crown of Aragon). The instability created periodic labor shortages in some economic sectors, which provided opportunities for Jewish and Muslim populations not available elsewhere. Thus, they were tolerated as being economically beneficial, and were for some decades incorporated into public spectacles organized by the dominant Christian population, particularly as dancers and musicians. As the Catholic Monarchs made military victory over Granada the great Castilian quest, however, the tenor of the inclusion of religious minorities changed. Especially significant, the city council of Murcia began incorporating themes of martial victory into its Corpus Christi plays. Thus, with each yearly celebration, the dominant Christians could gaze upon the Jewish and Muslim participants as a means not only to reinforce their own sense of unity, but also to revel in the knowledge that they had defeated “these groups [who] no longer posed a threat to the body social” (166).


    Devaney’s book is an admirable achievement, although the book does have its peculiarities. In the realm of low-grade quibbles, it has no list of figures—which are essential to the author’s arguments, and not merely ancillary, as is often the case—and it could have benefitted from a complete set of maps. The book moves from general to specific, providing first a map for Iberia and then maps for Córdoba and Murcia; without a map for Jaén the map-to-chapter symmetry gets lost.


    There is also a way in which the two first chapters seem to be at odds with the last three. To be clear, they both provide much needed reassessments that help to re-center the debates regarding spectacles. The first chapter, “The Anatomy of Spectacle: Sponsors, Critics, and Onlookers,” takes up the challenge of Claire Sponsler to consider the experiences of audiences and spectators. Devaney does an admirable job of laying out the range of potential responses that various urban constituencies would have seen, while still underscoring the “dominant meanings” of these spectacles (28). The second chapter, “The Meanings of Civic Space,” places spectacles within the context of their specific urban environments.  Drawing both on modern urban theory, as set out by Kevin Lynch, as well as historical descriptions of Spanish cities, Devaney shows that the architecture and public spaces of each city was suffuse with cultural, historical, and religious significance, allowing the placement of an urban spectacle to imbue it with meanings beyond the symbols and performances themselves. Both chapters are highly thought-provoking. Because their interpretive frameworks are so broadly applicable, however, they detract a bit from the frontier-specific arguments of the last three chapters.


    Indeed, the major drawback of the book is its somewhat limited scope—treating three cities, between the years 1460 and 1492. Devaney does make a convincing case that there were many distinctive features of the late medieval spectacles occurring along the territorial boundary between Christian Castile and Islamic Granada. The implicit comparison of the narrative, though, does leave the reader wondering about other time periods and regions within Iberia, and the extent to which the patterns identified by the author might have been more universal. Despite its limitations, Enemies in the Plaza is an invaluable contribution to the scholarship of spectacle, ceremonies, and ritual—finally moving them beyond the usual discussions of semiotics and the performance of power. It displays masterful synthesis (often condensing several generations of heated debates into a single paragraph) and re-conceptualizes long-standing topoi, paradigms, and traditions of scholarly interpretation. Moreover, its narrative takes the reader on a thrilling journey, bobbing and weaving across a veritable landscape of sources (chronicles, illuminated hagiographies, letters, treatises of various sorts, novels, votive statues, relics, and perhaps most importantly, municipal archival sources), visiting the most interesting and poignant examples along the way. In setting a new standard for how to study spectacle, this work will doubtless serve as a useful resource for students, teachers, and seasoned scholars alike.




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