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Fabregas and Sabaté, eds., Power and Rural Communities in Al-Andalus: Ideological and Material Representations (Vargas)

  • 22 Dec 2016 9:57 AM
    Message # 4471770
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Adela Fabregas and Flocel Sabaté, eds., Power and Rural Communities in Al-Andalus: Ideological and Material Representations (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), 218 pp.


    Reviewed by Michael Vargas

    State University of New York at New Paltz


    This fifteenth volume of the Brepols series on The Medieval Countryside seeks to inform readers about the relationship of rural society to regional and central political leadership in medieval Al-Andalus. The focus is almost entirely on Granada, mostly in the period from roughly 950 to 1250, although some essays examine areas in the interior of the peninsula, incorporate evidence from the earliest Islamic settlements, and extend their reach as far as the sixteenth century. The eight essays collected and published here originated in a session at the International Medieval Meeting held at Lleida in 2011 organized by Flocel Sabaté, who is listed here as an editor. Adela Fábregas, who coordinated the session and co-edited the volume with Sabaté, produced the collection’s prologue and first chapter. All but two of the participating authors take part in the University of Granada’s various archeological studies of the Kingdom of Granada. All confirm the paucity of written sources describing the relationship of Umayyad and Nazrid leaders to their rural communities; thus all turn instead to new archeological surveys as offering the best support upon which to build an understanding of power in rural places. The archeological record has much to offer, but these pages also illustrate its limitations. Readers will encounter ample use of words and phrases such as “preliminary,” “suggestive,” and “not yet clear.” Specialists in the social and spatial relations of Al-Andalus will welcome the new directions of conjecture raised by this volume, although others may find these essays frustratingly suppositional.


    At the book’s core are questions about the distribution of power in Andalusi society. The authors want to know whether rural communities operated in ways that might be deemed independent and self-governing or, to the contrary, whether central and regional authorities imposed themselves either through personal will, representative agents, or institutional prerogative. Researchers have up to now held as a reasonable starting assumption that the Islamic intervention into Iberia resulted in a weakening of kinship-based cohesion in rural communities and, moreover, that an Islamic Caliphate concentrated in cities extended its administrative reach into the hinterlands. The archeological record is used here to test whether rural communities assimilated into Umayyad and Nazrid political structures as fully as previously imagined.


    Two concepts – “power” and “the state” – are at the core of the examination. As potential anchors for effective interpretation of scant data, both terms shimmer brightly here as appealing but ever-distant mirages. Some readers will recall the debate about the feudal revolution in Christian Europe, which remained similarly transfixed on overly-broad terms until researchers reached consensus on basic definitions. Fabregás and the others admit that the Christian “feudal incursions” of the eleventh century contributed to changing urban-rural political relations inside Al-Andalus. Thus, they acknowledge a literature that they do not cite, perhaps because they wish to avoid direct application of that literature to Andalusi communities, either before or after the Christian expansion.


    The authors suggest that they can measure power by exploring evidence of the building and use of towers, castles, and storage keeps. In the abstract this makes sense. Still, the evidence signals a wide variety of possible power relations. The structures come in different sizes, square or round, variously located near the frontier or well inside Al Andalus, at the top of a high overlook, tucked into a secluded hillside, or nearer a valley floor. The shape and usage of such structures changed over the course of time from the Umayyad through the Nazrid periods and then again later when the sites came under “feudal” control. A variety of circumstances may have led to measurable changes in the design of such sites, how they were controlled, and the purposes of that control. For example, rural communities may have sought to store their own goods and defend themselves against either Muslim or Christian aggressors, or, alternatively, aggressive regional lords working either for a central authority or for their own benefit may have used these fortified sites to impose work regimes, to defend client relations, to protect a local productive population, to tax stored resources, etc. The authors investigate these alternatives through a range of means, from excavation of burial sites and rock graves, to an analysis of the location of salt mines and irrigation systems, to stratigraphic analysis of individual fortresses or networks of protected sites, to representations of regional configurations of landscape settlements. The wide array of available types and distributions of power in nearly every case makes plain that we have little reason thus far to hold one or another of the possibilities as definitive.


    Ambiguities about the exercise of power are matched here by cloudiness that obscures the shape and locus of the state. Despite subtle disagreements on some points, the authors tend to share several important assumptions: The initial wave of Islamic incursions changed the kin-based communities that characterized Visigothic rule. Centralization under the Umayyad emirs and caliphs probably meant a more concentrated imposition by the state upon rural communities. Through the ninth century, leading Syrian families probably had a stronger hand in transforming rural settlement geography than families of Arab descent who claimed political leadership in urban locales. Into the tenth century, the rebellions led by Berber, Mozarab, and Muladi groups, and the changing political influence of these groups, must have led to distinctive landscape transformations. A century later, the shifting frontiers between Christian and Muslim worlds would have necessitated building of fortress defenses of a type different from fortifications built in the interior. The Almoravids and Almohads probably turned a rural society into a militarized one, just as the earliest Muslim occupants of Al Andalus had done. Nazrid retrenchment in mountainous terrain put its own imprint upon Granada’s rural geography. These powerful suppositions serve the authors as good working theories. If only the evidence, or its presentation and analysis, permitted a clearer view into the real material effects of the supposed changes.


    The subtleties of argument and evidence assure that this book’s contents will remain closed to non-specialists and will have little crossover appeal to those studying rural communities in other lands. The prologue offered by Fábregas offers background about the timing and focus of the collaborations that led to this publication, but it does not serve as the kind of historiographical and topical introduction that newcomers to this material will require (careful readers will encounter introductory statements elsewhere, for example in the opening pages, 85-88, of the contribution by Jorge A. Eiroa Rodriguez). That the book is published in English will be of little help in attracting a broad audience, since that choice presents itself as one of the book’s oddities. This set of nuanced, close and detailed studies has been produced by experts of the Iberian scene whose native languages are Castilian Spanish and other Iberian languages. Clearly, their intention is to serve the needs of specialists who, no doubt, also read Spanish. Why, then, publish in English, especially since the excellent bibliographies are populated overwhelmingly by Spanish titles? Non-specialist readers, perhaps drawn in by the superfluous translation or hoping to avail themselves of an apparatus in English, will likely find the presentation less than advantageous.


    As researchers continue to build up a new research plan for the study of rural Al-Andalus, they will look back to these essays as early sketches for a preliminary design. Undoubtedly, in coming years we will see the designs modified and a solid structure will take shape.


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