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Constable, To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Catlos)

  • 23 May 2018 12:28 PM
    Message # 6256480
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Constable, Olivia Remie. To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Ed. Robin J. E. Vose, with a foreword by David Nirenberg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017,  xvi+226pp. 17 b&w plates. ISBN 978-0812249484Cloth $55.

    Brian A. Catlos

    Religious Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

    It is with a heavy heart that one reviews Remie Constable’s latest and final book, To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Remie’s sudden illness and death in 2014 left all who knew her saddened both by the particular and personal loss of this admired historian, generous colleague, and esteemed mentor of graduate students, and by the broader loss to the academy of her future scholarship. At the time she passed away, Remie had been working for some time on a project studying Muslim-Christian social and folk-cultural relations in late medieval and early modern Spain, a book draft that has been taken up and prepared for publication by her former student, Prof. Robin Vose. 

    As an entrée into the world of Muslim-Christian relations Constable begins with a remarkable tract, Memorial al Presidente de las Reales Audiencia y Cancillería de la Ciudad y Reino de Granada, composed in 1567 by the Morisco courtier Francisco Nuñez Muley, in defence of the cultural practices and loyalty of Spain’s beleaguered community of Moriscos, or New Christians – the descendants of the Peninsula’s Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity between 1500 and 1525.1 Nuñez Muley was prompted to write his memorandum in response to omnibus legislation that had been passed by the Spanish monarchy aimed at outlawing and erasing the cultural practices of these former Muslims. The document, therefore, not only lays out what those practices consisted of in the late sixteenth century, but rationalizes their legitimacy and highlights precisely which ones were considered most important to the Morisco community. Using this as a jumping-off point, Constable examines the intimate but fraught socio-cultural relationship of the Muslim minorities and the Christian majorities of the Iberian kingdoms and how it evolved from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries.

    The book begins with a short review of Constable’s scholarship by David Nirenberg, and a short editor’s note before moving directly into the four chapters that constitute the volume. The first chapter, “Being Muslim in Christian Spain,” delves into changing Christian perceptions of Muslims and their culture, particularly the shift away from an admiring Maurophilia and a sense that mudéjares (subject Muslims) should be left to follow their own customs, which characterized the first centuries of coexistence, to a rejection of Arabo-Islamic culture as inferior, unclean and threatening. The beginning of the sixteenth century – the precise era in which Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity – is presented as the turning point, after which the use of the Arabic language, the face veil, styles of clothing, and other cultural practices associated with “living like a Muslim” (vivir como moro) were no longer regarded as legitimate. 

    The second chapter, “Clothing and Appearance,” discusses the principle that Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) should dress in a manner to distinguish them from Christians. This might consist of the obligation to or prohibition against wearing certain styles, materials or colors of clothing, the obligation to wear distinguishing a badge, or to cut one’s hair in a certain way. Originating in the canons of Lateran IV (and ultimately anchored in Mosaic law), such mandates found their way into royal law in thirteenth-century Spain, but until the sixteenth century were enforced unevenly, and often prompted protest and resistance on the part of mudéjares. By the time we get to the sixteenth century, however, the tables seem to have turned, in that it is Christian authorities who are obliging Muslims to conform to Christian styles of dress, and it is the Moriscos (many or most of whom remained crypto-Muslims) who wished to maintain their traditional styles. Morisco women were particularly reluctant to give up the large veils they wore and to refrain from applying henna to their hands – practices which signaled them to Church authorities, notably the Inquisition, as likely apostates. Following Nuñez Muley, Constable rightly points out that this was not just about appearances – suddenly obliging Moriscos to get rid of their silk and filigree garments deprived them of items that might comprise a significant portion of their personal fortune, and at the same time required them to invest in a costly new wardrobe that many simply could not afford.

    A similar arc can be observed vis-à-vis the custom of using public baths, which Constable discusses in the third chapter, “Bathing and Hygiene.” From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries Christians in the Peninsula eagerly imitated the Islamicate custom of using Roman-inspired public baths. These were nearly always regulated to ensure that no improper sexual contact or fraternization took place, so that Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and men and women, were typically assigned either different facilities or different days of the week and times of the day to use baths. Personal cleaning of course is explicitly associated with Muslim worship – namely the obligation to wash oneself before performing ritual prayer. Therefore, once Islam had been outlawed, strict limitations were placed on Moriscos’ rights to bathe, even within their own homes. Now associated (ironically) with the “unclean” religion, bathing fell out of fashion even among Old Christians, and it was only in the later sixteenth century that some Old Christian medical authorities began to lobby for its reinstatement in the name of public health.

    The fourth and final chapter, “Food and Foodways,” follows the evolution of Muslims’ right to maintain their food customs, and Christians’ perceptions of them. Spanish cuisine is strongly marked even today by Islamicate traditions, including particular dishes and ingredients, but Christian authorities demonstrated an ambivalent attitude towards them. Certain dishes were admired and copied, while others were rejected as barbaric. As the sixteenth century dawned, Muslim dining practices – notably eating with one’s hands out of a common dish while seated on the floor – came to be seen as unhygienic and proof of the barbarity and inferiority of Islamic culture. Couscous and buñuelos (the fritters that are now a Spanish culinary standard) were regarded with particular opprobrium and suspicion. Food, of course, also, has a religious dimension; in Islam, there is a mandate to refrain from pork and wine, and an obligation to eat only animals that are halal, which is to say have been slaughtered in conformity to Islamic ritual. Here we see a similar transformation of Christian attitudes taking place: in the early centuries accommodations were made to ensure that mudéjares would have access to halal meat, while in the later period, great lengths were taken to prevent Moriscos from working as butchers, lest they surreptitiously prepare meat for their crypto-Muslim coreligionists.

    And it is with this that this fascinating, erudite and eminently readable book suddenly comes to an end. Missing is a fifth chapter, which was to address music, poetry and song, but which existed only in notes, and an analytical conclusion which would have tied the whole study together. Clearly, in all of these aspects of culture that Constable analyzes there was a shift from accommodation to rejection in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. This was tied in part to the proscription of Islam that was enforced in the early 1500s, but its roots can be seen even in earlier centuries when Muslims occupied a legitimate position in these societies. One wonders where she would have taken the argument. Was this a by-product of the new notions of race, nation, and identity that were emerging in the early modern period? To what extent were these attitudes tied to the notion of the Ottoman threat, or Europe’s engagement with “new” African, Asian and American worlds? Can the gradual rejection of Islamicate culture be seen as related to the declining economic and political importance of Spanish mudéjar communities? To what extent were Christian attitudes informed by the earlier experience of proscribing Judaism? Sadly, we cannot know what larger conclusions Constable was working towards.

    To conclude, it must be said that Robin Vose has done a truly admirable job of bringing the book to completion. He has stitched together Remie’s drafts seamlessly, without obvious intervention, and without intruding on her authorial voice – all of which makes reading this book all the more poignant. What we are left with is a fascinating study, necessarily incomplete, which will be of interest to scholars in a range of fields relating to medieval Christendom and Islam, colonialism, and ethno-religious relations both in the pre-modern world and today.           

    1This work has been published in English translation. See Francisco Barletta, Vincent, trans. A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    Last modified: 23 May 2018 12:33 PM | Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

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