Moriscos. Their History in Spain.

The Moriscos. From Mudejars (Muslims living under Christian rule) to Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity).

Definitions: Mudejars: Muslims living under Christian rule; Moriscos: Muslim converts to Christianity, a term used almost exclusively for the 16th century; Crypto-Muslims: a modern term referring to Moriscos ostensibly converted to Christianity, but practising their Muslim faith in secret (i.e, pseudo Christians). They could do so according to the Islamic “law” of taqiyya a means of concealment of one’s true faith under duress

The Conquest of Granada:
The 16th century was a period of intense social and religious adjustments in Spain. In 1492, the Muslim kingdom of Granada fell to the forces of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel. This signalled the end of a long period in which Islam had played a significant role politically, socially and culturally in the peninsula.

The fall of Granada did not signify the immediate demise of Islam in the peninsula. According to the terms of capitulation, Muslims were allowed to retain their religion, as well as their laws, customs and property. Those who wished to emigrate to Africa were free to do so, an option taken by about 200.000, roughly half of the total population of Granada.

The status of those who remained was similar to that of thousands of Moors who had remained under Christian rule as Christian expansion took place and Muslim al-Andalus contracted from the 11th century to 1492. They are known as Mudejars, from the Arabic al-mudajjar, “people allowed to remain.

Conversion was still the aim of the Christians, but under Hernando de Talavera, the first archbishop of Granada, example and persuasion not force were the guiding principles. Impatience, however, with Muslim resistance soon gave way to more aggressive methods –including forced baptism– under Talavera’s successor, the Archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros.

Growing intolerance sparked a brief, unsuccessful three-month rebellion in the mountainous Alpujarras region to the south of the Granada early in 1501. After that the Christians felt justified in overruling the terms of capitulation signed in 1492 and enforcing a clear choice upon the Muslims: exile or baptism.

Anti-Islamic sentiment was also expressed in the burning of religious texts (some books on medicine were spared), with royal approval, in October of 1501. The final seal of Christian orthodoxy was stamped in February of 1502 with a decree expelling all those who refused to convert. The converted Mudejars (Muslims) of Granada were now nuevos cristianos convertidos de moros, an unwieldy term that eventually gave way to “Moriscos.”

Sporadic attempts to enforce cultural assimilation in Granada during the first half of the 16th century were usually deflected by bribes and favours, and the friendly disposition of the Mendozas, the most powerful Christian family in Granada. Even the local tribunal of the Inquisition –which had been transferred from Jaén to Granada in 1526– was not impervious to temptation.

Mudejars in the rest of Spain:
Castile: Although fewer in number, the Mudejars of Castile were also affected by the decree of 1502. This was not surprising really, with the fervently Catholic Isabella** as their ruler.

**Isabella was queen of Castile, her husband,
Ferdinand, was king of Aragón; neither was officially
more than a consort in the other’s kingdom.

The choice the Mudejars of Castile faced was heavily weighted towards conversion. If they chose exile, they had to leave via Atlantic ports, which meant a long and arduous journey to get to a Muslim country.

Exit via Aragón/ Valencia was denied, because Castilian authorities feared they might decide to settle there since the Mudejars of Aragón/ Valencia were not yet subject to forced conversion.  They could not take their gold or silver with them, and probably the worse disincentive of all: they had to leave behind sons under the age of 14 and daughters under 12 so that they could be brought up as Catholics.

Navarre, Aragón and Valencia: Forced conversion had not been imposed on the Mudejars of Navarre, Aragón or Valencia. There the Muslims were already a well-established and integral part of the labour force, and thanks to the support of royalty (Navarre) or aristocracy (Aragón and Valencia), for whom they worked, they enjoyed freedom of religion.

Matters changed in Navarre after it was annexed by Castile in 1512; a royal decree issued by Ferdinand in 1516 ordered the Mudejars there to convert.

The fate of the Mudejars of Aragón and Valencia was sealed by an uprising of discontented Christian peasants against the aristocracy in Valencia in 1520. Frustrated, lower class Christians organised themselves into militant brotherhoods (germanías) that quickly targeted the Mudejars, who formed the backbone of workers on aristocratic estates and competed with Christians for work. In addition, a deadly plague in 1519, hunger, unemployment and constant raids on the Valencian coast by Barbary pirates added fuel to the discontent. 

In the violence that followed, thousands of Mudejars were killed as looters invaded the estates of the aristocrats, and thousands agreed to be baptized to escape the carnage. Although there were questions regarding the legitimacy of the conversions, the matter was decided when Charles V issued an edict of expulsion or conversion in 1525. Faced with such stark options, thousands of Mudejars rebelled in 1526, taking to the mountains north east of Valencia. After a bloody engagement their resistance was overcome, and the survivors baptised en masse.

Now all former Muslims (i.e. Mudejars) who remained in Spain were officially Moriscos (i.e. Christians), and from then on fell under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.

Authentic Christians?
But how authentic were the conversions, when forced and/or done en masse? Although some did genuinely accept their new faith, documented evidence suggests that most Moriscos remained faithful to Islam and normally referred to themselves as Muslimes.

They observed the externals of their new religion while remaining Muslims at heart. Leading parallel lives, they might follow Christian rituals (e.g. baptism, marriage) and prayers; they might even eat pork and drink wine, or eschew eating foods associated with Muslims: e.g. couscous, olive oil, aubergines.

However, by performing Islamic rituals privately or “reversing” Christian rites that they had followed in public (e.g. washing off the consecrated oil used for baptism, and then performing their own name-giving ceremony) they satisfied their religious obligations. Finally, they could take comfort also by availing themselves of taqiyya, a Qur’anic injunction which allowed persecuted Muslims to dissemble when their faith was endangered. Nowadays, the term Crypto-Muslims is frequently applied to these Moriscos. For more on the role of food, see.Conversos and Moriscos: Tyranny of Food

The enforced conversion did little to change the everyday lives of the Moriscos, especially in the more remote areas of Granada. They continued to speak Arabic and retained their distinctive clothes and customs (including regular bathing, ritual killing of animals, circumcision, using henna, throwing candies at weddings). Their diet still emphasised rice, couscous, fruit, vegetables, olive oil over Christian preference for meat, bread and wine.

Moriscos under Philip II (ruled 1556-98).
Under Philip II, the question of what to do with the Moriscos was increasingly debated because integration had not been successful and they were suspected of heresy. Philip was ever mindful of his father, Charles V’s, advice on his deathbed “to wage unrelenting war on heresy, support the Inquisition and ‘throw the Moors out of your kingdom’” (Carr 117). If there is anything that identifies Philip’s reign, it is his determination to uphold Catholic orthodoxy, and in this he was actively supported by the Inquisition.

Conformity to Christian norms was now demanded as increasing Ottoman activity in the Mediterranean fuelled a long felt fear of treachery by the Moriscos. This was exacerbated by contact between the Moriscos of Granada and Morocco and Turkey, and by the discovery of a plot to invade the Granada coast. Furthermore, raids by pirates from the Barbary Coast (along North Africa) on the coasts of Valencia and Granada became routine after the destruction of most of Spain’s Mediterranean fleet by the Ottoman navy in the 1560s.

Revolt in the Alpujarras (1568-70).
Advised by the clergy, Philip issued a decree on January 1, 1567, that in effect eliminated all forms of Morisco identity: language, dress, literature, dances, rites. They had to leave their doors open on Fridays and feast days; even Moorish names had to be dropped.

The decree itself was not essentially different from earlier decrees, but this time it was vigorously enforced. Christian claims to Morisco land accelerated (those Moriscos unable to prove title or pay the subsequent fines lost ownership) and the silk trade –the mainstay of Morisco economy in Granada– was undermined by additional taxes and a ban on woven silks.

Morisco discontent and frustration in Granada was channelled rapidly into a rebellion that lasted two years (1568-70). Centred in the Alpujarras, the revolt was a vicious and bloody. Thousands died, and thousands of men, women and children were sold into slavery. An estimated 80,000 ended up being resettled in Castile and Extremadura. Many of the old or sick died of hunger or illness en route. Christian replacements were shipped in from Galicia, León and Asturias, but even so parts of the Alpujarras remained unpopulated.

Nevertheless, the defeat of the Moriscos in the Alpujarras did nothing to alleviate the tensions between them and Christians. In fact, resettlement brought conflict in many areas that had previously been free of racial tensions and increased the rancour felt towards the Moriscos. Their work ethic, frugality and close sense of community –their “otherness,” in other words– made them easy targets in a Counter-Reformation Spain that increasingly emphasised its Catholic faith.

The Solution.
As early as 1582, a special committee convened to discuss the Morisco problem. Various solutions were proposed, including forbidding marriages, even castration, but most support was for expulsion. This, however, was opposed by Aragonese and Valencian aristocrats who feared the loss of virtually all their labour force.

**Collective name for individuals who made
proposals for economic and political reform
in the early 17th century.

After Philip’s death (1598), additional opposition to expulsion was expressed by arbitristas** and by the duke of Lerma, Philip III’s court favourite.

Cervantes sums up the public view of the Moriscos in one of his short stories, El coloquio de los perros/ The Dialogue of the Dogs: they weren’t Christian, they made too much money at the cost of Christians, spent too little, and worked too hard. These words reflect much of the recorded criticism of the Moriscos. The following quotes are typical. The Bishop of Segorbe wrote in 1587: “These Moriscos are grabbing up everything and depriving Old Christians of their means of sustenance” (Johnson 56). In 1588, a certain Alonso Gutiérrez claimed that “these Moriscos are very wealthy, and the real (a Spanish coin) that comes into their hands never leaves … and this wealth in them in suspicious and hateful”(Johnson 53, 57).

In addition, the Moriscos were disliked for avoiding military service, and feared for the rapid increase in their population, which according to several sources threatened to overtake that of the Old Christians. They were accused of licentiousness and of breeding like rabbits.

To balance the demographic inequality, Christian authorities tried to prevent children under the age of 5 from accompanying their parents into exile. Although not entirely successful, those children that did remain were brought up as Christians, and taught a lowly trade that would ensure that they did not exceed their station.

The charges directed at the Moriscos were further fuelled by feelings of profound disillusionment caused by widespread poverty and the damaging effects of a prolonged plague (1596-1602). The Inquisition, too, incited dislike and fear alleging secret contacts between Moriscos and French Protestants or Turkish Muslims.  Finally, opposition by the archbishop of Valencia (who had earlier favoured missionary work among the Moriscos) and a change of heart by Lerma (at the prospect of further enriching himself through land acquisition) also conspired against them.

The operation lasted some four years (1609-13), during which it is estimated that some 300.000 or more Moriscos were expelled, most heading for North Africa where fate was not always kind to them. Many were robbed, others killed because they refused to enter mosques to pray. Some even tried to return only to be exiled again.

The immediate effect of the exile on Castile was not very pronounced but large areas of Aragón and Valencia were depopulated and the economic bleeding severe with agricultural decay and loss of taxes, as predicted by those who opposed the measures.

Cervantes and the Moriscos.
We have seen in The Dialogue of the Dogs (above) Cervantes’s summary of popular opinion of the Moriscos. In his last work, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (Book 3, chptr. 11), the disguised Persiles and Sigismunda pass through a village in Valencia where the only Old Christians are the priest and the town clerk (escribano).

What they witnessed was something that sometimes did occur in those harrowing days: entire Morisco villages decamping for North Africa. Although in the tale they set fire to their village and are shown to be joyful as they embark on a pirate ship from Barbary, they are nevertheless described as “hapless people” whose fate will surely be no better than others who have preceded them, none of whom have sent back news of anything but suffering and regret.

Cervantes addresses the theme on a more personal level in Don Quixote, Part II, Chapters 54, 63-65, where the Morisco, Ricote, Sancho’s exiled neighbour, has returned secretly from Germany to Spain to recover his buried treasure and to go in search of his wife and daughter who are in Algeria. Although he has only one child, a daughter, Ricote has obviously worked hard, made a lot of money and saved it.

The name Ricote would have been familiar
to Cervantes, since there was a Morisco family
of that name living in Esquivias, the town that
Cervantes’s wife came from and where he lived
for a while.
The name might also allude to the Morisco
village of Ricote (North West of Murcia), whose
sincere Christian faith was well documented

Ricote is reunited with his daughter later (Chapters 64-65) at which time his and his daughter’s Catholic faith is emphasised, and they set themselves apart from and denounce those Moriscos who were in fact crypto-Muslims. Ricote furthermore approves the measures taken to exile the Moriscos who had contaminated and poisoned “our nation,” arguing that Spain, once rid of the Moriscos would be “freed of the fears” associated with their presence (Chptr. 65).

Ricote’s effusive praise of King Philip III and the Count of Salazar in initiating and carrying out the expulsion carries a strong whiff of flattery (Chptr. 65). But Cervantes, at the same time that he portrays a wealthy Morisco, also points to the human tragedy of the exile, and to the fact that there were indeed Moriscos who were truly Christian and loved Spain. After all, Sancho (who boasts of unblemished Christian blood) likes Ricote and they share ham and wine together (Chptr. 54). And as Ricote says to Sancho “not all of us should be blamed for some of us were truly and firmly Christian; but we were so few and could not stand up to those who were not [Christian] … wherever we [true Christians] are we weep for Spain, for after all this is where we were born and this is our native land” (Chptr. 54). What Cervantes seems to suggest is that not all Moriscos should be tarred with the same brush of disloyalty or heresy.

Moriscos in the 20th century.
The Morisco matter has been resurrected recently as a result of Spain’s offer of automatic nationality to descendants of Sephardic Jews forced into exile in 1492. This has provoked requests by the descendants of Moriscos exiled at the beginning of the 17th century for similar consideration.



Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Harvey, L. P Islamic Spain 1250-1500 Chicago, London 1992
Harvey, L. P Muslims in Spain 1500 to 1614 Chicago, London 2005
Johnson, Carroll B.  Cervantes and the Material World Urbana, Chicago 2000
Kamen, Henry Spain 1469-1714. A Society in Conflict London, New York  1983
Kamen, Henry The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1998

Ingram, Kevin ed. The Conversos and Moriscos in late medieval Spain and beyond: departures and change. Vols. 2  Leiden: The Netherlands 2012.
For a very good summary of the expulsion of the Moriscos, see Roger Boase, “The Muslim Expulsion from Spain,” in
Not consulted, but by very reputable scholar: Perry, Mary Elizabeth  The Handless MaidenMoriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain  Princeton, New Jersey 2005.
A very good read is the article by Matthew Carr, “The 17th-century expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain: what happened? in