Mozarabs. A Controversial Term.

Mozárabe: A Controversial Term.
The term “Mozárabe” or “Mozarab” is widely used in a general sense to refer both to Christians living in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) and to those who fled to the emerging Christian kingdoms of Asturias/León, Castile and Aragón from the 8th to the 12th centuries.  

The term, however, is controversial, and is rejected by some scholars as oversimplified or imprecise and impractical. In 1990, L. P. Harvey summed up the polemic succinctly: “The question of the proper use of Mozarab(ic) affects a multiplicity of groups over a long period of time….  Some would apply it to all subject Christians without exception; the extreme opposite viewpoint restricts the word to those culturally Arabized Christians from the south who took refuge in Leon in the 11th and 12th centuries.”

One of those rejecting the generalised use of “Mozarab” is Ann Christys (2002) who avoids “as far as possible the term …. It is an anachronism in the first three centuries after the conquest, since it first appeared in 11th century texts” (p. 8). Chris Lowney (2005) dispenses with the use of “Mozarab” altogether.  He does not discuss the term, not even in the lengthy note on terminology, pages 6-7, and in the text uses only “Christian(s).”

Perhaps the most respected and persuasive proponent of greater precision in the use of  “Mozarab” is Richard Hitchcock, whose detailed study,  Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (2008), is a must read for anyone interested in the subject. Hitchcock concedes that Mozarab has become a “blanket term applicable to any activity with which the Christians of al-Andalus were associated, whether in al-Andalus itself, or after they had emigrated to the Northern Christian kingdoms” (Hitchcock p. 10). In his Postscript, he concludes, nevertheless, that the term “cannot, in my view, be a word employed to signify Christians who lived in al-Andalus.”

Still, despite scholarly reservations, the standard definition of a “Mozarab” as “A Christian living under Muslim rule in al-Andalus” is still commonly used. This is exactly the definition given by Simon Barton, in his much respected A History of Spain (2009); he also adds “a Christian whose lifestyle incorporated Muslim habits and customs” (Barton 277).

The co-authors of the highly-acclaimed The Arts of Intimacy (2008) understand the term in much the same way; they talk of “Mozarabs” as “those Christians who had long lived under Islamic rule” (78). William and Carla Phillips (2010) make the same generalisation, referring both to Christian communities living in al-Andalus and to those Christians who fled north as “Mozarabs.”

Source of the Controversy.
Undoubtedly, the meaning would be clearer and the controversy resolved if we knew what Christians of al-Andalus (or Andalusi Christians) called themselves, or what the Muslims of al-Andalus called them.  But that’s precisely the problem.

There is no documented evidence that Andalusi Christians called themselves “Mozarabs,” nor do we have proof that the Muslims of al-Andalus called them “Mozarabs.”  In fact, the Muslims used a variety of names when referring to the Christians in their midst: e.g. Nazarenesrumiesromanis, dhimmia’jam (non Arabs; the last two could also allude to Jews).

If there is no documented evidence of the use of “Mozarab” in al-Andalus, where, then, does it first turn up? It first appears as “Muzaraves” in a Latin document in the Christian kingdom of León in 1024, and refers to a lawsuit between a monastery and three “royal silk weavers” (musaraves de rex tiraceros) over the ownership of property (Hitchcock p. 69). 

Hitchcock speculates that the term was used simply to identify these weavers –who were following the lucrative silk trade that existed at that time between al-Andalus and the kingdom of León– as recent arrivals from the Muslim south (Hitchcock p. 73).  There is nothing specific to indicate that they were Christians.

The term seems to have been coined, then, in León in the 11th century, and appears to have been an isolated case. Unless earlier documents are discovered, we must assume that “Mozarab” was not used before this date, not even to refer to the large exodus of Christian emigrants from al-Andalus during the 9th and 10th centuries to Asturias/León.

“Mozarab” only starts to appear with regularity following the conquest of Toledo by Alfonso VI of León and Castile in 1085, and now in a more specific context. Although capital of the Muslim  taifa of Toledo until that year, the city of Toledo still had a sizable and largely Arab-speaking Christian community, perhaps as much as 20%, when it fell to Alfonso. These Toledan Christians were addressed as “Mozarabs,” both to distinguish them from the Christians from the north who accompanied Alfonso and settled in Toledo, and to identify them as recipients of certain royal privileges that they alone enjoyed.

What exactly were these privileges, and why should the Mozarabs of Toledo be so favoured? The privileges were in fact permission to continue using the Visigothic Christian liturgy that the Mozarabs of Toledo had retained under Muslim rule. This may strike us as odd; why should it be a “privilege” for the Mozarabs of Toledo to carry on using their Christian rites under the new conquerors of Toledo, who were themselves Christians?

This only becomes clear when we realise that momentous reforms in church liturgy were under way in the Catholic Church. Briefly, under Pope Gregory VII new Roman rites were introduced throughout Christendom, and had been put into practice in Castile and León by Alfonso VI in 1080.

Ironically, then, the Mozarabs of Toledo, who had defended the Visigothic liturgy for centuries under the Muslims, now saw these rites endangered by their fellow Christians. Matters did not improve with the arrival in Castile and León of numerous priests from the Monastery of Cluny in France, which had been behind Gregory’s push for reform. And heading the list of Cluniacs was Bernard, the new Archbishop of Toledo!

Predictably, the Mozarabs of Toledo were disillusioned, but Alfonso and Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban II,  were realistic enough to make concessions, these being the privileges, granted to six parish churches in Toledo, of retaining their traditional Visigothic liturgy. At the same time, it was a way for Alfonso to reward the Mozarabs of Toledo for their support prior to and during the conquest of the city.

Events in the late 11th century and throughout the 12th were dominated by the arrival of two fundamentalist Muslim groups from the Maghreb, the Almoravids in 1086 and Almohads in 1145. Both sought to counter further Christian advances southward, and impose a more pure Islam on the pleasure-loving life style adopted by the taifa courts following the collapse of the caliphate of Córdoba in 1031. 

Christians living in the various taifas felt the brunt of Almoravid and Almohad displeasure. The “cleansing” of al-Andalus (which even Andalusi-born Muslims reacted against) was particularly felt by Christians (and Jews) under the Almohads, whose demands for conversion or expulsion resulted in widespread exodus northwards.

Following the defeat of the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Muslim resistance collapsed dramatically, and by 1258 all that was left of al-Andalus was the kingdom of Granada, a narrow sliver that stretched approximately from Tarifa in the west to Almería in the east, and inland to Ronda and almost to Jaén.

Here, pressed between the Mediterranean to the south and the advancing kingdom of Castile to the north, Islam fought a rearguard battle to protect its identity. Part of that battle was the rejection of non-Muslims. There were now no Mozarab communities (the only Christians we hear about are prisoners, slaves, merchants or disaffected nobles seeking support from Granada), and only a few small Jewish commercial communities in some of the coastal towns,

The story of the Mozarabs doesn’t end with the demise of Muslim Spain. Following the conquest of Granada in 1492, the Mozarabs were celebrated in the 16th century for keeping alive their Christian Visigothic heritage.  In 1500 the pious, anti-Muslim Cardinal Cisneros published a Mozarabic missal and in 1502 a Mozarabic breviary, both of which reaffirmed the continuity of the pre-Islamic church rite practiced by the Visigoths.

Cisneros also inaugurated the construction in 1504 of a Mozarabic chapel in the Cathedral of Toledo to ensure the continuity of the Visigothic rite (now known as the Mozarabic rite). The rite is still practiced nowadays (Google “Mozarabic rite” for a brief Youtube taste), and there exists a Mozarabic Association in Toledo: the Ilustre Comunidad Mozárabe de Toledo.  For Spanish speakers/ readers, there is a very interesting historical blog: 

Barton, Simon  A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2004
Carr, Matthew  Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain  New York, London 2009
Christys, Ann  Christians in al-Andalus (711-1000) Richmond 2002
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity 400-1000 Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 1995
Dodds, Jerrilyn et al The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain  London  1994
Hitchcock, Richard  Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Identities and Influences Aldershot, Hampshire 2008 
Harvey, L. P. Islamic Spain 1250 to 1500 Chicago, London 1990
Lowney, Chris  A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2005
Phillips, William D. Jr and Carla Rahn Phillips A Concise History of Spain  Cambridge 2010