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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Maribel Fierro and Francisco García Fitz, eds.

El cuerpo derrotado: Cómo trataban los musulmanes y cristianos a los enemigos vencidos (Península Ibérica, SS. VIII-XIII)

Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2008. 638pp. ISBN: 978-84-00-08721-0. €39.00

In the summer of 2005, the Institute of Philology associated with CSIC in Madrid hosted a seminar entitled “El cuerpo derrotado: cómo trataban musulmanes y cristianos a los enemigos vencidos (Península Ibérica, ss. VIII-XIII.)”  The resulting papers, most of them excellent, have now been published in an edited collection.  As the title implies, the concern of all the participants was the treatment rendered by Muslims and Christians to their enemies.  Medieval Iberia lends itself particularly well to this type of study with its multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, but the articles here indicate that the issue is much more nuanced and while religious reasons often guided the treatment of defeated enemies, so too did judicial concerns, political calculations and economic conditions. (p. 20)  The book includes twelve articles and is divided into four sections: the defeated enemy, treatment rendered to rebels and heretics, the punished body, and the treatment of captives.  An excellent introduction by the editors lays out the goals of the seminar and goes a long way towards establishing the theme and argument of each essay.  The conclusion (also the sole English-language essay), by Matthew Strickland, helps to summarize the findings and helpfully draws a comparison between the Iberian Peninsula and Northern Europe.

            The first section on the defeated enemy sets the groundwork for much of what follows.  The first article by Alejandro García Sanjuán looks at the submission of territory and the treatment rendered those who surrendered in Islamic jurisprudence.  As many before him, he finds a key difference being drawn between those who surrendered without a struggle against those who put up resistance, but he also critiques many of the established arguments as to how Muslim conquerors divided territory.  The two other articles in this first section, by Francisco Garcia Fitz and David González Porrinas, address how Christians treated captured Muslims in the kingdom of Leon-Castile and in the campaigns of El Cid.

            While the treatment given to captured enemies of a different faith was often driven by pragmatic concerns that was not the case with rebels and heretics, rebellions and heresies often brought out the stiffest punishments that the Iberian Christian and Muslim states could mete out.  The first essay in this section by Martin Alvira Cabrer offers a typology of the types of punishments that rebels received and subdivides if further depending on whether the insurgent was a noble or commoner.  Delfina Sarrano Ruano analyzes rebellion in Islamic jurisprudence and Maribel Fierro explores the relationship between the punishment of heretics and religious/political power in Muslim al-Andalus.  She finds a correlation between the image that the prince wished to portray of himself and how he punished heretics as princes who aspired to a mantel of piety and religious virtue punished those who strayed from the faith much more harshly. 

            Section three illuminates the extremes of violence in Medieval Iberia as two articles highlight beheadings and the third physical and fatal violence on the body.  The first of these by Cristina de la Puente looks at beheadings in Muslim al-Andalus and their use as a “political strategy, a historiographical option, or even as a literary topos.” (p. 320)  She finds that although beheadings al-Andalus were often reserved for honorable enemies (as was often the case elsewhere), many of these acts were carried out posthumously and were used as victory trophies and to symbolize the power of the prince.  The article by José Manuel Rodríguez García shifts the focus north to the Christian realms of Castile-Leon and contextualizes beheadings and their use during peacetime to impart justice and during wartime in military operations.  The author concludes that beheadings were used only sporadically in Castile-Leon, especially in comparison with the Muslim south and the Christian kingdoms beyond the Pyrenees. (pp. 44, 345-347)  Isabel Alfonso moves us away from the meaning of disembodied heads and offers a study in which the body becomes a place of violent dialogue and through which different forms of alterity are constructed.

            Captives are the subject of the last three articles.  Josep Torró starts things off with an examination of the ambiguous status of Muslim captives in the Crown of Aragon.  Besides the typically horrible conditions associated with their captivity/slavery, the presence of Muslim captives in the Crown of Aragon created uncertainty for the large number of non-captive Muslims that lived in the Christian realm as they could easily find themselves “mistaken” for runaway captives and placed in bondage.  The two remaining pieces are both situated in the Islamic south.  Francisco Vidal Castro examines Muslim legal doctrine on captivity and the numerous possibilities that faced those who were captured by Muslims forces including death, freedom, redemption or enslavement.  One fascinating aspect of this article is Vidal Castro’s concern with non-combatants and their status after capture.  Luis Molina foregoes the interfaith treatment of captives and instead looks at how Muslims treated other Muslims who became their captives and the factors (legal, hierarchical, practical) that complicated such circumstances.

            There is much to praise here.  Although some of the articles tend to run a little long and one sometimes wishes for a more interdisciplinary approach in some cases, this collection is an excellent addition to the literature on warfare, peacemaking, confrontation and interaction between Muslims and Christians in the Iberian Peninsula.  The individual articles can each stand alone, but it is as a group that they deliver the most thought-provoking conclusions.  First, we see that although the conflict in Iberia is often presented as a religious one, it was, in fact, pragmatism and practicality that usually determined the actions of the participants.  Religious differences were important, of course, but these were often trumped by other factors.  Second, as Mathew Strickland points out in the conclusion, by the fourteenth century and in comparison with the rest of Europe, Iberia had developed much more clearly articulated laws of war to determine the treatment of captives, ransom, or the division of booty. (p. 533-534).  Finally, and perhaps most surprising, is the editors’ suggestion that due to these well developed customs of war (which were understood and practiced by both sides), “ferocity and barbarism were much more limited” in Iberian warfare than in other parts of Europe. (pp. 55-56)

Jarbel Rodriguez

San Francisco State University <jarbel@sfsu.edu

Page Added: May 2010