The manuscript emerges from a critical moment in the relation between Christianity and Islam, the Spanish Reconquista—the gradual capture by Christian crusaders of Muslim Iberia, the caliphate of al-Andalus.
This moment plays a vital role in the ideology of Al Qaeda and its Salafi-jihadist affiliates. Osama bin Laden spoke repeatedly of the “tragedy of al-Andalus,” and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb frequently refers to Muslim Spain in its messaging (for more detail, see this succinct article from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point).
The political imagination of Al Qaeda and company, that is, is fueled by the historical memory of the larger time and place in which Bishop Vidal de Cañellas made his great legal redaction for King James I of Aragon.
In my previous post, I noted that the charters, or fueros, that the Vidal Mayor incorporates were part of a process in which Iberian royals attracted Christian settlement within the peninsula by offering various legal privileges. They used fueros much like Delaware today uses its laws of incorporation—as an enticement.
If you’re a king and want to attract merchants to a town, what do you do? Provide its inhabitants with especially strong protections of their private property and announce that henceforth they’re exempt from certain taxes. In the meantime, put an end to the violence of clan feuds, which are detrimental to commerce.
Want to draw nobles to a frontier where they may have to fight Muslim forced by horseback? Provide them with legal exemptions from their usual mandatory military service.
Need peasants to farm and men who will serve as infantry forces? Give them immunity from prosecution for past crimes.
(I draw the above examples from the following source, pp. 343-44.)
It’s important to stress that all these incentives were offered in the context of another sort of legal regime: one of conquest. Just as Duke William divvied out Anglo-Saxon land as spoils to his knights after he defeated Harold Godwinson in 1066, so too Spanish kings in the thirteenth century provided their lieutenants with booty—and law made that process possible.
Here is confirmation of property given in 1259 to a favored knight, Arnau de Romaní (it’s from this source, pp. 282-83). I love how it sounds like any modern legal document, filled with legalese:
By Us and Ours We approve, give, concede, and confirm to you, Our beloved Arnau de Romaní knight and to yours forever, all purchases that you made from any persons up until this day in the city and kingdom of Valencia: of buildings, farms, vineyards, fields, properties, and whatsoever other possessions up until this day, both from Our royal holdings and from whatsoever other holdings; in such wise that all buildings, farms, vineyards, fields, properties, and whatsoever other possessions you and yours may have hold, possess, and exploit in perpetuity, just as the other knights of the kingdom of Valencia have and hold the properties and possessions given and granted by Us to them [to be held] for giving away, selling, pledging, alienating, and using for all your purposes to whomever you wish, free and clear forever, without any retention by Us and Ours or any other person whatsoever; notwithstanding any point of the laws or customs of Valencia, or conditions required in any charters [saying] that the aforesaid buildings, farms, vineyards, fields, estates, and possessions not be sold or otherwise alienated to knights; and notwithstanding any other reasons, claims, laws, or customs by which We or Ours might be able to contravene [this].
Thanks for fighting the Almohad Dynasty, beloved Romaní. Have some land.
The man who redacted the 427 laws of the Vidal Mayor, Vidal de Cañellas, was partly responsible for disbursing such property in the wake of the fall of Valencia.
Likewise, here is an excerpt from a negotiated surrender agreement between James I and the inhabitants of several Muslim strongholds around Valencia (in the document, which is taken from the same source as the confirmation grant above, Muslims are referred to as Saracens, as was typical at the time).
This is a charter of favor and protection that Jaume [James I], by the grace of God king of the Aragonese, the Mallorcas, and Valencia, count of Barcelona and Urgell, and lord of Montpellier, makes to the entire community of Saracens who are in Eslida and in Ahín, in Veo, in Senquier, in Pelmes and Sueras, who placed themselves in his power and became his vassals.
Therefore he granted them that they may keep their homes and possessions in all their villages with all their districts, income, and profits, in [both] dry-farming and irrigated lands, cultivated and unworked, and all their farms and plantings.
And they may make use of waters just as was the custom in the time of the Saracens, and may divide the water as was customary among them.
And they may pasture their stock in all their districts as was customary in the time of the pagans.
And Christians or anyone of another Law are not to be sent to settle in their districts without their permission.
Nor may anyone bother their pasturage or stock. And they are to be safe and secure in their persons and things. And they can travel over all their districts, for tending their affairs, without Christian [interference].
And the castellans of the castles, or the bailiffs, may not demand castle-provisioning of wood and pack animals and water or any service for the castles. Nor are [Christians] to bother them in their houses or vineyards and trees and produce.
Nor may they forbid preaching in the mosques or prayer being made on Fridays and on their feasts and other days; but they [the Muslims] are to carry on according to their religion. And they can teach students the Qur’an and all the books of the hadith; and the mosque endowments are to belong to the mosques.
And they are to judge legal cases under the control of their qadi for those Saracens who are in Eslida, about marriages, and inheritance shares, and purchases and all other cases, according to their Law …
Much of the Aragonese conquest of Muslim lands in Iberia took place through surrender agreements like this one, rather than through out-and-out military defeat. And, indeed, in reading this document, one might be surprised at the number of protections Muslims are granted, at least on paper, by their new Christian rulers—they live with a large degree of autonomy.
Most important, not only in this particular treaty but as a general matter of principle in the Vidal Mayor, Muslims are allowed to have their legal cases decided according to their own law. Indeed, as one especially interesting scholar of the subject notes, the Vidal Mayor announces that this principle is based on “right and reason.”
What gives? The Aragonese Reconquista was in important respects distinctive. It differed in particular from the Reconquista of the Crown of Castile.
The Castilians generally sent Muslims packing. This resulted, in time, in the type of stagnant, hierarchical society the Castilians would later recreate in Latin America.
By contrast, the Aragonese made peace with the most important fact-on-the-ground of the lands they conquered: Muslims were the overwhelming majority of the population.
Wholesale expulsion was not an option. Indeed, Muslim leaders, including legal experts, were essential for administering the Muslim population of the region.
And so the Arognese bargained—and law was the subject as much as the mechanism of that give-and-take. The surrender treaties like the one above are more like contracts than they are documents of submission.
Muslims agreed to live under Christian rule in exchange for certain privileges, such as tax exemption: “And they are not to pay on any produce, such as onions, cucumbers, or other fruits of the land except the aforesaid. On trees and their fruits and on climbing vines they are not to give a tenth, but they give a tenth on vineyards and they give the zakat on livestock according as they are accustomed ….”
In turn, Christian rulers agree to grant Muslims certain privileges—much as they granted privileges to Christians in the fueros.
It’s not surprising, then, that the images of Muslims in Aragonese legal tracts are not caricatures; instead, they are treated in what the scholar cited above calls “a rather matter-of-fact light.” Here is a link to one of those images, the baptism of a Muslim slave. And here is the duel between the debtor and creditor I included at the beginning of this series of posts:
(I should note that the scholar I cited earlier doesn’t include this among his list of images of Muslims in the Vidal Mayor; instead, I’m relying on the Getty Museum’s identification.)
More on some other aspects of the Vidal Mayor next time—but for now, it’s time to pick some of our own cucumbers and gather the fruits of the land for dinner.