A Warrior’s Valour, Honour and Identity: The case of the Moriscos of Granada

Today I will talk about notions of honour and loyalty in Early Modern Spanish society. More specifically, I will talk about how Moriscos defined these notions of honour and how they used them to construct Morisco identity.

The analysis I am going to present is based on one of the few sources of Morisco origin that deal with Morisco identity: The Memorial en defensa de las costumbres moriscas – The memorandum in defence of Morisco customs written by Francisco Nuñez Muley in the late 1560s.

Now, before we delve into the analysis we should first have a look at the circumstances in which this document was written.

The historical setting

Early Modern Spanish society is best described as paradoxical. While uniformly Catholic on the surface, society was strictly divided according to the statutes of blood purity which stigmatised „New Christians“ and distinguished them from „Old Christians“.

„New Christians“ included both Conversos and Moriscos. The term Converso designates persons who either converted from Judaism to Catholicism themselves or are descendants of converts. Similarly, Moriscos are either converts from Islam to Catholicism or descendants of converts. Both groups are usually considered religious minorities and distinguished social groups within Iberian society.

The Moriscos of Granada, and we will focus on them for today, differed greatly from the Moriscos in other parts of Spain. They were the last to actually speak and read Arabic. They developed a specific culture that included Christian and Muslim as well as purely regional traditions – a combination that irked the Spanish Church immensely. Luckily for the Moriscos of Granada, the Catholic Monarchs upon conquering Granada had granted them a period of grace thus protecting them from the Spanish Inquisition.

The time of leniency ended in the 1560s when Philipp II turned his attention towards the Moriscos of Granada. The situation had already been rife with social tension when Philipp issued a royal decree outlawing various aspects of Morisco culture because he and the Spanish Church considered them Muslim. The prohibitions included the use of Arabic, a certain style of female clothing, production of said clothing, bath houses and festive traditions.

Philipp’s decree sparked the Morisco rebellion in the Alpujarras that is sometimes referred to as the Second War of Granada. It also caused Francisco Nuñez Muley to to write the source I will discuss now.

Francisco Nuñez Muley’s Memorial en defensa de las costumbres moriscas

As its title suggests the Memorial was an attempt to defend Morisco culture.

However, its most pressing aim was to prevent – or stop – another civil war in Granada. I will not go into detail about whether the practices in question are indeed religious in nature or simply regional traditions.

Instead I would like to draw attention to how Muley uses contemporary notions of honour and loyalty in order to construct Morisco identity. Morisco identity according to him is not set apart from or opposed to Spanish identity. Instead he regards Morisco identity as a nuance of an overall Spanish identity thus claiming Spanishness for his fellow Moriscos and himself.

We will also see how military service for the crown; as well as war in general serve as rhetorical means in his narrative.

One of Muley’s major challenges was to defend the use of Arabic which had been prohibited prior to the Alpujarras uprising. Arabic, written as well as the dialect spoken in Granada, were seen as inherently Muslim. The same was true for basically every Morisco tradition that diverted from the Old Christian norm. The Memorial offers a differentiation between religious practice and regional tradition. Or in broader terms between religion and culture.

In this context Muley referred to two events from military history.

Example I: The reconquista

The first is the reconquista itself and the role the Muslims played in it.

The reconquest of the Muslim part of the Iberian peninsula was completed under the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492. The kingdom of Granada was the last Muslim kingdom to fall.

Muley argues that even if Morisco culture were indeed Muslim in nature it would still be an important part of Spanish history and Spanish society. According to him it is necessary to remember Granada’s Muslim past in general and Arabic surnames in particular.

He develops the argument as follows: Arabic surnames fall under the prohibition of Arabic. If the Arabic language and the family names are forbidden they will be forgotten sooner or later. Muley’s most obvious objection to this is a pragmatic one. If everybody has to change their name all of a sudden nobody will know who is who in Granada.

Los sobrenombres antiguos que tenemos son para que se conozcan las gentes; que de otra manera perderse han las personas y los linajes. ¿De qué sirve que se pierdan las memorias? (Nuñez Muley, Francisco: Memorial en defensa de las costumbres moriscas. Barcelona 2014, p. 13.)

One might argue that the pragmatism he invokes was in fact tailored for the elites rather than for farmers in the mountains. The prohibition of Arabic surnames would eventually have led to the eradication of Morisco nobility; their lineages would have become invisible and been forgotten which equalled social death in Spanish society.

Obviously, he could bring this up without undermining his efforts.

Muley knew this and therefore elegantly connected Granada’s Muslim past to Christian Iberia’s glory. Muley points out that the Catholic Monarchs agreed to tolerating Islam and thet they even actively preserved Granada’s Muslims history. He cites the Alhambra as an example of this.

Que bien considerado, aumentan la gloria y ensalzamiento de los Catóicos Reyes que conquistaron este reino. Esta intención y voluntad fue la de sus altezas […] para étos se sustentan los ricos alcázares de la Alambra y otros menores en la misma forma que estaban en tiempo de los reyes moros, porque siempre manifestasen su poder por memoria y trofeo de los conquistadores. (Nuñez Muley: Memorial, pp. 13-14.)

The Alhambra and the other rich castles they ordered to be maintained used to be symbols of power of the Muslims kings. By preserving them after conquest they made them symbols of their own power. The act of preservation, the concious decision not to have them destroyed, is forever evidenced by the castles‘ mere existance. The Catholic Monarchs could have levelled them but by not doing so they showed what we might mistake for mercy or appreciation for architecture. But above all else they showed power and awareness of that power. Of course, from a strategic point of view, keeping large military structures and incorporating them into one’s own system of defence is commonsense. Especially after a tiresome and expensive war such as the reconquest.

Muley, however, was not a military adviser nor military chronicler so his argumentation took a different turn. He argues that this act of preservation added to the Catholic Monarchs‘ glory as conquerors. Keeping castles, palaces and fortifications makes visible how difficult and straining the conquest was. The more formidable the foe, the more glorious the eventual victory. Now, nobody would have deliberately damaged the Catholic Monarchs‘ reputation or intentionally lessened their glory by destroying the Alhambra. However, Muley points out that eradicating Arabic and Arabic surnames would mean exactly this. It would lead to a loss of memory and possibly history. That loss then would diminish the Catholic Monarchs‘ glory as conquerors because the people, personified by Moriscos with Arabic names, would vanish first from society and then from memory.

Taking Muley’s reasoning a bit further, we might even read an accusation between the lines: If the buildings from Muslim times are preserved but the descendants of the Muslim enemy are made unrecogniseable and vanish from society’s awareness, then only the Catholic Monarchs‘ victory over a set of castles will be remembered. And what kind of conqueror is someone who manages to take an empty castle?

This is why it is crucial to keep Granada’s Muslim past in mind. Muslims even as enemy were an important part of Spanish history. In consequence, Moriscos were an important part of Spanish society. They served as living proof of the Catholic victory over the last Muslims in Iberia. And it was their tradition, their different clothing style, their Arabic names and their dialect, that made them visible as Moriscos.

Muley continues by pointing out that Moriscos were not only a part of Spanish history but also that they were a natural part of Spanish society. More specificly: that they were loyal subjects to the king despite being treated as second class Christians. The question of loyalty was regularly brought up in the discourse of the time. Moriscos were frequently accused of being secretly in league with foreign Muslims, meaning the Ottoman Empire. Connected to this was usually the accusation of Moriscos being false converts. Crypto-Islam is another topic, though.

In order to make a case for Morisco loyalty, Muley brings up another military conflict from history. This would be the second example for today

Example II: Moriscos in the comuneros revolt

He asks rather cheekily whether there had been any Morisco among the comuneros who rebelled against the king from 1520 to 1522.

Veamos, señor: ¿en las comunidades levantáronse los deste reino? Por cierto, en favor de su majestad acompañaron al marqués de Mondéjar […] contra los comuneros don Hernando de Córdoba el Ungi, Diego López Aben Axar, Diego López Hacera, con más de cuatrocientos hombres de guerra de nuestra nación, siendo los primeros que en toda España tomaron armas contra los comuneros. Y don Juan de Granada, hermano del rey Abdilehi, también fue general en Castilla de los reales […] y hizo lo que debía a buen vasallo de su majestad. (Nuñez Muley: Memorial, p. 11.)

The answer, of course, is no. On the contrary, Moriscos from Granada were among the first to answer the king’s call to arms. Three of Marqués de Mondéjar’s captains were Moriscos: Don Hernando de Córdoba, Diego López Aben Axar and Diego López Hacera. These three Morisco captains were accompanied by 400 Morisco soldiers from Granada.

One of the royal generals, Don Juan de Granada, was Morisco. Even more: He was from Granada`s former royal family.

Moriscos chose to support Charles V rather than support the comuneros. This clearly contradicts the most prevalent polemic claiming Moriscos are untrustworthy, traitorous and would destroy the Spanish Empire given the chance.

In this context Muley touches upon the delicate topic of honour. As you know, being New Christian indicated either a Jewish or Muslim ancestry. And that ancestry was automatically less worth than Old Christian ancestry due to the stain of either Jewish or Muslim blood.

Muley, however, argues that Moriscos can be as honourable as Old Christians. If not even more honourable. He makes use of two contemporary notions of honour. One corresponds with the Old Christian standard narrative of blood purity. The other concerns honour that is connected to attitude and certain actions. In contrast to the narrative of blood purity, honour can be won and accumulated and is not solely derived from ancestry. Of course, Muley could not escape the zeitgeist of his time and we see him employing the narrative of blood purity when he writes about Morisco nobility. But the imporant part is that there is the possibility to circumvent the rigid system of stigmatisation.

Returning to the example at hand. The Moriscos who fought for the king against the comuneros gained honour in doing so. He takes this from the notion that honour stems from and is proven in combat. The more proficient and brave the warrior is in battle, the more honourable he is. A warrior’s valour, aptitude and overall conduct produce honour regardless of his ancestry.

He combines this with the idea that the crown itself is a source of honour and that honour can be transferred by being close to the king. Being on the king’s side, then, is more honourable than being on the rebel’s side.

Don Juan de Granada, the three Morisco captains and their soldiers received honour from two sources at once: by fulfilling their military duty and by being on the king’s side in this particular conflict.

It is no coincidence that he chose the comuneros‘ revolt as an example for Morisco loyalty. The comuneros rebelled against Charles V whom they saw as a foreigner. The Moriscos on the other hand stood by him because he was their king regardless of where he was born and what family he came from.

Loyal rebels?

So far Muley employed two historical events a rhetorical means.

First he spoke of the Muslim enemy from Reconquest times who despite being the Empire’s enemy were valiant and noble fighters. He connected this image of the valiant Muslim enemy to Spanish history and pointed out that Moriscos are living reminders of this glorious moment from Spanish history

Next he mentioned the comuneros revolt from the 1520s and described how Moriscos proved their loyalty via military service to the crown.

His last example is set between the two events mentioned above. He bases his strongest and most dangerous argument on the first rebellion of Granada. The one that took place from 1499 to 1501.

He points out that this rebellion had not been a rebellion against the crown. Rather it had been a rebellion for the royal word and signature as he calls it.

Cuando el Albaicín se alborotó no fue contra el rey, sino en favor de sus firmas, que teníamos en veneración de cosa sagrada. No estando aún la tinta enjuta, quebrantaron los capítulos de las paces las justicias, prendiendo las mujeres que venían de linaje de cristianas, para hacerles que lo fuesen por fuerza. (Nuñez Muley: Memorial, p. 11.)

Meaning the Catholic Monarchs‘ promise to tolerate Islam. When they nontheless allowed forced mass conversions of the remaining Muslim population, some of these Muslims fought back.

At first glance this choice seems odd. The first two examples make sense somehow. But why would he mention the rebellion of 1499? Doesn’t this reflect badly on the current situation of the Moriscos?

Muley, veteran politician that he is, chose this set up intentionally, I believe.

The first rebellion was caused by broken promises. The Catholic Monarchs had declared they would tolerate Islam and allow the remaining Muslim population to practice their religion. In return, said Muslims agreed to the set of rules installed by their new rulers. When mass conversions occured and were tolerated by the Monarchs, the first rebellion began.

Muley makes the second rebellion, the Alpujarras rebellion look almost identical.

Charles V had suspended early attempts of outlawing Morisco traditions. He had given his word to tolerate them. Philipp II had broken that promise by issuing the prohibitions mentioned before. Furthermore although Moriscos tried to live the rigid rules forced on them. Yet they were not rewarded according to these rules. Philipp II and Old Christian society in general did not treat them appropriately despite their evident loyalty and honourable conduct. And with such disrespectful treatment that went against the rules of society the Alpujarras rebellion was not surprising. At least not to Francisco Nuñez Muley.

This entry is based on a presentation I gave at The Many Faces of War – Changing Perspectives on Armed Conflict at St. John’s College, Cambridge, November 17th – 18th 2017.

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