Conversos and Moriscos: possible entanglements

A new approach

In contrast to the prevailing approach of viewing Converso and Morisco histories as separate or parallel at best, I include both in a shared narrative. In order to establish the shared narrative, I will employ the approach of entangled history as proposed by Michael Werner and Bénedicte Zimmermann.

I have set myself the rather challenging task of putting Conversos and Moriscos at the centre of my study, not only as objects of research but also in terms of sources and agency. So instead of looking through the Old Christian lense via Old Christian sources I will try to offer a Morisco or Converso perspective using Converso and Morisco sources.

Before I introduce a source that offers a Converso view on Moriscos, a few words on methodology are necessary.

What is entangled history?

Entangled history was first introduced by Bénedicte Zimmermann and Michael Werner. And since they both focused on French and German history entangled history was first called histoire croisée or Verflechtungsgeschichte in German. Their idea was to take the existing approaches of connected and shared history a step further. Shared and connected history both focused on comparisons. These comparison were open to asymmetric constellations. For example, connected and shared history would look at Conversos and Moriscos and search for similarities and differences. Which religious practices can be found in both groups? Were they both affected by the statutes of blood purity the same way?

Obviously entangled history does all that shared and connected history do as well. But Werner and Zimmermann wanted to go further. So they added something. They added another analytical level. That analytical level includes the historical agents into the analysis and incorporates what they made of their surroundings and current events. In order to stay true to the approach of entangled history I have to ask where Converso and Morisco histories are connected and where they overlap. But I also have to ask where the contemporaries saw connections and overlappings. In other words: entanglements.

Now, that confronts us with a serious problem. The sources. What sources offer such entanglements? A source written by a Converso or Morisco is not enough. It would also have to mention the other respectively and offer information or interpretations. I am very lucky to have encountered such a document.

Mármol Carvajal’s Historia

The source I am going to introduce is a chronicle written by Luis del Mármol Carvajal. La historia del rebelión y castigo de los Moriscos del reyno de Granada was first published in 1600. Like the title suggests, it mainly deals with the Morisco uprising that lasted from 1568 to 1571.

It consists of ten books.

The first book contains a general description of Granada during Muslim rule and a meticulous account of the so-called reconquista.

In the second book Mármol Carvajal summarises the Old Christian debate about what counts as Christian behaviour and what does not as well as the means taken to make the Moriscos good Christians.

Consequently, the third book contains the Moriscos‘ reaction to the Old Christian debate. In terms of conflict theory, this book is set shortly before escalation.

Books four to ten finally deal with the rebellion including accounts of military campaigns, strategy, personnel, negotiations. It has everything a military chronicle ought to have.

This chronicle is extraordinary because it offers a Converso perspective on Morisco history.

When I first encountered this source I did not know about the Converso perspective. I started reading it because I was looking for sources dealing with my case study: the Morisco rebellion and their expulsion. After all, the overall theme of my project is ‚identity and violence‘.

It soon became clear that this particular chronicle was very different from the other sources I had read. It lacked everything I had become used to: a clear-cut black and white image, Moriscos reduced to stereotypes, pejorative terms and polemical language.

Mármol Carvajal’s narrative is very different. To him there are nuances and differences. Of course it is wrong and scandalous to rebel against one’s king. But maybe the Moriscos had reasons to do so. And maybe those reasons were indeed valid.

The short answer to why this source is a Converso perspective would be to say: because Mármol Carvajal was Converso and his line can be traced back well into the 15th century. But that’s the lazy approach. Like I said before, I did not know of his Converso origin when I first read the chronicle. I will give you two examples of what struck me as odd in that very first reading.

The Historia as case study

There are a number of instances that can be read as a Converso perspective on Morisco history and the Morisco rebellion.

The first example for a Converso perspective deals with the Morisco group itself. Our chronicler points out that there is no monolithic Morisco group. He then goes out of his way to distinguish the various subgroups and political factions. Common sense tells us that the Moriscos did not make up a uniform group of people. Keep in mind though that common sense tends to be absent when social tension escalates into violent conflict.

Now, Mármol Carvajal elaborates on the two main factions. One was all for rebellion and taking up arms. The other was rather moderate and sought a diplomatic solution. And then – and this where Mármol Carvajal is very different from other sources on the subject – there were those Moriscos who did not want to have anything to do with the rebellion. He even identifies a group of noble and virtuous Moriscos who were good Christians indeed. He ends his characterisation by saying that his story is not about the peaceful Moriscos though. But he acknowledges their existence and the possibility of good Moriscos.

This is important because we are faced with a chronicler who early on in his work makes absolutely clear that ‚the enemy‘, ‚the Morisco‘, is not a uniform group. Even in times of crisis the world is not black and white and there are nuances between friend and foe. Of course, there is a Morisco enemy in Mármol Carvajal’s work and on this enemy he focuses. But he acknowledges that there are Moriscos who are not the enemy, Moriscos who do not fight and Moriscos who are actually faithful Christians. The fact that they do not play a vital role in his chronicle is lamentable but at least it does not mean that they do not exist at all.

Why might that be a Converso perspective? Obviously, Mármol Carvajal tries to uphold distinctions between subgroups. To the Old Christian eye all Moriscos turn into Morisco rebels, regardless of whether they take part in the fighting or not. Times of crisis bring about black and white images. That must have been unnerving to the Converso Mármol Carvajal. Because if the subgoup boundaries between peaceful and rebellious Moriscos vanishes what is to stop Old Christians from painting all New Christians with the same brush? The Morisco rebellion could turn into a threat to the Conversos as well if group boundaries break down in a domino effect.

This brings me to my second example: Morisco nobility and a reverse use of blood purity. Mármol Carvajal as historical agent could not escape the contemporary zeitgeist. This becomes obvious when he uses genealogical thinking and blood purity in order to describe the Morisco king Aben Umeya formerly known as Hernando de Cordoba y de Valor.

At the beginning of the rebellion, the Moriscos elected their new king Aben Umeya. They elected him, according to Mármol Carvajal, because he was a Morisco of noble birth and good reputation. He then outlines the Umeya family history that goes back to the times of Mohammed. Why is this odd and what makes this a Converso perspective?

This is odd because there was absolutely no reason for Mármol Carvajal to provide that information. The contemporary polemicists most certainly would not have wasted time on informing us about a crypto-Muslim rebel king’s century old family history. Or that family’s place within Muslim nobility. Or its ties to Mohammed. A polemicist would have skipped directly to the part where the Umeya family turns against their religious leader. Fair enough, Mármol Carvajal mentions the betrayal and political intrigue but does not use that against Aben Umeya. A polemicist would have used that information to stress that Muslims, and ultimately Moriscos, cannot be trusted, that they are disloyal traitors and ruthless opportunists. But Mármol Carvajal is far from being a polemicist. His focus is on Aben Umeya’s noble birth as can be expected in a society obsessed with ancestry. Subtly as always, Mármol Carvajal gives us that piece of information as part of a general biography of the people involved.

What is odd about this is how Mármol Carvajal uses blood purity, the mechanism of social exclusion of the time. He is well aware of the reality of blood purity, he might even have felt its limiting effects himself at some point, for example when he did not become ambassador to Morocco despite his expertise.

However, Mármol Carvajal gives it a positive spin and shows that even the adversary, the Morisco leader Aben Umeya, can in his own right have honour and noble ancestry. One would have expected him to use genealogical reasoning in order to depict the adversary as inferior, malicious, etc. In other words, he could have used the concept with respect to the Moriscos in the same demeaning way Old Christians usually apply it to Conversos. Yet he does not. Apparently, when used within the in-group the standard of blood purity can be used in a positive way while it is usually used to devalue the out-group. Might this be an instance where a Converso transfers the ‚Converso take‘ on blood purity to the Morisco group? By ‚Converso take‘ I mean the use of a concept originally meant to discriminate and segregate Jews and Conversos to claim their own superiority over Old Christians. If this was indeed an instance of the concept’s reversal, Mármol Carvajal not only subtly criticises the segregation implemented by the statutes of blood purity but also establishes a link between Conversos and Moriscos.

Conclusion

It is indeed possible to write a shared narrative of Converso and Morisco history. Entangled history seems to be the most promising approach for this. Entangled history regards Conversos and Moriscos as historical agents in their own right and includes them and their interpretations and opinions of each other into the narrative. The chroncicle I have briefly discussed here offers a Converso perspective on Moriscos in general and the Morisco uprising in the Alpujarras in particular. The next step will be to add a Morisco perspective on the rebellion and, ideally on Conversos as a neighbouring minority.

By doing this I hope to create a more detailed and more complete image of Iberian society and its minorities, an image that is not completely based on and derived from Old Christian sources but rather one that is built on what Conversos and Moriscos have to say about themselves and each other.

 

This entry is based on a lecture I gave during ‚Across Borders and Boundaries – Jews, Crypto-Jews and Conversos in Early Modern Iberia and Beyond‘, a workshop my supervisor and I organised in July 2017 at Potsdam University.

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