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  • Abigail Agresta

Culturally Muslim in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

Abigail Agresta on Olivia Remie Constable’s To Live Like a Moor

What does it mean to be Muslim? To be Christian? Do these identities consist only of core beliefs and styles of worship, or do they extend to cultural practices: the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the ways we treat our bodies, the names we give to our children? How are lines drawn between “religion” and “culture,” and who controls the drawing of those lines? Olivia Remie Constable’s brilliant new book, To Live Like a Moor, edited by Robin Vose from an unfinished manuscript after the author’s untimely death in 2014, delves into the boundaries of Muslim identity in medieval and early modern Spain. Although Constable planned it as a work of pure historical scholarship, the book’s questions about religion and identity feel strikingly immediate today.

In 1492, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella completed the conquest of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian peninsula. Nine years later, they compelled the Muslim inhabitants of this region either to accept Christianity or go into exile. Over the next few decades, the Muslim populations of the other kingdoms of Spain would face the same imperative. Those who chose to stay and convert are known to historians as Moriscos. This mass forced conversion of the peninsula’s Muslims, like the forced conversions of Jews a century earlier in 1391, created a population of unwilling members of the Christian social body, and consequently a divide between New and Old Christians.

As it became clear that baptism was insufficient to erase Morisco identity, Christian authorities’ relationship with their formerly Muslim subjects became ever more fraught. Suspecting (probably correctly) that many of these New Christians secretly maintained their old faith, the Catholic Monarchs empowered the Spanish Inquisition to root out the unfaithful. Internal belief, however, is easy to conceal. Inquisitors therefore sought religious identity not only in the heart, but also in the closet, the kitchen, and the bathhouse; true Christians were those who spoke, dressed, bathed, and ate “like Christians,” rather than “like Moors.” Implicit in this distinction, which Christian authorities enshrined in law over the course of the sixteenth century, was the notion that certain everyday habits could be definitively coded Christian or Muslim. Enforcement, however, was not so easy; Moriscos protested, rebelled against, and disregarded the laws that prohibited their cultural practices. At last, royal and ecclesiastical authorities convinced themselves of the impossibility of Morisco assimilation, and thus of Morisco Christianity. King Philip III authorized their expulsion from Spain in 1609.

Olivia Remie Constable. To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 248. $55.00.

Constable’s subject is not the expulsion, or even the repression that preceded it, but rather the contested and shifting borders of Muslim and Morisco identity under Christian rule. The complex and often violent coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Iberian peninsula has for decades been one of the richest veins of medieval Iberian scholarship. The cultural historian Américo Castro first proposed in the mid-twentieth century that eight centuries of Islamic rule in Iberia had created a lively coexistence, or convivencia, of three religions, each of which contributed to the distinctive culture of medieval Spain. This vision ultimately triumphed in Spanish and much Anglophone scholarship, such as Maria Rose Menocal’s The Ornament of the World. Other scholars have pointed out the inherent fragility of interfaith coexistence in Iberia, particularly under Christian rule. Some, like Barbara Fuchs (Exotic Nation) and Paola Tartakoff (Between Christian and Jew), have recently moved from charting interactions between faith communities to investigating the shifting nature of religious identity itself.

In this vein, To Live Like a Moor shows that convivencia was not just about relationships between faith communities. The categories of Christian, Muslim, and Jew could themselves twist and buckle under shifting pressures. Although lines of some sort were always drawn between faiths, the boundaries went in and out of focus depending on the priorities of those in power. As the editor Robin Voss remarks in the conclusion: markers of difference “tended to be invented and infused with significance only as and when necessary, to serve the discriminatory needs of a given regime or population.” What customs and habits were associated with Islam, and how strongly such associations were drawn, changed as the aim of the Christian authorities changed: from separation in the medieval period, to assimilation after 1501.

Constable’s guide in these shifting sands is a Granadan gentleman, Francisco Núñez Muley, who in 1567 took up his pen to defend the practices of his countrymen. Núñez Muley, born Muslim just before the conquest, and Christian for most of his nearly eighty years, sought to show that banned “Moorish” practices around dress, bathing, and language were not, as Christian authorities claimed, signs of secret adherence to Islam, but rather part of the cultural heritage of Granada. This cultural argument fell on deaf ears in his own time, but in Constable’s hands provides compelling evidence that similarity and difference between Muslims and Christians was never purely a matter of religion. Indeed Núñez Muley’s arguments on that point appear much more compelling to us than they would have to his contemporaries. It is part of Constable’s task to point out where her guide is being disingenuous; he emphasized culture over religion partly out fear of the Inquisition.

The book is organized into three thematic chapters, dealing with clothing and appearance, bathing, and foodways. A fourth chapter, on Arabic language and naming, was planned but not completed before Constable’s death. The lack of that chapter is felt, but the three others add up to a coherent whole, focusing (perhaps more than originally intended) on the cultural practices of women. Each chapter reiterates how the medieval goal of separation between members of different faiths transformed after the sixteenth-century conversions into a need for conformity. Christian statutes regulating first Muslim, then Morisco behavior make up much of the source base, supplemented by literary, artistic, and other sources that illuminate what that behavior was. Medieval Iberian authorities were (rightly) concerned that people of different faiths who lived in the same place would dress in similar fashions, have similar hygiene practices, and eat similar foods—in other words, participate in a common culture. In the sixteenth century, with all of Spain ostensibly Christian, authorities began to suppress cultural difference. At this point Constable’s focus, and that of her sources, shifts to Granada, a kingdom with a distinct history, culture, and customs, all of which came to be associated with crypto-Islam.

Medieval regulation of Muslim (and Jewish) clothing was mostly intended to make Muslims and Jews clearly distinguishable from and subordinate to Christians. It also dealt primarily with male appearance. Unlike regulations of Jews, which focused on specific identifying signs, regulations for Muslims simply banned them from wearing rich and fashionable clothing, and occasionally required them to adopt garments and hairstyles that Christians considered “Muslim.” Such associations could be extremely slippery, however. In the early fourteenth century, Muslim men were not allowed to wear a fashionable hairstyle called the garceta, in which the hair was left long around the face, then cut short to reveal the ears. Once the garceta had fallen from vogue among Christians, however, Muslims were suddenly required to adopt it. With the forced conversions of the sixteenth century, however, the regulatory objective changed from segregation to conformity. At this point, the distinctive styles of the kingdom of Granada came under particular scrutiny. Granadan Moriscos fiercely resisted orders to change their style of dress, even when monarchs sought to defray the cost by distributing free bolts of cloth.

Constable shows how conflicts over Morisco dress became particularly emotional around the issue of female modesty. In contrast to current debates over veiling, the status or freedom of women was not at issue; the danger posed by female sexuality was taken as given by both sides. Covering the hair was customary in both Christian and Muslim traditions, but veiling the face was particularly associated with Islam (although it was also practiced by some Old Christian women). Both sides sought to associate their position with modesty and that of their opponents with illicit sexuality. Old Christians suggested that veiling the face in public allowed women to engage in secret assignations, while Moriscos like Núñez Muley defended veiling as a safeguard for female virtue.

Bathing was similarly fraught with gendered concerns about modesty and sexuality, which similarly became more acute in the Morisco period. Bathhouses were popular among Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike in Iberia well into the fifteenth century, much longer than they survived elsewhere in Europe. Eventually, however, Christians in Iberia came to see bathing, particularly female bathing, as a highly sexualized activity. Bathing among Christians declined, and was increasingly confined to the home. As bathing became increasingly linked with female immorality, prostitution, and Islam, Morisca use of bathhouses faced particular censure. Even Núñez Muley, who defended bathing on health and hygienic grounds, was concerned about the sexual temptations presented by bathing women.

Likewise, foodways were of keen interest to Inquisitors, who were as concerned with what Moriscos (and especially Moriscas) were not cooking and eating (pork and lard) as with what they were (couscous, raisins, figs, and eggplant). With the exception of meat and its sale, food had not been an interfaith issue in the medieval period. Only in the sixteenth century did the Christian definition of “Muslim” foodways expand from halal meat and the avoidance of pork to include items like fritters (buñuelos), rice, honey, tripe, and fruits. That all of these also appeared in Christian cookbooks does not seem to have hindered their religious designation. By the fifteenth century, having adopted (at least at the elite level) the use of forks, individual plates, and tables with chairs, Christians also came to interpret older table manners (eating with the hands out of a common plate, sitting on the floor at a low table) as not only typically Muslim, but also bestial, even sub-human. These manners, indeed, came to symbolize the unconvertable nature of the Moriscos and were used to justify their expulsion in 1609.

This is a book about how a common Iberian culture was unraveled and sorted into two boxes; about how the impulse to excise Islam led early modern Christians to reject customs that their ancestors embraced. In that sense, it is a story of convivencia lost. But it is primarily about how categories themselves are shaped and given meaning by those in power. Medieval segregation and early modern assimilation were mirror images; as goals, both were equally arbitrary, as was any straightforward division between religion and culture. This is of course as true now as then, and the inevitable modern analogues give this book a contemporary resonance unusual in medieval scholarship.

The work of the editor, Robin Vose, on the completed text is meticulous. Gaps may be attributed to its having been left unfinished at the author’s death; Vose makes clear in the introduction that the editorial priority was to preserve Constable’s voice. The structure, wherein each chapter shifts focus from Spain as a whole in the medieval period to Granada in the sixteenth century, makes effective use of the most vivid sources, but has something of a distorting effect. It is never quite clear if this is a book about Spain generally or Granada in particular. Unusually for a book about medieval Spain, there is almost no attempt to distinguish between the medieval policies of Castilian and Aragonese monarchs, or among the Muslim experiences in the various kingdoms other than Granada. Likewise, the reader at times will get the impression that there were no Moriscos outside of the kingdom of Granada, although large communities lived in Valencia and elsewhere until 1609. Iberian Jews (and their converso descendants) are integrated somewhat unevenly into the narrative; the clothing chapter includes them, but the chapters on bathing and foodways do not.

Ultimately, the greatest criticism that can be made of this book is that there is not enough of it. Yet even this has a silver lining; the slimness of the book as it stands makes it particularly accessible to students and the general public. It is a pleasure to read, and could be readily incorporated into a syllabus on interfaith relations. The thematic chapters each stand on their own for those interested in any of these topics individually. Like all volumes from the University of Pennsylvania Press, this one is well designed. The lack of color plates, however, is regrettable in a book that makes such thoughtful use of visual evidence. Constable concludes Chapter Two with a discussion of the costumes in several paintings by Vicent Mestre, but the reproductions are so small that the details described can barely be seen.

Constable makes clear in the introduction that she did not intend to provoke “a facile comparison” with twenty-first-century debates over Islamic culture in the West. As she quite rightly reminds the reader, contemporary debates are premised on the right to religious freedom within a secular society, however thinly veiled anti-Islamic sentiments might be. This context is utterly alien to that of medieval and early modern Spain, where Catholicism was imposed by law. The editor notes in the afterword, however, that by the end of her life Constable had come to appreciate the book’s “instructive similarities” with our contemporary world. The book’s core insight is that enforced difference and enforced conformity both create markers of difference that serve those in power. This feels particularly urgent in the context of contemporary panics over refugee and immigrant assimilation in Europe and North America, including bans on veiling in Quebec and burkinis on French beaches, as well as the recent Danish plan to eliminate immigrant “ghettos.” We should take particular note of Constable’s observation that the burden of assimilation fell on the bodies of Muslims rather than Christians, and on women rather than men. This book is not only an engaging exploration of the details of premodern Iberian culture, but also a timely reminder of the distorting effects of power.


Abigail Agresta is a historian of medieval Spain, focusing particularly on the environmental history of late medieval Valencia.  She received her PhD from Yale University in 2016, and is currently Marjorie McLean Oliver Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.


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