This summer marks the 800th anniversary of one of the milestones of the Reconquista, the great Christian victory over the Moors at Las Navas de Tolosa in Iberia. Last month we posted an account of the battle written by a guest poster.
Today’s essay about Las Navas de Tolosa appeared originally on August 18 in Berlingske Tidende. Many thanks to our Perth correspondent Anne-Kit for translating it from the Danish:
When Europe Fought
The exact location is unknown, but is thought to be somewhere within a good day’s march SW of Calatrava, which was then the only town of any significance in the Guadiana valley, southern La Mancha.
By David Gress: Historian, writer, PhD
The time was a summer’s day in 1212, which is why this year we can — if we dare — celebrate the 800th anniversary of one of the most significant battles of the Middle Ages: The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, where a broad array of Christian warriors from Spain and France decisively conquered the Almohad Muslims who then occupied the southern third of the Iberian Peninsula.
From then on it was merely a question of time before the whole of Spain would be liberated. In 1212 it was exactly 500 years since the Muslims had begun their lightning campaign to conquer Spain. They named the conquered lands Al-Andalus and established themselves exactly as Muslims always did: They were the new Master Race; Christians and Jews must feel and act like cowed and subservient subjects. If they complied they were — by and large — left alone.
As early as 718 the Christian counteroffensive had begun in the far north west, but another couple of hundred years were to pass before the reconquest, La Reconquista, reached even as far as the river Duero. Not until 1085 did King Alfonso VI of Castile conquer the old capital of Spain, Toledo. The peninsula was now roughly equally split between Christian Spain and Muslim Al-Andalus.
In response to the fall of Toledo the Muslims called for assistance from the Almoravids, a fierce and very pious Berber warrior people of North Africa. They were akin to the Talibans and Salafists of our modern age: ruthless, sure of their own righteousness, merciless with apostates and Christians, and extremely brave to boot. They overran Al-Andalus and put an abrupt stop to the Christian offensives.
Half a century later the Almoravids had been integrated into the somewhat softer lifestyle of Al-Andalus. When they lost their fervour, from 1147 onwards a new wave of puritanical North Africans crashed onshore to defend Al-Andalus. The newcomers were the Almohads, from an Arabic word meaning “unitarians”. All Muslims must be unitarians, for Allah is “One”, but the Almohads wished to signal a particularly severe puritanism, again like the Salafists of our time.
The Almohads threatened to re-establish the old Al-Andalus as far as the Pyrenees. Christians had never been particularly good at organised resistance, and the five Christian kings of Spain were busy fighting each other. However, they did come together in the end. Yet another Almohad offensive put Christian backs to the wall.
In 1211 Pope Innocent III called a Crusade against the Muslims in Spain. The Kings of Castile and Aragon mobilised as many horsemen and infantry as they could, planning an attack the following year. Other forces came from France and further afield. It was almost miraculous, or rather for the Spanish it was precisely miraculous and proof of the favour of God, that these multifarious armies managed to fight under a common authority, and even in a targeted and effective manner. The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa itself was a struggle between some 50,000 Christians and a somewhat larger Muslim army, and it was decisively won by midday.
It is, to put it mildly, not politically correct today to celebrate any Christian military victories or to consider La Reconquista a liberation of Spain. We are told that a less civilised and more violent culture, that of the Christians, crushed a noble and superior culture, that of the Arabs of Al-Andalus. This is a dangerous and false myth. The real story is much more interesting.
800 years ago Christians were proud of their culture and ready to conquer or die for it. If we had their spirit nothing could threaten us. It is evident that our present rulers do not.