11 March 2015

A Miracle Close to Home: Chincoya, 1264

The restored castle at Almodóvar del Río looks the way Chincoya might have in 1264.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Spain’s thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria are a treasure of medieval culture. Many of their stories recount events that had just happened in familiar places. This is especially the case for the songs that take place in Andalucía.

Cantiga 185 begins, “I heard a miracle that took place a while ago, over in Chincoya.” This may be the first time the event was written about. Such immediacy gives the song a partiality and emotional weightiness the miracles about far-off lands lack. Any thirteenth-century Spanish listener would have understood the implications inherent in the reference to Chincoya, in modern Jaén, at the border of what was at the time the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

Both Chincoya and its corresponding castle on the Muslim side, Belmez, would have been responsible for maintaining security in a sensitive border region. The story focuses on the castles’ two alcaides, castellans appointed personally by their respective kings for upkeep, defense, and general administration. The Christian alcaide of Chincoya has been identified in real life as a man named Sancho Martínez de Jódar.

Sancho’s fictional double has a character flaw in spite of his best intentions: “the alcaide there protected it well, but he lacked the good sense to protect it completely” (lines 11-12). The concept of good sense recurs in the Cantigas time and again as the most important virtue. Sancho’s sin would seem innocent enough: “He had a great friendship with a Moor who was the alcaide of Belmez” (15-16a). Making friends with other castellans in the region could even be a good strategy, but this alcaide’s location across the enemy border makes it a bad idea.

From Cantiga 187 (185) of the Códice rico 
The alcaide of Belmez conspires with the King of Granada, Ibn al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, and a vassal of Castile since the time of Fernando III in 1246. The Moor explains to his king that he can deliver Chincoya Castle to Granada by using the alcaide’s trust to lure him out and capture him. Sancho, unsuspecting, goes out to meet his friend, bringing two squires with him. The stage has now been set to show the gap between proper conduct and the irresponsible behavior of the alcaide of Chincoya.

The squires say they are afraid of the alcaide of Belmez and offer reasonable arguments against going to meet him: Unarmed and not dressed for self-defense, Sancho has failed to take even the minimal precautions. Because we have seen the alcaide of Belmez plotting to betray Sancho’s friendship, we are obliged to believe the squires in this instance. When the squires turn back to their castle, they not only do what is right, but also show themselves to be more sensible than their alcaide, who displays his stubborn intentions by proceeding to contravene a law in which anyone who has charge of a castle specifically on the border may not leave it without the king’s mandate. In line 51, Sancho crosses a river, which is presumably the border into Granada.

The alcaide of Belmez wastes no more time duping his supposed friend, and captures the Christian alcaide. Under threat of beheading, Sancho informs his captors that only fifteen Christians defend his castle, and that they have nothing to eat. Sancho then returns to Chincoya to ask the Christians to hand it over to the Muslims. This is the last time we hear anything about the alcaide of Chincoya. Because the second stanza indicates that he almost lost the castle, and the laws only indicate punishments for such behavior when the castle is lost to the enemy, we may guess that he assumes guardianship again after this incident. However, ignoring the man who is supposed to be in charge of the castle, especially during its victorious moments, is a serious criticism of his actions, not unlike the kind of insults so frequent in the cantigas de escarnno y de maldizer. His conduct throughout the cantiga is in direct opposition to the fearlessness recommended in the law books of the time.

A more appropriate response comes from those inside the castle. In spite of what would appear to be the hopelessness of their situation, they heroically refuse to give up on their duty to keep King Alfonso’s castle safe from invasion. They comply with the heroism legally suggested for the people who might find themselves inside a besieged castle.

When the alcaide is threatened by the King of Granada, he folds immediately and betrays Chincoya. Similarly defenseless against the King of Granada, the men inside the castle show what separates them from their incompetent leader by thinking of the Virgin Mary as protector rather than giving in to fear. They place a statue of Our Lady, which in the miniatures appears as a majestic enthroned Virgin and Child, on the outside walls and bargain with her, remind her that she, too, is under threat, and reiterate their devotion (“somos teus,” line 76).

Instantly, they see results. The host turns back, and the three Moors who get through are thrown over the castle walls, merely to make the King of Granada see that he should retreat because he knows that those protected by St. Mary cannot be defeated.

Defending Chincoya in the Códice rico 
Such a swift turn of events in such hopeless circumstances, directly after the people inside the castle enlist Mary’s help, clearly indicates the intervention of the Blessed Virgin in their favor. If the castellan of Chincoya had asked for her help, he might well have received it, but he lacked the good sense. Throughout the song, the unthinking alcaide, who trusts an enemy and abandons the castle to its fate, contrasts sharply with those of good sense, who stay to defend their king’s castle and who place their faith in St. Mary, the only being who is truly worthy of it.

Although it would be impossible to legislate faithfulness in the hearts of his soldiers, King Alfonso praises it as a common trait of the people of his kingdom and offers it as the best example of his soldiers’ potential. All of the laws concerning his citizens’ duties toward their king’s fortifications amount to suggestions for achieving this state of ultimate loyalty. A dependable armed force is the only one of real use to a king. The alcaide of Chincoya in 185 is an anti-example.

Chincoya Castle today. Photo from applicajaen.com 
The ending functions as a moral to the story, poising itself purposefully as the concept anyone listening should take away: It is right to praise Mary; she takes care of her own (and it is only too clear who they are in Cantiga 185); and her enemies will always be defeated. These are useful lessons for anyone, and perhaps especially for military men who find themselves in similar situations.

It is spectacular that only fifteen men without provisions successfully defend themselves against an army, but not completely incredible, because well-staffed castles turned back armies on a regular basis. By never straying far from everyday, almost prosaic, events that really occurred, such miracles invite the devotion of even the most skeptical. Here, the audience is absorbed in the story because its location is readily identifiable by the listeners and features situations someone they know will probably encounter in their lives. It is easy to look up to the defenders of Chincoya, close in space and time to the potential audience, and to identify their behavior as an ideal model.

Listen to a great recording of Cantiga 185. 
Learn more about the Cantigas de Santa Maria
I’ve written about the legal implications of the alcaide’s actions in Law and Order in Medieval SpainI’m also working on a short story based on the incident in Cantiga 185—stay tuned for more Cantigas stories!

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knightshere, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!

Selected Resources
Alfonso X, el Sabio. Cantigas de Santa María. 3 vols. Walter Mettmann, ed. Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1986-1989.
—. Cantigas de Santa María: Edición facsímil del códice T.I.1 de la Biblioteca de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, siglo XIII. Madrid: Edilán, 1979.
—. Las Siete Partidas del Rey don Alfonso el Sabio cotejadas con varios códices antiguos por la Real Academia de la Historia y glosadas por el lic. Gregorio López. Nueva edición. 3 volumes. París: Librería de Rosa y Bouret, 1861.
Montoya Martínez, Jesús. Historia y anécdotas de Andalucía en las Cantigas de Santa María de Alfonso X. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1988.
O’Callaghan, Joseph F. Alfonso X and the Cantigas de Santa Maria: A Poetic Biography. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Paredes Núñez, Juan. La guerra de Granada en las Cantigas de Alfonso X el Sabio. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1991.