11 May 2016

My Characters Lived In 10th-Century Spain

This illumination from a circa-1175 Beatus of Liébana groups seven knights.

In Seven Noble Knights, Castilian warriors make raids in foreign territory and defend the frontier very close to home. A few days’ ride takes anyone from survival mode to the most civilized and exotic place on the European continent. Followers of three religions coexisted to create a single culture filled with the brilliance that comes of such tension. With these exciting contrasts, Seven Noble Knights couldn’t have taken place anywhere or any time but tenth-century Spain.

Interior of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, almost unchanged since
the year 1000. Photo by Jessica Knauss
Caliph Abderramán III made al-Andalus its strongest even while planting the seeds of its destruction. He unified Muslim Spain with military prowess and political savvy his heirs would find impossible to maintain. He also began the construction of the palace city Medina Azahara in 936 and transferred the court there in 945. Al Hakim succeeded him as caliph in 961.

During this time of relative peace, al-Andalus reached its highest point of culture, science, and art. Al-Andalus had no competition in luxury and learning. The capital, Córdoba, had such creature comforts as pavement, illumination at night, sewage systems, and a library with as many as 400,000 volumes. Although it’s unlikely everyone in the caliphate knew how to read, a high proportion of Cordobese residents would have, giving Ruy Blásquez no doubt in making such an assertion to his brother-in-law in Seven Noble Knights.

The mihrab of the Great Mosque. Photo by Jessica Knauss
Modern scholars have emphasized the convivencia of this place and time, saying that the jewel of culture wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish residents. It’s important to remember that for all the cooperation, daily life would have been rife with racial and religious tension as the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula expanded their territory and power at the cost of al-Andalus.

Al Hakim’s successor in 976 was technically Hisham II, but through court intrigue and probably a few murders, the vizier, then hayib (personal guard or chamberlain), later known as Almanzor took control of the military and government within a few years. Such was the impression he made that the people in the rest of the peninsula referred to him as the caliph. Gonzalo Gustioz and many Christian visitors in the time of Mudarra make this mistake in Seven Noble Knights. They couldn’t fathom a mere chamberlain as the director of so much force and terror.

Map by Nuno Alexandre Vieira for Seven Noble Knights
At the time of our story, the rest of the Iberian Peninsula is occupied by the separate Christian kingdoms of León and Navarra, and the France-dependent County of Barcelona.

My characters would have recognized his view from Burgos castle.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Castile, where much of Seven Noble Knights takes place, was in the tenth century a county on the eastern frontier of León. The quintessential borderland, its name refers to its abundance of castles and fortifications. A nobleman from this territory of uncultured upstarts, Fernán González, took advantage of the instability after the death of King Ramiro II of León in 951 to amass power for his county. 

This seventh-century hermitage near Salas could have been visited by my
characters! Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Although it wasn’t as independent as the historians of the time would have us believe, Castile became the most important county in the Kingdom of León and the count at its head enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. Upon his death, Fernán González passed the government to his son, García Fernández, who is the presiding count in Seven Noble Knights. Later, Castile took over as the dominant kingdom in the peninsula and in modern times its culture has became synonymous with Spanish.

In Andalusia: prosperity and political unity. Nonetheless, after the time of Seven Noble Knights, upon Almanzor’s death, Andalusia dissolved into multiple petty kingdoms at war with each other as well as with the northern kingdoms.

In Christian Spain: a hardscrabble existence and a multitude of governments serving their own purposes. Yet the end of united Andalusia marks the beginning of a centuries-long process of unification of the Christian kingdoms and their eventual consolidation into modern Spain.

This is one reason the story of Seven Noble Knights is so compelling: because it takes place during Spain’s baptism by fire.

The author with a 20th-century statue depicting her villainess,
Doña Lambra; her villian, Ruy Blásquez; and her hero, Mudarra. 
For a little more of historical context of Seven Noble Knights, see this post

This post muses on the meaning of one of the strangest incidents in the tale, the bloody cucumber.

Check out this post for the way I cobbled together a wedding ceremony for the beginning of Seven Noble Knights

Take a look at this post for some of the ways Spaniards today celebrate the medieval epic poem on which Seven Noble Knights is based. 

The crest of Salas includes characters from
the legend of the seven noble knights.
Further Reading

Castro, Américo. The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History. Translated by Willard F. King and Selma Margaretten. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Gerber, Jane. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Medville, Charles, and Ahmad Ubaydli, eds. Christians and Moors in Spain. Vol. 3, Arabic Sources (711–1501). Charles and Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1992.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.

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 a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in December 2016 by Bagwyn Books, and she is working on the sequel. On the contemporary side, her YA/NA paranormal Awash in Talent will soon be published by Kindle Press. Find out more her writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!


Lisa Yarde said...

A great post, Jessica. Whenever I am in Spain again, I'll make it a point to visit Cordoba.

Ann Stephens said...

The Dark Ages have always held a certain fascination for me. Pre-Renaissance, not always well documented, and with a myriad of political divisions, it sounds like a fertile breeding ground for for plots and characters.