12 August 2013

Five Fascinating Facts about Spain’s History as a Melting Pot

The word “Spain” conjures a bizarrely uniform concept among a lot of English-speakers. I’m happy to say that Spain is not now, and never has been, uniform in any way. So many cultures have left their stamp on the Iberian Peninsula that it’s difficult to choose just five facts you may not know already.

The oldest cave paintings outside Africa are located in El Castillo, Northern Spain. According to this article, “A hand stencil in El Castillo cave, Spain, has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red dot to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe.” The current theory is that “modern” Homo sapiens didn’t leave Africa until right about that time. It’s therefore likely that these ancient paintings had Neanderthal artists. All humans of non-African ancestry today have about 2.5% Neanderthal genetic material, which strongly suggests that when Homo sapiens met their Neanderthal relatives, they made love, not war. Where did they do that loving before moving throughout Europe? In Spain! 

Trajan, one of two Roman emperors
born in Hispania
The Celtic cultures of Northern Spain predate the Celtic cultures of Britain. Many origin myths indicate that the blond giants of Spain strode across the sea to settle in what are now Scotland and Ireland. No one knows exactly how long the Celtic culture has been present in Northwest Spain, but when the Romans arrived, they were well established — and willing to fight the Roman upstarts. They continue to astonish visitors today.

Medieval Christian Spaniards were happy to think of themselves as the descendants of Germanic tribes. After the fall of Rome, several Germanic groups invaded the peninsula and, mixing with each other and the native populace, they became the Visigoths. These Latin-speaking, law-giving, Romanized Germans ruled most of the peninsula for more than two hundred years, until 711 A. D. Although the Muslim takeover wiped out the Visigoth government, the Moorish conquest gave rise to a complex intermingled society that nonetheless maintained defined identities along lines of religion, race, and social status. A vocal faction of disenfranchised Christians spent the next 781 years promoting the idea that taking back the peninsula would restore Spain’s former Visigothic glory. (Of course, they got it all wrong, but that’s another story.)

Ceremonial crown of Reccesvinthus,
one of the most revered Visigoth kings.

They say the great leader of Muslim Spain, Abd ar-Rahman III (891-961), had blue eyes and blond hair he dyed dark to blend in better with his troops. This coloring can be “explained” by his mother, a Christian concubine in the caliph’s court. However, his father’s side of the equation, while unquestionably noble, was hardly pure Arabian or even North African. His father’s mother was Onneca Fortúnez, a royal princess of the northern kingdom of Pamplona.

Flamenco @ MIT, January 2009. Photo by Jessica Knauss

Gypsies arrived in Spain in the fifteenth century, and have been contributing cultural phenomena now widely considered quintessentially Spanish ever since. UNESCO added flamenco to their list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010. No one denies the gypsy heritage of today’s Andalusian culture; however, the gypsy people are not generally held in any higher regard than they are in any other country. Throughout history, the Romani people have encountered this kind of ambivalence, but in Spain it reaches a unique extreme.

In spite of its geographical location at the edge of the known world in ancient and medieval times, Spain never found itself on the periphery of history. Instead, it has always been a crossroads and a forge where mixtures and new cultures are born time and again.

Jessica Knauss freelance edits fiction and publishes great books with Loose Leaves Publishing. Many of her contemporary stories have appeared in literary magazines, and her longer works are available for purchase at many retailers. She holds a PhD in medieval Spanish literature from Brown University. She is currently seeking representation for her novel set in late tenth-century Spain. Find all the latest here.