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The fine art of compensation – or how a medieval king decided to go a-conquering for new land!

Today, dear peeps, we’re going to be spending some quality time with Jaime I of Aragon. He snorts at my use of the Spanish version of his name, which is Jaume in Catalan – and Jaume was a major advocate of Catalan. (Although in his native occitan, his name was Jacme, but let’s not confuse things too much!)

Now, our Jaime—oops, Jaume—already has several mentions on this blog. In a post about his mother, Marie de Montpellier, I have described how little Jaume was conceived. Not, as one would think, in a lustful joining, but rather as a consequence of trickery, his father being lured to bed his wife while believing her to be someone else. Clearly, not much love lost between those two!

I have also dedicated a post to his “great matter”, a rather emotional story involving his long-time mistress and his various wives. Can’t say it paints him in the best of lights…

Jaume

Despite his “great matter”, Jaume I of Aragon is one of the more impressive rulers of Aragon. A mere toddler when his father died, he was first nabbed by Simon de Montford (the elder) but the nobles of Aragon insisted their very young king had to be raised by someone else. De Montford wasn’t much liked in Aragon, his ruthless crusade against the Cathars evoking revulsion and anger. Plus, Jaume’s father, Pedro II, died in battle defending those of his vassals who offered the Cathars protection. De Montford insisted he should have the raising of Jaume—King Pedro and de Montford had effectively signed a marriage contract between little Jaume and de Montford’s daughter, but the nobles of Aragon weren’t having it and went to the pope to ask for help.

The long and the short of it was that Jaume was raised by the Templars—and that marriage to Ms de Montford never happened.

At the age of six, little Jaume was presented as king to the Cortes in 1214. By then, his mother was also dead, and I imagine his childhood was somewhat lacking in cuddles and affection. I do hope there was someone around who smoothed his hair and wiped an occasional tear of his face.

One consequence of Pedro II’s defence of his vassals against the French crusade was that France happily annexed parts of southern France that had originally belonged to the Crown of Aragon. Jaume had no option but to go along with this, but managed to remain in control of Montpellier and Perpignan and the lands around these cities. Still: a sizeable chunk of his patrimony was lost, and our young gallant king itched to expand his kingdom to its former size.

Seeing as he couldn’t go north as that would aggravate France, Jaume decided to go south, embracing with fervour the Reconquista, the determined efforts by the Christian kingdoms of Spain to push the Moors into the sea. Not that the Reconquista was entirely motivated by faith: it was just as much about territorial expansion and building your powerbase.

Spain in the early thirteenth century still had a several Muslim states. Many of these were “taifa” states, i.e. they paid tribute to a Christian kingdom in return for being left alone. Where once the Muslim control of most of present-day Spain had been close to absolute, things changed once the Caliphate of Cordoba crumbled, and soon enough it was every Muslim emir for himself. As already dear old Philip II of Macedon knew, there is no better way to up the odds in your favour than to first divide your enemies, then conquer. Accordingly, without unity, the Muslim states fell, one by one, into Christian hands.

Moor against Christians

Where Aragon had Jaume, Castile had Fernando III. Both these kings were devout Christians—and warrior kings. Fernando concentrated his efforts on present day Andalucía, while Jaume first focused on Mallorca. This island state was a major pain in the nether parts for the Christian traders operating out of Barcelona and Tarragona. Muslim pirates used Mallorca as their home base, emerging to harass Christian ships on a regular basis.

In 1229, the twenty-one-year-old Jaume led an invasion to Mallorca. Initial skirmishes resulted in several Christians being captured, and the Muslims chose to crucify them within sight of Jaume and his men. Once the city of Mallorca fell, an enraged Jaume ordered the population to be killed in retribution. The resulting piles of bodies led to rampant sickness, and a major part of Jaume’s army succumbed to infection. Added to this, the young king had major problems keeping his avaricious nobles under control: there were various attempts to carry off more than a fair share of the loot, usually to the detriment of the king.

It therefore took some time before Jaume had sorted the Mallorca situation, but once he did, he turned his attention on Valencia.

The Emirate of Valencia was something of a shining jewel. Fertile coastal plains benefited from centuries of advanced agricultural technologies, some set in place already by the ancient Romans. The irrigation system was sophisticated and Valencia exported rice and almonds and bitter oranges. The port of Valencia was a busy bustling place, and the city of Valencia itself was as old as the hills—and firmly Muslim. Only once had Valencia succumbed to a Christian conqueror, and that was when El Cid managed to take control of the kingdom in 1094. But when El Cid died in 1099, it only took a couple of years for things to revert to normal, that is to say Valencia went back to being a Moorish stronghold.

Muslims and Christians had lived side by side on the Iberian peninsula for centuries. The Christians who had lived for generations among the Moors, adopting Moorish customs while maintaining their faith were known as Mozárabes, while their Muslim counterparts – i.e. Muslims who lived under Christian rule – were called Mudéjares. But toleration was not exactly a virtue practised by either side: while people of other faiths were tolerated, they were usually subjected to laws and regulations that restricted their freedom of movement.

As the Reconquista swelled in force and size, the religious aspects of it became stronger. The determined Christian caballeros who accompanied Jaume to Mallorca were likely as afflicted by the vices of greed, lust, pride and ire as most of those who set out to conquer and loot are, but they did so with the blessing of the pope, who applauded all efforts directed at reclaiming land from the Muslims.

Thing is, once you’ve conquered a place, you somehow have to make things revert to normal as otherwise the economic structures will collapse. In Mallorca, this was not that much of an issue—Mallorca was neither all that huge nor all that relevant except as an important port. The Muslim population there was either murdered, enslaved or chased into exile, with Christian people coming over from the mainland to fill the gaps. Valencia, however, was a different matter: for these lands to continue to prosper, Jaume needed the Muslims who knew how to work it.

King Jaume discussing with some of his Muslim subjects

King Jaume has left behind numerous documents and deeds related to his interaction with the territories he conquered. On occasion, he was brutal, expelling entire populations from places he wanted to settle with his Christian subjects. More often, he stipulated that his new Muslim subjects were to be guaranteed the right to exercise their religion, as well as their lives, their property and freedom.

Not only has Jaume left behind deeds and rolls. He also authored a Chronicle of his life, a chatty autobiography that describes what he did and when. The Commentari dels feyts esdevenguts en la vida del molt alt senyor En Jacme lo Conqueridor usually abbreviated to Libre dels Feyts (Book of Deeds) is written in Catalan rather than the most standard Latin. As such, it is one of the oldest texts in Catalan around.

The oldest surviving version of Llibre dels fets, mid 14th c

While the general opinion these days is that Jaume did not set quill to parchment himself but rather dictated to a bevy of clerks, Jaume is still considered as the author, offering us a (subjective, of course) take on the events of his reign. And one of the events he depicts is the Conquest of Valencia, by many, including the king, considered one of his most important achievements.

The idea to annex Valencia had likely been broached before King Jaume’s expedition to Mallorca, but it was only in 1231 or so that one of the more powerful men in Aragon, Blasco de Alagón as well as the Master Hospitaller, Hugo de Folcalquier  met with Jaume to start planning the campaign. All three were aware that Valencia was no Mallorca. This was an impressive antagonist, and also a cornered one: should Valencia fall, there was really nowhere to go for the people who lived there.

Turns out they were right. The recent events in Mallorca did not exactly inspire much faith in Jaume’s mercy, so Valencia put up a hard and stubborn fight. Bit by bit, Jaume worked his way into the territories controlled by the Emir of Valencia. Important ports and fortified towns fell to the Aragonese and son enough the city of Valencia itself was under siege.

The Muslim ruler, Zayyán Ibn Mardanish was no fool: his resources were limited and the Aragonese navy made it difficult for other Muslims to come to his aid. On the other hand, it was now 1238 and Jaume’s efforts had not come cheap. Our conquering king had no desire to be bogged down in a siege that went on forever, which may be why he agreed to meet in secret with one of Zayyán’s trusted men and negotiate a peace.

The entire matter was kept very much under wraps. Other than the king himself, only one person seems to have known Jaume was negotiating with the Muslims, namely his wife, Yolande. He describes in his autobiography how he worried that should this leak out, it would enrage his men—especially as Zayyán had several conditions he wanted to be met, principally that his Muslim subjects be accorded the right to leave the city with whatever wealth they could carry with them, thereby reducing the potential loot.

Contemporary-ish depiction of Jaume entering Valencia

Jaume agreed to Zayyán’s conditions and in September of 1238 he entered Valencia, there to receive the keys to the city from the defeated Zayyán. Not that this meant the entire Kingdom of Valencia was won: it would take a further seven to eight years before Jaume had it all under control.

Jaume seems to have gone out of his way to protect the Muslims fleeing Valencia with whatever they could carry. Ultimately, many of these fugitives would return to Valencia and establish a Muslim community within the walls. Likewise, as Jaume promised to respect the faith of his new subjects, the muezzin call to prayers would remain a permanent ingredient in daily life in the region.

Jaume’s trumphant entry into Valencia, 19th c painting by F R Montesinos

 

While Muslim faith was tolerated, and Muslims were allowed to have their own officials with Jaume came new laws and hierarchies, effectively making the Muslim structures subservient to those imposed by the Christian king. Still: Jaume seems to have felt responsible for all his subjects and was known to punish Christians for crimes against Muslims forcefully when he considered it necessary.

Over the course of a couple of decades, Fernando of Castile and Jaume of Aragon ate their way into Moorish Spain until only one independent Muslim kingdom remained, that of Granada, safe behind the protective barrier of the Sierra Nevada. Jaume is known as “the Conqueror” in the annals of Aragon, and Fernando’s successful reconquering efforts gave him a sainthood.

The lands that fell to Christians continued to be home to people of various faiths. For several centuries more, Christians, Muslims and Jews would live in relative proximity—but the tensions were rising. Still, for a while, there was the “convivencia”, years in which the Christian kings recognised the contribution of their Muslim and Jewish subjects and upheld legislation to maintain some sort of peace between the various faiths.

What little was left of religious tolerance in medieval Spain was brutally wiped away in the late 15th and early 16th century. With their Most Catholic Majesties, Isabel of Castile and her hubby, Fernando of Aragon, came such things as the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the conquest of Granada that same year, and a decade or so later, laws that banned Islam and forced the Muslims to convert.

All of that lay in the future that September day in 1238 when a triumphant Jaume of Aragon entered Valencia. But for the Muslims who had lived there for generations, Jaume’s conquest was the first step in the final destruction of their world. However, seven centuries of Muslim influence were to leave permanent traces in Spanish culture, in everything from ethnicity to vocabulary to the magnificent buildings that still stand as silent “we were here” memorials to the Moorish master craftsmen who built them. I somehow think Jaume would approve—no matter how Christian he was!

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