Convivencia in Medieval Spain

Convivencia in Medieval Spain


Nowadays, one of the most controversial and widely discussed issues related to the history of the Medieval period concerns Medieval Spain and the question of existence of the so-called convivencia. The concept of convivencia refers to the period of Muslim rule in Spain when the state of al-Andalus was perceived to be a place of peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Thus, convivencia is a term that is used to denote harmonious coexistence of several large religious and ethnic groups in Medieval Spain that persists today among many historians and scholars. However, convivencia is often said to be a modern myth, while the reality contradicted these heralded stories about peace and harmony in al-Andalus since all the groups were rather hostile towards each other, while Muslims as the ruling group perceived Christians and Jews as inferior people. Hence, the current paper is aimed at establishing to what extent convivencia really existed in Medieval Spain. The initial hypothesis based on critically analyzed credible sources is as follows: convivencia did not exist to the extent that would allow one to regard it anything but a contemporary myth of Medieval Spain since Muslims, Jews, and Christians fought for supremacy and did not perceive others as their equals, being obliged to live together within one state and having no other choice even though none of the non-ruling groups was happy with the existing state of affairs.

General Overview of the Notion of Convivencia

In general, the notion of convivencia and a related myth focus on “the existence of a Muslim kingdom in Medieval Spain where different races and religions lived harmoniously in multicultural tolerance” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Today it has become so widespread that many professors of history as well as newspapers and magazines accept and propagate it. Hence, there has been an article in The Wall Street Journal dedicated to the description of “pan-confessional humanism” that seemingly existed in Andalusia in the Middle Ages (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Similar ideas are often repeated in journals, newspapers, and even books that portray Medieval Andalusian rulers as an epitome of tolerance and wisdom compared to cruelty and intolerance of other European states, primarily Catholic ones that legalized persecution of Muslims and Jews and advocated for their forced conversion to Christianity.

However, there is a significant problem with the above described story, which consists in the lack of objective evidence that would prove it. Therefore, many historians claim that the belief in convivencia “is historically unfounded, a myth” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Supporters of the myth of convivencia point out that significant cultural and scientific achievements of Medieval Spain prove that this phenomenon really existed. However, they fail to acknowledge an obvious fact that these achievements could be possible even without harmonious co-existence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, which negates their primary evidence of convivencia. Besides, there is plenty of historical evidence and primary sources proving brutality with which Muslims conquered Spain, their autocratic style of governance, and inferior positions occupied by Christians and Jews despite astonishing achievements of some peculiar highly talented representatives of these religious groups in the Muslim-dominated society of Andalusia.

It is unknown why the myth of convivencia has become so popular and why it persists despite the availability of evidence of the contrary. One of the possible explanations was given by Richard Fletcher who speaks about the current tendency of the West to market the past and “to be successfully marketed it has to be attractively packaged” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). However, Medieval Spain as it really was is not quite appealing to people interested in history and historical tourism, which is why “self-indulgent fantasies of glamour…do wonders for sharpening up its image” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Besides, there is an explanation associated with the modern prevalence related to the popularization of multiculturalism and a relatively decaying state of Catholicism that loses its popularity with many people due to various reasons. Based on these two tendencies, “anyone who dislikes Western culture of Christianity – for any reason, be it religious, political, or cultural – goes on happily pointing out, regardless of the facts, how bad Catholic Spain was when compared to the Muslim paradise” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Withal, available evidence and accounts of contemporaries testify to the fact that convivencia is a modern myth while Muslim Spain was far from being a highly enlightened and tolerant society even at the peak of its development.

The Extent to which Convivencia Existed in Medieval Spain

Prior to analyzing the extent to which convivencia existed in Medieval Spain, it seems reasonable to discuss how Spain came under the Muslim rule. It occurred because of a conquest during the early 8th century that was rather violent in nature. Hence, in 711 Islamic conquerors invaded Spain that was Christian at the time and won the war against Visigothic King Rodrigo (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). These Islamic warriors consisted predominantly of Berbers from North Africa and slightly less of Syrians under the leadership of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). They had been banished from their homeland because of internal conflicts and searched for a new place to settle in. As a result, they found their new kingdom, which later became known as al-Andalus or Andalusia occupying territory of modern Spain. There are historical accounts and illustrations that “chronicle the brutality with which the Muslims subjugated the Catholic population” in Chronica Bizantina from the 8th century, Chronic Mazarabe from the 8th century, and Cantigas de Santa Maria from the 13th century (Fernandez-Morera, 2006).

However, this brutality and violence did not end with the conquest of the country where initially Muslims represented the minority and had to rule over Christians and Jews with an iron will in order to prevent any uprisings. Historians prove that Andalusian rulers were autocrats with respect to their governance style. In fact, it is proved that all Muslim rulers, along with those in Spain, preferred the autocratic style of governance, which is proved by their jihads launched periodically in the Middle East. The first ruler and conqueror of Spain was Abd al-Rahman I nicknamed the Emigrant who established and maintained his rule in Spain with the help of the army comprising 40,000 warriors (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). One of his first orders, which prove the lack of religious tolerance, was to destroy an ancient Catholic church of Cordoba in order to construct a mosque (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Such orders were common during the Muslim rule. Besides, he and his successor ordered confiscations of Catholics’ property, their enslavement, constant rises in obligatory taxation with a view to financing expansion and establishment of a Muslim state on the territory of Spain.

In fact, ethnic and religious intolerance of Muslims is proved by a division of the society into superior Muslims and inferior Jews and Christians. Supporters of convivencia refer to Qur’an in an attempt to prove their viewpoint. According to their claims, Qur’an encourages Muslims to treat other people of the book, i.e. Jews and Christians, with respect and not to demand their conversion to Islam (Tolan, 2013). They have to be protected once they acknowledge their defeat, agree to the superiority of Muslims, and pay “humbly the jizya, the capitulation tax” (Tolan, 2013). Besides, they have to agree to a number of restrictions and accept the new way of life. Once all these conditions are complied with, they are treated as decent citizens of the state, according to supporters of convivencia. However, the reality differed from the above order of things since Christians and Jews were mainly treated as inferior albeit protected in some respects, but still alienated from the ruling elite. Thus, according to decrees, Christians and Jews had to pay property taxes and other taxes that were higher than the ones paid by their Muslim co-citizens. Besides, they had to accept their social inferiority, learn and converse in Arabic in governmental institutions, and refrain from building new churches and synagogues in addition to the requirement to refrain from openly and publicly practicing their religion (Tolan, 2013). Supporters of convivencia state that these and many other restrictions were declarative in character and were often violated upon consent of Muslims even though there were minor exceptions when Christian or Jewish individuals were persecuted and imprisoned for breach of the Muslim laws. Besides, they emphasize the fact that destruction of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues “was an aberration, and Christians and Jews were soon allowed to rebuild their places of worship and to practice their religions as before” (Tolan, 2013).

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence that Medieval Spain was a state where Arabization of people and segregation of the society based on ethnic and religious grounds were prevalent. People residing on the territory of Spain were called “Mozarabs” that meant “Arabized” (Tolan, 2013). Conversion to Islam was encouraged by means of lower taxes and greater freedoms in public and professional spheres. Those who retained their religion were referred to as dhimmis or protected and suffered from a larger number of restrictions, which proved the lack of tolerance and harmony in the relationships of three groups. Muslims occupied previously Catholic churches and turned them into mosques. Many important Christian texts were translated into Arabic as common people knew Arabic better than Latin. Although there were some notable Christians and Jews occupying prominent positions in the Spanish society, the predominant view was that representatives of these two groups were better suited for “lowly” tasks like taking care of animals, cleaning, serving, etc. (Tolan, 2013). Restrictions were also evident with respect to marriage rules. Hence, a Muslim man could have a Christian or Jewish concubine and even marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but it was not encouraged and preferable (Tolan, 2013). At the same time, it was prohibited for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man as Muslims could not be positioned as inferior to dhimmi (Tolan, 2013). Furthermore, there were restrictions related to food because of the Islamic food-associated norms and conventions, which increased segregation among groups.

Supporters of convivencia often compare and contrast life in Muslim Spain with that in Spain reconquered by Christians. Nonetheless, it is not logical to make existing differences an argument in favor of harmonious convivencia in the former. Intolerance and superior convictions of Muslims are obvious from their description of the ways Christians and Jews should be treated even though it should be noted that the latter received better treatment than Catholics in Spain and had more opportunities and freedoms. Muslims often described “Europeans as white and mentally deficient because of undercooking by the sun, and Africans as black, stupid, and violent because of overcooking. In contrast, Arabs were done just right” (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Moreover, women of all ethnic groups were treated as inferior. Islam also imposed many restrictions on art that are not mentioned by supporters of convivencia, for instance, attempts to limit the spread and development of music or rules for painters so that they would be compliant with Islam (Fernandez-Morera, 2006). Moreover, historians claim that Spain was subject to Arabization and Islamization in the Middle Ages.

Linguistic Convivencia

The only domain where convivencia was present to a greater extent is language as shown in the research by Consuelo Lopez-Morillas. Languages of various groups co-residing in Medieval Spain influenced each other and gave rise to new vocabulary as well as affecting grammar, syntax, and pronunciation (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). In addition to the presence of Romance, Hebrew, and Arabic, there were many dialects and registers employed by different people in different regions under different circumstances, which makes it an extremely complicated task to compile the linguistic portrait of Medieval Spain. Such intermingling gave rise to Spanish with “a particularly exotic twist” (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). However, social tendencies impacted languages as well since, for instance, Latin lost its power to Arabic that became the most important language of science and art. Nonetheless, Andalusian Arabic was significantly different from classic Arabic, which may be attributed to the impact of local languages like Romance and Hebrew. The influence of Romans is especially evident in terms of phonology like devoicing of consonants in final positions, morphology like passive participle of stative verbs, syntax like changes of noun gender similar to the ones in Romance, and extensive borrowing of vocabulary (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). At the same time, Romance and Hebrew were significantly impacted by Arabic as well. Such mutual influence and intermingling allows one to claim the existence of linguistic convivencia in al-Andalus.


Withal, convivencia did not really exist in the Medieval Spanish society to the extent that would allow calling it a real-life and proved phenomenon rather than a myth as Christians, Jews, and Muslims represented three distinct and clearly segregated groups that rarely mixed and intermarried not only because of religious differences but also because of cultural differences and varying social positions. Jews enjoyed greater freedoms and protectorate of Muslim rulers in Spain, but they still remained inferior despite the fact that some outstanding personalities managed to reach the heights of power and recognition. Muslims regarded themselves to be superior and, though periods of severe harassment and violent persecution of Christians and some Jews were not very common and long, they remained inferior people throughout the entire reign of Muslims in Spain, which is evident from everyday life and different rules and laws. The only domain where convivencia was observed to some extent concerned languages that impacted each other because of the need of the three groups to communicate. Other than that, convivencia may be deemed a myth that is promoted by its supporters despite availability of convincing and credible evidence of the contrary.