Convivencia in Medieval Spain: Problems of Diverse Societies

Convivencia In Medieval Spain: Problems of Diverse Societies


Convivencia is a term used to explain the societal behavior and cohabitation of Muslims, Christians and Jews on the territory of Spain. The notion means their harmonious neighboring. However, due to the cultural diversity of different peoples, the neighboring used to be characterized with a number of difficulties. The following essay will focus on religion, language and culture as the issues that become the most vulnerable when absolutely different societies coexist.

Keywords: convivencia, Christians, Muslims, Jews, religion, language, culture

Controversies Caused by the Muslim Invasion

Right after a conquest of a certain territory, numerous changes had been immediately introduced to the life of a society. Naturally, Muslim conquerors’ armies were smaller, and once they invaded, they would not give any significant rights or freedom. It is understandable that the invasion aiming at protecting one’s ideas and beliefs will not be supported if not to show how serious and militant the leader bearing them is. Despite the myth that the religious minorities were granted protection from interference, in reality, they had to struggle against or resist the influence of the actual ruling majority at the territory of their residency. For instance, the first conquest, which turned Christian Spain into the Muslim one, was extremely violent. The chronicles of the VIII and XIII centuries provide illustrations of cruel invasion, murders and property confiscation, which “subjugated the Catholic population” (Morera, 2006). The evidences of violence, persecutions and expulsions were rather wide spread yet had not hinder the development of economics and society (Tolan et al., 2013). In addition, there were different divisions according to religion, race, language, ancestral line, etc. and hence attitudes toward all these, as well (Morera, 2006).

Coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Cordoba

For quite a long-lasting period, Christians and Muslims not only coexisted within a city or neighborhood. it is a well-known fact that the two religious communities shared one worship place in Cordoba, which is the present-day Great Mosque that was purchased by ‘Abd al-Rahman I. He also allowed the Christians to build new churches yet outside the city.

Even though Koran (Qu’ran) does not oblige converting people into Islam, it called religious minorities to admit Muslim’s authority and pay “the capitulation tax” or jizaya. Along with that, the defeated Christians, also called either the Mozarabs, or the dhimmi meaning the protected person who faced numerous restrictions enclosed in the Pact of ‘Umar concerning almost all spheres of their life, especially if that was something connected with their religious beliefs: e.g., Syrian Christians who had to wear Muslim clothing or turbans were not allowed to build new monasteries and churches, etc. (Tolan et al., 2013). Later on, practically all the restrictions remained theoretical only. With the dhimmi’s accepting the inferiority, they were given rights, which allowed them to build new churches and synagogues and wear different clothes; however, the last notion was rather unequally spread and was applicable only to those Christians and Jews of prince’s entourage (Tolan et al., 2013). Indeed, those rights depended on the ruler’s loyalty and desire to support and protect the dhimmi. As an example of strict policy toward the minorities, Tolan provides the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim who ordered to destroy many worship places and forbade Christians and Jews “wearing distinctive clothing, drinking wine, holding processions and public feast days” (Tolan et al., 2013). Another distinctive feature was the level of taxes paid for a property as it was higher for non-Muslims. During Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I’s ruling in Cordoba, those Catholics with anti-Islamic views were sent off from the city, and some were even sentenced to death; new churches had been demolished, and the old ones were prohibited from any reconstructions and repairs, which could bedeck them (Morera, 2006). Some Christians served to the Ummayads dynasty being translators, negotiators, ambassadors between Cordoba and those Christian princes from the Pyrenees (Tolan, 2013). Their descendant, Abd al-Rahman III who was self-declared Cordoba’s Caliph made the city prosperous, but the price was rather high as Christians and Jews again were those who had to pay huge taxes, and, in addition, they also could have been punished for despising Islam (Morera, 2006). However, if the rules and regulations were preserved, everything would be fine. The group managed to not only survive within this struggle but also become successful is the Jews. Firstly, for Jews, the prohibitions were not so strict. As far as their number was rather small, the Muslims were more concentrated on the Christians considering them the real threat. Jewish leaders managed to achieve significant success and social status: there were bankers, counsellors, writers, translators, etc. among them. It is possible to say that they were bridging Muslims and Catholics although they were dhimmi to the Muslim rulers (Morera, 2006).

However, the flush times ended when Al-Mansur, one of the cruelest rulers, came to power. He managed to create extremely violent, fierce regime of dictatorship supported by powerful and numerous army. It was during his governance when Barcelona was burned, people killed and those who survived were subjugated. Under his rule, al-Andalus was divided into “several tyrannical little kingdoms – taifas” controlled by military men of Al-Mansur. Their main goal was to reduce powerful and rapid establishment of Catholic kingdoms; hence, the almoravides, “fundamentalist warriors from North Africa”, were invited to help taifa leaders (Morera, 2006). It definitely worked as it was expected, the life of Jews and Christians became extremely tough. Meanwhile, another wave from the North Africa brought almohades who deeply believed almoravides neglected practicing proper Islam and were rather weak due to their Catholic neighbors; thus, almohades overtook Andalusia’s control, and another nightmare for Catholics, Jews and even some Muslims had began. That was an obvious reason why the kings of Aragon, Navarra and Castile united their armies, bet the almohades in the XIII century, and led on these joined forces in the campaign, which, finally, in 1492 ceased to exist “the last Muslim kingdom in Granada”, and the Muslims had to surrender (Morera, 2006).

The Jewish Role in Convivencia

Fortunately, many Jews migrated to Catholic territories of Spain and occupied serious positions in the society. A bright example of facilitating religious minorities was the king of Leon and Castile, Alfonso X who organized translational communities where speakers of different languages translated Arabic works, legal and historical treatises, etc. (Morera, 2006). Jewish could also occupy serious administrative positions within governmental establishments, such as kingdom treasury, or work as tax collectors and financial officers. In addition, the Muslims were even afraid of Jews’ authority hence asked Catholic monarchs not to give a Jewish any position granting his supremacy over them. For the Christians, these times were harder as they had not only been deprived of their freedoms and basic rights, but they also faced moral oppressions, unjust judgments, and had to perform very dirty and “lowly tasks” such as disposing garbage, etc. (Tolan et al., 2013). Those tired of the situation, such as the Jews, left al-Andalus and moved to Cairo, Sicily and other parts of the Christian Spain.

Social Controversies: Marriage, Sexuality, Eating Habits

Other problematic issues for convivencia were “sexuality, marriage, food and social hierarchy” (Tolan et al., 2013). The laws allowed a Muslim man get married to a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Muslim one was better. In the same way, a Muslim man was given the right to have relationship of sexual character with his slaves, no matter if she was Muslim or not. However, Muslim women were forbidden to marry anybody but Muslim men. In case a Christian man raped a Muslim woman, he would be immediately sentenced to death penalty: however, he could be pardoned if he “paid the rape victim a dowry proportionate to her social status” and converted himself to Islam (Tolan et al., 2013).

The question of food was of great concern due to cultural and religious diversities, as well. It is a common knowledge that for the Muslims, the process of killing an animal in order to cook and eat it later is of great importance. At that time, they were advised to buy meat from either the Muslims or from the Jews as they practice the same pattern when killing an animal. However, the “purchase of meat from a Christian was legitimate”, as well (Tolan, 2013). One more block dividing the cultures is the consumption of wine. There were even attempts to destroy wine house, as well as ideas how the merchants could be punished for selling it and the Muslims for buying it. In addition, it was even suggested to punish those Muslims who did not allow the Christians to drink it.

Finally, societal restrictions were even cruel. Mufti of that period tried to do everything to absolutely divide the communities. For instance, if a Muslim visited Christmas or New Year celebration and participated in a party or the present giving rituals, he or she should be punished, as well. Such cultural interrelations and friendship was unacceptable.

Convivencia’s Impact on Languages Development

The matter of language within convivencia has been given an important role. Along with the historical event, the development of languages is inevitable as each language is dynamic. Initially, when the country had yet been called Hispania and was the Roman province, the Latin language was spoken everywhere, or rather the so-called Vulgar Latin, which meant “popular or common Latin” (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). However, being under the rule of culturally and linguistically diverse society naturally leaves a trace. For instance, after the Muslim invasion, Romance songs “inspired new forms of Arabic verse, Hebrew poetry remodeled itself on Arabic” (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). With the Arab arrival to the peninsula, numerous dialects started occurring as people needed to somehow understand the new rulers and their regulations. The Andalusi dialect can be an extremely interesting example. Initially, it took and included both Roman lexicon and numerous Arabisms (Lopez-Morilas, 2000). Words of everyday use, such as names of animals, household, agriculture, etc., had undergone most significant changes. However, it does not mean that Latin disappeared. People continued speaking it, but it was said to be cruel to use the language of religion and high culture alongside with Arabic (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). Along with the process of Arabization, the necessity of the Bible translation into Arabic appeared because with the few generations, the younger ones could hardly read Latin. However, the task was found to be challenging as the Arabic alphabet could not provide the accurate equivalence for proper names, etc.

Along with that, the term “Judeo-Arabic” occurred describing Arabic Speaking Jews of al-Andalus (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). However, their dialect was very similar to the native speakers’ language despite some sounds. In regard to writing, they used the Hebrew supposedly because of the widespread educational methods of that time: students were using their sacred religious texts to study. One more point showing the Jews’ affection with their native language was the fact that for the new poetry, writers chose Hebrew. It could have been viewed as their desire to stand out and not let the language be forgotten. Hence, what is kept written will remain for the ancestors. Hebrew was considered to be the language of “the Jewish elite of al-Andalus” (Lopez-Morillas, 2000). In fact, Jewish role in translating texts during XII-XIII centuries cannot be overestimated. They had made numerous Latin-to-Arabic, Latin-to-Hebrew and vice-versa translations.

With many centuries after it had been so much valued and appreciated, XVI century revealed happiness of not hearing the Jewish or Arabic languages in the streets at all. After the Reconquista, everything changed for the better. However, the places changed, as well: the Muslims were in minority; cruelty and violations along with the slavery had been developing. The Christian kingdoms’ rulers developed their own rules in relation to Muslims and Jews; among them, there were wearing distinctive from Christians clothes, avoiding sexual relationship with the Jews or Muslims, etc. (Tolan et al., 2013).


The existence of diverse societies and people within one notion called convivencia is rather tough. Oppressions, freedoms and rights violations along with constant prosecutions have nothing to do with the harmonious and peaceful living the very term presupposes. Religion, everyday life, language, even food consumption turned out to be the most vulnerable to convivencia. However, during their analysis, all of the above mentioned points revealed that all changes had both positive and negative sides. Hence, it is difficult to withstand the strong impact of the surrounding culture, no matter if it was applied by force or voluntarily. Despite the cruelty and failure in conducting successful policies, Spain has benefited greatly due to these developments.

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