Christian Kusi-Obodum’s blog explores the weird and wonderful stories found in the ‘Estoria de Espanna’ (‘History of Spain’), an important thirteenth-century chronicle from Spain…
Medieval historians were deeply conscious of the legacy of classical civilisation. During the Age of Antiquity, the Mediterranean was the central stage in which superpowers came and went. Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia and Rome flourished throughout the region; the sea was the lifeblood of trade, cultural exchange and warfare. The medieval chroniclers of Alfonso X made great efforts to trace the history of Spain right back to Antiquity, gathering as many sources as possible in order to do so. In the early sections of the Estoria de Espanna we find the history of a great Mediterranean civilisation: Carthage. We also find the dramatic narrative of the death of Queen Dido, the Empress of Carthage.
Alfonso X includes the history of Carthage in the Estoria because southern and western Spain was incorporated into the Carthaginian Empire. Alfonso’s medieval historians tell us of how a Phoenician princess, named Elissa Dido, fled from the Levant, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Threatened by her rapacious brother, Dido set sail from Lebanon and settled far away on the coasts of present-day Tunisia. With her family troubles behind her, she founded the mighty city of Carthage. She then sent her fleet onwards, and founded the city of Cartagena. We are told that the Queen Dido commanded great influence throughout North Africa and southern Iberia.
Alfonso’s chroniclers are particularly interested in Queen Dido. They are drawn to her intelligence, power and noble character. Notably it is the sentimental and dramatic story of her death that captivates the medieval historians. The Estoria recounts that Elissa Dido falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas. Himself an exile from the distant, ruined city of Troy, Aeneas marries Dido and rules Carthage alongside the Empress. But her husband, seeking vengeance for the destruction of Troy, decides to leave Carthage. Despite the Queen’s protestations, he insists he must go, promising to return one day.
Dido yearns for the return of her husband Aeneas. The Estoria reproduces her long and emotive correspondence with Aeneas, in which she implores him to return. Yet she receives no reply. Dido is so overcome that she feels she has no other option than death. During her last moments, she mounts one of the high towers of the city defences. Amid violent sobbing and cries of agony, Dido tears her fine robes and picks up the sword that once belonged to Aeneas. In a solemn act of sacrifice, she plunges the sword into her chest and falls from the tower into a burning funeral pyre laid beneath…
This tragic portrayal of self-sacrifice reveals king Alfonso X’s great esteem for Elissa Dido. The Empress of Carthage embodies great authority, having founded a vast Mediterranean empire. She also dies an honourable and dignified death: her loyalty to her husband is so firm that she sacrifices herself for him. In the narrative of her death, the compilers of the Estoria reproduce much of the elaborate, literary style of their source material. Alfonso X showed appreciation for fine literature, as well as for the powerful civilisations of Antiquity.
Tales from the Estoria (vi) — Preaching without a tongue
The Estoria de Espanna takes us far and wide in its tour through history. While this chronicle is entitled the ‘History of Spain’, many of its narratives recount events from far beyond the Iberian Peninsula. The manuscript deals with important events that took place in northern and central Europe, the Maghreb and the Middle East. I happened to stumble across an account of a miraculous event that took place on the continent of Africa during the sixth century… Prepare for another curious tale involving mutilation and Divine intervention!
During the fifth and sixth centuries, a Germanic people known as the Vandals rose to power in the Mediterranean. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Vandals campaigned through France, Spain and Italy, sacking the great city of Rome. They established a major presence in Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics. At this time, the invading German peoples adhered to a different Christian doctrine from that of the Church of Rome. Their branch of Christianity was called Arianism: it rejected the notion of the Trinity, and held that Jesus was entirely separate from God. Catholics treated them as heretics – the medieval chroniclers of the Estoria treat Arianism as an “evil sect”.
The Vandals punished many of the Catholics they found in the Roman provinces that they conquered. The Estoria recounts a story of such persecution. In an unnamed province in North Africa, a Catholic bishop was seized by Vandal authorities. They had no patience for the bishop’s preaching of Catholicism, as it went against their Arian beliefs. To punish him they tried to silence him in the most gruesome way: by cutting out his tongue! We are told that with the help of God, the bishop went on preaching – in fact he spoke even more clearly and audibly than before! The Lord was on the side of the Catholic bishop for the remainder of his life, helping him with other miracles to spread the Word, in the face of persecution by the Arians.
Once again we find another outlandish story occupying just a few lines, hidden away in the enormous manuscripts of the Estoria. In reality, the tale is perfectly understandable in the Medieval context. Societies of the Middle Ages were deeply religious. People were threatened at every turn, from plagues, drought and famine, not to mention raiding, pillaging and all-out warfare. In the Late Medieval Period people wondered if they were approaching the End of Days. People needed to know that God was on their side. As such, stories of miracles and divine intervention were essential: people had to know that God was with them and that their particular belief was “correct”. Miracles had to be included in chronicle histories, to help make sense of the Divine Plan. The miracles of the North African bishop wer a reminder to Medieval readers that God was with the Catholics at their time of need.
Tales from the Estoria (iv) — Children of witches and fauns
When Alfonso X commissioned his Estoria de Espanna, he expected the history to cover the whole of Spain’s existence. That didn’t just mean the major events that took place on Spanish soil: it also meant a detailed explanation of the empires into which Spain was incorporated. Perhaps the most important civilisation to ever rule Spain was that of the Romans. Large sections of the Estoria relate to the history of the Roman Empire, including its rise and fall. One such narrative explains the attacks against Rome far beyond Spain – from the Huns, a people migrating westward from the Black Sea. The Huns, we are told, are a people descended fromsorceresses and strange creatures from the mountains and deserts…
Around 400 A.D. the Western Roman Empire was being challenged from all angles. Britain, France, Italy and Spain came under attack from Barbarians from the North and East. These raiders consisted of many different Gothic and Germanic peoples: Saxons, Jutes, Franks, Vandals, Sueves, Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The Huns (later ruled by the famous warrior king Attila the Hun) came raiding from even further afield. Alfonso X thought it was important to include the details of these invaders who contributed to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The description of the ancestors of the Huns is particularly remarkable.
Long ago in the lands surrounding the Black Sea, the Gothic king Philimer is said to have found witches living among his people. The king was afraid they would cast spells and bring harm to his kingdom, so he cast them out into the mountains and wastelands. There the witches found strange men: satyrs and fauns – creatures that were half man and half beast. The witches bred them and gave birth to hybrid children. The description of these hybrids is extraordinary. They hardly looked human: their faces were terrifyingly deformed with tiny eyes and wild frizzy hair. But were strong and broad-shouldered, and came to be skilled archers and horsemen. These wild hybrids from the Black Sea went on to conquer other peoples, and built the empire of the Huns. As they interbred, they slowly lost their freakish aspect and started to look more human.
The Huns expanded into central Asia and Europe, eventually reaching France. These were a people from extremely far afield, from the wilds of Ukraine and Russia. The Estoria de Espanna and another important Iberian chronicle, the Historia Hugnorum by Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, saw these mythical origins of the Huns as important details to record in history. It is quite understandable that such imaginative legends would continue to be quoted: for many centuries medieval historians had written about fauns and satyrs – Saint Antony of Egypt was said to have met a satyr in the desert. The infinite imagination of the Medievals can once again be glimpsed in the Estoria.
Tales from the Estoria (iii) — An eye for an eye, quite literally
The book of Exodus left its mark with the expression “an eye for an eye”. I can’t claim to be sufficiently versed in theology to comment on the phrase itself: I’m sure there are many possible interpretations. I do feel the expression, regardless of how it is interpreted, has universal resonance outside of a purely Biblical context. Most recently I came across a very literal case of “an eye for an eye” in an episode from the thirteenth-century Spanish chronicle, the Estoria de Espanna.
Of great interest to king Alfonso X (1252-1284) was the restoration of Medieval Spain to its former glory. Islam had long been a great contender of Christian Spain, arriving in the Peninsula in the year over five hundred years before Alfonso’s time. In 711 the Muslims crossed the Gibraltar Straits and quickly defeated the Christian Visigoths. The Visigoths were largely seen by Medieval Christians as having been the rightful rulers of Spain. The Visigothic kings were Catholic, and later historians felt God had placed them in power in the fifth century (as the Roman Empire collapsed). Alfonso X ensured the Visigoths had their place in his history of Spain; he wanted to establish a link between himself — in the thirteenth century — and the Gothic kings from centuries before.
Where does “an eye for an eye” fit into all this? Well, in Alfonso’s manuscript we find a section on the life of the last of the Visigoths, king Roderic. He came to power in the early eighth century, taking the crown from his rival, named Wittiza. There had been bad blood between Roderic and Wittiza for a long time. King Wittiza had fought with Roderic’s father and maimed him in the most unpleasant of ways: by removing both his eyes. Avenging this terrible attack on his father, Roderic exacted the same agony upon his enemy: Roderic had Wittiza’s eyes cut out in retaliation! With Wittiza blinded, Roderic took power and was crowned king. His own defeat came soon after, as the Muslims of North Africa and Arabia swept across the Iberian Peninsula.
This narrative is the true epitome of “an eye for an eye”. The chroniclers writing the Estoria intended the story to speak volumes. The tearing out of the eyes was not just it a vicious act of brutality against an enemy: it was symptomatic of the downfall of the Visigoths. Medieval historians quickly decided that the Muslim invasion was a punishment from God. They felt the Visigoths had fallen into sin and shameful disarray, fighting amongst each other and neglecting the Lord God. The last Visigoths were blinded (no pun intended) by power struggles and self-indulgence; the ultimate penalty was the loss of Iberia to the Muslim. It was Alfonso X’s desire to fully restore the pride of Christian Spain, five hundred years after the fall of the Visigoths. Writing history was a huge part of that cultural project.
Tales from the Estoria (ii) — Hercules, that’s who!
Believe it or not, I can justify the last 18 minutes I spent googling images and watching youtube clips of a 1997 Walt Disney film. It’s certainly not my usual research. Instead I was looking for a suitable shot to capture the truly immortal figure of Hercules. Still loved today, the legends of his exploits live on. It’s as if he was in fact immortal…
Now to justify those last 18 minutes. There is in fact a lesser-known detail about Hercules that links him to the origins of Spain. Well, according to the Estoria de Espanna, that is. Yes folks, back in the day a hero came to the Iberian Peninsula and helped lay the roots of Spain and Portugal: Hercules, that’s who!
The Hercules of the Estoria is a little different from Disney’s Hercules. Firstly, Hercules’ father is named as Jupiter, not Zeus. Jupiter was essentially the Roman equivalent of the Greeks’ Zeus; in this detail, we can see how the medieval chroniclers composing the Estoria preferred to uphold Roman tradition. (N.B: the Estoria tells us Jupiter was “king” of Greece — the medieval writers were not about to commit serious blasphemy and say that Hercules was son of the Gods!) Also, instead of Disney’s Meg (Megara), Hercules is romantically involved with Deianira.
So what exactly did he get up to in Iberia? The Estoria tells us of his adventures there. First he crossed from North Africa with ten boats and landed at Cadiz. He voyaged up the Guadalquivir River and envisaged the founding of the great city of Seville, though he did not make a start. Instead he travelled further up the Portuguese coast, debarking at Lisbon. After killing the giant Gerion, Hercules founded the city of A Coruña. He also founded Barcelona and repopulated Carthagena. Having established his presence in Spain, he left it to his nephew Espan to populate and rule the Peninsula. From Espan, the Estoria tells us, the great kingdom of ‘España’ was born.
These legends can seem quite fantastic. The idea of Hercules travelling around Spain and laying its foundations is pretty imaginative! But there is no reason to deride the historians for their inclusion of this fabulous story. True or not, it was seen fit to belong to a Spanish history. History is predominantly a construct: people establish their own vision of the past for whatever purpose. Linking the founding of Spain to such a brave warrior as Hercules helps build the image of a proud and confident land: rather a hero than a nasty old hunchback that nobody has ever heard of! It is another example of the wonderful imagination of the culture of ages past. At the same time, the Estoria‘s inclusion of the legend of Hercules is a highly thought-through exercise of forming a collective past. History is power.
Tales from the Estoria (I) — The Spanish chronicle of chronicles
Every so often we come across personalities who are said to be “ahead of their time”. Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Wollstonecraft and Franz Kafka are some that first come to mind. But there is another historical figure whom I have grown to recognise through my postgraduate studies as a man ahead of his time: Alfonso X the Wise. Alfonso (1252-1284) sat on the throne of Castile-Leon, his realm stretching across vast swathes of modern-day Spain. But what is it that makes this thirteenth-century Spanish king worthy of any great distinction?
This was no ordinary medieval monarch — he was a sovereign-cum-scholar. During his reign he spearheaded a monumental initiative to further knowledge. His Christian and Jewish scribes (often drawing on works of Arab learning) produced many books in the fields of science, law, history and poetry. It was truly a Spanish renaissance. Beyond simply sponsoring these initiatives, we know he took an active role in the composition process, much like a director of studies today’s world. His initiative paved the way for future kings to implement the Spanish language over Latin, and move towards a more centralised Castilian state. Sadly, his extensive works are not well known outside of Spain.
It is one of Alfonso’s works of historiography — the Estoria de Espanna (meaning the “History of Spain”) — that is the source I draw upon in my own research. In particular, I am motivated to find out how this chronicle portrayed Medieval Christianity’s major rival: Islam. In the year 711, North African and Arab forces crossed the Gibraltar Straits and began to conquer the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula. Muslim Spain came to be known as al-Andalus. Whilst much of al-Andalus was gradually won back by the Christians, Islam maintained a continued presence in Spain, in Alfonso X’s time and beyond. The Estoria provides extensive coverage of this important interfaith encounter. In fact the Estoria stretches right back to Roman Spain and earlier, to the time of Hercules — who is said to have had an important role in the birth of Spain. Alfonso’s history drew on material from many earlier chronicles — it is fair to say that it has a fairly hefty bibliography!
In light this Spanish “chronicle of chronicles”, I hope to give you some of the more interesting narratives that are incorporated into the Estoria, from glory to the gory: epic battles, miracles, pestilence, natural disasters, beheadings, womanizing kings… I decided to call them “tales” as I fancy these Medieval Spanish narratives can be retold as self-contained stories. After all, you can’t spell “history” without “story”!