Arab Spain, the view from inside

Sometime in the second quarter of the 8th century an anonymous (to us, of course, not to himself) churchman in Spain began compiling a chronicle of the last hundred-plus years of his era. He began his chronicle in the year 611 and ended in 754, and hence the text is called The Chronicle of 754. It has also been known as The Mozarabic Chronicle, Chronicle of Isidore of Beja, or The Anonymous Rhyming Chronicle of Cordoba.1.Collins, Arab Conquest, p26. He doesn’t mention if, untranslated, it actually rhymes or not. He covers the secular and ecclesiastical affairs, primarily of Spain, but also the lands between Spain and Constantinople, and beyond.

Like all chronicles the author describes events thematically, such as the reign of an emperor or a series of conquests, that could cover several years, and presents the topics in a more or less chronological order. This does result in some bouncing around, as it becomes necessary to go back to an earlier time once a topic is complete. Rather than simply identify the year, he identifies the era (of the Roman empire), the emperor’s name (the emperor in Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman empire), and how many years he had been ruling. If he is reporting a new emperor he also includes the age of the world. Thus, “In the era 758, Leo became the seventy-seventh to be crowned emperor of the Romans. He ruled for twenty-four years, 5,944 years having elapsed since the beginning of the world.” (Chapter 71) If the year to be reported is under a current emperor he includes how many years since the beginning of the Muslim (Arab) conquest, and how many years the Muslim ruler had been in power. Thus, “In Leo’s time, in the era 766, in his tenth year as emperor, the one hundred eleventh of the Arabs, and sixth of Hishem…” (Chapter 77) In Wolf’s translation, the only one in English, he also includes the actual year in parentheses.

To read The Chronicle of 754 is to get glimpses of high politics in the eastern Roman empire, the emerging Islamic empire, and Spain itself. Most of the entries note the passing of an old ruler, and the ascension of the next. There are revolutions, civil wars, coups, counter-coups, plots, and battles. Just as today’s news can appear a litany of destruction, so it was in the 8th century. “Who can relate such perils? Who can enumerate such grievous disasters? Even if every limb were transformed into a tongue, it would be beyond human capability  to express the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils. But let me nevertheless try to summarize everything for the reader on one brief page.” (Chapter 55)

The number of names that pass across the page can be daunting. I found it useful to review early Islamic history to get a sense of what was going on. Wolf also includes an appendix with lists of emperors, Visigothic kings, Asturian kings, Muslim caliphs, and Muslim governors, with all their regnal dates.2.Wolf, pp179 – 182.

With that background in hand the Chronicle is a fascinating read, as Islam springs from the Arabian peninsula and spreads east, north, and west. The Arabs cross the “Pillars of Hercules” and into Spain, fighting and displacing the quarreling Visigothic kings. The governors fight each other, the North African Berbers, the Basques, and occasionally the Franks. The narrative sets a hectic pace as caliphs in Damascus and Baghdad order new governors out to the conquered lands, recall old ones, or they die in battle. The average time in office was fleeting – there were twenty-one governors between 711 and 756, about one every two years.

Like the Royal Frankish Annals and Fredegar’s chronicle, notable natural events make appearances, the usual eclipses, famines, and plagues (the latter foretold by the former, of course). In 750, “with all the citizens of Cordoba watching, three suns, shining in a wondrous manner and fading into a crescent of emerald fire, were seen. From the moment of their appearance, avenging angels laid low with an intolerable famine all those who by the grace of God lived in the land of Spain.” (Chapter 92)

Not all of the entries are concerned with politics, deaths, and synods. A list of booty returned from Spain includes, “ointments to kindle women’s desire.” (Chapter 56) Around 650 a Visigothic bishop by the name of Taio went to Rome to find and copy a rare book, a commentary on the Book of Job by the church father Gregory I. When Taio got to Rome the pope put him off, for some reason, claiming that the book could not be found. But then one night…

[I]n the middle of the night, while he lay prostrate before the tomb of blessed Peter the Apostle, praying and weeping, a heavenly light shone forth so that the whole church was illuminated with an indescribable glow, such that the candelabra of the church were not needed to illuminate it. Along with the light shone multitudes of saints singing psalms and carrying lamps that radiated light. As Taio stood frozen in awe and wonder, two old men in white vestments slowly stepped forth from that company of saints, once they had completed their singing, and began to hover over that part of the church where the bishop was praying. Finding him almost dead from fright, they tenderly brought him back to his senses. They asked him why he had exerted such great effort and why he had undertaken such a long voyage from the, and they listened to his answers as if they did not already know them. Then, with many eloquent words, they gave him his due reward: they showed him the exact place in which the very books he sought lay hidden. (Chapter 23)

While the events in the Chronicle are naturally centered on Spain, people, places, and events north of the Pyrenees are mentioned as well. Eudo’s defeat of as-Samh in 721 at the battle of Toulouse is mentioned. (Chapter 69) We get a fairly full account of Munuza, the poor Berber who rebelled against his Arab overlords, allied himself with Eudo, and was then crushed for his troubles. (Chapter 79) The Muslim raid into Francia that culminated in the battle of Poitiers gets coverage (Chapter 80), and is actually the fullest account of the battle in the sources. It turns out that the Muslim governors were out for revenge in 737. “[Uqbah] also undertook an expedition against the Franks with a large army. He left proudly with his great army, heading toward the city of Zaragoza. But when he learned, by means of letters sent from Africa, of a rebellion on the part of the Moors, he returned to Cordoba with delay.” (Chapter 82)

A great ‘what if,’ from the Chronicle.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Collins, Arab Conquest, p26. He doesn’t mention if, untranslated, it actually rhymes or not.
2. Wolf, pp179 – 182.

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