Navas de Tolosa

REVIEW: Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies. Vol 4:I, 2012

July 1212 a sheltered plain at Las Navas de Tolosa in Southern Spain was the scene for an extraordinary pitted battle. Here the king of Castile joined forces with the armies of his Christian rivals, the kings of Narvarre, Aragon and Portugal. According to the legend it is believed that they mustered app. 100.000 men, which met an army of more than a 120.000 soldiers led by the caliph, Muhammad Al-Nasir.

The Christian army, which was the result of a vivid call for a crusade against the Almohads, who had crossed with a Berber army from Northern Africa. Moving north, they had camped in the valley at Navas de Tolosa northwest of the city of Jaén. The valley had been closed off, but the crusaders succeeded in entering the valley across a pass called Puerto del Rey and take the Muslim army by surprise. At the end of the following day more than a 100.000 Muslim soldiers had perished on the battlefield or been taken as prisoners, while the Caliph only barely succeeded in fleeing. He died a few days later in Marakech.

Solders from the church of San Lorenzo in Vallejo de Mena

The battle became renowned all over Europe not only for its decisive character as well as for the huge bounty, but because the war had been designated a crusade. There is no doubt that the primary actors at that time considered the battle a resounding victory and trophies like the tents and carpets of the Caliph were send on to the royal Pantheon of Las Huelgas in Burgos as well as presented as gifts to the Pope in Rome. Afterwards the battle became the symbol par excellence for the later collapse of the Almohad Empire as well as the so-called Reconquista – especially in the historiography of the 19th and 20th century, when the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa came to symbolise the final triumph of the Castilian kingdom aka Spain and the Catholic Church over the Muslim South and what has often been termed the “fanatical” Almohad regime. However, after the end of the fascist regime in 1975, Navas de Tolosa became the subject for more serious historical research, while at the same time a revival in the interest of the Muslim past of El-Andalus became more politically correct.

While the 700-anniversary 1912 thus set the scene for a full-scale nationalistic celebration, the events this summer 2012 were much more subdued. The 2012 brochure of the brand new Museo Batalla thus invites “visitors to deepen the discussion of multiculturalism and the dialogue between civilizations, and to develop as a small contribution to the culture of peace, a critical reflection on the conflicts, which we currently experience,” while The Diputación de Jaén has been hosting a year-long series of events designed, on the one hand, to “commemorate the battle” and, on the other, “to convert the province of Jaén into a forum for dialogue, peace, and tolerance between peoples”.

However, the question still remains, what actually happened in 1212 and what impact – if any – the battle had in the short term? In order to raise these questions in a wider context as well as to take stock of current research, the editors of the “Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies” decided to mark the anniversary by inviting a wide number of scholars and researchers in the field to rethink the battle. With 22 essays of no more than seven pages each, the project has resulted in an invigorating and fascinating introduction to current debates and discussions.

Was it a decisive battle? Yes, thought the main protagonists at that time. No is the answer as seen from afar and focusing on the socio-economic development in Al-Andalus in the years, which followed. Yes, if the question is perused from acultural point of view.

What happened after the wars at the end of the 12th century and the first half of the 13th was a massive migration south as well as north, ending up in a cultural hybridization of vast importance.

All the articles, although well worthwhile, cannot be reviewed here. One, however, stands out: the last. Here Juan Carlos Ruiz Souza from Madrid, magisterially shows that although the battle of Navas de Tolosa may only have marked the political demise of Al-Andalus, it nevertheless did activate “the conscious assimilation of its material culture” in a profound way. In the article this is demonstrated for instance by  the story of how the Cistercian monastery of Las Huelgas in Burgos, originally built in the pure French Gothic style, later ended up being embellished by beautiful and extravagant Andalusi stuccos. This forestalled the later cultural mingling which resulted in for instance the palace in Sevilla and the care with which Alhambra was preserved.

Of course there is no final conclusion to the conundrum, to what extent the battle was important or not; and in what sense. But the articles do present us with a remarkable number of diverse overviews as well as a plethora of balanced opinions by a number of specialists in the field. Although here and there a few articles are a bit garbled due to the use of machine translation, the editors are truly to be congratulated.

List of content:

  • On (de)commemoration: rethinking the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa
  •  Was Las Navas a decisive battle?
  •  Alfonso VIII and Las Navas de Tolosa
  •  Forging collective memory: Las Navas and Bouvines
  •  Historians, historiography and archaeologically imperceptible change
  •  Las Navas de Tolosa, the urban transformation of the Maghrib, and the territorial decline of al-Andalus
  •  Making ‘great battles’ great: Christian and Muslim views of Las Navas de Tolosa
  •  Las Navas and the restoration of Spain
  •  Las Navas de Tolosa: the beginning of the end of the “Reconquista”? The battle and its consequences according to the Christian sources of the thirteenth century
  •  Las Navas de Tolosa and the culture of crusade in the Kingdom of Castile
  •  Was the Christian conquest of al-Andalus irreversible?
  •  The triumph of heavy military equipment in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Castile
  •  Women and Las Navas de Tolosa
  •  In the absence of men: representing Andalusi women’s sexuality in the context of military conflict
  •  Las Navas de Tolosa and the changing balance of power
  •  Las Navas de Tolosa and Liber Alchorani: reflections on Iberian Christians and the Qur’an
  •  From dialogue to disputation in the age of Archbishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada
  •  Between the straits: the thirteenth century as a turning point for Iberian Jewry
  •  Alexander and the Almohads: telling the stories of antiquity before and after Las Navas
  •  Andalusi exceptionalism: the example of “Philosophical Sufism” and the significance of 1212
  •  Deus ex machina? Economic and technological progress in Castile at the time of Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada.
  •  Castile and al-Andalus after 1212: assimilation and integration of Andalusi architecture.

Journal of medieval Iberian Studies 

Jornadas medievales 2012

Museo de la Batalla de las Navas de Tolosa