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The Frankish Crusades of Spain (R. de Beaumont)


The crusades in the East continue to produce a quantity of works of scholars or more general public, of sometimes questionable quality and interest. On the other hand, what happened at the same time in Spain, and even more what came before, is more rarely discussed, with the exception of the story of an often fantasized or caricatured Al Andalus. The Reconquista is little known in France, especially during the early Middle Ages, when the links with the history of France are numerous. The work by René de Beaumont, The Frankish Crusades of Spain, his ambition is to tell the story of the Reconquista from a frank point of view, and to make the connection between what he calls the Frankish crusades and the "classic" crusades in the Holy Land.

What chronological boundaries?

The work's subtitle says "790-1228", but in fact the story begins with the conquest of Visigothic Spain by the Muslims, and even a little before. René de Beaumont makes it his prologue, telling how the Arabs and their Berber contingents took advantage of the divisions among the Visigoths to set foot in the Iberian Peninsula and never leave it for more than seven centuries. At the end of this prologue, he insists on the pocket of Christian resistance in Galicia and in Asturias from which it will depart "The long movement to reconquer the country". We can already discuss the use of the terms “Arabs”, “Berbers”, “Muslims”, “Visigoths” and “Christians”, then of “Franks” or “Saracens”, which always pose a problem when we approach this issue. period. The angle chosen by the author, we will see again about the title of the book, seems however well be the "religious" angle, which is discussed in the 8th century.

For the end of the period covered, René de Beaumont announces 1228, but it is in fact 1235, and the end of the conquest of the Balearics by Aragon, presented as the last crusade of Spain.

A chronological plan, various themes

The historian chooses the simpler and clearer with two main chronological parts.

The first (eight chapters) covers the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, in Spain (Christian and, in part, Muslim), and in Gaul, even going back to Burgundy. The aim, and it is relevant, is to show the connections at this time between what was happening in Visigothic Spain, which became Al Andalus, and in Frankish Gaul, which was on the way to becoming Carolingian. The author obviously evokes the battle of Poitiers (with in passing some interesting historiographical updates, on the subject of the existence or not of the bag of Autun for example), as well as the creation of the March of Spain (future Catalonia ). But it deals with other subjects at least as interesting and too little covered in this kind of work: Saracen piracy and the often forgotten tenth century (as far as the "Christian camp" is concerned, of course). In addition, it allows us to get to know better people who are not always very well known, such as Bernard de Septimanie or Bernard de Plantevelue. Finally, René de Beaumont insists throughout his book not to speak only of warlike confrontations; it therefore evokes relations between Christians and Muslims in Al Andalus, diplomatic exchanges, the vision of the other, conversions, ...

The second part (seven chapters) gets to the heart of the matter, the more classic period of the Reconquista. However, the author again chooses relatively original angles, such as the link with the East ("the Spanish crusaders in Palestine"), or personal destinies (the duke troubadour, Raymond of Burgundy, ...). He places great emphasis on Aragon and Catalonia, while the works on the Reconquista (although this one is not really one) are generally more focused on Castile. It remains in the logic of the link with the Franks. The main common thread of his book is nevertheless the crusade, and we will see that this can raise questions.

The problem of the title and use of the term "crusades"

If we wanted to simply summarize René de Beaumont's thesis, we would say that he wanted to demonstrate that the Eastern Crusades were first born in Spain, while insisting on the central role of the Franks in this struggle, and so in the Reconquista. We cannot effectively deny the link between what happened in Spain and then in the Holy Land, and for several reasons. The call of Clermont by Urbain II in 1095 is pronounced ten years after the capture of Toledo by the Christians, and many knights who are going to leave for Palestine have already fought in Spain, and not the least since one can count among them Raymond de Saint-Gilles, count of Toulouse and future count of Tripoli. Above all, the capture of Barbastro in 1063-1065 was done under the indulgence of Pope Alexander II (and not Alexander III as it is written in the work), and many historians consider it to be the first crusade, beyond the endless debates on the origin and definition of this term.

The problem with René de Beaumont's book is that it suggests that the Crusades began with the conquest of Visigothic Spain by the Arabs and their Berber allies. Now, as we know, for example, about the Battle of Poitiers, there was nothing strictly religious in the confrontation between the belligerents before the 11th century, when the papacy entered the dance. The ambiguity of the historian's thesis can be seen in his use of the terms noted above (“Christians”, “Arabs”, etc.), but especially in that of “crusades”, since he groups together under this term all the campaigns of the Aragonese and Castilians from the 11th to the 13th centuries, including the conquest of the Balearics. It is sometimes relevant, as for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), sometimes less. This gives an impression of confusion of terms and approaches, even more when we notice that for the first part, the term "crusade" is however not mentioned! And, in contradiction with his title, René de Beaumont himself, in chapter XV (Contributions and end of the Spanish crusades), writes: "During their first centuries, the wars in Spain presented themselves more as fights between refractory Visigoths or Franks on the one hand, conquerors Arabs and Berbers on the other, than as a war between Christians and Muslims". That's exactly it but, in this case, why choose this title which gives the impression of a continuous crusade between the 8th and 13th centuries which, in addition, would continue in the East? ...

Finally, we regret that the conclusion is only a summary of the work with a few openings, rather than a precision on the thesis and the angles chosen by the author, which would have made it possible to see a little more clearly and to move the debate forward. Likewise, one could return to certain passages dealing with the "civilizing aspect" of Islam on the Franks. Indeed, the civilizational angle is now a bit obsolete and, while it is commendable on the part of the author to address exchanges and especially the transfers of knowledge, it is ultimately only scratching the surface of the subject.

Our opinion

These reserves seem heavy, and we must put them into perspective, because the results are far from negative. First, we should not dwell on the title of the work which, from the use of the word "crusades" to chronological boundaries, does not do justice to the content, which is a little more complex, rich and nuanced. The book is not really a book on the Reconquista, nor on the relationship between Latins (Franks, Spanish kingdoms,…) and Muslims, and even less on Al Andalus, which sometimes makes it confused in the perspectives chosen. However, it deals with subjects too rarely addressed in general public publications, whether it is the Spanish March or the history of Catalonia and Aragon, as well as the fate of Frankish knights which announces that of the Crusaders of East. We can therefore welcome this approach. The book also has rich appendices (maps, glossary, family trees) and a very complete thematic bibliography (even containing the sources) which will allow us to go further. Finally, let us add that the whole is easily read, like an adventure story.

We may therefore be embarrassed, even annoyed by certain approaches and terms used, yet this does not call into question the interest of this work, which fans of the history of this period can review with critical hindsight, but also with pleasure.

- R. de Beaumont, The Frankish Crusades of Spain (790-1228). When the West discovered Islam, Toucan, 2011.


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