The Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula (476 – 1492)

The history of the Spanish Middle Ages covers a period of more than 1000 years, between the 5th and 15th centuries.
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Table of Contents

Crisis and collapse of the Roman Empire

The causes of the crisis of the Roman Empire were the combination of internal and external factors. Among the external causes it is worth mentioning that from the 3rd century onward, beyond the northern border of the Roman Empire, there were some nomadic peoples stationed there that put military pressure on the Empire. And among all the internal causes, some historians give importance to the thesis according to which the adoption of Christianity, which questioned slavery, added to the scarcity of new slaves due to the lack of conquests of new territories, caused the main source of labour of the Empire to collapse.

When the Germanic peoples began to enter the Empire (Goths, Suebi, Vandals and Alans, among others), the Empire did not have enough military contingents to stop the invasions and the only option it had was to reach agreements with these peoples. The Visigoths were one of these peoples who established themselves within the Empire as allies. They settled in the territory of ancient Hispania (present-day Spain) and southern Gallia (France) between the years 440 and 476.

By the time Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was definitively deposed in 476, the Visigoths were already fully settled in the territory of ancient Hispania.

The new Visigothic monarchy

When the Roman Empire disappeared in 476, the Visigoths became the rulers of the former provinces of Hispania and a part of southern France. At first, they installed their capital in Toulouse, in the south of France. In a second period the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom became Toledo.

Visigoth Kingdom
Visigoth Kingdom during the years of King Liuvigild. Source: Wikipedia.org

The following Visigothic Kings stand out from this extensive period:

The end of the period of Visigoth domination of the peninsula was triggered by the deep crisis of the political system, among other reasons, by the system of electing its King. The kings did not have a hereditary mandate, since the aristocrats were in charge of electing a new monarch. To the point is that the Visigoth kings did not last long in office, due to the tough power struggles that took place throughout the period. This is known as the “Gothic disease.”

The last of the Visigothic kings, Roderic, suffered an aristocratic revolt. The brothers of the former King, Wittiza, were looking for people to drive Roderic out. They asked the tribes of North Africa for help.

General Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Strait and took advantage of the internal revolts in the Visigoth Kingdom. He made alliances with some local aristocrats and established himself in what is now Gibraltar. The Visigoth defeat of the Battle of Guadalete in 711 opened the doors to Muslim troops to begin the conquest of the Peninsula.

Al-Andalus: the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula

When in 711 the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula began, they controlled the whole territory in a very short time, but in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula small Christian nuclei survived, and soon began military campaigns with the aim of recovering those occupied territories. The Muslim presence in the Peninsula was constant until 1492, when they were expelled from Granada.

Phases of the conquest

Muslims attempted to occupy all of Europe, but could only dominate the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. In 732, the Franks managed to stop the Muslim advance in the Battle of Tours. After the defeat the Muslims had to retreat to the borders of the Douro and the Llobregat. The descendants of ancient Hispania settled in the Cantabrian and Pyrenean ranges. These were small centres of Visigoth resistance that allowed them to consolidate their dominions over time.

The Muslims created the Emirate of Córdoba of al-Andalus, dependent on the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus. Dependence on Damascus was broken in 756, when the Andalusian Emirate became independent until 929. A coup d’état in the Caliphate of Damascus caused the flight of an Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, who became the first independent Emir of Córdoba in 756. It was a time of great splendour for the Muslim Iberian Peninsula. Toledo was the Christian religious capital.

Andalusian society was divided into:

In 929, the power of the Emir of Córdoba was so extensive that he proclaimed himself a Caliph. The Caliphate of Córdoba was created. Abd al-Rahman III was the first Caliph and Hisham III the last. In 1031, the Caliphate was divided into a multitude of small taifas.

In 1031, the Caliphate disintegrated into a multitude of taifas throughout the Muslim territory. The last Taifa disappeared in 1492. During the almost 500 years of existence of the taifas, there were many invasions from North Africa. They tried to unify again the power of Al-Andalus. The first to attempt this were the Almoravid dynasty. But another invading wave, that of the Almohads, ended the power of the Almoravids.

In 1212, the Christian kingdoms united to seek to overthrow the Almohads. The battle of Las Navas de Tolosa took place in the Guadalquivir valley. From this moment on, the decline of the Muslims was definitive. Finally, in 1492 Queen Isabella I of Castile defeated the last Andalusian kingdom of Granada.

The establishment of the Christian kingdoms until the 13th century: the process of conquest and repopulation

With the disappearance of the Visigothic Kingdom, the Visigoth and Hispanic aristocracy moved northward, into the safe territory of the Frankish Kingdom. When the Franks began their campaigns to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, the families of the descendants of the Visigoth aristocracy returned to occupy the positions of power within the territory that was being structured. Thus, during the 7th century, a small nucleus of Christians was established in Asturias, Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia.

From the 11th century onward, the Christian kingdoms were capable of conquering Muslim territories on the peninsula.

The Crown of Castile (11th — 15th centuries)

In the 11th century, the Crown of Castile reached the Tagus. In 1090, the old capital of the Visigoths, Toledo, was recovered. But in the twelfth century there were major internal struggles among the nobles, and the territories of present-day Portugal became separate from Castile. The 13th century was the best for Christians. The Muslims lost Seville, Córdoba, Cádiz, etc. except the Taifa of Granada. King Ferdinand III of Castile was one that conquered more Muslim lands.

Iberian Peninsula Map
Map of the Iberian Peninsula in 1037. In yellow the territories of the Kingdom of Castile, to the north of the peninsula. Source: University of Texas at Austin.

In the 15th century the House of Trastámara was finally imposed. Queen Isabella I of Castile had a clear political project: to share the reign with Ferdinand II of Aragon as to unify the two peninsular kingdoms.

The Hispanic Marque and the Crown of Aragon (11th — 15th centuries)

Charlemagne‘s conquests led to the creation of the territory of the Hispanic Marque. There were established a series of counties that politically depended on the Frankish kings. In the 10th century this relationship was broken and the Catalan counties became sovereign. In the 11th century the Catalan counties were united in vassalage under the leadership of the county of Barcelona. The Catalan counties were: Ribagorça, Pallars, Cerdanya, Urgell, Besalú, Rosselló, Empúries and Barcelona.

The Caliphate of Córdoba was also broken in the 11th century. Ramon Berenguer I attacked Tarraco and incorporated it into the county of Barcelona. In the 12th century the county of Barcelona joined the Kingdom of Aragon, creating the Crown of Aragon. The 13th century was the century of the great territorial expansions of the Crown of Aragon.

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The historical heritage of the Iberian PeninsulaThe Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula (476 – 1492)

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