Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Miguel Gomez, Estote memor: Remembering Las Navas de Tolosa

The goal of this paper is to examine the construction of the history of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (July 16, 1212).  This battle, one of the decisive moments of the Spanish Reconquista, was promoted as an international crusade by both the Spanish participants and the papacy.  As a result, the campaign enjoyed great international attention (for an Iberian episode), and was reported by a wide variety of contemporary authors.  It was also considered an event of singular importance within the Spanish Christian kingdoms, and therefore looms large in the peninsular historiography of the thirteenth century and beyond.  The attention which the campaign of 1212 generated, both in Spain and beyond, makes it a perfect subject for and examination of the ways in which the meaning and understanding of this event evolved and changed as it was committed to writing by successive generations.

This project examines the history and memory of this battle along two particular paths.  First, it examines the accounts of the eye-witnesses, and the ways in which their narratives both framed the event, and were re-worked by later Iberian writers during the course of the thirteenth century.  In many ways, this evolution was a typical process of myth-making: the distance of time allowed for embellishment, invention, and creativity as the story was retold and reinterpreted.  Furthermore, the campaign of 1212 helped to define the meaning of crusade among the Christians of the peninsular kingdoms.

The second vector of analysis follows the story of the campaign beyond the Iberian Peninsula.  The international understanding of the events was largely a result of the letter of Arnald Amaric, who reported his experiences to the Cistercian general-chapter.  The dissemination of the news, first through Cistercian networks, and then beyond to the larger world of thirteenth century chroniclers and historians illuminates the often unusual and unexpected ways in which a wider European audience understood the events. It also provides an excellent window into the manner in which the news of great events traveled, and was recorded, in the medieval world.

This paper is the preliminary part of a larger study of the reception and understanding of crusading ideas in Christian Spain during the early thirteenth century.  The ways in which the history and memory of the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa were expressed was both shaped by the crusading movement, and helped to create its local and particular expressions in Spain.  Moreover, studying the production of somewhat different international interpretations of events helps to demonstrate the differences between crusading in Spain and crusading in other parts of Europe.  Ideas and attitudes toward Muslim enemies (and subjects) and Jewish communities, the negotiation of power between kings and the papacy, and the ever-present military and cultural frontier all complicated crusading in the Iberian Peninsula.  These issues were discussed, debated, and explained in the process of recording and memorializing the campaigns.

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