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

Miriam Shadis, Berenguela of Castile and Las Navas de Tolosa: a woman interprets a crusade

In the summer of 1212, crusaders and other knights from the Iberian kingdoms and from France convened in the city of Toledo to fight the Muslims of al-Andalus. Led by the Castilian king Alfonso VIII and the new Archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, Christian forces won the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa on July 14, 1212. This battle, which historians agree marked a turning point in the Spanish reconquista, was also the last great deed of Alfonso VIII of Castile. Two years later he was dead, and Castile was burdened with a minor king and eventual civil war, as Alfonso’s daughter Berenguela fought for the regency of king (Enrique I) and kingdom with the powerful nobleman, Álvaro Nuñez de Lara.

Before this turn of events, however, Las Navas was celebrated at the Castilian court. Alfonso wrote to Pope Innocent III, detailing the victory; eventually Archbishop Rodrigo set down his version of events in his famous De Rebus Hispanie. Berenguela, the one-time queen of León, who was living with her parents in Castile, also took the opportunity to relay the news of the battle to her important sister, Blanca – the future Blanche of Castile, queen of France. At the time, Blanca was the wife of prince Louis of France; Berenguela hoped Blanca would relay the news of the battle to the French king Philip, along with some very specific political messages.

In this paper I analyze this letter, one of the earliest interpretations of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and an exceedingly rare example of a woman writing about a crusade. I argue that the letter reveals the ways in which Berenguela was beginning to construct an image of a valorous king – one who had victory against the Muslims. This became important for her later crusading efforts with her son Fernando III. More significantly, however, this letter offers a particularly gendered vision of the crusade, one which was more realistic than other reporters about the cost of warfare and the participation of women in it.


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