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

Theresa M. Vann, Our Father has Won a Great Victory: Dispatches from the Battlefield of Las Navas de Tolosa

On 16 July 1212, Alfonso VIII of Castile, together with the kings of Aragon, Navarre, León, and Portugal, defeated a major Almohad army at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. This battle assumed mythic status in Christendom, since Pope Innocent III had issued the campaign a bull of crusade that not only encouraged cooperation within the Christian kingdoms of Iberia but also attracted bishops and knights from France. The French contingents, however, abandoned the expedition before engaging the Muslims.
After the battle, Alfonso VIII sent a dispatch to Innocent III, reporting his victory. These narrative descriptions of battles against the Muslims are a diplomatic genre, and can be found in the form of official letters or as prologues to charters. They are usually attributed to the monarch, although it is more likely they were composed in the chancery as a public letter.  However, we have an additional dispatch for Las Navas, which has all the appearance of a private communication. Berenguela, daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile, sent a letter to her sister Blanche of Castile, wife of Louis VIII of France, describing their father’s victory over the Muslims in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Berenguela’s letter does not contain the same text as Alfonso VIII’s letter, and it is clearly intended for a different audience.

In this paper I will analyze the texts of the two letters to determine points of comparison between them in content and vocabulary. I will show that both were written for the same purpose: to report the battle to a specific audience, and to request additional military aid. The vocabulary was carefully chosen for the audience of each letter. Alfonso’s letter to Innocent contains rich crusader imagery, speaking of the “army of Christ,” marching the sign of the cross, and carrying the papal crusading banner, concluding with the request for additional help. Berenguela’s letter to Blanche lacks these phrases. Instead, she subtly bolsters her sister’s status at the French court as the daughter of a crusader, and implies that Blanche should influence her husband’s subjects on behalf of her family. 


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