To Live Like a Moor

Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

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Olivia Remie Constable
Editor(s): 
Robin Vose
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , January
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249484.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain is Olivia Remie Constable’s final book, published posthumously and edited by Robin Vose. The book traces the changing attitudes with which medieval and early modern Christian Spanish officials regarded quotidian elements of life practiced by Mudejars, or Muslims, and Moriscos, or Muslim converts to Christianity. Given the circumstances of its assembly and publication, To Live Like a Moor is an admittedly incomplete project. For instance, Vose notes that Constable’s research on language use—originally intended to be an entire chapter of the book—was too incomplete to be included at all in the final product. Additionally, as research for the book was still in progress before Constable’s death, she had not fully articulated a structuring central argument. Despite these understandable incompletions, Constable’s deep and extensive research and Vose’s editing and afterword have resulted in a work that offers insight into the shift that occurred in Iberian Christian perceptions of “Moorish” habits of dress, food, and hygiene that took place between the middle ages and the 17th century.

To Live Like a Moor is composed of four chapters. The brief introductory chapter offers a broad overview of the increasingly restrictive attitudes that Christian administrators and clerics adopted towards behaviors—many of which were not explicitly tied to religious practices—that they deemed as “Moorish” or tied to Islam. Constable structures most of this first chapter around the 16th century memorandum written by the Granadan Morisco, Francisco Núñez Muley. Núñez Muley wrote his memorandum in defense of Granadan customs, including “bathing, dressing, naming, language, and music” (1). These were customs that Christian officials were attempting to eliminate in order to ensure that recent Muslim converts to Christianity would both “be and appear to be Christians” (1, 2). Constable notes that these activities had been uncontroversial to—and even admired by—Christians in the Middle Ages. Núñez Muley’s piece constitutes a central point of discussion for Constable and serves as a structuring device for subsequent chapters.

The remaining three chapters examine discrete elements of Mudejar and Morisco life that were subjected to increasing scrutiny by Christian clerics and administrators over the course of the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. Namely, these three chapters are devoted to clothing and appearance, bathing, and food. Although they treat distinct elements of daily life, they tell a cohesive story about shifting perceptions of what constituted “Moorish” lifeways using similar bodies of evidence.

A majority of the sources used in these three chapters were created by Old Christians as opposed to Moriscos and include chronicles, archaeological evidence, deluxe manuscripts, cookbooks, medical treatises, Inquisition records, and surrender treaties. Constable also utilizes a handful of Morisco and Islamic sources, including hadith, Islamic juridical texts, medical treatises, and Núñez Muley’s memorandum. However, the sources that Constable makes the most use of are normative Christian legal sources: law codes and royal proclamations from throughout Christian Spain. With this large corpus of sources, Constable provides concrete evidence of the increasingly restrictive measures that Christian officials took to control the clothing, bathing, and food consumption of Mudejars and Moriscos. But whether loose or restrictive, Constable points out that these laws insisted on a connection between interior religious belief and outward appearance.

Understandably, To Live Like a Moor broaches topics that Constable was not able to fully develop. This is clear in her discussions of the role that Christian depictions of Moriscas played in increasingly restrictive Christian attitudes of the late medieval and early modern periods. Medieval regulations of Mudejar activities focused implicitly on Muslim men. Constable notes, for instance, that medieval regulations of female Muslim dress were sparse, often only appearing in passing mentions (47). On the other hand, early modern discourses on Moriscos positioned the activities generally conducted in private by women—including cooking, bathing, and veiling (wearing the almalafa)—as being illicitly sexual, vehicles for maintaining a secret observance to Islam, or both. Vose and David Nirenberg—who penned the book’s foreword—attempt to explain the broader significance of this shift, suggesting that it was rooted in a heightened early modern focus on the bodily, but Constable herself was not able to offer her own take on the matter.

Vose acknowledges some possible further routes of research in his afterword. In addition to investigating the role that gender played on discourses of religious identity, Vose suggests that more comparisons need to be drawn between premodern and modern anti-Islamic discourses (142). Vose also uses the afterword to highlight the fact that the Morisco customs examined by Constable were “invented and infused with significance” by Christian authorities, and were not static markers of religious difference. Moreover, Vose notes that when these behaviors did come under scrutiny, their prosecution “depended on intentionality” of the actor rather than the act itself (141). This is a helpful and nuanced reminder of the contingent nature of these external markers and may prompt a reevaluation of the caution with which Constable approaches Núñez Muley, whose economic and customary arguments in defense of Morisco lifeways she characterizes as “disingenuous” (3). 

Another area in which further research could be conducted on religious community in premodern Iberia is in quotidian practices of domination, such as slavery and servitude. The potential benefits of investigating this topic is tantalizingly indicated by Constable’s references to enslaved Muslims in ostensibly Christian spaces, such as bathhouses and in spaces of food preparation (83, 110). Also, although Constable does not mention it, Núñez Muley defends the rights of Moriscos to own enslaved Africans in his memorandum, further suggesting slavery’s viability for inclusion in discussions of interreligious identity construction (Francisco Núñez Muley, A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, 91).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Franke is a doctoral student in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Olivia Remie Constable was the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. She was author of Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula 900-1500 and Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, her monumental collection of primary source material, is also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Robin Vose is Professor of History at St. Thomas University, New Brunswick, Canada.

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