mudejar :: Bridge to Spain

Archive for mudejar


Starting in the middle of the story, a bit of history: After the Muslim invasion of 711, medieval Iberia was divided into Christian and Islamic territories. At first, the Christians only had a bit of northwest Iberia, but soon started the Reconquista (Reconquest) to win back the peninsula from the Muslims. That took almost 700 years, until Granada was taken in 1492.

At first glance, the Reconquista looks like a religious conflict, but in fact it was more about power and economics than religion. We might also ask ourselves about reconquering territory after so many years; perhaps the Muslims were as Iberian or almost as Iberian as the Christians after all that time? Today some historians call the Reconquista an extended civil war between different cultural groups.

That sounds pretty violent, but for many years medieval Iberia (not yet Spain) was a truly multicultural society, with religious freedom for everyone, and a lot of mutual respect. Spanish has a fabulous word for that: convivencia , which I like to call “with-living” (con=with, vivir= to live): that’s a lot better than just tolerance, where my way is the right way, but I let you do your thing because I’m a good person.

Convivencia meant that the three major monotheistic religious (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) got along pretty well, each with their customs, but all respecting the other groups. There were some rules, of course: Christians in Islamic Iberia had religious freedom, but might not be able to build new places of worship, might not have access to the best jobs, might pay higher taxes and of course, should not blaspheme against Islam. Similar policies would have been in place in Christian Iberia; Jewish people lived in both territories, also with some limitations.

Convivencia worked pretty well for quite a long time – but it eventually did fall apart. Still, it’s fascinating to think about that getting-along and wonder if there is any way to make it happen again. (want to know more about convivencia? There are two good medieval history books on reading list, see Books link in navigation bar).

The M-Words: Within that multicultural society, different cultural groups had different names, the most frequently used names all starting with the letter “M”. I’m not enough of a linguist to know if there is a hidden reason for that, but nothing obvious jumped out at me when looking up the etymology of these words in the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary.    Here’s a summary of the different cultural groups in medieval Iberia.

Mudéjar, from Arabic word mudaÿÿan (or mudaggan), meaning domesicated or under domination. This word is for Muslims living in Christian areas as the reconquista moved south. Mostly humble social classes – farmers, builders, textile workers – probably because the skilled and wealthy moved to Muslim areas after their towns / cities were taken over by Christians. Mudéjar is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style arches and decoration in civil architectural and even Christian churches.

Moriscos, from Spanish word moros (Moorish), meaning someone who converted from Islam to Christianity. This word covers voluntary conversions but also and more importantly forced conversions after the Catholic Monarchs’ conversion edict in 1502. In Aragon and Valencia regions this group was quite numerous, and also called saracenos.

Mozárabe, from Arabic Word musta´rab, meaning influenced by Arabic language / culture. This word is for Christians living in Islamic áreas; Christians living in Christian Iberia tended to regard Mozárabe Christians as too Arabized to be true Christians. The Mozárabe Christians used the older Christian religious rites even after the rest of Spain changed to the Roman rites in the 11th century – those earlier rites are still practiced today in a few places, among them the Mozárabe chapel in Toledo’s Cathedra. Mozárabe is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style architecture for churches, though most of the churches in this style are in northern Spain, built by Christians who had had lived under Islam but left those areas Christian kingdoms.

Marrano, from old Spanish and also Arabic muharram, meaning declared anathema, forbidden. This word is for Jews converted to Christianity, mostly under the Catholic Monarchs’ convert or leave edict of 1492. Another word for the same cultural group: conversos (converted). The word marrano also means pig in Spanish, an unfortunate linguistic coincidence (if not intended nastiness) for a group that might have continued to shun pork, in spite of their conversion to Christianity.

Muladí, from old Spanish and also Arabic muwalladín, meaning born of a non-Arabic mother. This word is for Christians who converted to Islam. Most of these conversions were voluntary, as the Muslim rulers respected the right to religious freedom even to the end of their power in medieval Iberia. Christians may have converted to enjoy better social situation, more access to administrative jobs, better tax situation, etc. This word was also used for children of mixed-religion couples – even today the similar word muwalladin is used for these children.

Source for lots (but not all) this post: Spanish Royal Academy dictionary If you like language this is a great website!