”Reconquista”: Follow the Money

Even before al-Mansur bi-Ilah’s death and the start of the Taifa Period, northern Iberians took full advantage of every opportunity that came along to add to their coffers at the expense of Muslim Spain. As early as 740, when North African Berbers revolted against the Arab elite, Alfonso I of Asturias launched a series of raids into the Duero valley. Other northern leaders did likewise. This intermittent acquisition of booty ignited and sustained a seemingly impossible desire for conquest. Up until the eleventh century, the inhabitants of the half-Christian North never attempted full-scale invasion. Continually bickering amongst themselves due to social, religious, and political differences, they lacked the requisite knowledge and political accord. Muslim Spain was too powerful for them. However, with time, a weak but distinct northern identity emerged, partly due to the common threat of southern antagonism, partly due to Christianization, and partly due to the shared dream of acquiring the riches of Umayyad Spain. This North could still hardly face up to centuries-old Muslim political and religious unity, but the ambition of its monarchs juxtaposed with developments within Hispania itself more than made up for any deficiencies, augmenting its chances of successful conquest.

Putting on Airs: Stealing “Protection Money” from a Divided al-Andalus

With the fall of the Cordoban Caliphate in the tenth century and the fragmentation of the southern Iberian Peninsula into weaker rival Taifa states, the Northern Christians finally had an opportunity of making real headway. Civil strife, or fitna, descended upon Muslim Spain. Politically, the individual Christian kingdoms were stronger than they had ever been, and though not one was as strong as the weakest Muslim-ruled state, collectively they did pose a substantial threat. The fabulous wealth of the South – pecuniary, agricultural, and intellectual – beckoned to them as it had always. However they no longer had to resort to sporadic bouts of raiding; they received regular tribute from the Muslims instead. Through parias, a Taifa state bought peace with the Christian state it paid, and assistance against enemies, both Christian and Muslim. As these payments were hardly voluntary, the Christian kingdoms became enormously wealthy. By way of Castile, León, Aragon, Barcelona, and other states, gold entered Northern Europe and revitalized the economy of Christendom. Alfonso VI was wealthy enough to endow part of his annual paria income upon the French monastic house of Cluny, subsequently famous throughout Europe and a force to consider in international politics. With fortune came fame. The prestige of León within Europe grew, and Alfonso stylized himself as totius hispaniae imperator. For a long time, the Iberian kingdoms had been making strategic marriage alliances with surrounding kingdoms and dukedoms in an attempt to increase political power. With wealth, marriage into Iberian royalty became more desirable to the upper strata of powerful French, German, and Italian states. But as they grew richer, the northern kingdoms also grew bolder; the rest of Christian Spain looked on with a mixture of pride and envy when Alfonso VI permanently took over the Taifa of Toledo in 1085, and eagerly followed his example. To justify themselves, they collectively labeled their territorial advances the reconquista; they were simply “reclaiming” that which the Arab-Berbers had usurped from their Roman-Visigothic “forefathers” – fertile lands that had since seen the growth of a number of populous, culturally-rich, and most importantly, income-generating Muslim cities. The lucrative age of parias came to an end, only to yield to an even more profitable period of reconquista.

Right of Return? Blood and Faith

Although it is true that Visigoths had fled north after the Muslim invasion of 711, the Visigothic presence in Spain as a whole had never been very big. The Northern Christians were more of an ethnic mix of indigenous Galician and Pyrenean peasantry, southern French settlers, and a paltry number of Germanic invaders rather than direct descendants of the Visigoths. Their ancestors had for the most part been pagans when Tariq invaded. The Northerners had lived under a dynastic, hereditary tradition, whereas the Visigoths had not. Theirs was a conquest rather than a re-conquest of Hispania. That they tried to justify themselves with a reconquista demonstrates the extent to which they perceived a money-motivated invasion as dishonorable. They could only seize wealth, for they lacked the means to produce it.

Post-conquest Pragmatism

The conquest of Muslim Spain was neither religiously nor socially motivated either. Rome attempted to extend the Crusades into the Iberian Peninsula; the Pope heartily approved of the Northern European campaigns against Muslim Spain and encouraged troops from France, England, and other crusading nations to join in the effort. The added support of the official church and other European states gave the Northern Iberians a greater sense of legitimacy than their claims of Visigothic ancestry in their hungry quest for fortune. After the mid-thirteenth century, when the conquest was nearly over, and most of Spain was partitioned among Castile-León, Aragon, and Portugal, the Northern Christian rulers neither attempted to cajole their newfound Muslim subjects into conversion nor forced them to relocate to Granada and North Africa. Instead, realizing the economic value of the experienced Muslim farmers of the countryside and skilled Muslim craftsmen of the towns of their newly conquered territory, they encouraged them to stay. To the chagrin of the Pope, the Christian monarchs guaranteed freedom of worship, uninterrupted property and inheritance rights, legal rights, and more. In some areas, mosques became churches, but for the most part, secular governments attempted to preserve the established socio-religious order for Muslims. The kings even repopulated key agricultural regions of Spain with knowledgeable Mudejars rather than inexperienced Christians. The Almoravids and the Almohads had led truly religious conquests of Spain, as opposed to these Christians.


The Christian conquest of Muslim Spain was thus largely economically-based. The reconquista was a political device of justification, supported by false historical and superficial religious claims. The northern Iberians had always wished to conquer Muslim Spain, but were unable to for the longest time. However, they seized every opportunity that they came their way to the fullest and ultimately ended up with most of the peninsula in their hands.