Patio de las doncellas, Reales Alcázares, Seville
E. Michael Gerli


As recently as the middle of the 13th C, the social, political, and religious map of the Iberian Peninsula had been dramatically redrawn. With the Christian Castilian-Leonese conquest of Córdoba (1238) and Seville (1248), the latter subjugated with the aid of the Muslim king of Granada, the culture and politics of these former centers of Western Islamic civilization had been permanently altered. In general, the Islamic subjects who could leave the newly conquered territories did so for the Kingdom of Granada in the wake of the conquests of the thirteenth century, including most Arabophone authors and poets. Córdoba’s and Seville's losses were, in a very real sense, Granada’s gain. Yet, many Muslims who were not of the intelligentsia stayed on to live as mudéjares (protected Islamic subjects). The ancient and prosperous Jewish communities of Seville, Córdoba and the other cities of the Gudalquivir Valley, dating back to as early as the 4th C, remained relatively unaffected by the Christian conquest until the second half of the 14th C, beginning with the reign of Pedro I.

Critical Events: 1348-1415

By the middle of the 14th C Seville and Córdoba had become the centers of dramatic political and dynastic events that exacerbated social anxieties stemming from religious and cultural differences. With the death of the plague of Alfonso XI at the gates of Gibraltar, the promise of a complete Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula vanished for the next century and one half, as did vouchsafing the stability and continuity of the Castilian-Leonese monarchy and its dreams of empire dating back to Fernando III. Alfonso was succeeded by his sixteen-year-old son Pedro I (1350-1369), the last king of the so-called Dinastía Sevillana (Dynasty of Seville, or the Castilian monarchs that, since the conquest of Seville in 1248 by Fernando III, showed a decided preference for the city). Pedro’s reign ended violently at Montiel in 1369 with his betrayal by the French mercenary Bertrand du Guesclin and his murder at the hands of his bastard half-brother Enrique de Trastámara, who then claimed the throne. 

Detail of Founding Inscription and Stucco Decoration, Sinagoga de Córdoba

Beginning in the 1470s the preaching of the Mendicant Orders in Castile and Aragon against the Jews had risen alarmingly, especially in the area of Valencia by St. Vincent Ferrer, where Jews were excoriated for their stubborn adherence to their faith and their rejection of Christianity. By the late 1470s in Seville, Ferrán Martínez, the archdeacon of Ecija and a canon in the cathedral, also began to preach against the Jews, but with dramatic rabble-rousing effects, threatening violence against town councils that allowed Jews to live in their midst, and demanding the destruction of their synagogues. But Martínez was adamant, defending his right to preach and claiming that by muzzling him the Crown would show favor to religious minorities. When the archbishop of Seville died in July, 1390, Martínez became the cathedral’s chief administrator until a new archbishop could be named. As a result of his new-found power and his incendiary rhetoric, on June 4, 1391 he moved the mob to action, to the sacking of the Jewish Quarter and the massacre of the Jews of Seville. The anti-Jewish rioting in Seville quickly spread to the rest of Andalucía, then on to all the cities of Castile, and then throughout the Crown of Aragon. The size and wealth of the Iberian Jewish communities suffered dramatically. The upheavals nearly ended the history of the Jews in Spain. The diminished number of Jews now had less influence in the economic and political life of the kingdom. Thousands of others did survive, but mainly as conversos, many of whom kept certain Jewish customs and beliefs alive. Rather than celebrate these New Christians (cristianos nuevos), their very existence only served to create a growing resentment and perpetuate friction between them, the Jews who did not convert, and their “Old” Christian coreligionists.

In one way or another these events all serve to frame the works and the significant personal encounters that follow.

King Pedro at Seville: The embassy of Ibn Khaldun, and  the possible later presence of Chaucer in Spain.

The King Pedro Legends and Ballads (including María de Padilla and María Coronel).

The legends and ballads dealing with Pedro I portray the hostilities between the king and his half brothers, the Trastámaras, the bastard sons of Alfonso XI and his mistress, Leonor de Guzmán. The ballads were probably composed during the fourteenth century by partisans of both factions, with an end to spread slander and innuendo against the opposing parties and to legitimize Pedro’s fratricide at the hands of the usurper, Enrique, and the Trastámaran succession. They continued to circulate long after the civil war between the brothers, and were used in attempts to vouchsafe the Trastámaran claim of the preeminence of the continuity of royal blood in the face of an unjust and cruel king who stood out for his savagery and inhumanity. Drawing upon custom and the law, they cast the Trastámaran accession to the throne in a religious and moral light; as a divine mandate that constantly pointed to King Pedro as a monster unfit to wear the crown of Castile.

The Memorias of Leonor López de Córdoba. Although written much after the events related, when Leonor was at court and protected now by the Queen Regent, Catalina de Lancaster (ca. 1400), the Memorias are the first example of what is now referred to as life writing, or autobiography, in Spanish , and are also the first example of Castilian women’s writing. The Memorias provide important, albeit partisan, insight into the Trastámaran treatment of King Pedro’s allies and their families by Enrique II, the first king of the new dynasty. Although often self-serving, and mediated by a dose of scribal intervention, Leonor’s memoirs offer an intimate portrait of a woman caught up in the political and social turmoil unleashed by the dynastic struggles of the latter half of the 14thC in Castile.

Juan Alfonso de Baena and his Cancionero. The earliest verse recorded in Baena’s Cancionero, much of which was produced by poets from the immediate area around Seville and Córdoba, demonstrates a decided interest in religious, philosophical, and spiritual matters, much of it having been produced by recent converts to Christianity from Judaism and Islam. In this way, the poetry serves as a medium both for recording and shaping the profound cultural, political, and religious transformations that shaped the Trastámaran kingdom. The early verse of the Baena anthology captures many of the anxieties produced by these changes and serves as a field in which political, religious, and social power is continuously examined and negotiated. At the same time, in figures like Micer Francisco Imperial, a member of the large commercial community of Genoese living in Seville, poetry, in addition to serving political and philosophical purposes, begins to be used as a medium for the acquisition of social and cultural prestige in aristocratic circles. Through his use of Dante, Imperial seeks both to bring a larger vision to Castilian poetry, just as through his writing of Dantesque poetry he seeks to project Castilian verse into a broader, European learned tradition of texts. The chapter will examine new converts to Chrsitianity like Ferrán Sánchez de Calavera, and Fray Diego Moxena de Valencia, who debate poetically on questions like free will and predestination, the Trinity, and the Incarnation, exhibiting openly expressed doctrinal uncertainty. In addition, there are several portrayals of Jews by conversos in the Cancionero de Baena that provide interesting perspectives on Judaism and Islam by the newly converted. Garci Fernández de Xernena, for example, is originally of Islamic origin, converts to Christianity, and then flees to Granada and converts back to Islam, before moving finally to Jerusalem. 

The chapter will conclude with an examination of the travelogue of Ruy Gonzáelz de Clavijo, Enrique III’s ambassador to the court of Timur in 1403-1405. Besides offering descriptions of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the people and customs encountered during the journey east, Clavijo and his companions spent several months in Samarkand, during which they attended celebrations for Timur's recent victory at Ankarain over the Turkish sultan, Bayazid I, who had been captured in the battle. As related, the events are seen in larger geopolitical terms, assuaging Western fears of Ottoman expansion in Hungary, thus animating the desire for diplomatic connections, and possibily even an alliance, between Enrique III and Timur. Due to Timur's sudden illness, Clavijo and his group were, however, unable to obtain a commitment for diplomatic ties from Timur for Enrique. They were thus forced to return to Castile empty-handed, leaving much speculation concerning the future of the Turkish Empire had they succeed in establishing relations and forging an alliance.