On the Social and Cultural History of the Moriscos

Following the reconquest of Granada in 1492, the Muslim minority in Spain, known derogatorily as Moriscos, were subjected to harsh measures in the form of edicts and restrictions. Forced to live in a hostile environment, which happened to be their homeland, they developed their own attitude, accompanied by passive resistance and sporadic revolt. This attitude was expressed in an extensive, clandestine and mostly anonymous literature known as the Aljamiado literature, which was for the most part written in the Romance in Arabic script. Although the Moriscos preserved a sentimental attachment to Arabic as their own language, they were no longer able to use it. This literature was, for the most part, inspired by Arabic models that not only expressed defiance towards the oppressor, but also reiterated Islamic values. Written mostly during the XV and XVI centuries, the Aljamiado literature is significant for the study of cultural change, offering valuable data for the historian, religious scholar, sociologist, anthropologist, philologist, belle - lettrist, and civil and human rights advocate, who would gain insight into the fate of a deprived and persecuted minority living in a hostile environment.

The work under review is intended according to its author “to survey and analyze the self expression of the Moriscos as contained in their own literature; it also assesses the status of a minority struggling for survival, with reference to ideological conflict, the clash of religions and cultures, and differing mutual perceptions.” Although the work is intended to be a general “cultural and social history,” as the sub-title indicates, it is in many ways a study of the mentalitae of a group of people who were forced to live on the defensive in their bid for survival.

Though there is an abundant body of literature on the Moriscos, it is based largely on Christian sources. Thus, the merit of this study is that it looks at the Moriscos from within, drawing upon their experiences which were recorded and viewed in Aljamiado literature. Prof. Chejne’s work not only gives us great insights on the mentality and attitudes of the Moriscos, but it also tells us a great deal about the mentality of the Spanish authorities who saw in the use of Arabic language, Arabic names and customs, public baths, dancing the ‘zamba’ and singing, circumcision, abstention from eating pork or drinking alcoholic beverages a threat to both the Church and the State, and thus tried to impose prohibitions against these observances, customs and values. (p. 10)

The Moriscos’ reaction to this hostility and alienation imposed on them resulted in the revival of a strong historical consciousness about their past Islamic ascendency and, by extension, about their place in history. This produced not only strong pride in past Islamic accomplishments and faithfulness to Islamic values and practices, but also an unshakable belief in and great hope for the Moriscos’ ultimate deliverance. This consciousness of a glorious past and present tribulation strengthened belief in future redemption through the triumph of divine power over the deeds of man. Uncultured and relegated to the margin of society, aware of their shortcomings and difficulties, the Moriscos’ hope for a brighter future did not falter. This unshaken confidence and its underlying expectations emerge from their literature on religious matters, polemics, history, legends, epics, novels, and poetry. (p. 18) Professor Chejne did an admirable job in illuminating the Moriscos’ attitudes and mentality through his analysis of these different genres of Aljamiado literature. One
of the major finds of the author is that “the Moriscos’ writings are for the most part didactic and often deal with the theme of hopelessness and despair which end in triumph and bliss within a divine plan.” (p. 18)

Though the Moriscos drew heavily from Arab-Islamic models and themes, these were not, however, the sophisticated and highly intellectual productions of the golden times of Arabo-Islamic culture. Prof. Chejne makes it clear that Arabic culture had been declining in Muslim Spain at the time of the Reconquest, and intellectual leaders found new horizons in the Muslim countries of North Africa and the East, leaving their fellow Andalusians intellectually impoverished and increasingly more inclined towards popularized forms of culture both in style and content. In the absence of recognized indigious and educational institutions for Arabic and Islamic culture, the task of educating fell on individual self-appointed scholars who, in spite of their intellectual limitations, commanded great respect among the Moriscos as their literature makes it clear. On the other hand, being the leaders and teachers of their communities, striving to preserve and disseminate Islamic values and mores, they were seen as dangerous and were closely watched by the Inquisition. The exit of talent, lack of contact with the outside world, the limitations of the Moriscos themselves, and persistent Christian attempts to eliminate cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions were all devastating factors against the preservation of the essentials of Morisco culture. Due to this, the author sees a tendency towards selectivity rather than systematic study of a total discipline in the Moriscos’ literature. (p. 32-33)

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