One of the most debate issues about Al-Andalus is the question of convivencia, co-existence or living together. Some academic circles promote the flourishing of a diversified society where people’s religion, spiritual or worldly matters co-existed peacefully. Others share the view that it was just a utopia that could never materialize.
Me, as a writer, when I am confused about a interpretation or political analysis of history, I go in search of real people’s story and how they lived on the street. To me, this is where real life is.
Andalusi lives have been documented but these stories are mainly available in archives and historians like writing history by putting their own spins and prejudices on it. There are policies and laws that govern a people but in effect it is ordinary people’s lives that can teach us the most about what went on the streets. (Not very different today, come to think of it).
In 1215, the 4th Lateral Council called the way Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together a “damnable mixing”. Six years later Pope Honorius III complained to the archbishop of Toledo about the Jewish people and why they are not wearing a distinctive clothing. 18 years later Pope Gregory IX tried to instruct Navarre’s king to put a yellow cloth on Jewish clothing, much of it has been ignored.
We have a number of amazing stories that highlight that living together was as real and raw as bread dough on the land of Andalus that just needed a bit of baking. In Cuenca, about 100 miles east of Madrid, the village code was based on the idea that everyone should arrive and expect to live in peace. This village was ruled twice both by Muslims and Christians respectively, yet the idea of peace remained the common idea in the mind of the villagers.
The developing water and irrigation system caused a lot of disputed between Christians and Muslims, so they collectively set up water councils to sort out those misunderstandings. In Daroca, in Zaragoza, farmers put money into a pool so they could pay someone to watch their wheat fields at night and protect it from stealing.
Bath houses were not always segregated by religion but most often by gender. Of course, where wealth was substantial, like in Sevilla, they could afford to segregate people but in most villages across the land this would have been pure luxury, so people had to wrestle out creatively how to live together despite their differences.
Many craftsmen like dye masters, silk processors, potters and glass makers from Valencia used to migrate to Muslims Granada and the king of Aragon lifted some taxes and introduced exemptions for them so it became viable for them to stay.
Another example of convivencia was the bread oven in the Valencian Navarre. In 1258 King Jaime I of Aragon ordered that the bread must be used by all villagers bearing in mind each communities necessities.
Business owners had little or no choice except learning how to make their business work while their neighbours of another faith could also profit from the local population. Moses Maimonedes suggested that Friday revenue should go to the Jews as they were not busy with their holy day’s practices and Saturday revenue should go to Muslims who were open as usual while the Jews celebrated their holy ceremonies.
In the 14th century Mahoma Abenfo (a Muslim) and Abraham Avenrrabi (a Jewish) signed a loan together for a business as co-creditors in Zaragoza. In Borja, Christians and Muslims ran an inn in the Jewish quarter.
Of course, there were incidents where business was not always of a noble pursuit but some involved people of both or often all three religious members of the community. There are sources that mention a Christian girl who runs off from an abusive forced marriage to take refuge with a Jewish friend, or in Tarazona a gang of Christians and Muslims were selling women into slavery.
Apart from these examples, of course we cannot disregard the most powerful force, love, that brought people together. Many Moorish poets were in love with Christian girls and the 11th century Moses Ibn Ezra of Granada spoke of a Muslim woman he was in love with in one of his poems: “By the hands of the Muslim doe is my soul destroyed and my heart and her eyes torn”.
There are many examples of daily co-living and we must never forget that history must be written by the people who lived it, not by those who use it for their own power grabbing strategies.