The Spectral Arab: Rodrigo and the Fall of Spain Ayer era rey de España

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The Spectral Arab: Rodrigo and the Fall of Spain

“Ayer era rey de España,

hoy no lo soy de una villa;

ayer villas y castillos,

hoy ninguno poseía;

ayer tenía criados,

hoy ninguno me servía;

hoy no tengo una almena

que pueda decir que es mía”
--“Romance de don Rodrigo” Traditional Spanish ballad
Pierre Menard, Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional author of the Quijote tells us that the truth of history is not what happened, but what we judge to have happened.1 Why is it that many Spaniards of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries still need to see the over seven hundred years of Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula as a period of occupation? The facile answer is simply that modern Spain is part of and identifies with Western Europe and defines itself as a political and geographical space that is not the East, and most emphatically since 9/11 and 3/11 NOT Muslim. However, despite official Latinate and later vernacular Romance historiographical attempts to establish the Goths as progenitors of Spanish culture and identity, and the Moor, or Muslim Arab, as the interloper and occupier whose presence on the Peninsula left only superficial physical traces (such as architecture and irrigation canals) but no lasting impact on the Spanish character, we find that a series of Iberian authors question such facile constructions, and offer instead complex constructions of the Iberian past—constructions that encompass the processes of assimilation, adaptation, conversion and miscegenation that worked together to create a textured and often multi-layered sense of what it meant to be an Iberian.

The present study will show that official discourses of Spanish history and identity that work so hard to distance the Arab and the Muslim from the earliest days of the conquest ironically privilege the peninsula’s Arab Muslim past. Any retelling of the foundational fall of Spain at the hands of the last Gothic king, Rodrigo, is also always a retelling of the foundational moment of Muslim Spain or al-Andalus. However invested certain Spanish intellectuals maybe in the myth of pure Gothic bloodlines—bloodlines traceable to Rodrigo and his count Julián—are undone by the very narrative used to establish them. Ironically the story of the last Gothic King Rodrigo’s military defeat at the hands of invading Muslim forces can only serve as a foundational myth/ a testimony to Muslim al-Andalus. This narrative marks the cultural shift on the Peninsula from a Germanic Latinate culture to an Arab Muslim one. The former lasted only some 300 years, while the later survived on the Peninsula for over 700.

The Rodrigo fable, as treated in the majority of historical sources, tells of the final days of Rodrigo’s reign as king of the Visigoths. A series of signs fortell his tragic end: his crown and sceptre fall from his head, and out of rash arrogance he breaks the locks on a forbidden chamber in which the future fall of the Goths is rumored to be found. Rodrigo finds painted on the walls scenes of dark skinned men slaughtering the indigenous Goths and Hispano-Romans. These supernatural portents, which have precedents in tales of the biblical King Solomon of the Arab genre of ajib wa gharib, “wonders and astonishing adventures,” and even incorporated into versions of the 1001 Nights, suggest that the earliest chronicle accounts of Rodrigo’s demise are heavily influenced by non-historical sources.2

This paper is part of a larger work in which I look at how different Iberian authors and historians have retold the fable (in the sense of short didactic fiction) of the last Gothic king, Rodrigo and explore how faith or religious identity factors to a greater or lesser extent as a pretext for the foundational myth of Spanish national identity. The earliest works treating the Rodrigo tale, those of the Arab and Iberian Latinate historians (the works examined in this paper), present us with differing accounts of Rodrigo and his involvement with Julian’s daughter, but religion is a relatively insignificant factor in both. Later medieval Latin, Romance and Arab versions of the fable of Rodrigo in both chronicles and narrative fiction which show an increased emphasis on the religious affiliation of the Arab-Berbers and of the Christian Rodrigo are, I will argue, a response to specific historical-cultural events of the 12th and 14th centuries. The Renaissance versions of the Rodrigo tale, those of the 15th-century romancero (included in the epigraph) and that of the 16th-century play by Lope de Vega (the greatest of Golden Age Spanish playwrights) must be read over and against the Catholic Monarchs defeat of Nasrid Granada and the morisco unprisings of the Alpujarras. The final chapter will deal with the modern Spanish transformation of Rodrigo, La revindicación del conde Julián, by Juan Goytisolo who rereads this tale to question inherited Spanish Catholic nationalism post-Franco.3

The Rodrigo of fable is a fascinating character, driven by ambition and lust and overtaken by remorse. No less fascinating is La Cava, the Malinche of Spain. La Cava, as she has come to be known in Spanish legend, is the daughter of Rodrigo’s North African vassal, Julián. According to the first Arab chronicles, Count Julián sent his daughter to Rodrigo’s court in Toledo as was the custom for the sons and daughters of the highest nobility. According to the legend, Rodrigo was unable to resist his impulses and slept with Julián’s daughter. In the earlier accounts she is the innocent victim of his brutal rape, while in others, particularly those after the Alfonsine accounts of the thirteenth-century she is the evil seductress bent on seducing Rodrigo. While La Cava is given a more active role in the later accounts of the fable, this agency is not a positive reflection on the role of women, but rather a more developed discourse of misogyny by which the blame and responsibility for the loss of Spain’s Christian past is deflected from Rodrigo to the woman he desired. However, as Pedro Chalmeta points out, there is no documentary proof that Julian had a daughter, much less that she was seduced by Roderigo (113-114). In some versions of the fable the woman Rodrigo seduces is not Julián’s daughter, but his wife. The ambiguous nature of Julián’s daughter/wife and of her very role in this iconic story of loss and vengeance shows us that we are dealing with a tale in which the true protagonists are men—Rodrigo and Julián. La Cava figures primarily as and object upon or through which these Visigothic (Spanish?) men enact their desires, which are essentially self referential. Tariq, Musa, and the other Muslims threatening Visigothic rule, never however, disappear from these variants. Rodrigo’s sexual conquest is always already a narrative of imperial conquest. His violation of Julian’s innocent daughter/wife parallels the Muslim violation of the Peninsula—a violation so horrible that the tellers of the tale seem loath to even mention it.

The current study seeks not to find what is “true” about the Rodrigo legend, but precisely to find out how variants of this tale have been mobilized and adapted by different Iberians and Hispanists with very different agendas as a specifically Iberian fable, arguably, THE iconic Iberian fable for religious identity and conflict. Part of an analysis of how this tale has been employed by different authors in very different forms entails an exploration of how the tale simultaneously gestures to Spain’s Other—to Tariq ibn Ziyad and the Muslims waiting on the far shores of the Straits of Gibraltar—while seemingly pushing them to the sidelines—making them silent witnesses to Rodrigo’s destructive impulses, Julian’s daughter’s humiliation, and Count Julian’s revenge.4 Although essential in this drama, the Muslim invaders, Tariq and Musa, are relegated to minor roles as the fall of Spain becomes a personal tragedy. While such a narrative may make historians and some scholars uneasy for its seeming mutability and unreliableness, for a literary critic this fable and the ways in which it is mobilized by different authors for different audiences across time is a fascinating example of how a narrative can serve as a foil for the shifting signifiers of national identity across languages, religions and ethnic boundaries.

This myth of seduction and lust is redeployed by medieval and Renaissance authors as the tragedy of Christian Spain, while in medieval Arab histories and fictions Rodrigo embodies the worthy Christian other—noble warrior and even attractive beloved. Nineteenth and twentieth century Spanish intellectuals will return to this emblematic tale (as I explore briefly in this paper) as they continue to grapple with Spanish identity, the relationship of Spain to Western Europe and with the Spanish past. The constant issues of the Rodrigo tale—sex, lust, betrayal and revenge—upon which the imperial destiny of Islam and the religious (de facto national) identity of Spain hinge continue to be flash points not only for contemporary Spanish fiction writers, but even for Spanish politicians.5

In November of 2006, the ex-president of the E.U. and of Spain, José María Aznar invoked the myth of Rodrigo in his attack on, among other things, the current Spanish government’s more moderated diplomatic approach to the Middle East and the creation of the Alianza de Civilizaciones. He claimed that the current government should know better, since Spain was the first Western nation to be attacked by Islam when the Visigothic King Rodrigo was defeated by the Muslims in 711 (“Aznar se pregunta por qué”). The headline in the popular Spanish newspaper El Mundo was, “Aznar Wonders Why the Arabs Have Not Asked Forgiveness for Having Occupied Spain for Over 800 Years.” Aznar’s manipulation of Rodrigo as part of the so-called “War on Terror” is based on several centuries worth of historical interpretation, and Aznar is but the most recent of Spanish ideologues to invoke Rodrigo and his myth to justify a particular Westernized version of Spanish nationalism. In the press conference Aznar openly attacked the Alianza de la Civilizaciones which, just a few days before in a summit in Madrid had summarized its mission, part of which included a questioning of Bernard Lewis’s/Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations model and of the priority given to religion by adherents of such a view.6 In contrast with the model of loss Aznar invokes, Cebrián outlines for the Alianza the possibility of a Mediterranean culture of differing religions. He posits that such a culture was lost because of the “insidious Reconquista” unleashed by Rodrigo’s fall and by an Iberian political structure that allied Church and Crown and set about eliminating religious pluralism.

La idea de que son las religiones las que limitan y definen el entorno de la civilización ha llevado a sugerir que ese es el motivo fundamental por el que el progreso fue diferente a ambas orillas del Mediterráneo. Pero si lo fue, y cuando lo ha sido, se debió fundamentalmente a las imposiciones del poder. Sin las Cruzadas y la Inquisición, sin la insidiosa Reconquista ibérica, podríamos -¿quién sabe?- haber asistido al florecimiento de una civilización mediterránea, ecuménica y no sincretista, en la que convivieran diversos legados de la cultura grecolatina, lo mismo que conviven hoy las dos Europas, la de la cerveza y el vino, la de la mantequilla y el aceite de oliva, en una sola idea de democracia. El poder religioso, aliado con el trono, se encargó sin embargo de eliminar el pluralismo, tanto en el seno del islam como en el de la cristiandad. Los liberales de unas y otras religiones sufrieron persecución y exilio por los poderes de esta tierra. Lo único que podemos decir ahora es que no tuvo que ser así, y que todavía podría no ser así. Ojalá (ua xa Alah) que la Alianza de Civilizaciones, impulsada por Rodríguez Zapatero y las Naciones Unidas, sirva al menos para reflexionar al respecto, escapando a la tentación, demasiado evidente, de convertirse en un elemento más de la propaganda política. (Cebrían)

This exploration of the ways in which the Rodrigo tale has been transformed into the emblematic clash of civilizations invoked by Aznar, and renounced so eloquently by Cebrián on behalf of the Alianza de Civilizaciones leads us to question how Rodrigo come to represent the threat of the Arab and of Islam in the Spanish tradition—there were after all many other Visigothic nobles at the time who died fighting the incoming Muslims.7

As we explore the different versions of the Rodrigo legend, we must keep in mind the inexact nature and use of several terms. “España” is often used in translations of both the Latin and Arabic chronicles for the Latin name of its Iberian colony, Hispania. And while twentieth and twenty-first-century Spanish intellectuals have strategically deployed the terms to justify a particular nationalist reading of the Iberian past, España as a nation-state characterized by a national language and identity and with roughly the same geographic borders as it has today takes shape only in the fourteenth century.8 From the mid-eighth century to the thirteenth century most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim rule (first under the Umayyads in Cordoba, then subdivided into a series of nation-states known as the Taifa Kingdoms, and finally as part of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of North Africa from the late eleventh to the thirteenth centuries), and was known in Arabic as al-Andalus, or the region of the Vandals. The term “Reconquest” is a nineteenth century term used by nineteenth and twentieth-century Hispanists and Spanish historians to construct a narrative of medieval Spanish history that portrays the interaction between medieval Iberian Christians and Muslims as a “contest between Islam and Christianity for mastery of the Iberian Peninsula” that lasted from the eighth to the fifteenth century.9 These nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars employed the term as part of a wider construction of Spanish history, according to which, “the Spanish nation was born in the Visigothic era, [and] its soul was forged through the epic struggle to reclaim Hispania for Christianity” (Ray 1).

Since the fourteenth century the tale of Rodrigo has served Spaniards as a placeholder for Old Christian Spain—that which had been lost and which therefore justified recuperation, the forcible reconquest of Muslim lands. Without this Christian Gothic past, embodied in the figure of Rodrigo, there was little justification for not only for the dogmatic Catholicism of Ferdinand and Isabel, but more pertinently for critics of the twentieth centuries, those writing during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, who sought to revive Spanish nationalism under the conservative banner of the Catholicism of the Catholic Monarchs. Rodrigo’s defeat, however, at the hands of Muslims proves a perennial difficulty for the Spanish historian and for the myth of Christian Spain, for if “Spain,” the Iberian Peninsula was fated to be Christian, why did God allow the Muslims such an easy conquest? The seduction of Julián’s daughter and the entry into the forbidden room provides a convenient answer—the noble Christian Rodrigo, like the greatest of epic heroes, fell prey to the sin of hubris and to his own lust. Rodrigo, like Christian Spain, is fallen and succumbs to its desires. It will take yet another iconic figure—the Cid—to recuperate the Spanish Christian past and to reestablish the legitimacy of Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula.10 The reading I am doing of these two Spanish mythic figures is clearly a Christian one—the fallen man done in by his own desire, and the redemptor, the messiah who offers new life to the Spanish people. I do not think that such a reading is coincidental among Renaissance and modern Spanish historians, writing as they were in a Spain that had for at least four hundred years identified Spanish imperial agenda and identity with Catholicism.

Before looking at the first Latin and Arab chronicles to include the events of 711, i want to address a historical-fictional account of the Rodrigo tale—one that, like Aznar’s comment, conflates the Iberian past with contemporary European events. The Spanish historian, Claudio Sánchez Albornoz alludes to the Rodrigo myth in an unusual essay that mixes the Spanish past with political events in France while simultaneously making a meta commentary on history itself.11 He presents the fictional encounter of several friends—a worker, a poet, a geologist, a painter, and a priest—contemplating the beauty of the medieval walled Spanish town Avila at sunset. Sánchez Albornoz notes that one friend is missing--the historian—whose eyes would have discerned a sixth shade in the twilight landscape:

Porque también los historiadores tienen ojos para ver en el hoy. ¡Ojos de historiador! . . . En ocasiones una fuerza incoercible les permite o, por mejor decir, les impele a traspasar con sus rayos visuales el cuerpo opaco de la actualidad de un instante cualquiera de su tiempo y les muestra, tras el paisaje vivo de una hora del hoy, la silueta borrosa de otra hora pretérito. ¿Privilegio? ¿Servidumbre? . . . Más servidumbre que privilegio y más suplico que gozo. Sí, porque en los días que vivimos, los ojos de un historiador, dotados de ese rayo misterioso ultravioleta, al penetrar a través de las sombras espesas tiempos cruciales, no descubren luminosas perspectivas en panoramas de la historia. Y hablo por experiencia personal. No me enorgullece ni me complace haber recibido de la historia esa virtud como un don irrenunciable y torturante. Con frecuencia mis ojos, débiles para asomarse al exterior a través de los cristales de mis gafas, penetran la opacidad de un personaje o de un paisaje humano de estos tiempos, y de repente descubren a lo lejos la silueta de un hombre o de un panorama de otros días . . . No puedo remediarlo. Es una enfermedad de cura muy difícil. Compadecedme y no os enojéis con mis visiones. (14)

And what is it that Sánchez Albornoz sees with this seemingly prophetic vision of the past? The ghosts of among others, Roosevelt, Charlemagne and don Rodrigo:

Un día, mientras cruzaba en el velero el mar Atlántico, me visitaron juntas las sombras del presidente Roosevelt y del primer emperador germano de occidente: Carlosmagno. . . . Hoy he visto desfilar la corte del último rey godo tras las siluetas de los hombres de la Tercera República Francesa, en sus postrimerías. ¡Don Rodrigo tras Lebrun! Sí, don Rodrigo con sus condes, sus gardingos, sus fideles y sus próceres, y Lebrun con sus ministros, los presidentes delas cámaras y los jefes y miembros distinguidos de los partidos políticos del Senado y del Congreso. La corona de Leovigildo y el gran collar de la Legión de Honor. Cascos, lorigas y sandalias y botines, sombreros de copa y pecheras de frac. El Tajo y el Sena. Sol radiante y tenue luz. . . . El arzobispo Sinderedo y el cardenal Vardier. . . . El palacio encantado de Toledo, cerrado por docenas de candados, y la negra verja del Elíseo parisino. Egilona, la reina, Florinda y las otras señoras de la corte visigoda, y madame Lebrun, la presidenta, y las otras damas del París oficial. Y con las sombras de Rodrigo y de sus gentes, en este atardecer otoñal, junto a los Andes, he visto desfilar el “film” trágico de la agonía del reino hispanogodo. (15-16)

Sánchez Albornoz continues the revery, comparing the politically divisive situation of France in the 1930s to that of eighth-century Visigothic Iberia, both characterized by “intrigas, zacadillas, odios” (16). He evokes the locked chamber and both Rodrigo’s wife, Egilona, and the victim of his sexual attack, Florinda, underscoring not only Rodrigo’s nature as a rapist, but also as an adulterer. More surprising than Sánchez Albornoz’s comparison of the sins of the pre-War French to the last Visigoths, is his treatment, or better his almost total silence with respect to the Muslims. Sánchez Albornoz’s implicit comparison of the Muslims to the Nazis, although unspoken, lurks just below the surface. The Muslims (like the unnamed Nazis) were the threatening militarized invaders just on the other side of the border, “al otro lado de la frontera del Estrecho, avanza un pueblo de guerreros, recién convertidos a una fe novísima; a una fe que es a la par un dogna y una doctrina política, una religión y una organización estatal; un pueblo que ama la lucha y la rapiña; un pueblo ebrio de entusiasmo y de pasión y que aspira al dominio del mundo” (17). Ironically for Sánchez Albornoz it is these people who love to rape and pillage, and not Rodrigo, whose legendary rape brought Iberia into Muslim hands. Muslims, like Nazis, are zealous, bloodthirsty invaders bent on taking over the world.

After drawing parallels between Rodrigo and Lebrun and Visigothic Iberia and pre-war France, Sánchez Albornoz develops the clichéd metaphor of the violation of the motherland:

El embrujo de la tierra y de las mujeres españolas conquista a los conquistadores. Pero poco a poco España es colonizada por sus nuevos señores . . . Hispania pierde por siglos su personalidad, su idioma, su fe, su tradición y su cultura y entra a formar parte del imperio islamita, que va desde Lisboa hasta la India. Y, por siglos también, abandona las rutas de los pueblos libres de Occidente, que engendran en las sombras del medieoevo la Europa madre de la nuestra. (18)

The spell of Hispania—its women and its land—seduce the invading Muslims, but eventually the latter succeed in colonizing the Peninsula. Iberia as part of the Islamic Empire that stretches from Lisbon in the west to India in the east is an apparent cultural wasteland, for according to Sánchez Albornoz, under the Muslims Iberia loses its language, religion, tradition and culture.

In rhetoric worthy of Aznar and President George W. Bush, Sánchez Albornoz informs us that at the moment of the conquest, Muslim Iberia is cut off from the free nations of the West that are in the very process of giving birth to Europe, “mother of our culture.” He then returns to the present comparing the fall of Spain to the Muslims in 711 to the fall of France to the Nazis, focusing on the latter’s loss of its North African colonies as the real tragedy of the longue durée,

La pérdida de España produjo consecuencias trascendentes en la Historia. La civilización antigua había florecido en las orillas del mar Mediterráneo, que había servido de lazo de unión entre los pueblos ribereños. La caída de la monarquía visigoda afianzó el dominio musulmán en el norte de Africa y el viejo mar se convirtió en un foso que separó durante cientos de años dos culturas, dos regímenes, dos religiones, dos concepciones distintas de la vida. La caída de Francia y de su imperio de Africa puede ocasionar fenómenos históricos parejos y trocar el Atlántico, de Mediterráneo de los pueblos que han creado y desarrollado la civilización occidental, en foso que separe dos mundos hostiles y rivales. (19)

Sánchez Albornoz’s distinction between two regimes, two religions and two distinct cultures anticipates by some twenty years Lewis’s and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and illustrates how the Muslim presence in Iberia had illicited among conservative Christian Spanish intellectuals such a reactionary approach to the Muslim world long before the events of 9/11 led to similar theorizing among Anglo-American critics. Sánchez Albornoz’s comments on Fench colonial involvement in North Africa also helps to expose the strong colonialist, Eurocentric bias behind the Clash of Civilizations model that has gained such currency in contemporary policy.

While (and perhaps because) the story of Rodrigo figures prominently in the works of Spanish historians such as Sánchez Albornoz and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, non-Spanish contemporary historians, however, are loath to include the story of Rodrigo in their accounts of Muslim conquest. María Menocal discounts the fable of Rodrigo as merely “Christian mythology” of the events surrounding the Muslim arrival in Iberia in 711, deigning to mention the tale of Rodrigo at all, although alluding to the lessons we learn from it:

Like the Romans long before and the Germanic tribes more recently, the Muslims were seduced by the fat and nearly round peninsula that hangs at the western end of the Mediterranean. Hispania was ripe for the picking, since the Visigoths kingdom that the newly minted Muslims from North Africa coveted, and then rather easily overran and settled, was all the things one might expect from hundreds of years of civil discontinuity: politically unstable, religiously and ethnically fragmented, culturally debilitated. Even the Christian mythology surrounding the events of 711, stories elaborated many centuries later to tell how old Christian Spain had been lost to the Muslims, hinged on the utter political disarray, moral corruption, and decadence of the last Visigothic kings. (26)12

Menocal, who in this study frames medieval Iberia as a multi-faith utopia governed by convivencia, chooses to mark the Rodrigo legend, which she refuses to even name, as Christian mythology. Elaborating on the Rodrigo story would in fact, complicate Menocal’s thesis for it is the iconic story of Muslim-Christian conflict, as well as the foundational myth for modern constructions of Spanish identity, and The Ornament of the World seeks to reframe Spanish history as inclusive of Muslim, and to a lesser degree, Jewish traditions, with an emphasis on these religious groups relatively peaceful coexistence. Although seeking to escape the trap of modern Christian national models of Spanish history, Menocal, by privilaging the religious (Iberians are Muslims, Jews or Christians in her account) over the other many ethnic, linguistic or social differences in medieval Iberia, still remains confined by nineteenth and twentieth-century discourses/models of Spanish history and empire. Rodrigo is still Christian and the story of his seduction of Julian’s daughter and of the fall of Spain is still, for Menocal, Christian mythology. The story of Rodrigo, however, as we will see in this study, is not merely Christian mythology, for it is also found in the earliest Arab chronicles, and in the Arab fiction of medieval Iberia.

The British historian Hugh Kennedy does not use religion to frame the tale, but instead invokes the scientific skepticism of the historian to distance the material from the historical record. He explains why this tale should be approached with “caution” by modern historians:

It is important to attempt to assess the reliability of this material. Clearly these Arab histories are biased in the sense that they are in favour of Muslim victories and claimed that these were the result of God’s support, but this sort of open partisanship does not present a real problem to the modern historian. There are, however, a variety of other ways in which the material needs to be treated with caution. There is material which is clearly legendary or folkloric, like the story of the locked chamber in Toledo which King Roderick was rash enough to open, only to find that the interior was covered by paintings of Arab warriors, and, probably, the story of Count Julian and the rape of his daughter by King Roderick. These stories, with their obvious predictive and entertaining functions, are unlikely to mislead historians. The use of topoi and conventional phrases, expressions and characteristics borrowed from eastern Islamic sources may also give a false impression of detailed accuracy. (8)

Menocal and Kennedy’s uneasiness with the Rodrigo tale belie an anxiety over representations of Islam and Christianity with which this tale has come to be associated in the millennium (plus) since it was first recorded.
The first Latin accounts of the events of 711, in fact, do not include Rodrigo’s seduction of Julian’s daughter or his penetration of the room of secrets. The first Latin source on the Arab conquest is the Arabic-Byzantine Chronicle of 741, and is followed some three years later by the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 which is, according to Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “far more Iberian in focus” (26).13 In the latter Rodrigo is a rebel and a fraud who takes his forces to fight Musa’s troops raiding in the north of the Peninsula, leaving the south open to Tariq ibn Ziyad:

In Justinian’s time, in the era 749 (711), in his fourth year as emperor and the ninety-second of the Arabs, with Walid retaining the sceptre of the kingdom for the fifth year, Roderic rebelliously seized the kingdom of the Goths at the instigation of the senate. He ruled for only one year. Mustering his forces, he directed armies against the Arabs and the Moors sent by Musa, that is against Tariq ibn Ziyad and the others, who had long been raiding the province consigned to them and simultaneously devastating many cities. In the fifth year of Justinian’s rule, the ninety-third of the Arabs, and the sixth of Walid, in the era 750 (712), Roderic headed for the Transductine mountains to fight them and in that battle the entire army of the Goths, which had come with him frauduently and in rivalry out of ambition for the kingship, fled and he was killed. Thus Roderic wretchedly lost not only his rule but his homeland, his rivals also being killed, as Walid was completing his sixth year of rule. (131-132)

Rodrigo is an usurper and illegitimate ruler, but in this chronicle he is not a rapist, nor is the depiction of the loss of the Peninsula framed as a religious confrontation.

As Kenneth Baxter Wolf points out, this early Latin chronicler uses both Arabic and Latin sources to weave together an account that focuses less on the religious affiliation of its subjects, than on their individual merits. The chronicler uses religiously neutral terms to refer to Muslims, and “there are no instances in which he drew religious lines when describing Christian-Muslim military encounters” (36-37). “Rather than decry the Muslim governors of Spain en masse as usurpers of the Visigothic kingdom, he judged them individually according to their effectiveness at promoting peace and justice on the peninsula” (33). This chronicler praises good Muslim rulers, just as he criticizes bad Gothic ones. “In short, the chronicler’s depiction of individual Muslim rulers is much like his depiction of their Gothic predecessors. There is no evidence that he took into account religious affiliation when he was evaluating them” (35).

John Tolan, in his groundbreaking study of medieval European perceptions of and interactions with Muslims, Saracen, claims that neither the Chronicle of 741 or that of 745 “makes the slightest attempt to explain” the Muslim conquest of Spain’s place “in the march of Christian history” (80). The Chronicle of 741 “gives no reason to think that the Muslim conquest of Spain was of special importance,” while the Chronicle of 745 is, in Tolan’s opinion, “much less laconic about the matter” and includes descriptions of Rodrigo’s evils and treacheries (80). As we see above, the Chronicle of 754 does not include Rodrigo’s rape of Count Julian’s daughter, but rather depicts Rodrigo as “one of a few bad apples among the Goths” (Tolan 81). Despite the fact that the chronicler of 754 considers the “Goth’s fall to the Arabs” as “one of history’s great disasters,” “the causes of for the catastrophe seem not to be divine disfavor but rather the evil machinations of the Arab invaders” and the bad actions of a few Goths (81).14

While Menocal classifies the tale of Roderigo and Julián as Christian mythology, and Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, among others, mobilizes the tale as part of a distinctly Spanish Christian past, as we have seen the tale is absent from the first Christian Latin accounts. However, the tale is found in the earliest of Arab chronicles of the events of 711. The Egyptian historian Ibn Abd al-Hakem includes Rodrigo’s seduction and impregnation of don Julian’s daughter as the catalyst for the conquest:

The governor of the straits between this district and Andalus was a foreigner called Ilyan, Lord of Septa. He was also the governor of a town called Alchadra, situated on the same side of the straits of Andalus as Tangiers. Ilyan was a subject of Roderic, the Lord of Andalus [i.e. king of Spain], who used to reside in Toledo. Tarik put himself in communication with Ilyan, and treated him kindly, until they made peace with each other. Ilyan had sent one of his daughters to Roderic, the Lord of Andalus, for her improvement and education; but she became pregnant by him. Ilyan having heard of this, said, I see for him no other punishment or recompense, than that I should bring the Arabs against him. He sent to Tarik, saying, I will bring thee to Andalus . . . (18-22)

The anonymous eleventh-century Arab chronicle, the Akhbar Majmua also recounts Rodrigo’s rape of Julian’s daughter:

Murió en esto el rey de España, Gaitixa, dejando algunos hijos, entre ellos Obba y Sisberto, que el pueblo no quiso aceptar; y alterado el país, tuvieron á bien elegir y confiar el mando á un infiel, llamado Rodrigo, hombre resuelto y animoso, que no era de etirpe real, sino caudillo y caballero. Acostumbraban los grandes señores de España á mandar sus hijos, varones y hembras, al palacio real de Toledo, á la sazón fortaleza prinicipal de España y capital del reino, á fin de que estuviesen á las órdenes del Monarca, á quien sólo ellos servian. Allí se educaban hasta que, llegados á la edad nubil, el Rey los casaba, proveyéndoles para ello de todo lo necesario. Cuando Rodrigo fué declarado rey, prendóse de la hija de Julián y la forzó. Escribiéronle al padre lo ocurrido, y el infiel guardó su rencor y exclamó: “Por la religión del mesías, que ha de trastornar su reino y he de abrir una fosa bajo sus piés.” Mandó en seguida su sumisión á Muça, conferenció con él, le entregó las ciudades puestas bajo su mando, en virtud de un pacto que concertó con ventajosas y seguras condiciones para sí y sus compañeros. (19-20)

The Spanish Arabist who translated this chronicle in 1867, Emilio Lafuente y Alcántara notes in a footnote that “all the Arab writers, without exception, refer to this tradition of Julian’s daughter in the same sober and simple way” disproving what Faustino de Borbon claims in his letters, namely that no Arab writer mentions this episode, adding that this shows “how few Arab writers this imposter had actually seen” (19 n2). Lafuente’s note gives us a glimpse of how the Rodrigo tale not only was being deployed by historians of the late nineteenth century, but also indicates that it was still being mobilized in arguments about the archive (who can and did access it) and about epistemological and historical truth.

At the heart of this struggle for origins is the nature of empire. Representations of Rodrigo as slave to his own desire and as catalyst of the fall of Spain place the blame of the fall on the shoulders of the Goths—but simultaneously make the narrative a self-contained circuit—a history of Christian Spain in which Muslims appear simply as the tools by which Rodrigo’s sin is punished. The narrow focus, confined as it is to a reading of the Rodrigo Fable as that of the fate of Christian Iberia, is not typical of the first Latin chronicles we have examined, which instead position Rodrigo and the events of 711 in the grand historical context of the rise of Islam and its expansion both East and West. While the Chronicle of 754 does clearly perceive the fall of the Peninsula to the Muslims as a disaster of epic proportions for Iberia (and Christendom?), such a sentiment is absent in the Arab chronicles.

The story of Rodrigo and Count Julian has proven to be a catalyst or sounding board for opinions regarding Spain’s national past and for representations of the historical role of Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. The amazing diversity we find within the historical and fictional accounts of the events of 711 from the eighth century to the present reveal that issues of empire and, after the thirteenth century, especially the role of religion have been at the heart of representation in this iconic fable of Spanish identity. Rodrigo is often portrayed as the tragic, noble Christian king who loses Spain for the “love” of a woman, but we also often find him as the evil usurper of the Visigothic throne. Whatever his exact crime, Rodrigo continues to loom large in Spanish letters and cultures and serves as a constant reminder not only of the sin of lust, but more importantly, of the constant menace of the (Spanish) Other, Tariq, the Muslim Berber who waited just across the Straits for Julian’s word: Tariq, who embodies Spain’s own Muslim past. What is at stake, then, in the various tellings of the Rodrigo legend is the fate of Spain.

Works Cited
“Aznar se pregunta por qué los musulmanes no se disculpan ‘por haber ocupado España ocho siglos.’” El Mundo 9/22/2006.

Castro Américo. Sobre el nombre y el quién de los españoles. Madrid: Taurus, 1973.

Cebrían, Juan Luis. “Barbarie, religión y progreso,” El País 9/17/2006.

Chalmeta, Pedro. Invasión e islamización: La sumisión de Hispania y al formación de al-Andalus. Madrid: Mapfre, 1994.

Chronicle of 754. Trans. Kenneth Baxter Wolf. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. 111-160.

Drayson, Elizabeth. The King and the Whore, King Roderick and La Cava.Forthcoming, Palgrave 2007.

---.“Penance or Pornography? The Exile of King Roderick in Pedro de Corral’s Crónica sarracina,” Al-Maraq 17.2 (2005) 193-203.

---. “Ways of Seeing: The First Medieval Islamic and Christian Depictions of Roderick, Last Visigothic King of Spain,” Al-Masaq 18.2 (2006), 115-128.

Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven: Yale, 1987.
Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus. London: Longman, 1996.

Ibn Abd-el-Hakem, History of the Conquest of Spain, trans. by John Harris Jones. Gottingen: W. Fr. Kaestner, 1858.

McCrary, Susan Niehoff. El Último godo and the Dynamics of Urdrama. Maryland: Scripta Humanistica, 1987.

Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. Floresta de leyendas heróicas españolas. Rodrigo, el último Godo. Clásicos Castellanos 17. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1973

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Little Brown, 2002.

Monroe, James T. Islam and the Arabs in Spanish Scholarship. Leiden: Brill, 1970.

Payne, Stanley. A History of Spain and Portugal. Vol. 1. U Wisconsin P, 1973.

Ray, Jonathan. The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia. Ithaca: Cornell, 2006.

Sánchez Albornoz, Claudio. “De Don Rodrigo a Lebrun,” Ensayos sobre la historia de España. Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno, 1973. 13-19.

Tolan, John V. Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. New York: Columbia U P, 2002.

Wolf, Kenneth Baxter. Conquerors and Chronicles of Early Medieval Spain. Translated texts for Historians 9. Liverpool: Liverpool U P, 1990, rpr. 1999.

1 The narrator of Borges essay/story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” tells the reader, “La verdad histórica, para él, no es lo que sucedió; es lo que juzgamos que sucedió” (OC 57)

2 This too is the case of perhaps the best known of medieval Arab historians, Ibn Khaldun/ Ibn Battuta, whose own work also often incorporates material from the gharib wa ajib genre. André Miquel, Un conte des Mille et une nuits: Ajib et Gharib (traduction et perspectives d’analyse). Nouvelle Bibliothèque Scientifique. Paris: Flammarion, 1977.

3 Elizabeth Drayson has a forthcoming book on the topic of Rodrigo, The King and the Whore, King Roderick and La Cava (November, 2007). My study of this legend differs significantly from Drayson’s, not only in the works considered—Drayson focusing on painting, coins and the Crónica Sarracina--but also in its theoretical orientation. Drayson focuses on Julian’s daughter and uses twentieth-century historians accounts of the Rodrigo legend to bolster her thesis, while my own questions these studies’ constructions of the Spanish past, examining especially how Rodrigo’s story functions to distance the Muslim past/imperial narrative.

4 Tariq ibn Ziyad was the commander of North African Muslim troops who arrived to the Peninsula in 711 in the service of the Ummayad emir Musa.

5 As I will discuss in a subsequent section (not included) Juan Goytisolo’s novel La revindicación del conde Julián is a fictional critique of the way in which Spanish society, particularly under Francisco Franco, has dealt with its own cultural past. The protagonist, a Spanish exile living in North Africa, takes on the identity of don Julián.

6 Bernard Lewis uses the expression Clash of Civilization first in “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in Atlantic Monthly 1990, and Samuel Huntington popularized it in 1993 in “The Clash of Civilizations” Foreign Affairs 1993. The Alianza de las Civilizaciones is Aznar’s successor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s proposal of cooperative alliance between the West and Arab nations constructed with the goal of fighting terror and was presented to the U.N. in September of 2004. Interestingly, this model that stresses dialogue between Western nations and the Arab world (see their web site: has received very little media attention in the U.S..

7 The Chronicle of 754 describes in some detail the exploits of the Gothic army of Saragossa.

8 In a classic example of what would later come to be known in the American and British Academy as Cultural Studies, Américo Castro explores the importance of the terms España and español as employed by twentieth century Spanish historians in Sobre el nombre y el quién de los españoles, 17-41, concluding that historians who characterize the Muslims as invaders or occupiers are like those who try to skin an onion hoping to find the bulb inside (36).

9 Jonathan Ray further explores the term Reconquest as part of a Spanish historiographic discourse used in creating a specific (religious) sense of Spanish identity (1-2).

10 Instead of positing the Cid as the redeemer, Lope de Vega portrays Pelayo, supposed first leader of the Christian Reconquest as the Christ-like figure who would save the fallen nation. See Susan Niehoff McCrary, El Último godo.

11 On Claudio Sánchez Albornoz and other important Spanish Arabists, as well as of the vicisstiudes of Arabic Studies within nineteenth and twentieth-century Spain, see James T. Monroe’s 1970 study, Islam and the Arabs in Spanish Scholarship. Monroe points out the cycles of acceptance and denial that characterizes Spanish academic attitudes toward their own Arabic/Muslim past.

12 Similarly Stanley Payne also leaves out Rodrigo’s supposed seduction of Julian’s daughter as well as his experiences in the locked chamber, offering instead an alternative account that frames Muslim involvement in terms of Visigothic civil war: “Supports of Witiza’s clan refused to accept the election of a rival candidate, Roderic, in 710, and sought assistance from the newly established Muslim overlords of North Africa. The Visigothic dissidents obviously failed to appreciate the dynamism and integrative potential of the Islamic culture that had swept out of Arabia only a few generations earlier” (15).

13 For the Arabic-Byzantine Chronicle of 741 see César E. Dubler, “Sobre la crónica arábigo-bizantina . .. “ Al-Andalus 11 (1949) 283-349.

14 The Chronicle of 754 waxes poetic about the tragedy of 711 (as quoted at length in both Tolan), “Who can relate such perils? Who can enumerate such grievous disasters? Even if every limb were transformed into a tongue, it would be beyond human capability to express the ruin of Spain and its many and great evils . . .” (133). The chronicler goes on to compare the fall of Iberia to that of Troy, Jerusalem and Rome.

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