Unpacking the Motivations Behind Al-Mansour’s Pillage of Santiago de Compostela

As the de-facto leader of the caliphate of al-Andalus under the reign of Hisham II, Al Mansour carried out a significant number of military expeditions to the Christian lands in the north, gathering booty and prestige along the way. One of the most significant campaigns occurred in 997 (386-7), when Al Mansour sacked the Santiago de Compostela. Historians such as Richard Fletcher, Maribel Fierro, and Maria Rosa Menocal have highlighted the significance of this event, for different reasons, trying to unpack the real motivations behind it. In this paper, I will briefly examine the justifications these historians give for the possible economic, political and religious reasons behind the sack, concluding with my own synthesis of their arguments in light of primary source materials. My hope is that this will yield a clearer picture of what might have been behind Al Mansour’s campaign to this particular place in Christendom.

In Moorish Spain, Richard Fletcher argues that the campaign in Compostela fit the mould of the previous caliph’s expeditions as being primarily to “exact tribute, plunder, livestock, slaves [and] treasure.”[1] The motivations of both leaders, according to Fletcher, were primarily economic and they used these campaigns to raise capital for a leadership that had a significantly smaller tax base (given the rise of conversions to Islam and the exodus of Christian emigres to the north). Fletcher likens the sacking of a monastery to “something like raiding a bank” while simultaneously downplaying any religious dimensions that may have been important for the campaigners.[2] Naming the expedition to Compostela as the “most daring and notorious in a series of hammer-blows…delivered to the Christian principalities”, Fletcher is also quick to situate it among nine other campaigns in the same paragraph. His point is that the Compostela raid was one of many (fifty-seven in total) and that it was not undertaken as an exceptional religious vendetta against the monastery of St. James the Moor-slayer.

With booty and capital would come political prestige and legitimacy. In the case of Al Mansour, he might have been less occupied with being named the real leader of al-Andalus so long as he wielded all the actual control anyway. Fletcher argues that the primary drive for the expeditions was likely economic in order to cover the enormous costs incurred by Al Mansour to maintain his rule. These costs included the building of Madina al-Zahira and the transfer of administration of the caliphate there, additions to the Great Mosque in Cordoba, reducing the amount of taxes he collected to build his popularity, rewarding loyal followers with considerable gifts and increasing the size of the army.[3] Financial gain, however, is only a means to an end and, in looking at what Al Mansour financed with his booty, it becomes clear that political strength and the consolidation of power are an important part of the motivation puzzle. Further, if Al-Mansour’s expeditions were following the same basic pattern as his caliphal predecessor, Abd al-Rahman III, it must be recognized that financial gain (while a beneficial byproduct) might not have been the only purpose behind these expeditions, Compostela included. As Maribel Fierro notes, the primary reason for the excursions under Abd al-Rahman, was to check Christian expansion into Islamic lands by “weakening the enemy to prevent attacks.”[4]

For Maria Rosa Menocal, the attack on Compostela was a continuation of Al-Mansour’s dictatorial and “bloodthirsty” rule, and, further, contained a distinctly religious flavour. Menocal claims that the taking of the church’s bells was not only “gratuitous” (implying that it was unprovoked or unjustified) but also that the bells were “purely religious trophies.”[5] In reading the ode written by Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli in praise of Al-Mansour and contemporary to the event, the invocation of religious imagery and allusions to divine sanction might seem to uphold Menocal’s claim.[6] However, this was a common literary tool of the time that might have more to do with the tastes and offering retrospective justifications for raids, than gaining insight into Al-Mansour’s personal motivations for the raid. In looking at the Latin account of the raid from Historia Turpini, there is little evidence to uphold Menocal’s argument as the description does not go much beyond that found in Fletcher’s book: it was a raid on the church in search of booty.[7] Of course, this account was written in the 12th century in France and so is difficult to use for accurate historical verification, but it does show that even later Christian-origin accounts of the expedition did not peg it as an exclusively religious enterprise.

And yet, the possibility of there being a religious dimension is difficult to ignore in light of some material evidence not yet considered. Firstly, Fletcher notes that Compostela was not an ideal location for a raid because without Christian mercenaries acting as the army’s guide, they would likely have not found their way there at all.[8] It is around 859km from Cordoba and was fully within Christian territory at the time. Secondly, as Menocal points out, nothing exceptional was done with the bells at the time, other than putting them to use a lamps in the Great Mosque of Cordoba.[9] In thinking about the sheer size and weight of the bells, the lack of practical use for them and the distance traveled to get them, it would seem that much more than economics is at play. But is this necessarily indicative of a religious motivation for Al-Mansour? The answer is no. It could just as easily be justified that any religious dimension to this raid could have been couched in such terms so as to meet specific political ends, particularly in the securing of legitimacy. The act of humiliating the Christians of Compostela and reclaiming the congregational bells of the famous Moor-slaying Saint James would have had too much socio-political currency to be framed in purely economic or purely religious terms. It also would have served as sufficient reason to warrant such a far expedition, in a land arduous to navigate, for extremely heavy booty that served no other purpose than decoration.

Ultimately, the problem herein lies in the historical question posed because it hinges on something ultimately unknown: an individual of history’s personal motivations for particular actions. What can be most illuminating about this type of exercise is not in trying to determine why someone did something, but rather, in figuring out what that action might have meant to them or others affected by it.

[1] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992: p 75

[2] Ibid. p 76

[3] Ibid

[4] Fierro, Maribel. ‘Abd al-Rahman III: The First Cordoban Caliph. Oneworld: Oxford. 2007: p 70.

[5] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. 2002: p 97

[6] Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli, “Ode in Praise of al-Mansur’s Victory” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 93-98.

[7] “Latin Account of al-Mansur’s Raid” inES Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Colin Smith, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012: p 98

[8] Fletcher, p 75

[9] Menocal, p 97

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