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Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia.

Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia. By Simon Barton. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. v, 264. $59.95.)

Since the publication of his first book, the author of this study has been among the most prolific and insightful scholars of Iberian medieval history. Mining a remarkable variety of literary and historical sources, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines explores interfaith sexual relations (mostly between Muslims and Christians) from the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 to the end of the Middle Ages.

Simon Barton's thoughtful and insightful book examines a myriad of historical examples of such unions, but he also expertly describes and explicates numerous literary texts, mostly Christian texts but not exclusively so, that described or condemned such sexual liaisons. Moving in a clear chronological fashion, Barton focuses on these interfaith sexual relations in the wake of the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Spain until the demise of Islamic hegemony in the 1030s. Correctly, he emphasizes throughout the book the links between sex and power. Focusing on the unions between Muslim lords and rulers and highborn Christian women (spouses or concubines), these unions reified Muslim power. Christian women became pawns in complex diplomatic strategies and peace treaties, allowing for the consolidation of Islam in the peninsula and accelerating the process of acculturating the conquered Christians into Islamic society. For Barton, the symbolic importance of these sexual encounters is crucial. It served as a form of political propaganda and power, exemplified by the conquerors' possession of Christian female bodies.

The second chapter connects the waning of Cordoba's hegemony in the 1030s and the rise of Christian polities as well as Christians' growing anxiety about these interfaith sexual liaisons. This led to a pronounced shift in the perception and acceptance of such unions. Contextualizing these changes within European-wide developments, the author traces the evolution of heightened condemnation of such unions in Iberia in royal charters and in ecclesiastical and lay texts. Penalties for sexual relations (especially when the Christian was a female) became quite harsh over time, signaling the change in attitudes that accompanied Christians' newly gained political advantages in the peninsula.

Chapter 3 is a brilliant reconstruction of a series of legends and stories (that themselves tell social and cultural stories about reconquest mentality). Most prominently among them is the trope of the one hundred maidens to be given in tribute to Muslim rulers. Barton unravels questions about their origin, factual basis, and what they meant in terms of creating a discourse antagonistic to such unions. Christian men, however, were often exempted from penalties if their sexual partners were either Muslim or Jewish, reiterating the link between sex and power.

In his expansive concluding chapter, Barton explores sexual and amorous relations between Muslims and Christians. His range of sources includes the popular Flores and Blancaflor romance, women followers of advancing and retreating armies, actual love affairs, and voluntary sexual encounters between the two groups. This short review does not do justice to Barton's brilliant, insightful, and fascinating book. It addresses topics as central to interfaith relations today as they were in the past.

Teofilo F. Ruiz

University of California Los Angeles
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Author:Ruiz, Teofilo F.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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