In the Middle Ages, the people of Western Europe did not think of Europe as a geographic and cultural area. Rather, they thought of Christendom, those peoples and nations of the world that embraced the Christian religion. We might compare it to the Muslim notion of Dar al-Islam. In eleventh century, Christendom expanded into the north and east. In Spain, Christian kingdoms practiced what would be known as the Reconquista at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus.
How did the Reconquista begin? From the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 through the early eleventh century, al-Andalus was the dominant military power of the Iberian Peninsula. Christian kingdoms were confined to the marginal, mountainous regions of the peninsula’s north. But in 1008, caliph’s chief adviser, Abd al-Rahman (also known as Sanjul), sought to make himself caliph and replace the Umayyad dynasty with his own. The result was nearly three decades of civil war. The Cordoba Caliphate collapsed in 1031, fracturing into what we refer to as the taifa states, a set of small, politically weak states. These states were easy prey for potential conquerors from both the Christian north of the Iberian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb.
The Christian kingdoms of Spain had several strengths that enabled them to expand at the expense of the taifa states.
- The taifa states were not only politically weak, but they were also at odds with each other.
- The construction of stone castles in newly-conquered territories allowed the Christian kings to secure their conquests.
- The Christian kingdoms of Spain could draw on much of the rest of Western Europe for manpower. By the eleventh century, the knight who inherited a fief would usually be the oldest son of the fief’s lord. This arrangement meant that younger sons had not inherited from their fathers. These landless knights were looking either for employment or fiefs of their own. New conquests along the frontier of Muslim Spain gave them the perfect opportunity to seize their own lands. As a result, French knights flowed south in a steady stream across the Pyrenees.
In Southern Italy, a group of knights from the region of France known as Normandy (and who were thus called Normans) had fought in the employ of the Byzantine emperors against the Muslim rulers of North Africa and Sicily. They eventually broke with the Byzantine Emperors and created the Kingdom of Sicily, a kingdom comprised of Sicily and Southern Italy. (The lands had been seized from both the Byzantines and Sicilian Muslims. These knights had come south to the Mediterranean in search of new lands.)
The Christian kingdoms of both Spain and Sicily were relatively tolerant of their Muslim subjects. Although Muslims under Christian rule faced civil disabilities similar to the dhimmi status of Jews and Christians in Muslim-ruled lands, they had a broad array of rights and protections. Indeed, the Christian kings of Sicily often employed Muslim mercenaries in their military service.
These victories by Christian forces over Muslims would be of great interest to the popes, who were seeking to reform the Church and to find ways that knights could be made to serve Christian society.