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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000) 479-504
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Islam and Stereotypical Discourse in Medieval Castile and León
Birkbeck College, University of London
Hispanomedievalism has always struggled to establish stable points of identity for representations of the Muslim in the vernacular culture of Castile and León. Characterizations of the stereotypical Muslim as docile and femininely submissive, but nevertheless an aggressive usurper and paragon of masculine, chivalric virtue, have an immediate resonance for anybody familiar with the frontier-oriented literature of Old Spanish, especially the ballad and chronicle. 1 But, to the best of my knowledge, no study has attempted to tackle in theoretical depth the ambivalence--the vacillation between rigidity and disorder--that such diverse qualities indicate is the defining feature of these stereotypical representations. I suspect that this is at least partially due to a disposition within the discipline to interpret Spanish interactions on the frontier with Islam in a literal sense; that is to say, the stereotypical Muslim in frontier literature is understood primarily as an expression of Spanish disquiet about contact with Islam threatening the permeability of a frontier that divided groups territorially according to religious affiliation. However, the emergence of a vernacular manuscript culture in Castile and León in the early thirteenth century is coterminous with the frenetic thirty-six-year period which begins with the Almohad defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and ends with the recapitulation of Seville in 1248. As a consequence of this southward expansion, Islam in Castile and León became as much a matter of internal demographic control as an external threat. My view is that representations of the Muslim in Old Spanish literature may be more meaningful if they are interpreted as expressions of anxiety on a cultural level about the ambiguous status of the Mudejar, of the Muslim as a subject to be governed within the frontiers of Castile and León.
My main contention in this essay is that, at least in some cases, the ambivalence of representations of the Mudejar should not be considered a [End Page 479] problem to be resolved in order to conclude that such representations are fundamentally either positive or negative. Rather, these stereotypes are necessarily ambivalent forms of knowledge that justify a social hierarchy maintaining Mudejar subjects in positions of subordination. In making this argument, I draw on Homi Bhabha's theory of the colonial stereotype, a theory based on the Freudian notion of the fetish in order to show that colonial power entails a strategic need to maintain contradictory beliefs about colonized subjects: a belief that they are "other" so as to justify conquest and administration on the basis of racial difference; and a simultaneous belief that the colonized are "same" so as to make possible the surveillance of colonial power by rendering its subjects visible and knowable. In taking this approach, I set myself the prior task of demonstrating that the contexts of modern colonialism and Castilo-Leonese conquest of parts of Almohad Iberia are not only comparable, but comparable to a degree that colonial discourse analysis may be employed to arrive at genuinely meaningful generalizations about medieval Castilo-Leonese culture. Important features common to these modern and medieval contexts are apparent enough: territorial conquest, resettlement, the establishment of systems of administration over newly conquered subjects, and so on. However, it is still necessary in the case of Castile and León to specify explicitly the conditions in which stereotypical discourse operated, namely, the existence of myths of vertical historical origination that legitimize the administration of horizontal, territorial expanse. It is at this point that I come up against the problem faced in all medievalist praxis, that of modernity, for colonialism's myth of origin is centered in a notion of racial purity.
The notion of "race" is a modern one insofar as its formulation has depended on the existence of academic disciplines such as biology and anthropology. However, by drawing on Howard Bloch's theories concerning the epistemic importance of origins in...