In Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines Simon Barton analyzes the varied and complicated ways in which group identity, interfaith sexuality, and power interacted in medieval Iberia—centering on relationships between Muslims and Christians. He focusses on interfaith sexual liaisons showing how they were “conducted, perceived, manipulated, and above all, controlled” (p. 4), and how attitudes towards this mixing changed over time, as a reaction to local circumstances and general trends. Even though the book centers on the medieval period, both within al-Andalus and the Christian dominated lands, it also explores the reverberation that the cultural memory of those relationships had in Iberian culture. Indeed, the popular festivals that continue to be celebrated in some towns even today serve as a reminder of the deep sense of cultural difference that exists in Spain, and the exoticism it has been endowed with thanks to the region’s Islamic past.
The book is divided into four chapters framed by an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter One, “Sex as Power,” centers on early medieval Iberia from the eight to eleventh centuries, a time in which Muslim lords took Christian women as wives and concubines. These unions have to be understood not only as a tactic for building diplomatic alliances, but also as a means for Muslim lords of showing their superiority, and even as a tool of psychological warfare. The remaining chapters deal with the central and late medieval period, that was characterized by a progressive shifting of power in favor of the Christian-ruled realms that eventually manifested itself at the end of the fifteenth century in the form of policies of mass conversion or expulsion, and the establishment of an Inquisition dedicated to ending religious heterodoxy in Iberia. Chapter Two, “Marking Boundaries,” examines why after about 1050 interfaith marriage declined and how religious and secular Christian authorities harden their positions, and condemned and discouraged interfaith unions and sex—a development that came partly as a consequence of the new balance of power, the reform of the papacy, and the development of canon law. From [End Page 111] the twelfth century onwards, sexual intercourse between Christian women and “outsiders,” which is to say Muslim and Jewish men, provoked great anxiety—in Spain, as it did across the Latin West. The following chapter, “Damsels in Distress,” also examines Christian political and cultural discourse against interfaith sex, but focuses on narratives that presented Christian women as vulnerable, unprotected, victims of Muslim men’s voracity. The final chapter, “Lust and Love on the Iberian Frontier,” analyzes a series of mostly literary texts that display interesting, parallel narratives. On the one hand, there are stories of Christian women who sought Muslim sexual partners and who therefore were disgraced, and, on the other hand, there are tales of Muslim women as gaining social standing precisely because they had engaged in relationships with Christian men, and converted to Christianity—which served also as a symbol for submitting to righteous and virtuous Christian power.
This book is an important contribution to the field of medieval Iberian studies. Barton engages with an array of sources as diverse as laws, charters, letters, polemical texts, legends, hagiography, and diverse literary texts and through them constructs a very detailed and nuanced picture of the complexities of interfaith mis-cegenation. He lucidly illustrates “the symbolic importance of the relationship between sex, power, and cultural identity” (p. 142). This book is going to be of interest not only to scholars focusing on specific academic fields, such as medieval Iberia and the Mediterranean, or gender studies, but to any scholar or student interested in the history and literature of Europe in the Middle Ages.