- Moors Dressed as Moors: Clothing, Social Distinction and Ethnicity in Early Modern Iberia by Javier Irigoyen-García
Moors Dressed as Moors: Clothing, Social Distinction and Ethnicity in Early Modern Iberia.
U of Toronto P, 2017. 324 Pp.
READERS SHOULD NOT BE DECEIVED by the first part of the title of this book, which gives little indication of the richness of the material explored here nor its ramifications for a better (and different) understanding of early modern Spain. The key is in the second part: Clothing, Social Distinction and Ethnicity. Moors Dressed as Moors seemed at first sight a strange title to give a book; what else would they be dressed as? But once the reader gets into the book, it becomes clear that the title has been very deliberately chosen, even though the first part of this work has little to do with Moors dressing as Moors; rather it examines how and why aristocratic or noble Christians dressed as Moors, and what this had to do with social distinction. As Irigoyen-García shows—from an extensive and exhaustive trawl through dozens of local archives—throughout much of the sixteenth century and the first third of the seventeenth, noble Spaniards regularly dressed as Moors to take part in the juegos de cañas (game of canes) that featured so prominently in local and national festivities. And not just nobles, but also members of the royal family: Charles V, Philip II, and Philip III were keen participants in these games, which continued well into the seventeenth century even after the expulsion of the Moriscos (former Moors). However, Philip IV seems to have been less interested in them, and by the middle of the seventeenth century they had lost the importance they once had and were in rapid decline. But what fascinates the author (and the reader) is the dichotomy (indeed, schizophrenia) between a Spain that celebrated dressing as Moors in the games of canes and at the same time produced decree after decree prohibiting such dress by the descendants of said Moors. That noble Spaniards did not see any contradiction in this is itself very revealing of the parallel worlds that existed in early modern Iberia.
The game of canes was a noble sport in which competing teams dressed up as Moors and threw canes at each other; it was a sort of jousting contest but without the danger—nobody would be killed, even by accident. To be able to [End Page 167] take part in these games, the participants had to be of elevated social status and had to have the wealth associated with that status, since the costumes worn were expensive to make and to buy (or, indeed, rent, as many did). The luxuriousness of the clothes these nobles wore, the cost of buying or renting them, even their sometimes bizarre ideas of what actually constituted Moorish dress makes for fascinating reading. It also helps to explain the frequent presence of Moorish clothing—turbans, marlotas, coloured bands, and so forth—noble inventories of the period, a presence often overlooked by those who study these inventories. Participating in a game of canes was therefore a very visible sign of one’s aristocratic status; not surprisingly, to be allowed to participate was a much sought-after privilege. Those who never made it, such as Lope de Vega, would often denigrate or criticize the sport in their writings. As Irigoyen-García notes: “those individuals on the fringes of nobility approached Moorishness as a shortcut for social promotion—in Lope’s notorious case, unsuccessfully” (74). And, as he goes on to say: “no matter how much Iberian aristocrats admired Lope, they never considered him an equal who could ride along them dressed as a Moor in the game of canes” (89).
While the first part of this enthralling book deals with Christians dressing as Moors (or what they thought Moors dressed like), the second part looks more closely at Moors and Moriscos dressing as Moors, and here all the inconsistencies and paranoias of Spain’s relationship with its own Muslim population come to the fore. On Christmas Eve of 1568 a band...