what happened in Barbastro in that spring and summer more than a thousand years ago changed the medieval West. Its historical repercussions contrast with the scarce memory that remains of the event. It is not adventurous to imagine that the echo has not yet died down.
Historians Philippe Sénac and Carlos Laliena Corbera reconstruct the episode and the context in panoramic 1064, Barbastro. Guerre sainte et djihad en Espagne (1064, Barbastro. Guerra santa y jihad en España), recently published by Gallimard. The centuries of tension between Islam and Christianity began in part with the siege, occupation and subsequent withdrawal of the Aragonese city in 1064.
The struggle against the’other’ begins there, in the first Muslim city taken over by the Christians
“It is an essential date: the moment when, for the first time, we see a kind of collusion of interests between the papacy, the Catalan counts and the interests of the new Aragonese sovereign”, explains Sénac, one of the co-authors, in an office of the Sorbonne University. “But, above all, it is the moment when, for the first time, we see the establishment in Spain of chivalrous lineages coming from the north, from Champagne, from the south of France, and which will give birth to what some will call a pre-Crusade. And it is true that, if it is not an avant la lettre crusade, it is certainly a dress rehearsal of what will take place thirty years later in Jerusalem. And never – and this was my great surprise when I went to Arab sources, because the chroniclers do not exaggerate – did such violence break out. I don’t know if it is an ideological war, if the consciousness of fighting against the other, the Muslim, is expressed for the first time here. But, unquestionably, since 1050 there has been a radicalization. The struggle against the other is expressed for the first time in Barbastro, the first Muslim city taken. From then on, the secular struggle between Christians and Muslims in Spain took on a different connotation. Right now we can talk about an ideology of holy war.
The book by the medievalists Senac, a professor at the Sorbonne, and Laliena Corbera, a professor at the University of Zaragoza, deals with history along the lines that George Duby opened in the 1970s with books such as El domingo de Bouvines. The exercise consists of telling an epoch from a date, focusing on the chronology and the event – the story – and from there revealing the profound changes in culture and society.
The Christian takeover of Barbastro in 1064, and the subsequent reconquest by the Muslims nine months later, is one of these stellar, or fateful, moments of humanity. A little-known moment, yes: the most emblematic dates were diluted, such as the capture of Toledo in 1085, the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212 or the conquest of Granada in 1492. But a moment, too, anticipating the world that was brewing.
It is then that ideological discourse is consolidated to justify war. It is no longer just a matter of fighting in search of spoils or territorial conquest, but something higher drives the fighters, like spiritual doping. Hence the role of Pope Alexander II, who, according to the authors, encouraged the war operation in Barbastro, “an expedition of such magnitude that the Muslims had never faced in these regions”. The Iberian Peninsula was divided into two parts: to the north, the Christian principalities; to the south, the Muslim taifas. Thousands of warriors took part in the international operation: 10,000 according to Muslim sources, although Senac and Laliena Corbera believe it more reasonable that they were half, or a third, which was already a lot. It was a true coalition of the willing, as one would say more than a millennium later to refer to the coalitions of volunteers launching war operations in the Middle East. Aquitans, Normans, Burgos, Gascons, Champagnes, Catalans…
Information circulated from one territory to another, through family connections or through monastic communities. A small globalization in progress. “To imagine a world of the 11th century closing in on itself is to be totally wrong”, warns Senac. The construction of the international alliance functioned as a perfect gear after the death of King Ramiro I of Aragon at the site of Graus. “It’s very fast, and this is the most amazing thing. A few months”, sums up the historian of the Sorbonne. “From southern Italy, Norman troops fighting there will travel more than 2,000 kilometres to reach Barcelona, and from Barcelona, no doubt after Easter, to reach Barbastro.
The Christian occupation was savage, according to the documents cited in 1064, Barbastro. “Sometimes,” writes a Muslim chronicler, “the Muslim gave his soul in the midst of these tortures, which was really a joy for him, for if he survived, he must suffer even greater pain, for the infidels, by a refinement of cruelty, delighted in raping the women and daughters of