Social Violence and Religious Conflict in Late Medieval Valencia

Mark D. Meyerson, History and Medieval Studies, University of Toronto

Research Grant, 2003

My HFG-supported project explores violence within the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities of the kingdom of Valencia (Spain) as well as violence between these communities in order to shed new light on the transformation of Spain between 1300 and 1600 from a land of three religions into one uniformly Catholic. I focus on the kingdom of Valencia because it had the largest Muslim population in Christian Spain and a substantial Jewish population. I regard its history as paradigmatic for developments elsewhere in medieval and early modern Iberia. The archival sources for the Valencian regional history, moreover, are especially rich. This project is largely based on the records of various tribunals: criminal justice, bailiff general, governor, Royal Audience, and Spanish Inquisition.

Methodologically, the project is in many respects a form of anthropological history. Viewing violence as integral and specific to particular cultures and as a form of social discourse, I am interested in analyzing the forms, rituals, and meanings of verbal and physical violence perpetrated within each religious community. The practice and control of violence in each community were distinct, as a result of particular kinship structures, economic pursuits and competition, relationship with the authorities of the Christian state, and, of course, historical experience. While this anthropological approach is intrinsically valuable for interpreting the violent behaviors of medieval Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and thus for providing a new understanding of their mentalities, the project’s comparative dimension elucidates the differential acculturation of Muslims and Jews to the dominant Christian culture. Among the Christians, for example, the ritual of “assaulting the house” of one’s (Christian) enemy as a means of dishonoring him or her, was widely performed. (This involved several armed males bursting through the doors of a rival’s house—understood metaphorically as a woman’s body—beating up, in a controlled fashion, the men or women within, and sometimes scarring a woman’s face.) I found that Jews engaged in such household assaults when feuding with coreligionists, and that, for various reasons, Jewish forms of violent status competition came increasingly to resemble those of Christians. The conquered Muslims, in contrast, perpetuated modes of feuding with their own rites of violence and manhood, which were understood to be peculiarly “Moorish.” Hence they did not perform household assaults in the Christian manner, though they did violate an enemy’s domestic space in other meaningful ways (e.g., the abduction of unmarried girls).

Their status anxiety was fed by the authorities' public criticism of them for shameful and un-Christian mingling with Jews and Muslims; they resolved it, I argue, through collective and cathartic violence against the other religious communities.

In exploring the intensity of violence among Christians, especially among the laboring-class Christians who composed the mobs that attacked Jews and Muslims, this study shows that Christians suffered from a high degree of status anxiety, which they expressed in their punctiliousness about questions of “honor.” Their status anxiety was fed by the authorities’ public criticism of them for shameful and un-Christian mingling with Jews and Muslims; they resolved it, I argue, through collective and cathartic violence against the other religious communities. I regard the choice of baptism or death that Christians offered their Muslim and Jewish victims as an expression of the ambivalence with which they viewed them. Finally, by examining the violent practices and feuds of baptized Jews (Conversos) and of baptized Muslims (Moriscos), I show that the Conversos were increasingly contesting honor and status with Old Christians and thus assimilating, whereas Moriscos persistently directed their violence mostly at members of their own ethnic group and thus paradoxically enhanced Morisco distinctiveness and resistance to assimilation. In other words, by viewing violence as integral to and constitutive of culture, I am able to show, at least in part, how and why Muslims and Jews, and later Moriscos and Conversos, followed such different paths in regard to Christian society and culture, and why Spain took the shape it took over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

  1. Meyerson, Mark. Of Bloodshed and Baptism: Social Violence, Religious Conflict, and the Transformation of Spain. forthcoming.

  2. Meyerson, Mark. "The Murder of Pau de Sant Martí: Jews, Conversos, and the Feud in Fifteenth-Century Valencia," In "A Great Effusion of Blood"? Interpreting Medieval Violence. ed. O. Falk, M.D. Meyerson, D. Thiery. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

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