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Mercedes García-Arenal
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“Moriscos” or “cristianos nuevos de moro” are the names by which the Iberian Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism at the beginning of the sixteenth century were known. The different groups of Moriscos were all subjected to evangelizing and assimilating efforts by civil and ecclesiastical authorities as well as by mainstream society—efforts which ran parallel to marginalization and stigmatization. The stereotypes that were applied to them, the fear and mistrust they evoked as allegedly secret Muslims who disguised their true faith and were an internal enemy conspiring with the enemies of Catholicism, grew stronger from the mid-sixteenth century onward. At the end of a long century after the baptism of their ancestors, they were expelled as Muslims in 1609–1614 in a process that resembled what we now call an ethnic cleansing.

Rather than constituting a single homogenous mass, the Moriscos included different groups with widely varying beliefs and behaviors and varying degrees of assimilation and Christianization. These are the Moriscos whose traces are more difficult to follow. The extent to which Moriscos held on to Islamic beliefs and culture depended on the specific conditions in the kingdoms in which they lived and the length of time that had passed since the Christian conquest of the region, as well as the number and density of the Morisco population in relation to the Christian majority. The Kingdom of Valencia had the largest proportion, 30 percent, while the Kingdom of Aragon’s Morisco population was about 20 percent of the total. As with Granada, Valencia’s close geographical position to North Africa made its contacts with Islamic lands easier. These contacts translated into the capacity of Moriscos to escape to Islamic lands, but also to be current with contemporary Islamic culture, to buy books. It made them especially suspicious in the eyes of Old Christian society since they were ready to help attacks on the Spanish coast by Muslim corsairs in whose ships often whole villages of Moriscos took flight. In Valencia and Granada, the last regions of Spain to be conquered by the Christian kings, they were to a certain extent a product of colonization. They did not accept the decrees of conversion easily or passively, but rose in armed revolt on different occasions. In Aragon and Valencia the Moriscos were also able to live among themselves and to keep the use of the Arabic language until the moment of their expulsion. The Kingdom of Aragon was the one in all the peninsula where conditions proved the more propitious for the preservation of Islamic culture. In Castile they had been cohabitating with Christians as a mainly small and scattered urban population which was not to raise any kind of conflict until the 1570s when the Granadan Moriscos were deported to Castile.

Events and Legal Dispositions

In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs conquered the last Islamic political entity in the peninsula, the kingdom of Granada. For over a century Granada had been the focus for the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula of a messianic faith in a revitalized Christendom. The Catholic monarchs had proclaimed the war on Granada a Crusade, a designation that had been essential in order to raise the large sums of money required and to obtain the support of the Holy See. The conquest brought an end to the process described by official chroniclers as a “Reconquista,” a label that justified what they presented as a restoration rather than a conquest, and the end of an eight-hundred-year parenthesis of Islamic occupation. The end of the Reconquista set in motion the aim of unifying the entire territory of the Hispanic monarchy not only under one sole pair of monarchs, but under one sole law and one religion. Jews were forced to choose between exile and conversion in 1492—the very same year as the conquest of Granada. Religious unification also entailed the imposition of unity of law, language, and customs. Anything (including music, dress, hairstyle, etc.) that might be considered as pertaining to the old religious communities was to be eliminated, and was perceived as a threat to order and social harmony, because it impeded genuine conversion to Catholicism, which had become the sole and compulsory religion.

Although when Granada had been occupied by the Christians, the surrender agreement recognized the legal rights of Muslims in the Old Kingdom of Granada (as was the case in all the other Christian territories were Muslim lived as mudejares) evangelizing efforts began from the beginning of the Christian occupation of the capital city. Both religious and demographic pressure and exerted by incoming Christian settlers provoked a rebellion in Granada’s Muslim quarter in 1501, and in the surrounding mountains. This uprising was considered a breach of the pacts of surrender, and consequently conversion was decreed for all of the Muslims living in the Crown of Castile in 1502. From 1502 onward Islam was forbidden here, and therefore Muslims were deprived of their legal status and administrative support. They could no longer live as Muslims: their institutions were dissolved, their religious elites converted or were exiled, their mosques were converted into churches. Moreover, because they were now Christian, they came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. Islam was legally recognized for a subsequent two decades in the Crown of Aragon (until 1526), and many Castilian Moriscos, especially members of the elite, emigrated to Aragon—and even to Granada, where the Moriscos had obtained a moratorium from evangelization and from prosecution by the Inquisition until the 1530s. In the meanwhile a slow, clandestine trickle of illegal emigration to North Africa continued.

In Aragon Muslims lived mainly on seigneurial lands. Aragonese and Valencian noblemen defended and protected the Muslims working their lands, from whom they obtained considerable economic benefit. This protection by the noblemen turned out to be a liability during the revolt in Valencia known as the Germanías (Revolt of the Brotherhoods), which was led by the city’s craft and merchant guilds, and attacked Muslim settlements and forced their inhabitants to receive baptism. The rebels’ motives in attacking the Muslim communities were a mixture of economic and social grievances against the landlords, combined with millenarian ideas aimed at achieving the conversion of the “infidels.” Although the baptisms of the “Moors” carried out by the rebels were done under threat of violence, in 1526 Charles V nevertheless determined that their baptism could not be annulled, and further decreed the obligatory conversion of all the Muslims in the Crown of Aragon. Consequently the Moriscos rebelled in the Sierra de Espadán, near Segorbe in Valencia, over the course of that year. This is the date in which Islam ceased to be legal in Iberia (the Muslims of Navarre had been forced to convert when that kingdom had been annexed by Castile in 1513, and those of Portugal had been expelled around 1496). In this same year of 1526 Charles V organized a conclave or junta in the Royal Chapel of Granada to evaluate the situation of the converted Muslims of the kingdom. The junta proclaimed an edict whose purpose was to eliminate all manifestations of local culture: Arabic language, local dress and costume, baths etc. The Inquisition was brought to Granada to supervise and ensure that the measures of the edict were implemented. The Morisco elite managed (on the payment of a considerable amount of money) to obtain a delay in the action for the Inquisition to give time to the Christian missionary endeavour to act properly. Thus, until the mid-1550s there was a period of relative tolerance. The fact is that there was a contradiction within Christian society between the desire to assimilate the new converts totally, so that there would be no difference between Old and New Christians, and the impulse to exclude Moriscos from Christian society on the conviction that the converts were insincere, dangerous, and should in any event be restricted to the lowest possible echelons of society.

The use of Arabic was considered by Christians to be indicative of Islamic beliefs and practices, and as such was banned and prosecuted by the Inquisition and by civil authorities. Thus, the possession of Arabic books was forbidden in 1511. When the cortes (Estates) of Valencia prohibited the use of spoken and written Arabic in 1564, and Philip II followed suit by means of a decree in 1567 for the territories of the Crown of Castile, the Inquisition launched an effort to track down and eliminate all traces of written or spoken Arabic. The decree of 1567 included other measures which kept Moriscos in a subordinate position, including a ban on possessing arms and owning slaves. The armed revolt in Granada known as the War of the Alpujarras (1568–1570) was a direct consequence of this edict. For two years this uprising, characterized by savage ferocity on both sides, raged in the mountains. It was very difficult to suppress; and amounted to, in effect, a sort of second Christian conquest—one that was to leave the fear of Moriscos indelibly imprinted on the contemporary Christian imagination. To make matters worse it coincided with the most intense period of corsair activity in the Mediterranean and the conflict with the Ottomans. In the winter of 1570–1571 the Granadan Moriscos, both those who had revolted and those who had not, were deported to the territories in Castile (well away from the vulnerable Mediterranean coast) and scattered in small numbers throughout the region under the explicit prohibition of changing their place of residence. Detailed censuses were kept by the Christian authorities, both of the Granadans and of “Old Moriscos”—the descendants of the mudejares who had been living there for centuries, and they were kept under the strict vigilance of local authorities, parish priests, and the Inquisition. The Castilian Inquisition, which through the Castilian tribunals of Cuenca, Toledo, Valladolid, and Llerena, had been persecuting Moriscos since 1539, launched a harsh and systematic campaign against them in the 1570s.

In Aragon in 1560 the Moriscos were also forbidden from bearings arms, but their protectors among the Aragonese landed aristocracy protested, and managed to postpone the prohibition. During the second half of the sixteenth century Aragon was a violent region, plagued by bandits, and by feuds between the old nobility and the representatives of the king. The noblemen needed their Moriscos to be armed in order to defend themselves and their lands. Again, here the Moriscos were the victims of the social change and shifting of power relationships within Christian societies. Campaigns of extreme violence were launched against them by the montañeses, or Old Christian inhabitants of the mountains—cattle-herders who attacked the Morisco agriculturalists who lived on seigneurial lands. These episodes, which began in 1586, resulted in massacres of Moriscos who were left vulnerable by the indifference of royal military forces.


Moriscos were persecuted by the Inquisition when they were accused of reverting to or maintaining their previous faith and rituals. Inquisition material constitutes an important source for the study of Moriscos both from a cultural and a social viewpoint. The Inquisition, which had been established in 1478 first concentrated on Jewish conversos and after 1520 on Lutherans and other reformers and dissidents. It was only in the 1550s that the Holy Office began to focus on Moriscos, punishing them for accusations that included the observance of Islamic religious practices (prayer, ritual ablution, Ramadan, food regulations) as well as social habits such as the practice of hygiene and the maintenance of domestic customs, as well as for political acts, such as celebrating Ottoman victories over Spain. The most intense campaigns of repression occurred in Castile after the deportation of the Granadan Moriscos in the early 1570s and across the peninsula in the final decades of the sixteenth century and the years prior to the expulsion in the early seventeenth century. The persecution of Arabic both as a spoken and written language comprised an important dimension of Inquisition activity against crypto-Islam. In Valencia the possession of books written in Arabic was the accusation that most frequently brought Moriscos before the tribunal. In Zaragoza, from where records for some nine hundred trials of Moriscos (dated between 1568 and 1609) have survived, 409 of the accused were charged with owning Arabic books. Inquisition records also show that in Aragon there existed a veritable frenzy of bookselling activity, which involved the copying, distribution, and sale of copies of the Qurʾan. There were also a number of Qurʾanic schools here, such as the one uncovered in Calanda in 1580 and the Muslim scriptorium of Almonacid de la Sierra. However, except in Valencia, where Moriscos continued to speak Arabic until the moment of expulsion, and where the accused, especially in the case of women, required an interpreter when appearing before the tribunal, Inquisition materials do not allow us to establish a correlation between the possession of Arabic books and knowledge of the Arabic language. But Inquisition materials also allow us to apprehend the entangled religiosity and culture of the Moriscos. The Moriscos had to adopt the language, ways, and customs of mainstream society, meaning that they internalized, albeit unconsciously, an entire Catholic cultural world that included theater, processions, and the celebration of Christian patron saints. But there were also deeply assimilated Moriscos. Hispanized or Christianized Moriscos have left very little trace in the records precisely because they tended not to be prosecuted, and this has encouraged scholars to form a distorted image of the “unassimilable Morisco,” who remained a staunch Muslim in spite of all the measures adopted by the Christian authorities. The reality was undoubtedly much more complex, as can be deduced from accounts of the difficulties faced by Christian Moriscos when they tried to integrate in the Islamic societies of North Africa after the expulsion.


Probably the clearest sign of this process of hybridization is the literature in aljamía: a literature written in the Spanish vernacular but using the Arabic alphabet, in which religious terms and concepts were generally expressed in Arabic. Aljamía also borrowed syntactic, stylistic, lexical, and semantic structures from Arabic. It was a unique language, the Islamic variant of Spanish. Literature in aljamía was found mainly in Aragon. It was of a didactic nature, mainly dealing with religious and legal themes, and sought to transmit and preserve among the Moriscos the groundings of Islamic law and belief, as well as stories about Islamic heroes, epic narratives on the beginnings of Islam, stories of the prophets, etc. It focused on, in other words, what might be described as “sacred history.” Other themes included popular medicine and magic, prophesies, moral sayings, punishments, and itineraries (i.e., instructions for fleeing from Spain). The literature also contains narratives, theater, and poetry from contemporary Hispanic literature which the Moriscos clearly knew and enjoyed, just as they knew and used Catholic devotional works. The use of Christian sources is obvious; this can be seen, for example, in what is arguably the most important work of Morisco literature: the Tafsira or “Treatise” by the author known as El Mancebo de Arévalo, an account of a journey in search of knowledge and science which the author conducts throughout different Spanish Morisco communities in the years immediately after the decrees of conversion. This aljamiado text was written in the early sixteenth century, and is a Muslim text interwoven with Christian strands of both devotional and literary nature. Experts on El Mancebo’s text have demonstrated his use of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi and literary texts such as La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas. The Moriscos were indeed a complex group, open to the transmission and translation of religious ideas, images, and emotions from the Christian milieu within which they lived. Subjected to the pressure of intense polemic, they could not help but define themselves through their confrontation and interaction with the world around them.


The expulsion of the Moriscos was debated by the Council of State beginning in 1582 and was finally decided on in 1609–1610. It was legitimized by a particular interpretation of the Reconquista and was carried out in a context of confrontation with the Ottomans and Morocco, at the same time that the religious struggles in northern Europe had contributed to a perception of Spain as the champion of Catholicism and religious unity. One of the main arguments used to justify the expulsion was that of the Moriscos’ apostasy and the persistence of Islamic belief among them. However, when the final decision was eventually taken in Valencia, where the expulsion process began, it was based on reasons of state and cited the imminent danger to the Catholic monarchy of alleged Morisco conspiracies with the Moroccan sultan Mulay Zidan. The expulsion of the Moriscos was carried out between the years 1609 and 1614. The first to go were the Castilians, brought to the Valencian shore and sent off in the direction of North Africa. All in all about 300,000 Moriscos were expelled and went to settle in Morocco, the Turkish regencies of North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as Italy and France. Many tried and succeeded in returning to Spain.

In North Africa the Moriscos took on military vocations, serving especially in artillery corps, as well as on corsair ships. Under the protection of the political authorities in these regions, they also settled in the capitals and other towns and cities on the Mediterranean coast, occupying posts close to the sultan, or the Ottoman beys, taking on administrative duties, particularly as translators, working as traders and artisans, and also holding agricultural property outside the cities. Generally they played a significant part in the impressively cosmopolitan life of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mediterranean ports, alongside other groups of Muslims and Jews, as well as renegades and converts of European origin.

Moriscos generally gathered and settled in their own communities, often with the protection of the authorities (especially in the Ottoman territories), where they contributed directly to the economic interests of rulers. Sometimes they found themselves on the margins of the host society, within which they were seen as foreigners and either actual or suspected apostates. They constituted a separate and identifiable community at least until the eighteenth century when they were finally absorbed by North African society. Nevertheless, even today certain families and surnames are identified as Morisco in origin, and are referred to as andalusiyyun.


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