The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon
(University of Chicago Press, 2016) xv + 310 pp. $40.00/£ 26.00
In 1284 King Pere II of Aragon faced a major crisis. His attempts to assert the rights of his wife Constanza to the throne of Sicily had embroiled him in a pan-Mediterranean war with the House of Anjou. The Angevin claim was backed by the Papacy, which had preached a crusade against him; the King of France was only too happy to support his Angevin cousins by invading Aragon. Many of Pere’s aristocratic subjects rose in rebellion. To shore up his shaky position, Pere turned in an unlikely direction. He sent an embassy to the Nasrid kingdom of Granada to recruit light cavalry of the type known as jenets, ultimately of North African origin. The men hired by Pere’s mission came from an organisation known as al-Guzah al-Mujahidun. Originally composed of the followings of Marinid princes (from present day Morocco) who had chosen exile in Spain after a failed rebellion around 1260, this had become a militarised community attracting men from across Muslim North Africa on the strength of its role as an assembly of Holy Warriors. Its members had been at war with Pere little more than a year before in the context of a Valencian Muslim uprising against Aragonese rule. These were not obvious allies for a Christian monarch, even one with his back to the wall. Nevertheless Aragonese monarchs were to hire large numbers of Muslim jenets in the decades which followed the crisis of 1284/5.
Hussein Fancy’s study focuses on these men and, to a lesser extent, their Christian counterparts who served North African Muslim rulers. He seeks to place them in a framework which integrates the Christian and Muslim worlds of the Western Mediterranean. In this context the King of Aragon could appear not just as the ultimate heir to Norman Sicilian and Hohenstaufen claims but also as heir to the Almohad caliph, an active participant in the complex interactions of the successor states to that polity- for instance seeking to place an Almohad exile prince on the throne in Tunis. Fancy’s terminology jars at times, as when he repeatedly refers to the Mediterranean claims of the “Holy Roman Empire” when the claims over which Aragonese and Angevins were fighting ultimately went back to the Norman rulers of Sicily, predating the personal union between that kingdom and the Empire under Frederick II. Despite this he succeeds in throwing a new and unfamiliar light on such episodes as the so-called Sicilian Vespers.
Given the likely readership of the De Re Militari site, it should be noted that some issues which may be of particular interest to medieval military historians receive at best passing attention in Fancy’s short text (a bare 150 pages, supported by massively detailed footnoting), perhaps because relevant source material is lacking. There is, for instance, no indication of just how many jenets were in Aragonese service at any one time and very little sense of how exactly these men were employed within the Aragonese armies on campaign (though it seems that they were primarily useful in the irregular warfare of ambush and skirmish, not to mention ravaging and plundering, and valuable precisely because they complemented more traditional heavy cavalry). While there is no list of the campaigns they were involved in, they were normally used against the king’s Christian enemies, including domestic rebels- this at least was the stated convention in treaties with North African rulers, though Fancy does identify at least one occasion on which jenets fought against Granada before having second thoughts. Evidence on their relationship with the Christian soldiers whom they fought alongside is enigmatic, though the fact that the jenets had more favourable terms of service (they did not have to hand over a percentage of their plunder to the king) might suggest that these could be difficult. Unlike most medieval European mercenaries, the jenets were organised round extended family units, which meant that they came with wives and families who appear to have been settled among the Muslim populations of Valencia while their men were at war. There is surprisingly little material on how day to day interactions between the jenets and civilian populations worked out- though the limited amount which does exist suggests that these could be stormy, with royal administrators inclined to favour their own populations over the king’s soldiers even in the face of direct royal orders. Despite the subtitle, however, there is rather less “violence” in Fancy’s account than one might have expected.
By contrast “sovereignty” gets substantial coverage. On Fancy’s telling, one attraction of the jenets was that their presence as a visible “other” within his kingdom, well rewarded and privileged but ultimately without rights if he chose to withdraw his favour, gave a visible reinforcement to the increasingly high flown claims to sovereignty which Aragonese monarchs were making in the second half of the thirteenth century. These were based primarily on a reading of Roman law as interpreted under Frederick II, marinaded with some Almohad caliphal elements. Their role is also placed within a history of exotic, often slave, soldiers stretching back to the Abbasid Caliphate and on to General Franco’s Moroccan Guard. This is a virtuoso exercise in intellectual history, though resting heavily on inference and analogy rather than explicit royal statements. It has to be said, however, that, if the audience for the staging of sovereignty represented by the jenets was the Christian elites of the Crown of Aragon, the performance does not seem to have been particularly persuasive. Furthermore, adopting Frederick II (presented in rather sub-Kantorowiczian terms) as a role model would surely have been problematic given that monarch’s contentious status. On the other hand, the jenets never became players in Aragonese politics, unlike many outsider military groups, including the Christian mercenaries in North Africa (and indeed the al-Guzah themselves in Granada)- a success story which deserves further consideration.
As far as “religion” is concerned, Fancy (to grossly oversimplify a very complex and subtle argument) concludes that kings and jenets could interact effectively without either side having to step outside the framework of their respective faiths, let alone become proto-secularists, in order to do so. He may well be right, though in the absence of much by way of ego-documents (especially on the jenet side) it is inevitably hard to prove the case. It is less clear how the often rebellious nobles of the Aragonese lands saw things- let alone more humble populations who saw yesterday’s feared (and hated?) enemy transformed into today’s ally at a stroke of the royal pen. Then again, visibly alien soldiers implementing unpopular royal policies were rarely popular whatever their faith, as (for instance) the Scots charged with enforcing the rule of Charles VII in 1450’s Gascony were to discover.
Overall this is a very rich and scholarly study even if not all its arguments carry total conviction; the fact that one could have wished for it to be considerably longer is a tribute to the complexity of the issues it raises.