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In Review

Tensions on the Frontier Historian Thomas Devaney examines the rise of religious intolerance in medieval Spain.
devaneySPECTACLE: Staged events—similar to this “Game of Stickes” played in Valladolid in honor of Philip the Fair—helped harden Christian attitudes toward Muslims in medieval Spain, argues historian Thomas Devaney. It’s a story of “how one society moved from greater to lesser tolerance,” he says. (Photo: Album/Art Resource, NY)

The Christian civic and religious leaders of 15th-century Castile didn’t have televised news conferences or government websites to help them shape or respond to public opinion.

Instead, they staged public spectacles that served much the same purpose—including festivals, religious processions, and knightly tournaments that often included a theatrical narrative framework.

In his new book, Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460–1492 (University of Pennsylvania Press), Thomas Devaney, assistant professor of history, shows how such staged events eventually helped harden Christian attitudes toward Muslims in neighboring Granada and toward the religious minorities in Castile, eventually leading to religious conflict and repression.

Modern Spanish anxieties and ambivalences about Islam may descend from those of Spaniards’ “medieval forebears,” Devaney says. His book traces the arc of those reactions in the late 15th century.

For Americans today, the term “frontier” implies action, says Devaney—a place “to be crossed, conquered, pushed back, and made civilized.” But for medieval Castilians it denoted a “borderland region,” an area for interactions between cultures. Christians living closest to the frontier between Castile and Granada had developed—despite their religious differences—lucrative trading partnerships with Muslims on the other side, partnerships that were disrupted with great loss to both sides whenever conflicts flared. So they tended to be the least enthused about going to war with Muslims.

With the spectacles, rulers were trying to provide the people with what they guessed the populace wanted, says Devaney. The people, in turn, took the spectacles as evidence that they had license to lash out against religious minorities.

“The city council members and nobles thus see more and more public activity against religious minorities; the level of the rhetoric gets ratcheted up a notch; and we have this ongoing back and forth,” he says.

“In other words, there’s really no bad guy, no person planning this. To a large degree it just happens, and it’s not under any individual or group’s control.”

Often, spectacles staged by figures of authority had extensive subtexts that reflected a complicated balancing of competing interests. For instance, Don Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, the ruler of the frontier town of Jaén, was eager to resume military campaigns against Muslims across the border. But to do so, he had to “inspire a local population that was just as happy to trade with the Muslims as fight them,” Devaney writes.

Nothing would be the same, however, after spectacles later in the time period turned violent. In the 1470s in Córdoba, for instance, a religious procession ended in a riot. As the violence spiraled out of control, many of the town’s converts were killed, while others fled for their lives.

Devaney says that in the 32 years the book covers, people in the region moved from a kind of acceptance of difference to fear to, finally, dismissal, as the majority asserted that theirs was a Christian society. He calls the time frame of his book a period of “growing intolerance and a renewed push for holy war.”

The questions his book addresses, he writes, “have emerged anew in the last couple of decades, fueled by increased immigration and by fears of terrorism.”

“In a small sense, this is a book about particular group interactions in a few cities on the Spanish-Granadan border in the late 15th century,” he says. “In a larger sense, it is a story about how one society moved from greater to lesser tolerance.”

—Bob Marcotte