Jan 31, 2007

Book Review: The Art of War in Spain - The Conquest of Granada, 1481-1492

The Art of War in Spain - The Conquest of Granada, 1481-1492Prescott, William H. and McJoynt, Albert D.

London: Greenhill Books, 288 pages

William H. Prescott was a nineteenth century American historian who was nearly blinded while attending college at Harvard. As a result of the accident, Prescott left the study of law and began a new career in history, and is one of the most renowned of classic American historians. McJoynt is a military historian and a retired military officer who edited Prescott’s account of the Granada campaign for a modern audience, arguing that this effort by Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella has long been overlooked as a pivotal moment in the history of Europe and European expansion. The book combines Prescott’s account of the conquest of Granada – taken from his 1837 masterpiece History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella - with material developed by McJoynt on late medieval warfare, the Reconquista, and analyses of Prescott’s work.

Some modern historians dismiss Prescott’s work as dated, biased, and irrelevant, but even his detractors acknowledge that he was a scrupulous researcher. Certainly Prescott's anti-Papacy bias and his similar disdain for Islam stand out as examples of his nineteenth-century mentalité. The Conquest of Granada, despite its overemphasis on political and military history, remains a factually accurate work, and Prescott’s sources continue to be the standard research material on the topic. Still, the author’s style takes readers a few pages to get used to, and his Romantic conception of chivalrous knights and pious monarchs wears thin at times, as evident by passages such as this description of the funeral of Marquis Duke de Cadiz, killed at the surrender of the city of Granada:
His body, after lying in state for several days in his palace at Seville, with his trusty sword by his side, with which he had fought all his battles, was borne in solemn procession by night through the streets of the city, which was everywhere filled with the deepest lamentation; and was finally deposited in the great chapel of the Augustine church, in the tomb of his ancestors. Ten Moorish banners, which he had taken in battle with the infidel, before the war of Granada, were borne along at his funeral, "and still wave over his sepulchre," says Bernaldez, "keeping alive the memory of his exploits, as undying as his soul." The banners have long since mouldered into dust; the very tomb which contained his ashes has been sacrilegiously demolished; but the fame of the hero will survive as long as anything like respect for valor, courtesy, unblemished honor, or any other attribute of chivalry, shall be found in Spain.

Map of the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, 914-1492 Map of the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, 914-1492

McJoynt consciously used the term “war” in place of the traditional “conquest” to describe the Granada campaign because the efforts to defeat the Spanish Muslims took nearly eleven years. Moreover, the author pointed out that the Granada war began in a tentative fashion, with an ill-advised attack by the Nasrid monarch against the fortified town of Zahara, which set into motion a series of retaliatory attacks by the Castilians against Muslim-held towns in Granada. Prescott’s documentation of the lengthy campaign reminds readers that the fall of Granada was not a simple matter of the eventual capitulation by Nasrid king Muhammad XII on 2 January 1492, but the culmination of a concerted effort that, itself, should be seen within the larger context of the Reconquista.

Prescott, with his traditional orientation toward political and military history, argued that a number of factors were most important in the eventual fall of Granada. He believed that the Spanish embrace of emerging artillery technology enabled them to conduct more effective siege warfare against the walled fortresses of the Nasrid towns, and the use of sea and land blockades was critical in starving out the Moors. He argued that Ferdinand was a skilled tactician and charismatic leader of his troops, while Isabella complemented him well as a sort of regal quartermaster, demonstrating acumen at acquiring and delivering needed military resources. Finally, in Prescott’s eyes the Catholic Monarchs were quick to embrace the emerging concepts of standing armies and large infantry forces, moving away from the medieval reliance upon heavy, knight-based cavalry.

1469 wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella1469 wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella

McJoynt, in addition to his essays on Iberian military history and the Reconquista, provided readers with a wealth of supplementary information. There is a lengthy glossary appended to the text to help non-specialists sort through the confusing Castilian and Nasrid terminology, as well as an impressive bibliographical list for further reading. The editor also included quite a few maps, charts, and tables to help orient readers toward place names and sort out the noble lineage in Prescott’s text.

As a social historian, I must admit I approached this work with some trepidation, not wanting to be bored with the endless battles and arcane logistical details sometimes cluttering up works of military history. Yet I found Prescott’s narrative – and McJoynt’s essays – to be surprisingly relevant and enlightening. One may, for example, see a historical precedent for the much-maligned modern practice of ethnic cleansing in the following passage describing Ferdinand’s actions after the fall of the Nasrid port city of Málaga (which is a forerunner of the later Alhambra decree):
The first care of the sovereigns was directed towards repeopling the depopulated city with their own subjects. Houses and lands were freely granted to such as would settle there. Numerous towns and villages with a wide circuit of territory were placed under its civil jurisdiction, and it was made the head of a diocese embracing most of the recent conquests in the south and west of Granada. These inducements, combined with the natural advantages of position and climate, soon caused the tide of Christian population to flow into the deserted city…
Finally, this reviewer finds himself in agreement with McJoynt and Prescott as to the oft-overlooked importance of the campaign for Granada. Not only was the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula a symbolic victory for Western Europe, but the war also developed a generation of battle-hardened conquistadores whose experience would be quite useful to the Spanish monarchs as they turned westward for sixteenth-century endeavors in the Americas.

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