To Live Like a Moor

To Live Like a Moor traces the many shifts in Christian perceptions of Islam-associated ways of life which took place across the centuries between early Reconquista efforts of the eleventh century and the final expulsions of Spain's converted yet poorly assimilated Morisco population in the seventeenth.

To Live Like a Moor
Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain

Olivia Remie Constable. Edited by Robin Vose. Foreword by David Nirenberg

2018 | 248 pages | Cloth $55.00
History / Religion
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Table of Contents

Foreword, David Nirenberg

Editor's Preface
Chapter 1. Being Muslim in Christian Spain
Chapter 2. Clothing and Appearance
Chapter 3. Bathing and Hygiene
Chapter 4. Food and Foodways
Editor's Afterword

Editor's Acknowledgments

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Editor's Preface

"Perceptions" of Islam, and their development over time, form the topic of this book. But where others have explored such perceptions above all as they were expressed in a select corpus of contemporary theological, legal, or literary texts, Olivia Remie Constable's approach here was rather that of a wide-ranging social historian. The author's ability to glean evidence from a dizzying array of archival documents, manuscript and printed volumes, architectural remains, and material objects permitted her to weave together precisely the sort of nuanced and colorful tapestry that best represents the complexities of lived—as opposed to idealized—experience. "A long process of hunting and gathering," she once called her method; or "trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of unknown design, in which many of the pieces are missing and some of the available pieces are borrowed from other apparently similar puzzles." From legal and economic documents to chronicles (both royal and more localized) and cookbooks, religious treatises, travelers' accounts, poetry, artistic representations—Olivia Remie Constable was able to draw on all these and more to work out a more comprehensive and nuanced sense of just how medieval and early modern Iberian Christians' perceptions of their Muslim neighbors actually manifested and changed over the course of more than five centuries.

The tensions evident between any one source's depiction and the composite images resulting from a more expansive and inclusive approach are reflected in Constable's conscious decision to frame her analysis (at least initially) around the testimony of a single Morisco elder: Francisco Núñez Muley. Taking her lead from his passionate denunciation of the Christian regime's criminalization of heretofore licit practices widespread among the formerly Muslim population of Granada, she identified three major categories of behavior that were deemed to be unacceptable markers of "Islamic" identity by the middle of the sixteenth century: the adoption of certain types of clothing and appearance, certain approaches to bathing and hygiene, and use of traditional Arabic forms of communication (including naming and musical performance as well as speech and text). Yet a fourth category, left unmentioned by Núñez Muley in this text, also emerges in many other sources as an equally important area of dispute and a marker of difference: certain types of food preparation and consumption. This latter category had to be given due consideration, even if it did not always strike one relatively acculturated and privileged male witness as being worthy of comment, if a full picture of past experience was to be effectively rendered.

Constable's great original insight and research contribution with this book was to document how day-to-day cultural habits—especially habits that were bodily in nature, and in particular those that could be specifically linked to female bodies—became a primary focal point of anti-Muslim sentiment from the later Middle Ages to the beginning of the early modern period. Quite apart from their concerns over Islamic theological beliefs, Spanish Christians became increasingly antipathetic to the ways in which Spanish Muslims (and many of their converted Morisco descendants) dressed, bathed, spoke, and ate. These seemingly innocuous daily practices served as lightning rods for struggles over distinctiveness, assimilation, and the limits of toleration in the Iberian Peninsula. It was both by listening closely to what Francisco Núñez Muley had to say and by going beyond his singular perspective to see how other aspects of the same problem actually emerged over a long period of time that Remie Constable was able to bring together and make coherent such a vast mass of otherwise discordant information on such a very important topic. The result is a careful presentation of how and (where possible) why attitudes fitfully evolved to arrive at the tragic experiences of Núñez Muley's generation and the subsequent final expulsion of their children and grandchildren from Iberian soil.


The decision to seek publication of a work that, while near completion in many ways, remained unfinished at the time of its author's illness and death, was not taken lightly. There was, in particular, a problem with one of the four analytic sections originally intended for study. Constable had completed much of her research on the topic of language, naming practices, and songs, however the draft chapter laying out this information existed only in an incomplete outline. After much discussion, first with Remie herself and later with several of her closest confidants, it was reluctantly decided that only the three most complete of the four sections, those on dress, bathing, and food, should be submitted for publication as a coherent piece of scholarship that could stand proudly on its own merits. This meant leaving out a key planned chapter on evolving Spanish Christian perceptions of the Arabic language, and related linguistic and musical performances, as markers of religious identity. The importance of these topics to the original project remains evident in Professor Constable's introductory chapter, and there seemed no reason to hide it or to gloss over the resulting gap.

The virtue of this approach has been to retain, as much as possible, Remie Constable's own voice. The editor's role has been deliberately minimal. For the most part, it was limited to careful checking and rechecking of references, polishing and standardization of format, and completion of occasional unfinished thoughts (usually following meticulously recorded prompts from the author's own notes). Brief conclusions were imposed on each chapter for the sake of closure—Constable had deliberately left them open-ended because she was always adding more data, and consequently adjusting her ideas, to the very end. The only substantial research contribution by the editor appears in subsections relating to the use of henna (in Chapter 2), the impact of syphilis on questions of bathing hygiene (in Chapter 3), and the use of implements such as forks (in Chapter 4); further bibliographical information on modern debates over Islamic veiling was also added to Chapter 1. All these additions were scripted by Olivia Remie Constable's notes, with generous hints and clues to be followed, but any errors or distortions inadvertently introduced therein should not be held to her account.