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Mercedes Garcia-Arenal et Fernando Rodriguez Mediano, Un Oriente espanol. Los moriscos y el Sacromonte en tiempos de Contrarreforma

Stephanie Cavanaugh
Référence(s) :

Mercedes Garcia-Arenal y Fernando Rodriguez Mediano, Un Oriente espanol. Los moriscos y el Sacromonte en tiempos de Contrarreforma, Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2010, 504 p. | English version: Mercedes Garcia-Arenal and Fernando Rodriguez Mediano, The Orient in Spain. Converted Muslims, the Forged Lead Books of Granada and the Rise of Orientalism, trad. Consuelo López-Morillas, Leiden – Boston, Brill, 2013, 488 p.

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1In their excellent monograph, Un Oriente español: los moriscos y el Sacromonte en tiempos de Contrarreforma (2010), M. García-Arenal and F. Rodríguez Mediano explore the Granadan Morisco world that produced the lead books of Sacromonte and examine the contemporary interpretations of these controversial texts. This enquiry initiates a wider investigation of the history of Arabic in Spain, leaving the world of the Granadan Moriscos to explore scholarly exchanges further afield.

2The story begins in late sixteenth-century Spain with the discovery of small lead plates inscribed with strange, perhaps ancient Arabic letters, found in caves in the hills on the outskirts of the city of Granada. The hills where the lead books were found became known as Sacromonte, or «holy mountain». For believers, Sacromonte corroborated a religious manuscript and human remains that had been unearthed during the demolition of the minaret of the old mosque in the city of Granada in 1588. Together, these discoveries offered providential proof of the ancient existence of Christianity in Iberia. They were widely interpreted by Christian Spaniards as evidence of divine approval for the city of Granada, conquered one century earlier. For many Moriscos, the discoveries presented an ecclesiastical history of Spain that incorporated Arabic peoples as early and authentic Christian inhabitants. In the Spain of limpieza de sangre, this proof of lineage was high-stakes cultural currency for the Moriscos. Meanwhile, many detractors insisted that there were serious reasons to doubt the authenticity of these discoveries. The legitimacy and proper interpretation of the lead books of Sacromonte were debated during a decades-long project of transcription, translation, and interpretation of the texts.

3The first chapters of this study provide a detailed overview of the discoveries and the resulting debates between defenders and skeptics of the lead books. This section describes the uses and abuses of Arabic in early modern Spain, a topic that remains central throughout the study. The authors examine the attempts to employ Arabic in the evangelization of Muslims in early sixteenth-century Spain and the endurance of Arabic in Granadan Morisco society. M. García-Arenal and F. Rodríguez Mediano then examine the lives and careers of noble Morisco families (including the Muley Fez and Granada-Venegas lineages) and individuals (including Alonso del Castillo and Miguel de Luna) in order to better understand the cultural position, textual resources, linguistic abilities, and socio-political context of the sixteenth-century Morisco world out of which the lead books were created. The authors argue that the Sacromonte texts represent a Morisco strategy to de-Islamicize Arabic culture as a way to legitimize their presence in Spain.

4Later chapters consider sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interpretations of the lead books outside of their Granadan Morisco cultural and scholarly context. Non-Morisco translators and interpreters of the lead books—men such as Diego de Urrea, Marcos Dobelio, and Tomás de León—belonged to a broader scholarly tradition. Many non-Granadan interpreters focused on incongruities in the lead books, and believed the texts were forgeries. In the final chapters of this study, the authors examine the texts, methods and historiographical dilemmas of early modern scholars concerned with the study of languages and wisdom from the east. This knowledge was desirable to some, but dangerous to others. The authors argue the central importance of the lead books of Sacromonte in understanding the development of these oriental scholarly traditions in early modern Spain.

5The authors of this study have collaborated on past projects. M. García-Arenal is renowned for her work on Morisco history and on the lead books of Sacromonte, while F. Rodríguez Mediano has published on the histories of translation and Arabic in Spain. Un Oriente español builds on a strong historiographical tradition sparked by scholars such as Bernard Vincent and Julio Caro Baroja, and continued by historians such as Gerard Wiegers, Manuel Barrios Aguilera, David Coleman, and Katie A. Harris.

6There is no explicit definition of the Spanish Orient in Un Oriente español. It is not a reference to Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of Orientalism (an otherwise common allusion in modern scholarship). The authors are concerned with early modern European scholarly interest in eastern languages and textual knowledge, rather than the romanticization of «the Orient» as a justification for Western imperialism in the East. It would be interesting to explore the potential connections between these historical relationships.

7The Spanish Orient presented by M. García-Arenal and F. Rodríguez Mediano refers to interlocking scholarly milieus in early modern Spain and Europe, each invested in defending its own interpretation of the lead books and its beliefs about the proper incorporation of Arabic in the writing of the history of Spain. These are the worlds of elite Granadan Moriscos, of Catholic priests, of interpreters, translators, and mediators, and of the European Republic of Letters that constituted a continent-wide scholarly enquiry into eastern languages and texts. The members of this Republic of Letters believed that eastern languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Egyptian held the key to true knowledge. These scholars were connected by their exchanges of books, ideas and investigation of common historical questions.

8Un Oriente español contributes to existing scholarship by situating the histories of Sacromonte and of sixteenth-century Morisco Granada in the wider scope of the intellectual history of early modern Europe. The brilliance of this book is that it reveals connections between diverse ideas, texts and individuals without over-simplifying these complex topics. Furthermore, this approach shatters the isolation of Morisco studies from the wider history of the early modern era. The result is a stimulating study that will be accessible, useful, and inspiring for readers regardless of their familiarity with these topics.

9The lead books were deemed forgeries by the papacy in 1682. Scholars then and now have attempted to identify the authors—surely they were Moriscos, but who? Alonso del Castillo and Miguel de Luna have been posited as the falsifiers, and Un Oriente español explains some of the reasons why this could be true. However, M. García-Arenal and F. Rodríguez Mediano do not solve this mystery, nor do they claim to. What they’ve done is much more powerful. They have skillfully revealed the conflicted universe that invented Sacromonte and the concentric circles of early modern erudite investigation that lay in its wake.

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Stephanie Cavanaugh, « Mercedes Garcia-Arenal et Fernando Rodriguez Mediano, Un Oriente espanol. Los moriscos y el Sacromonte en tiempos de Contrarreforma »Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez [En ligne], 44-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2018, consulté le 12 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Stephanie Cavanaugh

University of Toronto

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