al-Andalus, Catholicism, Islam

The Martyrs of Córdoba: Part II

St. Roderick of Cordoba, by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, 17th c. (Wikimedia Commons). St. Roderick, a Priest, intervened in an argument between two of his brothers; one Muslim and the other Christian. After he was knocked unconscious, the Muslim brother paraded him around town claiming he had converted to Islam. When he awoke he denied this, but the Muslim authorities did not believe him and he was executed for apostasy in 857.

In Part I, we took a look at the historical context of the Martyrs’ Movement in 9th century Córdoba. In Part II we will examine how scholars have grappled with the question of what motivated the martyrs to confront Islamic authorities in the way that they did.


The two most recent monographs on the topic of the martyrs are those by Kenneth Baxter Wolf (Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain), first published in 1988, and Jessica Coope (The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion), published in 1995. What follows will largely be an examination of how both of these authors treated their topic.  Conveniently, Wolf has included an excellent historiographical outline of the martyrs, having dedicated a whole chapter to it in his book.  The historiography in what follows from its origins until Wolf’s work in 1988 has been taken from that chapter.[1]

The main sources for the Martyrs’ Movement are the writings of the Priest and later Bishop of Toledo, Eulogius of Córdoba (who himself was martyred in 859), and the layman Paulus Albarus (Albar), a contemporary.[2]  Eulogius had direct contact with some of the martyrs, and also functioned as the movement’s hagiographer, composing both the Documentum martyriale, and the Memoriale sanctorum for this purpose.  He also seems to have functioned as the de facto leader of the movement.  Both Eulogius and Albar wrote in defense of the martyrs, Eulogius in his, Liber apologeticus martyrum, and Albar in his, Indiculus luminosus.  Albar also wrote a biography of Eulogius, the Vita Eulogii, after the latter was beheaded in 859.  Wolf informs us that Eulogius’ writings remained in obscurity from the time that they were probably transferred with his remains to Oviedo in 884, until they were discovered in the 16th century by the inquisitor general Pedro Ponce de León, who then forwarded them to Ambrosio de Morales.[3]  Ambrosio de Morales subsequently printed and salvaged Eulogius’ works for posterity.[4]  Wolf notes that the Spanish school of thought on the Martyrs’ Movement followed Eulogius and Morales’ lead and wrote in an apologetic fashion, seeking to downplay any level of convivencia (coexistence)[5]; a term referring to what many historians see as the relative harmonious interrelations between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in al-Andalus. However, at least one Spanish contemporary by the name of Juan de Mariana in his Latin (and later Castilian) work, Historia general de España, seemed to grant a certain level of convivencia.[6]  He was followed and expanded upon by Enrique Florez, who in his España Sagrada (1753), made the distinction between a state of peace, and a state of persecution.[7]  The trend that emphasized a state of persecution then peaked in the mid nineteenth century with the author Francisco Simonet.[8] 

Wolf notes that outside of Spain, scholars have tended to take the side of the moderates.[9]  Since the movement itself caused a great division within the Mozarab community (the indigenous Christians of Al-Andalus), “moderates” here refers to those Mozarabs (including many clergy) who opposed the actions of the martyrs and were content to leave well enough alone.  Reflective of this tendency to take their side is a French contemporary of the aforementioned Mariana, Louis Turquet de Mayerne, in his work Histoire générale d’Espagne.[10] In this he was followed by the Dutch scholar Reinhardt Dozy, author of the Histoire des Musulmans d’Espagne (1861), who Wolf notes had a large impact on the historiography of the martyrs.[11]  Dozy saw the cases of the two martyrs, Perfectus and Joannes, as a catalyst for the entire phenomenon, while asserting that Isaac provided something of an exemplar for later martyrs.[12]  Perfectus was a Priest who was one day challenged by a group of Muslims to express his views towards Muhammad.  When he was assured by them that they would not report him to the authorities, he told them that he believed that Muhammad was a false prophet.  Sometime later, the group of Muslims reneged on their promise and reported Perfectus to the authorities for blasphemy.  When brought before the qadi (judge), Perfectus initially denied having done what the group of Muslims accused him of doing.  Realizing that he would be executed anyway, he admitted to what he had done and was beheaded in 850.  Joannes was a Christian merchant who had apparently developed the habit of nonchalantly swearing by the name of Muhammad in his daily dealings at the marketplace.  After being confronted by a group of Muslims for his behavior, he uttered a blasphemy in anger, and was subsequently reported to the qadi, who then had him beaten and jailed in 851.[13] 

Along with his views on what caused the Martyr’s Movement mentioned above, Dozy also had a less favorable view of Eulogius than did Spanish historians, coupled with a positive view of the moderates within the Mozarabic community.[14] This prompted replies from Spanish historians, such as Justo Perez de Urbel.[15]  The French scholar Évariste Lévi-Provençal, on the other hand, followed Dozy in his assertion that the harsh Muslim response to the voluntary martyrs was driven more by political concerns, than by religious zeal.[16]  In this first half of the twentieth century, Spanish authors such as the previously mentioned Perez de Urbel, along with Isidro de las Cagigas, argued that the Martyr’s Movement was a species of proto-Spanish nationalism, but this view has not held the floor.[17]  Other Spanish historians such as J.F. Rivera Recio, Raphael Jiménez Pedrajas, and Emilio Linage Conde, argued for a religious motivation to explain the actions of the martyrs.[18]  This is a departure from Dozy in that he criticized them as bigoted fanatics[19], whereas these authors must have taken a less hostile approach.  Wolf notes that the second half of the 20th century (at least up until the time he published in 1988) had been an active area of study with respect to the specifics surrounding these religious motives.[20]  He credits Franz Richard Franke for observing that many of the martyrs had ties to monasteries, in his work Die freiwilligen Märtyrer von Cordova und das Verhältnis der Mozaraber zum Islam.[21] 

Lastly, Wolf introduces us to a number of American scholars.  The first is Edward P. Colbert who vindicated the martyrs in his 1962 monograph, The Martyrs of Cordoba (850-859): A Study of the Sources, but whose objectivity is questioned by Wolf.[22]  Next, Allan Cutler’s article, The Ninth-century Spanish Martyrs’ Movement and the Origins of Western Christian Missions to the Muslims, argued that the martyrs were motivated by eschatological fervor, while also noting a parallel between the Martyrs’ Movement and the methods utilized by the 12th century Franciscan missionaries towards Islam in the East.[23]  James Waltz highlighted the concerns of Eulogius and Albar regarding the acculturation of the Mozarabic population and the disappearance of Latin-Christian culture, and argued that the martyrdoms were not initially part of their programs.[24]  Both Waltz and Norman Daniel (The Arabs and Medieval Europe, 1979) receive praise for making the distinction between the motives of the martyrs, and those of Eulogius and Albar.[25]  Having now summarized Wolf’s summary of the historiography up until 1988, we can pick up the mantle, beginning with him.

Much like Waltz and Daniel, Wolf is concerned with keeping the motivation of Eulogius distinct from those of the martyrs, being critical of previous works that rely too heavily on the former in order to ascertain the motives of the latter.[26]  This distinction seems to be helpful, in that it arguably provides a check to accepting Eulogius’ account at face value.  Having made it, Wolf seeks to determine the motives and methods of Eulogius in order to shed light on the motivations of the martyrs.[27]  He notes that Islamic jurists in the East showed concerns about the influence of non-Muslim populations on the Muslim conquerors following the conquests there.[28]  Wolf sees a laxity in the application of sharia (Islamic law) with regards to regulations pertaining to dhimmis, but also a reversal in this area with the ascendancy to the emirate of Muhammad I in 852.[29]  It is possible that this further stimulated the steady flow of voluntary martyrs.  Wolf follows Waltz in his view that both Eulogius and Albar wrote in response to the martyrdoms rather than play the role as the instigators of them.[30]  Wolf sees, “Eulogius’ martyrology as a frame for a personal protest against the policies of his ecclesiastical superiors.”[31]  The reason for protest, of course, was due to the fact that his ecclesiastical superiors were moderate Mozarabs.  Eulogius’ opponents appealed to the fact that, in contrast to the martyrs of the early Church, there were no miracles associated with the Martyrs of Córdoba.[32]  As Wolf points out, Eulogius responded in a twofold manner: one by discounting their account of the martyrdoms, and another by arguing in the vein of Pope Gregory I in his Dialogues (ca. 593), who argued that miracles aren’t necessary to prove sanctity.[33]  The other charges of the Christian opponents of the martyrs were that, also unlike in the early Church during the period under the pagan government, the Muslims weren’t pagans and that there was no persecution.[34]  The martyrs’ apologists of course took up these challenges as well. 

In turning to the question of the martyrs’ motives, Wolf focuses on Isaac and similar cases in which the martyrs came forward of their own accord, confronting the Muslim authorities.[35]  He rejects the aforementioned eschatological fervor theory, as espoused by Cutler, and later R.W. Southern.[36]  Whereas these scholars argued that Eulogius’ and Albar’s use of the term praecursor antichristi in reference to Islam was proof of their being motivated by a belief in the unfolding of the eschaton, Wolf argues that they overlook the apologetic nature of Eulogius’ and Albar’s works.[37]   In his view, the martyrs’ actions were animated by an intense spiritual anxiety about their salvation.[38]  This is based on his assertion that the practice of voluntary penance – an ascetical practice of the early Church whereby a person would enjoin on themselves a life of penance without having committed the typical grave sin that would normally be a prerequisite in re-establishing oneself with the Church – was still being practiced in Visigoth Spain at the time of the Muslim conquest.[39]  He links this practice with Cordovan monasticism in order better understand the motive of the martyr Isaac.[40] 

Isaac was a Christian who was employed as a government official in Córdoba.  At some point he resigned from his job, and retired to the Tábanos monastery.  He later presented himself before a qadi from whom he asked to be instructed about Islam.  After listening to the qadi’s presentation he proceeded to denounce Muhammad, whereupon the astonished qadi struck him and brought him before the emir.  The emir had him beheaded and hung his body up for display in 851.  Isaac is key to Wolf’s thesis because he sees in him an exemplar who the rest of the voluntary martyrs could emulate thereby relieving them of their spiritual anxiety by ensuring their salvation.[41]  Wolf insists on a symbiotic relationship between these two elements whereby the absence of one or the other would neutralize the reaction created by the mixture.[42]  As to Isaac’s motive, he only seems to speculate that the dramatic shift from leaving a high government position, living in the mainstream of Islamic society, to rejecting all of that in favor of the monastery, might have been enough to lead Isaac to do what he did.[43]

Whereas Wolf focused on the motivations of those martyrs who willfully sought out their own martyrdoms by confronting the Islamic authorities, Jessica Coope opined that both the task of separating the martyrs’ motives from that of Eulogius, and of determining their motives in general, is insoluble.[44] She focuses on the group as a whole, arguing that the martyrdoms “represented an attempt to resist assimilation and conversion to Islam and to strengthen Christian identity by invoking the heroic image of the Roman martyrs.”[45]  She urges a level of caution in accepting the testimonies of Eulogius and Albar at face value, but nonetheless draws upon them and supplements their accounts with a study of Córdoba in the 9th century.[46]  She points out three significant changes in the capital in the first half of the century: the growing strength of the government, an expansion of the bureaucracy, and a growing importance of Islamic high culture at the emir’s court.[47] These factors led to an imbalance in favor of Islam in the realm of cultural borrowing, to financial and social motivations for adopting Islamic culture, to an attraction towards Arabic literary culture, and to conversions to Islam.[48]  Thus for Coope, the martyrdoms were partially motivated by a loss of Latin Christian high-culture within the Mozarabic community, due to the increasing dominance of Arabo-Islamic culture.[49]

In keeping with her methodology, Coope makes use of some figures given by Richard Bulliet in his 1979 work Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period.[50]  She cites Bulliet’s statistics for conversions to Islam in al- Andalus as follows:  By the year 850, nearly 20-30% of the population, by the year 961, 50%, and by the year 1200, 90%.[51] Since Bulliet noted that the tendency for the number of conversions was higher in urban settings with room for economic opportunities, Coope argues that the figure should be higher for the capital, profiling the majority of the converts as ambitious, and educated males.[52]  She believes that the movement itself happened during an extremely tense atmosphere between Muslims and Christians in the capital, arguing that the group of Muslims who inquired into Perfectus’ views of Muhammad intentionally set him up.[53] 

Like Wolf (who followed Franke), Coope notes that many of the martyrs had connections to monasteries, stating that roughly half were members of the clergy or had taken monastic vows.[54] She too links the Christian concept of a rejection of the world (cf. 1 John 2:15) in the martyrs’ minds, with a rejection of the dominant Islamic society in which they lived.[55]  For Coope it is the proximity of Christians and Muslims (especially in the case of mixed families), coupled with the natures of Christianity and Islam that helped to facilitate the Martyr’s Movement.[56]  She further argues that Christological compromise and heresy on the part of Mozarabic Christians were present in mid-9th century Córdoba.[57]  She conjectures that the Christian heresy of adoptionism (which denied the eternality of the Sonship of Christ), was possibly influenced by the more notorious heresy attributed to Nestorius (which posited two persons in Christ as opposed to two natures) by way of importation from the East.[58]  Thus, according to Coope, these two heresies may have been attractive to members within the Mozarabic community given that they were a step closer to Islamic views of Jesus, while they nevertheless retained a belief in his divinity.[59]  In keeping with the views of Spanish authors of the past, Coope seems to acknowledge the existence of a level of persecution (less than that painted by Eulogius and Albar), which could occur if the Islamic regulations pertaining to dhimmis were strictly enforced, or in the case of opportunists, in the form of unscrupulous court officials.[60]  Like Wolf, she seems to agree that the martyrs had spiritual anxieties, and that many of the martyrs had engaged in the practice of voluntary penance.[61]

Finally, in turning to the matter of the acculturation of the Mozarabic community into the dominant Islamic one, Coope sees the conversions that occurred as being primarily social in nature (as opposed to religious.)[62]  Matters in which many Christians were willing to assimilate were in areas of diet (eliminating pork), and by receiving circumcision, which of course drew criticism from the radicals.[63] Furthermore, she notes that both Muslims and Christians were having troubles in deciding whether a distinction was to be made regarding cultural and religious identity.[64]  As she points out, Eulogius and those of like mind were not against the use of Arabic per se, rather they saw a bigger issue in the rejection of the Latin-Western tradition.[65]  As she explains, in al-Andalus, Christian identity was strongly associated with the Latin literary tradition.[66]  Seen from this vantage point, a Christian could learn and utilize Arabic, but to reject Latin letters was un-Christian.[67]

We have seen how the Martyr’s Movement has been handled historically, and now in a more detailed fashion by the authors of the two most recent monographs on the topic.  Being a contemporary, Wolf has read Coope’s work, giving it an overall positive review.  This in spite of the facts that he ends it with these words: “It does not, however, offer any new data nor does it break new ground in terms of its approach.”[68]  Hugh Kennedy weighed in on the motivation of the martyrs in 1996 by stating that, “they were protesting against the Arabisation of the Christian community in Cordoba and its drift toward Islam by clearly asserting uncompromising Christian values, but the main motivation seems to have been the cult of self-sacrifice and martyrdom which developed around Eulogius and the small and very intense group at Tabanos.”[69]  We can see that when dealing with the question of motive, Kennedy seems to acknowledge that when taken collectively, the movement was a form of protest against the situation in Córdoba, much like in the case of Coope.  But he has distinguished between a primary and secondary motive.  The primary motive he names also seems to be taken collectively. 

Like Coope, Janina Safran acknowledges that the Mozarabic community was dealing with a crisis in identity in the mid-9th century caused by acculturation, accommodation, mixed marriages, and conversion to Islam.[70]  In her article, Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus, she points out that the ulama (Islamic scholars) too were concerned for the spiritual state of the Muslims of al-Andalus due to the same phenomena of acculturation, accommodation, mixed marriages, and conversion to Islam that was on the rise at the time of the movement.[71]  She concludes that, “The Christian martyrs dramatized the importance of sectarian identity in a diverse society, and their actions exemplified a concern among both Christians and Muslims to redefine the boundaries that were being crossed, blurred, and ignored in ninth-century Córdoba.”[72]  Most recently, Brian Catlos has denied that there was any sort of “religious hysteria” on the part of the martyrs, noting that their actions were calculated, containing an element of theatrics designed to elicit a response from the whole Muslim community.[73]  Acknowledging that there may have been elements of nationalism and Christian fanaticism at play, he sees the whole affair as “[reflecting] tensions as much within as between the transforming Islamic and Christian societies of al-Andalus.”[74]  He too notes the blurring of religious lines between these societies, and points out that Islamic jurists in the East were reformulating stricter applications of the rules regulating the affairs of dhimmis.[75]  He concludes that the Martyrs’ Movement was a symptom rather than a cause of changes happening in the Christian community during this period.[76]

Thus concludes the section on the historiography of the Martyrs’ Movement. In part III I will offer some reflections, having examined some of the available secondary sources available in English.

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[1] Kenneth Baxter Wolf. Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain.  New York.  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pgs. 36-47.

[2] These will be discussed in more detail in the following section on primary sources.

[3] Kenneth Baxter Wolf. Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain.  New York.  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pg. 36. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. pg. 38. 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. pgs. 38-39.

[9] Ibid. pg. 39-40.

[10] Ibid. pg. 39. 

[11] Ibid. pg. 40.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pgs. 18, xv.

[14] Kenneth Baxter Wolf. Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain.  New York.  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pg. 40. 

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. pg. 41.

[17] Ibid. pgs. 41-42.

[18] Ibid. pg. 42. 

[19] Ibid. pgs. 40.

[20] Ibid. pgs. 42-43.

[21] Ibid. pg. 43.

[22] Ibid. 

[23] Ibid.  pg. 44. 

[24] Ibid.  pg. 45. Cf. pg. 47. 

[25] Ibid.  pgs. 46-47. 

[26] Ibid. pg. 2. 

[27] Ibid. Cf. pg. 35.

[28] Ibid. pg. 8.

[29] For the laxity in the application of sharia see: Ibid. pgs. 13-14, 19.  For the change under Muhammad I see: Ibid. pg. 16. 

[30] Ibid. pg. 71. Cf. pg. 47. 

[31] Ibid. pg. 73. 

[32] Ibid. pg. 78. 

[33] Ibid. pgs. 78-79. 

[34] Ibid. pgs. 86, 96.

[35] Ibid. pg. 108. 

[36] Ibid. pgs. 93-94. 

[37] Ibid. pg. 93.

[38] Ibid. pgs. 111-114, 115, 116

[39] Ibid. pg. 110. 

[40] Ibid. pg. 112. 

[41] Ibid. pg. 119.

[42] Ibid. 

[43] Ibid. 

[44] Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pgs. 18, xiii.

[45] Ibid. 

[46] Ibid.  Pg. xii. 

[47] Ibid.  Pg. xiii.

[48] Ibid.  Pg. 3. 

[49] Jessica Coope. The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion.  Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Pgs. 8-9. 

[50] Ibid. Pg. 10.  Cf. pgs. 93-94, 105. 

[51] Ibid. Pg. 10. 

[52] Ibid.  Pgs. 10-11.   

[53] Ibid.  Pgs. 18-19. 

[54] Ibid. Pg.ix. 

[55] Ibid.  Pg. 20.  Cf. Wolf, pgs. 119-120.

[56] Ibid.  Pg. 34. 

[57] Ibid.  Pg. 46. 

[58] Ibid.  Pgs. 46-47. 

[59] Ibid. 

[60] Ibid.  Pg. 51. 

[61] Ibid.  Pg. 71.

[62] Ibid.  Pgs. 81-82. 

[63] Ibid.  Pg. 82. 

[64] Ibid.  Pg. 84. 

[65] Ibid.  Pg. 85.

[66] Ibid.  Pgs. 85-86. 

[67] Ibid. 

[68] Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Review of The Martyrs of Córdoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion, by Jessica A. Coope, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (April, 1997): pgs. 306-307.

[69] Hugh Kennedy. Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus.  New York.  Routledge, 2014. Pg. 48.

[70] Janina M. Safran. “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus”, Speculum Vol. 76.  No. 3 (July, 2001): Pg. 573.

[71] Ibid.  Pg. 575. 

[72] Ibid.  Pg. 597. 

[73] Brian A. Catlos. Kingdom’s of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain. New York. Basic Books, 2018. Pg. 102. 

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid. Pgs. 103-104

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