al-Andalus, Catholicism, Islam, The Crusades

Reconquest, Crusade, and the “Llibre dels Fets”

James (Jaume) I of Aragon (r. 1213-1276), by Jaume Mateu (d. ca. 1452).

In his broad survey of the crusading movement, Jonathan Riley-Smith paid homage to the Iberian monarchs James I of Aragon and Fernando III of Castile, referencing their military success in the thirteenth-century as well as the fact that “this extraordinary period has never been studied enough from the point of view of crusading.”[1]  Two scholars who have made remarkable contributions in this area were José Goñi Gaztambide, with his monumental Historia de la bula de la cruzada en España, and Joseph O’Callaghan, with a trilogy of books on Iberian crusading.[2]  Others such as Damian Smith and Robert Burns, S.J. have given significant input, even if they did not write entirely from a crusading perspective.  Norman Housley, no stranger to Iberian crusading himself, once remarked that the Life of Saint Louis, a thirteenth-century biography of the French crusader king by Jean de Joinville, was, among other things, “a window into Joinville’s own view of what crusading meant.”[3] 

This study uses the Llibre dels Fets towards that end.  The work is the first in a series of four chronicles written in Catalan, and it is the autobiography of James I of Aragon.[4]  It is largely preoccupied with the monarch’s military career, most notably, the conquests of the Balearic Islands, Valencia, and Murcia.[5]  Moreover, it is best read as an artifact of thirteenth-century crusading literature, such as the aforementioned Life of Saint Louis.[6]  Towards the end of his long life, James attempted to crusade in Outremer, but did not end up completing the voyage.  Given the content of the work, and the unique glimpse of Iberian crusading offered from the point of view of the monarch, it has the potential to shed light on the history of the crusades.

With that in mind, this paper argues that crusading held a primacy in the spiritual life of James I of Aragon.  James was, as Joseph O’Callaghan has pointed out, “a born warrior imbued with the crusading spirit of the age.”[7]  Though he was a complex individual whose personal life often fell short of what was expected of a model crusader, it is clear from his autobiography that his primary motive in waging war against the Muslims was to do what he believed to be God’s will. This is in contrast with the attitudes expressed in other personalities as revealed in the work.  As such, this paper also attempts to add to the evolving historiography on the subject of crusader motives.[8]  It reveals that motives could be heterogenous, and yet complimentary.  Finally, this study presupposes two items.  First, it assumes a pluralist view of crusading which considers peninsular campaigns as bona fide crusades, provided they had ecclesiastical sanction.[9]  Second (and less controversial), it accepts the prevailing view among scholars of the Llibre dels Fets that it was indeed authored by James I himself, even if it was dictated by the king to scribes.[10]   

            Apart from the question of general authorship, the status of the introduction is less settled among scholars. Jaume Aurell has argued that it “was almost certainly incorporated into the text by a court official after the monarch’s death”.[11]  Donald Kagay seems to have left the question open, while hinting that it may be original.[12]  Damian Smith accepted the possibility that it was influenced by Bishop Jaume Sarroca, but that it nevertheless harmonizes with the rest of the work.[13]  That it does accord with the larger text, especially the account of the conquest of Majorca, will be seen below.  Regardless, the focus is on how James I and his court viewed crusading.  As such, a verdict one way or the other does not detract from that question.

The Llibre dels Fets   

The work begins with a reference to the second chapter of the Epistle of James: “My Lord Saint James relates that faith without good works is dead.”[14]The author of the Epistle gives plenty of examples of faith being demonstrated by “good works.”  The one who sees their brother or sister in need of food or clothing but offers them no help fails to demonstrate their faith.[15]   Additionally, both Abraham and Rahab serve as examples of people who have demonstrated their faith through their works; Abraham, through his obedience to God by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Rahab through helping the Israelite spies.[16]  Broadening the context, the first chapter extols the virtue of giving aid to widows and orphans.[17]  Thus, while this first century author does not exclude pious warfare as an example of a “good work”, the concept seems to be far from their mind.

The introduction of the Llibre is full of references to good works but is not so quick to delineate them:

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who knows all things, knew that our life would be so very long that we would be able to do a great deal of good works with the faith we had within us.  Because of this, He showed us such grace and mercy that despite our many sins, both mortal and venial, He did not wish that we should receive any dishonour or harm which could shame us in the court…. Neither did He wish that we should die before we had completed these works.”[18]

As the autobiography unfolds, it becomes clear that the works that James had in mind were the military victories that he was able to achieve over the Muslims of al-Andalus. This stands in contrast to the Epistle, with its emphasis on corporal works of mercy and extraordinary acts of faith exhibited by Abraham and Rahab.  Nevertheless, it must be remembered that by the thirteenth-century a premium was placed on the crusading effort to the extent that “the financial support which the Christians were willing to give for the Holy Land was more important than the alms that they were prepared to give for other kinds of charity”.[19]  From its inception, crusading was envisioned as a means by which an arms-bearer could demonstrate their love of God and neighbour.[20]  As such, it is understandable how James could utilize the discourse on faith and works from the Epistle as the framework for demonstrating his faith by his good works, that is, by his conquests of the Balearic Islands, Valencia, and Murcia.

*Read the full paper here.


[1] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (Second Edition), (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 199.

[2] Norman Housley, Contesting the Crusades, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 104.

[3] Ibid, 81.

[4] The others are the Chronicle of Bernat Desclot, the Chronicle of Ramon Muntaner, and the Chronicle of Peter IV.

[5] (Military history) J.N. Hillgarth, “Jaime I y Pedro IV de Aragon: Sus crónicas en relación con el reino de Mallorca”, Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Luliana, no. 35 (1977), 345. Also, Damian Smith, “James I and God: Legitimacy, protection and consolation in the Llibre dels Fets”, Imago Temporis 1 (2007),106.

[6] Jaume Aurell, Authoring the Past: History, Autobiography, and Politics in Medieval Catalonia.  (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42, 138. 

[7] Joseph F. O’Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain, (Cornell University Press: Ithica, 1975), 345. 

[8] For an excellent treatment of the related historiography, see Housley, Contesting the Crusades, 75-98.

[9] For the different conceptions of a crusade see Christopher Tyerman, The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-2010, (New York: Manchester University Press, 2011), 225-226.

[10] Smith, “James I and God”, 106-108.

[11]Aurell, Authoring the Past, 45. 

[12]Donald J Kagay, War, Government, and Society in the Medieval Crown of Aragon.  (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 169.

[13] Smith, “James I and God”, 109.  Cf. Damian J. Smith and Helena Buffery, The Book of Deeds of James I of Aragon: A Translation of the Medieval Catalan Llibre dels Fets.  (New York: Routledge, 2016), 15, footnote 1.

[14] Smith and Buffery, Chapter 1, The Book of Deeds of James I of Aragon, 15.

[15] James 2:15-17.

[16] James 2:21-26.

[17] James 1:27.

[18] Chapter 1, Smith and Buffery, Book of Deeds of James I of Aragon, 15. 

[19] Tamminen, Miikka.  Crusade Preaching and the Ideal Crusader. (Brepols: Turnhout, 2018), 228. 

[20] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love”, History 65, no. 214 (1980): 182.  Cf. Tamminen, Crusade Preaching and the Ideal Crusader, 119, 129.

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