Like Wheat to the Miller: Community, Convivencia, and the Construction of Morisco Identity in Sixteenth-Century Aragon

The title of Mary Halavais’s impressive first book refers to a protest that the city of Teruel made to the Inquisition in 1484. Deciding that they would not submit to inquisitors who had just arrived with plans to begin an investigation of their citizens, the town council sought to explain their opposition. “The Holy Father and the King Our Lord are millers,” the council stated, “and their ministers are those who bring the wheat to the mill, and the city is the grain to be milled, and there is good reason for the grain to know whether it will be milled, or threshed, or what will be done with it” (ch. 1, epigraph). In this statement of political philosophy, the town council not only asserted the city’s right to know what inquisitors planned to do with its people but also described itself as a homogeneous and unified community. Its citizens were grains of “wheat,” clearly as important to the authorities as they were to the community. For ten months, the town council kept inquisitors outside the city, resisting the Inquisition’s attempt to disrupt the peace in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians of this community were living together.

Halavais skillfully organizes ten well-written chapters to support this argument. She opens with a description of Teruel in the fifteenth century, citing archival and notarial records that describe the convivencia, “a pattern of accommodation and cooperation,” that members of the three monotheistic faith communities had established among themselves (ch. 1, par. 5). But chapter two analyzes the arrival of the Inquisition in Teruel and the town’s strategies to defend itself from outside authorities’ attempts to question and divide their community. Showing that the town defined itself and its citizens very differently from the inquisitors, Halavais questions the customary ways that historians have accepted “categories imposed upon Aragon by the Aragonese Inquisition” (ch. 2, par. 6). The author’s careful reading and analysis of local documents presents an important example of a multicultural community and its resistance to the imposition of the Inquisition.

Noting that Teruel could be considered an exceptional case, Halavais extends her study to notarial records from two nearby villages to provide even more support for her argument of local convivencia and resistance to the Inquisition. She brings to life the communities of Baguena and Burbaguena just north of Teruel in the Jiloca river valley, reading notarial records for information about births, marriages, deaths, property, and business transactions. These documents show a high degree of peaceful interaction between Old Christians, those without Jewish or Muslim ancestors, and the “newly converted.” It should be pointed out, however, that notarial documents are much less likely to reflect tension or conflict between these groups than secular or ecclesiastical court records. Moreover, notaries used formulaic phrases and forms that may have veiled any evidence of cultural tensions.

After the middle of the sixteenth century, the Inquisition of Aragon and the archbishop of Saragossa played stronger roles in disrupting the convivencia of these villages. Warning of the contagion of heresy, they called on parish priests to be more suspicious of outsiders and to list their parishioners separately as Old Christians and newly converted. Some parish priests resisted this attempt to make them define their people by religious heritage, and Halavais shows how these priests were more likely to categorize parishioners by their performance of religious responsibilities. Nevertheless, outside authorities were able to impose on these villages their identification of Moriscos, or those with Muslim forebears, as suspect heretics and traitors. Archival evidence clearly demonstrates this imposition, even though it does not explain the process by which authorities were able to separate the grains of “wheat” that the town council had presented as a homogeneous community in 1484.

Halavais has carried out an impressive amount of research in local and provincial archives, but the sources that she so clearly analyzes have significant limitations. They cannot present the larger picture of what was happening between a growing central monarchy and its concerns with Ottoman Turks, Muslim corsairs, and Morisco bandits. Moreover, geographic and topical limitations of local records concerning two villages and a city of southern Aragon present only a small part of the many interactions between Christian authorities and the geographically and culturally diverse Morisco population in the kingdoms of early modern Spain. Halavais’s evidence cannot tell us of the violence, struggle, and tragedy of a people that included not only those who accepted assimilation but also those who sought to maintain their own culture through both resistance and accommodation. It cannot tell us of the increasing suspicion of Moriscos following the dispersion throughout Castile of some 50,000 Moriscos of Granada after the unsuccessful rebellion of 1568–1570. Nor does it tell us of the heartbreak of having to leave behind many Morisco children younger than seven years as authorities expelled their families in the early seventeenth century.

Yet this book is remarkable for what it does tell us. Challenging common assumptions about diversity and community, Halavais provides an important piece of the larger puzzle of how diverse people lived together and what changed their relationships in the early modern period. She and the Gutenberg-e project of Columbia University Press deserve congratulations for publishing such a fine contribution to historical scholarship.

Mary Elizabeth Perry
Occidental College