Thursday, March 27, 2014

Martín Alhaja, more legend than truth

This simple shepherd saved the day on two important occasions in medieval Spain. Maybe.

The Gate of Aljaraz (The Sheep Gate) in Cuenca, also known as the Puerta de San Juan for a nearby church. Photo by Sue Burke.


Legend says a shepherd named Martín Alhaja helped Christian troops defeat the Moors in Cuenca in 1177 during the Reconquest. Then, in 1212 in Andalusia, he help the combined Christian armies find a mountain pass so they could fight in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

Like so many Spanish legends, the story is better than the facts – which makes it worth telling.

Cuenca is a city in Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain located on a spur of rocky cliffs between two rivers, the Júcar and Huécar. The gorges make the city breathtaking, a World Heritage Site popular with tourists. When the Moors arrived there in 714, there was no city yet, but they recognized that the site would be strategic and impenetrable with the addition of walls at the east and west end, so they built a fortress there. Soon a prosperous city grew up on top of those cliffs.

Starting in the late 1000s, the Reconquest was being fought in earnest in La Mancha, and the city passed from Moorish to Christian hands several times. Finally in 1177, King Alfonso VIII of Castile laid siege to the city.

Here’s where Martín Alhaja comes in. This shepherd had received a visitation from the Virgin Mary telling him he would play an important part in the victory for the Christians. So one day, September 21 to be exact, while he was outside the city tending his flock, he met some Christian soldiers and told them of an easy way to enter the city in secret: kill some sheep, cover themselves with the skins, and accompany him back into the city. The guard at the Gate of Aljaraz was blind and trusted Martín, so the knights could sneak past. They did, and the city fell.

Well, Cuenca did fall to King Alfonso’s troops on September 21, 1177. Martín’s story appeared in a historical account several centuries later, but in following centuries less credulous historians rejected it and showed that the original source, supposedly from the 13th century, was a fabrication. In fact, the episode seemed suspiciously similar to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey involving Odysseus and the giant cyclops Polyphemus.

But that was not the end of Martín’s legendary adventures, although this time the shepherd might have instead been an apparition of Madrid’s patron saint, Isidro (Saint Isidore the Laborer), in disguise.

Here’s the situation: in July of 1212, King Alfonso VIII was again on the march against the Moors, this time united with other Spanish Christian kings. However, their troops were stopped at the mountain pass of La Losa in southeastern Spain, held by Moorish guards. Then a shepherd appeared as a “godsend,” according to King Alfonso’s letter to the Pope, written after the battle. This shepherd showed them a different, safe pass through the Sierra Morena. The troops marched on and won the decisive Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

Starting  in the 16th century, some chronicles began to name this shepherd as Martin Alhaja and later as Saint Isidore, and they added other details, including the miraculous appearances of El Cid, Santiago (St. James the Apostle, who killed a lot of Moors during the Reconquest), various angels, and Count Fernán González, in the battle.

In this case, there may have been a shepherd who helped the troops find their way, but it seems  it was our friend Martín.

By the way, as far as I know, “Alhaja” is not used as a last name in Christian Spain. It comes from an Arabic word meaning “jewel” or “outstanding person.” Clearly, Martín Alhaja is outstanding – a gem of a story to tell friends over a bottle of wine at a cliffside café gazing out over a stunning sunset view of Cuenca.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chapter 69 [part 1 of 4]

How the knights with the dragon-insignia arms embarked for the Kingdom of Gaul, and how fortune placed them where their lives were put in great danger at the hands of Arcalaus the Sorcerer by trickery; and how, after they had escaped, they embarked and continued their voyage; and how Sir Galaor and Norandel happened to come down that same road looking for adventure, and what happened to them. 

 [Three kings portrayed in the Taymouth Book of Hours, made in England in the second quarter of the 14th century, now at the British Library.] 

King Perion and his sons rested in the forest for several days, and when they saw that the weather was good and the sea favorable, they immediately embarked on their ship, expecting to be in Gaul soon. But it happened otherwise, for the wind changed and made the sea rough, so they had to return to Great Britain, but not to where they had been but to another more distant place. After five stormy days, the ship arrived at the foot of a mountain alongside the sea. They had their horses and arms brought to shore so they could travel through that land until the sea became more calm and the wind blew favorably, while their men replenished the fresh water in the ship.

After they had eaten, they armed themselves, mounted their horses, and rode inland to learn where they had landed. They ordered the men in the ship to wait for them, and brought three squires with them, but Gandalin did not accompany them because he was well-known in those parts.

So as ye hear, they rode up a valley and found a plain at its end, and they did not travel far before they met a damsel who was letting her horse drink at a spring. She was richly dressed and wore a scarlet cape with golden buckles and loops to hold it closed. Two squires and two damsels accompanied her, and they brought falcons and dogs for hunting.

When she saw them, she immediately recognized the dragon insignia on their arms and came very happily toward them. When she arrived, she greeted them with great humility, showing with signs that she was mute. They greeted her, and they thought she looked very beautiful and felt pity for her for being mute. She came to the knight with the gold helmet and embraced him, and wanted to kiss his hands, and soon invited them by signs to come as guests that night to her castle. But they did not understand, and she motioned to her squires to explain, and they did.

They good will in her, and because it was very late, they went with her in good faith, and had not traveled far before they arrived at a beautiful castle. Believing the damsel was very rich, since she was its lady, they entered and found that the staff received them humbly, as did other ladies and damsels, and they all honored the mute damsel as their lady.

They took their horses and led them up to a beautiful chamber about twenty cubits above the ground. They had them disarm, brought them rich capes to wear, and after having them converse with the mute damsel and other damsels, brought them dinner, and they were well served. The damsels went to their rooms but soon returned with many candles and well-tuned instruments to give them pleasure, and when it was time to sleep, they stopped playing and left.

In that chamber there were three very rich beds that the mute damsel had ordered made, and they each placed their arms next to their bed. They lay down and slept very peacefully, as those who had done hard work and were fatigued.

But while their spirits rested, their lives did not, due to the dangerous trap they had fallen into, which may be justly compared to the things of this world. Know ye that the chamber was made with trickery, and it was supported by an iron  pillar like a threaded beam that could be lowered like a screw. It was enclosed by another wooden pillar, and the room could be raised or lowered from beneath by turning a steel lever around it, for the chamber did not have its own walls. So when they awoke in the morning, they found themselves twenty cubits lower than they were when they entered the chamber.

We could compare this beautiful mute damsel to the world in which we live, which seems beautiful to us, and without mouth or tongue flatters and praises us, tempting us with many delights and pleasures, and without a single suspicion we follow her and embrace her. We forget the anguish and tribulations in the place that is being prepared for us after we have pursued and enjoyed these things. We sleep with restful dreams, and when we awake, having passed from life to death – although we ought to say from death to life, for being everlasting – we find ourselves in a great pit, now far away from the great mercy of the most high Lord, and no redemption in any form awaits us.

If these knights had redemption, it was because they still had life, and while alive, no one however evil or sinful he or she may be ought to lose hope for pardon by leaving aside vile deeds and instead acting in conformance with the service of the Lord, who can give them redemption.

Returning to the tale of these three knights, when they awoke and saw no hint of light and heard the footsteps of the people of the castle above them, they were surprised, and they got out of bed and groped for the door and windows. When they found them, they reached through them and touched the walls of the castle, so they knew they had been betrayed and fooled.

As they felt great grief to see themselves in such danger, high up in a window of the chamber appeared a large, muscular knight with a fearsome face whose beard and hair had more white hairs than black. He wore mourning clothes and a white cloth glove on his right hand that reached his elbow. He shouted:

“Who lies down there in such an ill place? Due to the great harm ye have done me, ye shall find not restraint and mercy but cruel and bitter deaths, and even with that I shall not be avenged for what I received from you in the battle with the traitorous King Lisuarte. Know that I am Arcalaus the Sorcerer, and if ye have never seen me, now ye shall know me, for no one has ever done me harm upon whom I did not avenge myself, except for one man whom I hope to have where you are now, to cut off his hands as he cut off one of mine, if I do not die first.”

And the damsel, who was at his side, said:

“Good uncle, that youth there is the one who wore the gold helmet.” And she pointed at Amadis.

When they learned that he was Arcalaus, they felt the terror of death as well as surprise at hearing speech from the mute damsel who had brought them there. And know ye that this damsel was named Dinarda, the daughter of Ardan Canileo, and she was skilled at evil. She had come to that land to use trickery to kill Amadis, and that was why she had pretended to be mute.

Arcalaus told them:

“Knights, I shall have your heads cut off in my presence and sent to King Aravigo to make some amends for your disservice to him.”

He left the window and had it closed, and the chamber was so dark they could not see each other. King Perion said:

“My good sons, we find ourselves shown one of the great turns of fortune. We survived a battle where so many knights fell, where we experienced so many dangers, and where we emerged with so much fame and glory, but who would have thought we would be fooled like this by a weak damsel without language or speech? Truly, it may seem amazing to those who place their hopes in worldly and perishable things without thinking of how little they are worth and how little they should be valued. But to us, who have been tested many times by experience, it ought not seem strange or grievous, because our chief cause is to seek adventure, both good and bad, and we ought to take them as they come, using our effort to resolve them, and those we cannot we must leave to the most high Lord in whom power is eternal. Thus, my sons, leaving aside the great sorrow that our humanity brings us, you for me, and even more me for you, let us leave it to God to resolve this so we may be in His greater service.”

His sons, who held their father’s devotion as greater than the menace and danger they were in, were joyous when they felt the great strength within him. They knelt and kissed his hands, and he blessed them. And, as ye hear, they passed the day without food or drink.

After Arcalaus had dined and part of the night had passed, he came to the window where they were, bringing two lit candles, Dinarda, and two old men. He ordered the window opened and said:

“Ye knights that lay there, I think ye would wish to eat if ye had something.”

“Happily,” Sir Florestan said, “if ye were to order it given to us.”

He said:

“If that were my will, may God take it from me. But I do not wish to leave you with nothing, so instead of food I will give you some news. Know that today, after night fell, two squires and a dwarf came to the gate of the castle and asked about the knights with the dragon insignia on their shields. I ordered them taken captive and put into a prison below you. Tomorrow I will find out from them who you are, or I will have them cut apart limb from limb.”

Know ye that what Arcalaus said was the truth. The men in the ship were concerned that the King and his sons had not returned, for the sea was ready for sailing, and decided that Gandalin, the dwarf, and Orfeo, the King’s butler, should look for them. They had been imprisoned as Arcalaus had said. This news weighed heavily on the King and his sons because they were in grave danger.

Amadis told Arcalaus:

“I am very certain that after ye know who we are, ye shall not do us such ill as before, because as ye are a knight and have much experience, what we did to help our friends would not seem wrong nor unseemly to you, just as we would have helped you if we had been on your side. And since we did rightly, we ought to be regarded better and treated with more honor now, although in battle we deserved the opposite. But by keeping us prisoners and treating us like this, ye do us no courtesy.”

“Who are you to dispute this?” Arcalaus said. “The honor I shall show you is the same I would show to Amadis of Gaul if I were to have him here, for of all the men in the world, he is the one I wish the worst and upon whom I wish to avenge myself the most.”

Dinarda said:

“Uncle, although you will send their heads to King Aravigo, do not kill them with hunger. Keep them alive because that way they will suffer more.”

“If that is how it seems to you, niece,” he said, “that is what I shall do.” Then he said, “Knights, tell me which troubles you more, hunger or thirst.”

“Well, to tell the truth,” they said, “although eating were more primary, thirst troubles us greatly.”

“Then,” Arcalaus said to the damsel, “niece, give them a salt-pork pastry so they cannot say we gave them no succor for their need.”

And he left along with the others. The damsel had seen that Amadis was very handsome, and knowing the great deeds of chivalry he had done in the battle, she was moved to pity for him and the other men. She put a flagon of water and a flagon of wine and a pastry in a basket, lowered it by a cord to give it to them and said:

“Take this and keep my secret, and if I can, ye shall not suffer.”

Amadis thanked her sincerely, and she left. With that they ate, lay down in their beds, and ordered their squires to keep their arms in good condition, for if they did not die of hunger, they would not give up their lives without great cost to their captors.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chapter 68 [part 4 of 4]

[Which tells how the knight with the gold helmet earned more honor and praise than anyone else.] 

[Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, one of the Knights of the Round Table, depicted in a battle with the knight Gawain.] 

Amadis, who was now fully conscious, looked to his right and saw King Lisuarte surrounded by some of the knights who had protected King Aravigo, and a great number of men were coming at him. Agromades was at the lead, along with two nephews of King Aravigo, both brave knights. King Aravigo was shouting to encourage his men because he had heard from the tower:

“The knight in the gold helmet killed the great devil.”

Then Amadis said:

“Knights, let us rescue the King, for he needs our help.”

They went with him and entered the thick of the men until they reached King Lisuarte. When he saw the three knights with the dragon insignia coming near, his spirits rose because he had seen how the knight with the gold helmet had killed the valiant Brontaxar d’Anfania with one blow. He rode toward King Aravigo who had come close. Argomades, who came waving his sword to attack King Lisuarte, stopped in front of the knight with the gold helmet.

The battle was over at the first exchange. The knight with the gold helmet saw that great sword coming at him, raised his shield and took the blow. The sword sunk through the boss of his shield a palm deep and three fingers into his helmet, and almost killed him. Amadis struck Agromades on the left shoulder with such a blow that it cut through his chain mail, which was very heavy, and the flesh and bones down to the ribs, so that the arm and part of the shoulder hung loose from his body.

This was the most mighty blow delivered during the entire battle.

Argomades began to flee as a man stunned and unaware of himself, and his horse headed back toward where it had come from. The damsels in the tower shouted:

“The knight with the gold helmet has frightened away the doves.”

One of the nephews of King Aravigo, named Ancidel, charged at Amadis and gave such a blow onto the face of the horse that he cut it in half and the horse fell dead on the ground. When Sir Florestan saw this, he charged while Ancidel was celebrating his deed, and struck him on top of the helmet with such a blow that he made him drop to the neck of the horse. Florestan grabbed his helmet so hard he pulled it off his head and Ancidel fell at the feet of Amadis. Sir Florestan was hurt in the ribs with the point of Ancidel’s sword.

At this time King Lisuarte was fighting with King Aravigo as were their men, so there was a pitiless and cruel battle, and they all had much to do to protect themselves and to help those who were killed or who fell injured.

Durin, Oriana’s page, had come there to bring her news of the battle, and was on one of the horses that King Lisuarte had ordered brought onto field to help the knights who needed a horse. When he saw the knight with the gold helmet on the ground, he told the other pages on horseback:

“I wish to rescue that good knight with this horse, for I could do no better service to the King.”

Then at great peril to himself he entered into the fray where there were the fewest men, reached Amadis and said:

“I know not who ye are, but because of what I have seen, I have brought you this horse.”

Amadis took it, mounted, and said quietly:

“Oh, my friend Durin, this is not the first service that thou hast done for me.”

Durin grabbed him by the arm and said:

“Ye shall not leave until ye tell me who ye are.”

Amadis bent down as far as he could and told him:

“I am Amadis, and do not tell anyone except the lady thou knowest.”

Then he immediately went to where he saw the greatest fighting, doing amazing and marvelous feats at arms as if his lady were before him, which is what he was thinking, knowing how it would be fully recounted to her.

King Lisuarte, who was fighting with King Aravigo, struck three blows with his good sword, and Aravigo did not dare fight him anymore. Because Aravigo did not know that Lisuarte was the head and the commander of his enemies, he did not use all his strength to attack, instead retreating behind his men and cursing Aracalaus the Sorcerer for making him come to these lands, assuring him that he would take them.

Sir Galaor was fighting with Sarmadan, a valiant knight, and since his arm was exhausted from all the blows it had given and his blade could no longer cut, he grabbed Sarmadan with his mighty arms and pulled him from his saddle and threw him onto the earth. Sarmadan fell over his neck and immediately died.

And I tell you that Amadis, thinking of the time he had wasted while he was in Gaul and how his honor had been debilitated and scorned, and how he could not recover it except through action, did such valiant things that he soon found no one who dared to fight him. With him rode his father, Sir Florestan, Agrajes, Sir Galvanes, Brian of Monjaste, Norandel, Guilan the Pensive, and King Lisuarte, who was also proving his bravery.

They felled so many of their foes, and surrounded and put terror into so many, that their opponents could take no more. They had seen King Aravigo flee, injured, abandoning the field, so they fled too, trying to take refuge in the ships or in the nearby hills. But King Lisuarte and his men continued to cruelly attack and kill, with the knights with the dragon insignia ahead of them all, and did not let their opponents escape. The remaining foes took refuge in a ship with King Aravigo and those who had reached it, but many died in the water and others were taken prisoner.

By the time the battle had been won, night had fallen, and King Lisuarte went to his enemies’ tents, and there he lodged that night with great joy at the victory that God had given him. But the three knights with the dragon insignia, when they saw that the field was empty and no resistence remained, together left the road they thought the King would take, and took shelter beneath some trees next to a spring. There they dismounted and drank water, as did their horses, which they all needed due to their hard work during the day.

When they were about to mount and leave, they saw a squire coming on a horse. They put on their helmets so he would not know them, and called to him when their faces were covered. The squire was uncertain, thinking they might be the enemy, but when he saw the insignia of the dragons, he approached them without concern.

Amadis told him:

“Good squire, give our message to the King, if ye would.”

“Say what ye please,” he said, “and I shall deliver it.”

“Then tell him,” he said, “that the knights with the dragon insignia, who found ourselves in his battle, ask for his mercy to forgive us for not coming to his camp, for we must travel far from here to a foreign land and place ourselves at the discretion and mercy of someone we do not believe will have any for us. We ask him that he give our part of the spoils to the damsels in the tower for the harm they have suffered. And bring him this horse, which I took from one of his pages in the battle, for we want no other reward than what we have asked.”

The squire took the horse and left and went to the King to give him the message. Amadis, Sir Florestan, and King Perion mounted and rode until they reached their lodging in the forest, and after they removed their armor and washed the blood and dust from their faces and hands, they tended to their injuries as best they could, and ate, for their servants prepared a good meal. They lay down in their beds, where they had a very restful sleep that night.

King Lisuarte, at his enemies’ tents because all his opponents had been defeated, asked about the three knights with the dragon insignia, but he found no one who could tell him more than that they had been seen riding quickly to the forest. The King said to Sir Galaor:

“By chance could the knight with the gold helmet be your brother Amadis? From what I saw him do, it could not be attributed to anyone else but him.”

“Believe, my lord, that it was not him,” Galaor said, “because only four days ago I received news from him, that he is in Gaul with his father and his brother Sir Florestan.”

“Holy Mary!” the King said. “Who could it be?”

“I do not know,” Sir Galaor said, “but whoever it was, may God bless him, for with great effort and peril, he won more honor and praise than anyone else.”

As they spoke, the squire arrived and told the King what he had been ordered, and the King was troubled to hear that they were going to be in more danger, as ye have heard. But if Amadis said that in jest, it turned out to be very true, as shall be told farther on. Thus men should always offer good news and predictions about themselves. The horse that the squire brought fell dead before the King from the injuries it had suffered.

That night Galaor and Agrajes and many other of their friends lodged in Arcalaus’s tent, which was costly and handsome, with scenes embroidered in silk of the battle he had fought with Amadis and how he enchanted him, and other things he had done.

The next day, the King split the spoils among all his men and delivered a large portion to the damsels in the tower. He gave permission to those who wished to return to their lands, and with the others he went to one of his towns, named Gadampa, where the Queen and their daughter were. The pleasure they had in seeing each other could not be told, but each one of you can imagine how it would be, given what had happened.