Today is the birthday of Isabella I (Ysabel I) of Castile (1451 – 1504). She married Ferdinand II of Aragon and their marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and unburdened the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with Ferdinand had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are well known for completing the Reconquista, ordering the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects under the legendary Spanish Inquisition, and for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage that led to the colonization of huge parts of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. The phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was coined to describe the Spanish empire under Isabella’s great-grandson, Felipe II, and inherited only much later by the British.
With many celebrated (larger than life) historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. I always ask my students the deathless question: “(Fill in the blank); ‘Good Thing’ or ‘Bad Thing’?” I’m stealing from 1066 And All That, of course, and on the surface it’s a silly question. History is not black and white. I’m asking them to give considered answers in the vein of, “On the one hand . . . . on the other hand . . .” Well what about Isabella? Good Thing or Bad Thing? Your answer probably depends on your ethnic origins. If you’re Hispanic you’ll probably lean in favor of Good Thing, if you’re Jewish, Indigenous American, or Moorish – not so much. The thing is that Isabella is a towering figure in world history. She was not only tough minded, independent, and politically astute, she was also the progenitor of numerous monarchs and dynasties.
The most famous living descendants of Isabella I (and Ferdinand II) are probably the current European monarchs. First of all, the Kings of Spain are descended from their union, with their current major dynastic heir being King Felipe VI of Spain. However, it is also the case that all the other monarchs currently reigning in Europe – King Albert II of Belgium, Grand-Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K., Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands – descend in some way or another from Isabella and Ferdinand. This is also true of the Sovereign Princes of Europe: Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. That’s leaving a pretty significant mark.
From the point of view of English history, Isabella’s daughter, Katherine, was first married to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and then, when he died, was remarried to his second son Henry who became Henry VIII. Henry’s divorce from Katherine was, of course, the immediate cause of the English Reformation, and the ascent of their daughter, Mary I, Isabella’s granddaughter, the precipitating event leading to the bloody Counter-Reformation in England. Mary married Isabella’s great-grandson Felipe II (Mary’s first cousin once removed) but they had no children, hence that bloodline vanished. It’s always struck me as a tad ethnocentric (or xenophobic) of English history text books that Felipe is rarely acknowledged as an ACTUAL king of England. Admittedly he was king by marriage, and his reign lasted only whilst Mary was alive. But he was king – not royal consort, like Victoria’s Albert, or royal hanger-on like the current Greek guy. He was genuinely king of England (jure uxoris), and tried to make the title stick after Mary’s death by launching the famous Armada which came to a well-known miserable end. The current Elizabeth II is descended from Isabella via a different bloodline. And . . . just to muddy the waters further, Isabella was a direct descendant of the kings of England (including king John) via John of Gaunt. Not much hybrid vigor in the bloodlines in those days.
Isabella was first betrothed to Ferdinand at the age of 6, but subsequent complex royal machinations scotched that deal as she was offered around to numerous princes until, as an adult and heir presumptive, she got a (wobbly) agreement from her brother, Henry, king of Castile at the time, that she would not be forced to marry against her will. In 1468 after Isabella refused a marriage proposal from Alfonso V of Portugal (backed by brother Henry), Isabella made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon. On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was obtained. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI), Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed papal bull by Pius II (who had actually died in 1464), authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Afraid of opposition, Isabella eloped from the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. They were married immediately upon reuniting, on 19 October 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid. It was both a successful union politically, and, by all accounts, a happy one – although one never really knows about such things. I’d (modestly) characterize the marriage as an uncharacteristically (for the time) equal partnership. It’s vital to remember that this was an era of very powerful female rulers in a patriarchal world. Many men found this out to their peril.
You can catch up on Isabella’s numerous achievements in standard histories. How about her personality? Here we must be careful not to be anachronistic. For starters, Isabella was short but stocky with a very fair complexion, and had a hair color that was between strawberry-blonde and auburn. Some portraits, however, show her as a brunette. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her devotion to Catholicism was the hallmark of her life. In spite of her political hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia, she developed a taste for Moorish decor and style.
Her contemporaries were more or less unanimous concerning her temperament. Andrés Bernáldez said, “She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises.” Hernando del Pulgar wrote, “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.” This is a telling quote. Obviously she was not an advocate of “the quality of mercy.” This point is echoed in the writings of Lucio Marineo Sículo: “[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight.” There you go !!! Justice trumps mercy (even fiscal pragmatics). Quite the stalwart woman.
Here’s a recipe from a 15th century Catalan cookbook, Libre Del Coch by Mestre Robert. I know I’m being a bit free and easy with my regional recipe idea here. If I were an idiot I could claim that Catalonia is part of Spain these days, as is Castile and Aragon, and, therefore, this is an old “Spanish” recipe. I’m not that stupid. But Isabella’s marriage did lead to the unification of Spain, and when I look over historic recipes I see a great deal of overlap from region to region, not least because European royalty moved all over the place when they married and took their cooks and culinary ideas with them. At the aristocratic level, the household cuisines showed a great deal of homogeneity, with variations due in large part to the availability of ingredients. This recipe is for a casserole/stew of meat (probably lamb or mutton) with oranges. Bitter oranges were brought to Spain from China by the Moors and were (and are) prolific throughout Iberia. They are a common flavoring ingredient. This kind of recipe is ancestral to a host of Spanish meat casseroles.
Naturally the recipe is completely vague as to quantity of ingredients, and even as to their precise nature. What do you make of “totes salses fines” for example? Fine herbs/spices? I’m thinking pepper, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice – the usual suspects. Medieval linguistic skills are not my strong suit to begin with, let alone interpreting vague instructions in the dialect (that seems to drift between Old French and Old Spanish). Agresta was a type of verjuice (unripe grape or apple juice) used as a strong acidifier (you’ll note that the recipe suggests vinegar as an alternative), intensified further by the orange juice. I’ve given translating a go. My translation is extremely loose partly because I don’t recognize all the vocabulary, and partly for ease of reading.
Casola de Carn
Pren la carn e talla-la menut a troços axf com una nou. E çoffregiràs-la ab bona grassa de carnsalada. E quant sia ben çoffredida, met hi de bon brou e vaja a coure en una casola. Emet-hi de totes salses fines e çaffra e un poch de such de toronge o agresta, de manera que coga molt bé, fins a tant que la carn se commence a desfer e que y romanga solament hun poch de brou, pendràs tres o quatre ous debatuts ab such de toronges o agresta. E met-ho dins en la cassola. E quant ton senyor se volrà aseure en taula, dona-li quatre o sinch voltes girades, e tantost se espessirà. E quant sia bé espès, leva-u del foch e fes escudelles e damunt cada una met-hi canyella.
Emperò alters són qui no.y volen metre ous ni salsa sinó sola canyella e girofle. E coguen en la carn, com dit he damunt.
E met-hi vinagre, perquè tinga sabor. E per lo semblant molts fan açò que us dire, que tota la carn posen en una peça farcida de canyella e girofle sencer y en lo brou ben picades les salses, emperò far a girar adés adés, perquèno coga més d’una part que d’altra e axf no.y cal metre sinó girofle e canyella, emperò com dit he de bona manera.
Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta, and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.
There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.
They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat has to be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon, as long as you follow the other directions correctly.
Have fun. When I get round to experimenting with this recipe I’ll do it in a big covered skillet on the stove top rather than in a casserole, because I have more control that way. Besides, even the word “casserole” gives me nightmares because as a teenager my mother used to make a week’s worth of casseroles on Sundays, because she got home late from work and did not have time to cook in the evenings, and my father, who was an excellent cook, never lifted a finger. I was just learning at that stage and might have contributed something if I had known what I was doing, and did not feel the constant need to play the indolent adolescent. No matter what went into each casserole they all came out the same – and all tasting a bit burnt from being in the oven too long. Scalded and burnt dish rag is about how I would describe the taste. Admittedly oven versus stove top is a tough call. Oven braising works well enough if you know what you are doing.