May 082017
 

Today is the birthday of Edward Gibbon FRS, English historian famous for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion. Gibbon traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. The work covers the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome”

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duty to defend their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, were unwilling to live a tougher, military lifestyle. Furthermore, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, he believed, that human history could resume its progress.

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556), noting some similarities. Both, for example, were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation to fund wars. We might do well to compare these two reigns with the US of our own times.

Gibbon’s style is frequently distinguished by an ironically detached and somewhat dispassionate yet critical tone. He occasionally lapses into moralization and aphorism. He is so eminently quotable:

History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.

If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:
Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.

 I make it a point never to argue with people for whose opinion I have no respect.

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.

Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.

I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

The history of empires is the history of human misery.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Gibbon succumbed, as did many writers of his age (and later), to the debatable notion that a culture’s base temperaments are heavily influenced by the foods they eat:

THE CORN, or even the rice, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesome food of a civilized people, can be obtained only by the patient toil of the husbandman. Some of the happy savages, who dwell between the tropics, are plentifully nourished by the liberality of nature; but in the climates of the north, a nation of shepherds is reduced to their flocks and herds. The skilful practitioners of the medical art will determine (if they are able to determine) how far the temper of the human mind may be affected by the use of animal, or of vegetable, food; and whether the common association of carnivorous and cruel deserves to be considered in any other light, than that of an innocent, perhaps a salutary, prejudice of humanity. Yet if it be true that the sentiment of compassion is imperceptibly weakened by the sight and practice of domestic cruelty, we may observe that the horrid objects which are disguised by the arts of European refinement are exhibited in their naked and most disgusting simplicity in the tent of a Tartarian shepherd. The ox, or the sheep, are slaughtered by the same hand from which they were accustomed to receive their daily food; and the bleeding limbs are served, with very little preparation, on the table of their unfeeling murderer.

Anthropologists and archeologists (including myself) have long argued that the people who herd (and slaughter) animals are the ones to fear, over the long run, more than the farmers. I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of diet as of lifestyle. Herders are mobile whereas farmers are sedentary. Farmers, therefore, are more prone to armies of defense, whereas herders can be actively aggressive. Who are the warrior heroes of the Hebrew Bible? Abraham, David etc. – all herders. Of course, this is grossly simplistic, and things change over time, especially with the rise of empires.  But it does give me a segue into a recipe for the day.

I’ll resort to Hannah Glasse for an 18th century recipe, and I’ll choose a rice dish to favor Gibbon’s notion of a peaceable diet. I used to be very fond of rice in broth (my daily starter on board an Italian ship going from Australia to England), but Glasse’s rice soup is closer to rice pudding than to soup. (Be careful of the long “s” – which ignorant people mistake for “f”).

To make a rice ſoup.

TAKE two quarts of water, a pound of rice, a little cinnamon; cover it cloſe, and let it ſimmer very ſoftly till the rice is quite tender: take out the cinnamon, then ſweeten it to your palate, grate half a nutmeg, and let it ſtand till it is cold; then beat up the yolks of three eggs, with half a pint of white wine, mix them very well, then ſtir them into the rice, ſet them on a ſlow fire, and keep ſtirring all the time for fear of curdling. When it is of a good thickneſs, and boils, take it up. Keep ſtirring it till you put it into your diſh.

If you’re more in the mood for conquering Rome, have a steak.

Jan 022017
 

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On this date in 1492 the city of Granada, last vestige of the emirate of Granada, surrendered to Spanish/Christian forces, meaning that the Reconquista (the Reconquest) of the Iberian peninsula was complete. All of Spain was free from Moorish control after centuries of Moorish colonization followed by centuries of resistance. Note the date most especially. Spanish forces did not stop with the reclamation of Iberia. From this point on they moved outward with the intention of colonizing Africa, and of finding new worlds to conquer. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that 1492 is the year that Ferdinand and Isabella funded Columbus in his first journey of discovery. The Fall of Grenada was the first domino in a long succession of dominos that, in falling, changed the world forever.

The Emirate of Granada had been the last Muslim state in Iberia for more than two centuries by the time of the Granada War (the series of battles and sieges to free Granada from Moorish control). The other remnant al-Andalus states (the taifas) of the once powerful Caliphate of Córdoba had long been conquered by the Christians. Despite being surrounded by hostile states, Granada was wealthy and powerful, and the Christian kingdoms were divided and fought amongst themselves. Granada’s problems began to worsen after Emir Yusuf III’s death in 1417. Succession struggles ensured that Granada was in an almost constant low-level civil war. Clan loyalties were stronger than allegiance to the Emir, making consolidation of power difficult. Often, the only territory the Emir really controlled was the city of Granada itself. At times, the emir did not even control all the city, but rather one rival emir would control the Alhambra, and another the Albayzín, the most important district of Granada.

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This internal fighting greatly weakened the state. The economy declined, with Granada’s once world-famous porcelain manufacture now disrupted and challenged by the Christian town of Manises near Valencia, in Aragon. Despite the weakening economy, taxes were still imposed at their earlier high rates to support Granada’s extensive defenses and large army. Ordinary citizens of Granada paid triple the taxes of (non-tax-exempt) Castilians. The heavy taxes that Emir Abu-l-Hasan Ali (1464–85) imposed contributed greatly to his unpopularity. These taxes did at least support a respected army. Hasan was successful in putting down Christian revolts in his lands, and some observers estimated he could muster as many as 7,000 horsemen.

The frontier between Granada and the Castilian lands of Andalusia was in a constant state of flux. Raids across the border were common, as were intermixing alliances between local nobles on both sides of the frontier. Relations were governed by occasional truces and demands for tribute should one side have been seen to overstep their bounds. Neither country’s central government intervened or controlled the warfare much.

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King Henry IV of Castile died in December 1474, setting off the War of the Castilian Succession between Henry’s daughter Joanna la Beltraneja and Henry’s half-sister Isabella. The war raged from 1475–1479, setting Isabella’s supporters and the Crown of Aragon against Joanna’s supporters, Portugal, and France. During this time, the frontier with Granada was practically ignored. The Castilians did not even bother to ask for or obtain reparation for a raid in 1477. Truces were agreed upon in 1475, 1476, and 1478. In 1479, the Succession War concluded with Isabella victorious. Isabella had married Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, and this meant that the two powerful kingdoms of Castile and Aragon could stand united, free from inter-Christian war which had helped Granada survive.

The truce of 1478 was still theoretically in effect when Granada launched a surprise attack against Zahara in December 1481, as part of a reprisal for a Christian raid. The town fell, and the population was enslaved. This attack proved to be a great provocation, and factions in favor of war in Andalusia used it to rally support for a counterstrike, quickly moving to take credit for it, and backed a wider war. The seizure of Alhama and its subsequent royal endorsement is usually said to be the formal beginning of the Granada War. Abu Hasan attempted to retake Alhama by siege in March, but was unsuccessful. Reinforcements from the rest of Castile and Aragon averted the possibility of retaking Alhama in April 1482. King Ferdinand himself formally took command at Alhama on May 14, 1482.

The Christians next tried to besiege Loja, but failed to take the town. This setback was balanced by a twist that would prove to aid them greatly: on the same day as Loja was relieved, Abu Hasan’s son, Abu Abdallah or Boabdil, rebelled and styled himself Emir Muhammad XII. The war continued into 1483. Abu Hasan’s brother, al-Zagal, defeated a large Christian raiding force in the hills of the Axarquia east of Málaga. However, at Lucena the Christians were able to defeat and capture King Boabdil. Ferdinand II and Isabella I had previously not been intent on conquering all of Granada. With the capture of King Boabdil, however, Ferdinand decided to use him to conquer Granada entirely. In a letter of August 1483, Ferdinand wrote “To put Granada in division and destroy it We have decided to free him…. He [Boabdil] has to make war on his father.” With Boabdil’s release, now as a pseudo-Christian ally, the Granadan civil war would continue. A Granadan chronicler commented that Boabdil’s capture was “the cause of the fatherland’s destruction.”

In 1485, the fortunes of the Granadan internal conflict shifted yet again. Boabdil was expelled from the Albayzín, his base of power, by Hasan’s brother al-Zagal. Al-Zagal also took command of the nation itself, dethroning his aging brother, who died shortly thereafter. Boabdil was obliged to flee to Ferdinand and Isabella’s protection. The continuing division within the Muslim ranks and the cunning of the Marquis of Cádiz allowed the western reaches of Granada to be seized with unusual speed in 1485. Ronda fell to him after a mere fifteen days, thanks to his negotiations with the city’s leaders. Ronda’s fall allowed Marbella, a base of the Granadan fleet, to come into Christian hands next.

Boabdil was soon released from Christian protection to resume his bid for control of Granada. For the next three years, he would de facto act as one of Ferdinand and Isabella’s vassals. He offered the promise of limited independence for Granada and peace with the Christians to the citizenry and extracted from the Catholic Monarchs the title of Duke for whatever cities he could control.

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Málaga, the chief seaport of Granada, was the main objective of the Castilian forces in 1487. Emir al-Zagal was slow to march to attempt to relieve the siege and was unable to harass the Christian armies safely due to the ongoing civil war; even after he left the city to come to the aid of Málaga, he was forced to leave troops in the Alhambra to defend against Boabdil and his followers.

The first main city to be attacked, Vélez-Málaga, capitulated on 27 April 1487, with local supporters of Boabdil directly aiding the Christian besiegers. Málaga held out during an extended siege that lasted from 7 May 1487 until 18 August 1487; its commander preferred death to surrender, and the African garrison and Christian renegades (converts to Islam) fought tenaciously, fearing the consequences of defeat. Near the end, the notables of Málaga finally offered a surrender, but Ferdindad refused, as generous terms had already been offered twice. When the city finally fell, Ferdinand punished almost all the inhabitants for their stubborn resistance with slavery, while renegades were burned alive or pierced by reeds. The Jews of Malaga, however, were spared, as Castilian Jews ransomed them from slavery.

In 1489, the Christian forces began a painfully long siege of Baza, the most important stronghold remaining to al-Zagal. Baza was highly defensible as it required the Christians to split their armies, and artillery was of little use against it. Supplying the army caused a huge budget shortfall for the Castilians. Occasional threats of deprivation of office were necessary to keep the army in the field, and Isabella came personally to the siege to help maintain the morale of both the nobles and the soldiers. After six months, al-Zagal surrendered, despite his garrison still being largely unharmed; he had become convinced that the Christians were serious about maintaining the siege as long as it would take, and further resistance was useless without the hope of relief, of which there was no sign. Baza was granted generous surrender terms, unlike Málaga.

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With the fall of Baza and the capture of al-Zagal in 1490, it seemed as if the war was over. Ferdinand and Isabella certainly thought this was the case. However, Boabdil was unhappy with the rewards for his alliance with Ferdinand and Isabella, possibly because lands that had been promised to him were being administered by Castile. He broke off his vassalage and rebelled against the Catholic Monarchs, despite holding only the city of Granada and the Alpujarras Mountains. It was clear that such a position was untenable in the long term, so Boabdil sent out desperate requests for external aid. The Sultan of Egypt mildly rebuked Ferdinand for the Granada War, but the Mamluks that ruled Egypt were in a near constant war with the Ottoman Turks. As Castile and Aragon were fellow enemies of the Turks, the Sultan had no desire to break their alliance against the Turks. Boabdil also requested aid from the Kingdom of Fez (modern Morocco), but no reply is recorded by history. North Africa continued to sell Castile wheat throughout the war and valued maintaining good trade relations. In any case, Granada no longer controlled any coastline from which to receive overseas aid. Thus, no help was forthcoming.

An eight-month siege of Granada began in April 1491. The situation for the defenders grew progressively dire, as their forces for interfering with the siege dwindled and advisers schemed against each other. Bribery of important officials was rampant, and at least one of the chief advisers to Boabdil seems to have been working for Castile the entire time. After the Battle of Granada a provisional surrender, the Treaty of Granada, was signed on November 25, 1491, which granted two months to the city. The reason for the long delay was not so much intransigence on either side, but rather the inability of the  government of Granada to coordinate amongst itself in the midst of the disorder and tumult that gripped the city. After the terms, which proved rather generous to the Muslims, were negotiated, the city capitulated on January 2, 1492. The besieging Christians sneaked troops into the Alhambra that day in case resistance materialized, which it did not. Granada’s resistance had come to its end.

The surrender of Granada was seen as a great blow to Islam and a triumph of Christianity. Other Christian states offered their sincere congratulations to Ferdinand and Isabella, while Islamic writers reacted with despair. In Castile and Aragon, celebrations and bullfights were held. People rejoiced in the streets. Not least of the consequences of the Reconquista in general is the civic pageant/dance/celebration of Moros y Cristianos which is one of my professional interests. I have researched and written about the tradition in Europe and the Americas for 40 years.

BENIDORM

There is a dish called Moros y Cristianos made from black beans and white rice that is ubiquitous in the Spanish Diaspora. It is one more version of beans and rice that you can find anywhere. On New Year’s Day, Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice) is a common favorite in the American South, and I always cook it when I can get the black-eyed peas. Yesterday I had to use Italian fagioli cannellini and Jasmine rice because I could not do better – I didn’t plan well enough ahead and the markets were all closed. Today I am making black beans and rice.  There are lots of different ways to make Moros y Cristianos. The standard Cuban way is to cook the beans and then add the rice and cook it in the bean water. This makes the rice grey (i.e. dirty rice).  That’s OK if you like it. I prefer to have my beans black and my rice snowy white, so I cook them separately. This is strictly my version. I’m just giving you some ideas.

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The beans require the normal 2-day effort. First day put them in abundant cold water and soak them overnight. Next day, drain the beans and put them in a stock pot and cover with rich stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 2 hours or until the beans are tender Add whatever flavoring and meats you want during the cooking process and TASTE CONSTANTLY to be sure you have what you want. Today I browned some shallots and sliced leeks along with sliced prosciutto and  whole Italian sausage, and added them to the beans after about 30 minutes. I also added some hot pepper and ground cumin. When the beans are cooked keep them warm while you cook your white rice.

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Then use a slotted spoon to remove the beans from the broth, place them in a pot. Drain the rice and add it to the beans so that you have about equal proportions. Then mix the beans and rice gently together and serve hot.

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I’m going to give you a two-fer today so that you have an authentic dish from Granada. Tortilla del Sacromonte is a very famous dish from Granada which, in its traditional form, is not a great tourist magnet because it is made with offal, such as brains, testicles, and sweetbreads. When it is made with sweetbreads only it is sometimes called tortilla granadina. Spanish tortilla is akin to an omelet or frittata but is unique, and I can’t honestly say that mine matches what can be found in Spain. The thing is that they are often loaded with ingredients cooked inside the tortilla. You need to use a wide, deep skillet for this recipe.

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Tortilla del Sacromonte

Ingredients

150 gm pig’s, cow’s or sheep’s brain
150 gm pig’s, cow’s or sheep’s testicles
6 eggs, beaten
1 cup cooked peas
150 gm cured ham, diced
1 cup diced sweet red pepper
4 slices chorizo, chopped
1 cup diced potatoes
olive oil

Instructions

Wash the brains and testicles well in several changes of water, then plunge them into boiling water and blanch them for about one minute. Drain them, cut them into small squares, and sauté them in a little olive oil for about 15 minutes. At the same time sauté the potatoes in a generous amount of oil. Add the peas, pepper, chorizo, cured ham, brains and testicles, to the potatoes and continue to sauté for a few minutes.  Use a slotted spoon to remove all the ingredients from the oil and place them in a large bowl.  Add the beaten eggs and mix everything together gently.

Heat a small amount of oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the egg mixture. Shake the skillet periodically so that the eggs do not stick. When the top of the tortilla starts to firm place a large plate over the top and invert the tortilla on to the plate. Then slide the uncooked side of the tortilla into the skillet and continue cooking until it is cooked through on both sides. Invert again over a large plate and serve.