The Weapons of Light

Jesús Sánchez Adalid brings to a close his trilogy on the turbulent history of 10th-century Spain
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Despite propaganda to the contrary, Spain has a large and prestigious roster of historians, medievalists and contemporary historians, who in no way detract from the overwhelming dominance of French and Anglo-Saxon specialists. The same cannot be said of the authors of historical novels, probably the genre that attracts most readers to the adventure of delving into and discovering the roots that are ultimately the origin of what is happening to us today. 

The Extremaduran Jesús Sánchez Adalid (Villanueva de la Serena, 1962) would already form part of this classification, in which names such as Javier Cercas or Arturo Pérez-Reverte shine, capable of arousing controversy and often unbridled passions.

With 'Las Armas de la Luz' (HarperCollins Ibérica, 813 pages) Adalid closes the trilogy begun with 'El Mozárabe', followed by 'Baños del pozo azul'. On this occasion, the author delves into the vicissitudes of the Catalan counties of the Marca Hispanica, the Carolingian protectorate to which many Christians who had been left on the border (marca) between the powerful Caliphate of Cordoba and the kingdom of the Franks took refuge. 

The last third of the 10th century was particularly turbulent in Hispania, which was invaded by the Arabs in 711, and which at the turn of the millennium was the scene of the most terrible Saracen aceifas. Every summer the mighty Almansur undertook his dreaded 'razzias', after which he was welcomed back to Cordoba laden with considerable booty, including thousands of Christian men and women reduced to slavery. Coimbra and Zamora were assaulted in 987 and 988; Osma in 990; Astorga was reduced to ashes in 997, the year in which he also conquered León after "leaving no stone unturned" except the walls, and in which he also razed Santiago de Compostela, whose bells from the apostle's sanctuary were dismantled and taken to Córdoba by Christian prisoners. In all, there were around fifty punitive and plundering expeditions, which made it extremely dangerous to live and cultivate the land on a shifting frontier.

The Death of Almanzor, the Decline of Córdoba and the Taifa Kingdoms

The constant threat to the north of Spain, where the kingdoms of León, Castile and Pamplona, as well as the counties of Aragon and Catalonia, are gradually settling, is the backdrop to this novel, which begins with the arrival of mysterious ships that reach the coast of Tarragona and leave a strange present in the small port of Cubellas. This is also the beginning of the adventures of two boys who end up travelling to Upper Urgell, where they arrive just as Count Armengol I is about to join the great alliance of Catalan counts and magnates who have decided to gain definitive independence from the Frankish kingdom and, at the same time, break with the old and suffocating servitudes imposed by the powerful Caliphate of Cordoba.

This expedition, organised as soon as news of Almansur's death became known, would prove decisive for the decline of Cordoba and the beginning of the prosperity of the Catalan counties. A great crisis broke out in the Caliphate after the failure of Abdalmalik, son of Almansur, in the battle of Torah, which forced him to return to Cordoba without the booty and slaves that had been expected. The year was 1006 and the crisis led to fitna (dissolution), which culminated in the dismemberment of the caliphate into the Taifa kingdoms.

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The expedition of the Catalan counts, led by Ramon Borrell and Armengol I of Urgell, had the complicity of the Muslim conspirator-general Wadih, and the 10,000 men who made up the armies of the counts of Barcelona, Urgell and Besalú were promised fabulous pay and compensation. Adalid fixed them at "600,000 dinars a month, plus food, drink for men and animals, booty rights and full impunity". 

The decisive battle was fought to the north of the Cordovan capital, at Akabat al-Bakr (now Vacar Castle), in which many Christian magnates lost their lives: Count Armengol of Urgel; Aetius, bishop of Barcelona; Abbot Odon, bishop of Gerona; and many other nobles and clerics. With Count Ramon Borrell at their head, the victors entered the capital of the caliphate and sacked it for three days, seizing as much gold as they could find, "which was a lot". How great was the booty that Adalid relates how so much wealth caused the price of gold to fall in both the north-east of the peninsula and the south-east of France. In any case, the enormous proceeds of that plunder contributed to a substantial improvement in the situation in their territories, influencing their subsequent political and social development. It made it possible to rebuild castles and repopulate abandoned lands, and above all it served to strengthen the authority of the Count of Barcelona over others. It also provided the necessary funds to launch mercantile development, as well as boosting the incipient Catalan naval fleet, with new orders for ships from the shipyards of Genoa and Venice. 

The novel also has an apparently marginal character, but one who masterfully profiles the growing influence of women in a world where war determines everyone's lives. It is a young woman in whom Adalid brings together the struggle of women to free themselves from the bonds of their closed family and social world. 

As he himself confesses, Jesús Sánchez Adalid seeks to faithfully recreate life in the castles and war camps, the peculiar relationships between nobles and clerics, the rich monastic culture, everyday customs, love, war, fear, courage... Always in the fascinating settings of a singularly beautiful and rugged land, but also fertile and populated by luminous cities: Barcelona, Girona, Seo de Urgel, Vich, Solsona, Besalú, Berga, Manresa, Tortosa and Lérida. And also, the great monasteries that extend their influence: Santa Maria de Ripoll, Sant Cugat, Sant Joan de les Abadeses, Sant Pere de Roda and Sant Martí de Canigó. 

The height of cultural luxury this summer would be to carry the book and literally devour it as you walk through the many places described and mingle with the real and fictional characters in this great narrative frieze, which recreates with agility and skill the agitated end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second of our era.