Francisco García Fitz: La guerra contra el islam peninsular en la Edad Media (= Temas de historia medieval; 15), Madrid: Editorial Síntesis 2019, 278 S., ISBN 978-8-4917-1414-9, EUR 23,00
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After several decades in which ways to wage war in the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages were subject to only isolated works, this historiographical topic finally took off in Spain in the 1990s. One of the main agents of this historiographical renovation was, and still is, Francisco García Fitz, professor of Medieval History in the University of Extremadura, whose bibliography comprises numerous publications on medieval warfare, including about ten books written and edited on the matter.
The book that is our concern here is an analytical synthesis of the military conflicts that confronted Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. The work is largely directed to the wider public, but remains extremely useful for specialists as a first holistic approach to ways to wage war in the period traditionally known as 'Reconquista' (a term currently under debate): from the Arab invasion of 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492.
The book is divided into two blocks, with three and four sections respectively. The first breaks the period into three phases, in which García Fitz tracks the evolution of the frontier between Christians and Muslims. The first phase, from 711 to 1031, is characterised by a clear military superiority of the Muslims. The phase includes the events in the aftermath of the Arab conquest, the first Christian attempts at military resistance and the initial processes of Christian expansion.
The second phase goes from 1031 and 1275, and witnessed a reversal in the balance of powers. The end of the Cordoba caliphate was the turning point; the military initiative passed to Christian hands, with Castile and León playing an increasingly leading role. In this context, García Fitz presents the major Christian territorial advances that progressively cornered al-Andalus, not entirely devoid of defeats and setbacks.
The final phase goes from 1275 to 1492, and is further divided into three sub-phases. The first begins with the so-called Battle of the Strait (1275-1350), with which the Christians wrestled the Strait of Gibraltar from the Muslims, after repelling what was to be the last of the major Muslim offensives; the second was a period of territorial stability (1350-1481) characterised the permanent frontier clashes dotted by episodes of larger-scale conflict; finally, the War of Granada (1482-1492) led to the conquest of the Nasrid emirate.
The événementiel narrative provides a necessary contextualisation for the author to tackle the diachronic analysis of the Christian ways to wage war against Islam. The second block of the book is, without a doubt, the most interesting, reflecting García Fitz's extensive knowledge on the issue, including strategy and tactical matters, one of the less well known aspects of medieval warfare, although in recent times there has been a surge of interest in these issues.
The block is divided into four chapters. The first, although brief, is essential, for it concisely and synthetically presents the conceptual base of arguments which are further elaborated in later chapters; García Fitz defines two especially important concepts, such as 'strategy' and 'tactics', to later outline the main features of the Christian expansion, establishing both the objectives pursued and the military strategy used to meet them.
After this introductory chapter, the three main types of medieval military action - raids, sieges and battles - are explained in detail. This three-fold division of military action is effective (it was already used by the author in some of his most important previous works), by abandoning battle-based approaches to adopt a broader perspective of medieval warfare.
The section dealing with raids applies the notion of indirect approach coined by Liddell Hart to the examination of Iberian Christian military practices. Predatory raids are part and parcel of attrition strategies aimed to undermine the enemy's operational capacity by weakening their economic foundations, especially by devastating the agricultural base on which this rested. Therefore, raids were a type of operation, suited to the available means and the targets pursued, that could reap great tactical and strategic rewards (and a rich booty) with minimum risk. García Fitz finishes the chapter with the analysis of the composition and size of the hosts that carried out these raids, the duration of expeditions and the tactics used.
Siege warfare is the focus of the sixth chapter. In this chapter, the main methods to take fortified places are examined: surprise assaults; direct assaults; and long sieges. The tactical methods of each system are presented, along with their advantages and disadvantages. In this regard, despite being the quickest and most economical solution, surprise assaults were not always possible or desirable, while direct assaults could have a high cost in human lives. In general, larger fortifications could only be reduced by long sieges, although, as pointed out by the author, these posed important organisational, logistic and financial challenges, among others.
The final chapter is dedicated to the aspect of medieval warfare that has probably been paid the most attention both in academic fora and outside them: pitched battles. In this chapter, García Fitz begins by reviewing the mythology that, starting with medieval chroniclers, often surrounds these events, and continues by establishing the main historiographical outlines of the subject, the strategic context in which pitched battles must be inserted, and finally, the forces and tactics used in them. García Fitz argues that, from the late 19th century, authors dealing with medieval warfare have tended to focus exclusively in pitched battles, overemphasising their importance and neglecting other types of military action. He underscores the notion that pitched battles were not only not the centrepiece of medieval warfare, but that they were, in fact, extraordinary events. This rarity was due to the enormous risk that they entailed and, therefore, their highly uncertain outcome. Pitched battles, however, did occur; García Fitz points out that most of them took place in a siege context, with the arrival of a relieving army.
The book also carries an appendix with a selection of ten texts which are of special use for both specialists and the broader public interested in examining primary sources and their processing. The volume ends with a bibliography that, albeit brief (for editorial reasons; the whole bibliography can be consulted in the publishers' website), does the job and is a good guide for the reader interested in examining some of the aspects addressed in the book in greater depth.
In short, García Fitz's book is both useful and necessary. Although largely directed to the broader public, there is little doubt that it will also be helpful for more knowledgeable readers and even specialists. No previous work has tried to synthetize the warfare practices employed by Iberian Christians against Islam at quite this scale. It is, therefore, an important step forward in the dissemination of knowledge about medieval military practices, one which also greatly contributes to consolidate this field of study.
Ekaitz Etxeberria Gallastegi