Interview with Stephen Lay

The Reconquest Kings of Portugal: Political and Cultural Reorientation on the Medieval Frontier, by Stephen Lay examines how Portugal emerged as an independent kingdom between the late Tenth and the mid Thirteenth centuries. This political development took place against the backdrop of a struggle between Christendom and the Islamic world for control over the Iberian Peninsula, but also decisive in the formation of Portugal was a growing European influence being felt throughout the peninsula during these centuries.

Dr Stephen Lay works in the Graduate Studies Office of the Faculty of Medieval & Modern Languages at Oxford University.  We interviewed him by email:

How did you become interested in the history of Medieval Portugal?

I came to Portuguese Studies via an unusual route. While a number of English-language historians have given their attention to the Portuguese Age of Discovery and Empire, my interest in Medieval Portugal developed out of my earlier work on the Crusades. I had been examining the several interventions by passing crusaders at critical points in Portuguese history, most notably at Lisbon in 1147, hoping to trace in these encounters some of the fundamental motivations behind the crusade itself. Before long though, my focus began to widen to take in the attitudes of the local people toward the strange foreigners in their midst. The unique character of the Portuguese began to impress itself on me and, perhaps like the crusaders themselves, I was drawn to the singular mix of the familiar and the exotic Portugal presents to the newcomer.

Many scholars will be more familiar with the Reconquest from the Castilian and Aragonese perspectives. What do you think can be learned from examining the Portuguese experience of the Reconquest?

The reality, and sometimes the very existence, of the Reconquest have become the subject of quite intense debate. Certainly the medieval period saw a complex pattern of coexistence and conflict between Christian and Muslim peoples in Iberia, and historians have sometimes drawn rather selectively on this complex reality to clarify or even to justify their own contemporary attitudes. The Portuguese experience during this period can provide a useful alternative view to the Castilian and Aragonese perspectives. What characterised the Portuguese Reconquest was, I believe, a higher level of international involvement along with a healthy dose of local pragmatism. Visiting crusaders took part in several Portuguese campaigns, sometimes with decisive results. Just as significant though, were the wider political implications of the reconquest for the Portuguese leadership. The first Portuguese kings made quite conscious use of their status as military leaders defending Christendom against Islam, particularly to mediate with European powers. This shrewd use of political capital was ultimately fundamental in their greatest achievement: securing independence from the kings of León-Castile.

You explain that one of the aims of your book is to examine the influence of other Latin Christians/Europeans during the 12th and 13th centuries. Why do you want to explore this issue?

Cultural misunderstanding can sometimes provide a greater insight than those things people consciously choose to reveal. At the beginning of the eleventh century Portuguese society was, in common with the neighbouring Spanish kingdoms, characterised by a fluidity in political, social and cultural forms. Identity tended to be constructed on local foundations and as a result there was an unusual degree of tolerance toward religious and cultural differences. By the end of the eleventh century, however, this pragmatic tolerance had been challenged by a growing engagement with the Latin Christian culture of Europe. Political and ecclesiastical changes were the most obvious signs of a deeper cultural realignment; more subtle still was a shifting sense of identity as the Portuguese began to see themselves not simply in local terms, but increasingly as defenders of the frontier of Europe as a whole. This was, I believe, a decisive period in the subsequent development of Portugal, with wide implications for later history. Moreover this gradual social transformation also provides a unique insight into the process that created Europe as a whole.

The primary sources for the history of Portugal are strong for the 12th century, but less so for the 13th century. What might you suggest to be some of the potential research topics for scholars interested in examining the Portuguese reconquest?

Certainly the nature of primary source material changes during the thirteenth century. The writing of narrative history tapers off – and indeed the reason for this might in itself provide an interesting focus of research. However the production of other types of source material continued unabated. Rich collections of grants and title deeds, town charters, and official letters and treaties have survived. These sources would all bear a closer scrutiny than they have yet received. Moreover the story such sources tell extends beyond the reconquest in its narrowest sense to reveal something quite unexpected. For in fact in Portugal there was not one reconquest but two. The first was a purely territorial struggle between Christian and Muslim Portuguese for control of the land. A second, more pervasive, struggle was waged for the cultural orientation of the resulting society. A consideration of Portuguese society during this transitional phase has its own intrinsic interest as well as reflecting in often highly revealing ways fundamental developments in the wider medieval world.

We thank Dr. Lay for answering our questions.

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