Read CHAPTER V. of Christianity and Islam in Spain (756-1031), free online book, by Charles Reginald Haines, on ReadCentral.com.

CONTROVERSY CONCERNING THE MARTYRS.

With the death of Eulogius the series of voluntary martyrdoms comes to an end, and it will be convenient at this point to consider the whole question of the relation of the Church to the civil power, and how far those “confessors,” who were put to death under the circumstances already related, were entitled to the name of martyrs. Unfortunately the evidence we have on the subject is drawn almost entirely from the apologists of their doings, and therefore may fairly be suspected of some bias. Yet even from them can be shown conclusively enough that no real persecution was raging in Mohammedan Spain at this time, such as to justify the extreme measures adopted by the party of zealots.

If we except the cases of John and Adulphus, and of Nunilo and Alodia, the date of which is doubtful, there is not a single recorded instance of a Christian being put to death for his religion by the Arabs in Spain before the middle of the ninth century. The Muzárabes, as the Christians living under the Arabs were called, enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom in the exercise of their religion-the services and rites of the Church being conducted as heretofore. In Cordova alone we find mention of the following churches: the Church of St Acislus, a former martyr of Cordova; of St Zoilus; of the Three Martyrs-Faustus, Januarius, Martialis; of St Cyprian; of SS. Genesius and Eulalia; and of the Virgin Mary.

Of the last of these there is an interesting account in an Arab writer, who died in 1034. “I once entered at night,” he says, “into the principal Christian Church. I found it all strewed with green branches of myrtle, and planted with cypress trees. The noise of the thundering bells resounded in my ears; the glare of the innumerable lamps dazzled my eyes; the priests, decked in rich silken robes of gay and fanciful colours, and girt with girdle cords, advanced to adore Jesus. Everyone of those present had banished mirth from his countenance, and expelled from his mind all agreeable ideas; and if they directed their steps towards the marble font it was merely to take sips of water with the hollow of their hands. The priest then rose and stood among them, and taking the wine cup in his hands prepared to consecrate it: he applied to the liquor his parched lips, lips as dark as the dusky lips of a beautiful maid; the fragrancy of its contents captivated his senses, but when he had tasted the delicious liquor, the sweetness and flavour seemed to overpower him.” On leaving the church, the Arab, with true Arabian facility, extemporized some verses to the following effect: “By the Lord of mercy! this mansion of God is pervaded with the smell of unfermented red liquor, so pleasant to the youth. It was to a girl that their prayers were addressed, it was for her that they put on their gay tunics, instead of humiliating themselves before the Almighty.” Ahmed also says: “the priests, wishing us to stay long among them, began to sing round us with their books in their hands; every wretch presented us the palm of his withered hand (with the holy water), but they were even like the bat, whose safety consists in his hatred for light; offering us every attraction that their drinking of new wine, or their eating of swine’s flesh, could afford.” This narrative is in many respects very characteristic of an Arab writer, who would not feel the incongruity of an illustration on such a theme drawn from “the lips of a maid,” or the irrelevancy of a reference to swine’s flesh. But the account merits attention on other grounds, for it shews how little even the more intelligent Moslems understood the ceremonies of the religion which they had conquered, though they might be pardoned for thinking that the Christians worshipped the Virgin Mary, both because Mohammed himself fell into the same error, and because probably the Roman Church and its adherents had already begun to pay her idolatrous worship.

The chief church in Cordova at the conquest seems to have been the church of St Vincent. On the taking of the town, the Christians had to give up half of it to the Arabs, a curious arrangement, but one enforced elsewhere by the Saracens. In 784 the Christians were induced, or compelled, to sell their half for 100,000 dinars, and it was pulled down to make room for the Great Mosque. In 894 we find that the Cordovans were allowed to build a new church.

Besides these within the walls, there were ten or twelve monasteries and churches in the immediate neighbourhood of Cordova: among them the monastery of St Christopher, the famous one of Tábanos, suppressed as above mentioned, in 854; those of St Felix at Froniano, of St Martin at Royana, of the Virgin Mary at Cuteclara, of St Salvator at Pegnamellar; and the churches of SS. Justus and Pastor, and of St Sebastian.

We have given the names of these churches and monasteries at or near Cordova, both to shew how numerous they were, and also because from one or other of them came nearly all the self-devoted martyrs, of whom we are about to consider the claims. Except in cases like that above-mentioned, the Christians were not allowed to build new churches, but considering the diminution in the numbers of the Christians owing to the conquest, and the apostasy of a great many, this could not be reckoned a great hardship. Moreover the Christian churches, it was ordained, should be open to Moslems as well as Christians, though during the performance of mass it seems that they had to be kept closed. The Mosques were never to be polluted by the step of an infidel.

The religious ferment, which manifested itself so strongly at Cordova, did not extend to other parts of Spain. For instance, at Elvira, the cradle of Spanish Christianity, it was shortly after the Cordovan martyrdoms (in 864) that the mosque, founded in the year of the conquest, and left unbuilt for 150 years, was finally finished. What we hear about the Christians at Elvira at this time is not to their credit, their bishop, Samuel, being notorious as an evil liver. It is in Cordova that the main interest at this period centres; and to Cordova we will for the present confine our attention.

There is abundant evidence to show that the party of enthusiasts, both those who offered themselves for martyrdom, and those who aided and abetted their more impulsive brethren, were a comparatively small body in the Church of Spain; and that their proceedings awakened little short of dismay in the minds of the more sensible portion of the Christian community, both in the Arab part of Spain, and perhaps in a less degree in the free North. The chief leaders of the party of zealots-as far as we find mention of them-were Saul, bishop of Cordova (850-861), Eulogius, and Samson, abbot of the monastery of Pegnamellar; while Reccafredus, bishop of Seville, and Hostegesis of Malaga, were the prominent ecclesiastics on the other side.

Before relating what steps the latter took in conjunction with the Moslem authorities to put down the dangerous outbreak of fanaticism, it will be interesting to note what was the attitude of the different sections of the Church towards the misguided men who gave themselves up to death, and their claims to the crown of martyrdom. Those who denied the validity of these claims, rested their contention on the grounds, that the so-called martyrs had compassed their own destruction, there being no persecution at the time; that they had worked no miracles in proof of their high claims; that they had been slain by men who believed in the true God; that they had suffered an easy and immediate death; and that their bodies had corrupted like those of other men.

It was an abuse of words, said the party of moderation, to call these suicides by the holy name of martyrs, when no violence in high places had forced them to deny their faith, or interfered with their due observance of Christianity. It was merely an act of ostentatious pride-and pride was the root of all evil-to court danger. Such conduct had never been enjoined by Christ, and was quite alien from the meekness and humility of His character.

They might have added that such voluntary martyrdoms had been expressly condemned,

(a.) By the circular letter of the Church of Smyrna to the other churches, describing Polycarp’s martyrdom, in the terms: “We commend not those who offer themselves of their own accord, for that is not what the gospel teacheth us:"

(b.) By St Cyprian, who, when brought before the consul and questioned, said “our discipline forbiddeth that any should offer themselves of their own accord;” and in his last letter he says: “Let none of you offer himself to the pagans, it is sufficient if he speak when apprehended:”

(c.) By Clement of Alexandria: “We also blame those who rush to death, for there are some, not of us, but only bearing the same name, who give themselves up:"

(d.) Implicitly by the synod of Elvira, or Illiberis (circa 305), one of the canons of which forbade him to be ranked as a martyr, who was killed on the spot for breaking idols:

(e.) By Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, who, when consulted on the question of reducing the immense lists of acknowledged martyrs, gave it as his opinion that those should be first excluded who had courted martyrdom. One bishop alone, and he a late one, Benedict XIV. of Rome, has ventured to approve what the Church has condemned. Nor is this the only instance in which the Roman Church has set aside the decisions of an earlier Christendom.

The charges against the zealots were twofold, that there had been no persecution worthy of the name, such as to justify their doings, and that those doings themselves were contrary to the teaching and spirit of Christianity. The latter part of the charge has already been dealt with, and may be considered sustained. As to the other part, the apologists, it must be confessed, answer with a very uncertain sound. Sometimes, indeed, they deny it point-blank: “as if,” says Eulogius, “the destruction of our churches, the insults heaped upon our clergy, the monthly tax which we pay, the perils of a hard life, lived on sufferance, are nothing.” These insults and affronts are continually referred to. “No one,” says the same author, “can go out or come in amongst us in security, no one pass a knot of Moslems in the street without being treated with contumely. They mock at the marks of our order. They hoot at us and call us fools and vain. The very children jeer at us, and even throw stones and potsherds at the priests. The sound of the church-going bell never fails to evoke from Moslem hearers the foulest and most blasphemous language. They even deem it a pollution to touch a Christian’s garment.” Alvar adds that the Moslems would fall to cursing when they saw the cross; and when they witnessed a burial according to Christian rites, would say aloud, “Shew them no mercy, O God,” throwing stones withal at the Lord’s people, and defiling their ears with the filthiest abuse. “Yet,” he indignantly exclaims, “you say that this is not a time of persecution; nor is it, I answer, a time of apostles. But I affirm that it is a deadly time ... are we not bowed beneath the yoke of slavery, burdened with intolerable taxes, spoiled of our goods, lashed with the scourges of their abuse, made a byword and a proverb, aye, a spectacle to all nations?"

That there was a certain amount of social ill-treatment, and that the lower classes of Moslems did not take any pains to conceal their dislike and scorn of such Christian beliefs and rites as were at variance with their own creed, and moreover regarded priests and monks with especial aversion, there can be no doubt. But, on the other hand, there is no want of evidence to show that the condition of the Christians was by no means so bad as the apologists would have us suppose. Petty annoyances could not fail to exist anywhere under such circumstances, as were actually to be found in Spain at this time, and we may be sure that the Christian priests in particular did not bear themselves with that humility which might have ensured a mitigation of the annoyances. Organised opposition to Christianity, unless the Moslem rule can itself be called such, there was none, till it was called into being by the action of the fanatics themselves. But apart from all the other facts which point to this conclusion, we can call the apologists themselves in evidence that there was no real persecution going on at the time of the first martyrdoms.

Eulogius admits that the Christians were not let or hindered in the free exercise of their religion by saying that this state of things was not due to the forbearance (forsooth!) of the Moslems, but to the Divine mercy. Alvar, too, in a passage which seems to contradict the whole position which he is trying to defend, says:-“Though many were the victims of persecution, very many others-and you cannot deny it-offered themselves a voluntary sacrifice to the Lord. Is it not clear that it was not the Arabs who began persecuting, but we who began preaching? Read the story of the martyrs, and you will see that they rushed voluntarily on their fate, not waiting the bidding of persecutors, nor the snares of informers; aye, and-what is made so strong a charge against them-that they tired out the forbearance of their rulers and princes by insult upon insult."

As to the other part of the accusation, that voluntary martyrs were no martyrs, Eulogius could only declaim against the Scriptures quoted by his opponents, and refer to the morally blind, who make evil their good, and take darkness to be their light; while he brought forward a saying of certain wise men that “those martyrs will hold the first rank in the heavenly companies who have gone to their death unsummoned."

He also sought to defend the practice of reviling Mohammed by the plea that exorcism was allowed against the devil, which is sufficiently ridiculous; but Alvar goes further, and calmly assures us that these insults and revilings of the prophet were merely a form of preaching to the poor benighted Moslems, naively remarking that the Scriptures affirm that the Gospel of Christ must be preached to all nations. Whereas, then, the Moslems had not been preached to, these martyred saints had taken upon themselves the sacred duty of rendering them “debtors to the faith.”

The second count against the martyrs was that they had worked no miracles-a serious deficiency in an age when miracles were almost the test of sanctity. Eulogius could only meet the charge by admitting the fact, but adding that miracles were frequent in the early ages, in order to establish Christianity on a firm basis; and that the constancy of the martyrs was in itself a miracle (which was true, but not to the point). Had he been content with this, he had done wisely; but he goes on: “Moreover, miracles are no sign of truth, as even the unbelievers can work them." Now, by trying to show why these martyrs did not perform any miracles, he admits by implication that they were deficient in this particular; and yet in other parts of his work he mentions miracles performed by these very martyrs, as, for instance, by Isaac, and by Flora, and Maria. So that the worthy priest is placed in this dilemma: If miracles are really no sign of truth, why attribute them to the martyrs, when, as is allowed elsewhere, they were unable to work them? if, on the other hand, they did perform these miracles, why not adduce them in evidence against the detractors?

The third objection is a curious one, that the martyrs were not put to death by idolaters, but by men worshipping God and acknowledging a divine law, and therefore were not true martyrs. Eulogius misses the true answer, which is obvious enough, and scornfully exclaims:-“As if they could be said to believe in God, who persecute His Church, and deem it hateful to believe in a Christ who was very God and very man."

Fourthly, the martyrs died a quick and easy death. But, as Eulogius points out, pain and torture give no additional claim to the martyr’s crown.

Lastly, it was objected that the bodies of these martyrs, as indeed was to be expected, corrupted, and were even, in some cases, devoured by dogs. “What matter,” says Eulogius, “since their souls are borne away to celestial mansions.”

But it was not objections brought by fellow-Christians only that Eulogius took upon himself to answer, but also the taunts and scoffs of the Moslems. “Why,” said they, “if your God is the true God, does He not strike terror into the executioners of his saints by some great prodigy? and why do not the martyrs themselves flash forth into miracles while the crowd is round them? You rush upon your own destruction, and yet you work no wonders that might induce us to change our opinion of your creed, thereby doing your own side no good, and ours no harm."

Yet the constancy of the martyrs affected the Moslems more than they cared to confess, as we may infer from the taunts levelled at the Christians, when, in Mohammed’s reign, some Christians, from fear of death, even apostatized. “Whither,” they triumphantly asked, “has that bravery of your martyrs vanished? What has become of the rash frenzy with which they courted death?” Yet though they affected to consider the martyrs as fools or madmen, they could not be blind to the effect that their constancy was likely to produce on those who beheld their death, and to the reverence with which their relics were regarded by the Christians. They therefore expressly forbade the bodies of martyrs to be preserved and worshipped, and did their best to make this in certain cases impossible by burning the corpses and scattering the ashes on the river, though sometimes they contented themselves with throwing the bodies, unburnt, into the stream.

However, in spite of these regulations, many bodies were secretly carried off and entombed in churches, where they were looked upon as the most precious of possessions; and martyrs, who, by the admission of their admirers themselves, had never worked any miracles when living, were enabled, when dead, to perform a series of extraordinary ones, which did not finally cease till modern enlightenment had dissipated the darkness of the Middle Ages.

We happen to possess a very interesting account of the circumstances under which the relics of three of these Cordovan martyrs were transferred from the troubled scene of their passion to the more peaceful and more superstitious cloisters of France.

It was in 858 that Hilduin, the abbot of the monastery of St Vincent and the Holy Cross, near Paris, learning that the body of their patron saint, St Vincent, was at Valencia, sent two monks, Usuard and Odilard, with the king’s permission, to procure the precious relics for their own monastery. On their way to perform this commission, the monks learnt that the body was no longer at Valencia. It had been, in fact, carried by a monk named Andaldus to Saragoza. Senior, the bishop of that city, had seized it, and it was still held in veneration there, but under the name of St Marinus, whose body the monk had stoutly asserted it to be. Senior apparently doubted the statement, and tortured Andaldus to get the truth out of him, but in vain; for the monk, knowing that St Vincent had been deacon of Saragoza, feared that the bishop would never surrender the body if aware of its identity. However, Usuard and Odilard knew not but that the body was that of Marinus, as stated.

Disappointed, therefore, in their errand, they lingered about at Barcelona, thinking to pick up some other relics, when a friend, holding a high position in that town, Sunifridus by name, mentioned the persecution at Cordova, news of which does not seem to have travelled beyond Spain. They determine at once to go to Cordova, relying on a friend there, named Leovigild, to help them to obtain what they wished. Travelling in Spain, however, seems to have been by no means safe at this period, and their bold resolution is regarded with fear and admiration by their friends. The lord of the Gothic marches, Hunifrid, being on friendly terms with the Wali of Saragoza, writes to him on their behalf, and he entrusts them to the care of a caravan which chanced to be just starting for Cordova.

On reaching Cordova, after many days, they go to St Cyprian’s Church, where lay the bodies of John and Adulphus. The rumour of their arrival brings Leovigild (called Abad Salomes), who proves a very useful friend, and Samson, who just at this juncture is made abbot of the monastery at Pegnamellar, where the bodies of George, Aurelius, and Sabigotha were buried-the very relics which they had decided to try and obtain.

The monks of the monastery naturally object to parting with such precious possessions, but Samson contrives to get the bishop’s permission to give up the bodies.

This was all the more opportune, as a chance was now given them of returning to Barcelona, by joining the expedition which Mohammed I. was on the point of making against Toledo. Orders had been given that all the inhabitants, strangers as well as citizens, except the city guard, should go out with the King. However, the Frankish monks were met by an unexpected difficulty. In the temporary absence of the abbot, the monks of Pegnamellar refused to give up the relics, and it was only with much difficulty that the bishop Saul was induced to confirm his former permission to remove them.

The bodies were now exhumed without the knowledge of the Moslems, and sealed with Charles’ own seal, brought for that purpose. George’s body was found whole, but of the other two, only the head of Nathalia, and the trunk of Aurelius’ body. The two latter are united to form one corpse, as it is written, “they two shall be one flesh.” After a stay in Cordova of eight weeks, they set out under the protection of some Christians serving in the army. Leovigild, who had been away on the King’s business, now returns, and escorts them to Toledo. The approach of the army having cleared away the brigands who infested those parts, the monks with their precious freight got safely away to Saragoza, and returned with their booty to France, where the relics worked numbers of astonishing miracles.

Let us return from this digression to the steps taken by the moderate party among the Christians, and by the Moslem authorities, to put an end to what seemed so dangerous an agitation. That Reccafredus was not the only ecclesiastic of high position who took exception to the new movement we learn clearly enough from Alvar, who tells us that “bishops, priests, deacons, and ‘wise men’ of Cordova joined in inveighing against the new martyrdoms, under the impulse of fear wellnigh denying the faith of Christ, if not in words, yet by their acts.” We may, therefore, conclude that the greater part of the ecclesiastical authorities were heart and soul with the Bishop of Seville, while the party led by Eulogius and Saul was a comparatively small one. However, strong measures were necessary, and Reccafredus did not hesitate to imprison several priests and clergy. Eulogius complains that the churches were deprived of their ministers, and the customary church rites were in abeyance, “while the spider wove her web in the deserted aisles, tenanted only by a dreadful silence.” In this passage the writer doubtless gives reins to his imagination, yet there must have been a certain amount of truth in the main assertion, for he repeats it again and again.

The evidence of Alvar is to the same effect: “Have not those who seemed to be columns of the church, the very rocks on which it is founded, who were deemed the elect of God, have they not, I say, in the presence of these Cynics, or rather of these Epicureans, under no compulsion, but of their own free will, spoken evil of the martyrs of God? Have not the shepherds of Christ, the teachers of the Church, bishops, abbots, priests, the chiefs of our hierarchy, and its mighty men, publicly denounced the martyrs of our Church as heretics?"

Not content with imprisoning the fanatics, the party of order forced them to swear that they would not snatch at the martyr’s palm by speaking evil of the Prophet. Those who disobeyed were threatened with unheard-of penalties, with loss of limbs, and merciless scourgings. This last statement must be taken with reservation, at least if put into the mouth of the Christian party under Reccafredus. It is extremely unlikely that Christian bishops and priests should have had recourse to such treatment of their coreligionists: yet they had a spiritual weapon ready to their hands, and they were not slow to use it. They anathematised those who aided and abetted the zealots; and Eulogius himself seems to have narrowly escaped their sentence of excommunication.

This action against the zealots was in all probability taken, if not at the instigation of the Moslem authorities, yet in close concert with them. Eulogius attributes all the evils which had befallen the Church, such as the imprisonment of bishops, priests, abbots, and deacons, to the wrath of the King; and Alvar distinctly states that the King was urged, even bribed, to take measures against the Christians. It is not likely that the King required much persuading. Mohammed at least seems to have been thoroughly frightened by the continued agitation against Mohammedanism. He naturally suspected some political plot at the bottom of it; a supposition which receives some countenance from the various references in Eulogius to the martyrs as “Soldiers of God” bound to war against His Moslem enemies; and from the undoubted fact that the Christians of Toledo did rise in favour of their coreligionists at Cordova. However that may be, the King in 852 certainly took counsel with his ministers, how the agitation should be met, and he seems to have assembled a sort of grand council of the Church, when the same question was discussed. Stronger measures were in consequence taken, and a more rigorous imprisonment resorted to. But Mohammed went farther than this. He deprived of their posts all Christians, who held offices in the palace, or in connection with the Court, and withdrew from the Christian “cadet corps," the royal bounty usually extended to them. He ordered the destruction of all churches built since the conquest, and of all later additions to those previously existing. He made a severe enactment against those who reviled Mohammed. He even had in mind to banish all Christians from his dominions. This intention, together with the order respecting the churches, was not carried out, owing probably to the opportune revolt at Toledo.

In one of his works on this subject, Eulogius expresses a fear lest the intervention of the martyrs should bring disaster on the Church in Spain, just as the intervention of Moses in Egypt did much at first to aggravate the hardships of the Israelites. He ought not, therefore, to have been surprised, when such a result actually did follow; nor ought he to complain that now the Moslems would only let the Christians observe their religion in such a way as they chose to dictate; and that the Christians were subjected to all sorts of taxes and exactions.

These combined measures of repression, taken by the King and the Bishop of Seville, soon produced their effect. The extreme party were broken up, some escaping to quieter regions, others hiding, and only venturing abroad in disguise and at night-not, as Eulogius is careful to add, from fear of death, but because the high prize of martyrdom is not reserved for the unworthy many, but for the worthy few.

Some even apostatized, while many of those who had applauded the proceedings of the martyrs, now called them indiscreet, and blamed them for indulging in a selfish desire to desert the suffering Church for an early mansion in the skies. Others, in order to retain posts under Government, or to court favour with the King, dissembled their religion, taking care not to pray, or make the sign of the cross in public. Eulogius himself was singled out at the meeting of the King’s Council by one of the royal secretaries, Gomez, son of Antonian, son of Julian, as the ringleader of the new seditious movement. This man was a very worldly-minded Christian, and was, no doubt, at this time, in fear of losing his lucrative office at Court, which he had obtained by his remarkable knowledge of Arabic. He did, in fact, lose his post with all the other Christian officers of the Court, but regained it by becoming a Moslem; and such was the ardour of the new proselyte that he was called “the dove of the mosque."

The result of this council was, as we have seen, hostile to the party of which Eulogius and Saul were the chiefs, but the former writer, mentioning the actual decree that was passed, pretends that it was merely a blind to deceive the king, and spoken figuratively; and he acknowledges that such hypocrisy was unworthy of the prelates and officers assembled. Is it not more reasonable to suppose that Eulogius and his supporters voted for it-as they seem to have done-with a mental reservation, while their opponents honestly considered such a step necessary?