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Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain -- Master Page

Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain

Kenneth Baxter Wolf


The city of Córdoba was the setting for an unusual historical drama that unfolded between the years 850 and 859, when forty-eight Christians were decapitated for religious offenses against Islam. More striking than the number of executions were the peculiar circumstances surrounding them. For one thing, as the sources unambiguously demonstrate, the majority of the victims deliberately invoked capital punishment by publicly blaspheming Muhammad and disparaging Islam. Moreover, though some Cordoban Christians applauded the executed Christians as martyrs, others regarded them as self-immolators whose unwarranted outbursts served only to expose the community as a whole to the emirs suspicions.

Our information about this historical anomaly comes almost entirely from the works of two men who lived in Córdoba during the time of the martyrdoms. Eulogius, a priest, and Paulus Alvarus, an educated layman, reacted to the scorn that the martyrs elicited by composing apologetic treatises on their behalf, extolling their fortitude and defending their memories from the attacks of unsympathetic Christians. Eulogius even went a step further, composing a martyrology through which he transformed the executed Christians into holy martyrs worthy of cultic veneration. His treatises and martyrology, combined with a few letters, make Eulogius the key source of information for what has come to be known as the "Cordoban martyrs movement."

Previous treatments of the martyrdoms have attempted to lay bare the motives of the participants themselves. Since the martyrs never expressed themselves in writing, such reconstructions have relied almost entirely on Eulogius' depiction of the events, under the assumption that his involvement in the movement was [2] intimate. But to conflate the motives of any hagiographer with those of his protagonists can be very misleading. Writing a book about a saint is not the same as being a saint. In Eulogius' case, though he, too, ultimately suffered the same kind of death, he never in his life actively sought execution in the manner of the martyrs he praised. As useful as Eulogius works are for recreating the events of the 850s, then, they can really only provide direct information about the thoughts and perceptions of one person: Eulogius.

Our intention is to approach Eulogius' writings more critically and thus more narrowly, using them to answer questions about Eulogius himself. In the first place, we will seek to determine what prompted a priest like Eulogius to lend his literary support to something as unusual and controversial as a series of unprovoked martyrdoms. Rather than assume that he and the martyrs were inspired by the same visions and moved by the same forces, we will be treating Eulogius in isolation, reconstructing his biography and gleaning from it the most likely reasons for his support of the martyrs.

Once we have determined why Eulogius defended the martyrs, we will turn to the question how. For it was clear to everyone, even Eulogius, that the martyrs of Córdoba were not martyrs of the ancient Roman cast. The inconsistencies between the classical paradigm and the circumstances surrounding the executions in ninth-century Córdoba provided the unsympathetic Christians with a way of justifying their opinion of the confessors. In addressing these specific discrepancies, Eulogius not only probed, in an unusually self-conscious manner, the definition of sanctity, but inadvertently provided a window through which we can observe how some Cordoban Christians justified their conciliatory attitudes toward the Muslim authorities.

Using Eulogius writings to assess his motives and methods not only represents the most reliable use of the sources but it also constitutes the first step toward any accurate understanding of the martyrs. Only when we know who Eulogius was and what he was attempting to do can we begin to extract his influence from his martyrology and proceed, with proper caution, to assess the motives of the Cordoban martyrs themselves.