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The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages



1 A Muslim and a monk play chess in a tent,
book painting, 13th century

Since the eighth century, Christian kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula had been resisting Arab conquest, and starting in the eleventh century, the kingdoms began the
1 Reconquista. The Muslim rulers were expelled by 1492. Modern Spain was created through a marriage between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon at the end of the 15th century. In the 1400s, Portugal became a major sea power.


The Kingdoms of Navarre, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal

From the eleventh century on, the Christian kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula steadily pushed the Muslims farther south.


Between 711 and 714, Muslim Arabs conquered the Visigoth empire. Christian rule in Iberia survived only in the impassable Pyrenees in the north.

There, in 718, the Visigoth 2 Pelayo, leader in the struggle against the Muslims, was chosen to be king of 3 Asturias— later part of the kingdom of Leon.

At the same time, the Basques made a stand against Charlemagne's conquest attempts—he had set up a short-lived Spanish marca (border) in 812. In 824, they chose Inigo Arista as the first king of Navarre. In the ninth century, the county of Barcelona also took shape on the territory of the marca.

2 Pelayo, bronze

3 Reception hall of the Asturian kings in Oviedo,
built ca. 850, later converted into a church

Around 1016, the Christian kingdoms benefited from 4, 6 Muslim civil wars, during the course of which the last Umayyad caliph was deposed in 1031.

Numerous minor rulers took his place, but they were too disunited to oppose the Reconquista ("reconquest") begun by the Christian kings.

In the first half of the eleventh century, Sancho III Garccs "The Great" reigned as king over a significant kingdom in northern Spain. After his death in 1035, Sancho's kingdom was divided into three independent kingdoms: Castile, Aragon, and Navarre. In 1038, Ferdinand I "The Great," ruler of Castile, also became king of Leon through marriage. Aragon and Barcelona were also united through marriage in 1164. The French Count Henry of Burgundy married the granddaughter of Ferdinand of Castile and Leon and in 1097 received the country of Portugal as her dowry.

4 Alcazar in Segovia, built 11 th/12th ñ since 14th ñ
residence of Castile kings

6 Muslim rider in battle, fresco, ca. 1280

Henry's son, 5 Alfonso I, then established his independence from Castile and assumed the title of king in 1139.

Thus in the twelfth century there were four kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula: Navarre, Castile-Leon, Aragon, and Portugal.

5 Afonso I of Portugal "the Conqueror" takes Lisbon from the Moors in 1147,
steel engraving, 19th century


The Formation of Modern Spain and Portugal

In the course of the Reconquista, the Christian rulers recaptured all the Muslim territories on the Iberian Peninsula.


The Reconquista did not proceed without setbacks. The North African dynasties of the Almoravids and the Almohads, who ruled southern Spain from 1094 and 1147 respectively, were still able to win important victories over the Christian kings in the 12th century. There were isolated incidences of shifting coalitions among the Christians and Muslims, as illustrated by the example of El Cid.

Spanish 10 knightly orders—such as those of Calatrava, Alcantara, or Avis that kept alive the legacy of the Crusades—played an important role in the Reconquista.

10 Castle of knights of an order in Ponferrada, founded in 1178

The Portuguese kings meanwhile extended their territories along the Atlantic coasts. Lisbon, the future capital, was captured in 1147 and in 1250-51 the Algarve was conquered.

John I of Avis, crowned in 1385, conquered areas in North Africa in 1415.

He and his son, 13 Prince Henry the Navigator, who fitted out naval expeditions and founded a merchant navy college, initiated Portugal's ascendancy as a sea power.

In 1085 Alfonso VI of Castile had captured the former Visigoth capital of 7 Toledo, which then became the Castilian and Spanish capital until the court was moved in 1561 to Madrid.

12 John I of Avis established as Portuguese king in the
battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, book painting, 15th ñ

7 Toledo, the Roman bridge "Puente de Alcantara"
and the Alcazar in the background

13 Henry the Navigator, painting, detail, 15th ñ

Castile's expansion came to a temporary halt under 11 Ferdinand III after he conquered 8 Cordoba in 1236.

11 Ferdinand III "the Holy," book painting, 13th century

8 The Cathedral of Cordoba, built into the former Great Mosque known as the Mezquita in the 16th century

Only the Muslim kingdom of Granada in the extreme south of the peninsula remained.

Concurrently, Aragon was building up its power in the Mediterranean. In 1235 King James I captured the Balearic Islands and in 1238 the port of Valencia from the Moors (Spanish Muslims). His son Peter III occupied Sicily in 1282. Once it had brought Sardinia and Naples under its rule in 13265 and 1442, respectively, Aragon became a dominant power in the Mediterranean.

The 1469 marriage of 14 Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, jointly known as the "Catholic monarchs," set the stage for Spain's union and meant that both crowns went to the Habsburgs after Ferdinand's death in 1516.

The two rulers completed the Reconquista with the subjugation of Granada in 1492.

In Spain and Portugal, the persecution and eventual expulsion of the Muslims and Jews, as well as the so-called Moriscos (converted Moors), were carried out with the aid of the 9 Inquisition.

The kingdom of Navarre did not take part in the Reconquista. Several French royal families had succeeded each other since the 13th century. In 1572, Navarre fell to Henry of Bourbon, who also became king of France as Henry IV in 1589, combining both crowns. Ferdinand II of Aragon had already seized major parts of southern Navarre in 1512.

4 Ferdinand II and Isabella I

9 Inquisition court under the chairmanship
of Dominican friars, painting,
end of 15th century


Statue of El Cid in Balboa Park

El Cid

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid (from the Arabic alsid, "Lord"), fought as army commander for both the Christian and Muslim rulers in the Reconquista.

He eventually captured the city of Valencia, which he defended against the Muslims until his death in 1099.

El Cid thus came to embody the ideal of chivalry.

see also text

"The Lay of the Cid"





Castilian military leader
Spanish El Cid, also called El Campeador (“the Champion”), byname of Rodrigo, or Ruy, Díaz de Vivar

born c. 1043, Vivar, near Burgos, Castile [Spain]
died July 10, 1099, Valencia

Castilian military leader and national hero. His popular name, El Cid (from Spanish Arabic al-sīd, “lord”), dates from his lifetime.

Early life
Rodrigo Díaz’s father, Diego Laínez, was a member of the minor nobility (infanzones) of Castile. But the Cid’s social background was less unprivileged than later popular tradition liked to suppose, for he was directly connected on his mother’s side to the great landed aristocracy, and he was brought up at the court of Ferdinand I in the household of that king’s eldest son, the future Sancho II of Castile. When Sancho succeeded to the Castilian throne (1065), he nominated the 22-year-old Cid as his standard-bearer (armiger regis), or commander of the royal troops. This early promotion to important office suggests that the young Cid had already won a reputation for military prowess. In 1067 he accompanied Sancho on a campaign against the important Moorish kingdom of Zaragoza (Saragossa) and played a leading role in the negotiations that made its king, al-Muqtadir, a tributary of the Castilian crown.

Ferdinand I, on his death, had partitioned his kingdoms among his various children, leaving Leon to his second son, Alfonso VI. Sancho began (1067) to make war on the latter with the aim of annexing Leon. Later legend was to make the Cid a reluctant supporter of Sancho’s aggression, but it is unlikely the real Cid had any such scruples. He played a prominent part in Sancho’s successful campaigns against Alfonso and so found himself in an awkward situation in 1072, when the childless Sancho was killed while besieging Zamora, leaving the dethroned Alfonso as his only possible heir. The new king appears to have done his best to win the allegiance of Sancho’s most powerful supporter. Though the Cid now lost his post as armiger regis to a great magnate, Count García Ordóñez (whose bitter enemy he became), and his former influence at court naturally declined, he was allowed to remain there; and, in July 1074, probably at Alfonso’s instigation, he married the king’s niece Jimena, daughter of the count of Oviedo. He thus became allied by marriage to the ancient royal dynasty of Leon. Very little is known about Jimena. The couple had one son and two daughters. The son, Diego Rodríguez, was killed in battle against the Muslim Almoravid invaders from North Africa, at Consuegra (1097).

The Cid’s position at court was, despite his marriage, precarious. He seems to have been thought of as the natural leader of those Castilians who were unreconciled to being ruled by a king of Leon. He certainly resented the influence exercised by the great landed nobles over Alfonso VI. Though his heroic biographers would later present the Cid as the blameless victim of unscrupulous noble enemies and of Alfonso’s willingness to listen to unfounded slanders, it seems likely that the Cid’s penchant for publicly humiliating powerful men may have largely contributed to his downfall. Though he was later to show himself astute and calculating as both a soldier and a politician, his conduct vis-à-vis the court suggests that resentment at his loss of influence as a result of Sancho’s death may temporarily have undermined his capacity for self-control. In 1079, while on a mission to the Moorish king of Sevilla (Seville), he became embroiled with García Ordóñez, who was aiding the king of Granada in an invasion of the kingdom of Sevilla. The Cid defeated the markedly superior Granadine army at Cabra, near Sevilla, capturing García Ordóñez. This victory prepared the way for his downfall; and when, in 1081, he led an unauthorized military raid into the Moorish kingdom of Toledo, which was under Alfonso’s protection, the king exiled the Cid from his kingdoms. Several subsequent attempts at reconciliation produced no lasting results, and after 1081 the Cid never again was able to live for long in Alfonso VI’s dominions.

Service to the Muslims
The Cid in exile offered his services to the Muslim dynasty that ruled Zaragoza and with which he had first made contact in 1065. The king of Zaragoza, in northeastern Spain, al-Muʿtamin, welcomed the chance of having his vulnerable kingdom defended by so prestigious a Christian warrior. The Cid now loyally served al-Muʿtamin and his successor, al-Mustaʿīn II, for nearly a decade. As a result of his experience he gained that understanding of the complexities of Hispano-Arabic politics and of Islamic law and custom that would later help him to conquer and hold Valencia. Meanwhile, he steadily added to his reputation as a general who had never been defeated in battle. In 1082, on behalf of al-Muʿtamin, he inflicted a decisive defeat on the Moorish king of Lérida and the latter’s Christian allies, among them the count of Barcelona. In 1084 he defeated a large Christian army under King Sancho Ramírez of Aragon. He was richly rewarded for these victories by his grateful Muslim masters.

In 1086 there began the great Almoravid invasion of Spain from North Africa. Alfonso VI, crushingly defeated by the invaders at Sagrajas (October 23, 1086), suppressed his antagonism to the Cid and recalled from exile the Christians’ best general. The Cid’s presence at Alfonso’s court in July 1087 is documented. But shortly afterward, he was back in Zaragoza, and he was not a participant in the subsequent desperate battles against the Almoravids in the strategic regions where their attacks threatened the whole existence of Christian Spain. The Cid, for his part, now embarked on the lengthy and immensely complicated political maneuvering that was aimed at making him master of the rich Moorish kingdom of Valencia.

Conquest of Valencia
The Cid’s first step was to eliminate the influence of the counts of Barcelona in that area. This was done when Berenguer Ramón II was humiliatingly defeated at Tébar, near Teruel (May 1090). During the next years the Cid gradually tightened his control over Valencia and its ruler, al-Qādir, now his tributary. His moment of destiny came in October 1092 when the qāḍī (chief magistrate), Ibn Jaḥḥāf, with Almoravid political support rebelled and killed al-Qādir. The Cid responded by closely besieging the rebel city. The siege lasted for many months; an Almoravid attempt to break it failed miserably (December 1093). In May 1094 Ibn Jaḥḥāf at last surrendered, and the Cid finally entered Valencia as its conqueror. To facilitate his takeover he characteristically first made a pact with Ibn Jaḥḥāf that led the latter to believe that his acts of rebellion and regicide were forgiven; but when the pact had served its purpose, the Cid arrested the former qāḍī and ordered him to be burnt alive. The Cid now ruled Valencia directly, himself acting as chief magistrate of the Muslims as well as the Christians. Nominally he held Valencia for Alfonso VI, but in fact he was its independent ruler in all but name. The city’s chief mosque was Christianized in 1096; a French bishop, Jerome, was appointed to the new see; and there was a considerable influx of Christian colonists. The Cid’s princely status was emphasized when his daughter Cristina married a prince of Aragon, Ramiro, lord of Monzón, and his other daughter, María, married Ramón Berenguer III, count of Barcelona. The Cid continued to rule Valencia until his death in 1099.

The great enterprise to which the Cid had devoted so much of his energies was to prove totally ephemeral. Soon after his death Valencia was besieged by the Almoravids, and Alfonso VI had to intervene in person to save it. But the king rightly judged the place indefensible unless he diverted there permanently large numbers of troops urgently needed to defend the Christian heartlands against the invaders. He evacuated the city and then ordered it to be burned. On May 5, 1102, the Almoravids occupied Valencia, which was to remain in Muslim hands until 1238. The Cid’s body was taken to Castile and reburied in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos, where it became the centre of a lively tomb cult.

The Cid’s biography presents special problems for the historian because he was speedily elevated to the status of national hero of Castile, and a complex heroic biography of him, in which legend played a dominant role, came into existence; the legend was magnified by the influence of the 12th-century epic poem of Castile, El cantar de mío Cid (“The Song of the Cid”) and later by Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Le Cid, first performed in 1637. For authentic information historians have to rely mainly on a few contemporary documents, on the Historia Roderici (a reliable, private 12th-century Latin chronicle of the Cid’s life), and on a detailed eyewitness account of his conquest of Valencia by the Arab historian Ibn ʿAlqāmah.

Sir Peter Edward Russell

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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