I warned you early on. Caution is needed when exploring the legacy of James the Great. From the bunk where I am perched* it is the stuff of national epic. And when it comes to epics, the roar of the anthem can drown the melody of truth.
This is particularly true in our current line of thinking. We have given attention to accounts of the journey of James to Hispānia (Spain) while alive (see here) and while dead (see here). But there is another piece of his legacy to consider: his reputation as the "great knight of the russet cross."
This phrase is not mine, of course, but springs from the mouth of Cervantes' beloved character, Don Quixote. The original knight-errant explains the importance of Saint James to his sidekick Sancho Panza (and to the world at the startup of the 17th century). Quixote's description goes like this:
God gave James the Great "to Spain as her patron saint and protector, especially in those hard struggles the Spaniards had with the Moors; and therefore they invoke and call upon him as their defender in all their battles; and in these he has been many a time seen beating down, trampling under foot, destroying and slaughtering the Hagarene** squadrons in the sight of all; of which fact I could give thee many examples recorded in truthful Spanish histories."***
That James could be considered a warrior is not a stretch. Didn't Jesus once label him a "thunderboy" (Mk 3:17)? And yet the notion that a representative of the Prince of Peace is out there trampling, destroying, slaughtering and wreaking all sorts of mayhem seems awkward. Or maybe it's just my understanding of Christianity.
For context one must recall that Hispānia was overrun by the Moors (or the "Mauretanians" from North Africa) in the early 8th century AD. This was viewed as a disaster by the Christian community. They longed to push out these Islamic elites (and mind you, the latter were the keepers of high culture in a time when Christian kings were still sleeping in barns with their cows!).
So, two words to learn. The first is reconquista.
This word is used to describe the Iberian "urge to purge" the infidel from the land. As an idea and a process, it wasn't quick or easy or pretty. It took a long time to accomplish (700 years--if at all--by some counts), and, in retrospect, was motivated by a recipe that included some pretty poisonous ingredients.**** Let's just leave it at that for now.
The second word to know is matamoros.
This word is usually used in combination with the name Santiago, like this: Santiago Matamoros. Santiago, of course, is a variation of Saint Iago = San Diego = Saint James (Surprise! Did you know that the city of San Diego is named after James?). And as for Matamoros: I'm told it means quite literally, "Moor-slayer." Wow. "Saint James the Moor-slayer."
From my bunk I look out the window at the green hills of Galicia. It seems like such a long time since I dropped out of the Pyrénées mountains onto Spain's central plateau. What a land of contrasts! It was in this cereal-brown corner of Spain that Santiago Matamoros miraculously appeared and earned his nickname.
The place was a tiny village remembered as Clavijo. The time was the mid-9th century (exact dates are hard to obtain). The Christian forces of Ramiro I of Asturias had gathered for battle against the Moorish foe (in case, you're interested, the casus belli was the Moor's demand for a tribute of 100 virgins!). Ramiro's army was outnumbered, demoralized in their reconquista efforts, and had already been dealt a day of disastrous fighting. But in a dream that night, Saint James came to the king and gave him a plan and a promise. The following day, in the heat of the battle, Santiago Matamoros suddenly appeared in full armor and charged forward on a white stallion. He moved well for being more than 800 years old. When the Moors saw his trampling, destroying, slaughtering and wreaking all sorts of mayhem they promptly surrendered.*****
Naturally, historians discount the whole thing is a myth. No contemporary records of the battle appear on either side. In fact, the first known mention of the Clavijo conflict and the Christians' miraculous deliverance does not come until hundreds of year later in the 13th century. To make matters worse, the mention appears in a spurious context that suggests a little hanky-panky was going on between the church and the government.
Nevertheless, the historic battle cry that was first raised at Clavijo may still be heard to this day. It evokes the name of the Apostle: "Santiago! Cierra España!" or "Saint James! Close in, Spain!"
*In an albergue located in the village of O Pedrouzo (Spain), 19 kilometers above Santiago de Compostela.
**"Hagarene" is an old way of describing the descendants of Hagar, i.e., Ishmaelites or Arabs.
***Find the context for this quote by looking at a digital publication of Don Quixote (part 2, chapter 58) using the link here.
****Nationalism, militancy, colonialism, fundamentalism, and other notions are at the core of the Reconquista. The movement culminated with a series of edicts at the arrival of the 16th century. These included the expulsion of Jews and the forced conversion of Muslims on the peninsula.
*****Details regarding this controversial battle may be found in many places. Among them is John A. Crow's Spain: The Root and the Flower: An Interpretation of Spain and the Spanish People (1985 : 84).