Hijo de Algo

Those words literally mean “Son of Something”, although the Algo actually refers to “Someone”. In Portuguese, this expression to represent a nobler rank has been contracted to one word: Fidalgo. To the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for eight hundred years, from 710 until the year Columbus sailed from Palos, that “Someone” would be the father. The mother was not considered to provide a major contribution to the offspring. She was in fact considered to be a receptacle of semen.

You may wish to save your reading for a better opportunity, were you just about to have lunch. Because I will return to this topic in a moment.

This post focuses squarely on history, historical fiction, and writing. For two reasons: first, I find The India Road moving up the Amazon list, with today’s ranking on the UK site at around 80,000 (not breathtaking, but the direction is good). In the US it has also moved up, and I am rather curious about why this is happening now. Second, it’s August, and although I have a substantial list of stuff to do, this is also a month when I can indulge some of my other interests. WordPress provides data on blog views, and the monthly views of this particular one have doubled over its period of existence, to around 180 per month.

Monthly views of The India Road blog

For a blog that doesn’t grind a particular axe, promote sectarian hatred, and only mentions synonyms of the word penis once in a while, that’s not too bad. And just maybe some of the Amazon sales are referred through here. I have no idea, but if you have bought the book and read it, I really would like your opinion on whether it is a guaranteed cure for insomnia.

In parallel, the sales of the Portuguese edition have apparently been pretty good since its release in February, and the sister site gets a good number of hits. Getting hits was also a fairly normal occurrence for those “semen receptacles” who gave birth to the children of the Moorish caliphs who ruled the peninsula, in ever-shrinking segments, until the fall of Granada in 1492. Of course domestic violence is by no means an Islamic exclusive, but it does seem to be a religious prerogative, with Sura 4(34) of the Koran explicitly allowing wives to be beaten in case of disobedience. However, divorce is also a right of women in Islam, and one which the Catholic church has long opposed in Christian marriages.

Because the woman was seen to have a “depository” role in the production of offspring, the origin of the mother was considered irrelevant. This was certainly never the case in western nobility, leading to arranged marriages, and often to dangerous blood relationships. King Manuel I (The Fortunate), who succeeded the Perfect Prince (John II of Portugal) in 1495, was both his cousin and brother-in-law.

One of the consequences of the Islamic view on the relative importance of progenitors was that the Caliphs and other Moorish nobility could indulge their passion for young ladies from northern Europe. Blonde blue-eyed beauties were bought as slaves, traded from as far away as Iceland, and duly gave birth to children who became rulers themselves. The fact that their mothers were Christian slaves was immaterial. Only the father mattered. This interest of Arab men in American, English, and Scandinavian women continues today, and in good measure the rationale is no different. During the times of the Caliphate, the preference was for these northern ladies to be completely “smoothed”, or shaved of body hair. They were of course confined to the harem just like the Moorish wives.

The harem was attended by eunuchs, often drawn from Christians captured in military operations. Eunuchs administered severe corporal punishment to the sex slaves in the harem, no doubt with a degree of sadism, since those very women were in their eyes responsible for their emasculation. The “preparation” of the eunuch was a rather specialized procedure, one at which Jewish doctors excelled. In a full castration the penis was placed on a board and chopped off, and the scrotal sacs slit for the removal of the testicles. Sometimes the smaller of the prairie oysters would evade capture by fleeing into the abdomen, which allowed the eunuch to become aroused and even ejaculate.

The eunuch was either castrated prior to puberty, in which case he developed many of the female secondary sexual characteristics, or later on in life, according to circumstance. Either way, he performed a variety of functions, including oral sex on both men and women. In the case of the women, stringent rules applied. If a virgin was caught performing unnatural acts she was lashed and banished for one year. If the offender was no longer a virgin, the punishment was draconian: one hundred lashes followed by lapidation. This applied also to sexual acts between women, the same punishment as for adultery. There is no mention of an equivalent sanction for male homosexual cavorts, which were rather common at the time. 

The caliphate, which centered on Cordoba, Seville, and Granada, was really a succession of dynasties of various flavors. The rich pickings of Iberia distracted the Arab ruling classes, and certain sins, particularly those related to the consumption of wine, were frequently ignored. The land was plentiful, and the Moors brought with them technology for irrigation, knowledge of astronomy, and a variety of cultural and artistic contributions. The Arab currency from Cordoba was so strong that it circulated in the northern Christian parts of Castille. With wealth and opulence comes decadence and the loss of military edge. The initial conquest of Iberia was carried out by forty thousand Moors, a remarkable feat considering the local population was four million. Despite outnumbering their invaders one hundred to one, the Hispano-Romans and Goths offered little resistance.   When things went pear-shaped, help was summoned from across the Straits. Unfortunately, all too often the helpers decided to stay on – a recurring accident of history, such as occurred with Wellington in Portugal during the Napoleonic wars.

A good amount of the Moorish tales in this post come from a book by Galán, entitled Califas, Guerreros, Esclavas y Eunucos. To my knowledge this title is available only in Spanish, and not so easy to find unless you already know the name. I very rarely recommend books when I write these posts, except of course The India Road, but Galán tries to educate the reader in a relaxed way,  and largely succeeds. He does go off on various tangents about the architecture, cooking, and other aspects of Moorish culture which cut the flow of the book, but if you look at his picture, he does look most credibly Castillian.

On the subject of eunuchs, he recalls the old technique of inserting a small lead pipe to keep the urethra open while the excision wound heals. A good deal of corroboration on this can be found on the internet. Unfortunately a search for eunuchs, harems and the like on the web brings up mainly obscene sites and escort agencies. I am amazed at the profile this kind of material achieves on the net, the freshman courses of Google University.

My favorite story from the Califas book is that of Abd Al Rahman III, who reigned around 930 AD. I’ll leave you to pop into Universidad de la Wikipedia to find the precise dates. Undoubtedly a most violent man, he reigned for exactly 50 years, 7 months, and 3 days. In his personal notes, examined after his death, he had written the following:

“I have only had fourteen happy days in my life, and those were non-contiguous.”

And you thought it was tough being a eunuch!


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