Today we have a guest post from Simon Barton, author of Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia. This post originally appeared on the blog of the Exeter Centre for Medieval Studies.
Every year, on the Sunday before 5 October, the feast day of St Froilán, the inhabitants of the Spanish city of León celebrate a popular festival known as Las Cantaderas. The fiesta, which has been in existence for almost 500 years, commemorates the decision supposedly taken in the late eighth century by the Christian kings of Asturias to deliver one hundred maidens to the emir of al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia) in annual payment of tribute. Tradition records that this obligation was later removed by King Ramiro I (842–50), who, with the miraculous assistance of St James, defeated a vast Muslim army at Clavijo in the Rioja in 844.
During the course of the Leonese festivities, a group of young women dressed in medieval costume is instructed to dance by a figure known as the sotadera, who is to lead them southwards to join the emir’s harem. However, the sotadera takes the group on an alternative route as far as the cathedral, where further dancing takes place, Mass is held, and offerings are made to the Virgin to give thanks for the safe delivery of the women.
The legend of the tribute of the hundred maidens has gripped the imagination of Spaniards for the best part of 900 years and inspired an extraordinary outpouring of artistic creativity, including works of history, poetry, drama, painting and even a zarzuela (the Spanish opera form). The legend also lay at the heart of one of the most effective forgeries to have been carried out anywhere in the medieval Latin West: the solemn promise of an annual offering to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela (the ‘Voto de Santiago’).