Today is the official publication date in the US for my first novel The Devils of Cardona, and it’s a date that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. The novel comes out of my earlier history of the expulsion of the Moriscos Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and its premise was partly inspired by a vicious outbreak of violence that took place between 1585-1588 in the Crown of Aragon, in the señorio (demesne) of Ribagorza in the Aragonese Pyrenees.
The violence began as the result of perennial tensions between ‘Old Christian’ shepherds or montañeses and Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism) who cultivated the estates of the count of Ribagoza. Every summer – as is still the case throughout the Pyrenees today – shepherds took their animals up into the high pasturelands, and then brought them back down for the winter.
This annual transhumance often caused the kind of problems you might expect, as shepherds led their animals through cultivated lands and sometimes damaged crops. On occasion there were fights, quarrels and occasional murders. In Ribagoza however, the fact that most of the montañeses were ‘Old Christians’ who hated the Moriscos meant that these tensions soon acquired a religious dimension.
Moriscos in Aragon were often resented by the Old Christian population, partly because they were believed to be collectively engaging in crypto-Islamic worship – a view shared by the Inquisition and the Spanish Crown – and partly because they were regarded as privileged vassals of their Christian lords, who supposedly protected them from the Inquisition in order to exploit them more effectively.
In 1585 an Old Christian shepherd was murdered by Moriscos in the village of Codo. This incident ignited an eruption of violence that spread across Ribagorza and beyond, as the shepherds transformed themselves in a ravaging bandit army that massacred entire Morisco villages and threatened to ignite an ethnic civil war-cum-crusade across Aragon.
The montañeses were led by an enigmatic and mysterious character called Lupercio Latrás, whose motives have never been made clear, and this is where the plot thickens, because the señorio of Ribagorza was also the subject of a jurisdictional dispute between the Crown of Castile and the count of Ribagorza. Some historians believe that Latrás may have been acting as an agent of the Crown, and deliberately inflaming violence in order to destabilise Ribagorza – the better to take it over. Then there was the fact that relations between Castile and Aragon were already tense, and would ultimately oblige Philip II to invade Aragon during the alteraciones of 1593
The truth has never been revealed and probably never will be, and from a fictional point of view, that’s what makes it interesting. My novel wasn’t intended to fill in the historical gaps, and it is only very loosely based on this particular episode. It also references other characters from the Morisco tragedy. I named my main character Mendoza as a tribute to the Mendoza family, some of whose members were far more tolerant of the Moriscos than many of their countrymen, and whose proposals might have resulted in a different outcome to the brutal expulsion of 1609-14.
Cardona is a town in Catalonia, not Aragon, and has nothing to do with Ribagorza. The character of the Countess of Cardona is a tribute to the Duchess of Cardona, who wrote a moving and impassioned humane appeal to Philip III in 1610 to protest the expulsion of Moriscos from her estates.
Those were some of the building blocks that I used for The Devils of Cardona. It’s a novel about religion, greed, and politics, which uses the past as a basis for reflection about our present predicament. When I first started writing it more than two years ago I wasn’t sure if i would even finish it, let alone whether it would be published. Today it officially enters the world. To those who are interested, I’ve done an interview for the Signature e-zine about writing fiction and non-fiction and other matters:
Matthew Carr’s debut novel, the 16th century comes bounding back to life in a thrilling tale that centers on a string of mysterious murders in a small Spanish town. Investigator Bernardo de Mendoza is sent by the King to smoke out the killer, only to realize he’s surrounded by a hostile community of Moriscos, Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism and now bitterly living under the watchful eye of Spanish inquisitors.
The Devils of Cardona dances wonderfully on nails of suspense, and is richly informed by the research of Carr, a journalist and historian, whose 2009 book Blood and Faith uncovers the real-life expulsion of Muslims from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. For Signature, Carr discusses his writing and reading habits, the necessities of patience in writing (“because producing good writing is sometimes nothing more than a struggle against one’s own stupidity and inadequacy”), and he channels his favorite English teacher in offering some sound writing advice: “the only way to write [is] to abandon oneself to it completely.”
You can read the rest of the interview here: