Monday, 12 October 2015

Juan Relinque, hero of the hazas.

Juan Relinque's protest, acted out in music and song during Carnival.
This weekend, Vejer will celebrate one of its heroes. Juan Relinque was a fifteenth-century campaigner who took on the wealthy Dukes of Medina Sidonia, and despite suffering insult and imprisonment, secured the ancient right of the people to the lands which had been allocated for public use after the Reconquista. The following is an edited extract from my book, 'Vejer de la Frontera: A History', first published in 2011.

Calle Juan Relinque was named after the town's hero
The story begins after Vejer was liberated from Islamic rule in 1264. King Sancho IV granted land to the incoming Christian population in order to help them survive in their new home. In 1307, King Fernando IV granted jurisdiction over Vejer to Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán, the first Duke of Medina Sidonia, on condition that the law regarding the hazas was respected. This condition was initially respected. However, as time went by, the nobility began to abuse their privileges. Although agriculture was the main source of income in the 15th century, much of the land granted by the Crown to the people of Vejer for pasturage had been appropriated by the Dukes for the cultivation of wheat. Much of the profit from local fisheries also went to the ducal house.

Juan Alonzo, Duke of Medina Sidonia
  As the 16th century advanced, Vejer's economy came under increasing pressure, until in 1535, the situation became unbearable. The people of had repeatedly requested the return of the rights originally granted them by the Crown, but their demands were ignored.  Meanwhile, Juan Alonzo, the current Duke of Medina Sidonia was busy enclosing public land for his own private use, imposing levies on agricultural production and monopolizing public utilities such as ovens and mills. Worst of all was the limiting of public access to farmland which had been enjoyed as communal ground since the repopulation of Vejer – the Hazas de Suerte.
  Matters came to a head when a tax on wine was announced. Juan Relinque was a talented individual who owned property, including a vineyard, on the outskirts of town. It is possible that he had some legal training, though 16th century Spain was  one of the most litigious societies in history. Illiterate peasants and even slaves went to court and did not only sue each other, but also took on their lords. Relinque was clearly well-advised on the law of the land, but there is no clear evidence of the source of his information.
 Relinque quickly realized that the Duke was not recognizing the rights the people were entitled to according to the royal charter by which the Dukes of Medina Sidonia administered the town. He officially expressed his rejection of the new demand, but the estate dismissed his document. Supported by a number of fellow citizens, Relinque took his complaint to the Royal Chancery at Granada, requesting protection for his plea against the Duke.
  A royal decree was issued, instructing the seigniorial authorities to respect his right of appeal. In December, Relinque presented his first demand, denouncing the Duke for the tax on wine, and challenging sales taxes on other goods, such as linen, on the grounds that since the Repopulation, Vejer had been entitled to the privilege of free trade. The citizens of Vejer argued that having paid the statutory ten percent to the estate, they were not liable for further charges, and claimed that Relinque had been unjustly dealt with by the authorities.   The Duke, apparently prevented by arrogance from seeing the writing on the wall, continued to maintain that the estate was his, and he would do what he wanted with it.
  Nevertheless, support for Relinque and his followers continued to grow, and the Duke appealed to Granada for the right to punish the rebels. On Corpus Christi day, 1536, the town crier announced on behalf of the estate that communal lands were to be sold to pay estate expenses. Relinque and some of his supporters, meeting on the Plaza de España, confronted the estate office, causing ‘scandal and commotion’. Relinque and his people were removed to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and imprisoned there. 
  In November of the same year, the Duke’s Procurator requested that the prisoners should remain under lock and key. However, Relinque was permitted to leave jail in order to plead his case, and far from being intimidated, as the Duke presumably intended, took up the cause with renewed enthusiasm. In May 1537, a royal decree recognized six separate abuses which had been carried out by the Duke. 
  Not yet satisfied, Relinque continued to press his case, despite an attack of cold feet on the part of some of his supporters, and obtained permission to proceed with a demand for fiscal equality, on the understanding that his case would be prosecuted for the general good, and not for the benefit of any individual.
During this period, several attempts were made to intimidate Relinque and his followers. Faced with the unaccustomed expenses that Relinque's demands inevitably involved, some powerful families in the town found themselves out of pocket, and attempted to resist the changes. The authorities, however, were prepared to make no exceptions, and ordered them to pay. Finally, the Mayor, Tebedeo Velázquez, and several other wealthy citizens, surprised Relinque as he was walking through the churchyard, and threatened him. Relinque replied coolly that he merely sought justice, and Velázquez retreated to his house in a fury.

Juan Relinque's story is told on this ceramic plaque over the Arco de la Segur.
  During the next four years, Relinque and his supporters pressed for comprehensive reforms and a definitive shift in the balance of power. Their strength was the legality of their claims. Although in 1307, Fernando IV had given the administration of Vejer, with its castle and fortifications, and its existing and future population, to Alfonso Pérez de Gúzman, this did not imply that Gúzmán had proprietorial and seigniorial rights over the town. As part of the agreement, Gúzmán had been bound to observe existing property rights and privileges.        In 1539, Relinque presented the courts with a demand for full restitution of all rights.  expressed in fifteen different points. The Duke responded with bluster, repeating his assertion of ownership, and showing complete ignorance of the law. Evidence of Fernando’s decree was produced, and the Duke’s arguments were dismissed. Years later, he was still muttering about ‘time immemorial’ and ‘ancient laws and customs.’
  The Duke’s party, aware that the point was lost, attempted to stop the process by an agreement with the people of Vejer, and collected some signatures in their support. In 1542, the people of Vejer went back to court to challenge the agreement, which, as Relinque pointed out, was divisive. The court agreed that no agreement could cancel out the rights of the citizens of Vejer, but the issue rumbled on until 1565, when Relinque's interpretation of the law was finally ratified. 
The Tourist Office has devised a walking route devoted to the Hazas de Suerte.
  By this time, both Duke Juan Alonzo and Relinque himself had died. In 1566, the judges of the King’s court issued a condemnation of the ducal house of Medina Sidonia, and ratified all fifteen points of Relinque’s plea of 1536. Although the Dukes dragged their feet when it came to putting the decrees into effect, making further rulings necessary in 1569, and even as late as 1627, the point was won.
  The Dukes of Medina Sidonia were not financially ruined by the new arrangements and continued to be the richest family in Spain, with significant influence on the monarch and his government. Alfonso’s grandson, Alonzo, commanded the Spanish Armada in 1588, and was disgraced when it failed; his subsequent withdrawal from public life had a negative effect on trade in the area.  
Alonzo was disgraced after the defeat of the Spanish Armada

  Juan Relinque García died in 1554. He comes down to us as a Robin Hood of his time, one who used the law to defend his people’s rights against a grasping aristocracy. Little is known about him, but what we do know suggests a man of conscience and a firm will. Although he seems not to have had children of his own, in 1541, he adopted a foundling child, a girl whom he named after his wife, Leonor. The girl is not mentioned in his will, suggesting that she died young.
   Juan Relinque was clearly a man of parts, a skilled and intelligent interpreter of the law, and an obstinate defender of justice. He was also a man of religion, whose final wish was that he should be buried in the parish church of El Divino Salvador. His bequests were small, but included a few vines, some land, an ass and eight doves. His legacy, the freedom and prosperity of the people of Vejer, is incalculable.

  The Hazas are allocated via a sorteo (lottery), which takes place on December 22nd every four years. The next one will take place next year, in 2016. The sorteo might have disappeared when the Church and nobility lost their privileges in 1835. Administration of local lands fell to the local authority, and might have produced a handsome income. However, the Mayor, José de Luna, recognised that the sorteo was an ancient tradition and part of the town's patrimony, and insisted that the sorteo should be retained as the most equitable way of allocating the Hazas among Vejer's citizens.
The sorteo of 1988, Antonio Morillo presiding.
  Nowadays, Vejer possesses 232 hazas, distributed between thirteen areas, amounting in total to 3,489.80 hectares. These are administered by the Hazas Committee, which consists of 17 councillors and 17 representatives of Vejer society, presided over by the Mayor. The current administration is seeking recognition of the sorteo as an example of the Intangible Heritage of Mankind. Tour group 'Las Marimantas' run a walking tour of Vejer which includes the story of the Hazas de Suerte.

The link below shows one of Vejer's Carnival groups' representing the story of the Hazas in song:

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Names of Spain

Manólo 'El señorito' (the lordling) wears his nickname with pride at the recent Dia Internacionál del Lomo en Manteca in Vejer. The festival celebrates the annual pig-killing and the creation of manteca, a speciality made of flavoured pork lard.

 Most people know about the Spanish system of nicknames in which first names are shortened, combined or adapted, so that Juan Pedro becomes ‘Juanpe’, Francisco is ‘Paco’ and José is ‘Pepe’, among a multitude of others. Nachos, Quiques, Chanos and Chemas abound throughout Spain and these shortened forms are recognised everywhere, but there’s another system of nicknames, local and personal, which you only understand when you know the people and live in the place.

Conil: on the extreme right, Juan Muñoz Leal 'Perragorda', literally 'fat bitch'.

   An early reader of this blog pointed out, quite correctly, that nicknames have existed and continue to exist in all human societies, and without wanting to write an essay on social anthropology, I should explain that I'm talking here about a phenomenon which ethnologists describe as a 'nickname system'. In other words, the use of nicknames has a distinct social function and follows certain rules, which have evolved over time. Nickname systems are typical of the kind of traditional society which has now almost died out in most of Western Europe, and it's interesting to find evidence that some of these customs persist in our part of Spain.

  One of the things which intrigued me when I lived in a Cornish seaside town was the rich fund of nicknames the local people used for their friends and family, which almost amounted to a parallel naming system. It’s often been argued that these local nicknames are given when many people share the same name. Naming traditions were often very conservative, with sons named after their fathers and daughters after their mothers, and so within a few generations, a new method of distinguishing different individuals was required. Nicknames were therefore used to differentiate different famiies with the same surname, so for example, if you belonged to one branch of the Stephens family, you were a ‘Cush’, if to another, you were a ‘Blue’.

 María, 'La Gavanilla' buys coal from Diego, the 'Carbonero', while María 'La Cara' passes by.

  This explanation is very appealing and undoubtedly explains in part the widespread use of nicknames which, as I soon discovered, is a feature of all societies, and not limited to Cornwall, or even to Europe. However, as nicknames are also used in communities where a wide range of surnames exists, it’s clear that they are also related to an older naming tradition than the one we use now. 
One of Juan 'Camacha's' remarkable photographs of 
Conil fishermen.

  Writing in 1892, John Hobson Matthews declared that ‘They (nicknames) are a relic of a primitive state of society, and flourish only where primitive ideas still prevail’, and though his dismissal of nicknames as ‘primitive’ is inaccurate, he is probably right to say that the roots of the custom lie deep in the past. 

   Just as in other countries, nobody in Spain chose to have an official family name or names. The necessity to find one was imposed by law at the end of the 16th century, when the population was growing fast and the Council of Trent judged it necessary to register every individual.

  Faced with this requirement, the Spanish people drew on a number of traditions to equip themselves with a legal identity. Many people had previously used the patronymic system, adding an ‘ez’ to their father’s name and writing it after their own. This tradition, which dates back to the Visigoths, meant that Gonzalo, son of Alvaro, would be Gonzalo Alvarez, and that his son, named after the grandfather, would be Alvaro González. After the law changed, Alvaro would also have had to give the name González to his own children.

   Other traditions included naming people after physical characteristics, (Calvo - bald headed), place of origin (de Córdoba) or occupation (Herrera - blacksmith). All these surnames persist today, among many others, and some were clearly based on nicknames which had been awarded to an individual, only to be passed on to his children when surnames became compulsory. And as Spanish naming customs require that every child is baptised with first its father's and then its mother's surname, and religious custom involved adding at baptism the name of the parish patron saint, official names were often lengthy and cumbersome, as in the case of the painter Pablo Picasso, who was baptised Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. In cases like this. some kind of simplification is both desirable and inevitable.

  Nicknames arose from speech, not from legislators or bureaucrats, and so they form part of the oral tradition which is an essential part of every culture. Not surprisingly, once surnames became formalised, they lost their power to express close identity and personal knowledge, as well as their usefulness as a vehicle for wit and invention. In a culture which was already rich before writing and reading became universal pursuits, nicknames expressed both individuality and social cohesion. 

  I first became aware of the existence of local surnames in this part of the world when my friend Adrián, from nearby Conil, told me that his father, Sebastián Brenes, was known among his friends as ‘El Plancha’ (an iron, grill or metal plate). Intriguingly, the surname ‘Brenes’ is of Celtic origin, referring to a site where metal is worked. The British equivalent is ‘Baines’. Yes, Adrián confirmed, his grandfather had also been ‘El Plancha’. And while it’s a stretch to imagine a nickname enduring from as long ago as the Iron Age, the connection is intriguing.

Vejer: Antonia 'la Matea' Mateo

  I wanted to find out if local nicknames were as common here as they are in Cornwall, and I was lucky to find ‘Conil en la Memoria’, a collection of photographs taken in that town over the past 130 years. Early pictures revealed very little. Local nicknames are the speciality of the working classes, many of whom, in the early years of this century, still did not read or write. Only the wealthy could afford to have their photos taken, and the first images show well-dressed people, formally posed with both surnames, father’s and mother’s, respectfully attached. It isn’t until the nineteen sixties that a photographer called Juan ‘Capacha’ arrives on the scene to document the lives of working people.

 ‘Capacha’ doesn’t feature on any list of famous photographers, but he was clearly passionate about recording the day-to day life of Conil. For the first time, we see María, ‘la Cubana’, Ramón ‘Cacho’ Nuñez, the gardener, Juan ‘el Sillero’, Juan Alba, ‘el Chato’ and ‘el Guaqui’, the ice-cream maker. In a beautiful picture from the 1970s, Tomás Pareja ‘Boquerón’ and Antonia Caballero ‘La Matea' haul ropes during the Jábega fishing season.
'Boqueron' and 'La Matea', apparently an unusual example of a woman working in the fishing industry. As she's not really dressed for work, and 'Boqueron' is not working too hard either, the photo was probably posed.
Some of these nicknames simply describe occupations and are easy to understand. There’s no mystery about why Chana, who made churros, should be ‘la Churrera’, though why her husband, Sebastián, should be ‘el Chulo’ is less clear. The word means ‘cute’, or, nowadays, ‘cool’, though the noun form also means ‘pimp’. A ‘cacho’ is a little piece, and this is a common nickname in Spain, but ‘Guaqui' is not in the dictionary, unless it relates to the town of the same name in Bolivia, a distant, though not inconceivable possibility. Less exotically, it's probably a diminutive of the Christian name 'Joaquín'.

I half hoped that ‘La Matea' would mean ‘killer woman’, but it seems that this is a common nickname for women with the surname ‘Mateo’. ‘Chato’ means snub-nosed, or possibly short-sighted. In other words, a nickname can derive from almost anything that marks you out as an individual, for good or bad.

 After making these discoveries, I had no doubt that nicknames would be as prevalent in Vejer as in Conil, and so it proved to be. I quickly found the butcher Pepe ‘el Perlino’ (pearly) Tello, pictured at a social occasion, Alfonso ‘La Tila’ (‘lime blossom’, but possibly referring to a site in Vejer) Melero, still at school and Antonia ‘la Matea’ Mateo. There was Morillo ‘el Curricán’ (fishing line) Basallote, José 'el Burra' Domínguez, José el Mozo, (lad) Maria 'La Lobita' (presumably from nearby 'La Lopita', though 'loba' is also a slang term for a prostitute), the young footballer Manolito ‘el Mono’ (the monkey), Joselita 'el Penumbra' (the shadow)...'El Tumba' (the tomb). Interestingly, those who remembered María ‘la Gabanilla’ spelled her nickname in several different ways, a clear indication that these nicknames proceed from a spoken, rather than a written tradition.

Vejer 1973: Manólito 'El Mono' is on the bottom row, second from the right.
  The list could go on and on, and there is scope here for serious research. Some names are specific to one individual, but as John Hobson Matthews said, ‘some names cling to these families through generations’. The system of nicknames can involve the past history as well as the present situation of every individual. 

  Nickname systems have been described by ethnologists as a means of expressing relationships of power and trust; 'to place people but also to put them in their place'. Nicknames are rarely used by families or outsiders, and so provide a mechanism for establishing new social circles outside the family group. Where nicknames are predominantly used by men, the intention is usually to exert control through verbal aggression, and though in this area, they are generally used equally by both sexes, the existence of 'apodos' like 'perragorda' - fat bitch - suggests that not every nickname is awarded in a spirit of kindliness and social cohesion.

  It’s clear that the tradition of the local nickname plays an important part in marking different levels of intimacy in a community. A visitor may know your first name and even your surname, but only an insider knows your nickname. The tradition is under threat now, as universal literacy and movement of people from the pueblos to the cities undermines so many local customs, but with luck, the nickname tradition will survive for a long while yet.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

La Barca - Vejer's water world.

Nature is slowly taking over the old mill.
Some time last year, I saw this photo by my friend María Muñoz Melero of the old water mill at La Barca, and was fascinated by a relic of Vejer’s past which I had neither heard of nor seen. María remembers playing around the old mill with her sister in the 1970s, surrounded by all the beauties of nature. 

Before long, I made my way to La Barca, and found the mill
The La Barca well
, nestling amid weeds and branches, an evocative reminder of a past age. 
It was purely by accident that I also discovered the old well, a little way along the road towards Barbate. Though disused, it was obviously once a cause of pride as well as utility, and I can easily imagine the gossiping and courtship that must once have taken place as the water was drawn.

La Barca in the early twentieth century, as motor vehicles began
to replace river transport.
La Barca (Ferry) is now a rather quiet place, with a long-distance bus stop and a couple of restaurants, but until the early 20th century, it was a thriving river port, which had been in existence since before Roman times. At its height, it boasted a population of 700 and a church dedicated to St. Nicolas. When the river port closed in 1928, the church closed and the community shrank. 

The water mill and its cousin, the public well, are two examples of local water engineering which you don’t hear about at the tourist office, but they are important symbols of a time when natural resources were used to carry out agricultural processes, and piped water was unheard of in most of Andalucía.

El Poniente restaurant.

Here at the top of the hill, we’re used to the sight of Vejer’s windmills, now mostly restored and preserved as museum items or used as locations for restaurants. El Poniente and El Macinino are popular with residents and visitors alike. 

The mill seen from La Cuesta de la Barca.
We tend to associate water mills with the preserved examples in Santa Lucia, which have also been restored and can be visited via the footpath which is signposted at the top of the village. The mill on the river was only one of a number of mills which harnessed wind and water to ensure a measure of prosperity, first for their owners, the Dukes of Medina Sidonia, and subsequently for the  more middle-class owners who acquired them after the middle of the nineteenth century.

Water now barely flows through these graceful arches.
The production and grinding of wheat into flour were the main source of Vejer’s wealth in the nineteenth century and the mills were kept busy. The mill at La Barca is not very accessible, and its immediate surroundings are marshy and overgrown.  It is situated on the South bank of the river, and can be reached via a track which runs past the car repair workshop. It isn’t safe for young children, but adults might like to take a peek.
Large boats could still be seen at La Barca until about 1930
Though it may be difficult to imagine, looking at the overgrown and silted-up waterway, tons of goods were once transported via La Barca to the overseas port at Barbate. The port
A view of La Barca in the early 20th century,
with the river Barbate still clear
reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was administered by the Dukes of Medina Sidonia as a sorting depot for their imports and exports.

La Barca was a place of crucial importance to Vejer because it was the main source of fresh water, which was carried up the hill on the backs of mules, to be sold for drinking, and the public fountain appears to have been a place for gathering and recreation, as well as for hydration.

In 1904, Vejer became one of the first towns in Andalucía to acquire piped water, though this service was only available to the wealthy. The majority of the people had to continue bringing their water up the hill until 1949, when a public fountain was created on the Plaza de España. The well at La Barca soon became redundant, and fell into disuse, though piped water did not become universally available in Vejer until the 1970s.
'The public well of Our Lady of the Olive'

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

La Cobijada - a beautiful impostor.

La Cobijada - a beautiful impostor
 I was taking a walk in Vejer a little while ago when I met Eric and Barbara, a lovely couple from Canada. They told me how much they enjoyed this blog, and asked me why I hadn’t posted recently. 

When I began the blog, I intended to continue for just one year, covering the main social and cultural events in the town. These don’t change very much year on year, and so I decided that one year would be enough. However, thanks to Eric and Barbara, and several others who have missed the blog, I’ve decided to carry on for a while, and there is certainly plenty to write about. 

This time, I’d like to discuss the iconic figure of the Cobijada, Vejer’s covered lady. One of the town’s ceramic plaques describes her as ‘a glimpse of old al-Andalus’, and many observers have instinctively connected her flowing black costume with the burqa worn by some Moslem women. In fact, she is an impostor, with no real connections to Islamic Spain.

Covered women, 1926
The burqa, which came to our attention with the ascendency of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, has been worn by Afghani women for about 100 years, though the practice of veiling upper-class women dates back at least 4000 years in some parts of Arabia.  However, most women had to work in the fields, where a burqa would be an impediment, and to wear it was a sign of upper-class status, denoting a woman of importance. 

'Preparation for a wedding' Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928)
 Veiling women became important to Islam in the 11th century, but there is no evidence that the women of el-Andalus wore any garment resembling a burqa. Most of the images available to us now were created in the 19th century and express the prejudices of their time.

When I write about topics like this, I sometimes feel like a real party pooper, because there is no doubt that Vejer’s Moorish heritage has become an important part of the narrative the tourist industry has created around the town's history. As often happens, this tells us more about the present than the past. Since the nineteenth century, when the poet Lord Byron introduced the idea of Romantic orientalism to an admiring public, we westerners have been attracted to the idea of the Mysterious East, and this fascination culminated in the architecture of the Moorish Revival in the late nineteenth century.

It wasn’t always like that. After Vejer was reconquered in the thirteenth century, every effort was made to eradicate the remnants of the Islamic occupation in an early example of what we would now describe as 'ethnic cleansing'. Compared with the Roman occupation, and even the two thousand year old Tartessian culture, there are minimal physical remains of the Moslem era, and this clearly did not happen by accident. 

Dark and modest clothing was obligatory
for all Spanish women
After the area was reconquered in the mid thirteenth century, Moslems were expected to leave or convert. Most chose to leave, and it is calculated that by the 14th century, only 1% of the population was of Moslem origin. About 30% of the post-reconquista population left town when the area came under retaliatory attack from Moorish fighters between 1264 and 1300. For about half a century, Vejer was a military garrison, populated mainly by men, before the area was repopulated by families from northern Spain.

By the end of the Reconquista in 1492, hatred of Jews and Moslems had already descended into racist paranoia. ‘Conversos’, those who converted to Christianity, were mistrusted, and ‘limpieza de sangre’ (purity of blood) was enforced from 1449, prohibiting those of non-Christian heritage from taking public office. Commoners who could show descent from the Visigoths were raised to the nobility, and in the days before DNA testing, pedigrees were hastily assembled or invented to support claims of racial purity. ‘Purity of blood’ continued to be a criterion for entry into the Spanish armed forces until the nineteenth century.

A Spanish lady goes to Mass with her maid.

The emphasis on racial purity had enormous implications for women. Racism brought with it a terror of inter-racial sexuality, with its consequent ‘pollution’ of blood. Women were responsible for upholding the family honour, and their men were expected to control them. They were closely guarded and ‘modest’ clothing was regulated by law as in some Islamic states today. 

All this means that rather than a gradual evolution from Islamic to Christian culture, the breach was violent, sudden and comprehensive. By the sixteenth century, Spain was asserting itself as a bulwark of Catholicism. The Inquisition was set up to police religious correctness, and people would do anything within their means to refute claims that they had Moorish blood. Spain became defiantly and even belligerently Christian. Nobody was about to announce Islamic cultural affiliations by wandering around in a burqa. Not even in a quiet backwater like Vejer.
Christian nuns - The Sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen

So where do the Cobijada coverings originate, and why do they so closely resemble the burqa, chador or niqab worn today by some Moslem women? The answer lies in our shared religious heritage. Jewish women in ancient times were expected to cover their heads whenever they left their homes - according to the Law of Moses, a woman was regarded as immodest ‘If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man.’

This principle survived into the Christian and Islamic faiths which developed from Judaism, and was strongly stated by the Christian evangelist St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘For if the woman is not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.’ 

Covered woman, Tarifa, 19th century
The custom of women covering themselves, whose roots are probably cultural rather than ideological, was adopted by the emerging Islamic faith in the 7th century, though ironically, the Qur’an is less specific about this than the Bible, stating only that ‘they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.’

Right into the twentieth century, it was customary for women in all Christian countries to cover their heads and their hair. My mother was one of the rebel post-war generation who dared to go bare-headed in the street, though no woman of her generation would have gone hatless into a church.

This is why Christian nuns cover themselves with wimple and veil, many Moslem women wear the burqa or the niqab and Orthodox Jewish women dress modestly and cover their heads. ‘Modesty’ is also required of men, but it takes a different form. 

The coverings we now associate with the Cobijada became fashionable in Madrid in the eighteenth century and the fashion spread south to Andalucia. They soon became the customary outdoor wear of ordinary women, not just in Vejer but all along the coast from Tarifa to Cádiz. This style was also popular in other parts of Spain.

La Cobijada survived longer in Andalucía than in other parts of Spain because the area was very poor. Clothing was passed down from mother to daughter, patched, pressed and altered for each new generation.

Modern coverings lined with red satin.
The Cobijada coverings consist of two parts - the manto, a sleeveless cape which covers the upper body, and the saya, a long, pleated skirt, gathered at the waistband. The garments were made of gabardine, and like the burqa, provided ‘instant respectability’ for any woman who needed to leave the house for while. It was a smart and useful outfit, and could be lined with satin to make it more comfortable. Its fitting waist and sensuous folds emphasised a feminine shape while maintaining a touch of mystery.

The manto could be loosed from the woman’s top and allowed to hang over her skirt when she needed to use her hands and arms, and she could also pull it over her head and hold it closed with her teeth, one eye peeping out as in the standard depiction. In many ways, it was a useful flirting accessory. But the Cobijada clothing was banned in the early twentieth century when civil unrest made it useful for disguising weapons, and the outfit began a steady decline. It was initially discouraged by the Franco regime which opposed regional culture and in the austere first years of the regime the garments were cut up and made into other things. 

Although Cobijada women could still be seen in Vejer in the 1970s, these women were older and in general they kept their coverings for certain special occasions. Nowadays, there is a resurgence in the popularity of the costume and an annual competition to find the senior and junior Cobijadas of the year. La Cobijada has become a Vejer icon and one of the things which give the town its special identity.

Moorish and Christian women play chess in Islamic Spain
A pre-reconquista image shows a Moslem and a Christian women playing chess together. Their clothes are surprisingly similar, but there’s one important difference. While Christian women were expected to wear long skirts, the Moslem woman wears baggy trousers under a tunic. This is the real difference between Christian and Moslem dress. While a Christian woman could be punished and even burned for wearing trousers, many Middle Eastern women were expected to wear them, and they are still normal wear for some women in the region.

Blanca Gortari's colourful Cobijadas.