Acrobats at the Capdepera Mediaeval fair. | M. FUSTER

Mallorca enjoys a mediaeval fiesta. The Inca fairs of November offer a mediaeval market that for some visitors to the fairs is more of a highlight than the island's biggest fair of all - Dijous Bo. Capdepera has been holding a mediaeval market since the turn of the millennium, a thousand years after the old millennium started and when Mallorca's history was all but non-existent. At the weekend, this fair-cum-grand fiesta will spill out from the old castle, a defence fortress from mediaeval times.

Having fun at the fair.

If one takes the Middle Ages, the mediaeval period, to have lasted roughly from the fall of Rome to the late fifteenth century, an understanding of Mallorca's mediaeval past is limited mainly to what is defined as the Late Middle Ages. Very little is known of the epoch that spanned the arrival of the Vandals in the fifth century and the Muslim occupation from the start of the tenth century. Even the three centuries of this occupation offer scant information compared with what came after. The Mallorca of the year 1000, and so some one hundred years after the Muslim occupation, has minimal history as there isn't the type of documentary evidence that the next occupiers were to create in abundance.

The Capdepera Mediaeval fiesta is highly popular.

Nevertheless, the Muslims did of course leave their legacies. Island place names are examples, and there are many of them, such as Alcudia, Binissalem, or S'Alqueria Blanca. The name of the latter village is significant, as the alqueria partly helps to explain why there wasn't the extensive documentation that came after the Aragonese-Catalan conquest of 1229.

The alqueria, derived from the Arabic term "qarya", was the basis of settlements away from Madina Mayurqa (Palma). It consisted of a few houses and land that was worked autonomously by settlers. These were overseen by an administrative system, primarily for tax, the island having been divided into thirteen districts. The names of some of these will sound familiar - Bulansa, Inkan, Manaqur, Muruh, Musuh-Bunyula, Sulyar, Yartan (Pollensa, Inca, Manacor, Muro, Bunyola, Soller, Arta).

The Capdepera Mediaeval market.

After King James, Jaume I, conquered the island, the alqueria settlements didn't disappear but they were integrated (minus their previous occupants; most of them, anyway) into the divisions of land that Jaume needed to make to his supporters. And with these divisions came a late feudalism that hadn't previously existed, as the alquerias hadn't been tied to a noble owner or some such.

In addition, there was highly detailed documentation. The 'Llibre del Repartiment' recorded the pledges of properties to those who had taken part in the conquest. This distribution of land brought about a regime which, while historians have debated how strictly applied it was by comparison with other parts of the Crown of Aragon, was feudal. Coincidental with this was the spread of Roman law, the role of notaries and an enlargement of administration. Bureaucracy was to be fundamental to Mallorca's history once this history was truly being written down.

A refreshing drink anyone?

The Late Middle Ages in Mallorca under the Catalans produced lasting and outstanding Gothic architecture, such as the Cathedral and Guillem Sagrera's La Lonja in Palma, while there were also the thinkers, most notably Ramon Llull. Alchemy, astrology and medicine; these were three subjects to which Llull turned his attention. In so doing, he was pursuing a legacy of the Muslims, inherent to which had become the search for the philosopher's stone.

These three things - alchemy, astrology and medicine - collided to such an extent that doctors would practise all three. Astrology was a guide to disease and to its cure (or not) and alchemy, at its most potent, was believed to be capable of providing the elixir of life and so rejuvenation or even mortality as well as of turning base metals into gold. Observation of the planets, moreover, could indicate the most favourable times to attempt alchemy.

Texts in Arabic were translated into Latin from the middle of the twelfth century in order to try and guide Christian alchemists. Llull was one who dabbled, but evidence of alchemy in Mallorca was not as great as it might have been because of instructions from religious orders that banned their members from practising it. The clergy were as likely to seek the philosopher's stone as laymen, and they were just as keen on the material gains that could be made.

There are three main accounts of alchemy. One concerns a certain Jaume Lusirach, who practised in the Angel Tower at the Almudaina Palace at the end of the fourteenth century. His workplace was due to his having had a contract with King Joan II and his successor, Marti I, until the king was informed by his procurator in Mallorca that Lusirach was basically a fraudster.

The Capdepera mediaeval fiesta is an entertainment, as fiestas always are. It doesn't set out to represent mediaeval times and nor should it or could it. Feudalism and alchemy - not on the fiesta agenda, but just two examples of the realities of the era.