the spanish inquisition -- 3/18/16

Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. In the late fifteenth century, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella was the most powerful kingdom in the world. Besides its colo­nial possessions in the Americas, Spain had holdings in the Netherlands, and the monarchs had married their children to the heirs of Portugal, England, and the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. Spain responded to the external threat of the Ottoman empire with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Beyond Spain's Inquisition, seek­ing out dissidents in this way would become a feature of modern states, secular as well as religious, in times of national crisis:

"Spain ... embarked on a policy that would come to epitomize the fanatical violence inherent in religion. In 1480, with the Ottoman threat at its height, Ferdinand and Isabella had established the Spanish Inquisition. ... The Spanish Inquisition did not target Christian heretics but focused on Jews who had converted to Christianity and were believed to have lapsed. In Muslim Spain, Jews had never been subjected to the persecution that was now habitual in the rest of Europe, but as the Crusading armies of the Reconquista advanced down the peninsula in the late fourteenth century, Jews in Aragon and Castile had been dragged to the baptismal font; others had tried to save themselves by voluntary conversion, and some of these conversos ('con­verts') became extremely successful in Christian society and inspired considerable resentment.

"There were riots, and converso property was seized, the violence caused by financial and social jealousy as much as by religious allegiance. The monarchs were not personally anti-Semitic but simply wanted to pacify their kingdom, which had been shaken by civil war and now faced the Ottoman threat. Yet the Inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to achieve stability. As often happens when a nation is menaced by an external power, there were paranoid fears of enemies within, in this case of a 'fifth column' of lapsed conversos work­ing secretly to undermine the kingdom's security. The Spanish Inquisi­tion has become a byword for excessive 'religious' intolerance, but its violence was caused less by theological than by political considerations.

Inquisition victims wearing their distinctive hats and carrying penitential candles

"Such interference with the religious practice of their subjects was entirely new in Spain, where confessional uniformity had never been a possibility. After centuries of Christians, Jews, and Muslims 'living together' (convivencia), the monarchs' initiative met with strong oppo­sition. Yet while there was no public appetite for targeting observant Jews, there was considerable anxiety about the so-called lapsed 'secret Jews,' known as New Christians. When the Inquisitors arrived in a dis­trict, 'apostates' were promised a pardon if they confessed voluntarily, and 'Old Christians' were ordered to report neighbors who refused to eat pork or work on Saturday, the emphasis always on practice and social custom rather than 'belief.' Many conversos who were loyal Catholics felt it wise to seize the opportunity of amnesty while the going was good, and this flood of 'confessions' convinced both the Inquisitors and the public that the society of clandestine 'Judaizers' really existed. Seek­ing our dissidents in this way would not infrequently become a feature of modern states, secular as well as religious, in times of national crisis.

"After the conquest of 1492, the monarchs inherited Granada's large Jewish community. The fervid patriotism unleashed by the Christian tri­umph led to more hysterical conspiracy fears. Some remembered old tales of Jews helping the Muslim armies when they had arrived in Spain eight hundred years earlier and pressured the monarchs to deport all practicing Jews from Spain. After initial hesitation, on March 31, 1492, the monarchs signed the edict of expulsion, which gave Jews the choice of baptism or deportation. Most chose baptism and, as conversos, were now harassed by the Inquisition, but about eighty thousand crossed the border into Portugal, and fifty thousand took refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Under papal pressure. Ferdinand and Isabella now turned their attention to Spain's Muslims. In 1499 Granada was split into Chris­tian and Muslim zones, Muslims were required to convert, and by 1501 Granada was officially a kingdom of 'New Christians.' But the Muslim converts (Moriscos) were given no instruction in their new faith, and everybody knew that they continued to live, pray, and fast according to the laws of Islam. Indeed, a mufti in Oran in North Africa issued a fatwa permitting Spanish Muslims to conform outwardly to Christianity, and most Spaniards turned a blind eye to Muslim observance. A practical convivencia had been restored.

"The first twenty years of the Spanish Inquisition were undoubtedly the most violent in its long history. There is no reliable documentation of the actual numbers of people killed. Historians once believed that about thirteen thousand conversos were burned during this early period. More recent estimates suggest, however, that most of those who came forward were never brought to trial; that in most cases the death pen­alty was pronounced in absentia over conversos who had fled and were symbolically burned in effigy; and that from 1480 to 1530 only between 1,500 and 2,000 people were actually executed. Nevertheless, this was a tragic and shocking development that broke with centuries of peace­ful coexistence. The experience was devastating for the conversos and proved lamentably counterproductive. Many conversos who had been faithful Catholics when they were detained were so disgusted by their treatment that they reverted to Judaism and became the 'secret Jews' that the Inquisition had set out to eliminate."


Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Anchor A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 by Karen Armstrong


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