Spring Books
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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Chris Lowney
Free Press, 336 pages, $26
By Joseph Pérez; translated by Janet Lloyd
Yale University Press,
256 pages, $26
From Córdoba to autos-da-fé

Recent books on medieval Spain's religious conflicts offer lessons for today


Taken together, two recent books about Spanish history span from seventh-century pre-Islamic and Visigothic Spain to the 18th century, yet their authors convince us that the Spanish example from centuries past constitutes a lesson for our society today.

Spurred by the terrorist attacks in New York and Madrid that have taken place since 2001, Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit, former managing director for J.P. Morgan and current assistant to the Catholic Medical Mission Board, asks in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment how and why Christians, Muslims and Jews simultaneously worked toward unity and yet created divisiveness in those medieval centuries when Spain housed the first and only Muslim state on mainland Europe. It is his hope that the story of the peninsular engagement between the three great Abrahamic faiths might provide wisdom for addressing today’s tragedies.

Mr. Lowney structures his book along a loose chronological timeline, beginning with the Visigoths in the seventh century and ending with the expulsion of the Jews and the overthrow of Muslim rule in Granada in 1492. Mr. Lowney’s book celebrates the intellectual ferment and the contributions of Jews, Muslims and Christians while at the same time detailing the destructive role that jihad, crusades and various fundamentalisms had in tearing apart a now vanished world where the peoples of three religious persuasions never quite managed to create a tolerant and unified society. In pursuit of this goal, he juxtaposes the image of St. James the pilgrim (Santiago) to that of St. James the Moor-killer, as well as the brutal black-and-white crusading propaganda of the “Song of Roland” with the more nuanced relations between Christians and Muslims described in the legend of El Cid.

Two movements with great potential for enhancing toleration within all three religious traditions especially occupy Mr. Lowney’s attention -- the intellectual emphasis on reason applied to religion championed by Moses Maimonides and Averroes, as well as the promise of a mystical understanding common to all three religions. None of these intellectual breakthroughs was sufficient to dampen the enthusiasm for conflict and militant religiosity, however. Indeed, it is significant that both Maimonides and Averroes were banished from Córdoba for their views. Mr. Lowney might have added a third, the Christian philosopher who also tried to marry reason with religion, the great 14th-century Majorcan writer Raymund Lull, who likewise failed in his efforts and may have died in North Africa trying to preach the Christian Gospel to an Islamic audience.

Similarly, the great mystical contributions of Sufism (through Ibn Arabi) and the Kabbalah (through Moses de León) failed to bridge the religions, particularly in the face of intransigent political leadership and the rising power of Christian Spain. As Mr. Lowney puts it, “While Averroes, Maimonides, Ibn Arabi, and Moses de León were pondering God, God’s creation was being marred by the religious wars waged in his name.”

Mr. Lowney also seeks points of contact between religions, for example, in the legal codes that failed (or sometimes refused) to differentiate one religion from another -- a kind of frontier logic that welcomed all comers. He points to Valencian irrigation technology engineered by Arabs that required the cooperation of Christian and Muslim villagers in local water councils; he mentions the mills and communal baths shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Muslim merchants, Jewish physicians and Christian innkeepers might engage in commercial ventures across religious lines, while members of the three faiths interacted on a daily basis in the marketplace.

None of these fragile indications of shared spaces survived the political triumph of Christian rulers. Many of these contradictory elements met in the personality of Alfonso X “the Wise,” who ruled Christian Spain in the mid-13th century. Alfonso spent much of his reign battling North African advances into Iberia, only to turn to the same Moroccan Muslim dynasty for support of his shaky throne in the face of rebelling Spanish nobility. Alfonso, whose support of law codes, poetry and scholarship is justifiably famous, offers us a mixed picture of convivencia (coexistence) and hostility between the three religions. As Mr. Lowney describes it, “condemnation vies with tolerance” in Alfonso’s works. Alfonso could portray Muslims as pious and honorable and yet demand that they convert to Christianity. His portrait of Jews is unremittingly harsh, yet he patronized Jews at his court and promoted interfaith scholarly collaboration.

In the end, Spain’s Christian monarchs presided over pogroms of the Jews by the 14th century, the institutionalization of the Spanish Inquisition (mainly focused on investigating converted Jews) after 1478 and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. With the conquest of Muslim Granada, also in 1492, many Muslims likewise sailed into exile. Mr. Lowney concludes his book with the observation that Spain’s medieval history could have ended differently. He appeals to readers to learn from the past and to shape the future with an eye to a common pilgrimage.

Overall, Mr. Lowney’s book is satisfying and informative for the general reader. For the professional historian, however, it occasionally grates. Mr. Lowney exhibits a prejudicial attitude toward the achievements of medieval Christian Europe, providing a negative, barbarous portrait of the Visigoths unjustified by current research and the archaeological record. His assessment of the educational opportunities and the levels of literacy in medieval Christian Europe are consistently too low, while his portrait of a “feudal” Europe, full of superstition and economically, intellectually and technologically marginal, underrates the dynamism displayed by medieval Europeans and fails to help the reader understand how it was that Spain was conquered by the Christian kingdoms, soon dominated half the globe and was poised to enter a Golden Age of culture and literature.

Like Mr. Lowney, Joseph Pérez, emeritus professor of history at the University of Bordeaux, France, directs his study to a general audience. Dr. Pérez originally published The Spanish Inquisition in France in 2002. His primary goal is to set the record straight with regard to the Spanish Inquisition’s actual, as opposed to legendary, workings. He is also interested in the extent to which the Inquisition institutionalized anti-Semitism and served as a model for church-state interactions that presaged totalitarianism.

Dr. Pérez’s book focuses on the growing anti-Semitism of late medieval Spain and the fortunes of Spanish Jewry in the face of the Spanish Inquisition. He begins with the problem of defining tolerance, arguing that any tolerance exhibited toward the Jews in Spain by either Muslims or Christians was the result of accepting what they could not, for the moment, change. It was a form of “toleration” that resulted not from an ideal or from respect for “the other,” but was, rather, a sufferance of current conditions. And since Jewish communities had never been on the same footing as those who belonged to the dominant religion, any autonomy that they had was relatively easy to dislodge.

The 14th century was a particularly perilous time for Spanish Jews. With famines and plagues, economic downturns and demographic disruptions, Jews became scapegoats in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Dr. Pérez dates the beginning of anti-Semitism in Spain from this time period, although, had he looked further back in time, and certainly to the period of Visigothic rule, he would perhaps amend this statement. With increased persecution of Jews, increasing numbers were forced to convert or did so to avoid persecution, and many of those conversos or new Christians were now able to take up positions in municipal government, among the mercantile elites, at court and within the church. By the 15th century there was increasing concern with Judaizers, converted Jews who continued to adhere to Jewish cultural and religious practices. The Inquisition was established, primarily, to investigate Christians of Jewish origin in order to seek out and repress Judaizers.

Dr. Pérez gives passing recognition to the role of the Inquisition in repressing other heretics, primarily Lutherans, superficially converted Muslims, Illuminists, foreign Protestants and those who adhered to some form of materialism, as well as its role in searching out individuals accused of moral crimes, for example, soliciting priests, bigamy, blasphemy, superstition and sodomy. He also notes the remarkably rational and tolerant view taken toward witchcraft by the Spanish jurists of the Inquisition. But his focus is fundamentally the same as that of the Inquisition itself: the pursuit of Christians of Jewish origin suspected of practicing Judaism.

The Spanish Inquisition had the unique distinction of being the one arm of the Spanish government with authority throughout all of Spain. In addition, the power of the Inquisition to confiscate properties of the accused, to exact fines, to force confessions, to torture and, ultimately, to exact the death penalty guaranteed that it would be feared. Confessors were required to refer to inquisitors any penitents who confessed sins against the faith. Once taken by the Inquisition for questioning, an individual could be detained in prison, isolated, often for months, without knowing what he or she was accused of, or by whom. The process of examination of a prisoner was itself secret, and the accused was never allowed to face his or her denunciators, to learn the testimony of witnesses or even to discover their names. Torture was sometimes used in pursuit of a confession since the entire purpose of the inquisitorial process was to secure an acknowledgement of guilt and public repentance, although confessions gained by torture were regarded as uncertain and an unforced confession was far more preferable.

Because the accused was assumed to be guilty, the inquisitorial process focused on convincing him or her to acknowledge guilt. The accused was also expected to denounce friends, relatives and accomplices. Because heresy was both a sin and a crime, a public trial was also required. Although the Inquisition retained the façade of a trial, in reality the inquisitor was both the prosecutor and the judge. Should the inquisition find you guilty (and very few were acquitted), one could scarcely avoid the further shame of public exhibition at an auto-da-fé. Any appeal from the judgment of the Inquisition was virtually impossible.

Dr. Pérez continues his narrative with detailed descriptions of a number of autos-da-fé, where the accused were ceremonially paraded in public in the midst of sermons and public recantations. Subsequent to the auto -da-fé, the convicted person -- presuming he or she survived -- wore special clothing (the sambenito), was banned from a variety of professions and jeopardized the social and professional status of his entire family network.

The notoriety and power of the Spanish Inquisition came not so much from the numbers who were executed, which were less than legend would suggest (Dr. Pérez estimates that perhaps 10,000 were burned between 1478 and the end of the Inquisition in 1820, although other estimates are much lower), but rather from its extraordinary authority. Dr. Pérez concludes, “When all the evidence is taken into account, the context suggests that the Spanish Inquisition was but one of the many manifestations of the intolerance characteristic of the period of the Religious Wars, and so there is no reason to single it out in particular.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Pérez asks whether there were larger consequences to the institutionalization of the Spanish Inquisition. He notes that it was unique among early modern institutions with regard to its use of lay agents, its coercive judicial apparatus and the extent that its tentacles reached out through a centralized bureaucracy to create an oppressive atmosphere for all of Spain. Dr. Pérez suggests that it, along with the index of prohibited books, formed an obstacle to free research and the development of a critical spirit in Spain, although this is a point of debate in Spanish history, and others conclude differently. Above all, the Spanish Inquisition contributed to an amalgamation of church and state in which the state was free to use religious power for its own purposes. “The confusion of the temporal and spiritual spheres contained the seed of one of the most dangerous temptations of the modern world: the tendency to make ideology the obligatory complement of politics. … It in some ways constituted an anticipation of modern totalitarianism.”

A Vanished World and The Spanish Inquisition remind us that the political choice to turn toward totalitarianism or away from religious brotherhood is too dangerous in the modern world, and too debilitating for the human spirit.

Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz is associate professor of history and the director of the Medieval Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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