A beautifully crafted narrative about the three pivotal events that all converged in the year 1492: the Spanish Inquisition, the defeat of the Spanish Moors, and the voyage of Columbus. The basic premise is that these three events, while portrayed with religious and apocalyptic imagery, were all used as tools of the state to solidify the rule Spanish monarchy. State power went from a weak confederation of local kings and lords to a worldwide empire that wasn’t averse from using violence to further its aims.
From the acclaimed author of Warriors of God comes a riveting account of the pivotal events of 1492, when towering political ambitions, horrific religious excesses, and a drive toward international conquest changed the world forever. James Reston, Jr., brings to life the epic story of Spain’s effort to consolidate its own burgeoning power by throwing off the yoke of the Vatican. By waging war on the remaining Moors in Granada and unleashing the Inquisitor Torquemada on Spain’s Jewish and converso population, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella attained enough power and wealth to fund Columbus’ expedition to America and to chart a Spanish destiny separate from that of Italy. With rich characterizations of the central players, this engrossing narrative captures all the political and religious ferment of this crucial moment on the eve of the discovery of the New World.
I have been increasingly noticing the gaping hole in my knowledge of history that is the Middle Ages, and I’m feeling a bit cheated for it. If you don’t take AP European History, you probably only have vague notions about the Middle Ages– and even that class has fallen out of favor for being too “Eurocentric.” My thoughts about the Middle Ages were stirred up recently in my readings by C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Planet Narnia by C. S. Lewis shows how Lewis drew on the medieval concept of the solar system to construct his Narnia series. Lewis was drawn to the Middle Ages. It was his specialty as an English don. I have yet to read The Discarded Image, where he more explicitly draws out the importance of the Middle Ages.
Chesterton had a lot to say about the Middle Ages. He was very against the Enlightenment tendency to paint the Middle Ages as a barbaric age filled with unreason and violence. Here’s a few quotes that express some of those sentiments:
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn’t.
There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice. The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine. That as little as possible of anything should be eaten is a prejudice; which is also sometimes called an ideal.
Anybody who supposes that the Dark Ages were plain darkness and nothing else, and that the dawn of the thirteenth century was plain daylight and nothing else, will not be able to make head or tail of the human story of St. Francis of Assisi… The end of the Dark Ages was not merely the end of a sleep. It was certainly not merely the end of a superstitious enslavement… Viewed merely in an external and experimental fashion, the whole of the high civilisation of antiquity had ended in the learning of a certain lesson; that is, in its conversion to Christianity.
This book is one of the first books to try to fill in that knowledge gap. And it is perhaps a difficult topic to grapple with: the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition
The book portrays events leading up to 1492, including the rise of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. And the author gives a very honest account of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. There is no minimizing of the events that occured. He explicitly ties it to the more modern holocaust of Jews in Germany by referring to their final expulsion as the “final solution.” I was surprised at the similarities: Jews were required to wear stars of David as an outward symbol of their religious identity. They were confined to ghettoes, removed from positions of power, and targeted for violence and murder. Converting to Christianity could not save you, because Jews could not become true Christians but only pervert the faith. Anti-Semitism was a racial doctrine that originated far before the intellectual seeds of social Darwinism.
One thing that I did not know, and that Reston explicitly states, is that the Inquisition was an organ of the state. The Inquisition was more a religious excuse for a state problem. Spain epitomized the rise of the modern nation-state. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were intent on solidifying their power. Another monarch of the time, the King of Portugal, expressed the woes of a weak monarch: “my father left me nothing but the highways of Portugal.” Spain was a weak confederacy of rival kingdoms, united by the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The local barons in each kingdom had an inconvenient sense of independence, and some of their main supporters were the Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity, the conversos. Furthermore, political rivals on the Iberian peninsula included Portugal, a serious contender for maritime power, and the Moorish kingdom of Granada. The Inquisition was a tool that simultaneously could be used to spread fear in the hearts of the local lords and fund the war against the Moorish infidels. The 15th century holocaust of the Jews became the Spanish war chest. This reminded me of another book I read semi-recently about religious violence, The Myth of Religious Violence:
“The myth of religious violence should finally be seen for what it is: an important part of the folklore of Western societies. It does not identify any facts about the world, but rather authorizes certain arrangements of power in the modern West. It is a story of salvation from mortal peril by the creation of the secular nation-state. As such, it legitimates the direction of the citizen’s ultimate loyalty to the nation-state and secures the nation-state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. In the U.S., it helps to foster the idea that secular social orders are inherently peaceful, such that we become convinced that the nation that spends more on its military than do all the other nations of the world combined is in fact the world’s most peace-loving country. The myth also helps to identify Others and enemies, both internal and external, who threaten the social order and who provide the requisite villains against which the nation-state is said to protect us.”
The Defeat of the Moors
I also don’t want to minimize the fascinating account of the war with the Moors. I was already acquainted with the beautiful and vibrant culture of Islamic Spain in the book God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe. In fact, Dogs of God picks up where God’s Crucible ends. There were multiple reasons that account for the loss of the Moors including internal succession conflicts and weak leadership. Interestingly, the last Moorish king, Boabdil, had a prophecy given at his birth that said he would be the last king of the Moors, and their kingdom would fall to the Christians. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy for him as he used it to explain his losses in battle and at court.
Columbus, the first Conquistador
Columbus is the final of the three “Dogs of God.” I feel that Columbus has already had plenty of hate directed towards him today, with many trying to get Columbus Day removed from the calendar. This book touches a little on the sins if Columbus in the New World, but most of that happened after his first voyage in 1492, and is more epilogue than main story. The book mostly touches on Columbus’s attempts to climb the social ladder. If anything, there are plenty of Columbus’s out their today. Our world actively encourages careerism. I feel it in academia all the time. It reminds me of a quote from Stages of Faith by Fowler:
First, they tell themselves that this is an increasingly crowded, competitive world. They recognize that there are more 25-year-olds alive right now than there ever have been before. In a world of growing scarcity they feel a deep urgency about getting what they feel are their shares of power and its rewards. They tell themselves that in their urgency they cannot afford relationships that place any “drag” on their progress. Marriage is possible if it does not hamper career. Children, for most of them, must wait until both members of the marriage have claimed lucrative posts. For many of them the decision to remain childless feels final. Even their leisure activities, they tell themselves, can be defended only if they contribute to career enhancement. Further, these young respondents tell themselves that the most rapid path toward advancement and salary lie in making frequent moves from one corporation to another. They ask themselves regularly whether they are staying too long at their present posts. Excessive loyalty to one employer, they say, can be detrimental. They live with the “ever-ready resume.” Another set of substories they tell themselves say that most of the men and women presently at the top are probably less imaginative and less competent than they are (or will be). They do not believe, therefore, that they will have too much to learn on the way up. The major obstacles to their rising that they see are the inertia and self-protecting power of the present incumbents. Finally, they believe that in order to make it to the top in their chosen fields they must be within striking distance of a chief executive’s post by the time they are thirty-five…
Columbus did have vision, and Reston does give him that. He was a visionary. But he also serves as a warning. I still don’t think we can put on a moral grandstand and believe ourselves immune to the same sins as Columbus.
Finally, I was surprised at the apocalyptic imagery the leaders of the era evoked to illustrate their actions. Queen Isabella saw herself as the Virgin Mary or the woman clothed with the sun and moon, as evoked in the book of Revelation. Kind Ferdinand saw himself as the one destined to defeat the Anti-Christ, and lead the fight against the hordes of the devil (a role filled by the Moors and Jews of Spain). And Columbus’s New World filled the role of the New Jerusalem. Everyone was fully convinced that the world would end in 1500. There was plenty of this at the year 2000 as well. But even when we aren’t at the turn of the century, and regardless of religiosity, we tend to see ourselves as the pinnacle of civilization. Looking back at the 1500s, they seem very silly. But again, we will probably look just as silly to those in the year 2500. So perhaps exercise a little humility and don’t make the mistake of the Spanish monarchs.