In the Shadow of the Virgin: Inquisitors, Friars, and "Conversos" in Guadalupe, Spainby Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau
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On June 11, 1485, in the pilgrimage town of Guadalupe, the Holy Office of the Inquisition executed Alonso de Paredes -- a converted Jew who posed an economic and political threat to the town's powerful friars -- as a heretic. Wedding engrossing narratives of Paredes and other figures with astute historical analysis, this finely wrought study reconsiders the relationship between religious identity and political authority in late-Medieval and early-modern Spain. Gretchen Starr-LeBeau concentrates on the Inquisition's handling of conversos (converted Jews and their descendants) in Guadalupe, taking religious identity to be a complex phenomenon that was constantly re-imagined and reconstructed in light of changing personal circumstances and larger events. She demonstrates that the Inquisition reified the ambiguous religious identities of conversos by defining them as devout or (more often) heretical. And she argues that political figures used this definitional power of the Inquisition to control local populations and to increase their own authority. In the Shadow of the Virgin is unique in pointing out that the power of the Inquisition came from the collective participation of witnesses, accusers, and even sometimes its victims. For the first time, it draws the connection between the malleability of religious identity and the increase in early modern political authority. It shows that, from the earliest days of the modern Spanish Inquisition, the Inquisition reflected the political struggles and collective religious and cultural anxieties of those who were drawn into participating in it.
"[T]his comparative study in church discipline is recommended to all scholars in the field. It may be hoped that some of them will imitate its approach in their own research."Avshalom Laniado, Mediterranean Historical Review
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In the Shadow of the VirginInquisitors, Friars, and Conversos in Guadalupe, Spain
By Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionOn June 11, 1485, at the pilgrimage town of Guadalupe in western Spain, the Holy Office of the Inquisition executed Alonso de Paredes as a heretic. Paredes was one of the first people tried in Guadalupe, in one of Fernando and Isabel's first ad hoc inquisitorial courts. His case, however, was unusual. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was established by the crown to root out apostasy among Jewish converts and their descendants (known as New Christians, or conversos), but the summary of Paredes's trial mentions no Jewish practices whatsoever, simply stating that he had been found to be a heretic and apostate. Unlike in other trial summaries, Alonso de Paredes (a New Christian) was not accused of leading Jewish services in his home, or of praying "in a Jewish fashion," or of failing to observe Christian dietary rules. Rather, Paredes almost certainly attracted the attention of the inquisitors for another reason: the economic and political threat he posed to the friars who both ran the town and helped manage the inquisitorial trials. Paredes was a wealthy cloth merchant and a force to be reckoned with. Only a few years before, he and several other converso merchants had tried toestablish a monopoly in town; once, he had attacked the Jeronymite friars' tax collector; and the evidence suggests that he was involved in an attempt to bribe the friars to elect a prior more sympathetic to his concerns.
Alonso's life and death at the hands of the inquisitors is revealing of more than his own tribulations, however. His history, and the history of Guadalupe, shed much light on Spain's transformation from the late medieval to the early modern period. A close study of the town of Guadalupe reveals two interrelated points: first, that the Inquisition's investigation of conversos reshaped religious and ethnic identity; and second, that this refashioned identity transformed local political conflicts, thus altering the exercise of local and royal authority. By demonstrating the contingent nature of religious identity in fifteenth-century Spain, we can demystify the sources of inquisitorial power by locating them in the ability of the Holy Office to construct oppositions-and thus potential sites of power-out of ambiguities. That this ability could be employed by local as well as royal officials, and even to some extent by other residents of the community, meant that the Inquisition could, from its earliest appearance as an arm of the emerging Spanish state, be used to establish and extend royal and local political authority. Thus, religious identity and political authority were contemporaneously and mutually constructed-each emerged out of engagement with the other.
This book's argument develops in three parts: first, it examines in close detail the complex range of practices of New Christians in the context of Old Christian communities. Second, it connects Christians' contested religious identity with the nascent and malleable power of the Inquisition. And third, it traces exactly how local and royal officials deployed inquisitorial power for their own ends. In the process, the work moves from traditional microhistory to the interrelation of local and protonational concerns. In this history, the Virgin's shrine in Guadalupe emerges as a crucial site-a prominent element in the propaganda of Fernando and Isabel, and the stage on which the transformative conflicts among the crown, local officials, the church, and conversos like Alonso de Paredes were played out.
The first part of this argument-that religious identity in late-medieval and early modern Spain was negotiated, rather than emerging from simple either/or categories-is best seen at the local level, in a town like Guadalupe. Guadalupe was admittedly unique; the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, located there, transfigured the religious landscape of the community and the peninsula. When Isabel and Fernando's key Jewish tax-farmer and advisor, Don Abraham Seneor, converted to Christianity on June 15, 1492, he traveled to Guadalupe with his king and queen to do it. A few years later, on July 29, 1496, Christopher Columbus brought two Ta'ino Indians from the Caribbean to the Virgin of Guadalupe to have them baptized as Christians, and to thank the Virgin for her protection on his voyages. Columbus was not alone in his pilgrimage to the Virgin's shrine. Pilgrims of all social ranks traveled to her shrine from throughout the Iberian peninsula and beyond, making it the most popular pilgrimage site in fifteenth-century Spain. Many presumably stayed on, contributing to the town's rapid growth and somewhat fluid social hierarchies during the fifteenth century. And the presence of over 120 friars certainly colored local devotional practices, like lay religious brotherhoods and processions, in ways unfamiliar to many Iberians of the period. Religiously, economically, socially, even politically, Guadalupe was a "company town" in the service and shadow of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Still, in many ways, Guadalupe was typical of late-medieval and early modern Iberian towns. As in so many late-medieval towns, residents and local lords-in this case the friars-entered into sharp debate over local governance. Townspeople struggled for more independent governing authority, while the friars attempted to consolidate their power. Local uprisings were a fact of life in Guadalupe in the later Middle Ages, as they were in so many towns. Religiously, too, Guadalupe shared characteristics with other Castilian towns of the period. As elsewhere in the peninsula, religious rites, processions, and other rituals marked out the year. Lay brotherhoods or confraternities tended to the poor and to the spiritual needs of their own members, encouraging lay devotional practices similar to those practiced across Spain. The devout rubbed shoulders with the profane, the curious with the uninterested. Discussions and debates about what practices and attitudes signified a devout Christian identity were common among the heterogeneous community of merchants, pilgrims, travelers, and locals. Furthermore, Guadalupe had a significant minority population of conversos-about 5 percent. This was not unlike other towns in Spain, whose Jewish populations had declined, but whose descendants remained behind.
It is these conversos who highlight the negotiated quality of religious identity in fifteenth-century Spain. Following a series of riots and anti-Jewish preaching in the peninsula in 1391, vast numbers of Jews converted to Christianity. Many of these conversions were forced, though as time went on others converted somewhat more freely. The social status and economic privileges of Christians appealed to some Jews, while anxiety about the future of Jews in Iberia influenced others. Whatever the reason, Iberian kingdoms were increasingly faced with a large and growing number of converted Jews with questionable loyalty to their new faith. The social, cultural, and political problems generated by friction between some so-called Old Christians and this new, partially assimilated but distinct population would plague Iberians for generations.
Not surprisingly, the religiosity of Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants has attracted the sustained attention of scholars for many years. In part, this is because of inherent human interest in "secret lives" or double identity. But this research also has origins in a more specifically Jewish interest in conversos as an example of Jewish oppression, assimilation, and maintenance of cultural distinctiveness-all issues of great concern in the modern world. Many scholars, most notably Yitzhak Baer and his student Haim Beinart, have argued that New Christians were Christian in name only-that profound links to Jews and Judaism persisted for generations, and that those executed on orders of the Inquisition "went as martyrs to the stake." More recently, David Gitlitz and Renee' Levine Melammed have developed more complex depictions of conversos in their work, though they, too, seem at times to envision a coherent ideology and community, and heroic crypto-Jews. Other scholars, particularly Benzion Netanyahu, Norman Roth, and more recently Henry Kamen, have argued that New Christians were entirely assimilated until Christians hostile to Jews used the Inquisition to fabricate converso devotion to Judaism. Netanyahu has argued that the Inquisition was the product of a fundamentally racist society, and that Jews were innocent of the spurious charges brought against them. Kamen, in a similar but slightly different vein, argues that descendants from the first generation of conversos-those converted after 1391-became, by the end of the fifteenth century, genuine if not devout Christians. Only after 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (and the conversion of many) did real Judaizing emerge. Norman Roth, though he disagrees with Netanyahu in many respects, echoes the argument that conversos "were no longer to be considered part of the Jew-ish people in any way." Between these extremes of genuine and feigned assimilation, other scholars, including I. S. Revah and, more recently, Mark Meyerson, Pilar ' Huerga Criado, and Yirmiyahu Yovel, have begun to consider alternatives to these stark models. As early as the 1950s, Revah' ... was exploring the range of practices among New Christians, while Meyerson and Huerga Criado have both contributed to a new historiography that neither glorifies conversos nor demonizes Old Christians. David Nirenberg, in parallel work on relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the medieval world, has made a similar point about interreligious contact: namely, that claims about religious difference were subject to a constant process of barter and negotiation, rather than being part of an unself-conscious persecuting discourse. Most recently, Yovel has fundamentally reoriented the debate through his important work on the duality of converso identity. This book builds on the work of these scholars by arguing that conversos-both individually and collectively-engaged in a range of Christian and Jewish practices. Those devotional practices might vary over time within the broader community, within a single family, or even within one individual's lifespan. By juxtaposing inquisitorial records with secular records from Guadalupe, I demonstrate that what it meant to convert, or to be the descendant of a convert, was not nearly as transparent as many contemporaries desired.
The lives of Old Christians in Guadalupe were apparently more straightforward than those of their new coreligionists, but they, too, exhibited a spectrum of religious practices and attitudes toward the church. Of course, the range of that spectrum was somewhat narrower than that of so-called New Christians. In the ritual activities of the Christian calendar one could witness a breadth of commitment, from the faithful confraternity member, to the man who frequented the tavern instead of attending mass on Sunday. The fact that both Old and New Christians engaged in Christianity in a variety of ways meant that the distinction between them was to an extent artificial. Both, for example, might complain about the attitudes of friars in the confessional, or disparage the Virgin Birth. Both might question the intent and purpose of the inquisitors. Yet the inquisitors (as well as later historians of New Christians) struggled to discern, from such noncanonical or heretical practices, distinct beliefs. This study of religious life in Guadalupe shows how counterproductive such a search must inevitably be; while I do not deny that distinct beliefs may have motivated similar actions, the effective boundaries between theoretically distinct groups of people were quite permeable.
The religious identities of the friars were equally complex. A signifi-cant minority of the friars-as many as 15 percent-were conversos. Several of these friars were suspected of observing Judaism in secret, while other friars, both Old and New Christian, overtly or covertly supported converso factions in town. Still others expressed great devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the miracles they witnessed and repeated to one another sustained their Christian faith. Once again, simple binary oppositions, such as New Christian/Old Christian, replicate historical, quasi-racialist categories, while obscuring mutable distinctions of religious practices, political sympathies, and personal beliefs.
It is out of the contested religious identities of friars and residents in Guadalupe, as well as the friars' blending of political and religious concerns, that we move to the second part of my argument, namely, that the power of the Inquisition came from its ability to construct difference out of ambiguity. In their pursuit of intention, as well as act, the inquisitors in Guadalupe and elsewhere created clearly defined categories of innocence and guilt, Old and New Christian. Yet this power of definition was not limited to the inquisitors themselves. All residents of Guadalupe were expected to come before the inquisitors to accuse, and thus define, their neighbors, rivals, and family. Of course, some voices carried more weight before the inquisitors: the friars, for example, held more influence than lay residents of Guadalupe, and some witnesses-adults, men, those with property, those who appeared more religious-were considered more reliable than others-children, women, those without property, those who appeared only casually religious. Yet the potential power given to anyone willing to speak before the inquisitors was not lost on Guadalupenses themselves. This is what I mean by "demystifying" the sources of power of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. As is becoming increasingly clear to scholars of the Inquisition, the Holy Office was not an oppressive state court, imposed upon a helpless populace from without. Indeed, it could not have succeeded without the opportunistic support of locals, who often willingly participated with the inquisitors in order to gain their own ends, be they casting suspicion on a neighbor, exacting vengeance on a former employer, or undermining a business rival. Others went so far as to criticize particular friars, with devastating effects within the friary. In Guadalupe, a close examination of civil and inquisitorial records and the citizens involved in them makes clear the political and social context of this widespread popular participation in the activity of the Inquisition.
The political implications of the power of definition bring us to the third and final element of my thesis. From the very beginning of the Inquisition's status as an arm of the Spanish state, local residents and local officials, as well as royal officials, made use of the Holy Office to further their own political ends. In Guadalupe, this is evident even in how the Inquisition arrived at the shrine site in the first place. In 1483 a small group of friars and lay conversos (possibly including Alonso de Paredes) attempted to influence through bribery the outcome of the prior's election. The election of a new prior was of political importance to all Guadalupe's residents, since the friars governed the town, but the bribe was a failure. The candidate of this small group lost, and the newly elected prior, apparently aware of the political maneuvering that preceded his election, requested that the Inquisition come to Guadalupe soon after. In return, the Crown named him chief inquisitor.
Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Virgin by Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Mary Elizabeth Perry, Occidental College
Teofilo Ruiz, University of California, Los Angeles
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Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky.
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