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A journey across centuries of religious conflict
Toby Green’s incredible new book brings a vast panorama to life by focusing on the untold stories of individuals from all walks of life and every section of society who were affected by the Inquisition. From witches in Mexico, bigamists in Brazil, Freemasons, Hindus, Jews, Moslems and Protestants, the Inquisition reached every aspect of society. This history, though filled with stories of terror and the unspeakable ways in which human beings can treat one another, is ultimately one of hope, underscoring the resilience of the human spirit. Stretching from the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in the fifteenth century to the Napoleanic wars, The Inquisition details this incredible history in all its richness and complexity.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||9.48(w) x 6.46(h) x 1.62(d)|
About the Author
TOBY GREEN is the author of three previous books, Saddled With Darwin, Meeting of the Invisible Man, and Thomas More’s Magician. He has traveled widely in Africa and Latin America, and now lives with his family in the west of England.
Read an Excerpt
THE END OF TOLERANCE
Who can doubt that what seems in this tribunal to be
severity of justice is in fact a medicine, ordained by mercy
for the health of the delinquents?
Teruel and Zaragoza 1484–1486
IN THE HOUSEHOLD OF Juan Garces de Marcilla, hatred coursed its prey. Marcilla was a local noble in the remote Aragonese town of Teruel. Ashamed of his indigence, he had married Brianda, daughter of a powerful local businessman, Jaime Martinez Santángel. Marcilla loathed his in-laws and this was an era in which such workaday odium could be taken to its extreme: he made sure that they would be burnt to death.
The new inquisitor, Juan de Solibera, arrived in Teruel in May 1484. There was no welcoming committee. In fact, the local authorities were appalled. They probably knew that there had been resistance in some parts of Castile to the introduction of the Inquisition there.1 They determined to follow suit. When there were so many great and elegant cities in the kingdom of Aragon, why had their remote settlement high in the bare hills been selected as the first calling point for the new institution? What were the implications of the sacking of the old inquisitors and the introduction of the new? The town leaders wrote that they feared the Inquisition would bring the same chaos as it had ‘in Castile, and that [the inquisitors] would bring the very same heinous procedures that they had used there, in violation of all law’.2 Yet not everyone was as fearful; some, like Marcilla, sensed an opportunity in the interstices of hatred.
Initially, however, Marcilla was in the minority. The authorities held out. In resisting, they were not merely standing up for local autonomy; they perhaps sensed that the new Inquisition, designed to persecute people who were different, would destroy the delicate cultural fabric which made the town what it was. For the inhabitants of Teruel were a mixed bunch. In addition to the majority Christian population, there was a large community of people descended from Jewish converts to Christianity–conversos.e Between 1391 and 1413 there had been many such conversions, some of them voluntary and some of them forced;3 the children and grandchildren of these converts were mostly sincere Christians, but they maintained some of the cultural practices of their Jewish ancestors. In addition to the conversos, Teruel had a large population of converted Muslims who had switched to Christianity along with the Jews after listening to the preaching of St Vincent Ferrer in the early 15th century. These converts–known as moriscos–had abandoned Moorish dress and no longer spoke Arabic; they had assimilated fully into society.4
The arrival of the inquisitor caused panic. The Inquisition had been created in Spain within the past few years to target alleged bad Christians among the conversos, and three years previously the first auto had been staged, in Seville. The combination of fear and local official resistance meant that as soon as he appeared in Teruel Solibera was shut up in a monastery for three weeks and prevented from preaching his inaugural sermon. Eventually he had to move to a nearby hamlet, from which he righteously thundered excommunications at the town officials.5 They responded with gusto. In open mockery of inquisitorial procedure, they built a great fire with a stake in the middle. Yet instead of this serving as a place for the burning of heretics, they surrounded the fire with stones which were hurled at anyone who came to the town with royal letters or decrees supporting the Inquisition.6
Marcilla organized the inquisitor’s fightback. First he ensured that Solibera was given an armed guard. Then he used the guard to ensure that Teruel’s rebellious officials were arrested. All of them were sacked. Marcilla was made captain of the town. He was instructed to seize Teruel, appoint new officials and install the new Inquisition.
In March 1485 Marcilla took the town and the Inquisition began work. In August the first auto was held and two converso effigies were burnt; in January 1486 there was another auto and nine conversos were burnt. The most important of them was Jaime Martinez Santángel, the brother-in-law of one of the officials who had resisted Inquisitor Solibera the year before. Two of Santangel’s sons were burnt alive and one was burnt in effigy.7 Jaime Martinez Santángel, one recalls, was the father-in-law of Marcilla, and his sons were Marcilla’s brothers-in-law. Through the Inquisition Marcilla had set about destroying his relatives by marriage.8 He had also given his support to an institution which the new monarchs of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella–known as the Reyes Católicos–had placed at the forefront of their domestic policy. This alone was enough to see him rise through the ranks even as his wife’s family was destroyed.
Soon enough, in Zaragoza, the capital of the kingdom of Aragon on the banks of the Ebro river, events in Teruel would be echoed. Zaragoza was renowned for its nobility and the beauty of its women. Just eight years before the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492, there was still a large Moorish quarter with an oil press and functioning mosque,9 while travellers often admired its houses of thin red Roman-style bricks and its bevy of churches.10
Soon, however, there would be blood. Word of events in Teruel began to reach the town. Anger in the converso community grew. It was bad enough that the Inquisition had begun work in Castile, but now who was this Marcilla, to bring down Don Jaime Martinez Santángel of Aragon! Doubtless this doughty champion of the Inquisition had married Brianda for her converso money: he despised her, although perhaps her family had slighted him, flaunting their wealth in the face of his much-vaunted but straitened nobility.
Beneath the anger pulsed fear. For what Marcilla had really done was to effect a coup. With the Inquisition, there was the prospect of power.
SOLIBERA’S FELLOW inquisitor was Pedro de Arbues. Arbues had been born not far from Zaragoza in 1441.11 He had studied at Bologna in Italy and risen through the ranks of the Church before being made an inquisitor alongside Solibera in 1484. His attachment to the ideology of the times was revealed by the inaugural speech he made to the Council of the Inquisition in Zaragoza. ‘Our purpose,’ he said, ‘is to watch over the vine of the Church as careful sentries, picking out heresies from the wheat of religion … if it is carefully considered, it will be seen that all this, which seems horrible at first glance, is nothing but mercy … Who can doubt that what seems in this tribunal to be severity of justice is in fact a medicine, ordained by mercy for the health of the delinquents?’12
With Arbues and Solibera, the Inquisition set up shop in Aragon. As edicts of faith were read, people began to follow the initial rebellious example of Teruel. Both Catholics who had no Jewish or Islamic ancestry–the so-called Old Christians–and conversos started to murmur against the Inquisition in Zaragoza. The conversos were joined by members of the nobility and the richest people of the city, who complained that the new Inquisition acted in violation of the laws of Aragon, confiscating goods and keeping secret the names of witnesses, two things ‘most new, and never seen before, and most prejudicial for the kingdom’.13 By February 1485 the indignation was such that some conversos decided to attempt something outrageous: the assassination of the feared Arbues.14
The plot was hatched in the house of the leading converso Luis de Santángel. A bounty of 500 florins was placed on the head of Arbues, and a team of six assassins was chosen. The team was a mixture of conversos–the father of one of them, Juan de Esperandeu, had already been imprisoned by the Inquisition–and Old Christians, including Vidal Duranzo, the Gascon servant of Juan de Abadía, another of the assassins.15 The idea was that if Arbues was killed, no inquisitor would dare to fill his shoes.16
Rumours were rife. The first auto in Zaragoza, with burnings, took place in May. Another followed in June. Indignation rose all the while among the converso community. Assuming a conspiracy, Arbues took to wearing a chain-mail undershirt and an iron helmet beneath his hat.17 One night, Juan de Esperandeu tried to cut away one of the bars of his window while Arbues was asleep in bed but he was discovered and ran off in the dark.18
On the night of Wednesday 14 September 1485, the assassins gathered by the cathedral. Three entered by the main entrance, three by the sacristy. They knew that that night Arbues, a Dominican, would come to midnight mass. Towards midnight the cathedral canons assembled in the choir. Arbues entered from the cloisters in his canonical dress, bearing a lantern in his hands, and walked towards them. He knelt next to the pulpit on the left and began to pray. Charging from the shadows, Vidal Duranzo stabbed the inquisitor through the back with such force that he pierced the chain mail and cut his jugular vein; Esperandeu, probably overexcited at the prospect of gaining revenge on his father’s nemesis, stabbed weakly and grazed Arbues’s arm. Duranzo now struck again, the helmet pitched from Arbues’s head and the inquisitor fell to the floor.19
Arbues was carried back to his lodgings. He died before dawn. The news spread at once and the cry went up throughout the town: ‘A fuego con los conversos!’–‘To the fire with the conversos!’ It was only through the intervention of Don Alonso de Aragón, viceroy and archbishop of Aragon, who rode out into the mob to calm them, that the converso quarter was saved from being put to the torch.20 As it was, it was decided that the perpetrators would be punished by the Inquisition instead.
The investigations started at once. The famed inquisitor-general Tomás de Torquemada sent three replacement inquisitors in Arbues’s stead, and the prime suspects were interrogated. One of those seized was Duranzo, who confessed after being tortured. Promised mercy if he would disclose the names of his accomplices, he revealed all; on claiming his mercy when he had finished, he was told that, unlike the other conspirators, he would receive the mercy of not having his hands severed before he was hung, drawn and quartered.21
So began the fires in Zaragoza. In 1486 there were to be no fewer than fourteen autos there: forty-two people were burnt alive and fourteen in effigy. To increase the public fear and the impressiveness of the autos, Inquisitor-General Torquemada ordered that a fortnight before each auto the event should be proclaimed publicly across the city by a parade of mounted officials.22 This, for the first time, turned the Inquisition into a genuinely public affair. The terror of the converso community was total, and many of them fled. Among the victims were three ancestors of the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: Juan Fernando López de Villanueva, his son Micer Pablo and their cousin Ramón López; the rest of the family escaped to France, Antwerp and London where the fear was distilled for several generations to come.23
In general, following these events in Zaragoza, people’s fury at the Inquisition rarely exceeded their fear. Yet even before their anger clouded their judgement, the conversos had not been alone in their distrust of the new institution, as the events in Teruel and the initial reactions in Zaragoza had shown.24 The suspicion and resistance with which the Inquisition had been greeted in Aragon had arisen because this was a new institution which represented a way of treating people which seemed excessive. Yet it would not take long for the excessive to appear normal, and for fear of the new institution to become a way of life.
SPAIN DURING THE REIGN of the Reyes Católicos was unique in Europe. The Jews had arrived before the birth of Christ,25 and with the Moorish invasion of 711 there had been large-scale migration from North Africa. Even after the Christian reconquest, which had its most decisive triumphs in the mid-13th century,f Spain, with its blend of cultures, was more akin to a Muslim society than it was to the rest of Europe. Physical geography may have tied Iberia to the lands north of the Pyrenees but the importance of geographical ideas of space was limited then, and the fact that Spain felt like an Islamic sort of place was much more important:26 for visitors from northern Europe, the legacy of the convivencia– the centuries of shared Christian, Jewish and Muslim life in the peninsula–was a place with what seemed to their eyes to be confused categories.
There was, for instance, the way in which people dressed. Whether they were going to a party or doing the housework, women in Spain covered their heads with tocados, elaborate headdresses sometimes made of velvet or satin that wound down the neck.27 For most women’s clothing, however, silk was the material of choice, something which went back to the manufacturing traditions of Moorish Andalusia.28
Among men, the second half of the 15th century had even seen a growing fashion for Moorish dress. During the reign of Henry IV (1454–74) this was so prevalent that ‘whoever imitated [the Moors] the best pleased the king the most’.29 And in 1497 King Ferdinand no less presented himself with his train of nobles dressed in Moorish style at Burgos to celebrate the betrothal of his son Prince John.30 Moorish fashion accessories for men included the sayo, a bodysuit over which other garments were worn, and two types of hooded cloak, the albornoz and the capellar.31
For other Europeans, then, even Christian Spaniards seemed exotic. The secretary of the Baron de Rosmithal, visiting Burgos in the middle of the 15th century, described a Christian noble’s house where the women were all ‘richly dressed in the Moorish style, following Moorish customs in their dress, food and drink … dancing very beautifully in the Moorish style, all of them dark, with black eyes’.32 Over seven centuries of Moorish presence–and for much of this time dominance–in Iberia had left deep marks which the conquest of Granada in 1492 would not erase; even the most widely recognizable of all Spanish phrases today, ¡Olé!, derives from the Arabic Wa-l-lah–For God.33
Cultural crossovers were many. In Castile Jews often sponsored Christians at their baptisms, while Christians did likewise at Jewish circumcision ceremonies.34 In the 14th century Christians would bring Muslim friends to mass and even hire Muslim buskers to play music in churches during night vigils.35 As late as the 15th century Christians and Jews apprenticed their children to live among the other religious group for years36 while Jews converted to Islam and Muslims converted to Judaism.37 And although sexual relations between peoples of different faiths were taboo, they were common enough; in 1356 the king of Aragon granted a local monastery jurisdiction over Muslim women caught having sex with Christians in the locality, but the following year had to change this so that women who had had sex with the monks themselves were not included.38
Yet in spite of all this sharing in one another’s lives, the fault lines between the three faiths were always there, waiting to be exaggerated by extremists. Muslims and Christians used bath houses on different days, for instance, while neither Jews nor Muslims were permitted to convert Christians.39 By the late 15th century there was considerable pressure to separate Jews and Muslims in cities from Christians. The barriers were coming up.
Thus it was that by the end of the 15th century, when the furore around the Inquisition broke out in Aragon, the three communities performed quite different functions in Spanish society. The Christians were nobles, churchmen and fighters;40 Jews were craftsmen, financiers and intellectuals; and Muslims were predominantly agriculturalists and craftsmen.41 This was a society where activity was increasingly defined by faith–something which would have disastrous consequences for Spanish society when two of the faiths were excluded.
In Spain, the militarized nature of Christian society after the reconquest created a national character that was decidedly testy. ‘They are proud, and think that no nation can be compared to their own,’ wrote one Italian traveller, ‘ … they do not like foreigners, and are very surly with them; they are inclined to take up weapons, more so than any other Christian nation, and are extremely good at using them, being agile and very expert, and very quick in moving their arms; they value honour to such a degree that they prefer to give little thought to their own deaths rather than stain it’.42
Such characteristics were problematic. The tendency of human societies towards aggression had been exaggerated in Spain by the triumph of the warrior caste in the reconquest. After the whole country but Granada had been won for Christendom, the 15th century saw a series of civil wars. Seville was sacked in 1471 by the rival supporters of the duke of Medina Sidonia and the marquis of Cádiz,43 and the factionalism spilled out into a civil war which raged across Andalusia for four years.44 The situation was so bad that, said the chronicler Bernaldez, ‘it is impossible to write about the travails of King Henry [IV] at that time’.45 Towns were destroyed, crown goods stolen, and royal rents plummeted to levels never seen before.46
If Spain were to survive, the aggression would have to be directed at some external foe. A target was needed on which all this destructive energy could be spent. In societies ambiguous groups are often thought dangerous and can become the focus of violence at times of pressure.47 The conversos were just such a group, now in the category of Christians, but not long ago belonging to the category of Jews. They would prove to be easy enough to vilify, and destroy.
ON 26 JANUARY 1449, Don Álvaro de Luna, King John II of Castile’s special constable, passed through Toledo. Luna was a short man with an unusually small face, but he was a great horseman and a talented fighter. He was the most powerful man in Castile.48
Luna was en route to fight John II’s cause against the Aragonese, who had recently attacked. Crossing the River Tejo and climbing the steep steps away from the yellowing plains up to the Plaza de Zocódover, he demanded one million maravedís from Toledo for the campaign. The Toledanos were incensed; suspecting the rich converso tax collector Alonso Cota of instigating the tax, a mob gathered the next day, after Luna had departed, and sacked the Magdalena quarter, where the richest conversos lived. The targeting of scapegoats had begun.49
Luna was hardly a popular figure in Toledo. In justifying the riot to King John, the mayor (alcalde mayor) of Toledo, Pero de Sarmiento, described how for the past thirty years Luna had ‘tyrannically and dissipatedly devastated and usurped your kingdoms every day … seizing for himself the task of ruling and commanding and the glory and power of [the] Crown’.50 Near Toledo, Sarmiento continued, Luna had destroyed vines and plantations, killed or seized the residents and burnt their houses, ‘making war against us as if we were Moors’.51 Luna’s most grievous crime, however, was selling public offices to the highest bidder; he had dealt openly with conversos, ‘who are mostly infidels and heretics, and have Judaized and Judaize [were secret Jews while outwardly Christian]’.52
John II was one of the weakest kings Castile had had for a long time. Tall, blond and pale-faced, he was more interested in reading, hunting in the woods, singing and playing musical instruments than in ruling.53 He left the daily running of the kingdom’s affairs to Luna, and this was the cause of much resentment. Luna was said to be richer than all the nobles and bishops of Spain put together.54 If there was any town or property near his own he had to have it, and so ‘his estate grew like the plague’.55
This was, then, the condition of the kingdom when Luna arrived in Toledo early in 1449. Power under John II had become increasingly concentrated; witch-hunts of imaginary enemies took place, and some collaborated to rob others. It was a foretaste of the Inquisition; the feebleness of the king had allowed dangerous precedents to be set.56
Having sanctioned the riot against the conversos of Toledo, Mayor Sarmiento needed to find some justification for his behaviour. Moreover the attack on Luna’s converso ally Cota was a thinly veiled attack on the king himself. When John II arrived, Sarmiento refused to allow him in, and instead bombarded the royal party with arrows and stones from the bluster of crags upon which Toledo perched.57 Sarmiento then threw numerous gentlemen, ladies, monks and nuns out of the city. An excuse for all this had to be found, and, in keeping with the initial riot of 27 January, it was found in the conversos.
On 5 June 1449 Sarmiento published his so-called Sentencia-Estatuto on behalf of the city. In this he described how the conversos slaughtered lambs on Maundy Thursday, eating them and ‘making other sorts of Jewish holocausts and sacrifices’.58 They had recently gathered and plotted to seize the city and destroy the Old Christians. In view of the arbitrary power which they exercised over Christians and the dubiousness of their Christian faith, the conversos were banned from all official posts in the city and from acting as witnesses.59 Only those who could prove their limpieza de sangre (the absence of any Jewish ancestry) could hold public office.
The arguments of the rebels in Toledo did not stand up. If Luna was such a tyrant that he appointed conversos to tyrannize Old Christians, it could not be true that the conversos were all-powerful in the city (as they answered to Luna); while if the conversos were all-powerful, Luna could not be such a tyrant.60 Moreover the accusation that conversos were bloodsucking financiers was a wild generalization, since the vast majority of conversos in Toledo and elsewhere in Spain did not work in finance and were artisans.61 As with the history of scapegoating in general, the activities of a few were extended to the whole.62
The inconsistencies of the argument suggest that the religious failings of the conversos–the supposed justification for the statute enacted against them–were, if not simply false, exaggerated to promote the rebels’ own political agenda.63 If religion was so important to the outbreak of violence against conversos, it is difficult to understand why, after the pogroms of 1391, Jews were able to live in such peace in 15th-century Spain that people migrated there from both Portugal and North Africa to join Jewish communities.64 Many conversos had actually risen to powerful positions in the Church and were unimpeachable Christians; the same accusations could not be made against all of them with a clear conscience.
In fact, one of the crucial differences between Jews and conversos was that in the 15th century the Jews were agriculturalists and lived in small towns,65 whereas the conversos tended to congregate in large urban centres where power was increasingly concentrated. Resentment of conversos can therefore at least partly be ascribed to animosity towards the new urban concentrations of power,66
The 1449 rebels of Toledo put forward several justifications for the attack on the converso quarter and the suppression of converso rights. Yet these justifications were mutually incompatible, and merely served to show that the assault was driven by a different and more shadowy agenda. In the dusty, frightened and remote towns of medieval Spain, the chain of events which led to the establishment of the Inquisition had begun with the invention of a fictitious threat. Thus emerged the first great lie of so many.
THE VIOLENCE AGAINST conversos spread rapidly. Just two weeks after the publication of Sarmiento’s statute in Toledo, on 18 June 1449, the conversos of the nearby city of Ciudad Real led by Juan Gonçalez, ‘knowing that at this time they were sure to be robbed’, formed a militia of 300 men and marched through the city, shouting that before they were despoiled they would burn the city to the ground. This desperate action–a foretaste of the events in Zaragoza of 1485–merely provoked their enemies. Riots broke out on Tuesday 8 July. The converso quarter was sacked and looted.67
Violence against conversos became a feature of Castilian life for the next thirty years.g In 1474 Ciudad Real was again the focus. The riot began on 6 October, when a mob ‘poured out of houses and monasteries … killing fifteen people, and robbing and sacking all the property of the victims, taking jewels and merchandise … neither possession nor store was left which was not robbed, and they stole the cattle from the fields around the city … burning many of their stores and homes … and when [the conversos] retreated to claim asylum in the alcazar (fortress) of the city with the chief magistrate the mob fought and entered the alcazar and knocked down its towers and killed many people … and after having killed them they threw their bodies in the caves and the fields for the dogs to eat’.68 Those conversos found were killed, but the hatred was not universal; eight conversos sheltered in the house of an Old Christian, Pedro de Torres, who hid them and so saved their lives.69
The violence directed at the conversos would have been difficult to justify without good arguments. Fortunately for the rioting Old Christian population, the failings of the conversos were said to be many. Their enemies painted elaborate pictures of how their customs in the years ‘before the Inquisition were no more nor less than those of the stinking Jews themselves’.70
Yet if the conversos were hated by the Christians, the Jews liked them no better. The rabbis of North Africa repeatedly stated that they were assimilating into Christian life and by the middle of the 15th century saw them as voluntary converts,71 while in Spain the Jews testified falsely against them when the Inquisition was finally founded.72 The conversos were therefore in the unenviable position of being seen as Jews by the Christians and as Christians by the Jews; each saw them as an ambiguous group and wanted to exclude them.
Everyone hated them, yet it was impossible to generalize about the faith of conversos. Families were split down the middle. One widow in 1470 requested in her will that her Christian daughter Margarita and Jewish son Vidal should ‘deal with one another in seemly fashion and shall live in peace and unity and love’.73 In some families the husband would be Jewish and the wife Christian. Some conversos would circumcize themselves and keep some of the Jewish fasts but not all, and some of the Christian ones but not all.74 One satire depicted the converso as having the cross at his feet, the Koran at his chest and the Torah at his head, testament to the confusion and ambiguities which their position as outsiders had forced on conversos.75
The caricature of converso life put about by their enemies was therefore far from the truth; there was no evidence of a hidden and subversive Judaizing movement among them in this period,76 and those conversos who did keep Jewish customs often did so more in a cultural than religious fashion.77 Many of them, we should recall, were the children of people who had converted to Christianity in good faith.h Indeed, where there was evidence of active Judaizing among conversos, this appears to have been awoken by their persecution as ‘Jews’.78 Where a softer approach might well have led to genuine assimilation, the very exaggeration of the minority’s supposedly seditious behaviour actually created the threatening ideology which the Inquisition was supposedly formed to eradicate.79
CONSIDER THE PIOUS archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, Rodrigo de Luna, who raped a young girl he was supposed to be caring for at a wedding party,80 or the great flame seen in the sky and the stones that rained upon the plains of Old Castile just before the death of Henry IV in 1474, or the curious behaviour of Henry IV’s pet lions–the younger ones ganged up on the dominant beast and ate him.81 Portents of evil were everywhere. The faithful set out on processions. They made vows as they sought to stave off the dangers that surrounded them. Yet the signs of doom worsened. On 29 July 1478 came the most terrifying sign of all: a total eclipse of the sun made everything go black, so that the stars appeared in the sky as if it were night. People fled to the churches, and it appeared that Spain was on the brink of a great terror.82
There was one source of hope: the reign of the Reyes Católicos, who had taken control of Castile in 1476. Ferdinand was of medium build, with a demeanour that swung between gravity and laughter, and was renowned for his lofty thoughts and his love of hunting. Isabella had become queen of Spain following the death of her half-brother Henry IV. She was tall and well-built, and had chosen Ferdinand over all other suitors, apparently out of love. For much of their marriage Isabella would sleep with her maidservants and attendants whenever Ferdinand was away to preserve her reputation for fidelity.83 She loved wearing verdugos, skirts fashioned on a rigid frame and made very wide which scandalized the churchmen of the day for being, as Isabella’s own confessor Fernando de Talavera put it in 1477, ‘vain and without benefit … indecent and shameless because it very easily allows for the feet and legs to be revealed.’84
With Ferdinand heir to the Aragonese crowni and Isabella now in control of Castile the hope was that the two would unite Spain and end all divisions. Among some people, however, there were whispers that Isabella trusted her converso courtiers more than Old Christians.85 During the anti-converso 1470s this was something that the Reyes Católicos would have to address if they were to achieve the universal support of Castilians. It was in Seville that the chance first came their way.
Seville was then on the cusp between Moorish and Christian identities. Challenging the lingering atmosphere of the old medina were the tiny plazas springing up everywhere–over eighty of them–so that ‘there [was] not a gentleman in Seville who [did] not have a small square outside his house, nor a church that did not have one or two’.86 The city was enclosed by a great wall over four miles long, built by its Muslim Almohad rulers in the 12th century.87 The wall protected against a sudden rise in the Guadalquivir, but it also separated the urban society inside from the orchards that stretched to fill the river plain. It characterized an embattled mentality.
In 1477, the year after taking power in Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella went to Andalusia to try to resolve the civil wars which had been raging there since 1471. Reaching Seville, they stayed at the old Moorish alcazar, just next to the vast cathedral. Each day the queen would sit on a high platform covered with a gold cloth, while beneath her the bishops and nobility sat on one side of her and the members of her council and court on the other. For two months her secretary would bring her the petitions of plaintiffs, and Isabella would try to resolve them within three days at most. Here, the queen saw at first hand the enmities which had tom the region apart during the wars between the followers of the marquis of Cádiz and the duke of Medina Sidonia.88
A visitor arrived from Sicily, subject to the Aragonese crown. Felipe de Barberis was attached to the old medieval Inquisition in Sicily, and he suggested that the Reyes Católicos found one in Spain. He was supported by the prior of the Dominicans in Seville, Alonso de Ojeda, who urged action against the conversos.89 The idea of an Inquisition had been circulating at court for some years, following the writings of the Franciscan friar Alonso de Espina in the 1450s.90 Espina’s ideas now found a receptive audience. It is said that the Reyes Católicos were shown a panorama of the city one Friday night; none of the chimneys in the converso quarter was sending up smoke. Significantly, their religion prohibited Jews from lighting fires on their sabbath running from the eve of Friday to the eve of Saturday.
Ferdinand and Isabella were convinced. They sent embassies to the Vatican to plead their case. On 1 November 1478 Pope Sixtus IV issued the bull Exigit Sincerae Devotionis Affectus, the foundational papal bull of the Spanish Inquisition. In keeping with the confusion in Andalusia, the religious and political motivations for the new Inquisition were confused in the bull: ‘We are aware that in different cities of your kingdoms of Spain many of those who were regenerated by the sacred baptismal waters of their own free will have returned secretly to the observance of the laws and customs of the Jewish [faith] … because of the crimes of these men and the tolerance of the Holy See towards them civil war, murder and innumerable ills afflict your kingdoms’.91
As with Toledo in 1449, the distinct political and religious reasons suggested here for the Inquisition are revealing. It was not simply a matter of Ferdinand’s desire to plunder converso goods or the papacy’s desire to extend its influence to Castile.92 The modernizing forces driving urbanization, and later the expansion towards America, created social discord and strife which needed to be displaced. The monarchs saw this at first hand in Seville in 1477, and then were presented with a solution: the violence would be displaced and directed at the conversos through an Inquisition. This, combined with a renewed assault on the Muslims of Granada, funded in part through the confiscations of goods of the ‘Judaizing’ conversos,93 would serve to unite Christians and lance the boil of the arguments then dividing them.94
Ah, glorious, brave, adventurous Spain! One wanders the whitewashed carcasses of imperial towns from Mexico to Peru, Ecuador to Uruguay, wondering how this arid appendage of the European continent achieved so much in such a short time. Yet it turned out to be a very simple matter: the great power which Spain was to become forged its sense of purpose in part through the invention of an enemy: the persecution of the conversos and the recapture of Grenada allowed for a renewed sense of national togetherness and strength in Spain.95
THE FIRST CASTILIAN inquisitors were appointed on 27 September 1480. When the two men, Miguel de Murillo and Juan de San Martin, neared Seville, local preachers and members of the nobility came out of the city to meet them. Some went as far as the town of Carmona, a day’s ride from the city, to offer them gifts and hospitality.96 The welcome must have confirmed in the inquisitors’ minds that theirs was a popular undertaking. Their power, and the deference which some were prepared to give them on account of it, was something that neither of them can have experienced before. The edict of grace was read in the cathedral of Seville, and the legalized war against the conversos began.
As the inquisitors arrived, others fled. Many conversos crossed the border into Portugal; others went to Italy and Morocco, and some travelled as far as India.97 One refugee was Yahuda Ben Verga, who fled to Portugal as soon as the Inquisition was established. Before departing he left three doves in the window of his house in Seville, each with broken wings. On the first, which was plucked and had had its throat slit, was a note saying, ‘These are those who left it too late to leave’. On the second, which was plucked but alive, the note said, ‘These are those who cut it fine’. On the third, an otherwise healthy bird with all its feathers, the note said, ‘These are those who got out first’.98
Many shared Ben Verga’s feelings. Business slumped as people fled, taking their money with them. The capital flight caused tax receipts to collapse, while creditors of the conversos– including many Church institutions and foreign traders–were left with bad debts.99 The fact that there were also Jews in Andalusia was said to make the heresies of the conversos worse, and so the Jews were expelled from Cordoba and Seville in 1483.100 However, the Inquisition had no powers over Jews or indeed over any non-Christians; it could only prosecute baptized Christians who had committed heresy against the Church.
Some conversos wanted to fight. A group gathered at the house of Diego de Susán, one of the most important merchants in Seville, who came from a family that had previously been prominent in Toledo.101 Among the others involved were Abolafia, ‘the scented one’, who ran the customs house for the Reyes Católicos, Pero Fernández Benadova, among the most senior figures in the cathedral chapter, and the Adalfe family of Triana, who lived in the castle on the far side of the Guadalquivir.102
These said to one another: ‘Are we going to let them come against us like this! Aren’t we the richest people in this city, well-loved by the people? Let’s raise a militia! You can get so many people ready; and you can get some more, etc … And if they come to get us, with our guards we’ll make a disturbance out of the whole thing, and kill them all, and revenge ourselves against our enemies’ … then an old Jew who was there raised his voice: ‘Children, noble people, on my life I think that everything is ready. But where are your souls? I want to see souls!’103
The plot was revealed by Susán’s daughter, known as the fermosa fembra–the beautiful maid–who was a devoted Christian. She appears to have believed that she was doing the soul of her father a good turn.104 Susán and the others were thrown into the castle at Triana, which was used as the inquisitorial jail, and the sentences of burning began to be pronounced. At the first auto, on 6 February 1481, six people were burnt.105 The condemned were led forward barefoot, wearing the yellow penitential robe, the sanbenito, and holding a candle. Guarded by halberdiers, they were preceded by a Dominican in his black robes holding the green cross of the Inquisition and by officers of the Inquisition marching in twos. The condemned were followed by the inquisitors and the Dominican prior Alonso de Ojeda, who had mooted an Inquisition to the Reyes Católicos back in 1477.
Outside the cathedral Ojeda preached the sermon. When he had finished, the condemned were handed over to the secular authorities, for the moral scruples of the inquisitors meant that they were not permitted to burn people themselves. Then the six victims were led out by the crown bailiffs to the quemadero– the burning place. This was a scaffold in the fields outside Seville’s city walls built for the express purpose of staging autos. The scaffold remained for over 300 years, into the 19th century, with four large statues at the comers known as the ‘four prophets’. The statues were hollow, and the condemned would be put inside to die slowly in the flames.106 In this way, even if the number of burnings was not high, fear could be implanted deep in the heart of society.107
After this first purging, another auto followed on 26 March at which seventeen people were burnt. By November, 298 people had been burnt outside the city.108 Between 1481 and 1488 at least 700 people were burnt at Seville alone, and another 5,000 were reconciled and had their goods seized.109 Seville had never seen anything like it. Records of the doings of the Inquisition read like something from a satire:
Sunday, May 2nd 1484: On this day, Sunday, a procession of reconciled conversos set out in the morning to go from the church of San Salvador to the monastery of San Pablo, bearing the cross of San Salvador: there were 120 reconciled men and 217 reconciled women, and they all wore their sanbenitos; and this day the officiating priest Rebelledo was sacked, and condemned to perpetual imprisonment.
May 9th: On this day, Sunday, at the hour of Mass a procession of 94 men and women was taken to be put in the castle in Triana, since they had been condemned to perpetual imprisonment as heretics … they were taken to the sound of litanies …110
The castle could not cope with the numbers of those condemned to ‘perpetual imprisonment’ and the streets filled with people clad in sanbenitos, embossed with crosses on the front and the back, which the reconciled were obliged to wear as testament to their shame even after their appearance in an auto.111 Seville was thick with litanies and the condemned, a threnody for what Spain had been and for what it was to become. A city in which conflict had until recently been a matter of politics now bore the scars of religious struggles.
The result was increasing polarization and fundamentalism, justified by religion but feeding off something else. When Susán was burnt, he appeared to die a Christian,112 which suggests that evidence for the Judaizing of his group was extremely thin. What was more, his repentance should have meant that he was spared death in the flames according to previous inquisitorial practice; what the excesses revealed was that religion was an excuse rather than the guiding motivation.
In many ways, when looking at the decision of the Reyes Católicos to establish an Inquisition in Seville in 1477, it is difficult to see what choice they had in the matter. Human nature appears prone to creating scapegoats in times of crisis. Had Ferdinand and Isabella not sought to stabilize their kingdoms, they doubtless would have been among the first to suffer from the continuing rebellions.
What was new in their Spanish Inquisition was not persecution, but the institutionalization of persecution. The crisis had been provoked by the modernization of Spanish society in the 15th century, and the Inquisition was the first modern persecuting institution in history.113It was the fear and distrust which people felt towards the economic requirements of the new social system which ensured that the conversos would be among the first victims of the modem world. And yet it was not the conversos alone who suffered; just weeks after the first auto the plague swept across Seville, and among the very first victims was Alonso de Ojeda, the prior who had lobbied so hard for the Inquisition in the first place.
Ciudad Real 1483
BY THE TIME the Inquisition began its work in Seville, Ciudad Real, remote and high on the Castillian meseta, was waiting to explode. If one strayed onto the plains north towards Toledo or south towards Cordoba, one entered baking, desiccated, hostile territory. It was easy to internalize that hostility and direct it at one’s friends and neighbours. In April 1483 the new Inquisition established a court in Ciudad Real; the riots against the conversos of 1474 had passed, but this time they would not be allowed to escape.
As soon as the court was established it was flooded with business. The Inquisition office was located in a public area, and if someone was seen entering others would worry about who was being denounced. People knew that if they did not present themselves freely to declare something that was–or ought to have been on their conscience, they could well end up on the quemadero. Thus one denunciation led to another, and the new court was so pressured that their only free days were holy days and those Sundays when no autos were held.114
One of the first cases was against Sancho de Çibdad and his wife Mari. They had fled the city two weeks before the arrival of the inquisitors. Sancho was a powerful local figure, a town councillor and tax collector with many enemies. He was accused of acting as a rabbi, keeping Jewish festivals and mocking Jesus; he had been seen praying in Hebrew in a cart, and insisted that people bring him animals alive (presumably so as to kill them according to Jewish ritual); other people came from all over the converso quarter to his house to pray in a tower there.115 Another converso religious leader in Ciudad Real was said to be Maria Diaz, ‘la Çerera’, who had also fled; she was said by many witnesses to keep the Jewish sabbath, lighting a candle on Friday nights, refusing to work on Saturdays, and never going to church.116
The truth was that evidence of Judaizing activity among the conversos was extremely mixed. There was some proof, such as the Hebrew prayer found in the house of the cobbler Juan Alegre117 and the Hebrew prayer book found being read by the spice merchant Juan Falcon on the Jewish sabbath.118 Much of the evidence, however, was stretched to its limits. Many of the depositions against the Çibdad family and la Çerera, for instance, referred to events that had happened at least ten years previously–and in Çibdad’s case, some of it was from thirty years before. Another defendant, Juan Gonzáléz Pintado, had paid for an altar and a statue of the Virgin in the church of Santo Domingo, and numerous priests said they had seen him at mass and confessing, and that he ate pork. Tragically for Pintado, however, he had been the secretary of John II and Henry IV, and the political rather than strictly religious nature of the Spanish Inquisition ensured that he was burnt anyway.119
So the Inquisition in Ciudad Real, far from only punishing genuine heretics, burnt just as many good Catholics as it did people whose religious outlook was more mixed. As would prove often to be the case, sincere Catholics were among the principal victims of the Inquisition. In fact, what really emerges from the trial records of the city is the envy and family discord at the heart of so many of the cases–emotions that meant that some of the denunciations were sure to be malicious.
In the trial of Sancho and Mari de Çibdad, for instance, one of the witnesses was the couple’s daughter Catalina, who gave evidence of her life in the family home as a child many years before and also accused her brother Diego and sister Teresa of Judaizing.120 In another case, the son of one Catalina de Zamora went to his mother’s house when he heard that the Inquisition was to come to Ciudad Real, and said, ‘Listen, you old whore: if the inquisitors come here, I’ll make sure that you and your sisters are burnt as Jews, and I’ll make sure that the bones of your Jewish mother are exhumed and burnt as well’.121 This sorry excuse for a human being, a friar in the town, clearly believed that his family’s blood should not be thicker than water–there should simply be more of it.
Some will find it hard to understand how people could say and do such terrible things. Yet possible motivations are easy to imagine: perhaps Catalina de Zamora’s son had always resented being groomed for a career as a celibate in the Church and had keened for revenge; perhaps he felt excluded by the vestiges of Judaizing culture in his family and wanted to punish others for the shame he felt. Certainly, these were unhappy lives, and for some the persecution of the Inquisition, following on from all this bitterness, was the final straw: one prisoner, Juana Gonzalez, committed suicide on 29 November 1483 by drowning herself in a pool by the house where she was kept under guard.122
Around fifty people are thought to have been burnt in 1483 and 1484 in Ciudad Real, a significant number for a relatively small, isolated town in medieval Spain.123 The cases graphically reveal the reasons for the desperation of the conversos, who had converted from a desire to assimilate but were rejected by the very people with whom they wished to become one. Many of the trials–such as those of Sancho de Çibdad and Juan González Pintado–were clearly political. In other cases, people who confessed their sins were burnt anyway.124
The conversos of Ciudad Real were evidently neither all Judaizers nor all Catholics, but occupied various positions in between. With time, they probably would have been assimilated into the wider cultural ambience. Those who really longed to be Jews could have joined the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492 to lands where they could practise their faith openly. But the conversos of Ciudad Real were not allowed this luxury, and the flight of so many people from the city on hearing of the coming of the inquisitors merely reflected the fact that they knew that they would not get a fair trial.
This was certainly the case with Sancho and Mari de Çibdad. The distinguished couple fled the brown heart of Castile for the port of Valencia. Here they hoped to escape to Italy. They set sail and were at sea for five days until headwinds drove them back to port. There they were arrested and taken back to Ciudad Real, before being transferred to Toledo–the Inquisition had moved here from Ciudad Real in 1485–and the following year Sancho and Mari de Çibdad were the first conversos to be burnt to death in an auto in the very city where the anti-converso movement had originally begun, on that rocky redoubt above the plains.125
THEATRE HAS PERHAPS always been the province of religion. At the death of John Paul II in April 2005 and the acclamation of his successor Benedict XVI the seething crowds in St Peter’s Square reminded the world of the spectacle that only faith can deliver. Just a week after Benedict XVI’s inaugural Sunday mass the possibility of theatre’s corruption by power was also apparent. The crowds were still there, as were the newly printed autobiographies of Ratzinger/ Benedict on all the stalls around the piazza. Only in the great cathedral itself, with its hanging friezes of sunlight stilled in the haunting nave, did spirituality fully assert itself above publicity and the potential of every spectacle to turn to violence.
The papacy, with its ancient history and keen appreciation of balances of power, was always a moderating influence on the Spanish Inquisition. In 1481, newly confident from the success of the inquisitors in Seville, Ferdinand had replaced the papal inquisitors of Valencia with his own nominees, Cristofor de Gualbes and Joan Orts. Hearing of this and of the violence of the inquisitors in Seville, Pope Sixtus IV–aware that this all represented a radical departure from previous inquisitorial procedure–protested in January 1482.
Hearing repeated reports of outrages and petitioned by conversos over injustice, soon the pope went further. On 18 April 1482 he issued a new bull which proposed to clip the wings of the new institution. In this Sixtus IV described how the inquisitors had accepted evidence from the enemies and slaves of the accused, how they had proceeded not out of zeal for the faith but out of greed for material gain, and how the result was a procedure with no legitimacy, a pernicious example and a lachrymose scandal for all to see. Instead, he declared, the new Spanish Inquisition could only proceed with the approval of bishops; it had to reveal the names of accusers and witnesses; it had to suspend cases to hear appeals; and it had to accept any confession as having the effect of absolving the defendant.126
Sixtus IV’s proposals were hardly severe but, given the fundamentally political motivations of the new tribunal, the Reyes Católicos were furious. Ferdinand wrote angrily to the pope arguing that the heresy of the conversos was now too widespread to be stemmed except through the institution. Eventually, in October 1482, Sixtus caved in and suspended the norms he had proposed for the Inquisition in Spain.
Soon matters became even worse. In May 1483 the court of appeal for the Inquisition in Castile was moved from Rome into the hands of the archbishop of Seville, Íñigo de Manrique. In July 1485 the Reyes Católicos even ordered the Church authorities in Toledo to suspend papal bulls obtained by conversos to protect them from the new tribunal.127 Hereafter the ability of the Inquisition in Spain to act without papal interference was certain.
It was this process that permitted the Inquisition to spread rapidly across Spain. After the tribunal was installed in Seville in 1480, new courts of the Inquisition were founded at Cordoba, Valencia and Zaragoza in 1482, Barcelona in 1484, Llerena and Toledo in 1485, Murcia, Valladolid and Majorca in 1488 and Cuenca in 1489.128 Autos also occurred where there was no tribunal, such as at Guadalupe in 1485, where fifty-two people were burnt in person, twenty-seven in effigy, and forty-six corpses were dug up and burnt for good measure.129 The chronicler Hernando de Pulgar–himself a converso– said that 2,000 people were burnt across Spain in these years;130 or, as another chronicler put it ‘an infinite number were burnt and condemned and reconciled and imprisoned in every archbishopric of Castile and Aragon. And many of the reconciled reverted to Judaizing and were burnt because of it, in Seville and across Castile’.131
This expansion of the Inquisition was pushed through by the zealous Tomás de Torquemada, the first inquisitor-general. Torquemada was a dark man with a healthy complexion. He was a Dominican friar and the confessor of the Reyes Católicos; when he tried to tell Isabella that he was only human, she is said to have replied, ‘Confessor, I only feel that I am with an angel from heaven when I am with your’.132
Torquemada was appointed inquisitor-general on 17 October 1483, and the following year the Suprema, or supreme council, was founded under his leadership. He had the power to appoint inquisitors as he saw fit, and in October 1484 all the inquisitors gathered at a council in Seville after which Torquemada issued a set of instructions to guide their judicial practice. He remained at court until 1496, suffering badly from gout in his later years.133 The rich diet which tends to lead to this condition may also have produced an excess of full-bloodedness which his life as a monk could not satisfy; perhaps this made him peculiarly suited to the demands of his job with the Inquisition, which required, after all, a peculiar mixture of anger, repression and energy.
Under Torquemada’s stewardship of the Inquisition, Spain became a very different place. The fires spread from Seville in the south to Zaragoza in the north. Everywhere people were aware that something radically new had begun. By 1488 there were so many prisoners that the jails were full and people had to live under house arrest instead.134 An atmosphere of extremism developed which meant that the expulsion of the Jews, in 1492, and of the Muslims of Granada in 1502, seemed natural steps. The convivencia had gone forever, and by 1526–after the forced conversion of the Muslims of Aragon–no non-Catholics would be permitted to form part of the Spanish nation. The development of the Inquisition implied that loyalty to the state required adhering to the new militancy; a piece of aggression that had been conceived in political expediency had ended up dismantling a way of life.
IN ZARAGOZA, THE AUTOS rumbled on through the last years of the 15th century. By 1502, at least 116 people had been burnt, with another thirty-two in effigy.135 The struggles between Ferdinand and the papacy over the new inquisitors, and between Garces de Marcilla and his relatives and the officials in Teruel, had been resolved in fire; there should now have been no question but that the institution was here to stay, but the Aragonese continued to resist it.
Over the next fifty years, appeals were regularly made in Aragon for the reform of inquisitorial procedure. This culminated in 1533, when during the Aragonese Cortes at Monzón a violent protest occurred against the new institution. According to representatives at the Cortes, inquisitors had imprisoned people for crimes outside their jurisdiction; they had tried people where there was no evidence of heresy and just a few blasphemous words had come out in the heat of the moment; they had threatened grocers with the Inquisition when they came with their wares to inquisitorial offices.136
One of the main locations of resistance was Sicily, at the time subject to the inquisitorial court of the crown of Aragon. Here in Palermo, sheltered from the world by the great bay and the knifeedged mountains behind the port, over seventy people were killed in autos between June 1511 and January 1516.137 Thirty-five people were burnt in 1513 alone. The Sicilian parliament protested at the proceedings, ‘by which people were taken to the stake shouting out their innocence in vain and that they had only confessed under torture their guilt, which did not in fact exist’.138 The atmosphere was so highly charged that year that when an unbalanced man, Battista Rizzo, seized the host from a priest’s hands on Easter day in Catania he was burnt alive by a mob.139
Matters came to a head on news of the death of Ferdinand in 1516 when mobs gathered in the streets of Palermo. The Aragonese viceroy had to flee almost 200 miles across the island to Messina to escape. The mob turned its attentions to the Inquisition, which was located in the viceroy’s palace in Palermo. For three days the palace was besieged by the crowd, until eventually the inquisitor, Cervera, fled holding the Eucharist in his hands. Brought in to do God’s bidding, one wonders how the inquisitor explained such events to himself: God’s judgment? The triumph of the devil? Cervera rushed to the waterside and escaped into the great bay by ship, while the mob sacked the entire palace, burning the Inquisition’s archive, freeing its prisoners, and stealing even the windows and the doors.140
Such vengeance is particularly striking since both Aragon and Sicily had had inquisitors before under the old medieval institution. The string of revolts from Sicily to Teruel and Zaragoza emphasized the fact that this was a fundamentally new inquisition. Confiscation of goods had not existed previously, and the secrecy of witnesses had been guaranteed only in cases where there were threats against their lives.141 What is perhaps of most significance in these complaints and rebellions is that neither Aragon nor Sicily had been affected by the civil wars of Castile. There was thus no need for a persecuting institution or scapegoat, even though as in Castile there were large numbers of conversos. It is this above all which reveals that the religious grounds for the institution of the Inquisition were a sham and an invention of propaganda.142
The resistance of Aragon and the papacy to the new Spanish Inquisition invites us to speculate that those who had lived with the old Inquisition sensed that, under the Reyes Católicos, an arbitrariness and cruelty had accompanied the increase in inquisitorial power. These people did not trust the monarchs’ stated motivations for their violent conduct. Even if we are to judge the Inquisition according to the standards of the time it is found wanting.
The really important question to ask is how this position could have been prevented in the first place; how the factionalism and the violent hatreds which settled on a sort of racial persecution could have been prevented.143 Certainly, if Castile had not been riven by conflicts, this reality and the new Inquisition could have been avoided. These conflicts were part of a searching towards a national identity in Spain, something which for linguistic and cultural reasons occurred earlier here than elsewhere in Europe.144 145 146 The factionalism was in part the result of weak kings, but it also resulted from powerful interest groups grasping at power and attempting to strengthen their material position, unaware that by inventing the converso enemy and painting it in the worst light possible, all sorts of disastrous consequences would result.
ON THE GROUND FLOOR of the famous Prado museum in Madrid, near the room where the macabre creations of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel the Elder hint at some of the darkness that can be involved in being human, is a gallery devoted to the work of Pedro de Berruguete. Berruguete was perhaps the most important artist in the Spain of the Reyes Católicos. One of the paintings in the gallery was finished in around 1495; it is called Auto de Fe. Berruguete’s Auto de Fe depicts St Dominic presiding over an auto of Albigensian heretics in the 13th century. The Albigensians had been the first targets of the medieval Inquisition in southern France. The saint is portrayed benevolently, but what is most striking is the air of serenity and justice which envelops the dignitaries around him. The prelates, nobles and monks barely watch the little men beneath them as they are led to the flames. One of the monks is even asleep, his face red with postprandial torpor. Meanwhile, two of the Albigensians are already being licked by the flames, and others are being taken up to join them.
Whenever I visit the Prado, taking a break from the archives of the Inquisition, I go to look at this painting. It is the calmness, indeed the indifference, of the dignitaries to the fates of the condemned which is striking. Groups chosen for sacrifice are always dehumanized by societies, just like the goat offered to Abraham by God in place of the life of his son Isaac. Their suffering is not supposed to be a cause for concern. One suspects that what Berruguete has successfully depicted here is the attitude of many of his contemporaries towards the fate of the conversos.
One of the details of this painting relates to the condemned men at the stake. Here, short metal spurs stick out from beneath their genitals; the spurs taper away at the end, as if circumcized. With this oblique reference to the Judaizing conversos, there can be no doubt that Berruguete intends his portrait of the past to raise important moral questions about the present. Even today, it speaks to us about the nature of persecution and the forces which can provoke it, which bubble away beneath even the wealthiest and most ordered of societies.
Copyright © Toby Green 2007