Few events in the history of the world have been so beclouded and misrepresented as the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition. Marginal influences and questionable factors, let alone secondary causes, have vied with myths and groundless conjectures for the title of the primary cause of the Inquisition. It is not our purpose here to determine the reasons for this enormous distortion of truth, which has penetrated all branches of literature, including the scholarly, on all levels. This task has been reserved for another study of much greater complexity and broader scope. In the following pages we shall confine ourselves to the examination of some well-known theories espoused by leading scholars to explain the rise of the Inquisition. We shall also try to arrive, by a process of elimination, at the heart of the issue under consideration. What then brought about the establishment of the Inquisition, and what made it work the way it did? Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, few authors doubted the answers that had been given to these questions by historians. The essence of these answers was clear and uniform: The Inquisition was established to uproot a heresy which was spreading subversively among the Marranos [i.e., converted Jews or conversos]; its carriers were devotees of Judaism who were, as the Catholic Kings put it: "Christians in name and appearance only." They had to be stopped before they advanced further, and this is what led to the Inquisition's actions. To be sure, some claimed that these actions were brutal, cruel, and harsh beyond justification; others maintained that, though extremely harsh, they were necessary to cope with the problem at hand; while a number of authors denied altogether that the Inquisition employed rigorous measures, some of them arguing that it was, on the contrary, humane, considerate, even merciful. I may say, in passing, that I consider the latter view unhistorical, or plainly untrue. But this is not what I now seek to stress. What I wish to point out is that, regardless of the variety of opinions expressed concerning the Inquisition's methods, there was unanimity concerning its goals. In fact, for centuries all scholars agreed that the Inquisition had but one aim: the stamping out of a clandestine Judaic heresy among the Marranos. [...]
This is not the occasion to describe the course of anti-Judaism in the Iberian Peninsula. I shall merely say that Jewish history in Spain proceeded along the same cycle of development noticed in most countries of the Diaspora. It had its rise, climax, and decline, and in each of these stages the relationship between the Jews and the host people or, more precisely, the majority population assumed a different character. It moved from friendliness and cooperation through competition and great tension to bitter
hostility and mutual recrimination. The period of decline of Spanish Jewry, like that of the Jewries in other countries, was accompanied by massacres and sharp limitations of rights. But in Spain something peculiar occurred, something that distinguished its Jewish community from all other Jewish communities in the West. In the course of the massacres and oppressive legislation, hundreds of thousands of Jews went over to Christianity, and thus the majority seemed to have been saved from either death or expulsion.
Now the big question is what happened to those Jews -- that is, what happened to them religiously -- after they had formally accepted Christianity. For a long time most scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, offered one answer to this question: the Marranos, when converted, were Jews at heart, and on the whole, they remained Jews at heart for the next ninety years. As these scholars saw it, then, nothing was essentially changed by the conversion, because the conversion was merely formal. However, as we see it, a lot had changed. We agree, of course, that in 1391 or 1412, when masses of Spain's Jews were converted to Christianity, they crossed the religious border fictitiously, but we must also bear in mind that, in so doing, they crossed other borders as well, those of society and culture, and these crossings were very real. Conversion served as their "ticket of admission" to Spain's Christian society, and once they had entered that society, they did not want to leave it -- or to put it positively, they wished to stay in it. This wish, combined with the despair of a Jewish future and the religious crisis induced by the events, produced a collapse of Jewish resistance on every front, including the religious.
It need scarcely be said that this development did not take place overnight. No doubt following the great wave of forced conversion -- that is, for some time after 1391 -- the movement of crypto-Judaism was strong. But as the documents indisputably show, it began to decline shortly after the conversion and progressed toward total assimilation. After three generations of Marrano life -- that is, life within the Hispano-Christian society -- very little positive interest in Judaism survived in the converso group.
But "total assimilation," as the conversos discovered, was much more complicated than they had thought. To be sure, where the "conversions" involved small numbers, the converts, though disliked, managed to assimilate -- first culturally, then ethnically, and finally vanish altogether. But in Spain after 1391 their number was large -- certainly too large to pass from view in a relatively short time. They formed compact groups within the cities, and their ethnic fusion proceeded slowly. They kept being recognized
as a group apartï¿½or, rather, as the same Jewish group, distinguished by its own peculiar characteristics, whose members were still seen by the Old Christians as outsidersï¿½ex illis, and not ex nobis. The basic distinction between "us" and "them"ï¿½that is, between "us," the people of the country, those to whom the country really belongs, and "them," the others, not of that people -- was felt strongly as before, or even more so. There was a difference here, a great difference, between the condition of the Jews and that of the conversos -- and it worked to the latter's disadvantage.
This leads us directly to the consideration of an issue that seems to me of the utmost importance. The Jews were virtually opposed as aliens, if not de
jure at least de facto, and the Christians could press for legal measures limiting their freedom of action. Similarly, foreign Christians such as the
Genoese, who were disliked and agitated against in Spain, could be easily classed as aliens. But these Jewish newcomers to the Christian faith defied
any definition of alienship and any distinction of identity. They claimed that their Christianity turned them overnight into full-fledged Spanish citizens, Castilian or Aragonese, exactly like the Old Christians. This was the position taken also by the Church and, more important, by the Crown; and, defended by these two powerful forces, the conversos now appeared to the Old Christians far more dangerous than the Jews had ever been, and, in the same proportion, they were also more hated. This odium, moreover, was based not only on fears and suspicions of what might happen, but on what was actually taking place, for the conversos assumed positions of authority that roused the people's ire to the point of explosion. How could they get rid of these New Christians who occupied such high positions in Church and state, and steadily advanced in all fields of activity, public as well as private? The very presence of these people in high places and the riches they acquired through their industry and enterprise were to the Old Christians intolerable. Apart from arousing their natural envy, these achievements of the conversos were seen by the Old Christians as illegal appropriation of the nation's wealth and the nation's positions of prestige and trust -- positions that by right belonged, in their opinion, exclusively to them, the Old Christians. There seemed only one solution to this problem. If Christianization saved the conversos from the Jewish status of alienship and endowed them with all the advantages they possessed, their deChristianization would deny them these advantages and put them back where they belonged.
Thus was born the idea of the false Christianity of the conversos, of their secret Judaism, and all the other accusations associated with it. We should not be surprised that such an idea could gain credence against all evidence to the contrary. Jewish history has shown that even libels without foundation -- indeed, without any foundation whatsoeverï¿½such as the ritual use of human blood, the desecration of the Host, or the diffusion of the Black Death -- could be accepted by multitudes as unquestionable facts and repeatedly used as excuses for persecution. And when I say "accepted," I do not mean to suggest that they merely gained formal assent. Of course, there were many among the accusers who knew well that they were propagating lies. But there were also many, especially in the audience, who believed these lies, believed them fully, however nonsensical they appear to us. We know that such beliefs may be generated by propaganda (in the modern sense of the word)ï¿½that is, by mere repetition of the falsehood -- but what is perhaps of greater importance is the receptive mood of the audience involved. Such a receptive mood, as we know, may be created by acute popular hatreds. They create the condition in which every conceivable evil, however absurd, about the object of hate may be readily believed because it satisfies a deep psychological need -- to justify the hatred and the desired end. Spain was swept by that kind of propaganda and was in that kind of receptive mood. For these reasons I have no doubt that many Spaniards of the fifteenth century actually believed that the Marranos were secret Jews, especially since this was not so great an absurdity and the claim had some foundation.
His exposition is devoted instead to two major themes. He deals, first, with the complicated social struggles in fifteenth-century Spain that created the historical situation in which the Holy Office was set up. This is an absorbing story, well told, though readers unfamiliar with the subject may occasionally get lost in the intricacies of late medieval politics. Secondly, he analyzes in detail and at length the controversies of the period in which the participants debated the beliefs, status, and culture of
the conversos. The central actors in his story are the conversos, or, as he usually calls them, the Marranos. We follow their history from the massacres of the year 1391, when many Jews turned Christian, to the civil conflicts between conversos and other Christians in Toledo and other Castilian cities in the 1440s. The main argument Netanyahu presents can be summarized, in simplified form, as follows.
By the latter part of the fifteenth century, the conversos of Spain -- numbering, at my own rough estimate, perhaps 100,000 people -- had become sincere Christians, quite distinct from the approximately 80,000 Jews who identified themselves as such. They had chosen, voluntarily or not, to convert during the years of persecution at the end of the fourteenth century. Three generations later they were fully fledged, genuine Christians, many of them occupying high political posts in the cities and in
the royal governments of Aragon and Castile. Their conversion to Christianity was often called into question by political opponents. But leading controversialists, including a cardinal in Rome and the leader of a great religious order in Castile, defended the genuineness of their beliefs.
Most convincingly of all, many Jewish rabbis, mainly in North Africa, who were consulted on the question of how Jews should treat conversos, ruled firmly that they were real Christians and in no way secret Jews. The rabbis could not possibly have taken this view if they and other Jews suspected that the conversos were their brethren. Right down to the time of the Inquisition, eminent converso Christians, including prominent members of the administration of Ferdinand and Isabella, strongly asserted the Christianity
of their people. There were occasional cases of judaizing, but the mass of conversos in Spain were Christians. (Indeed, after the conversos were persecuted under the Inquisition, the Jewish writings of the time, Netanyahu comments, contain "cold-blooded assertions that the Marranos got their due, an open manifestation of glee over their 'fall.' ")
These conclusions, which are central to Netanyahu's entire argument, seem to me wholly convincing. By coincidence, they are also the conclusions of another recently published study on the subject, by Professor Norman Roth of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If we accept them as correct, however, they raise a central question. Why, if there was no problem resulting from the judaizing of conversos, was the Inquisition created? If there were in fact no heretics, why invent a court to bring them to trial?
Netanyahu writes that three main factors led to the creation of the dreaded tribunal. First, by their exceptional success in public life the conversos provoked widespread enmity. Jews were non-Christians and therefore disqualified from holding public office, even though they had sometimes held other posts such as tax officials and estate administrators. Conversos, by contrast, were eligible for all public positions and honors. During the fifteenth century, conversos and their descendants rose to high office as
administrators, judges, and bishops. Many entered the nobility. In some cities their success provoked continuous rivalry, particularly in Toledo in the 1440s. Their enemies everywhere struggled to eliminate them by accusing them of being secret Jews. A new tribunal was required to deal with those who were accused.
Second, the clashes during the fifteenth century between Old (non-Jewish) Christians and New (converso) Christians, as the two categories were called, gave rise to conflicts over identity. In those conflicts, Netanyahu argues, we can see the birth of racism. Conversos could not be denounced by their enemies as Christians, for that was of course no crime; they were therefore denounced as "Jews." In many cities attempts were made to exclude them from office, and the notion of "blood purity" (limpieza de sangre, in Spanish) was conceived as a doctrine to be used against them; the only pure blood, so the theory went, was Christian. Jewish blood, and by extension converso
blood, was impure. In city after city, statutes were proposed which disqualified people of "impure" blood from entering universities, religious
orders, and city councils.
The most important of these statutes was adopted by the city council of Toledo in 1449, and in subsequent decades other institutions promulgated similar laws. Historians have frequently referred to the existence at this time of a "Marrano problem," by which they mean the alleged tendency of conversos to secretly practice Judaism. Netanyahu disagrees. For him what was in question was "the struggle of the Old Christians to reduce the status of the New." The statutes prescribing blood purity were an important weapon in this struggle. Drawing on his studies of converso practices and writings, Netanyahu adds a very important piece of information to help us understand one aspect of the racism of the time. He points out that many of the Marranos, long after their conversion, continued to look on themselves as a "nation," separate from Jews as well as Old Christians. "The Marranos," he writes,
were viewed as a distinct nationality which, in more ways than one, was related to the Jews. Indeed, not only did their enemies so regard them, but also their friends among the Old Christians; and, what is more, they were so regarded by the Marranos themselves. The latter, who insisted that religiously they were Christians and had nothing to do with Judaism and its followers, could not help admitting their actual belonging to a separate entity, which they clearly defined.
This, obviously, created a special identity which marked them out from others and fostered racism.
Third, the crown, in the person of King Ferdinand "the Catholic," decided to fortify its weak political position by allying itself with anti-converso forces. Neither the king nor Queen Isabella was anti-Semitic. They had been friendly toward individual conversos and Jews and they would continue to be so. But their political strategy turned them against conversos generally. Traditionally, Jewish historians have identified Isabella as the malign influence. Netanyahu, by contrast, sees Ferdinand as the dominant partner,
and he is unsparing in his characterization of him. Ferdinand is, for him, the real founder of the Inquisition. He did not establish the Holy Office for any religious reason; nor, as some have claimed, was it primarily his intention to prey on the accumulated wealth of the conversos. Robbery was only the incidental consequence of his anti-converso policy, not its main purpose. Ferdinand's motive was straightforward Realpolitik, an attempt to form an advantageous alliance.
These arguments are set out magisterially by Netanyahu in a smoothly linked narrative that combines scholarly evidence, careful reasoning, and passionate rhetoric. A reader with some knowledge of the history of the Inquisition might well ask: What of the thousands of cases which document the judaizing activities of the conversos? Do they not demonstrate that the inquisitors were responding to what they saw as a religious problem?
The archives of the Holy Office are among the richest sources of information available anywhere to historians. Carefully preserved by the inquisitorial bureaucracy, they offer minute detail not only on court cases but also on the private lives and practices of thousands of ordinary men and women who appeared before the judges. The papers of the Roman Inquisition are still not available for examination. But those of the Spanish Inquisition, housed in the national archive in Madrid, have for some time been available to
researchers. Henry Charles Lea and all other subsequent historians of the Holy Office have relied on them. So, too, have many Jewish historians. All of them have given full credence to the trial documents, but for differing reasons. The Jewish scholars, led by Baer, accepted the evidence of the documents because they demonstrated that the conversos were indeed heretics, and therefore at heart belonged to Israel. Ironically, then, these historians accepted that there was some justification for the Inquisition.
But who in his right mind, Netanyahu would ask, could accept as reliable, without separate corroborating evidence, the documents used by a secret police organization as evidence for prosecution? And who could accept such papers as justifying the existence of that police? Yet this, in his view, is what scholars of the Inquisition have done. Not surprisingly, some other historians have had doubts about the truth of the Inquisition documents. Netanyahu rejects them as unreliable, but he does not claim that they are
complete inventions. Virtually all the documents refer, he points out, to judaizing after the formation of the Holy Office. Before that date, he writes (and here the facts certainly support him), there is no reliable evidence of a judaizing movement on a scale to warrant the creation of a special judicial tribunal.
Marrano leaders and Jewish leaders said again and again that the New Christians were indeed Christians. "If this was the state of Judaism among the Marranos," writes Netanyahu, "the claim that the Inquisition was established to suppress a widespread crypto-Jewish movement in their midst must be regarded as untrue." Of course, he says, evidence of judaizing was produced after the Inquisition was established. But this was because many of the despairing, persecuted, New Christians reverted in their misery to the old faith. It was not the judaizing of the Marranos that produced the Inquisition, but the Inquisition that produced the judaizing of the Marranos.
Up to this point Netanyahu's argument makes sense. If it is generally accepted by historians, it must point Inquisition studies in a new direction and revolutionize our approach to the study of Spanish Jewry. The reasons he puts forward for the founding of the Inquisition must, however, be approached with considerable care. Spain's history in the fifteenth century has not been extensively studied, and the documentation is sparse. Netanyahu's three central arguments are entirely plausible but also raise difficulties that invite debate.