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The Secret of the Inquisition

The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain

by B. Netanyahu
Random House, 1,384 pp., $50.00

No institution in Western history has so fearful a reputation as the Spanish Inquisition. In the sixteenth century a Jewish writer referred to it as a “wild monster of such terrible mien that all of Europe trembles at the mere mention of its name.” Every nation opposed it during the period of its greatest influence. But it was the Jews who had most reason to hate it.

This fact is, in itself, odd. By Church law, the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptized Christians, not over those of another religion such as Jews and Muslims. There had been an Inquisition in Europe in the later Middle Ages but it did not touch the Jews. Instead, it dedicated itself to sorting out heretics like the Albigensians. Readers of Le Roy Ladurie’s brilliant book Montaillou will have met the inquisitors of the heretical sect of Cathars.

The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1480, was somewhat different. It devoted itself from the beginning to getting rid of Spaniards of Jewish origin, the conversos, sometimes also called Marranos. More than 95 percent of the thousands it disciplined and executed in the first twenty years of its existence were conversos.

The reason given by the Inquisition and its supporters for their bloody campaign was that the conversos were engaged in “judaizing,” i.e., practicing the Jewish religion secretly while pretending to be sincere Catholics. The confessions the inquisitors extracted from those it arrested seem to leave no room for doubt. In the hundreds of files of documents which have survived from those days, the accused time and again (and usually without torture) admit that they have secretly kept the Jewish fasts, recited Jewish prayers and blessings, abstained from work on the sabbath, and observed other traditional Jewish customs.

Impressed by the sufferings of the conversos, by the nakedly anti-Semitic attitude of the inquisitors, by the thousands of depositions and confessions made by Spaniards from all social classes, historians have never doubted that the conversos were secret Jews or that the objective of the Inquisition was to suppress the Jews. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, about a dozen years after the founding of the Inquisition, would seem decisive evidence for this argument. Most of the conversos had been forced into Christianity during the previous century, following widespread anti-Jewish riots in 1391. It would seem likely they secretly had tried to keep up their Judaic culture and beliefs. The anti-Semitic ideology of the Holy Office of the Inquisition could never be in doubt. The motives of the Inquisitors seemed all too familiar for those who, like the great Jewish scholar of the Inquisition, Yitzhak Baer, came from Central Europe and had seen similar persecution there in the early twentieth century. The conversos were secret Jews. The Inquisition was the great exterminator.

This view has dominated Western scholarship, not only in the writings of Baer, but in the monumental history of the Inquisition written by the American scholar Henry Charles Lea. The great student of Iberian civilization, Américo Castro, drew on it in putting forward his argument for the continuing influence of Jewish culture in Spain’s history during the centuries following the expulsion.1 It is still the prevailing orthodoxy among historians of Spain. We can find it in the pages of popular studies on the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, such as the recent book by the Canadian journalist Erna Paris. 2

Benzion Netanyahu’s long book, The Origins of the Inquisition, is an attempt to destroy this orthodoxy forever. A distinguished scholar and a professor emeritus at Cornell University, Netanyahu presented some of his arguments as long ago as 1966 in his study The Marranos of Spain According to Contemporary Hebrew Sources, which was reissued in 1973. He has also produced many other deeply learned works. In this work on the Inquisition, he discreetly hides the learned apparatus at the end of the volume, and writes in plain English, giving no quotations in Hebrew, Latin, or Spanish, the three main languages of his historical sources.

Netanyahu’s approach sets him apart immediately from virtually all other scholars. In a thousand-page book on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, he does not directly cite a single inquisitorial document. Unlike Henry Charles Lea and Baer, who based their works in large measure on such documents, Netanyahu rejects them as unreliable. The Inquisition, he argues, wanted to make a case against the converso and it fabricated evidence in order to do so. Its papers are, by their nature, biased. To get at the truth, we need to look at other contemporary sources.

It may seem astonishing that this book is not about the Inquisition itself. At no point does the author talk in detail about its nature, functions, or history. The drama, conflicts, and miseries of the Holy Office, the organization set up to carry out the Inquisition—these are almost totally absent from his pages. Netanyahu, as the title of the book states, is in fact concerned not about the evolution of the Inquisition, but about its origins.

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.3 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.

  1. 1

    See for example his The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History, translated by Willard F. King and Selma Margaretten (University of California Press, 1971, reprint 1985).

  2. 2

    Erna Paris, The End of Days: The Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Prometheus Books, 1995).

  3. 3

    Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

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