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A Question of Coexistence

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The Great Mosque and cathedral of Córdoba, Spain; from The Arts of Intimacy

Alongside this interaction at the popular level came the mutual interaction of elite cultures, although the superiority lay for centuries with Islamic Spain. Purveyors of a high Islamic civilization extending across the Middle East, the Umayyads brought with them from Syria a powerful tradition of cultural patronage, a delight in the arts of civility, and a deep respect for the science and learning of classical antiquity. The Christians with whom they came into contact must by contrast have seemed little more than crude barbarians.

But as The Arts of Intimacy shows, some of these Christians proved adept learners. Alfonso VI and his successors took over not only the palaces of the caliphs but also their traditions of cultural patronage. Under Christian rule, the ethnically and religiously diverse city of Toledo became in the twelfth century a great center of translation, from which Latin versions of Greek and Arabic texts on science, mathematics, and philosophy were diffused through Europe. The cultural pluralism that characterized Toledo would move southward in the wake of the reconquest. When Ferdinand III, the conqueror of Seville, died in 1252, his son, Alfonso X— Alfonso el Sabio, the Wise (more properly the Learned)—built for his father in Seville’s mosque, now transformed into a cathedral, a tomb on which the king’s epitaph was inscribed in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Castilian.

The authors of The Arts of Intimacy make a point of emphasizing the inscription written in Castilian because their concern is to trace the gradual forging of a distinctive Castilian identity and culture out of the interaction of cultures and peoples in the medieval peninsula. Castile proved to be precocious among Western European states in its embrace of the vernacular, and in Old Castile from the 1230s, Castilian was replacing Latin as the language of wills and all documents relating to property.5 The glamour that now surrounds Islamic Spain makes it easy to underestimate the contribution to the formation of Castilian culture that was made by the northern regions of the peninsula, which possessed strong cultural and religious ties with France. But that culture, as The Arts of Intimacy makes clear, was heavily influenced by the simultaneous experience of coexistence and confrontation with Islam. As the authors point out, the ambiguities of an always ambiguous relationship are reflected in that great vernacular epic of medieval Castile, the Song of the Cid ( Cantar de Mio Cid ). The poem recounts the exploits of a warrior who would come to symbolize the victorious struggle of Christian Spain against the Moors, although in reality he was just as likely to be engaged in fighting fellow Christians.

Cultural interaction, however, is not necessarily dependent on a culture of tolerance. From the twelfth century onward there was a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the religious divide as the papacy proclaimed crusades and the Almohads jihad. But even as attitudes hardened and the Christians gained the upper hand following their great victory over the Moors at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, cultural and social life in Castile continued to reflect strong Moorish influences. The Mudejar population subjected to Christian rule in the wake of the reconquest applied their craftsmanship to building Christian churches that bore a marked Moorish imprint. Fifteenth- century Castilian court life was per-meated by Moorish tastes and customs, and when Ferdinand and Isabella accepted the surrender of Granada they did so wearing Moorish dress.

Yet a wide gulf was opening between practice and profession. The official Spain of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries would notoriously become a religiously intolerant society, establishing its Inquisition, expelling its Jews, and imposing Christianity on the Mudejares, now known as Moriscos, who remained in the peninsula after the reconquest of Granada. But in blaming Ferdinand and Isabella for their intolerant policies, it is easy to forget that medieval England and France had long since expelled their Jews. One explanation for the apparently obsessive preoccupation with religious purity and uniformity in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella may be found in their country’s unfavorable image in Renaissance Europe as a land of “bad races” and suspect orthodoxy.6 They possessed a strong incentive to counter an incipient Black Legend willing to draw on every conceivable anti-Spanish argument, including the long-standing convivencia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, which made their country an anomaly in early modern Christendom.

The Spain ruled by their Habsburg successors has become a byword for intolerance. The determination to extirpate every scintilla of heresy and the requirement of “purity of blood” for appointment to office, even if it was not as comprehensive nor as effective as is sometimes suggested, are clear indications of intention in the upper echelons of government in church and state. It is natural to assume from official pronouncements and policies, culminating in the expulsion of the Moriscos four hundred years ago this year, that intolerance came to permeate the whole society of early modern Spain.

This is one of the assumptions that Stuart Schwartz, a professor of history at Yale University well known for his books on colonial Brazil,7 sets out to challenge in All Can Be Saved. The range of its ambition, the extent of its documentation, and the breadth of its geographical scope make his new book a remarkable achievement. On the basis of hundreds of cases from the tribunals of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, he has set out to prove the existence of a degree of religious tolerance at the popular level, not only in Spain and Portugal but also in their American possessions, that is totally at variance with the official ideology of church and state. He finds his evidence for this in statements made by those arraigned before the tribunals for heresy and deviancy, to the effect that “each can be saved in his own faith.”

The cases he adduces make fascinating reading. In 1488, Juana Pérez, a peasant woman from Aranda, states that “the good Jew would be saved and the good Moor, in his law, and why else had God made them?” In 1594, Juan Fernández de Las Heras, a Spanish laborer brought before the Inquisition in Lima, argues that “each person being good can save themselves in their own law.” These and many other cases make at least a prima facie case for Schwartz’s thesis that, at the level of popular culture, the Iberian world was less rigidly orthodox in its Christianity and more open to the possibility of alternative roads to salvation than appearances suggest or historians have believed.

Schwartz himself is the first to recognize the problems inherent in his thesis. Inquisition records are notoriously difficult to interpret, given the possibilities of manipulation and misunderstanding on the part of the inquisitors. Even if the statements of prisoners and witnesses were indeed made as recorded, are they limited to a handful of individuals who for one reason or another were unwilling to accept the official line, or are they representative of views more widely held in society at large? If the latter, the conventional image of early modern Spain as an exceptionally intolerant society would appear to be seriously flawed.

If Schwartz’s case histories do not exactly indicate a culture of tolerance, they would certainly seem to point to a subculture of dissent. For all those who spoke their mind, there must have been many more who were careful to keep silent. It was not wise to attract the attention of the Inquisition. “Tolerance,” however, can move along a spectrum that runs from indifference, through an attitude of live and let live, to a firmly held conviction that neither Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, nor Jews have a monopoly on the truth, and that consequently all “can save themselves in their own law.” Insofar as all these attitudes were to be found in early modern Spain, it is natural to wonder whether the medieval experience of convivencia among the three faiths created a particular predisposition in the Iberian world toward acceptance of the Other.

The Iberian conquest and settlement of America may further have worked to enhance this predisposition. Here Spaniards found themselves in daily contact not only with a large indigenous population that until the conquest had never even heard of Christianity, but also in due course with African slaves with their own belief systems, and growing numbers of people of mixed race. Richard Fletcher writes in his Moorish Spain that “colonial Mexico and Peru and Brazil were medieval Andalusia writ large.”8 The implications of this assertion still need to be worked out, but Schwartz’s American evidence leads him to postulate the existence in the Iberian New World of “a vibrant culture at odds with the dominant ideologies of Church and state.”

Any assumption, however, that the Andalusian experience may have left Iberian civilization uniquely qualified to accept the possibility of alternatives to the prevailing orthodoxy is to some extent subverted by Schwartz’s wider argument that religious relativism was not “a peculiarly Hispanic phenomenon that had taken root during the convivencia of the Middle Ages and had continued to flourish.” On the contrary, although his evidence is overwhelmingly taken from the Iberian world, he is anxious to suggest that “the attitude of popular tolerance in matters of religion was a generalized phenomenon in much of Europe,” and that popular doubts and tolerance “created a soil from which modern concepts of freedom of conscience and toleration eventually grew.” In other words he wants to rescue the history of toleration from the exclusive hands of political and intellectual elites and restore to the common people their due place in the story.

To prove the truth of his ambitious claims would obviously require a much wider range of evidence, drawn from a variety of European societies instead of the Iberian world alone, but in raising the question of popular attitudes, and in documenting them so richly, Schwartz has written a trailblazing book. Recently, as far as Spain itself is concerned, his argument about popular tolerance has received a helpful reinforcement from an impressively researched study of a town in La Mancha that collectively came out in support of the attempts of its Morisco inhabitants to defy the decree for their expulsion in 1609, and subsequently welcomed back those who succeeded in returning surreptitiously.9 This is not the response of a community held in the iron grip of racial and religious intolerance.

Yet there is a danger that Schwartz does not entirely avoid, of presenting his story as that of an onward march to “modernity,” a word here used to refer to freedom of conscience and religious toleration. Recent events should surely give us pause. We have seen how in the Balkans, as in medieval Spain, people of differing faiths, ethnicity, and culture are capable of living together for a long time in relative amity, and then of suddenly turning on one another in a spasm of fury and an orgy of destruction. In seeking to trace the history of a “culture of tolerance,” it is important not to forget that all too frequently a culture of intolerance lies only just below the surface.

The history of medieval Spain shows that the coexistence of peoples of different races and faiths is potentially a source of great cultural enrichment, but also that it can simultaneously be a source of profound social tension. Harmonious convivencia depends on the preservation of a delicate balance, always at risk of being upset by an unfortunate conjunction of behavior and events. An alteration in official policy or practice, an economic downturn, the inflammatory populist rhetoric of a demagogue, an initially trivial conflict between neighbors—all these are capable of transforming coexistence into violent confrontation overnight. Yet the story of that small town in seventeenth-century La Mancha contains a lesson of its own. Even in the worst of times humanity and decency can still make their voices heard.

  1. 5

    Teofilo F. Ruiz, From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society, 1150–1350 (Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 3 and 30.

  2. 6

    Sverker Arnoldsson, La leyenda negra (Göteborg, 1960), pp. 21–22.

  3. 7

    Among them are Sovereignty and Society in Colonial Brazil: The High Court of Bahia and its Judges, 1609–1751 (University of California Press, 1973); Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (Cambridge University Press, 1985); and Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery (University of Illinois Press, 1992).

  4. 8

    Fletcher, Moorish Spain, p. 7.

  5. 9

    Trevor J. Dadson, Los moriscos de Villarrubia de los Ojos:(Siglos xv–xviii): historia de una minoría asimilada, expulsada y reintegrada (Madrid: Iberomericana/Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2007). It is to be hoped that this pioneering work will in due course appear in an English version.

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