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Jack Smith

Answering Questions on the Inquisition

January 18, 1988|Jack Smith

The irrepressible Jerry Pacht, retired judge of the Superior Court, writes to reproach me for describing the romance and reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain without mentioning the dark side.

"While the romantic tale of Isabel and Fernando (sic) which graces your column today is in the tradition of what we were taught as schoolchildren," the judge writes, "you, as custodian of reality for so many readers, should flesh out their story.

"As monarchs they presided over the Inquisition in which Jews and 'heretics' were killed, tortured, deported and otherwise abused in the bloodiest government-sponsored repression reported to that time. . . ."

I had written, in a report on our recent travels, that Isabella and Ferdinand were married in the Alcazar at Segovia, as our guide had told us. A man who is writing a history of the royal couple wrote to describe their romantic wedding (it was "love at first sight") in a palace at Valladolid, north of Segovia.

"Indeed," I concluded, after correcting my error, "it was a fruitful marriage; as 'the two kings' they united Spain, ended the Muslim occupation, and sponsored the discovery and colonizing of the Americas. . . ."

I might as well have written that Hitler was good to dogs and children without noting that he procured the murder of several million human beings.

As a custodian of reality, I feel obliged to recapitulate the record, if only for the benefit of schoolchildren from whom the truth may be concealed.

The Spanish Inquisition was perhaps the most brutal scourge ever visited upon a people, up to then, by its religious and secular leaders; only in our own century have its horrors been exceeded and its methods improved on.

Will Durant notes that Isabella was pious and orthodox, and "as harsh and cruel in suppressing heresy as she was kind and gracious in everything else." Ferdinand was perhaps less sincere, but he favored persecution of heretics, Jews and Muslims because it unified Spain and enriched the Crown through confiscated wealth.

It was at Isabella and Ferdinand's request that Pope Sixtus IV appointed the fanatic Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor. His name lives in the language as a symbol of merciless bigotry. In general the Inquisition fell on heretics and converts suspected of backsliding. Thus, converted Jews might be accused of abstaining from pork and be burned at the stake. Suspects were arrested on the word of friends or neighbors; they were imprisoned incommunicado, in chains, and often tortured. No witnesses were named or confronted. The inquisitorial tribunal judged them. If they confessed, they could be strangled, then burned. If they did not confess, they could be burned alive. Lesser punishments were scourging and life imprisonment. These autos-de-fe (acts of faith) were conducted in public squares at pompous ceremonies, with the inquisitors and sometimes the king watching from a platform. The property of the condemned was confiscated.

It is assumed that Isabella, despite her charitable nature, approved of these spectacles. Her secretary calculated that 2,000 heretics were burned before 1490. Another Catholic historian estimated that until the early 19th Century, when the Inquisition subsided, 31,912 were burned at the stake. (Later Protestant historians consider these figures exaggerations.)

On March 30, 1492, the year Columbus sailed for the East Indies, Isabella and Ferdinand signed an edict of exile for all unbaptized Jews. They could take no money. About 50,000 Jews converted; 100,000 left Spain, Durant says, "in a prolonged and melancholy exodus." Many fled to Portugal, where eventually they were forced to convert or be driven out.

The Jewish statesman and scholar Abba Eban, in "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews," accepts the figure of 30,000 executions. He notes that the main victims were converted Jews, called conversos or Marranos . "The people called them Marranos , or swine, and since history is usually written by the victors, that is the name by which we know the conversos today."

The Encyclopaedia Britannica is strangely generous in its appraisal of Isabella: "In alloting to Isabella the foremost place among their rulers, Spaniards do not misjudge this remarkable woman."

Durant concludes: "We must try to understand such movements in terms of their times, but they seem to us now the most unforgivable of historic crimes. A supreme and unchallengeable faith is a deadly enemy to the human mind."

If I have made any errors, they will not be corrected. This is the end of my Spanish digression.

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