In 1469, Prince Fernando of Aragon married his cousin, the Castilian heiress Isabel. Five years later, Isabel ascended her country’s throne. It was a formidable alliance, both of personalities and of political destinies. Although intensely pious, Isabel was described by her contemporaries as a “mistress of dissimulation and simulation,” a woman capable of pursuing her goals without scruple or sentiment.
Fernando, in turn, although a dynamic and attractive figure, a brave soldier and respected commander, could be as ruthless and duplicitous as his wife. When informed that Louis XI of France complained of having twice been deceived by him, Fernando protested: “The king of France lies. I deceived him not twice, but 10 times.”
Isabel and Fernando operated from a base of promising strength. By law, Castile and Aragon remained separate and independent. In actual fact, the linked resources of their kingdoms enabled the “Catholic Monarchs” to transform Spain into a major European empire. During the 1470s and 1480s, the two rulers conducted a vigorous, unrelenting campaign to break the power of the nobility. To that end, they shrewdly discerned the political advantage implicit in a joint campaign of reconquista (reconquest). By pressing the onslaught against Granada, Islam’s last foothold on the peninsula, Fernando and Isabel might harness the support of the church and the religious passions of their subjects, including the fractious on behalf of “Christian civilization.” At the same time, under the mantle of reconquest, a second goal might be achieved. This was an expedient and unifying crusade against heresy within the Christian community itself.
For the Jews, the new royal strategy was a matter of grave moment. On the one hand, such men as Abraham Senior and Isaac Abravanel held important positions [as court Jews] under Fernando and Isabel and enjoyed the warm esteem of their rulers. Indeed, it was specifically the queen’s political ambition that revived their historic fiscal talents, and those of other Spanish Jews. “All the Jews in my realm,” Isabel declared as late as 1477, “are mine and under my care and my protection and it belongs to me to defend them and keep justice.” Yet by then, her “care and protection” hardly could be reconciled with the royal intention of manipulating the nation’s religious fervor. Within the frontiers of Christian Spain, the issue of conversos was fast becoming an inflamed public lesion. To treat that wound, and to foster their subjects’ ideological unity, Isabel and her husband turned to a mechanism of vast latent potential. It was an “inquisition into heresy and backsliding.”
The Inquisition Comes to Spain
As early as the 13th century, the church itself had established an Inquisition to deal with Christian schismatics. These were Albigensians, Waldensians, and Pasagians, most of them in southern France. Finding precedent in Roman law, the church’s investigative machinery during those years was administered by individual diocesan bishoprics. Dominican and Franciscan monks acted as the principal inquisitors. If the operation was ill‑coordinated, the threat of heresy was not particularly serious then.
But now, in 15th‑century Castile and Aragon, suspected heretics no longer were isolated Christian apostates or Christian deviants but large masses of former Jews, individuals in the tens of thousands who appeared to be clinging suspiciously to their ancestral traditions. Popular sentiment no longer would tolerate the anomaly, and the question therefore arose of the appropriate means to correct it. An Inquisition based on the practice of intermittent diocesan inquiries seemed incapable of rooting out this vast Jewish netherworld. Equally unfeasible was an Inquisition centrally directed from Rome; Fernando and Isabel were not prepared to forfeit royal control.
To resolve the issues of both the structure and the authority of the Inquisition, the Catholic monarchs thereupon entered into protracted negotiations with the Vatican. Finally, in 1478, they reached an agreement with Pope Sixtus IV. To begin with, an Inquisition would be limited initially to the diocese of Seville, embracing much of Castilian Andalusia. Here a large and still affluent converso (Jews who had converted to Christianity) population lived directly adjacent to the Moorish kingdom of Granada. Indeed, it was fear of this lingering Muslim enclave that induced Pope Sixtus to accept the Spanish Inquisition’s new and unique status. Its personnel, although clerics every one, would be answerable not to Rome but to royal, secular authority. Thus, the first inquisitors were two Dominican friars, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martin; but it was the Crown of Castile that confirmed their appointment, as it would those of all other inquisitors.
The rationale for the new enterprise was the need to root out heretics who “daily return to the superstitious and perfidious sect of the Jews. . … Not only have they persisted in their blind and obstinate heresy, but their children and descendants do likewise.” To achieve this goal of doctrinal cleansing, the Inquisition in the years after 1478 gradually developed a set of procedures. It allowed a brief state of “grace” for backsliding Christians ‑- that is, former Jews — to turn themselves in. By the same token, all others who possessed knowledge of secret judaizers were obliged to transmit their information forthwith, on pain of excommunication.
Once the identity of the accused individuals was established, they would be seized, thrust into inquisitional dungeons, interrogated (occasionally under torture), and sentenced to a variety punishments, ranging from terms of penitential service to imprisonment or to “relaxation,” that is, death. Thus, even in its earliest phase, between 1479 and 1481, in a ferocious reign of terror, nearly four hundred individuals were burned at the stake for heresy in the city of Seville alone. Throughout Castilian Andalusia, some two thousand persons were burned alive, seventeen thousand others were “reconciled,” that is, spared the death penalty but subjected to such punishments as imprisonment, confiscation of property, and debarment from all employment, public and private, Their wives and children faced destitution.
Reprinted with permission from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, published by Alfred Knopf.