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1.F. Humanities at Large Blogpost 12 October 2017

Jackman Humanities Institute Blog
12 October 2017

Mark Meyerson (JHI Faculty Research Fellow in History and Medieval Studies) led our discussion on October 12th and began by explicitly invoking what’s often perceived as an unbridgeable divide between scholars working on pre-modern Europe and those working on our contemporary global condition. His selection of articles to prepare before the discussion was carefully curated to bring these two solitudes together:

  • Max Bergholz, “Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II,” American Historical Review 118:3 (June 2013): 697-707. 
  • Mark Meyerson, “Baptism and Brotherhood? The Forced Conversion of the Muslims of the Kingdom of Valencia.” Conference paper, presented at “Global Reformations,” University of Toronto, October 2017.
  • D. Mendeloff, “Truth-Seeking, Truth-Telling, and Postconflict Peacebuilding: Curb the Enthusiasm?”  International Studies Review 6 (2004):  255-380.
  • Maureen Flynn, “Mimesis of the Last Judgment: The Spanish Auto de Fe,” Sixteenth Century Journal 22:2 (Summer, 1991):  281-297.

Mark explained his choices as offering a way into the various strands of his research on premodern Spain.  His JHI project interrogating the Spanish Inquisition as an institution of ‘transitional justice’ is related to his larger interest in the often violent transformation of Spain from a land of three religions into one uniformly Catholic between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The JHI project falls into two parts:  (1) an examination of the informal processes of ‘reconciliation’ and social reconstruction that occurred in the wake of the acts of transformative violence perpetrated by Christians against Jewish communities in 1391 and Muslim communities between 1499 and 1526; and (2) a consideration of the subsequent efforts of the Spanish Inquisition to ‘reconcile’ recalcitrant conversos (baptized Jews and their descendants) and moriscos (baptized Muslims and their descendants) to the Catholic faith, and the Inquisition’s use of public shaming as an instrument of religious and social discipline.Pedro Berruguete St. Dominic Presiding over an Auto da Fe

Pedro Berruguete, St. Dominic presiding over an auto de fe, 1495.

The violence that brought about the baptism of Jews and Muslims was ‘indelible’, not just in the sense that it caused lasting physical and psychological trauma to the victims but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it transformed Jews and Muslims into people whom they did not choose to be: New Christians (conversos and moriscos). According to Catholic theology, the sacrament of baptism was indelible, even if administered by force. For these baptized Jews and Muslims, there was no going back. The Church regarded any of the converts who continued in any way to adhere to their ancestral faith as “heretics” and therefore liable to prosecution and punishment. It is important to note that Fernando and Isabel did not establish the various tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition (with papal approval) until the early 1480s. Thus Old Christians, conversos, and Jews coexisted for nearly a century prior to the advent of the Inquisition and the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. Mark is working with Inquisition records and related archival sources, in order to explore the complicated relationship between Old Christians and conversos in this lengthy transitional period; and he talked about finding some interesting patterns of Old Christian-converso rapprochement, which suggests that when the Spanish Inquisition got going it screwed things up in more ways than one.

Miguel del Prado, retable of San Vincente de Ferrar

Miguel de Prado, Retablo de San Vincente Ferrar, 16th century

By labelling the Spanish Inquisition as an institution of ‘transitional justice’, Mark is trying to address the crucial role of the Inquisition in the attempted assimilation of thousands of converso and morisco New Christians into Spanish Catholic society. The Inquisition of course worked very differently from the way in which modern TRCs function. The most obvious paradox, in regard to ‘apology’ and ‘reconciliation’, is that it was the descendants of the Jewish and Muslim victims of the Christians’ conversionary violence who did the apologizing in autos de fe, not the Christian perpetrators or their descendants, and it was conversos and moriscos who were publicly reconciled to the Catholic Church and publicly shamed. The public shaming had long-term and, Mark argues, often socially destructive consequences.

Discussion brought out the paradox that while violence was endemic within the different religious communities in medieval Spain, mob violence perpetrated by Christians against the religious outgroups (Jews and Muslims) was infrequent, occurring at ‘millenarian moments’ when the creation of a Kingdom of Heaven on earth seemed imminent. Conversation started from the themes of the previous week – access and affect. What access do we have to the records of the Inquisition, and what kind of emotional process does the auto de fe mobilize? It is precisely the question of the social meaning that people gave to events (both the spectacle of the auto de fe and other legal processes), and of their affective responses to these performances of religious conformity, that interests the historian. The symmetries between the forcible conversion of the Muslims in Spain and conversion of Christians in North Africa after the Islamic conquest were noted, along with the tax privileges that accrued to Muslims in North Africa and Christians in Spain. Indeed, the political economy of the Inquisition, as an institution, was queried with particular intensity. What happened to the property of those who were killed? Mark noted that the Spanish monarchy controlled everything—paying for the Inquisition and staffing it with members of the clergy drawn. Families targeted by the Inquisition were ruined: the state confiscated their holdings and the confiscated property went to the royal treasury, which in turn financed the Institution… There is even evidence that some of the Inquisition’s cases were more about getting property and destroying someone politically than about religious faith. Yet the public and perpetual defamation and dishonoring of families prosecuted by the Inquisition, even those ultimately 'reconciled' to the Church in the auto de fe, were more damaging than their impoverishment.

The Fellows also drew attention to the Inquisition’s lexicon: assimilation (the sincere embrace of the Catholic faith) vs contemporary discussion of acculturation (itself problematic in its occlusion of the violence and politics of recognition and inclusion). Another way of theorizing this structurally, it was suggested, might be to name it as the indelible, unilateral violence of benevolence. For once someone is targeted as the person who needs to be included, they can never escape the ‘mark’. The very fact that one is allowed to prove one’s assimilation testifies to the violence of forcible inclusion within the group.

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