No life can be understood in a vacuum. Individuals are known only in relation to their backgrounds. A life must be viewed within a framework that exhibits a multiplicity of factors: the historical, the religious, the sociological. The life of St. John of the Cross presents special difficulties as its backdrop is (to contemporary readers) both captivating and strangely alien. In words that were uttered during the Spanish Civil War, García Morente observed that the Spanish conception of life is grounded on the superiority of the concrete over the abstract, the individual over the species, and the private over the public. This was no less true for the sixteenth century than it is for today.
Spanish mysticism tilts to action rather than speculation, experience rather than abstraction. One recalls Hilaire Belloc's astonishment at hearing the Salve Regina sung in a small Spanish village: harsh, full of battle and agony, strikingly different from anything he previously experienced. The same attitude is reflected in Miguel de Unamuno's preference for the "Spanish Christ," livid, squalid, bruised, bloody, and ferocious:
Yes, there is a triumphant, glorious, celestial Christ: the Christ of the transfiguration, the ascension, the Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father ... this is when we have triumphed.... But here ... in this life which is nothing but a tragic spectacle, here the other Christ, the livid, the bruised, the bloody.
This notion of life as a tragic spectacle, life as the bullring writ large, is etched indelibly on the Spanish psyche. This taste for high drama, exaggeration, extremism in all its forms, is found in a heightened form in the monarchs, warriors, poets, and mystics of Spain's Edad de Oro (Golden Age). Its mysticism is ardent and militant, an affirmation of the power of a will that surrenders only to a higher, transcendent will. This irascible Christianity displaced knighthood from the military battlefield to the higher battlefield of the spirit prodded by that "divina extravagancia" and "feliz locura" which persuaded humankind to forget the world and live completely for God.
This enthusiasm for divine chivalry inspired works such as La Caballería Celeste and La Caballería Cristiana. Combined with the strong attraction exercised by both the New World and the "Indies of the Spirit," this fervor blunted the impact on Spain of the hermetic aspect of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. The cultural explosion of the Golden Age marched to the beat of a different drummer. Though perhaps rightly accused of being the only region in Europe choosing the past over the present, Spain kept the colorful brilliance of the Catholic festival and did not succumb to the lure either of the classical past or of the cold and denuded churches of the north.
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The reign of the Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella provided the spectacular backdrop for the world of St. John of the Cross. This epoch-making reign witnessed the union of Castile and Aragón, the conquest of Granada and Naples, the pacification of Castile, the establishment of the Inquisition, the reform of the clergy, the expulsion of the Jews, and the discovery of the New World. The course of Spanish, European, and world history was greatly affected. In spite of differing views, their reign was neither a paradise subsequently lost nor a season in hell, though it displayed characteristics of both.
The union of Castile and Aragón, marking the birth of modern Spain, was at first more of a personal than a political union. There existed marked divergences that were slow in melding. The two regions were, and to a certain extent still are, dissimilar, even antithetical. While Aragon looked to the Mediterranean, focusing on Italy and France, Castile looked to Portugal, Africa and (after 1492) the New World. Aragon was oriented towards city life, placing great importance on civic virtue, civic rights, and trade. Castilians had a notoriously low opinion of cities, and of trade and all its accessories. The Castilian maxim "Laws obey Kings" was countered by the Fueros de Aragon, which declared that "Kings obey Laws." These regional differences were reflected in the characters of Ferdinand and Isabella, who were able to subordinate their differences to form an effective unity.
Ferdinand, at the age of twelve, received his baptism of fire at Calaf with an impressive victory. Under the tutelage of his redoubtable parents he easily scaled the heights of prominence. Isabella, conversely, was pursued by ill fortune. Her mother lapsed into insanity. Her half-brother, Henry IV of Castile, was weak, ineffective, and depraved. She was obliged to painfully wend her way through a maze of plots and counterplots, dealing with courtiers, warriors, prelates, perverts, toadies, and schemers of all varieties. Over the years she found herself betrothed to a motley group, ranging from don Pedro Giron (a man of superlative vices), to the Duc d'Berry and Richard III of England. Her arduous trek to the throne, in the menacing shadow of Juana "la Beltraneja," who threatened to displace her, ended on December 13, 1474, when she was proclaimed Queen of Castile.
Ferdinand's dealing with the Cortes of Aragón doubtless contributed to his reputation for high diplomacy and low cunning. Machiavelli observed that Ferdinand had become, with regard to fame and glory, the first King in Christendom. Isabella did not approve of Aragonese ways. She was direct and authoritarian, and found the deviousness of the parliamentary approach intolerable. She was more autocratic, more inclined to severity and less to negotiation, than Ferdinand. Her taste in literature ran to chivalry and religious literature, his to history and music, possessing to an exalted degree that nearly religious sensuality concerning women, gold, and jewels typical of medieval man. The twilight pessimism of the waning Middle Ages was giving way to a guarded optimism and a joyous expectation, blending its dwindling residue with a new extravagant violence.
This oddly matched but complementary couple set the stage on which Spanish life would perform for well over a century. Their influence would outlast the House of Trastamara and continue to exercise its allure even after Spain was delivered into the hands of the House of Hapsburg with its middle European involvements. Their myth endured to recent times when it was resuscitated in the cause of national unity by the Franco regime and still floats uneasily in the Spanish collective unconscious.
There are many conjectures as to who was the majority shareholder in this partnership. Although the consensus tilts towards Isabella, the two were so closely intertwined that both can be held responsible for decisions made and actions taken. However, it should be noted that while Ferdinand chose the jurists, economists and financiers, Isabella is credited with selecting the three men who most furthered royal interests: Gonzalo de Córdoba (the "Great Captain"), Cardinal Cisneros, and Christopher Columbus. In her case, imagination and instinct prevailed.
Apart from the discovery of the New World and the expulsion of the Jews, the most noteworthy events of their reign were the conquest of Granada and Naples, the reform of the clergy and the establishment of the Inquisition. The war against Granada, the last bastion of Islam in Spain, lasted some nine years. The struggle was both military and political, ranging from the use of heavy artillery (bombardas) to political moves made possible by the coercion of the unfortunate "Rey Chico" Boabdil.
The strategy employed at Granada was used to great effect in Italy against the French armies and their Swiss auxiliaries, the point of departure for two centuries of Spanish rule. The surrender of Granada, the ancient "city of the Jews" (Igronatat Al-Yahud), after an eight-month siege finally put an end to a struggle that lasted for nearly eight hundred years which began in 718 ad when Pelayo was declared King by a group of wild mountaineers in some forgotten niche of Asturias.
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The Inquisition is one of those astonishing events that can be explained only by a radical lowering of intellectual tone. Like morganatic marriage, if it didn't exist it would have to be invented. It responded to the times: Medieval convivencia (co-existence) had disintegrated. The riots of 1391 created a large group of disgruntled converts (New Christians, conversos) who inhabited a no-man's-land between Christianity and Judaism, exacerbating prevailing enmities while at the same time creating new ones. Although Papal inquisitors had been sent at the request of Raymond of Peñafort (+1238), the Inquisition beginning in 1478 dealt with the Albigensian peril and was short lived as the Siete Partidas (Legal Code) of Alfonso the Wise gave it its coup de grâce.
A fatal conjunction of religious unsettlement, national pride, political strategy, and the promptings of Fray Tomás de Torquemada (+1498) persuaded the monarchs to establish a pristinely Spanish Inquisition. Authorized by a Papal Bull of 1479, it appointed Torquemada (confessor of both monarchs and the nephew of a distinguished Cardinal) as Inquisitor General in 1483. He would hold this post until his death in 1498. Although its long-range effects proved to be pernicious, the Inquisition promised immediate advantages in that it could help to unify the nation, guarantee religious orthodoxy, keep Rome's watchdogs at bay, and stifle opposition among the nobility and clergy.
Its excesses came to be monumental, although these excesses rested more in the mind of its critics than in reality. The estimate of some ten thousand human beings "relaxed" (burnt at the stake) during Torquemada's regency alone, based on the account of Llorente and followed by H. C. Lea, has been drastically revised. Doubtless, the Inquisition proved to be a factor, perhaps the major factor, in the decline of Spain from Imperial grandeur to humiliating obscurity. However, the Inquisition was not without its merits. It recognized the danger presented by the alumbrados (Illuminati) before Rome came to recognize it and was responsible for debunking the witchcraft hysteria that later caused such devastation in middle Europe.
The clergy, in a deplorable state when Ferdinand and Isabella ascended to the throne, presented a task of monumental proportions requiring delicate negotiations with an often-vacillating Papacy. The monarchs obtained control of ecclesiastical appointments, and encouraged the Bishops to reside in their dioceses and toe the line theologically and (when necessary) politically. With few exceptions, the reform bishops were reputable and capable, less warlike and more learned than their predecessors. The Council of Seville's 1478 edict against clerical concubinage, absenteeism, simony, and scandal was enforced, albeit selectively. Through diplomacy or more concrete inducements the monarchs gained the support of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, a brave and prudent man but notorious for his avarice, sensuality, and nepotism-a man who Machiavelli considered that of all the Pontiffs who ever reigned, best showed how a Pope might prevail both by money and by force.
Although reform among the secular clergy left much to be desired, it proceeded apace among the religious orders. Several important monasteries were reformed and were then able to serve as models for other religious communities: Guadalupe, Miraflores, Montserrat, and Poblet among them. The Cistercians, Benedictines, and the observant wings of the Franciscans and Dominicans took the lead. When Cardinal Cisneros took charge, the reform made giant strides, due mainly to the impetus provided by this ascetic, energetic, high-minded, violent Friar. A study in paradox, Cisneros sponsored the new University of Alcalá and its polyglot Bible while incinerating thousands of tomes written in Arabic. As Inquisitor General he systematized the procedures of the Inquisition while removing the most blatant abusers, including the sadistic Cordoban Inquisitor, Lucero. The Cardinal has been called the greatest patron of Spanish culture in modern times. During the same period the University of Salamanca led the world in teaching the Copernican system and flourished to the extent that Erasmus declared that the state of the Liberal Arts in Spain could serve as a model to the most cultivated nations of Europe.
Fray Antonio de Marchena of the Franciscan Monastery of La Rábida sponsored Christopher Columbus. Coming from Portugal where his project had been rejected, Columbus met with two vetoes by Spanish Commissions. De Marchena, however, gained the support of Fray Hernando de Talavera, presider of the first Commission, who initiated an upward spiral when the Duke of Medinaceli and other prominent figures added their weight. It was approved. Columbus embarked on Friday, August 4, 1492, the day following the feast of Our Lady of the Angels, patroness of the monastery of La Rábida. Land was sighted over two months later on October 12, 1492, by the lookout of the Pinta, Rodrigo de Triana, a converso.
Columbus's record with the Caribbean natives was as dismal as were his administrative skills. Only the natives shipped to Spain were converted to Christianity, possibly because converts could not be sold or enslaved. When later Columbus returned to Spain in shackles only one additional voyage and six years of life remained, enough to partially restore his reputation and confirm his titles. The Admiral of the Ocean Seas died at Valladolid in 1506. His many flaws cannot tarnish the luster of his discoveries, his extraordinary genius as a navigator, and his religious faith, which, though muddied by ambition, would ultimately spread throughout the entire continent.
Columbus was inspired by the messianic enthusiasm coursing through Spain, percolating down from the aristocracy to the masses. A common belief maintained that Isabella was created miraculously for the redemption of the Kingdom. The African conquests in the first decade of the sixteenth century raised expectations that a crusade for the recovery of the Holy Land was in preparation. In spite of the popular notion that Columbus' goal was to reach Cathay, his ultimate goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the conversion of the world. Salo Baron notes this semi-visionary, semi-realistic outlook on the world, the profound impact of Christian theology and his dependence on the Psalms and Prophets as interpreted by Nicholas of Lyra.
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The monarchs were at first more favorable than not to Jews and New Christians, a good number of whom were employed in key positions. The Crown protected several aljamas (Jewish ghettoes) from the depredations of aggressive municipalities such as those of Ávila, Medina del Campo, and Cáceres. On September 6, 1477, a directive putting all aljamas under royal protection was issued. However, the monarchs' attitude came to suffer a sea change-probably due to popular agitation, the pressures of a turbulent nobility, and the maneuvers of the Inquisition, which exaggerated the converso danger, discovering nests of relapsed conversos in such elite groups as the Hieronymite Order and the monastery of Guadalupe, one of their favorite shrines. The procedures of the Inquisition, although thorough to an extreme, generated a noxious temper of mind, a public orthodoxy, which developed into a second and more insidious Inquisition.
In 1467 there were nine days of street fighting between old and New Christians. While some conversos retained their old religion clandestinely, others became missionaries to their former brethren, still others rabid persecutors. The Libro del Alborayque (1488), written by an Inquisitor of some wit, applied the name of Muhammad's steed, neither horse nor mule, to the New Christians. The intolerant spirit, which destroyed medieval convivencia, is nicely reflected in the words of Solomon Ibn Verga: "Judaism is no doubt one of the incurable diseases."
The first auto-da-fé of the New Inquisition was celebrated at Seville on February 6, 1487. Diego de Susán, a wealthy merchant, was accused of plotting to massacre Old Christians. This incident had been prefaced by the assassination of the Inquisitor Pedro de Arbués at Saragossa in September 1485. The proverbial (and probably apocryphal) straw came with the charge that a group of Jews and conversos had ritually murdered a Christian child. The insults that the conspirators supposedly hurled at the child as representing the infant Jesus were read aloud in the plaza mayor of Ávila on November 16, 1491, and possibly repeated in pulpits throughout Spain.
Excerpted from Silent Music by R. A. Herrera Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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