26 December 2010

I am always a fan of books that make me dive in and read more about the historical time period that is featured, and By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan is one of them - you can read my review by clicking here.  I'm so thrilled that the author stopped by today for a guest post and to go into more detail about the foundation of the Spanish Inquisition which his debut novel discusses. As the Jews in Spain feared for their lives while practicing their faith, and as a New Inquisition was assembled to reveal Jews who, although already converted to Christianity, were rumored to secretly study their religion, Christopher Columbus was campaigning to get support to travel to areas of the world never before seen. Written beautifully and filled with real people from this time, By Fire, By Water is one to be picked up immediately for yourself, as a gift for someone else, or as a book club selection.
The Roots of the Spanish Inquisition: A Brief Overview of a Complicated Subject 
People often refer to the Spanish Inquisition as “the inquisition.”  That is misleading. During the middle ages, there were many inquisitions throughout Europe. They shared a common goal: to investigate accusations of heresy, and thus save souls.
The Spanish Inquisition, especially during its first decades (let's say 1478-1500), was unique in three respects: It sought to investigate primarily one heresy, the “judaizing” heresy; its methods were unusually harsh, even by the standards of the time; and it operated independently of papal oversight. How and why did such an aberration come into being?
During the fourteenth century, and well into the fifteenth – particularly, during the 1390s and 1410s – ferocious anti-semitic riots swept the Iberian peninsula. A variety of forces caused these riots, some specific to the time and place, others characteristic of European anti-semitism in general:
Xenophobia. Jews were the most universal, socio-economically important, and yet vulnerable “other” woven into the fabric of European society. This was particularly the case in Spain, where the Jewish population was well-established, large, and influential, but hemmed-in by a wide range of legal restrictions.
Religion. Medieval Christianity held all Jews, for all time, personally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Jewish refusal to acknowledge Jesus's divinity struck many Christians as stubborn, contemptuous, and blind.  Anger and blame swelled in times of distress.
Politics. During the middle of the fourteenth century, Pedro of Castile vied with his illegitimate half-brother, Henry de Trastamara for the crown. Pedro relied upon the support  (including financial support) of Jews, while Henry claimed the allegiance of anti-Jews and used anti-Jewish sentiment as a tool to rouse the populace against Pedro. A number of eloquent and popular preachers supported Henry, who ultimately prevailed by murdering Pedro.
And last but not least, economics. Due to laws supposedly grounded in the Bible, Christians were not permitted to lend money at interest to other Christians; nor were Jews allowed to lend money at interest to other Jews. (A similar rule still pertains in Muslim sharia law today.) Therefore, Christians who needed to borrow money often turned to Jews and vice-versa. Since the Jewish population was so much smaller than the Christian one, these rules had the unintended effect of concentrating wealth into the hands of Jews, which led to additional resentment.
It should be added that Jewish trade with Christians was limited, as was the right of Jews to own land. As a result, and because Jewish culture placed value on learning, Jews tended to excel only in certain well-defined economic areas, including artisanal trades, cartography, law, and medicine (in addition to money-lending).
When the anti-semitic riots of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries threatened their lives, many Jews opted for survival rather than martyrdom, and converted to Christianity. Such forced conversions led to widespread suspicion. How could someone who embraced Christianity on pain of death be trusted to believe -- truly and deeply -- in the dogma of his or her newfound faith?
Keep in mind that we're talking about a society where crimes of belief were considered far more important than violations of secular law. A Christian who held unusual ideas about the nature of the Trinity or the timing of the apocalypse was viewed as more dangerous than a thief or a rapist. In fact, behaviors that we consider criminal today, such as murder and torture, were deemed not merely acceptable but righteous when they were “justified” by dogma.
Crimes of belief were not feared merely because they endangered individuals' souls, but also because they sometimes threatened the authority of the Church. And so the Church created “inquisitorial tribunals” to investigate alleged crimes of this type.
Had Spain's New Christians (that is, the Jews who converted to Christianity and their descendants) merely been suspected of insincerity in their new faith, that would have been bad enough. Even worse, they came to be seen as a distinct socio-economic class.  Freed from the economic restrictions of the ghetto, some converses found their unique skills and talents to be highly profitable in the much larger economic marketplace of Christian Spain. Families including the Santangel, Sanchez, and de la Caballeria clans grew immensely wealthy and powerful. New Christians constituted an upwardly mobile, proto-capitalistic entity in the heart of feudal medieval society.
As this “class” grew in wealth and influence, it came to be seen as a threat both to aristocrats (who owned land and armies, but rarely had access to a great deal of liquid wealth) and to peasants (who saw the ascendancy of Jews or quasi-Jews as an inversion of the God-ordained social order). Thomas de Torquemada came up with a brilliant way to solve these “problems.” Rather than merely accuse New Christians of deviance, why not create a New Inquisition to determine whether or not they really were guilty of “judaizing?” If they were, the Church of Spain would have the right to deprive them of their wealth, sharing it with the monarchs, initially Isabella (in Castile) and later Ferdinand (when the New Inquisition would expand into the kingdom of Aragon).
To establish any inquisitorial tribunal, however, it was necessary to obtain the authorization of the pope. From Rome's point of view, there were several problems with Torquemada's plan. First, the converses objected, both verbally and financially. These were men of influence whom the pope took seriously. They professed to be sincere in their Christian faith, and demonstrated their loyalty by supporting Christian monarchs and the papacy. Second, in Torquemada's plan for a “New Inquisition,” there was no provision for seized wealth to be shared with Rome.  The pope therefore initially refused to authorize its establishment in Spain.
In response, King Ferdinand wrote to the pope saying that Castille and Aragon would refuse to help defend Rome from the Ottomans, who had taken over Constantinople only thirty years earlier and who were rapidly expanding westward. If the Ottomans conquered Rome, Christendom would end in the west just as it had recently ended in the east with the fall of Byzantium.
Needless to say, with his back to the wall, the pope eventually found merit in Torquemada's idea, and the New Inquisition – which we call the Spanish Inquisition – was born. Relations between the dual crowns of Spain and the pope remained tense, though, and Rome objected more than once (without success) to the ferocity of the New Inquisition's practices.
If all this seems complicated, I apologize. But I don't care for simplistic, reductionist explanations of history any more than I like simplistic novels (good guy vs. bad guy novels).  Historical changes are like meteorological phenomena: a variety of forces, some observed and some not, conspire to create vast blizzards and balmy Indian summers. The roots of the Spanish inquisition extended deep into Judeo-Christian and European culture. Its leaves (if I may be permitted to stretch the metaphor) still litter the ground of our contemporary existence.
About Mitchell James Kaplan
Mitchell James Kaplan has lived and worked primarily in Paris and Los Angeles as a translator, screenwriter, and script consultant.  Currently, he resides in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania with his wife and two children.  This is his first novel.

Visit the author's site by clicking here.

Note from Coffee and a Book Chick
I'd like to personally thank Mitchell James Kaplan for staying so incredibly engaged with his readers and the book blogging community, even during his busy author tour and holiday season -- when an author does this, you know they believe strongly in what they have created, and it is a treat to be a part of that.  Many, many thanks to him and I look forward to his next book!

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


  1. I really need to get this one read... I can see it on my coffee table now. :)

  2. I'm with Sheila - my copy of this book is in my sight now! I need to read this book soon. Thanks for the guest post. It was very enlightening.

  3. I too have this one to read! I love history, but it also makes me so angry! How could people be so incredibly cruel and manipulative! Mr. Kaplan your explanation of the Spanish Inquisition was quite informative and I cannot wait to dive into your book! Thank you for a wonderful guest post!

  4. Mitchell is such an intelligent man, and also a fabulous author. I had such an amazing time reading this book, and reading the interview was also a treat as well. I learned so much and now I want to read the book again!! Thanks Natalie, and Mitchell!

  5. I just saw a review of this and wanted to read it. Now I have to go get it.

  6. Thanks for guiding me here today! I really enjoyed this post and will reference it again before I delve into Mitchell's book!

  7. Excellent and informative guest post.

    I really enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would. Surprised I guess you could say. Strife in life always comes down to the same things: money, religion, politics. What a shame!

  8. nat,
    what a great guest post--educational, informative, and true to history. religion is such a dicey topic but this post and your review have me reconsidering reading a book i might normally pass by.

    nat :)

  9. Thank you for bringing us such an interesting guest post! I have the book and I've just been so behind but I'm really looking forward to it. It sounds fascinating!

  10. That is a great guest post. I had no idea about the Inquisition, I really want to read this book.

  11. Great post. I have a copy of this from BEA (my booth was next to Other Press') and now I really can't wait to get started on it.

  12. Natalie, Zibilee, Jenny, and all of you -- I can't thank you enough. Happy New Year! Mitchell

  13. What a great and fascinating post! I'm a huge history buff, and this book looks awesome. I really loved how the author took the time to talk more about the Spanish Inquisition. I learned about it in a lot of detail a few years ago in a history class I took, but it was great to have a refresher, especially since I want to add this book to me "Must Read" pile. Thank you to the author for doing this :)

  14. Thank you for the guest post and more information! I don't think there's such a thing as too much information. It also illustrates that the struggle for power and money is really at the heart of a lot of bad things, both past and present.