Marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand Discussion

Spanish inquisition would be a shared effort between the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church to impose harsh oppression upon non-Catholics.

Point 1: The inquisition was a reaction to an end in the long-term rule of Muslim conquerors on the Iberian peninsula and to a long-standing Anti-Semitism amongst the Spanish.

Point 2: The inquisition was set into motion by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, who brought monarchical unity to the rule of the Iberian peninsula.

Point 3: The inquisition was facilitated by Catholic insecurity over its status as well as its theological conflict with the Jews. These produced an Anti-Semitism which permeated the economy, politics and religious doctrine, allowing public acceptance of the inquisition.

Point 4: Political imperatives became an important part of making Christian doctrines the conventionally accepted moral, spiritual and legal code, allowing for the rationalization of extreme behaviors toward non-believers.

Point 5: The throne would seize on already present acts of aggression toward the Jewish minority in the form of segregation, pogroms and forced conversion, using the inquisition as a tool to consolidate power.

Point 6: The adoption of the inquisition led to immediate executions by the Monarchy, with thousands of Jews particularly victimized.

Point 7: The extremity and baseless nature of many executions caused the Catholic Church to attempt to intervene with the Spanish Crown, but with no success.

Point 8: At its height, the inquisition would order the expulsion of all Jews from Spain (1492).

Point 9: Ultimately, the policy would be destructive to the labor economy, political identity and ethnic culture of Spain.

The Origins and Implications of the Spanish Inquisition

Europe has a deep-seeded and perpetually re-emergent tendency toward Anti-Semitism. Owing especially to the continent’s indoctrination under the Catholic faith and the teachings of many in the papacy that Jewish heresy was an affront to Christianity, a doctrine of inquisition existed in many forms since the medieval proliferation of the Holy Roman Empire. The Byzantine incarnation of the Roman Empire was centered on the crusading enforcement of Christian values but of course, its edicts toward the violent suppression of non-Catholics also brought the Church the spoils of war. The interwoven elements of religion, politics and economy demonstrated here would also serve to direct the actions of the Crown and Church as they interceded in Spain during the 15th century. The Spanish Inquisition would come to reflect official Spanish policy as of 1478 and would serve to guide a practice of extreme oppression of non-Christians for the next four hundred years. Indeed, the Inquisition would guide Spain through a period of ethnic cleansing and would help to foretell the downfall of its so-called Golden Age. Its prelude, its execution and its aftermath all reflect a collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Spanish to impose harsh oppression upon non-Catholics.

The onset of the Inquisition would be prefigured by a society deeply tilted against the interests of both the Muslims and Jews who were prominent in many regions of Spain. The former group had been a conqueror of the land and held sway over Spain for centuries. So denotes Peters (1989), who tells that the ruling family, called the Hapsburgs, “based their authority far more on their military power and success in the Reconquista of Iberia from Muslim powers.” (Peters, 77) Indeed, the Inquisition would reflect the effort at a solidification of European authority in a context where the Moorish empires had ruled the land for many centuries.

It would also reflect a revulsion toward the Jewish population which had to this point coexisted peacefully with the royalty of Spain. Accordingly, our research refers to this period as ‘convivencia,’ a reference to the stasis of relative harmony between religions and ethnicities, “albeit punctuated by occasional conflict among the ruling Catholics and the Jews and Muslims. However, as Henry Kamen notes, “so-called convivencia was always a relationship between unequals.’ Despite their legal inequality, there was a long tradition of Jewish service to the crown of Aragon and Jews occupied many important posts, both religious and political. Castile itself had an unofficial rabbi.” (Wikipedia, 1)

But the presence of tensions blossomed into policy as the strength of the Church and Crown grew gradually more stable. The marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon would bring about a unification of the Iberian peninsula that in addition to marking a sharp break from the Moorish period before it, would invite the Catholic Church to sit aside the Spanish throne. Indeed, Ferdinand and Isabella would be recognized as the Catholic Monarchs of Europe, casting their Spanish kingdom as the capital of the Catholic world at that juncture. This was, by no coincidence, also a juncture at which Spain would begin its ascent to the top of a constantly waged power struggle between the kingdoms of Europe for land both on the continent and in New Worlds. Both in the interest of solidifying this power and demonstrating their commitment to the Church, “Ferdinand and Isabella chose Catholicism to unite Spain and in 1478 asked permission of the pope to begin the Spanish Inquisition to purify the people of Spain. They began by driving out Jews, Protestants and other non-believers.” (Kreger, 1)

In order to understand this event though, one must understand the complex and contentious relationship between the Jewish faith and Christianity during its precipitous rise to power. Indeed, as the Church became gradually intertwined with the Monarchies of Europe, so did the political and economic structures of Europe gradually shift toward an extreme oppression of Jews. Though the targets of the inquisition in Spain would nominally be identified as other non-Catholics, a set of motives rest in the Catholic psyche for a specific emphasis of flushing out Judaism. Namely, the inflammatory notion that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is a mythologized over-simplification of history that has helped to sustain an unwavering if often invisible image problem for the Jews. This notion has been a long-standing provocateur of resentment against the Jews, whose historical texts identify them inherently as being the Chosen People.

For the Catholics, the Jews represented a specific image problem particularly in their shared origin. Almost as a compensatory gesture of faith in doctrines adopted in light of and in lieu of the Jewish Torah, the Catholics seemed driven to employ political and lethal force as a way of validating subsequent scriptures. As Peters explains this, “it took four centuries for sufficiently widely accepted canon of Christian scripture to be defined and accepted (modeled upon Jewish religious literature, which then came to be called by Christians the ‘Old’ Testament), and the existence of a wide body of texts purporting to be canonical is conformed not only by St. Paul, but by subsequent archaeological and literary discoveries.” (Peters, 18)

Such is to say that the outright cultural and political dominance of Christianity would actually be hard-won as its leaders and various splinter-sects attempted to prove that Christianity now superceded Judaism. This is to suggest that without the force of the throne, Christianity was without a unifying form or doctrine. The inquisition of Spain and Rome before that would reflect the defensive perspective which motivated the violent suppression of Judaism. To many Catholics, it was only through the elimination of this ‘Old’ faith that Christianity could realize its core imperatives.

To be sure, this was a perspective which governed the experience of Jews in the years leading up to the inquisition itself. The ‘pogroms’ which have been visited upon Jews in nearly every part of Europe for centuries were a way of inflicting ethnically motivated terror on the Jewish settlements that were often isolated and, due to policies of segregation, less fortunate. The pogroms in 14th century Spain were driven by the interest of motivating Jews to convert to Catholicism. This is a decision which many Jews would make, with the interest of avoiding arrest, torture or execution for the practice of heresy. Heresy, in this case, would be identified as the practice of Judaism. Thus, “one of the consequences of these pogroms was the mass conversion of Jews. Forced baptism was totally contrary to the law of the Catholic Church, therefore anybody who had been forcibly baptized could legally return to Judaism. However, after the public violence, many of the converted “felt it safer to remain in their new religion.”[4] Thus after 1391 a new social group appeared and were referred to as conversos or New Christians.” (Wikipedia, 1)

In spite of their conversion, many Jews would continue to practice their faith in secret. Many others would simply be subjected to mistreatment and social segregation in spite of their conversion. Though now free to live in Spain without legal harassment, their label as ‘New Christians’ distinguished converted members of the ‘Old’ faith. Thus, they could not escape civil harassment as Catholic fervor and the efforts of a number of particularly popular religious figures would help to stoke the long latent sense of hostility toward the Jews.

For the Catholic Monarchs, this would function as both a great opportunity to strengthen their hand with the Catholic Church and to exploit a segment of the population for the plundering of its riches.

As Ferdinand and Isabella continued to press forward with the ‘re-conquest’ of Spain, they would increasingly come into command of lands long inhabited by Jewish and Muslim populations. As part of the spoils of conquest, those conquered would be stripped of their faith as a way of either driving them out or bring them under the authority of the church and crown. For those that had at least publicly denounced their faith though, the Spanish Inquisition would represent a new and more prying attack on those of non-Catholic origins. Accordingly, Los Hermanas Wool Works, LLC. (2009) reports that “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain took seriously reports that some Conversos and Mudejars were not only privately practicing their former faiths but were secretly trying to draw others back into their previous religious folds. In 1480, the King and Queen created the Spanish Inquisition to investigate these suspicions. During the first twelve years of this new institution, thousands of converted Jews were killed for breaking the law which prohibited practicing Judaism.” (Los Hermanas Wool Works, LLC, 1)

Ironically, the activities of the inquisition which would at first be sanctioned and signed off on by the papacy, would gradually become objectionable to the Church. Centuries of Catholic hostility over the premise of the Jewish role in the crucifixion had at this juncture begun to subside in other parts of Europe when the Spanish initiative reinvigorated demonstrations of European Anti-Semitism. Though reports vary by wide margins, some thousands of those subjected to the inquisition would be burned at the stake as the outcome of public auto de fes. These were trials of spectacle and ridicule where those accused of practicing Judaism in secret would be tortured with some observable parallels to the torture written as having been visited upon Jesus.

The Inquisition would be a powerful force throughout Spain and the Iberian peninsula for the subsequent century, particularly when in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabelle passed an edict expelling all practicing Jews from the kingdom. This would force countless Jews into conversion and countless others into exile, with populations of the Sephardic Jews originating in Spain escaping to less hostile contexts. According to one report, “nany Sephardic Jews went to Morocco, primarily to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These tiny Mediterranean coastal villages were centers of commerce, and the Sephardic Jews flourished in these locales, thanks to both legal and illegal trade.” (Los Hermanas Wool Works, LLC, 1) The mutual interests of the Jews and Muslims — an ironic consideration given today’s tumultuous relationship between the faiths — would make the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire an hospitable environment to the Jews leaving Spain and Portugal during the bulk of the 16th century. This would help to obliterate its Jewish population in Spain though, leaving a stain of ethnic hostility that is palpable even today.

It would also have detrimental effects on the long-term fortunes of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition would expel, execute, or force into religious submission Spain’s Jews and Moors. This would be fatal to the functionality of the production economy, disrupting the interdependent artisan, merchant and consumer aspects of its commercial trade.

Thus, as the challenges provoked by its severe mismanagement had begun to take their noticeable toll both on Spain’s capacity to remain afloat economically and to suitably conduct its aspired colonial operations, Spain continuously employed the policy of pilfering its colonial holdings in the New World in order to fuel its improprieties on the European continent. But for Spain, there was a catastrophic ignorance in its Catholic leadership that helped to dismantle its success. As one internal critic would remark at the time “all activity has come to rest precisely on the idea of not doing anything new, in upholding the past — its institutions and its dogmas — in suffocating every initiative, every innovating idea.” (Crow, 220.) These comments call into speculation the role of the Catholic Church in provoking stagnation and misappropriation within a kingdom of theretofore seemingly limitless potential for growth and innovation.

A markedly impacted population would be the diverse people of the Iberian peninsula themselves. The misappropriation of the crown had created a nation rife with corruption, moral decline, economic despair and the general sense that its leadership was driven by the greed and arrogance of the Catholic Church. This would incline the 1640 departure of Portugal and Catalina from the Spanish Empire. With this defection, Spain would lose respectively an umbrella under which a great many of its diverse holdings were occupied and a region from within its own perceived borders. This would sound the death knell for the empire, with Spain’s Hapsburgs family dying out and the nation sinking into a vacuum of power and an era of regional fracturing. In many ways, that would not only characterize a declined Spain, but it would produce the largely splintered nation which we know today. The inquisition, viewed in its time as a doctrine through which to strengthen Spain and its royal family, would prove a long and catastrophic policy that would plunge Spain into centuries of civil unrest.

Works Cited:

Crow, John. (1963). Spain: The Root and the Flower: A History of the Civilization of Spain and of the Spanish People. Harper & Row.

Kreger, L. (1996). The Spanish Inquisition: 1478-1834. The Web Chronology Project.

Ogg, David. (1954). Europe in the Seventeenth Century. Adam & Charles Black

Tres Hermana’s Wool Works, LLC. (2009). A Short History of the Walking Loom. A Loom With a View. Online at

Peters, E. (1989). Inquisition. University of California Press.

Wikipedia. (2009). Spanish Inquisition. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.

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