The Magazine

Old World, New World

Columbus, medieval Spain, and the dawn of the modern era.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By PETER HANNAFORD
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Dogs of God

Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors

by James Reston Jr.

Doubleday, 364 pp., $27.95

The dogs here are the Dominican friars who, under the zealous leadership of Torquemada, doggedly carried out the Spanish Inquisition with great efficiency. As the subtitle suggests, however, this book is about much more than the Inquisition. Dogs of God weaves a word tapestry showing the confluence of three historic events: The Inquisition, Columbus's first voyage of discovery, and the end of Arab occupancy of Spain.

It all happened in 1492.

In a recent presentation on the book at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, Reston concluded a rather dry, scholarly exchange with a member of the audience by saying, "And, it's a crackling good tale!" Indeed it is. The full range of human emotions, motivations, and characteristics is on display, with greed, vanity, and jealousy high on the list, but with valor, humility, and piety not far behind. The noble and profane are often mixed within the same individual.

Take Ferdinand and Isabella, for example. The queen was an intelligent, beautiful, and independent-minded woman. To settle a royal succession dispute in Castile in 1468, she signed a treaty swearing loyalty to her half-brother, Enrique, as king, but also establishing her as his rightful heir. As part of the treaty, he was given a say in whom she would marry. A succession of royal suitors from Spain, France, and England was considered, but when she met Ferdinand of Aragon, he was her choice.

Ferdinand, a year younger than Isabella, was by age 16 seasoned in battle, an excellent horseman, and, despite a meager education, curious and outspoken. In an age when marriages among the high-born were arranged to produce male heirs and/or secure more land, these two seem genuinely to have loved one another.

In a prenuptial agree ment they pledged to unite their provinces. Because Castile was larger and richer than Aragon, Ferdinand pledged to obey the ruler of Castile and, as Reston notes, "accept the holy obligation of all Spanish Catholic kings to attack and conquer, if possible, the infidel Moorish state of al-Andalus." Still teenagers, they were married on October 19, 1469.

Within three years, Isabella found herself with a zealous new confessor, Tomas de Torquemada, a Dominican prior who "burned with a vivid hatred of heresy and any Christian of whatever background who might be guilty of it." This would one day crystallize into the Inquisition, in which thousands of Christians were tortured and executed. Especially singled out for this treatment were conversos, Jewish Spaniards who had converted to Christianity.

In 1474 the Castilian King Enrique died and Isabella I ascended the throne. Her husband became Ferdinand V. Their counselors negotiated power-sharing arrangements, but Isabella held firmly to the precedence given her in the prenup. Still, as the years went on, she let her husband take the limelight as military leader of Castile and Aragon in the Reconquista, the ongoing war to evict the Moors from Spain. And she won the adoration of the population with her apparent piety, humility, and beauty.

Ever since a Muslim army had landed from North Africa in 711 and proceeded to conquer most of the Iberian peninsula, the remaining Catholic nobles sought to take it back. The Reconquista can be said to have begun with Charlemagne's creation of the Spanish March--Catalonia--in 778; and by the 11th century, Ferdinand I had liberated Castile from the Muslims. By the time Ferdinand and Isabella came to power, Moorish Spain had been reduced to the southern province of Granada. In recalling the decline and fall of Moorish Spain, Reston describes it in superlatives: "The glorious lost culture that was the Caliphate of the Moors." He does not mention that they first got there by conquest.

Following a short war with the Portuguese, Ferdinand and his generals laid plans to seize what was left of the Caliphate. A series of campaigns and battles culminated in the victory of 1492, by which time Islam in Europe, militarily at least, was a spent force. Underlying the steady progress of the Reconquista was a burst of Christian religious enthusiasm at a time when Moorish Spain, with its high degree of material prosperity and scientific achievements, had lost its religious zeal.