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Heresy and Mysticism in Sixteenth-Century Spain: The Alumbrados.

During the sixteenth century, European scholars and intellectuals heatedly debated the assortment of new ideas and interpretations of religious reformers many of which directly confronted the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout most of Europe this clash between tradition and reform moved quickly from the university to the battlefield. Spain was the great exception. In the lands of the Most Catholic Kings, heresy never found a foothold. Although sixteenth-century Spaniards remained essentially indifferent to the innovations in religious ideas that divided their European counterparts, contemporary historians have spent an enormous amount of time and effort researching those exceptional few who were persecuted for such beliefs, either real or perceived. The most famous of the heretical Spanish sects were the alumbrados, a small group of intellectuals "illuminated by the Holy Spirit" who, among other ideas, espoused a search for a more internal religion marked by dejamiento, the complete submission of the self to God. Alastair Hamilton has undertaken the daunting task of producing a survey in English of the alumbrado heresy. In the introduction he advances very ambitious goals for a small book on a topic which, as Hamilton admits, has already yielded a considerable amount of scholarship. In fewer than one hundred and thirty pages, he intends to discuss the spiritual and intellectual climate from which the alumbrados sprang, the people involved, their beliefs, their trials, their relationship to other heresies, and the way the term was used into the eighteenth century.

Hamilton has made a serious attempt at a formidable task. The book provides a sufficient summary of a very diffuse movement, an interesting reconstruction of the relationships between the protagonists, and a coherent narrative of the persecution. He also demonstrates how the term alumbrado became a catch phrase for all types of heresies during this period. According to Hamilton, the Inquisition, which had been established to deal with Judaizers, did not have the vocabulary to describe such diverse innovations in sixteenth-century spirituality as Erasmianism, Lutheranism, or even the works of Ignatius Loyola. However, the effort is hampered by the scope of his ambitions. The book is divided into numerous small sections that provide only curt discussions of each topic and are not connected by the necessary transitions. Furthermore, Hamilton's interpretation is confusing, because as he demonstrates the widespread use of alumbradismo as an accusation of heresy, he does not present sufficient explanations of the differences between these other intellectual and spiritual movements and the alumbrados. By the end of the book, the reader can no longer distinguish those people who actually espoused alumbrado ideals from those whose ideas were merely attacked as being alumbradismo such as Juan de Valdes, Bartolome Carranza, and Juan de Avila.

Hamilton's conclusion is very weak. He points the reader towards a "what might have been" evaluation of the alumbrados that might be construed as counterfactual. Additionally, he skims over the primary issue that has perplexed other historians, why alumbradismo disappeared so quickly while similar heresies persisted in other parts of Europe. Most historians have attributed the Spaniard's apathy towards innovative religious ideals to the power of the Inquisitional apparatus. However, alumbradismo had internal weaknesses. As Hamilton concedes, the doctrine of the alumbrados was "formless and contradictory", and the movement centered around no central figure. As a result, once the persecutions began, adherents could rely on neither the charisma of a zealous leader nor the constant devotion of its followers. Other factors surely influenced its decline. Rather than delving deeper into the workings of this tiny group, further study of the traditional beliefs with which alumbradismo had to contend might provide a more fruitful context for understanding this enigmatic sect.
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Author:Poska, Allyson M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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