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Netanyahu, B[enzion]. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain.

Netanyahu, B[enzion]. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. 2nd ed. New York: New York Review of Books, 2001. 1320 pp. Paper, $34.95.

Netanyahu has written a definitive history of the Spanish Inquisition. To read this work, it is helpful to have a rudimentary knowledge of medieval history and the historical twists and turns of both Judaism and Christianity. This reviewer also found it helpful to be comfortable with Latin and Spanish. Yet, Netanyahu's work is so well written and his writing style so conducive to learning (see below) that even a non-specialist will be able to follow his history and his historical arguments.

Netanyahu's book follows a long tradition of multi-volume works on the Spanish Inquisition. He simply puts his "four books," as he calls them, in one binding. They are titled: "Book One: Historical Background"; "Book Two: The Rein of Juan II"; "Book Three: Enrique IV and the Catholic Kings"; and, "Book Four: The Origins of the Inquisition."

The appendices are chapters on specific unresolved topics or issues and well worth reading. This work completes a trio of books by Netanyahu on Spain's Jews and Marranos; it follows his Don Isaac Abravanel (1982) and The Marranos of Spain (1999).

The Origins of the Inquisition is a very long book for two very good reasons. One is that Netanyahu's research and work are so meticulous and exhaustive. He has mastered the relevant extant documents of an enormously long historical period (from the Babylonian Exile of the Jews in the sixth century B.C.E. through Ferdinand and Isabella's expulsion of the Jews and establishment of the Inquisition in the 15th century C.E.). He uses them with wisdom and precision. It is clear to this reviewer that what one gets in this book is years of reflection on the meaning of these many sources. Hence, this work is very extensively footnoted. An examination of selected references clearly demonstrates that the author was always accurate and balanced in his use of those sources. The only criticism this reviewer has regarding any of his sources is that those he uses for early Christianity are at least a generation old (i.e., A. Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, (1904-05); Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910); and, F. Charles Baur, History of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (1878)). His analysis of the era nonetheless is quite accurate.

The second reason is his style of writing. Whether he did so specifically for pedagogical reasons or not, Netanyahu weaves all the sources and characters of his history into his book again and again, chapter after chapter, book after book. It is good teaching at its best--capitalizing on the human capacity to learn by repetition. By the end of his book, even a non-specialist will have the flow of the history of medieval Spain, the Jews and Marranos, and the Inquisition firmly in his or her memory. This stylistic feature of Netanyahu makes his book very good history writing. In addition, Netanyahu's prose is exquisite in a non-stuffy way. His writing reminds this reviewer of some of the great history writers of previous generations who wrote both well and beautifully. Their work, as his, is both historiography and art. This combination is rarely found in modern writers and is a joy to read.

Netanyahu's historical research and analysis are as profound as his writing is artful. This reviewer cannot remember reading another work that shattered so many conventional positions of scholarship as does The Origins of the Inquisition. Netanyahu focuses solely upon the origins of the Inquisition regarding the Jews and particularly the Marranos. Within his specific and narrow field of inquiry, he constantly shatters earlier or modern views of the Inquisition, its complex history, its victims, its bystanders, and its effects. Some of his contentions may not survive scholarly scrutiny, but in the opinion of this reviewer most of them will because his scholarship is simply that meticulous and careful.

Arguably, Netanyahu's most important revision of the history of the Spanish Inquisition is his shattering of the former consensus that the Marranos of Spain were, in fact, crypto-Jews, having reverted to Jewish practice after conversion to Catholicism, as the Inquisition charged. He proves that this is utterly false from extensive use of Jewish, Converso, and Old Christian sources. He proves absolutely that a primary driving force behind the persecution of, first, the Jews, and, then, the Conversos was envy, greed, and lust for power on the part of, particularly, the rising Spanish urban leadership. This was done in part to wrest power in the cities from both the crown and the church. The other driving force was the ignorance, racial prejudice, and fear regarding Jews and Conversos of the Spanish masses, particularly the urban masses. Ambitious and cynical opportunists capitalized upon this ignorance, fear, and racial hatred of the masses in order to fulfill their lust for wealth and political and social advancement--all to be looted from their victims. The final element in this bitter brew was the expedience that all, from pope to king, from royal counselor to shopkeeper, chose rather than risk danger to help or save a Jew or New Christian being barbarized. This ugly history developed over centuries and came to a bloody climax in the Inquisition. Most importantly, Netanyahu conclusively shows that the religious charges leveled against the Marranos (and the Jews for that matter) were, from beginning to end, false and purely a pretext to hide these other forces that led to the repeated pogroms against Spain's Jews and Conversos. He also conclusively shows that this racism and hatred of the Jews and Marranos existed in spite of many able writings by contemporary Old and New Christians that proved that they were false. These hatreds were also held despite frequent royal and church declarations characterizing many of them as heresy or sedition. There were, at many levels, a willed, chosen bigotry and racism in Spanish culture and the Catholic Church (in spite of said proclamations) over these centuries.

I loved this book, even when it seemed very long. It is must reading in an age when so many suffer and are dying for religious reasons and pretexts. It lays bare the ugly truth about ancient religious zealotry, racial hatred, ambition, greed, and the power of expediency over principle that can serve as a mirror for the present age.

Edward Jay Mills III

Kingsport, Tennessee
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Author:Mills, Edward Jay, III
Publication:International Social Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1077
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