Chapter 5

THERE IS A MOMENT in Toni Morrison’s moving novel, Beloved, when Stamp Paid, a black man in the mid-nineteenth-century American South, notices something red stuck to the bottom of his flatbed boat as he is tying it up alongside a river bank. It was a particularly bad time for black people in a century of particularly bad times for them. “White-folks were still on the loose,” writes Morrison: “Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken.” And the smell of “skin, skin and hot blood . . . cooked in a lynch fire” was everywhere.

At first when he saw the red thing stuck to his boat Stamp Paid thought it was a feather. Reaching down to retrieve it,

he tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. He untied the ribbon and put it in his pocket, dropped the curl in the weeds. On the way home, he stopped, short of breath and dizzy. He waited until the spell passed before continuing on his way. A moment later, his breath left him again. This time he sat down by a fence. Rested, he got to his feet, but before he took a step he turned to look back down the road he was traveling and said, to its frozen mud and the river beyond, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?”1

It is a question many have asked, many times, during the course of the past millennium. What were those people whose minds and souls so avidly fueled genocides against Muslims, Africans, Indians, Jews, Gypsies, and other religious, racial, and ethnic groups? What are they who continue such wholesale slaughter still today?

It is tempting, when discussing the actions described in the two preceding chapters, as well as genocides from other times and places, to describe the behavior of the crimes’ perpetrators as insane. But as Terrence Des Pres once pointed out with regard to the Nazis’ attempted mass extermination of Europe’s Jews, “demonic” seems a better word than “insane” to characterize genocidal behavior. Des Pres’s semantic preference here, he said, was based upon his sense that “insanity is without firm structure, not predictable, something you cannot depend upon.” And while “what went on in the [Nazi] killing centers was highly organized and very dependable indeed,” thereby not qualifying as insanity, at least according to Des Pres’s informal definition, “the dedication of life’s energies to the production of death is a demonic principle of the first degree.”2

Des Pres continued on in this essay to distinguish between the Nazi effort to extinguish from the earth Europe’s Jewish population and other examples of genocide “from the thick history of mankind’s inhumanity,” including “the slaughter of the American Indians.” The difference he found was that “the destruction of the European Jews had no rational motive whatsoever, neither politics nor plunder, neither military strategy nor the moment’s blind expediency. . . . This was genocide for the sake of genocide.”3 Had Des Pres pursued these distinctions further, however—that is, had he been as concerned with the mass destruction of native peoples as he was with Europeans—he may well have realized that his posited contrasts were more apparent than they were real. On the one hand, much (though not all) of the European and American slaughter of American Indians—from fifteenth-century Hispaniola to sixteenth-century Peru to seventeenth-century New England to eighteenth-century Georgia to nineteenth-century California—was not driven by reasons of politics or plunder, nor by military strategy or blind expediency, but by nothing more than, to use Des Pres’s phraseology, genocide for the sake of genocide. On the other hand, much (though not all) of the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews was driven by what the perpetrators of that holocaust regarded as rational motives—however perverse or bizarre or sick or hateful those motives appear to others.4

To say this is not to say that the Jewish Holocaust—the inhuman destruction of 6,000,000 people—was not an abominably unique event. It was. So, too, for reasons of its own, was the mass murder of about 1,000,000 Armenians in Turkey a few decades prior to the Holocaust.5 So, too, was the deliberately caused “terror-famine” in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, which killed more than 14,000,000 people.6 So, too, have been each of the genocidal slaughters of many millions more, decades after the Holocaust, in Burundi, Bangladesh, Kampuchea, East Timor, the Brazilian Amazon, and elsewhere.7 Additionally, within the framework of the Holocaust itself, there were aspects that were unique in the campaign of genocide conducted by the Nazis against Europe’s Romani (Gypsy) people, which resulted in the mass murder of perhaps 1,500,000 men, women, and children.8 Of course, there also were the unique horrors of the African slave trade, during the course of which at least 30,000,000—and possibly as many as 40,000,000 to 60,000,000—Africans were killed, most of them in the prime of their lives, before they even had a chance to begin working as human chattel on plantations in the Indies and the Americas.9 And finally, there is the unique subject of this book, the total extermination of many American Indian peoples and the near-extermination of others, in numbers that eventually totaled close to 100,000,000.

Each of these genocides was distinct and unique, for one reason or another, as were (and are) others that go unmentioned here. In one case the sheer numbers of people killed may make it unique. In another case, the percentage of people killed may make it unique. In still a different case, the greatly compressed time period in which the genocide took place may make it unique. In a further case, the greatly extended time period in which the genocide took place may make it unique. No doubt the targeting of a specific group or groups for extermination by a particular nation’s official policy may mark a given genocide as unique. So too might another group’s being unofficially (but unmistakably) targeted for elimination by the actions of a multinational phalanx bent on total extirpation. Certainly the chilling utilization of technological instruments of destruction, such as gas chambers, and its assembly-line, bureaucratic, systematic methods of destruction makes the Holocaust unique. On the other hand, the savage employment of non-technological instruments of destruction, such as the unleashing of trained and hungry dogs to devour infants, and the burning and crude hacking to death of the inhabitants of entire cities, also makes the Spanish anti-Indian genocide unique.

A list of distinctions marking the uniqueness of one or another group that has suffered from genocidal mass destruction or near (or total) extermination could go on at length. Additional problems emerge because of a looseness in the terminology commonly used to describe categories and communities of genocidal victims. A traditional Eurocentric bias that lumps undifferentiated masses of “Africans” into one single category and undifferentiated masses of “Indians” into another, while making fine distinctions among the different populations of Europe, permits the ignoring of cases in which genocide against Africans and American Indians has resulted in the total extermination—purposefully carried out—of entire cultural, social, religious, and ethnic groups.

A secondary tragedy of all these genocides, moreover, is that partisan representatives among the survivors of particular afflicted groups not uncommonly hold up their peoples’ experience as so fundamentally different from the others that not only is scholarly comparison rejected out of hand, but mere cross-referencing or discussion of other genocidal events within the context of their own flatly is prohibited. It is almost as though the preemptive conclusion that one’s own group has suffered more than others is something of a horrible award of distinction that will be diminished if the true extent of another group’s suffering is acknowledged.

Compounding this secondary tragedy is the fact that such insistence on the incomparability of one’s own historical suffering, by means of what Irving Louis Horowitz calls “moral bookkeeping,” invariably pits one terribly injured group against another—as in the all too frequent contemporary disputes between Jews and African Americans, or the recent controversy over the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. In that particular struggle, involving the inclusion or exclusion of Gypsies from the Memorial program, tensions reached such a pitch that the celebrated Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was driven to write to the Memorial Commission in protest over the omission of Gypsies from the program, arguing that they too deserved commemorative recognition since “the Gypsies had been murdered in a proportion similar to the Jews, about 80 percent of them in the area of the countries which were occupied by the Nazis.”10

Although Wiesenthal’s willingness to extend a hand of public recognition and commiseration to fellow victims of one of history’s most monstrous events was typical of him (and today support solicitations for the Holocaust Memorial Museum point out that Jehovah’s Witnesses, the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, and others also were targets of the Nazi extermination effort) it was an unusual act in the context of these sorts of controversies. Denial of massive death counts is common—and even readily understandable, if contemptible—among those whose forefathers were the perpetrators of the genocide. Such denials have at least two motives: first, protection of the moral reputations of those people and that country responsible for the genocidal activity (which seems the primary motive of those scholars and politicians who deny that massive genocide campaigns were carried out against American Indians); and second, on occasion, the desire to continue carrying out virulent racist assaults upon those who were the victims of the genocide in question (as seems to be the major purpose of the anti-Semitic so-called historical revisionists who claim that the Jewish Holocaust never happened or that its magnitude has been exaggerated). But for those who have themselves been victims of extermination campaigns to proclaim uniqueness for their experiences only as a way of denying recognition to others who also have suffered massive genocidal brutalities is to play into the hands of the brutalizers.11 Rather, as Michael Berenbaum has wisely put it, “we should let our sufferings, however incommensurate, unite us in condemnation of inhumanity rather than divide us in a calculus of calamity.”12

Noam Chomsky once observed that “if you take any two historical events and ask whether there are similarities and differences, the answer is always going to be both yes and no. At some sufficiently fine level of detail, there will be differences, and at some sufficiently abstract level, there will be similarities.” The key question for most historical investigations, however, “is whether the level at which there are similarities is, in fact, a significant one.”13 Among all the cases of genocide mentioned above there were, we have noted, important differences. Indeed, in most technical particulars, the differences among them may well outweigh the similarities. But there were and are certain similarities of significance, and between the Jewish Holocaust and the Euro-American genocide against the Indians of the Americas one of those similarities involves the element of religion—where Des Pres’s preference for the word “demonic” resides most appropriately. And here, in considering the role of religion in these genocides there is no better place to begin than with the words of Elie Wiesel, a fact that is not without some irony since for years Wiesel has argued passionately for the complete historical uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. In seeking at least a partial answer to the question posed at the start of this chapter—“what are these people?”—an observation of Wiesel’s regarding the perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust is an equally apt beginning for those who would seek to understand the motivations that ignited and fanned the flames of the mass destruction of the Americas’ native peoples:

All the killers were Christian. . . . The Nazi system was the consequence of a movement of ideas and followed a strict logic; it did not arise in a void but had its roots deep in a tradition that prophesied it, prepared for it, and brought it to maturity. That tradition was inseparable from the past of Christian, civilized Europe.14

Indeed, despite an often expressed contempt for Christianity, in Mein Kampf Hitler had written that his plan for a triumphant Nazism was modeled on the Catholic Church’s traditional “tenacious adherence to dogma” and its “fanatical intolerance,” particularly in the Church’s past when, as Arno J. Mayer has noted, Hitler observed approvingly that in “building ‘its own altar,’ Christianity had not hesitated to ‘destroy the altars of the heathen.’ “15 Had Hitler required supporting evidence for this contention he would have needed to look no further than the Puritans’ godly justifications for exterminating New England’s Indians in the seventeenth century or, before that, the sanctimonious Spanish legitimation of genocide, as ordained by Christian Truth, in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Meso- and South America. (It is worth noting also that the Führer from time to time expressed admiration for the “efficiency” of the American genocide campaign against the Indians, viewing it as a forerunner for his own plans and programs.)16 But the roots of the tradition run far deeper than that—back to the high Middle Ages and before—when at least part of the Christians’ willingness to destroy the infidels who lived in what was considered to be a spiritual wilderness was rooted in a rabid need to kill the sinful wilderness that lived within themselves. To understand the horrors that were inflicted by Europeans and white Americans on the Indians of the Americas it is necessary to begin with a look at the core of European thought and culture—Christianity—and in particular its ideas on sex and race and violence.


Popular thought long has viewed pre-Christian Rome as a bacchanalian “Eden of the unrepressed,” in one historian’s words, and a similar impression often is held of ancient Greece as well. Neither view is correct. In Greece, virginity was treasured, and a young, unmarried woman discovered in the act of sex could legally be sold into slavery. “Given that this is the only situation in which Solonian law allows a free Athenian to be reduced to slavery,” writes Giulia Sissa, “it is clear that premarital sexual activity constituted an extremely serious threat to the laws governing relationships within and among families.”17 Athena herself, it is worth recalling, was not only a goddess of war, but also a virgin—a symbolic juxtaposition of characteristics that, as we shall see, was destined to resonate through many centuries of Western culture. And in Rome, no less a light than Cicero observed that since “the great excellence of man’s nature, above that of the brutes and all other creatures” is founded on the fact that brutes “are insensible to everything but pleasure, and they will risk everything to attain it,”

from this we are to conclude, that the mere pursuits of sensual gratifications are unworthy the excellency of man’s nature; and that they ought therefore to be despised and rejected; but that if a man shall have a small propensity for pleasure, he ought to be extremely cautious in what manner he indulges it. We, therefore, in the nourishment and dress of our bodies, ought to consult not our pleasure, but our health and our strength; and should we examine the excellency and dignity of our nature, we should then be made sensible how shameful man’s life is, when it melts away in pleasure, in voluptuousness, and effeminacy; and how noble it is to live with abstinence, with modesty, with strictness, and sobriety.18

The idea is hardly a Christian invention, then, that immoderate enjoyment of the pleasures of the flesh belongs to the world of the brute, and that abstinence, modesty, strictness, and sobriety are to be treasured above all else. Still, it is understandable why subsequent European thought would regard Greece and Rome as realms of carnal indulgence, since subsequent European thought was dominated by Christian ideology. And as the world of the Christian Fathers became the world of the Church Triumphant, while fluid and contested mythologies hardened into dogmatic theology, certain fundamental characteristics of Christianity, often derived from the teachings of Paul, came to express themselves in fanatical form. Not the least of these was the coming to dominance of an Augustinian notion of sex as sin (and sin as sexual) along with a larger sense, as Elaine Pagels puts it, that all of humanity was hopelessly “sick, suffering, and helpless.” As late antiquity in Europe began falling under the moral control of Christians there occurred what historian Jacques le Goff has called la deroute du corporal—“the rout of the body.” Not only was human flesh thenceforward to be regarded as corrupt, but so was the very nature of humankind and, indeed, so was nature itself; so corrupt, in fact, that only a rigid authoritarianism could be trusted to govern men and women who, since the fall of Adam and Eve, had been permanently poisoned with an inability to govern themselves in a fashion acceptable to God.19

At its heart, Christianity expressed a horror at the tainting of godliness with sexuality. Some early Christian Fathers, such as Origen, had taken literally the prophet Matthew’s charge (19:11–12) that “there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,” and castrated themselves. Such self-mutilating behavior finally was condemned by the Church in the fourth century as being excessive and unnecessary; thenceforward celibacy would be sufficient. But then this too was carried to extremes. Saint Paul had written (Cor. 7:1,9) that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman. . . . But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” Even marital sex invariably was infected with lust, however, so there developed in Christian culture the anachronistic institution of sexless so-called chaste marriage, and it endured with some popularity for nearly a thousand years.20

As Peter Brown has pointed out, however, perhaps the most remarkable thing about what he calls this gran rifiuto, or “great renunciation,” was the way it quickly became the basis for male leadership in the Church. One key to understanding this phenomenon is located in the contrast between Judaism at the time and its radical offshoot of Christianity. For as Brown notes: “In the very centuries when the rabbinate rose to prominence in Judaism by accepting marriage as a near-compulsory criterion of the wise, the leaders of the Christian communities moved in the diametrically opposite direction: access to leadership became identified with near-compulsory celibacy.” The Christian leader, then, stood apart from all others by making a public statement that in fact focused enormous attention on sexuality. Indeed, “sexuality became a highly charged symbolic marker” exactly because its dramatic removal as a central activity of life allowed the self-proclaimed saintly individual to present himself as “the ideal of the single-hearted person”—the person whose heart belonged only to God.21

Of course, such fanatically aggressive opposition to sex can only occur among people who are fanatically obsessed with sex, and nowhere was this more ostentatiously evident than in the lives of the early Christian hermits. Some time around the middle of the third century the holiest of Christian holy men decided that the only way to tame their despicable sexual desires was to remove themselves completely from the world of others. Moving to the desert, they literally declared war on their sexual selves, first by reducing their intake of food to near-starvation levels. “When one wants to take a town, one cuts off the supply of water and food,” wrote a sainted monastic named John the Dwarf. The same military strategy, he continued, “applies to the passions of the flesh. If a man lives a life of fasting and hunger, the enemies of his soul are weakened.”22

Weakened, perhaps; but never, it seems, defeated. On the contrary, the more these godly hermits tried to drive out thoughts of sex, the more they were tortured by desire. Thus, when one young monk, Palladius, reported to an older one, Pachon, that he was thinking of leaving the desert because, no matter what he did, “desire filled his thoughts night and day, and . . . he was increasingly tormented by visions of women,” the old man replied that after forty years of exile and isolation in the desert he too “still suffered the same intolerable urges. He said that between the ages of fifty and seventy he had not spent a single night or day without desiring a woman.”23 But try he and the others did, with maniacal obsessiveness. Aline Rousselle provides a few examples:

Ammonius used to burn his body with a red-hot iron every time [he felt sexual desire]. Pachon shut himself in a hyena’s den, hoping to die sooner than yield, and then he held an asp against his genital organs. Evagrius spent many nights in a frozen well. Philoromus wore irons. One hermit agreed one night to take in a woman who was lost in the desert. He left his light burning all night and burned his fingers on it to remind himself of eternal punishment. A monk who had treasured the memory of a very beautiful woman, when he heard that she was dead, went and dippled his coat in her decomposed body and lived with this smell to help him fight his constant thoughts of beauty.24

But let Saint Jerome describe for himself the masochistic joys of desert exile:

There I sat, solitary, full of bitterness; my disfigured limbs shuddered away from the sackcloth, my dirty skin was taking on the hue of the Ethiopian’s flesh: every day tears, every day sighing: and if in spite of my struggles sleep would tower over and sink upon me, my battered body ached on the naked earth. Of food and drink I say nothing, since even a sick monk uses only cold water, and to take anything cooked is a wanton luxury. Yet that same I, who for fear of hell condemned myself to such a prison, I, the comrade of scorpions and wild beasts, was there, watching the maidens in their dances: my face haggard with fasting, my mind burnt with desire in my frigid body, and the fires of lust alone leaped before a man prematurely dead. So, destitute of all aid, I used to lie at the feet of Christ, watering them with my tears, wiping them with my hair, struggling to subdue my rebellious flesh with seven days’ fasting.25

Extreme though such thoughts and behavior may seem today, in the early centuries of Christianity, when the seeds of faith were being nurtured into dogma, such activities characterized the entire adult lives of thousands of the most saintly and honored men. During the fourth century about 5000 holy ascetics lived in the desert of Nitria, with thousands more tormenting themselves around Antinoe in the Thebiad, at Hermopolis, and elsewhere. Indeed, so popular did the life of the sex-denying hermit become among Christian men that in time it was difficult to find sufficient isolation to live the true hermit’s life. They began to live in small groups, and then eventually in organized monasteries. Here, because of the closeness of other bodies, carnal temptation was more difficult to suppress. The institution did what it could to assist, however: rules were instituted prohibiting the locking of cell doors to discourage masturbation; it was forbidden for two monks to speak together in the dark, to ride a donkey together, or to approach any closer than an arm’s length away; they were to avoid looking at each other as much as possible, they were required to keep their knees covered when sitting in a group, and they were admonished against lifting their tunics any higher than was absolutely necessary when washing their clothes.26

Although sex was at the core of such commitments to self-denial, it was not all that the saintly Christian rejected. Indeed, what distinguished the Christian saint from other men, said the early Church fathers, was the Christian’s recognition of the categorical difference and fundamental opposition between things of the spirit and things of the world. The two realms were utterly incompatible, with the result, says the Epistle to Diognetus, that “the flesh hates the soul, and wages war upon it, though it has suffered no evil, because it is prevented from gratifying its pleasures, and the world hates the Christians though it has suffered no evil, because they are opposed to its pleasures.”27 In demonstrating their opposition to the world’s proffered pleasures, some monks wrapped themselves in iron chains in order that they might never forget their proper humility, while others “adopted the life of animals,” writes Henry Chadwick, “and fed on grass, living in the open air without shade from the sun and with the minimum of clothing.” Still others, such as Saint Simeon Stylites, displayed his asceticism by living his life on top of a column; by so doing, he not only “won the deep reverence of the country people,” but he also “inspired later imitators like Daniel (409-93) who spent thirty-three years on a column near Constantinople.” 28

During those same first centuries of the Church’s existence some paragons of the faith took to literal extremes the scriptural charge to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” by flinging themselves into what Augustine was to call the “daily sport” of suicide and by searching for ways to become Ignatius’s longed-for “fodder for wild beasts.”29 Suicide, like castration, in time was discouraged by the Church as at best institutionally counter-productive, but the idea of flesh as corruption and of the physical pleasures of the world as sin continued to evolve over the centuries, by the Middle Ages flourishing into a full-fledged ideology that came to be known as the contemptus mundi or “contempt for the world” tradition. All of life on earth was properly seen as a “vale of tears,” as a “desert,” an “exile.” As one medieval saint, Jean de Fecamp, exclaimed, human life was and should be viewed as “miserable life, decrepit life, impure life sullied by humours, exhausted by grief, dried by heat, swollen by meats, mortified by fasts, dissolved by pranks, consumed by sadness, distressed by worries, blunted by security, bloated by riches, cast down by poverty.”30 The torment of life lay, therefore, not only in its pains, but equally (if perversely) in its pleasures that systematically had to be both resisted and condemned. Thus, an anonymous twelfth-century poet confronted himself with the riddle—“Evil life of this world then / Why do you please me so?”—and answered piously with the following litany:

Fugitive life,

more harmful than any beast.

Worldly life, evil thing

Never worthy of love

Life which should be called death,

Which one should hate, not love

Worldly life, foul life

Pleasing only to the impious

Worldly life, sickly thing

More fragile than the rose

Life, stupid thing

Accepted only by fools,

Worldly life, source of labors,

Anguished, full of suffering

I reject you with all my heart

For you are full of filth.

Worldly life, future death,

Permanent ruin,

With all my heart I reject you

I prefer to undergo death,

O life, rather than serve you.31

A century later the poet and Franciscan monk Giacomino di Verona expressed the matter of humanity’s proper Christian understanding of itself in similar, if even more pithy terms:

In a very dirty and vile workroom

You were made out of slime,

So foul and so wretched

That my lips cannot bring themselves to tell you about it.

But if you have a bit of sense, you will know

That the fragile body in which you lived,

Where you were tormented eight months and more,

Was made of rotting and corrupt excrement. . .

You came out through a foul passage

And you fell into the world, poor and naked . . .

. . . Other creatures have some use:

Meat and bone, wool and leather;

But you, stinking man, you are worse than dung:

From you, man, comes only pus . . .

From you comes no virtue,

You are a sly and evil traitor;

Look in front of you and look behind,

For your life is like your shadow

Which quickly comes and quickly goes . . .32

In response to learned and saintly medieval urgings of this sort, the efforts of good Christians to purge themselves of worldly concerns and carnal impulses became something truly to behold, something that had its roots in the asceticism of the early Church Fathers of almost a thousand years earlier and something that would persist among the faithful for centuries yet to come. Norman Cohn has provided us with one vivid though not untypical example by quoting an account from the fourteenth century when, on a winter’s night, a devout friar

shut himself up in his cell and stripped himself naked . . . and took his scourge with the sharp spikes, and beat himself on the body and on the arms and legs, till blood poured off him as from a man who has been cupped. One of the spikes on the scourge was bent crooked, like a hook, and whatever flesh it caught it tore off. He beat himself so hard that the scourge broke into three bits and the points flew against the wall. He stood there bleeding and gazed at himself. It was such a wretched sight that he was reminded in many ways of the appearance of the beloved Christ, when he was fearfully beaten. Out of pity for himself he began to weep bitterly. And he knelt down, naked and covered in blood, in the frosty air, and prayed to God to wipe out his sin from before his gentle eyes.33

Monks and other males were not the only devout souls of this time who tried to work their way to heaven with self-flagellation and other forms of personal abasement. In fact, if anything, women showed more originality than men in their undertakings of humiliation. In addition to the routine of self-flagellation and the commitment of themselves to crippling and sometimes fatal bouts of purposeful starvation, would-be female saints “drank pus or scabs from lepers’ sores, eating and incorporating disease,” reports a recent student of the subject, “and in the frenzy of trance or ecstasy, pious women sometimes mutilated themselves with knives.” One such holy woman displayed her piety by sleeping on a bed of paving stones, whipping herself with chains, and wearing a crown of thorns. As Caroline Walker Bynum dryly remarks:

Reading the lives of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century women saints greatly expands one’s knowledge of Latin synonyms for whip, thong, flail, chain, etc. Ascetic practices commonly reported in these vitae include wearing hair shirts, binding the flesh tightly with twisted ropes, rubbing lice into self-inflicted wounds, denying oneself sleep, adulterating food and water with ashes or salt, performing thousands of genuflections, thrusting nettles into one’s breasts, and praying barefoot in winter. Among the more bizarre female behaviors were rolling in broken glass, jumping into ovens, hanging from a gibbet, and praying upside down.34

Such behavior was motivated primarily by the now traditional Christian compulsion to deny and to rout the pleasures of the flesh and by so doing to accentuate the importance of the spirit, for by this time the sundering of the mundane from the spiritual, the profane from the sacred, was a well-established characteristic of European Christian culture. But by listening closely, Bynum has shown that the sounds of other promptings to asceticism can be discerned as well. These additional (not alternative) explanations for such extreme performances included straightforward efforts to escape the restrictions and menial activities dictated by life in authoritarian Christian families and communities. This was a motive particularly likely among women living in a harshly misogynist world, women who by becoming acknowledged saints and mystics were able to use the institution of chaste marriage to negotiate non-sexual relationships for themselves during an era when sexual marriage could be an extraordinarily brutal institution, and women who, when all else failed, sometimes were able “accidentally” to drop an unwanted infant into the fire during a trance of mystical ecstasy.35

To be sure, much as its priesthood fondly wanted it to be, Christianity never was able to become an entirely totalitarian religion. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in particular, some citizens of Europe found for themselves cultural pockets of at least some sensual freedom. What these exceptions almost invariably demonstrate, however, is that once European sexual mores and attitudes toward the body had been shaped on the anvil of early Christian asceticism, whatever variations those mores and attitudes underwent during the course of time they always were variations that remained partially embedded in that repressive ideal. As a culture, the Christian West never was (and still is not) at ease with sexuality. Thus, even on those short-lived occasions when erotic repression relaxed for a time, the emerging liberatory impulse indulged in by a relative few invariably had about it an almost desperate quality of both flamboyance and risk.

When a few women of prominence in certain parts of Europe during the fourteenth century felt free for a time to express themselves sexually, for example—no doubt, as part of the breakdown in Christian morality that came in the aftermath of the Black Death—they did it by ostentatiously exposing their breasts, applying rouge or jewel-studded caps to their nipples, and sometimes piercing their nipples so as to hang gold chains from them. If this fashion was a bit extreme for some, an alternative was to cover as little as possible of one’s breasts and then to push them up and out; the result, according to one observer, was to make “two . . . horns on their bosom, very high up and artificially projected toward the front, even when nature has not endowed them with such important advantages.”36 Such determinedly—or frantically—erotic fashion statements were never the rule for many, of course; and for those few who did indulge in them, the lifespan of the vogue was short. For constantly lurking everywhere was the dominant moral code of the Church. As John Bromyard, an approximate contemporary of those rouge-nippled fourteenth-century would-be libertines and their male companions, warned:

In place of scented baths, their body shall have a narrow pit in the earth, and there they shall have a bath more foul than any bath of pitch and sulphur. In place of a soft couch, they shall have a bed more grievous and hard than all the nails and spikes in the world. . . . Instead of wives, they shall have toads; instead of a great retinue and a throng of followers, their body shall have a throng of worms and their soul a throng of demons.37

Bromyard’s reference to scented baths is also telling. Inspired by the example of Muslims living in Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, public baths slowly spread throughout Europe during the course of the next two hundred years. By the turn of the fourteenth century, Paris, for instance, had about two dozen public baths. In some of them a visitor might encounter what the Italian writer Poggio did on a visit to Zurich in the early fifteenth century: partially clad men and women singing and drinking, and “young girls, already ripe for marriage, in the fullness of their nubile forms . . . standing and moving like goddesses . . . their garments form[ing] a floating train on the surface of the waters.”38

By the end of the fifteenth century, however, the baths were being closed throughout Europe; within half a century more they were gone.39 (The Spanish, in particular, had never supported regular bathing, public or otherwise, associating it with Islam and thus regarding it as “a mere cover for Mohammedan ritual and sexual promiscuity.”)40 Similarly, brothels had been tolerated and even given municipal institutional status in some European communities during the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. But, just as bath houses began being closed by authorities in the 1470s, so too were the brothels; like the public baths, open brothels effectively had disappeared by the mid-sixteenth century.41 As for bare-breasted or other revealing fashions, they also quickly became a thing of the past. Spain led the way here as the fifteenth century was drawing to a close. Mantles or mantos for women became the approved attire, Hans Peter Duerr notes, and they

completely enveloped the female figure, leaving only a small peephole. Black became the colour of choice, the expression of the face froze into a mask, bodices had iron staves sewed into them, even the hint of a bosom was shunned. Lead plates served to keep breasts flat and to impede their development.42

In other parts of Europe “there was even a return to the medieval caps and chin bands,” Duerr writes, “revealing nothing of the hair beneath.” Behind this shift back to traditional Christian denial of the body and rejection of things sexual, says loan P. Couliano, was the persistent ideology that

woman is the blind instrument for seduction of nature, the symbol of temptation, sin, and evil. Besides her face, the principal baits of her allure are the signs of her fertility, hips and breasts. The face, alas, must stay exposed, but it is possible for it to wear a rigid and manly expression. The neck can be enveloped in a high lace collar. As to the bosom, the treatment dealt it closely resembles the traditional deformation of the feet of [Chinese] women, being no less painful and unhealthy. . . . Natural femininity, overflowing, voluptuous, and sinful is categorized as unlawful. Henceforth only witches will dare to have wide hips, prominent breasts, conspicuous buttocks, long hair.43

Couliano’s passing reference to witches in this context is worth pausing over, for it is precisely here that Christianity—and in particular the Christianity that structured life, culture, and ideas at the time that Columbus was making ready his plans to sail to Cathay—located the only proper home in the contemporary world for nudity and eroticism. Both of the major texts on witchcraft produced at this time—Jakob Sprenger’s famous Malleus Maleficarum in 1486, and Fray Martin de Castenega’s Tratado de las Supersticiones y Hechicherias in 1529—observed that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust.” Indeed, “the literature and imagery relating to witchcraft border on the pornographic,” Couliano says: “the inhibitions of an entire era of repression are poured into it. All possible and impossible perversions are ascribed to witches and their fiendish partners”—“perversions” both heterosexual and homosexual, for as Jeffrey Burton Russell has observed, one “commonplace” allegation that appears “again and again” in witchcraft trials was the charge of sodomy.44

The ritualized gatherings of witches in Europe during this time were known as “synagogues,” and later as “sabbats”—both terms, of course, derived from Judaism, which was itself regarded as a form of devil worship. There are numerous supposed accounts of such gatherings (the so-called Great European Witch Hunt was building toward its peak by the end of the fifteenth century), but Norman Cohn has put together a representative collage of what Christians from this time believed took place during a typical witches’ sabbat:

The sabbat was presided over by the Devil, who now took on the shape not of a mere man but of a monstrous being, half man and half goat: a hideous black man with enormous horns, a goat’s beard and goat’s legs. . . . First the witches knelt down and prayed to the Devil, calling him Lord and God, and repeating their renunciation of the Christian faith; after which each in turn kissed him, often on his left foot, his genitals or his anus. Next delinquent witches reported for punishment, which usually consisted of whippings. . . . Then came the parody of divine service. Dressed in black vestments, with mitre and surplice, the Devil would preach a sermon, warning his followers against reverting to Christianity and promising them a far more blissful paradise than the Christian heaven. . . . The proceedings ended in a climax of profanity. Once more the witches adored the Devil and kissed his anus. . . . Finally, an orgiastic dance, to the sound of trumpets, drums and fifes. The witches would form a circle, facing outwards, and dance around a witch bent over, her head touching the ground, with a candle stuck in her anus to serve as illumination. The dance would become a frantic and erotic orgy, in which all things, including sodomy and incest, were permitted. At the height of the orgy the Devil would copulate with every man, woman and child present.45

Needless to say, sex with Satan—or even with one or more of the incubi or succubae who assisted him—was not something one easily forgot. Nicolas Remy, a sixteenth-century expert on these matters (he had made a fifteen-year study of approximately 900 witchcraft trials) reported to an eager Christian public the experiences, recounted in official testimony, of some witches who had endured the ordeal:

Hennezel asserts that his Scuatzebourg (those were the names of succubae) gave him the impression of having a frozen hole (instead of a vagina) and that he had to withdraw before having an orgasm. As to witches, they declare that the virile organs of demons are so thick and hard that it is impossible to be penetrated by them without dreadful pain. Alice Drigée compared her demon’s erect penis with a kitchen tool she pointed out to the assembly and gave the information that the former lacked scrotum and testicles. As to Claudine Fellée, she knew how to avoid the piercing pain of such intercourse by a rotary movement she often performed in order to introduce that erect mass, which no woman, of no matter what capacity, could have contained. . . . And nevertheless, there are some who reach orgasm in this cold and loathsome embrace.46

It is not hard to imagine the effect—or, indeed, the function—of listening to this sort of thing, day in and day out, among people adamantly committed to intense sexual repression as the fundamental key to eternal salvation. In the event that verbal description might prove insufficient, however, artistic works abounded, depicting the disgustingly thrilling orgiastic rites and rituals that occurred during witches’ sabbats. So too, of course, were visual representations readily available of the horrendous postmortem fate—including violent assaults by demons on the genitals—that was in store for ordinary mortals who might have succumbed to the temptations of lust and lechery.

There was, however, a third artistic genre in which sexual behavior was often central—depictions of the long, lost Golden Age. Thus, in the midst of the sixteenth century’s culture of sexual denial, Agostino Carracci—among others—could openly depict explicit and voluptuous sensuality and eroticism so long as it was labeled Love in the Golden Age and contained appended verses with language like: “As the palm is a sign of victory, so the fruit of congenial love is that sweetness from which is produced the seed whence Nature and heaven are glorified.”47

By definition, of course, the Golden Age belonged safely to the past—although there was always the very real possibility that displaced remnants of it existed, and could be found, in distant parts of the world that had not yet been explored. If somewhere on the earth’s outer fringes there lay a land of demigods and milk and honey, however, there also lurked in distant realms demi-brutes who lived carnal and savage lives in a wilderness controlled by Satan. Which one, if either, of these a medieval or Renaissance explorer was likely to find, only time and experience would tell.


Contrary to a notion that has become fashionable among American historians, the concept of race was not invented in the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. Indeed, systems of categorical generalization that separated groups of people according to social constructions of race (sometimes based on skin color, sometimes with reference to other attributes) and ranked them as to disposition and intelligence, were in use in Europe at least a thousand years before Columbus set off across the Atlantic.48 Even a thousand years earlier than that, says historian of ancient Greece Kurt von Fritz, since it was, he contends, during the time of Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C. “that race theory first raised its head.” Others might argue for an earlier date still, but certainly it is true, as Fritz points out, that from Hippocrates to Callisthenes to Posidonius several centuries later, the concept was elaborated and refined until it was held that “not only the populations of different continents constituted different races, but every tribe or nation had its racial characteristics which were the product of hereditary factors, climate, diet, training and traditions.” As a consequence of this, Posidonius contended, the behavior of individuals and groups was attributable to a variety of factors, one of which was their “racial character.”49 Moreover, as Orlando Patterson has shown, “strong racial antipathy was not uncommon in Rome,” and in particular, “Negro features were not an asset in the slave-holding societies of the Greco-Roman world.”50

Long before this era, however, at least as early as the late eighth century B.C., Homer and Hesiod and other Greek poets were describing a time, as A. Bartlett Giamatti puts it, “when Cronos reigned and the world was young, the age of the Golden race, and said it still existed to the north in the land of the Scythians and Hyperboreans.” The poets were not alone in speaking and writing of these Fortunate Islands of delight, repose, and physical bliss, for “as poets sang of this happy place, ancient geographers and historians charted and described it—sight unseen, save with the mind’s eye.”51

Unseen, perhaps, but there was no doubt that the earthly paradise was an actual place situated in a distant realm, a group of islands or a peaceful plain at the end of the earth. As Menelaus was promised in the Odyssey:

[I]t is not your fate to die in Argos, to meet your end in the grazing-land of horses. The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian fields where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshment Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.52

In other traditions the Elysian Fields were in the Islands of the Blest where, according to Hesiod, there lived the fourth age of men, the “godly race of the heroes who are called demigods,” to whom Zeus had “granted a life and home apart from men, and settled them at the ends of the earth.” And still today, says Hesiod, there they “dwell with carefree heart in the Isles of the Blessed Ones, beside deep-swirling Oceanus: fortunate Heroes, for whom the grain-giving soil bears its honey-sweet fruits thrice a year.”53

These were demigods because they were half god, half human, descended from unions between gods and mortal women. Their existence had been preceded by that of three other races. First, there were the “Golden race” of people who “lived like gods, with carefree heart, remote from toil and misery” and who, at the end of their reign, were transformed into “divine spirits . . . watchers over mortal men, bestowers of wealth.” Then there followed the Silver race, “much inferior” to the Golden race, “but still they too have honour.” The third race, the race of Bronze men, was “a terrible and fierce race,” characterized by violence and a lack of agriculture—a clear sign of civilization’s absence—a people who ate only meat and whatever grew wild. They were “unshapen hulks, with great strength and indescribable arms growing from their shoulders above their stalwart bodies.” They did not have iron, or at least they did not know how to work it, and they now lived in “chill Hades’ house of decay.”54

The present is located in the fifth age, the age of the race of Iron men. In terms of moral character, the world of Hesiod’s Iron race contemporaries seems to have been situated somewhere between that of the deformed and violent and primitive Bronze race and that of the demigods who lived in the Blessed Isles: although troubled with vice and selfishness and dishonesty, at least the Iron race is civilized, though in time it too is fated to be abandoned by the gods because of its insistent sinfulness. However, as Giamatti notes, Hesiod later introduces the notions of justice and morality as paths that mortal men and women can choose to follow and in which “a kind of Golden Age is open to [those] who deserve it by their just and virtuous lives.”55 Neither war, nor famine, nor blight will fall upon those whose communities select the path of virtue:

For them Earth bears plentiful food, and on the mountains the oak carries acorns at its surface and bees at its centre. The fleecy sheep are laden down with wool; the womenfolk bear children that resemble their parents; they enjoy a continual sufficiency of good things. Nor do they ply on ships, but the grain-giving ploughland bears them fruit.56

This is about as close as humans are likely to get to a paradise on earth. For “those who occupy themselves with violence and wickedness and brutal deeds,” however, godly retribution is in store: “disaster . . . famine and with it plague, and the people waste away. The womenfolk do not give birth, and households decline.”57

The theme evolved from Greek to Roman thought and, as Giamatti observes, the “note of morality,” of virtue and its reward as a choice humans could make, “rendered Golden Age places ‘safe’ for Christian adaptation.” In time Christianity did indeed integrate the idea into its own ideology. Although in Christian legend the terrestrial paradise was linked to the Garden of Eden, as Giamatti says, “early Christian descriptions of the earthly paradise owed as much to ancient literature as to Christian Biblical literature, and finally the two strands became inseparable.”58Whatever the variations imposed by the different European cultures that adopted it, the terrestrial paradise was always a place linked to the past, but still existing somewhere on the other side of the world in the present—a place of simplicity, innocence, harmony, love, and happiness, where the climate is balmy and the fruits of nature’s bounty are found on the trees year round.

Other, less pleasant realms and their inhabitants existed in distant lands as well, however, for mixed in among the varied races of the world was a special category of being collectively known as the “monstrous races.” They are described in the writings of Homer, Ctesias, Megasthenes, and others dating back at least as far as the eighth century B.C.—along with earlier parallels that can be found in the ancient Near East—but the first major compilation describing the appearance and character of the different monstrous races was that of Pliny the Elder in his first century A.D. Natural History. In thirty-six volumes Pliny soberly and seriously informs his readers about the existence of different peoples living in far off lands whose feet are turned backwards; whose upper or lower lips are so large that they curl them back over their heads to use as umbrellas; who walk upside down; who walk on all fours; who are covered with hair; who have no mouths and nourish themselves by smelling their food; who have neither heads nor necks and whose faces are embedded in their chests; who have one eye—or three, or four; who have the heads of dogs, and breathe flames; who have only one leg on which they nevertheless run very fast, a leg containing an enormous foot that they use to shield themselves from the sun; who are gigantic or miniature in size; who have six fingers or six hands; who have hooves instead of feet; whose ears are so long that they use them as blankets; and more. Other such alien races have women who conceive at age five and die by the time they are eight, or children who are born with white hair that gradually turns to black as they grow older.59

It is important to recognize that these creatures were truly believed to exist and to exist not in some supernatural or demonic realm, but within the larger context of humanity—if often on its outermost margins. Beyond the matter of gross difference in physical type and biological characteristics in general, the monstrous races were distinguishable by cultural patterns that varied from European ideals. They spoke strangely; “barbarians” were, after all, literally barbaraphonoi, or those whose speech sounded like “bar bar” to Greek ears. They ate and drank strange foods and potions, from insects to human flesh to dog’s milk. They went about unclothed, or if clothed they usually were covered by animal skins. They used crude weapons of war, clubs or other wooden objects, or they were ignorant of weaponry altogether. And they lived in small communities, not urban environments—and thus were largely ungoverned by laws.

Once integrated into Christian thinking, the monstrous races came to be associated with the lineage of Cain; that is, they were actual creatures whose strangeness was part of their deserved suffering because of their progenitor’s sin. Whether Greeks, Romans, or medieval Christians, moreover, the Europeans of all eras considered themselves to be “chosen” people, the inhabitants of the center and most civil domain of human life. The further removed from that center anything in nature was, the further it was removed from God, from virtue, and from the highest essence of humanity. Thus, the fact that the monstrous races were said to live on the distant extremes of the earthly realm was one crucial element in their radical otherness, and also in their being defined as fundamentally unvirtuous and base. So great was their alienation from the world of God’s—or the gods’—most favored people, in fact, that well into late antiquity they commonly were denied the label of “men.”60

This eventually became a problem for Christianity, eager as the faith was to convert all humanity to God’s revealed truth. The classic statement of the early church on this matter was the work of Augustine who, in The City of God, affirmed that “whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or colour or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.” Though often regarded as a fairly unambiguous statement of support for the humanity of distant peoples, Augustine’s linking of humanity to “rationality” left open a large area for definitional disagreement. Nor did his closing words on the subject help: “Let me then tentatively and guardedly state my conclusion. Either the written accounts of certain races are completely unfounded or, if such races do exist, they are not human; or, if they are human, they are descended from Adam.”61 All that really can be concluded from this is that, for Augustine, someone who worships within the fold of Christianity certainly is rational and certainly is human, though there clearly are races that in some respects might seem to be human, but are not.

A great challenge was thus posed to the Church. It was met with avidity. Stories circulated throughout medieval Europe of creatures with hooves for feet, and with claws, who had been converted to the way of Christ; of people as small as seven-year old children, with horses the size of sheep, who had been brought to see the light. Even people with the heads of dogs and who ate human flesh were said to have been brought within Christianity’s embrace. Indeed, in several accounts of the conversion of St. Christopher—for centuries one of the Church’s most popular saints—the pre-conversion Christopher was a Cynocephalus, or dog-headed creature with “long hair, and eyes glittering like the morning star in his head, and [with] teeth like the tusks of a wild boar.”62 If, however—to some enthusiastic Christians, at least—physical appearance was no bar to conversion and even to sainthood, another less generous conclusion from this same premise was equally important, and equally linked with Augustine’s earlier ambivalence on the subject: those creatures who made up the alien races in far flung lands and who were not “rational”—that is, unlike St. Christopher and others, those who were incapable of being converted—must be considered beyond the most charitable definition of personhood.

Gradually, during the later Middle Ages, interest in the great variety of monstrous races that Pliny and others laboriously had described began to fade. Concern increasingly focused on a single example of the type—the sylvestres homines, or wild man. As Richard Bernheimer, in the classic study of the subject, describes the wild man, it is a hairy creature

curiously compounded of human and animal traits, without, however, sinking to the level of an ape. It exhibits upon its naked human anatomy a growth of fur, leaving bare only its face, feet, and hands, at times its knees and elbows, or the breasts of the female of the species. Frequently the creature is shown wielding a heavy club or mace, or the trunk of a tree; and, since its body is usually naked except for a shaggy covering, it may hide its nudity under a strand of twisted foliage worn around the loins.63

Hidden or not, however, the loins of the wild man and his female companion were of abiding interest to Christian Europeans. For, in direct opposition to ascetic Christian ideals, wild people were seen as voraciously sexual creatures, some of them, in Hayden White’s phrase, “little more than ambulatory genitalia.” Adds historian Jeffrey Russell: “The wild man, both brutal and erotic, was a perfect projection of the repressed libidinous impulses of medieval man. His counterpart, the wild woman, who was a murderess, child-eater, bloodsucker and occasionally a sex nymph, was a prototype of the witch.”64

Wild men, like the other representatives of the earth’s monstrous races, had inhabited the Near Eastern and Western imaginations for millennia. So too had the wild man’s adversary, the heroic human adventurer. And from at least the time of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, with its numerous parallels in Old Testament ideas, one recurring characteristic of the wild man’s brave antagonist was his avoidance of, and even flight from, sexuality and the world of women. In the Gilgamesh legend, for example—which was composed in about 2000 B.C. from tales that are older still—the first wild man encountered is Enkidu. Possessed of “titanic strength,” Enkidu’s “whole body is covered with hair; the hair of his head is long like that of a woman. . . . With the game of the field he ranges at large over the steppe, eats grass and drinks water from the drinking-places of the open country, and delights in the company of animals.”65 In time Enkidu acknowledges Gilgamesh, the story’s hero, as his superior, but only after Gilgamesh has had Enkidu brought down by the wiles and seductions of a courtesan.

With Enkidu now in tow—indeed, having almost merged into a second self—Gilgamesh next encounters another wild man, a terrifying, forest-dwelling, and far less cooperative ogre named Humbaba, and together—with the help of the sun god—Enkidu and Gilgamesh destroy Humbaba and cut off his head. Impressed by Gilgamesh, Ishtar, the goddess of love, proposes marriage to him, along with all the riches and accompanying pleasures she can give him; but Gilgamesh rejects her, knowing of her reputation as a fickle consumer of men. After another sequence of events Gilgamesh proclaims himself “the most glorious among heroes . . . the most eminent among men” and receives the approving acclaim of multitudes. The spurned Ishtar has her revenge, however, and Enkidu is killed, leaving Gilgamesh to cry “bitterly like unto a wailing woman,” for seven days and seven nights, before launching a quest for the secret of eternal life. At last he is given it, in the form of a thorny plant from the bottom of the sea—but before he can use it the plant is stolen from him by a serpent, and Gilgamesh returns home to live out his days condemned to the ultimate fate of all mankind.

There are, certainly, numerous themes in the Gilgamesh story that have worked their way into the patterns of subsequent Western literature, and certainly the quest for eternal life, whether in the form of the earthly paradise or the fountain of youth, is relevant to understanding the adventures of Columbus and many of the European explorers who followed him. Of more immediate concern, however, is that the world of the adventurer is not only a male world, but a world in which women are at best irrelevant or ineffectual, and at worst are harlots, castrators, or murderesses. As such, they must at all costs be avoided. Paul Zweig has shown how this is true not only in the obvious cases (as with Beowulf having to overcome both Grendel and Grendel’s monstrous mother, or in Odysseus’ various dealings with Calypso, Circe, Scylla, and Charybdis), but also in the genre that, of all male writings, seems most sympathetic to women—the medieval romance. For on the whole, Zweig observes:

medieval romance follows an implicit pattern which enables the adventurer to triumph over his female adversary. Typically, the romance opens as the knight gratefully swears oaths of love and loyalty which bind him to the lady of his choice. Before the story even begins, he is “defeated,” helplessly in love. All he desires, apparently, is to sit idly at the feet of his queen. What could be more painful than to leave the lady’s presence? But that is precisely what he must do; because his lady requires proof—he encourages her to require proof—of his love. And so the knight is banished into the wandering, unattached life of adventure, proving his courage and improving his reputation, all for the greater glory of the lady, whom he may, in fact, never see again.66

But, of course, seeing her again is not the point. The point is to live a life of exploration and danger—though a properly chaste and Christian life of exploration and danger, fighting against devilish men and beasts of the woods—preferably in the company of one or more male companions. “What is done for the lady, need not be done with her,” Zweig notes. Indeed, from Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad to Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—to say nothing of numerous examples up to the present—the same motif “recurs in the literature of adventure”:

uprooting himself from women, the adventurer forms a masculine friendship so intimate, so passionate, that it reasserts, in male terms, the emotional bond which formerly anchored him within the world of the city. . . . The adventurer, in his desire to reinvent himself as a man, reinvents his emotions, so that they may be served wholly by male pleasures: the rooted society of women superseded by the mobile society of men.67

Such relationships, to modern observers, often are viewed in a homo-erotic light. Zweig is ambivalent on the point, and it is not of particular importance in the context of this discussion, except to the extent that in the Christian versions of this literature, at least, the consciously idealized life of the adventurer not only is adamantly non-homosexual, it is determinedly non-sexual in every possible respect. It is, and must be, determinedly so, however, because carnal temptation lurks externally at every bend in the road, as well as deep within the Christian’s imperfect self. Indeed, once on the march against the beasts of the forest or the enemies of God and civilization, this most noble of the Church’s non-ordained representatives constantly has to contend with the fact that the most abhorrent (because salacious) characteristics of both the wild man and the devil—in whatever guises they may appear—are perpetually latent within the darkness of even the finest Christian’s own heart.

In sum, the wild man and his female companion, at their unconstrained and sensual worst, symbolized everything the Christian’s ascetic contemptus mundi tradition was determined to eradicate—even as that tradition also acknowledged that the wild man’s very same carnal and uncivilized sinfulness gnawed at the soul of the holiest saint, and (more painful still) that it was ultimately ineradicable, no matter how fervent the effort. The fact that failure was inevitable in the quest to crush completely such festering inner sinfulness was discouraging, of course, as we saw in the dramatic testimonies of the Church’s early ascetic hermits; but as those testimonies also revealed, to the true Christian believer discouragement was only prelude to ever more zealous and aggressive action.

As Richard Bernheimer and others have shown, the very notion of wildness, to the European mind at this time, suggested “everything that eluded Christian norms and the established framework of Christian society, referring to what was uncanny, unruly, raw, unpredictable, foreign, uncultured, and uncultivated.”68 However, the wild man, in that sense, was only the outer personification of the beast-like baseness that existed within even the most holy of the Church’s saints, the beast-like baseness that must be overcome—if need be, by excruciating rituals of self-torment or by terrifying campaigns of violence—were the Christian saint or the Christian soldier or adventurer to attain a proper state of holiness. Should such a wild man be on the right side of the indistinct boundary separating man and beast, of course, he was not necessarily beyond the reach of Christian taming and teaching, not necessarily beyond conversion. But before his potential virtue could be released from its dark imprisonment, as Frederick Turner correctly notes, the wild man, as wild man, “must cease to exist, must either be civilized or sacrificed to civilization—which amounts to the same thing.”69

Determining whether a particular collection of wild people, or others who differed greatly from the European ethnocentric ideal, were actually human was no easy task. We have seen how Augustine wavered on the topic. So did innumerable others. That is because the framework, the organizing principle that guided such thinking, was deliberately ambiguous. The idea of the Great Chain of Being that categorized and ranked all the earth’s living creatures was born among the Greeks, but like so much else of such provenance it became central as well to medieval Christian thought. As the fifteenth-century jurist Sir John Fortescue explained, in God’s perfect ordering of things

angel is set over angel, rank upon rank in the kingdom of heaven; man is set over man, beast over beast, bird over bird, and fish over fish, on the earth in the air and in the sea: so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in most harmonious concord. . . . God created as many different kinds of things as he did creatures, so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect from all other creatures and by which it is in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest. So that from the highest angel down to the lowest of his kind there is absolutely not found an angel that has not a superior and inferior; nor from man down to the meanest worm is there any creature which is not in some respect superior to one creature and inferior to another.70

However, within that formal “hierarchy of nature,” observes Anthony Pagden,

the highest member of one species always approaches in form to the lowest of the next. . . . There might, therefore, be, in the interstices of these interlocking categories—in what Aquinas called the “connexio rerum,” “the wonderful linkage of beings”—a place for a “man” who is so close to the border with the beast, that he is no longer fully recognisable by other men as a member of the same species.71

Indeed, as Aquinas’s thirteenth-century teacher, Albertus Magnus, put it: “nature does not make [animal] kinds separate without making something intermediate between them; for nature does not pass from extreme to extreme nisi per medium” Or, in theologian Nicolaus Cusanus’s words:

All things, however different, are linked together. There is in the genera of things such a connection between the higher and the lower that they meet in a common point; such an order obtains among species that the highest species of one genus coincides with the lowest of the next higher genus, in order that the universe may be one, perfect, continuous.72

Somewhere in these murky zones of species overlap, such European thinkers were certain, there lived creatures who may have seemed bestial, but who were humans, with souls, and who even—as, again, with St. Christopher—might become the holiest of saints if treated with Christian care. However, in that same indistinct, borderline, substratum of life, there also existed human-like creatures whose function in God’s scheme of things was to be nothing more than what Aquinas called “animated instruments of service” to civilized Christian humanity. That is, slaves. And finally, there were those residents of this dark and shadowy nether realm who may have been distant descendants of the children of Adam, but whose line of ancestry had become so corrupt and degenerate that, as Hayden White puts it, “they are men who have fallen below the condition of animality itself; every man’s face is turned against them, and in general (Cain is a notable exception) they can be slain with impunity.”73

The same ambiguity existed in the European mind regarding the homeland of the wild man, the wilderness itself. Although it has become commonplace in the past few decades for writers on Western attitudes toward the environment to assert that, with almost no important exceptions, Christians traditionally have regarded nature and the wilderness in negative terms, in fact, Christianity’s view of untamed landscapes has always been acutely ambivalent.74 On the one hand, as Ulrich Mauser has shown, the Old Testament language describing the wilderness into which the ancient Jews were driven does indeed combine “the notion of confusion and destruction with the image of the barren land.”75 Even more importantly, in this same vein, adds David R. Williams, for Jews and Christians alike the wilderness

became a symbol of emptiness at the core of human consciousness, of the profound loneliness that seemed to open like a bottomless pit underneath the vanity of each of humankind. It became the symbol of a place located in the mind, a black hole of unknowing around which orbit all the temporary illusions of human self-confidence. . . . a realm of chaos that completely surrounded and undermined the vanities of human consciousness.76

From this perspective, the wilderness was, in fact, nothing less than an earthly representation of Hell. However, since a true Christian properly had to undergo a time of testing and trial prior to revelation, the image of the wilderness also carried with it, conversely, the sense of a place of repentance—even a place of sanctuary. As well as the preserve of dangerous and lurking beasts, then, in addition the wilderness was “the location of refuge, trial, temptation, and ultimate victory over Satan” for the truly soul-purifying holy person.77 Thus, the would-be Christian—saint and soldier alike—was drawn to the wilderness, the wilderness both within and without, in part precisely because it was a place of terror and temptation, and therefore of trial, and in part because it provided the only true path to salvation. In sum, the wilderness and the carnal wild man within the wilderness—like the irrepressibly sensual wild man within the self—were there to be confronted by the Christian, confronted and converted, domesticated, or destroyed.


Much of Christianity’s success in establishing itself as the state religion of Europe was due to the exuberant intolerance of it adherents. In a sense, the faith itself was founded on the idea of war in the spiritual realm—the titanic war of Good against Evil, God against Satan. And within the faith non-belief was equivalent to anti-belief. To tolerate skepticism regarding Christianity’s central tenets, therefore, was to diminish in power the source of the belief itself. Non-believers, in sum, were seen as willing the death of the Christians’ God.78

During the first centuries of Christianity’s existence, when the religion’s faithful were subject to intense persecution, Christianity often was regarded by its critics as a cult of orgiastic devil worshipers who indulged in rituals of blood-consuming infanticide and cannibalism.79 Once in a position of power, however, Christianity turned the tables and leveled precisely the same accusations against others—first against pagans whom they regarded as witches, magicians, and idolaters, and eventually against all non-Christians. And, of those who were near at hand, few were regarded as more non-Christian than Jews.

During the Middle Ages Europe’s Jews lived a precarious existence, subject to constant harassment and accusation from Christian zealots. Charges against Jews ranged from the claim that they indulged in ritual murder of Christians (allegedly using the Christian victims’ blood for the preparation of matzo, for circumcision rituals, for the anointing of rabbis, and for various medicinal purposes) to the imputation that Jews were engaged in conspiracies to buy or steal consecrated Hosts, intended for use in Catholic Communion ceremonies, in order to desecrate them and thereby to torture Christ.80 The Jews, in the meantime, had their own popular ideas about Christianity, based in large measure on their Ma’aseh Yeshû (“Story of Jesus”) or Tôldôt Yeshû (“History of Jesus”) dating from the late second century. Created as a defense against Christian teaching and proselytizing, this work tells the story of Jesus’ illegitimate birth nine months after his mother had been seduced during her menstrual period; from there it goes on to describe the young man’s life as a blasphemous sorcerer, his execution by hanging, and the theft of his body from its grave—followed by the dragging of the corpse through the streets of Jerusalem, thereby putting to the lie any notions that he had not died or that he had been bodily resurrected.81

By the time of the high Middle Ages, in the Hebrew chronicles recounting the Christians’ persecutions of the Jews, Jesus was being described as “an abhorred offshoot, a bastard, a son of a menstruating woman, a son of lechery, a trampled corpse, their [the Christians’] detestable thing, the desecrated and detestable hanged one, the son of whoredom,” and more.82 Modern Jewish historians long have been of two minds on the recounting of these invectives, some urging their suppression from the historical record so as not to encourage anti-Semitic responses, others arguing for their full discussion as examples of the understandable rage Jews felt as the victims of violent Christian persecution.83 Recently, however, it has been shown that the invectives’ principal historical value may reside in the sense they convey, not so much of rage, but of “the efforts of the Jews to keep their group together by consolidating their defenses against the forces threatening the continued existence of a corporate Jewish identity.”84 For if the Jewish resistance to Christian conversion efforts was extraordinary—and it was—the lengths to which Jews were forced to go in order to hold their communities together is a measure of the equally extraordinary pressures they were under.

As Raul Hilberg has noted, since the beginning of Christianity’s engagement with Judaism as a separate religion it has presented Jews successively with three options from which to choose: convert to Christianity, suffer expulsion, or undergo annihilation. At first, writes Hilberg, “the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.”85 If anything, however, Hilberg’s historical encapsulation is too benign, for Jews were being massacred by Christians even before the dawn of the twelfth century.

The first great slaughter of Europe’s Jews by Christians began on May 3, 1096, in the town of Speyer, Germany. There, on that date, eleven Jews who refused to accept baptism and conversion to the despised faith of Christianity were murdered. The number of deaths would have been much higher, but for the intercession of the local bishop who understood the canon law’s technical restrictions against forced conversion, and who protected the remaining local Jewish population within the confines of his castle. The legalistic niceties of canon proscription were lost, then as always, on most local priests and popular preachers, however, and in a matter of days the anti-Jewish blood lust spread to the town of Worms. With the Christian authorities in Worms less willing than the bishop in Speyer had been to protect the innocent Jews from assault, Christian enthusiasts sacked the local synagogue and looted the Jews’ houses. All the town’s adult Jews who refused to convert, and who did not commit suicide in acts of defiance—approximately eight hundred in all—were stripped naked, murdered, and buried en masse. Some among the Jewish children also were murdered. The rest were carted off to be baptized and raised as Christians.86

The worst was yet to come. In Mainz, a city just to the north of Worms, the archbishop briefly defended the Jews, but soon fled for his own life as the Christian mobs attacked. According to Solomon bar Simson’s chronicle of the events that followed, the leader of the Christians in Mainz

showed no mercy to the aged, or youths, or maidens, babes or sucklings—not even the sick. And he made the people of the Lord like dust to be trodden underfoot, killing their young men by the sword and disemboweling their pregnant women. . . . The enemy came into the chambers, they smashed the doors, and found the Jews still writhing and rolling in blood; and the enemy took their money, stripped them naked, and slew those still alive. . . . They threw them, naked, through the windows onto the ground, creating mounds upon mounds, heaps upon heaps, until they appeared as a high mountain. . . . On a single day—the third of Sivan, the third day of the week—one thousand and one hundred holy souls were killed and slaughtered, babes and sucklings who had not sinned or transgressed, the souls of innocent poor people.87

And still it was not over. From Mainz the killing spread to Trier. From there it moved on to Metz, and then to Cologne, and then to Regensburg, and then to Prague. By the time the killing stopped little more than a month was gone since it had begun in the town of Speyer, and as many as eight thousand Jews lay dead.88

It was not coincidence that the massacres of May and June 1096 occurred at the same time that the First Crusade of Pope Urban II was just getting under way. For the mass murderers of the Jews in Speyer and Worms and Mainz and Metz and Cologne and Regensburg and Prague were errant bands of Christian soldiers who had wandered from the overlong trail to Jerusalem, under the leadership of such perfervid souls as Peter the Hermit and Count Emicho of Leiningen, to search out and destroy heretical victims who were closer to home than were the Saracens of the Holy Land. Those Crusaders who fulfilled the charge to march all the way to Jerusalem, however, were no less faithful to the impulse of Christian blood lust.

The very earliest Christian leaders had been of differing minds on the matter of warfare in general, having themselves suffered from military oppression under Roman rule. Thus, the influential Church father Origen was outspokenly opposed to war, while other Christians were members of Marcus Aurelius’ “thundering legion”; similarly, the New Testament contains passages that have been interpreted as supporting any number of positions on the matter, from pacifism to warlike zealotry.89 The Old Testament, however, is unremitting: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver [thy enemies] before thee,” says Deuteronomy 7:2, 16, “though shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them. . . . Thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them.” And later, in Deuteronomy 20:16–17 (the passage noted earlier that was cited so gleefully by Puritan John Mason as justification for the extermination of Indians): “Of the cities . . . which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breath-eth. . . . But thou shalt utterly destroy them.” This was “war commanded by God,” writes James Turner Johnson, “a form of holy war. In such war not only was God conceived as commanding the conflict, but he was understood to be directly involved in the fighting, warring with the divinities of the enemy on the cosmic level even as the soldiers of Israel dealt with their human counterparts on the earthly level.”90

When Augustine came to pronounce on these matters he uttered some words warning of excess in the violence one was properly to bring to bear on one’s enemies, but his overall pronouncements were strongly in support of divinely inspired wrack and ruin. As Frederick H. Russell summarizes Augustine’s views:

Any violations of God’s laws, and by easy extension, any violation of Christian doctrine, could be seen as an injustice warranting unlimited violent punishment. Further, the . . . guilt of the enemy merited punishment of the enemy population without regard to the distinction between soldiers and civilians. Motivated by righteous wrath, the just warriors could kill with impunity even those who were morally innocent.91

Following Augustine, the Church enthusiastically came to accept the idea of “just war,” and from that developed the concept of “mission war” or Holy War—an idea similar in certain respects to the Islamic jihad.92 This evolution of belief took on great importance during the last years of the eleventh century, when Europe was awash in disaster—flood, pestilence, drought, and famine—and had unemployed standing armies on hand in most countries, living off the peasantry. Belief in the Second Coming’s imminence was encouraged by the turmoil in the land, and it was hardly diminished by a shower of comets—a clear sign from God—that appeared overhead in April of 1095. Before Christ could return, however, the Holy Land had to be liberated by the Christian faithful. Thus it was—or at least such was the rationale—that three years after the marauding Christian troops had laid waste the Jewish citizenry of Speyer and the other European towns and cities that lay in their path, Pope Urban’s warriors for Christ found themselves surrounding Jerusalem, the Holy City.

Preparatory to their assault the soldiers of the Lord underwent a sequence of penitential rituals that later became routine procedure for crusading Christian armies. In the manner of the ascetics they fasted for three days, they confessed their sins, they received communion; and then they marched barefoot around the walls of the city, chanting psalms, some of them carrying crosses and relics, in abasement before the greater glory of God.93 From within the city the commander of the Muslim garrison watched the Christians in astonishment—but with more astonishment still when they suddenly began hurling themselves against Jerusalem’s walls “like madmen, without carrying a single ladder.”94 “Regardless of age or condition,” wrote the Archbishop of Tyre regarding the Muslims and Jews whom the Christians destroyed upon entering Jerusalem,

they laid low, without distinction, every enemy encountered. Everywhere was frightful carnage, everywhere lay heaps of severed heads, so that soon it was impossible to pass or to go from one place to another except over the bodies of the slain. . . . It was impossible to look upon the vast numbers of the slain without horror; everywhere lay fragments of human bodies, and the very ground was covered with the blood of the slain. It was not alone the spectacle of headless bodies and mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused the horror of all who looked upon them. Still more dreadful was it to gaze upon the victors themselves, dripping with blood from head to foot, an ominous sight which brought terror to all who met them. It is reported that within the Temple enclosure alone about ten thousand infidels perished.95

Other eyewitness accounts of the sacking of the Holy City were equally gruesome. “Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city,” wrote the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum: among other “wonderful sights” that testified to God’s divine glory, said this observer, was the fact that the conquering Christians had “to pick [their] way over the bodies of men and horses” all throughout Jerusalem, while at the Temple of Solomon “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Jews who had taken refuge in the city’s synagogue were burned alive. Thousands of Muslims were chopped to death in al-Aqsa mosque. The old and the sick were the first among the infidels to meet their proper end, their bodies slashed open in search of gold coins they might have swallowed—for the Pope had decreed that any spoils of war were possessions the Christians could keep. Finally, the few living victims of the Crusaders’ wrath were forced to drag the decomposing bodies of their countrymen beyond the gates of the city and to stack them into enormous funeral pyres to inhibit the spread of disease. But not before the bodies were mutilated: “a whole cargo of noses and thumbs sliced from the Saracens” was shipped home, writes religious historian Roland Bainton.96 Once again, Her Holy Mother the Church was triumphant, as she would be, repeatedly, for many great and grisly years to come.

But not always. Sometimes there were defeats. Never, however, were defeats unexplainable: those crusaders who were beaten had failed because they had sinned—and the sins they had committed invariably were sins of pride and especially sins of carnality. God was on the Christians’ side unless they succumbed to temptation. Example after example, the medieval chronicles claimed, showed this to be so. From the Hungarian defeat of Peter the Hermit’s disciple Gottschalk to the failures of the Christians at Antioch, “the lesson was plain,” observes one historian: “the crusaders were assured of victory in this life and salvation in the next, but only so long as they avoided carnal sins.”97

Because of this, women—including wives—constantly were driven from the Crusaders’ military encampments. And also because of this chaste ideal, the Crusaders’ non-Christian enemies were portrayed as lustful and licentious beasts: the infidel males were said to be rapists who were “addicted to lurid forms of sexual debauchery and [had] a special lust for the charms of virtuous Christian women,” while non-Christian women were viewed as defiled and wanton whores and seductresses. Sexual contact between a Christian crusader and a native woman was said to cause “an enormous stench to rise to heaven,” and the penalty for such transgressions was castration for the Crusader and facial mutilation for the woman. If they had to have contact with a tainted native female, far better that it be of the sort sardonically described by Fulcher of Chartres at the battles of Antioch where the Christians “did no other harm to the women they found in [the enemy’s] tents—save that they ran their lances through their bellies.”98

Such Christian ferocity was only to be expected, of course, since the Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were displaying with their spiritual recalcitrance and their stubbornly non-Christian attitudes (including their offensively non-ascetic behavior regarding sex) an anti-Christian pattern of behavior. As such they were viewed as effectively at war with Christianity—that is, as engaged in a conspiracy with Antichrist to destroy everything that Christ and Christianity represented. Such infidels thus became, in the popular Christian image, “demons in human form,” as Norman Cohn has put it, to whom were “attributed every quality which belonged to the Beast from the Abyss. . . . And the Saints knew that it was their task to wipe that foul black host off the face of the earth, for only an earth which had been so purified would be fit to carry the New Jerusalem, the shining Kingdom of the Saints.”99

If not wiped from the face of the earth, such foul hosts could, as an alternative, be enslaved. Slavery, of course, was an ancient tradition in the West. While no reliable figures exist regarding the number of slaves who were held throughout all of ancient Greece, there were as many as 100,000 slaves laboring in Athens during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., or at least three or four slaves for each free household. This is a proportion of the population much larger than that of the slave states in America on the eve of the Civil War.100 The practice continued in Rome, where slaves—who under Roman law were non-persons—were inspected and auctioned off in public marketplaces. During the late first and early second centuries A.D., between a third and nearly half the population of Italy were slaves. It has been estimated that in order to maintain the slave population at a stable level throughout the empire during this time—a level of 10,000,000 slaves in a total imperial population of about 50,000,000—more than 500,000 new slaves had to be added to the population every year.101

In the fourth century the first Christian emperor, Constantine, decreed that “anyone who picks up and nourishes at his own expense a little boy or girl cast out of the home of its father or lord with the latter’s knowledge and consent may retain the child in the position for which he intended it when he took it in—that is, as child or slave, as he prefers.” In view of the enormous numbers of children who were being abandoned by their parents in this era, Constantine’s edict assured that there would be a vast supply of young slaves for owners to hire out as prostitutes and laborers, which they commonly did.102 And when, in the eleventh century, England’s William the Conqueror commissioned the famous Domesday Book, the most extensive population survey and analysis conducted during medieval times, it was determined that approximately one out of every ten citizens of Britain was a slave whose life was totally under the control of his or her owner. “Legally no more than chattel goods,” writes David Brion Davis, “these people could apparently be killed by their owners without penalty.”103

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries slavery began to decline in northern Europe, but it persisted in the Continent’s southern countries. The labor shortage that followed in the aftermath of the Black Death created a new boom in slavery throughout the Mediterranean world, but this time it was a boom in imported slaves, mostly Turks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Tatars, and Africans, because at the same time that the market for slaves was opening up, the Church—which always had supported the general principle of slavery—was beginning to impose more rigorous restrictions on the enslavement of persons who had been born as Christians. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese cities thus became huge slave markets, dealing largely in chattel of infidel ancestry. As Davis points out, “between 1414 and 1423 no fewer than ten thousand bondsmen (mostly bondswomen) were sold in Venice alone.”104 And in Lisbon, in 1551, 10 percent of its 100,000 people were slaves, mostly Africans, Moors who had been captured in wars and raids, and a somewhat smaller percentage of Turks.105 Indeed, writes John Boswell, “actual slavery (as opposed to feudal servitude or indenturing) became more common in the later Middle Ages than it had been at any time after the fall of Rome.”106

“The Mediterranean, central to the development of human civilization and lovingly celebrated in Euro-American historiography,” observes Orlando Patterson, “from the viewpoint of human oppression has been a veritable vortex of horror for all mankind, especially for the Slavic and African peoples.” During the fifteenth century its waters were filled with sailing ships carrying legal and illegal loads of slaves from foreign lands, sometimes a few dozen in a single shipment, sometimes four hundred and more. “Cargoes of two hundred slaves at a time were not exceptional,” Charles Verlinden once noted, adding elsewhere that many of these ships were “floating tombs. . . . [where] available space was quite restricted and epidemics rampant,” and where death rates of 30 percent and more were not uncommon. But even for those foreign captives who survived the seaborne ordeal, there was little that could be looked forward to with optimism, for “in medieval Italy,” writes Davis, “slaves were tortured by magistrates and whipped without restraint by masters; in Siena a man who damaged another’s slave paid the same fine as if he had damaged a cow.”107

Throughout the Middle Ages, then, war against the infidel in the holy land was a virtually perpetual Christian endeavor, while within Europe tens of thousands of captured Muslim men, women, and children were held as chattel—and Jews lived in a near-permanent state of crisis. Even otherwise innocuous Catholic theatrical productions in Europe’s city streets commonly portrayed Jews as demons assisting Antichrist in his attempted destruction of Christianity. During and immediately after such performances the life of any Jew not safely under lock and key was in serious jeopardy. For the same reason, the slightest changes in fortune for the Christian community could result in violent assault on Jewish scapegoats, while major changes in fortune might lead the entire local Jewish population to the brink of extermination by simultaneously enraged and terrified self-styled Christian Soldiers—as indeed happened in the wake of the colossal Black Death epidemic of the mid-fourteenth century.

As early as 1215, in fact—more than a century before the Black Death burst upon the Continent—a papal directive was issued requiring both Muslims and Jews to wear distinctive attire. This was done in large measure to inhibit potential sexual liaisons between them and Christians. Punishment for such affairs ranged from public whipping while naked to burning at the stake. Buffeted about and expelled from various European countries, including England and France, throughout the Middle Ages, Jews living in Spain were tolerated—if barely—even in the years immediately following the Black Death, primarily because of their contributions to the economy. But popular preachers were relentless in their anti-Jewish propaganda and finally, in 1391, Christian hatred and rage exploded in riots that swept across Aragon, Catalonia, and Castile. Many Jews were murdered, their identification made easy by the brightly colored “badges of shame” that all Jews above the age of ten had been forced to display prominently on their outer clothing since the early part of the fourteenth century. Many others converted, simply to save their lives and those of their children. By the time the violence died down, of the Jews who remained in Spain as many may have converted to Christianity and become what were called conversos or marranos as remained outwardly true to their Jewish faith.108

Anti-Jewish sentiment remained high among the Spanish, erupting from time to time in further riots and persecutions. At such times all the ancient charges were hauled out, as in 1460, with the publication of the Franciscan Alonso de Espina’s four-volume Fortalitium Fidei, or Fortress of the Faith. According to Espina, both Jews and most marranos (who in actuality, he said, remained “secret” Jews or “crypto” Jews) were guilty of stealing consecrated Hosts for profane rituals, of kidnapping and killing Christian children for their blood, and so on. Gradually, however, and quietly, more and more ostensibly converted Jews began returning to the ancestral fold. This disturbed not only the Catholic hierarchy and populace (whose feared sense of deception and treachery in their midst was thus vindicated, they thought), but it also troubled many marranos, because revelations of false conversions among others endangered the credibility of their own proclaimed loyalty to the Church—thereby putting their attained post-conversion social and economic positions at risk.

It was, then, not to persecute faithful Jews, but rather to investigate the marranos for possible falsity in their commitment to Christ that the Inquisition was instituted in Castile in 1483, finally spreading to Barcelona in 1487. Although some marranos who were true converts supported the Inquisition, all marranos now fell under suspicion. As a result, they were barred from holding various public and private offices, from attending universities, or from serving in Tomas de Torquemada’s heretic burning “Militia of Christ,” while those of their number who were physicians routinely were accused of secretly killing their Christian patients.109

Under the agony of the rack and other ingenious methods of torture many marranos confessed to being crypto-Jews and to performing the heinous acts the Church attributed to them. One case can serve as emblematic of hundreds. For a year, from December of 1490 to November of 1491, six Jews and five marranos were tried for using black magic in an effort to stop the Inquisition and eventually to destroy all Christians. The charge—as it was reported at the trial and circulated in different versions for decades in Spain—claimed that the accused Jews and marranos had kidnapped a Catholic child (named Christobalico) and forced him to drag a heavy cross up a hill and into a cave. There he supposedly received 6200 lashes, had a crown of thorns placed on his head, and was nailed to the cross he had carried. After reciting various curses mocking Christ—some of which (such as that Christ was “the bastard son of a perverse and adulterous woman”) came straight from the Tôldôt Yeshû, discussed earlier—the child’s heart allegedly was torn from his chest and was used, along with a stolen consecrated Host, to cast an evil spell on the inquisitors and on Christianity in general. All the accused, of course, were found guilty and were burned at the stake. Immediately, the place where Christobalico was said to be buried became a shrine that for years to come was visited by thousands of pilgrims, including such royalty as Charles V and Philip II.110


To most Europeans, as the fifteenth century was heading into its final decade, the world was not safe for the saintly so long as infidels remained camped at Christendom’s gates, while Jews who refused to accept Christ remained a cancerous threat from within the autocratic body politic of the Church. Both groups were hated and spurned and persecuted by Christians because they were defined categorically as enemies of the faith and often were identified with Antichrist.

Still, neither Muslims nor Jews were unsalvageable. The Muslims inhabited the ancient cities of the Holy Land. In Europe they were famed for the culture, art, and architecture they had created in Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. And the Jews were an ancient people, the very stock from which Christianity was born. They also were urban people and an integral part of European society. That is, both Jews and Muslims were human; they were “civilized”; their main offenses in Christian eyes were religious and cultural. And however craftily resistant they may have been to Christian proselytizing, they were capable of conversion. No doubt, on many occasions, individual packs of Christian zealots had been seized with sufficient blood lust that they would have exterminated every Jew or every Muslim had they only been given the chance. But for all its savage ferocity, Christian ideology did not encourage campaigns of extinction against human creatures who had souls that might be saved.

Important changes were in the air, however, even as Columbus was tramping about in search of someone to underwrite his voyage to Cathay—changes in the religious province of ideas as well as in the more mundane worlds of politics and money. These changes will be examined briefly here, and more extensively in the chapter to follow, because it is the particular conditions of a given time and place that bring on events of historical consequence. Of course, an exclusive focus on such particularities invariably results in historical nearsightedness and thus leads to superficial, contextless explanations. But the reverse is also true: examining only long-term and deeply imbedded cultural themes, as we have largely done thus far, places the burden of historical explanation solely on evolved collective consciousness, and collective consciousness by itself cannot explain why individual events occurred when and where they did. Moreover, certain of the institutions of Christian culture and society that we have canvassed here—slave-holding, for instance—were not unique to the European or the Christian world. For such individual social practices or cultural habits to become implicated in the emergence of specific historical events, the essential substance of the phenomena—in the case of slavery, the objectification and dehumanization of people—must fuse with other complementary social and cultural traits, and be activated and directed by events.

For an example of this we can turn to the matter with which the first part of this chapter concluded, the problem of explaining the Jewish Holocaust. Here we noted that Elie Wiesel has said that a key to that explanation is the fact that “all the killers were Christian,” and that the Holocaust “did not arise in a void but had its roots deep in a tradition that prophesied it, prepared for it, and brought it to maturity.” This no doubt is correct. Indeed, the characteristics of Christian tradition delineated in the immediately preceding pages that, we shall see, prophesied, prepared for, and brought to maturity a frame of mind that would allow to take place the genocide that was carried out against the native peoples of the Americas were in many cases the same religio-cultural traits that buttressed justifications for the Holocaust.

However, as Arno J. Mayer recently has shown, it was certain specific conditions and certain specific events—in addition to the larger historical context of Christian anti-Semitism—that triggered the actual mobilization of the “Final Solution” in twentieth-century Germany. By itself, Mayer points out, Christianity’s age-old and collectively conscious “Judeophobia” was not sufficient to bring on the Nazi “Judeocide.” Rather, he demonstrates, during the first few decades of the twentieth century “there was a constant interplay of ideology and contingency in which both played their respective but also partially indeterminate roles. Above all, this raging fusion of ideas and circumstances which produced the Judeocide was part of a single, larger historical confluence.” The major elements in that confluence, Mayer believes, derived from the several decades of “cataclysmic upheaval” in Europe that preceded and enveloped the outbreak of the Second World War, combined with specific crises that erupted within Germany when war in the east—a “crusade,” Mayer calls it, that was waged with “pseudoreligious furor”—began going badly.111

The historical backdrop of intense and ancient European anti-Semitism is, of course, an essential (if by itself insufficient) element in explaining the Nazi Judeocide, and of particular importance in that regard is the distinctly racial turn anti-Semitism began taking late in the nineteenth century. Further, as Stephan L. Chorover has shown, the Final Solution ideology that led to the destruction of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews was itself “a logical extension of sociobiological ideas and eugenics doctrines which had nothing specifically to do with Jews and which flourished widely in Germany well before the era of the Third Reich.” Indeed, drawing on a perverse interpretation of Darwinian theory, in 1933 the architects of the Nazi legal system devised and enacted a compulsory sterilization law—in the interests of “racial hygiene”—for individuals afflicted with genetic defects, and by the decade’s end the wholesale killing of psychiatric patients, regardless of religion or ethnicity, had begun. These were people officially referred to by the Nazi regime as “life devoid of value,” or as “useless eaters,” and by the time the killing had ended at least 275,000 of them had been exterminated.112

Certainly there was much more than this to the engine of holocaust that thundered across Europe in the early 1940s. As Richard L. Rubenstein has argued, for instance, the combination of bureaucratic domination of German social thought and the Nazis’ perception of excess and superfluous (and thus expendable) populations within their midst is a critical factor in accounting for Auschwitz and Birkenau.113 But the point here is simply to show that explaining the Jewish Holocaust, to the extent that such monstrosities can ever adequately be explained, requires the understanding of an intertwined complex of phenomena—an understanding, at the very least, of the deep historical tradition of Christianity’s persecution of Jews, of the modern evolution of “racial” anti-Semitism, of the Nazi eugenicists’ attitudes toward non-Jewish “life devoid of value,” and of specific political, economic, and military events that occurred during the early 1940s.

The same sort of multi-level historical, cultural, political, economic, and military exploration is necessary if we are to begin to understand the four centuries of genocide that took place in the Americas. For while specific parallels are crude at best, the final years of the fifteenth century in Europe were marked by a dynamism of ideas and circumstances involving religious, social, economic, and military backgrounds—and contemporary upheaval—that, while very different in content, cannot help but resonate disturbingly among readers familiar with the more horrendous and genocidal aspects of twentieth century history.

From the moment of its birth Christianity had envisioned the end of the world. Saints and theologians differed on many details about the end, but few disagreements were as intense as those concerned with the nature and timing of the events involved. There were those who believed that as the end drew near conditions on earth would grow progressively dire, evil would increase, love would diminish, the final tribulations would be unleashed—and then suddenly the Son of Man would appear: he would overcome Satan, judge mankind, and bring an end to history. Others had what is generally thought to be a more optimistic view: before reaching the final grand conclusion, they claimed, there would be a long reign of peace, justice, abundance, and bliss; the Jews would be converted, while the heathens would be either converted or annihilated; and, in certain versions of the prophecy, this Messianic Age of Gold would be ushered in by a Last World Emperor—a human saviour—who would prepare the way for the final cataclysmic but glorious struggle between Good and Evil, whereupon history would end with the triumphant Second Coming.

Among the innumerable forecasters of the end of time who adopted a variation that combined elements of both versions of the prophecy was the twelfth-century Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore. Joachim’s ideas became much more influential than most, however, largely because they were adopted and transmitted by the Spiritual branch of the Church’s Franciscan Order during the thirteenth through the fifteenth century. He and his followers made calculations from evidence contained in Scriptural texts, calculations purporting to show that the sequence of events leading to the end of time would soon be—or perhaps already was—appearing. As word of these predictions spread, the most fundamental affairs of both Church and state were affected. And there had been no previous time in human history when ideas were able to circulate further or more rapidly, for it was in the late 1430s that Johann Gutenberg developed the technique of printing with movable type cast in molds. It has been estimated that as many as 20 million books—and an incalculable number of pamphlets and tracts—were produced and distributed in Europe between just 1450 and 1500.114

The fifteenth century in Italy was especially marked by presentiments that the end was near, as Marjorie Reeves has shown in exhaustive detail, with “general anxiety . . . building up to a peak in the 1480s and 1490s.” Since at least the middle of the century, the streets of Florence, Rome, Milan, Siena, and other Italian cities—including Genoa, where Columbus was born and spent his youth—had been filled with wandering prophets, while popular tracts were being published and distributed by the tens of thousands, and “astrological prognostications were sweeping” the country. “The significant point to grasp,” Reeves demonstrates, “is that we are not dealing here with two opposed viewpoints or groups—optimistic humanists hailing the Age of Gold on the one hand, and medieval-style prophets and astrologers proclaiming ‘Woe!’ on the other.” Rather, “foreboding and great hope lived side by side in the same people. . . . Thus the Joachimist marriage of woe and exaltation exactly fitted the mood of late fifteenth-century Italy, where the concept of a humanist Age of Gold had to be brought into relation with the ingrained expectation of Antichrist.”115

The political implications of this escalating fever of both disquietude and anticipation grew out of the fact that Joachim and those who were popularizing his ideas placed the final struggle between ultimate good and ultimate evil after the blissful Golden Age. Thus, “Joachim’s central message remained his affirmation of a real—though incomplete—achievement of peace and beatitude within history,” a belief that, in the minds of many, “was quickly vulgarized into dreams of world-wide empire.”116 Different European nations and their leaders, naturally, tried to claim this mantle—and with it the title of Messiah-Emperor—as their own. But a prominent follower of Joachim in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, Arnold of Villanova, had prophesied that the man who would lead humanity to its glorious new day would come from Spain. As we shall see, Columbus knew of this prophecy (though he misidentified it with Joachim himself) and spoke and wrote of it, but he was not alone; for, in the words of Leonard I. Sweet, as the fifteenth century was drawing to a close the Joachimite scheme regarding the end of time “burst the bounds of Franciscan piety to submerge Spanish society in a messianic milieu.”117

To a stranger visiting Europe during these years, optimism would seem the most improbable of attitudes. For quite some time the war with the infidel had been going rather badly; indeed, as one historian has remarked: “as late as 1490 it would have seemed that in the eight-centuries-old struggle between the Cross and the Crescent, the latter was on its way to final triumph. The future seemed to lie not with Christ but with the Prophet.”118 At the end of the thirteenth century Jaffa and Antioch and Tripoli and Acre, the last of the Christian strongholds in the Holy Land, had fallen to the Muslims, and in 1453 Constantinople had been taken by Sultan Muhammed II. Despite all the rivers of blood that had been shed since the days of the first Crusade, the influence of Christianity at this moment in time was confined once again to the restricted boundaries of Europe. And within those boundaries things were not going well, either.

Since the late fourteenth century, when John Wyclif and his followers in England had publicly attacked the Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation and claimed that all godly authority resided in the Scriptures and not to any degree in the good offices of the Church, the rumblings of reformation had been evident. In the fifteenth century the criticism continued, from a variety of directions and on a variety of matters. On one side, for instance, there was John Huss, an advocate of some of Wyclif’s views and a critic of papal infallibility and the practice of granting indulgences. For his troubles, in 1415 Huss was burned at the stake—after the Inquisitors first stripped him of his vestments, cut the shape of a cross in his hair, and placed on his head a conical paper hat painted with pictures of devils—following which war broke out between Hussites and Catholics, war in which politics and religion were inextricably intertwined, and war that continued throughout most of the fifteenth century.119 From another direction criticism of the Church was emerging among Renaissance humanists such as Lorenzo Valla, who proved that the Donation of Constantine—an eighth-century document that granted great temporal powers to the papacy—was a forgery, and who, in the mid-fifteenth century, attacked both monasticism and chastity as ideals.

The papacy itself, meanwhile, recently had suffered through forty years of the so-called Great Schism, during which time there were two and even three rival claimants as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. After the schism was ended at the Council of Constance in 1418, for the rest of the century the papacy’s behavior and enduring legacy continued to be one of enormous extravagance and moral corruption. As many of the late Middle Ages’ “most pious minds” long had feared, observes the great historian of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea, “Christianity was practically a failure. . . . The Church, instead of elevating man, had been dragged down to his level.”120 This, of course, only further fanned the hot embers of reformation which would burst into flame during the first decades of the century to follow.

On the level of everyday life, we saw in an earlier chapter the atrocious conditions under which most of the peoples of Europe were forced to live as the late Middle Ages crept forward. It was only a hundred years before Columbus’s mid-fifteenth-century birth that the Black Death had shattered European society along with enormous masses of its population. Within short order millions had died—about one out of every three people across the entirety of Europe was killed by the pandemic—and recovery was achieved only with excruciating slowness. “Those few discreet folk who remained alive,” recalled the Florentine historian Matteo Villani, “expected many things”:

They believed that those whom God’s grace had saved from death, having beheld the destruction of their neighbours . . . would become better conditioned, humble, virtuous and Catholic; that they would guard themselves from iniquity and sin and would be full of love and charity towards one another. But no sooner had the plague ceased than we saw the contrary. . . . [People] gave themselves up to a more shameful and disordered life than they had led before. . . . Men thought that, by reason of the fewness of mankind, there should be abundance of all produce of the land; yet, on the contrary, by reason of men’s ingratitude, everything came to unwonted scarcity and remained long thus; nay, in certain countries . . . there were grievous and unwonted famines. Again, men dreamed of wealth and abundance in garments . . . yet, in fact, things turned out widely different, for most commodities were more costly, by twice or more, than before the plague. And the price of labour and the work of all trades and crafts, rose in disorderly fashion beyond the double. Lawsuits and disputes and quarrels and riots rose elsewhere among citizens in every land.121

Modern historical analysis has, in general terms, confirmed Villani’s description, with one important difference: it was far too sanguine. For example, although wages did increase in the century immediately following the explosion of the plague in the middle of the fourteenth century, after that time they spiraled drastically downward. The real wages of a typical English carpenter serve as a vivid point of illustration: between 1350 and 1450 his pay increased by about 64 percent; then his wages started falling precipitously throughout the entirety of the next two centuries, at last bottoming out at approximately half of what they had been at the outbreak of the plague in 1348, fully three centuries earlier. Meanwhile, during this same period, prices of foodstuffs and other commodities were soaring upward at an equivalent rate and more, ultimately achieving a 500 percent overall increase during the sixteenth century.122

The combination of simultaneously collapsing wages and escalating prices in an already devastated social environment was bad enough for an English carpenter, but English carpenters were by no means poorly off compared with other laborers in Europe—and other laborers were positively well off compared with the starving multitudes who had no work at all. At the same time that the Black Death was wiping out a third of Europe’s population, and bouts of famine were destroying many thousands more with each incident, the Hundred Years War was raging; it began in 1337 and did not end until 1453. And while the war was on, marauding bands of discharged soldiers turned brigands and highwaymen—aptly named écorcheurs or “flayers”—were raping and pillaging the countryside. Finally, the requirements of a war economy forced governments to increase taxes. Immanuel Wallerstein explains how it all added up:

The taxes, coming on top of already heavy feudal dues, were too much for the producers, creating a liquidity crisis which in turn led to a return to indirect taxes and taxes in kind. Thus started a downward cycle: The fiscal burden led to a reduction in consumption which led to a reduction in production and money circulation which increased further the liquidity difficulties which led to royal borrowing and eventually the insolvency of the limited royal treasuries, which in turn created a credit crisis, leading to hoarding of bullion, which in turn upset the pattern of international trade. A rapid rise in prices occurred, further reducing the margin of subsistence, and this began to take its toll in population.123

In sum, all the while that the popes and other elites were indulging themselves in profligacy and decadence, the basic political and economic frameworks of Europe—to say nothing of the entire social order—were in a state of near collapse. Certain states, of course, were worse off than others, and there are various ways in which such comparative misery can be assayed. One measure that we shall soon see has particular relevance for what happened in the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages to the New World, is the balance and nature of intra-European trade. In England and northwestern Europe generally, legislative and other efforts during this time discouraged the export of raw materials, such as wool in the case of England, and encouraged the export of manufactured goods. Thus, by the close of the fifteenth century, Britain was exporting 50,000 bolts of cloth annually, rising to more than two and a half times that figure within the next five decades. Spain and Portugal, at the same time, remained exporters of raw materials (wool, iron ore, salt, oil, and other items) and importers of textiles, hardwares, and other manufactured products. The Iberian nations, with their backward and inflexible economic systems, were rapidly becoming economic dependencies of the expanding—if themselves still impoverished—early capitalist states of northwest Europe.124

This, then, was the Old World on the eve of Columbus’s departure in 1492. For almost half a millennium Christians had been launching hideously destructive holy wars and massive enslavement campaigns against external enemies they viewed as carnal demons and described as infidels—all in an effort to recapture the Holy Land, and all of which, it now seemed to many, effectively had come to naught. During those same long centuries they had further expressed their ruthless intolerance of all persons and things that were non-Christian by conducting pogroms against the Jews who lived among them and whom they regarded as the embodiment of Antichrist—imposing torture, exile, and mass destruction on those who refused to succumb to evangelical persuasion. These great efforts, too, appeared to have largely failed. Hundreds of thousands of openly practicing Jews remained in the Europeans’ midst, and even those who had converted were suspected of being the Devil’s agents and spies, treacherously boring from within.

Dominated by a theocratic culture and world view that for a thousand years and more had been obsessed with things sensual and sexual, and had demonstrated its obsession in the only way its priesthood permitted—by intense and violent sensual and sexual repression and “purification”—the religious mood of Christendom’s people at this moment was near the boiling point. At its head the Church was mired in corruption, while the ranks below were dispirited and increasingly disillusioned. These are the sorts of conditions that, given the proper spark, lend themselves to what anthropologists and historians describe as “millenarian” rebellion and upheaval, or “revitalization movements.”125 In point of fact, this historical moment, seen in retrospect, was the inception of the Reformation, which means that it truly was nothing less than the eve of a massive revolution. And when finally that revolution did explode, Catholic would kill Protestant and Protestant would kill Catholic with the same zeal and ferocity that their common Christian ancestors had reserved for Muslims and Jews.

“Don’t let them live any longer, the evil-doers who turn us away from God,” the Protestant radical Thomas Muntzer soon would be crying to his followers. “For a godless man”—he was referring to Catholics—“has no right to live if he hinders the godly. . . . The sword is necessary to exterminate them. . . . If they resist, let them be slaughtered without mercy.”126 And, again and again, that is precisely what happened: Catholics were indeed slaughtered without mercy. The Church, of course, was more than eager to return such compliments, in deed as well as in word. Thus, for instance, Catholic vengeance against Calvinists in sixteenth-century France resulted in the killing of thousands. Infants were stabbed to death, women had their hands cut off to remove gold bracelets, publishers of “heretical” works were burned to death atop bonfires made from their books. The treatment of Gaspard de Coligny, a Protestant leader, was not atypical: after murdering him, the Catholic mob mutilated his body, “cutting off his head, his hands, and his genitals—and then dragged it through the streets, set fire to it, and dumped it in the river. . . . [B]ut then, deciding that it was not worthy of being food for the fish, they hauled it out again . . . [and] dragged what was left of the body to the gallows of Montfaucon, ‘to be meat and carrion for maggots and crows.’ “127 Such furious rage continued well into the seventeenth century, as, for example, in the Catholic sacking of the Protestant city of Magdeburg, when at least 30,000 Protestants were slain: “In a single church fifty-three women were found beheaded,” reported Friedrich Schiller, while elsewhere babies were stabbed and thrown into fires. “Horrible and revolting to humanity was the scene that presented itself,” Schiller wrote, “the living crawling from under the dead, children wandering about with heart-rending cries, calling for their parents; and infants still sucking the breasts of their lifeless mothers.”128

And this was Christian against Christian. European against European. “Civilized” against “civilized.” There were, all Europeans knew, “wild” races, carnal and un-Christian and uncivilized, who lived in as-yet unexplored lands on the far distant margins of the earth. Some of them were beasts, some of them were human, and some of them hovered in the darkness in between. One day—perhaps one day soon—they would be encountered, and important decisions would then have to be made. If they possessed souls, if they were capable of understanding and embracing the holy faith, every effort would be made to convert them—just as every effort had always been made to convert Muslims and Jews. If they proved incapable of conversion, if they had no souls—if they were, that is, children of the Devil—they would be slain. God demanded as much.

For this era in the history of Christian Europe appeared to many to be the threshold of the end of time. Three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse clearly were loose in the land: the rider on the red horse, who is war; the rider on the black horse, who is famine; and the rider on the pale horse, who is death. Only the rider on the white horse—who in most interpretations of the biblical allegory is Christ—had not yet made his presence known. And, although the signs were everywhere that the time of his return was not far off, it remained his godly children’s responsibility to prepare the way for him.

Before Christ would return, all Christians knew, the gospel had to be spread throughout the entire world, and the entire world was not yet known. Spreading the gospel throughout the world meant acceptance of its message by all the world’s people, once they had been located—and that in turn meant the total conversion or extermination of all non-Christians. It also meant the liberation of Zion, symbol of the Holy Land, and it likely meant the discovery of the earthly paradise as well.

Christopher Columbus knew all these things. Indeed, as we soon shall see, he was obsessed by them. In her own way, Isabella, the queen of Spain, shared his grandiose vision and his obsession. Still, in his first approach to the Spanish court in 1486, seeking support for his planned venture, he had been rebuffed. It was, in retrospect, understandable. Spain was at that moment engaged intensely in its war with the Moors in Granada. The Crown was impoverished. And Columbus offered a far from secure investment. Five years later, however, the king and queen relented. The reason for their change of heart in 1491 has never been made entirely clear, but Isabella’s unquenchable thirst for victory over Islam almost certainly was part of the equation. “A successful voyage would bring Spain into contact with the nations of the East, whose help was needed in the struggle with the Turk,” writes J.H. Elliott. “It might also, with luck, bring back Columbus by way of Jerusalem, opening up a route for attacking the Ottoman Empire in the rear. Isabella was naturally attracted, too, by the possibility of laying the foundations of a great Christian mission in the East. In the climate of intense religious excitement which characterized the last months of the Grenada campaign even the wildest projects suddenly seemed possible of accomplishment.”129

And then, on January 2, 1492, the Muslims who controlled Granada surrendered. The first real victory of Christian over infidel in a very long time, clearly it was a sign that God looked favorably upon the decision to fund the enterprise of the man whose given name meant “Christ-bearer.” On March 30th of that year the Jews of Spain were allowed four months to convert to Catholicism or suffer expulsion—an ultimatum the Moors also would be presented with before the following decade had ended. And on April 30th, one month later, a royal decree was issued suspending all judicial proceedings against any criminals who would agree to ship out with Columbus, because, the document stated, “it is said that it is necessary to grant safe-conduct to the persons who might join him, since under no other conditions would they be willing to sail with him on the said voyage.”130 With the exception of four men wanted for murder, no known felons accepted the offer. From what historians have been able to tell, the great majority of the crews of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María— together probably numbering a good deal fewer than a hundred—were not at that moment being pursued by the law, although, no doubt, they were a far from genteel lot.131

The three small ships left the harbor at Palos “half an hour before sunrise,” Columbus noted in his journal of August 3rd, “and took the route for the Canary Islands,” passing as they went the last Jewish stragglers who were being driven out of their homeland by way of the open sea.132This tiny ragtag fleet, representing a nation that was not much better than destitute and a Church that was in disgrace, was off on its imperial and holy mission. The world would never again be the same: before long, the bloodbath would begin.

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