SPAIN’S mountains were her protection and tragedy: they gave her comparative security from external attack, but hindered her economic advance, her political unity, and her participation in European thought. In a little corner of the northwest a half-nomad population of Basques led their sheep from plains to hills and down again with the diastole and systole of the seasons. Though many Basques were serfs, all claimed nobility, and their three provinces governed themselves under the loose sovereignty of Castile or Navarre. Navarre remained a separate kingdom until Ferdinand the Catholic absorbed its southern part into Castile (1515), while the rest became a kingly appanage of France. Sardinia was appropriated by Aragon in 1326; the Baleares followed in 1354, Sicily in 1409. Aragon itself was enriched by the industry and commerce of Valencia, Tarragona, Saragossa, and Barcelona—capital of the province of Catalonia within the kingdom of Aragon. Castile was the strongest and most extensive of the Spanish monarchies; it ruled the populous cities of Oviedo, León, Burgos, Valladolid, Salamanca, Cordova, Seville, and Toledo, its capital; its kings played to the largest audience, and for the greatest stakes, in Spain.
Alfonso XI (r. 1312–50) improved the laws and courts of Castile, deflected the pugnacity of the nobles into wars against the Moors, supported literature and art, and rewarded himself with a fertile mistress. His wife bore him one legitimate son, who grew up in obscurity, neglect, and resentment, and became Pedro el Cruel. Peter’s accession at fifteen (1350) so visibly disappointed the nine bastards of Alfonso that they were all banished, and Leonora de Guzman, their mother, was put to death. When Peter’s royal bride, Blanche of Bourbon, arrived unsolicited from France, he married her, spent two nights with her, had her poisoned on a charge of conspiracy (1361), and married his paramour Maria de Padilla, whose beauty, legend assures us, was so intoxicating that the cavaliers of the court drank with ecstasy the water in which she had bathed. Pedro was popular with the lower classes, which supported him to the very bitter end; but the repeated attempts of his half-brothers to depose him drove him to such a series of treacheries, murders, and sacrileges as would clog and incarnadine any tale. Finally Henry of Trastamara, Leonora’s eldest son, organized a successful revolt, slew Peter with his own hand, and became Henry II of Castile (1369).
But we do nations injustice when we judge them from their kings, who agreed with Machiavelli that morals are not made for sovereigns. While the rulers played with murder, individual or nationalized, the people, numbering some 10,000,000 in 1450, created the civilization of Spain. Proud of their pure blood, they were an unstable mixture of Celts, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Arabs, Berbers, and Jews. At the social bottom were a few slaves, and a peasantry that remained serf till 1471; above them were the artisans, manufacturers, and merchants of the towns; above these, in rising layers of dignity, were the knights (caballeros), the nobles dependent upon the king (hidalgos), and the independent nobles (proceres); and alongside these laymen were grades of clergy mounting from parish priests through bishops and abbots to archbishops and cardinals. Every town had its conseijo or council, and sent delegates to join nobles and prelates in provincial and national cortes; in theory the edicts of the kings required the consent of these “courts” to become laws. Wages, labor conditions, prices, and interest rates were regulated by municipal councils or the guilds. Trade was hampered by royal monopolies, by state or local tolls on imports and exports, by diverse weights and measures, by debased currencies, highway brigands, Mediterranean pirates, ecclesiastical condemnation of interest, and the persecution of Moslems—who manned most industry and commerce—and Jews, who managed finance. A state bank was opened in Barcelona (1401) with governmental guarantee of bank deposits; bills of exchange were issued; and marine insurance was established by 1435.1
As the Spaniards mingled anti-Semitism with Semitic ancestry, so they retained the heat of Africa in their blood, and were inclined, like the Berbers, to rarity and violence of action and speech. They were sharp and curious of mind, yet eagerly credulous and fearfully superstitious. They sustained a proud independence of spirit, and dignity of carriage, even in misfortune and poverty. They were acquisitive and had to be, but they did not look down upon the poor, or lick the boots of the rich. They despised and deferred labor, but they bore hardship stoically; they were lazy, but they conquered half the New World. They thirsted for adventure, grandeur, and romance. They relished danger, if only by proxy; the bullfight, a relic of Crete and Rome, was already the national game, formal, stately, colorful, exacting, and teaching bravery, artistry, and an agile intelligence. But the Spaniards, like the modern (unlike the Elizabethan) English, took their pleasures sadly; the aridity of the soil and the shadows of the mountain slopes were reflected in a dry somberness of mood. Manners were grave and perfect, much better than hygiene; every Spaniard was a gentleman, but few were knights of the bath. Chivalric forms and tourneys flourished amid the squalor of the populace; the “point of honor” became a religion; women in Spain were goddesses and prisoners. In the upper classes, dress, sober on weekdays, burst into splendor on Sundays and festive occasions, flaunting silks and ruffs and puffs and lace and gold. The men affected perfume and high heels, and the women, not content with their natural sorcery, bewitched the men with color, lace, and mystic veils. In a thousand forms and disguises the sexual chase went on; solemn ecclesiastical terrors, lethal laws, and the punto de onor struggled to check the mad pursuit, but Venus triumphed over all, and the fertility of women outran the bounty of the soil.
The Church in Spain was an inseparable ally of the state. It took small account of the Roman pope; it made frequent demands for the reform of the papacy, even while contributing to it the unreformable Alexander VI; in 1513 Cardinal Ximenes forbade the promulgation in Spain of the indulgence offered by Julius II for rebuilding St. Peter’s.2 In effect the king was accepted as the head of the Spanish Church; in this matter Ferdinand did not wait for Henry VIII to instruct him; no Reformation was needed in Spain to make state and Church, nationalism and religion, one. As part of the unwritten bargain the Spanish Church enjoyed substantial prerogatives under a government consciously dependent upon it for maintaining moral order, social stability, and popular docility. Its personnel, even in minor orders, were subject only to ecclesiastical courts. It owned great tracts of land, tilled by tenants; it received a tenth of the produce of other holdings, but paid a third of this tithe to the exchequer; otherwise it was exempt from taxation.3 It was probably richer, in comparison with the state, than in any other country except Italy.4 Clerical morals and monastic discipline were apparently above the medieval average; but, as elsewhere, clerical concubinage was widespread and condoned.5 Asceticism continued in Spain while declining north of the Pyrenees; even lovers scourged themselves to melt the resistance of tender, timid señoritas, or to achieve some masochistic ecstasy.
The people were fiercely loyal to Church and king, because they had to be in order to fight with courage and success their immemorable enemies the Moors; the struggle for Granada was presented as a war for the Holy Faith, Santa Fé. On holy days men, women, and children, rich and poor, paraded the streets in solemn procession, somberly silent or chanting, behind great dolls (pasos) representing the Virgin or a saint. They believed intensely in the spiritual world as their real environment and eternal home; beside it earthly life was an evil and transitory dream. They hated heretics as traitors to the national unity and cause, and had no objection to burning them; this was the least they could do for their outraged God. The lower classes had hardly any schooling, and this was nearly all religious. Stout Cortes, finding among the pagan Mexicans a rite resembling the Christian Eucharist, complained that Satan had taught it to them just to confuse the conquerors.6
The intensity of Catholicism in Spain was enhanced by economic competition with Moslems and Jews, who together made up almost a tenth of the population of Christian Spain. It was bad enough that the Moors held fertile Granada; but more closely irritating were the Mudejares—the unconverted Moors who lived among the Spanish Christians, and whose skill in business, crafts, and agriculture was the envy of a people mostly bound in primitive drudgery to the soil. Even more unforgivable were the Spanish Jews. Christian Spain had persecuted them through a thousand years: had subjected them to discriminatory taxation, forced loans, confiscations, assassinations, compulsory baptism; had compelled them to listen to Christian sermons, sometimes in their own synagogues, urging their conversion, while the law made it a capital crime for a Christian to accept Judaism. They were invited or conscripted into debates with Christian theologians, where they had to choose between a shameful defeat or a perilous victory. They and the Mudejares had been repeatedly ordered to wear a distinctive badge, usually a red circle on the shoulder of their garments. Jews were forbidden to hire a Christian servant; their physicians were not allowed to prescribe for Christian patients; their men, for cohabiting with a Christian woman, were to be put to death.
In 1328 the sermons of a Franciscan friar goaded the Christians of Estella, in Navarre, to massacre 5,000 Jews and burn down their houses.7 In 1391 the sermons of Fernán Martínez aroused the populace in every major center of Spain to massacre all available Jews who refused conversion. In 1410 Valladolid, and then other cities, moved by the eloquence of the saintly and fanatical Vicente Ferrer, ordered the confinement of Jews and Moors within specified quarters—Juderia or alhama—whose gates were to be closed from sunset to sunrise; this segregation, however, was probably for their protection.8
Patient, laborious, shrewd, taking advantage of every opportunity for development, the Jews multiplied and prospered even under these disabilities. Some kings of Castile, like Alfonso XI and Pedro el Cruel, favored them and raised brilliant Jews to high places in the government. Alfonso made Don Joseph of Écija his minister of finance, and another Jew, Samuel ibn-Wakar, his physician; they abused their position, were convicted of intrigue, and died in prison.9 Samuel Abulafia repeated the sequence; he became state treasurer under Pedro, amassed a large fortune, and was put to death by the King.10 Three years earlier (1357) Samuel had built at Toledo a classically simple and elegant synagogue, which was changed under Ferdinand into the Christian church of El Transito, and is now preserved by the government as a monument of Hebraeo-Moorish art in Spain. Pedro’s protection of the Jews was their misfortune: when Henry of Trastamara deposed him 1,200 Jews were massacred by the victorious soldiers (Toledo, 1355); and worse slaughters ensued when Henry brought into Spain the “Free Companions” recruited by Du Guesclin from the rabble of France.
Thousands of Spanish Jews preferred baptism to the terror of abuse and pogroms. Being legally Christians, these Conversos made their way up the economic and political ladder, in the professions, even in the Church; some became high ecclesiastics, some were counselors to kings. Their talents in finance earned them invidious prominence in the collection and management of the national revenue. Some surrounded themselves with aristocratic comforts, some made their prosperity offensively conspicuous. Angry Catholics fastened upon the Conversos the brutal name of Marranos—swine.11 Nevertheless Christian families with more pedigree than cash, or with a prudent respect for ability, accepted them in marriage. In this way the Spanish people, especially the upper classes, received a substantial infusion of Jewish blood. Ferdinand the Catholic and Torquemada the Inquisitor had Jews in their ancestry.12 Pope Paul IV, at war with Philip II, called him and the Spanish the “worthless seed of the Jews and Moors.”13