Review: The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire by Teófilo Ruíz.

Audio course (twelve 30-minute lectures) with guidebook from The Teaching Company, 2002

Reviewed by Judith Roumani

Teófilo Ruíz is chair of the Department of History at the University of California Los Angeles, received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1974, received a Carnegie Foundation Teaching Award, and has published numerous books and articles. He was also a 2011 recipient of a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. On the evidence of these recordings, he is a consummate lecturer and master of his field. There is thus much to be learned in this audio course, which might appeal to our readers as, well, a break from reading. Audio CDs can be played in the car, while doing household chores, while exercising, and what better material could one find than a university-level audio course on a subject like “The Other 1492”?

Professor Ruíz begins by telling us that fifteenth century Iberian history has long been mythified. The discovery of America and the conquest of Granada in the past have been considered glorious events, though many events that occurred at the time are no longer viewed as glorious. Cultural critics today look at history from below, not just history as written by the victors. Today scholars are willing to look at the history of 1492 from the point of view of the Muslims, who were reduced to servile agricultural work (and later expelled), the point of view of the Jews, who were forcibly converted or expelled, and Native Americans, who were soon to be enslaved.

Ruíz relates the views of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who had doubts about history being a progression toward a better future. Benjamin, he tells us, actually considered that all the so-called major achievements of Western civilization were acts of barbarism. It would have been interesting for the reader to know how close to his suicide in Spain, as he fled the Nazis, Benjamin wrote these words.

The result of Ferdinand and Isabella’s actions in 1492 was, by the sixteenth century, an Iberia that was no longer multicultural, but homogeneous and enforcing of orthodoxy. Though Ferdinand and Isabella viewed this as their supreme achievement, Spain actually became culturally impoverished. As in the rest of Europe, the state was becoming stronger, more centralized, and a state of a single nation, at the cost of violence to the previous multicultural society, which was being reorganized to serve the state. Though these processes were going on in Europe as a whole, they were more drastic and extreme in their effects in Iberia than elsewhere. The Iberian Peninsula was always a land of harshness and drought, where it was hard to bring things out of the soil, and thus Spain, he suggests, was by no means a natural candidate to become a great empire, especially in view of the fact that its former diversity and heterogeneity had been erased by Castile and the Catholic Monarchs.

Lecture 7 discusses the moment of the conquest of Granada and the last years of Muslim life in Iberia. The grammarian Nebrija, whose grammar of Castilian was published at the same time, indirectly helped in the process, Ruíz tells us, because “language was the instrument of empire.” Accordingly, the chronicler Hernando del Pulgar emphasized that Boabdil and Granada actually surrendered, rather being taken by the Christians. This event in March was actually the big moment of 1492—though Columbus set sail in July, 1492, the Spanish did not even hear about the discovery of America until 1493. All the terms of the Muslim surrender agreement had been thrown out by 1504, only twelve years later, when forced conversion was also imposed on Muslims.

He reminds us that in 711, in parallel fashion, when the Muslims (actually a mixed people, Slavs, Arabs and Berbers, coming in from North Africa) swept through Iberia, everyone had had to convert to Islam. It took several centuries for these aggressors to settle down and produce the Golden Age, the paradise of the arts and sciences, by which we now remember al-Andalus. The breathtaking Alhambra palace in Granada was built very late in the Islamic period, so late that its rulers already knew that the city would be taken by the Christians. In al-Andalus, the Muslims had tried to concretize their idea of paradise, with such features as the water gardens of the Alhambra, and this was their crowning architectural achievement. Since the 8th and 9th centuries, under the Caliphate of Cordoba, Islamic Spain clearly possessed a superior civilization to that of the Christian North. At that time, one could send a letter from Cordoba to Russia in less than three months, and even Christians came to study in this center of learning and science. From 1035, the caliphate splintered into a series of taifas—small kingdoms--which were more vulnerable to Christian attack. Ruíz tells us that Christians and Jews at that time could comfortably live under Islam, as Islam was then very tolerant of the Peoples of the Book. All three groups looked very much alike, and borrowed from each other in all sorts of ways. His defense of coexistence and convivencia might raise some questions in the minds of Jews, who have also heard about the persecutions that led, for example, to Maimonides’ having to flee Spain. But he does go on to discuss mistrust and tensions, as Muslims felt doomed to fall before the barbaric Christian kings. The Muslims felt obliged to call upon their fundamentalist allies in North Africa, to help them, and thus the Almoravides’ invasion took place in 1050, putting an end to much of the tolerance. After the Christian victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1248, though, Muslims were more and more confined, and began gradually to leave for North Africa.

Ruíz explains to us the confusing terms morisco, mudéjar, and moro. The moros were simply Muslims who lived under Muslim rule. Mudéjares were Muslims living under Christian rule, usually agricultural workers or craftsmen on the margin of society, but needed for their skills, and thus giving rise to the name of a particular artistic style. Morisco was a pejorative term, like marrano, and referred to former Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Only the lower classes stayed on after 1492, and the majority of the Muslims underwent forced conversion in 1504. They did not assimilate. In 1499 there had been a Muslim uprising in the mountains of Andalusia, and in 1568 the moriscos rose up again, were defeated and decisively dispersed. By the early 17th century all plurality ended, as between 1609 and 1619 all remaining Muslims or suspected Muslims were finally expelled. They were also accused of being in league with the Turks, the most threatening enemies of Christendom at the time. This reviewer would comment that, just as non-Jews may not be fully cognizant of the sufferings of the Sephardim during this period, it is also useful for Jews to become aware of the vicissitudes of the Muslim population of Spain at the same time.

In Lecture 8 Professor Ruíz finally deals with Jewish life in Iberia, and the Edict of Expulsion. He emphasizes that the mass of Jews had been converting from the 1391 persecutions onward. By 1492, there were, he tells us, only about 80,000 Jews left in Iberia. Of these, abut 40,000 converted, while 40,000 exited Spain. His bibliography cites an article by Henry Kamen which he describes as “important and controversial”—“The Mediterranean and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492,” Past and Present 119 (1988), pp. 30-55. This article discusses the number of Jews living in Spain in 1492, the number that left, and the number that returned. Many scholars nowadays simply do not hazard a guess on this question of numbers (which is why, of course, Ruíz would describe it as controversial). It might have been useful at this point to mention other competing theories. In any case, he emphasizes that by 1492 so many Jews had converted that much more economic power belonged to conversos than to Jews.

The Edict of Expulsion, he posits, was essentially an edict of conversion. The authorities’ inability to accept the Other meant that the great victory of 1492 was really a defeat for pluralism. The experts, he tells us, as on so many issues related to Spanish history, cannot agree on the reasons behind the Edict of Expulsion, some of those suggested being:

  1. A religious motivation, which Ruíz and others consider not the most important;
  2. The fact that Jews were seen as a provocation and an incentive for conversos to secretly practice or to return to Judaism;
  3. Anti-Semitic motives.

He then gives a brief summary of the Jewish experience in Iberia since the first century. The Visigoths were heretical Christians who persecuted the Jews, and thus Jews welcomed the Muslims as their saviors. This sympathy and even collusion was of course used against Jews in later centuries. The Jews prospered and flourished under Islam, giving rise to great literature, such as the work of Maimonides. We can even visit Maimonides’ synagogue in Cordoba (Ruíz may not be correct in this—we are not at all certain that this was his synagogue, but since it is the only one remaining in Cordoba, it has become so by default). Ruíz perhaps should have mentioned some other names as well as Maimonides, as he was forced to flee anti-Jewish persecutions. But we do know that the Rambam wrote often in Arabic, and he fled to the Muslim world rather than to the Christian North.

Ruíz tells us that he wishes to dispel some stereotypes about Jewish life in Christian Spain during the early Middle Ages. He tells us Jews were not uniformly restricted as to profession (sometimes professions were restricted but there was no pattern), and were not segregated. The judería was not a ghetto. From the 13th century on, mental changes led to segregating and Otherness. The representatives in the Cortes or parliament (who represented an urban oligarchy) eventually demanded that Jews and Muslims wear identifying symbols. In times of economic decline, there would be a rise in anti-Semitism. But the Cortes found itself continually reiterating the exclusion of Jews because everyone ignored it.

Anti-Semitism was a constant undercurrent in society due, Ruíz tells us, to a fear of miscegenation. Among the urban oligarchy, there was resentment against Jews because they paid taxes only to the king, not to the cities. Moreover, during the civil wars of the 13th century, Jews unfortunately backed and fought on the losing side.

Lecture 9 deals with “Jews, Conversos and the Inquisition” but begins by going back to 1391 and the origins of ritualized violence against the Jews. Though such violence against Jews had always existed, it had never been on this scale. Out of a Jewish population of possibly 200,000, Ruíz tells us that 50-60% converted. The reasons were manifold: loss of faith (as Benzion Netanyahu maintains), fear for their lives, or economic motives, the desire not to lose one’s livelihood. After 1391, Seville, which had had an important Jewish community, had no more Jews, and the same happened in Toledo and other major cities. As Jews lost their important role in the economy, they also tended to scatter to small towns, away from the cities. Christian triumphalism led to demoralization among Jews, especially after the conversion of major Jewish figures such as the rabbi of Burgos, and after the Disputation of Tortosa in 1413-1414.

The conversos initially fared well, the members of the upper class entering the highest positions in Christian society. The formerly Jewish masses had greater problems in integrating and, knowing little about Christianity, continued their own customs out of habit. Growing resentment of converso success led to anti-converso riots in the 1440s to 1460s and the eventual founding of the Inquisition in 1478-1483 to ferret out non-sincere conversos. Ruíz discusses the opposing arguments of Yitzchak Bauer and of Netanyahu regarding the sincerity of the conversos. Bauer argues that they were heroically practising Judaism in secret, whereas Netanyahu argues that they were mostly sincere if ignorant converts. Ruíz himself suggests that the converts were probably neither Christian nor Jewish, but of mixed identity, and that their true history is largely one of assimilation and disappearance into Spanish society after 1520, due to energetic persecution by the Inquisition. Ruíz discusses opposition to the establishment of the Inquisition by some segments of Spanish society, who viewed it as a political tool by the Catholic Monarchs to centralize power. I would comment, though, that this initial urge for centralization does not explain the extraordinary longevity of the Spanish Inquisition until the early years of the 19th century. Ruíz concludes this lecture with a brief discussion of the directions of Jewish migration out of Spain.

The following lectures deal with Christopher Columbus (whom he does not view as a converso, or a secret Jew, but as a Christian religious fanatic), and the disastrous impact of Spain’s conquests on the indigenous cultures of America, as well as how the aftermath of conquest in turn transformed Spain itself. He concludes that, though Spain achieved creative and intellectual greatness during its Golden Age beginning around 1550, 1492 and its legacy must also be seen as tragic, in Walter Benjamin’s terms.

For those of us who have mostly focused on the Jewish experience in Spain and after, it is useful to be brought to see the Jewish component within the context of Spanish history. We may not necessarily agree with Ruíz on all matters, but deeper knowledge of the surrounding Iberian culture is surely a good thing for us. We can definitely profit from becoming the students of Professor Teófilo Ruiz for a few hours.

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