Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Spanish Inquisition and the World of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Note: This blog entry contains some spoilers. If you have not read all of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, you might want to skip this one. 

The Spanish Inquisition never takes center stage in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, but it's clearly part of the political landscape that protagonist Alphonse van Worden must navigate. At the end of Day 3, Alphonse is arrested by men claiming to act on behalf of the king and the Holy Inquisition; they demand a confession from him, threatening gruesome torture.

A few days after his escape, Alphonse receives a letter from a government minister, warning him to lay low for three months rather than report for duty in Madrid, because he has displeased the Inquisition (Day 9). Fear of the Inquisition, therefore, plays a key role in Alphonse's adventures in the Sierra Morena.

In her essay "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque," Ahlam Alaki suggests that much about the strange, nightmarish world Jan Potocki creates in his novel is best understood in the context of the effects the Inquisition had on Spanish life and culture. To understand why, it's necessary to have a little background on the earlier history of Spain, and why the Inquisition was given so much power.

Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) was a Roman colony for several hundred years. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, it came under the control of various Germanic tribes, especially the Visigoths. The first Visigoth kings were pagans, but they became Arianists starting in 395. Reccared I renounced Arianism in 587, becoming the first in a line of Catholic kings.

In 711, armies of the Umayyad Caliphate invaded Spain from Islamic North Africa through Gibraltar. The Visigothic kingdom, weakened by civil war, offered little resistance. Muslim forces (mostly Berbers and Arabs) conquered almost the entire peninsula in seven years, stretching across the Pyrenees into what's now Provence. It would take European Catholics seven centuries to take the territory back.

Panel of the Altarpiece of St. George, depicting Jaime I, King of Aragon, fighting
Muslim troops in the Battle of the Puig in 1237. Attributed to Marzal de Sas.

That struggle, and that period in Spain's history, are traditionally called the Reconquista, the "reconquest." The term makes it sound like a single, unified effort by European Christians against an Islamic occupation. But this was the Middle Ages, and of course the reality was much more complicated and confusing. Territorial lines moved back and forth; Christian kingdoms fought each other; Muslim rulers fought each other; alliances between Christian rulers and Muslim rulers were not uncommon. Still, in events that occurred more than a thousand years before Jan Potocki's birth, you can see the roots of a key cultural conflict explored in his novel. This deep history may be part of the reason why Potocki chose to set the novel in Spain.

Take a look at the map below, which shows the various kingdoms in power circa 1360.

Spanish kingdoms 1360. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. From The Atlas to Freeman's Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co., Third Edition, 1903. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

By this point, Spain's Muslim inhabitants (often called Moors) had been pushed south, holding only the small kingdom of Granada, which was a vassal of the powerful Christian kingdom of Castile and Leon. Now take a look at this next map.

Annotations in yellow are mine. CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (],
 via Wikimedia Commons.

Remember the Sierra Morena mountains where Alphonse von Worden had to lay low for several months? Those mountains form a cultural fault line between the heart of Islamic Spain and the more Catholic, European north. Today the Sierra Morena form the northern boundary of Andalusia, the southern autonomous region of Spain that takes its name from Al-Andalus, the medieval Arabic name for the territory. The Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra Palace remain the region's greatest architectural treasures.

The Reconquista was complete in 1492. Isabella, heir to the throne of Castile, had married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. Once they both came to power, they united their kingdoms and conquered the last Muslim kingdom on the peninsula, Grenada.

Except that the kingdoms weren't actually all that united. Regions that had existed as separate kingdoms for centuries retained differing languages, traditions, and political allegiances; in many places, nobles still ruled their territories like kings. To unite the country and strengthen their control, Ferdinand and Isabella turned to the power of religion.

In 1492, the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) issued the Alhambra Decree, stating that Jews who did not convert to Catholicism had four months to leave the country or face execution. Jews who converted were called Conversos ("converts"); they were allowed to remain but were generally regarded with suspicion.

Following a rebellion by Muslims in the city of Grenada in 1499, Castilian authorities gave the region's Muslim population a similar ultimatum: convert to Christianity or be expelled. Those who converted or claimed to have converted in order to stay were called Moriscos. 

Because Ferdinand and Isabella were counting on the Catholic faith to unify their new nation, the presence of all these Conversos and Moriscos was unsettling. How could you tell who had really accepted the Catholic faith? How many among Spain's population were secretly still practicing Judaism or Islam—and what if those pretenders were plotting rebellions and sabotage?

That's where the Inquisition comes in. The Papacy had authorized inquisitions in other countries to combat the rise of heresies, alternative versions of Christianity that were considered destructive and false. But in Spain the main job of the Inquisition was to find out who was pretending to be loyal to the Catholic Monarchs and the Catholic faith while secretly remaining true to their religious roots.

In Day 59 of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, reveals how he was told some of the secrets of the Sierra Morena by the Jewish astrologer Mamoun, father of the Cabbalist Pedro de Uzeda and his sister Rebecca. Mamoun told Pandesowna:

". . . you find yourself here on lands whose deep places are hidden from profane eyes; lands in which everyone has a secret to keep. There are vast caves and extensive underground workings in this chain of mountains. They are inhabited by Moors who have never left them since they were driven out of Spain. In the valley which stretches out before your eyes you will meet bogus gypsies, some of whom are Muslim, others Christian, yet others who confess no religion. . . . The house in which you find yourself is lived in only by Jews. Every seven years Portuguese and Spanish Jews gather to celebrate the sabbatical year. This will be the four hundred and thirty-eighth time since Joshua celebrated it. . . ."

Toward the end of the novel, Alphonse van Worden learns the purpose behind all the manipulations and trials he has experienced in the Sierra Morena. The Great Sheikh of the Gomelez reveals that his ancestor discovered a vast seam of gold in the mountains, which for generations the Gomelez family secretly mined, amassing great wealth. This ancestor, the first Sheikh of the Gomelez, was an adherent of Shia Islam, as opposed to the Umayyad Caliphate that in his time occupied the Iberian Peninsula; he thought that the Prophet "had shown him this gold and given it to him so that the caliphate would return to his family, that is to say, the descendants of Ali, and the whole world would be converted by them to Islam" (Day 62).

In other words, this is just the kind of conspiracy that the Spanish Inquisition was created to uncover. The current Great Sheikh of the Gomelez reveals to Alphonse that the Governor of Cadiz is in on the conspiracy, as were the valet and muleteer who abandoned Alphonse in the mountains, the false Inquisitors who threatened him with torture, the gypsy chief, and seemingly just about everyone else Alphonse has met since he set foot in Spain. There are clearly conspirators in the Spanish Court who arranged Alphonse's three-month leave, and it's implied that the Inquisition itself has been infiltrated, or at least persuaded to steer clear of the Sierra Morena (Day 1).

One of the Inquisition's many dubious innovations was the concept of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre). Residents of Spain came under suspicion by the Inquisition if their parents or ancestors were Jews or Muslims; their appearance of loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Catholic Monarchs might be a deception. Alphonse van Worden's situation is an ironic reversal of the historic Spanish definition of having pure blood. Because of the ancestry of Alphonse's mother, the Sheikh needs him, for Alphonse can father children who can "pass for descendants of the purest blood of the Gomelez" (Day 66). Alphonse's significant heritage has remained a secret from everyone—including himself.

In Ahlam Alaki's essay "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque" (yes, we're finally getting back to it), she teases out plenty of other ways in which the grotesque world that Alphonse encounters can be seen as an absurd, through-the-looking-glass version of Spain under the Inquisition. Here are a few highlights:
  • "Saragossa [now more commonly spelled Zaragoza] is remembered in the dreadful history of the Spanish Inquisition, as it was the location of a notorious Inquisition tribunal, and its marketplace was where punishments were carried out" (p.187).
  • "The Inquisition is represented by Potocki (after Cervantes) as fabricating a Spanish society of masquerades and heresy in which nothing is what it seems to be" (p. 194). Later in the essay, Alaki observes how "Many characters in this tale go under different disguises: Avadoro, Lonzato, Elvira, Frasqueta and her lover, the duchess of Avila, the Conde de Pena Valez and his sister, Laura Cerella, Rebecca, Blas Hervas, and Busqueros" (p. 199–200). 
  • Alaki relates how people accused by the Inquisition could obtain forgiveness by confessing their sins, and providing information on the sins of others. "The Inquisition threw Spanish society into consternation, and introduced the idea of spies being everywhere" (p. 199). The character Don Roque Busqueros may represent such a threat, as he appears out of nowhere to spy out secrets that could destroy Juan Avadoro and advance his own position. 
  • In Day 63, the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez explains to Alphonse that his entire childhood was spent literally underground, hiding in caves: "I had been inculcated with a deep hatred of Christians. All these feelings were more or less innate and grew as I grew in the darkness of the caves." This metaphor of a persecuted faith and culture being forced underground may explain some of the ubiquity of the images of caves, underground tunnels, and darkness in the novel. 
  • Alaki notes that "Moors and Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Alternatively, they were forced to bury their otherness in a state of Gothic limbo" (p. 197). 

I think this last comment is especially insightful. As sometimes happens in gothic fiction, I think Potocki has used images of ghosts, hauntings, and people returning from the dead to play with ideas of what happens when a culture tries to kill part of itself and bury it. Perhaps in Potocki's novel, Spanish culture is being haunted by the ghosts of its Jewish and Muslim past.