- Mad for God: Bartolomé Sánchez, the Secret Messiah of Cardenete
Occasionally, historians who spend long hours in the archives will make a lucky find, a document that opens new views of the past, or that offers a particularly compelling story. But such texts often require boldness and imagination on the part of the historian to draw out its rich implications. How fortunate, then, that it was Sara Nalle who happened upon Bartolomé Sánchez's inquisition trial records in the diocesan archives at Cuenca, Spain. Nalle brings to this fascinating record her reputation for astute analysis and meticulous, thorough research; but she also transcends conventional cultural histories with a compelling evocation of a time and place, and an imaginative rendering of Sánchez's encounters with inquisitorial officials.
The narrative follows Sánchez's spiritual crisis after an outburst during Mass in 1552, when he was fifty-one years old. Sánchez ultimately revealed that he believed himself to be the "Elijah-Messiah," the Son of Man designated by God tofulfill the mission of Jesus. Sánchez's behavior seemed rational to his familyand neighbors, as long as he steered clear of religious topics. They understood the wool carder to be sane. A reader accustomed to the stereotypes aboutearly modern Spain might therefore expect the Inquisition to torture, sentence, and execute Sánchez quickly. In fact, Nalle demonstrates the poverty of those outdated presuppositions. The judges associated with Sánchez's case suspected that he was insane. Rather than a rush to judgment, the inquisitorsquestioned Sánchez at length about his beliefs and, with a great deal of patience, attempted to persuade him to relinquish his views. At the same time,Nalle suggests, they were waiting for sufficient evidence of mental instability toallow them to end the trial by reason of insanity. When the first inquisitor assigned to the case finally did render a death sentence, Sánchez was permitted an atypical last-minute conversion and confession, and was released. Four years later, at his third appearance before the authorities of the Holy Office, the inquisitors finally decided that they had sufficient evidence of his mental instability to remand him to the custody of an insane asylum in Zaragoza, where they worried that he receive effective treatment. Within a yearand a half the former wool carder escaped the asylum and returned home, where once again he attracted the notice of the inquisitors. There the record ends.
In Mad for God, Nalle not only does a wonderful job of demythologizing theInquisition, but also demonstrates, at a human level, how a trial before theInquisition was conducted. She also weaves in an elegant and useful discussion about the challenges posed by the silences in inquisitorial and other sources. At the end of her book, Nalle notes that the inquisitors had much compassion for Bartolomé Sánchez. Her sympathetic rendering of Sánchez andhis inquisitors reveals the depth of Nalle's compassion for her subjects. Inshort, Mad for God is a very good addition to the literature on the Inquisition, [End Page 318] madness, and daily life in early modern Spain, and it deserves to be widely read.