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  • Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics
  • Miriam Bodian
Richard Kagan and Abigail Dyer, eds and trans. Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xii + 200 pp. index. map. gloss. $48 (cl), $19.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0–8018–7923-X (cl), 0–8018–7924–8 (pbk).

The aim of this volume, in the editors' words, is to give the Spanish Inquisition "something of a human face by offering a close look at some of the unfortunate men and women who found themselves caught in the Inquisition's net" (xi). The book offers the stories of seven victims (not six, as stated on the jacket), gleaned from autobiographical and other material recorded by inquisitorial scribes during trial interrogations.

Such a volume serves to bring to the attention of an English-speaking audience a glimpse of the vast riches buried in inquisitorial records. In an introductory chapter, it places the seven life narratives that form the core of the book in the context of both pre-modern autobiography and Inquisition history. It then proceeds to sketch the lives of three women and four men tried in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: 1) a Jewish exile from Spain who was baptized in Italy but [End Page 610] reverted at times to Judaism and was thus tried for "judaizing" when he returned to Spain; 2) a woman who posed as a man and married another woman, arrested for sodomy; 3) a self-declared prophet who claimed religious authority superior even to that of the Inquisition; 4) and 5) a husband and wife, the first a Jew from Fez who converted to Catholicism in Spanish Netherlands (he was charged with judaizing) and the second a previously married Old Christian woman who posed as a Jew and was baptized, then married, a second time (she was charged with desecrating the sacrament of baptism as well as bigamy); 6) a morisco — that is, a descendant of baptized Muslims — tried for secretly practicing Islam; and 7) a descendant of baptized Jews arrested for judaizing in Mexico City.

Such a volume might serve as a sampler of the sort of lives that can be reconstructed on the basis of records of the Spanish Inquisition. But it cannot claim to do much more. Certainly, seven cases do not offer a basis for establishing "the norms and values that stood at the center of Jewish life" and locating "the margins of what Spaniards of this era considered to be acceptable behavior," as the editors suggest (9–10) — particularly since the editors nowhere indicate how they chose these figures. (They note only that they "selected those cases containing life stories that, within the confines of the genre under review, are fairly complete" [9]. But this seems evasive, since there are a host of such stories, and one of the stories chosen relies not on a complete dossier, but on an abbreviated account sent to Philip II.)

There is unquestionably merit in a book that allows the sources to speak for themselves, especially in an academic book market that discourages the publication of primary sources. But the editors of the volume were faced with a stylistic problem. Inquisition records tend to be long-winded and repetitive. (See, for example, the passage on 122, where each time the scribe records a reply of the defendant he adds, "This was his answer.") Their solution has been to streamline the cases by presenting excerpts of each one, accompanied by an explanatory introduction, footnotes, and a concluding section. In this way, the reader is given a narrative of sorts, along with some background and context. Unfortunately, this method has its own repetitiveness, and gives the book a patchy quality.

The editors' comments are helpful, but contain many errors andsimplifications. It is not so that the only individual case files to survive in Spain are those "belonging to the tribunals of Cuenca and Toledo" (8). The Inquisition established three tribunals, not two, in Spanish America (8, and cf. 2). The editors' comparison of the Spanish crown's policy of scattering the morisco population to contemporary "ethnic cleansing" (145) robs that term...


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pp. 610-612
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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