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  • Parables of Coercion: Conversion and Knowledge at the End of Islamic Spain by Seth Kimmel
  • Claire Gilbert

Seth Kimmel, Claire Gilbert, moriscos, early modern scholarship, inquisition, arbitrismo, lead books of Granada, Catholic reformation, Spanish empire, orientalism, Spanish scholasticism, conversion, Spanish indies, Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolomé de las Casas, Juan de Ribera, Pedro de Valencia, Ignacio de las Casas

kimmel, seth. Parables of Coercion: Conversion and Knowledge at the End of Islamic Spain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015. 239 pp.

In sixteenth-century Spain, scholars were faced with a set of intellectual challenges that informed their changing ideas about orthodoxy, cultural hierarchies, and political authority. These challenges were motivated by the forced conversions of Jewish (converso) and Muslim (morisco) inhabitants, the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas, and the fostering of Catholic orthodoxy. Scholarly engagement with this record of coercion—a key word in the present book—has ranged from marveling at the hypocrisy of Spanish politics to celebrating a one-dimensional Spanish identity. Declining to contribute to this continuum of reductionist visions of "Inquisitorial Spain," Seth Kimmel instead demonstrates how complex and contested scholarly views on orthodoxy and community were in sixteenth-century Spain.

To do this, Kimmel takes on several historiographical paradigms which have shaped studies of late medieval and early modern Spain, including the overdetermination of 1492 as an annus mirabilis, the rosy image of medieval convivencia, and the pitfalls of reading modern definitions of tolerance or intolerance from Inquisitorial records. Grappling with these paradigms, their origins in early modern texts, and their still-entrenched place in conventional narratives of Spanish history leads Kimmel to ask how and why early modern thinkers defined religious orthodoxy. After considering how scholarly debates were shaped by the [End Page 223] changing contexts of the sixteenth century, Kimmel shows how contested the definition of religion was at every step of the way. He makes the important point that the political consequences of these debates were always far from a foregone conclusion. By rescuing the complexity of the ideas that were exchanged among scholars, this book contributes to a recent revaluation of learning in the Catholic Counterreformation, emphasizing its ambivalent, uncertain, and multipolar spaces of debate.

The dominant narratives of Spanish intellectual history for this period usually revolve around either the impact of new knowledge and experiences in global contexts on European ways of thinking, or the elaboration of a combative Catholic orthodoxy in the context of the Reformations. Kimmel argues, however, that it was scholarship generated around the changing debate over morisco religious, cultural, and political status that ensured a rapid progression of disciplinary reforms among different groups of scholars. "[T]he figure of the Morisco became a tool of disciplinary exchange" (2), even when that exchange was not principally concerned with the moriscos, but more generally with the mechanisms and legitimacy of imperial expansion in the first part of the sixteenth century, or anxieties about imperial decline at its end.

In his carefully presented research and well-argued analyses, Kimmel engages principally with the work of a select group of politically active scholastic and humanist thinkers. The two categories are set up in opposition in the opening pages, and are revisited again in later chapters where university scholastics and court humanists are portrayed as regularly at odds, even if Kimmel's own work shows that this classic antagonism is reductive. The book is structured in three sections across six chapters, which examine scholarly innovation in three interrelated fields: canon law, philology, and history writing. The chronology under examination runs from the beginning of the forced conversion of Spain's Muslim communities in 1499 to the end of Philip III's official program of expulsion in 1614, though Kimmel notes in his conclusion that "Islamic Spain never really ended" (176), citing the long-lasting legacy of Islamic Spain from the seventeenth century to the present.

The three sections build a roughly chronological argument about changing scholarly practices across disciplines and their political consequences in the sixteenth century. In the first section (chapters one and two), Kimmel shows that during the reign of Charles V (r. 1517–1556), debates among canon lawyers, inquisitors, royal councilors, and missionaries (which...


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