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December 16, 2006

Dogs of God

Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors
James Reston, Jr. – ISBN – 9781400031917

This is a truly enjoyable read, vividly written, factual to a fault--but brief--and productive of increased understanding of that era and its impact on the future of the world. Unless you viscerally hate history, this is unquestionably worth the time.

As the title states, the book covers a brief but critical period in Spanish—hence world—history. It begins with a very concise review of prior Spanish history, notably the historic Moorish (Muslim) culture. He then proceeds in relative depth to chronicle the period from about 1480 to 1500, during which time the Inquisition was begun, the Jews were forced to “convert or leave,” the Moors were finally defeated and driven from the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese rounded Africa and Columbus “discovered” the New World.

Ferdinand--one of the important “princes” described by Machiavelli—subjugated the minor royalty, regularized the laws and instituted controlled taxation, thus centralizing power in the crown. Spain thus became the first “modern” nation. Meanwhile Isabella, the esteemed queen, enhanced the arts, music and education. The first major university in the world, Salamanca (founded 20 years before Oxford) became a magnet for scholars from around the Mediterranean.

After 800 years of Muslim dominance, Ferdinand was the warrior who completed the 500 year Reconquista, in large measure thru the firepower of “modern” cannons—which, though primitive, were destructive. In so doing the age of the armored knight passed into history. Further, he set in motion the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition and the subsequent expulsions were opposed by Isabella inasmuch as religion was the cover for a vast land grab to enrich the crown and the church, and a violent means of political control (which Machiavelli thought brilliant.) Property was confiscated even when owners weren’t exiled or executed; an exercise ostensibly in the interest of “purifying” the “Christian country.”

The emigration of both Moors and Jews nearly ruined the economy. They had been counselors to the crown, the finest teachers and doctors, poets and philosophers, and the principal merchants and artisans. Much of Spain was owned by them, which explains Ferdinand’s interest in removing them. Overnight the principal cities became stagnant backwaters without intellectual energy or financial capability.

Reston discusses the recent deconstruction of the period, noting that the Inquisition and expulsions were “not really so bad.” They were, however, evil incarnate. In fact, the elevation of the totally corrupt Spanish Cardinal Borgia to the papacy precipitated the Reformation.

Still, the terror of the Inquisition was accompanied by an expanded sense of personal liberty in the intellectual classes at Salamanca’s University, which in turn authored the Spanish Renaissance, already blossoming in Italy.

The reconciliation of the Spanish/Portuguese conflict, the unification of the Spanish nation, the (Portuguese) establishment of sea passage to India, and the territorial expansion which Columbus’s discoveries provided, authored the era of colonialism--and colonial conflict.)

With the arrival of Jewish refugees in Italy the need for a form of political international law was more important than ever, and the only available authority was the Roman Catholic Church. This, in turn, ultimately led to the arguments over the “separation of the church and the state.”

Read it! Great book!

Posted by respeto at December 16, 2006 11:21 AM