Dogs of God is a compelling historical narrative of Spain under the leadership of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the second half of the fifteenth century. In his introduction, James Reston, Jr., describes his book as “a tapestry of the years leading up to 1492 and of the forces that came together in that apocalyptic year.” [p. xix] And indeed, what a tapestry it is—a fascinating and well-documented narrative of the interplay of royal politics, scientific discovery, military reconquest, religious persecution, exploration—all under the reign of the intriguing Ferdinand and Isabella at a time of high apocalyptic expectations. Who better to tell this story than a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and the son of the legendary journalist Scotty Reston?
This is the kind of book I would utilize as a text for a summer adult education course in my church, or a Catholic book club, though I am guessing it would be a hard sell. History is always a hard sell—mostly because few of us ever had history teachers who could colorfully narrate the captivating big picture and/or connect the dots to our own times. But history is not only a great teacher; it is also a critic of the present. We have a personal stake in Reston’s story because the struggles of late medieval Spain shape our world in ways we can hardly imagine. The relationship of the Christian West with Islam; our enduring struggle with antisemitism; the revisiting of colonial practices and treatment of indigenous peoples which is under scrutiny now; the ambiguities of church and state; even the present-day challenge of catechizing the Inquisition, which as Catholics we cannot run away from, try as we might—a good many things come forth from this book which broadened my own world view and erased my simplistic “a king, a queen, and three ships” narrative of Columbus. [Historical spoiler: Ferdinand paid for just two of the ships.]
A quick glance at a map of the Iberian Peninsula c. 1450 explains much—though not all—of the dynamics played out in this text. The territory we would identify today as “Spain” was a confederation of kingdoms surrounded by enemies of varying intensity. Portugal was a major power to the West and on the cusp of becoming the major naval power of the known world. France, the Hundred Years War now behind her, was contending to expand its borders south into contested regions. A sizable portion of modern Spain was held by the Muslims, the Kingdom of Granada. Again, looking to the map, the largest single territorial expanse was the Kingdom of Castile, which included the City of Madrid. The second largest tract, to the northwest, was the Kingdom of Aragon. It was the union by marriage of these two kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, which provided the backbone for the unification of a modern era nation called Spain.
Chapter 3, “He and No Other,” describes the always convoluted speculation and machinations of arranged royal weddings, in this case the progression of the Queen of Castile, Isabella, to Aragon’s Ferdinand, whose multiple titles included King of Sicily. The teenaged Isabella was disillusioned with the parade of older and at times effeminate men who sought her hand. She was something of a liberated woman for her time who believed that her own passions mattered in the deliberations of state. [Her predecessor on the Castilian throne—1455-1474--had been “Enrique the Impotent,” proving again that recorded history can be most unkind.] Isabella’s confessor/spy reported to her of Ferdinand that “this caballero had no difficulty mounting his horse.” [p. 30] Ferdinand, in fact, fathered two children by other women during the protracted marriage negotiations.
Ferdinand’s weaknesses of the flesh notwithstanding, this couple reigned the combined Castilian-Aragon heart of Spain for thirty years [1474-1503]. Their marriage was fruitful and dynamic; the queen exercised considerable influence upon her husband who generally honored her counsel. They were visionaries who worked toward a united Spain in the flowering of the Catholic Church. In her later years Isabella—highly devout and profoundly impacted by her personal confessor--imparted a deeply apocalyptic vision of uniting the Second Coming of Christ into the destiny of Spain, a vision that inspired her militaristic husband to undertake arduous battlefield labors toward unifying the region. The Queen herself was known to make dramatic appearances on the battlefields to rally discouraged troop, who idolized her as a latter-day Virgin Mary. In 1954 the cause of her canonization was opened in Rome, but for reasons outlined below, Pope John Paul II quietly shelved the cause in 1991.
To this royal couple, the biggest stain on national destiny was the Muslim kingdom of Grenada, which extended along the Mediterranean Coast to Gibraltar. By the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Islam had been firmly planted in Iberia for eight hundred years, long enough to establish a major culture of art, universities, and the sciences. [Islamic scholars had preserved the Greek writings of Aristotle which, by the 1200’s, had pronounced influence on the doctrinal Catholic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.] The Catholic Crusades of an earlier time had hoped to eradicate Islamic presence from the Holy Land, but the age of Crusading had begun to wither after the incredible fiasco of the Fourth Crusade [for which John Paul II apologized in 2001.] What may have stoked the idea of resumed hostilities toward Islam was the fall of Constantinople [Istanbul], at the hands of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453. This event terrified Christians across Western Europe and awakened hostilities toward Muslims that had subsided for a time. Likewise, the conquest of Constantinople in the East may have awakened the old warlike fervor among certain segments of the Islamic population in Spain. Ferdinand himself was nearly mortally wounded in an assassination attempt by a Moor.
Ferdinand’s wars against the Moors were long, difficult, and costly. As a rule, he opted to be reasonably generous to those Islamic strongholds which sought negotiated settlements, and in many cases, he did not require wholesale expulsion of Islam populations. His original goal was unification of Spain, and like his predecessors, he accepted the practice of Muslim conversion to Christianity; a similar tolerance of sorts was extended to Jews who converted to Christianity, though the Inquisition would take a very dim view of this generosity in time. Those Muslims expelled from Spain could take refuge in fraternal North African Islamic lands.
As the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella progressed into the 1480’s a new factor would shape the soul of the land, the emergence of the Spanish Inquisition. It is hard to name a competent historian today who finds justification for the systematic persecutions undertaken in the “name of Christ.” How the Inquisition came to dominate Spanish life and events is complicated. The Inquisition—a Church court established to investigate heresy or thoughts and behaviors contrary to Catholic orthodoxy—originated as early as the twelfth century. Originally, Church diocesan courts managed the proceedings until the Dominican Order assumed responsibility with a particular zeal, hence the name “Dogs of God.”
The full understanding of the Inquisitorial process would require much more information than I can helpfully squeeze into a blog right here. Those who defended the investigatory process, then and even today, would say that its purpose was to save souls from the evils of their ways—primarily theological innovation or devotional excess—and to excise by execution those unrepentant who were judged to be incorrigible dangers to the unity of the Church. Some notable executions: Joan of Arc, Jan Hus [Church reformer], Marguerite Porete [mystic], Savonarola [preacher and major player in Reston’s text, pp. 287-290], and Giordano Bruno [philosopher]. Galileo’s case is possibly the best known, and Reston has devoted a book to Galileo’s life, work, and trials. It is true that not every defendant was found guilty of heresy nor was torture a routine method of extracting confessions. The number of individuals condemned to burning at the stake in the second millennium by the Inquisitory process is hard to say; it certainly runs to the thousands. One would be too many.
Even if one were to argue that the Inquisition’s heavy hand was an honest effort to save souls from the fires of hell, there is no biblical support for this extreme of coercion. What does emerge from the pages of history is a machinery that protected the Church at the cost of much suffering and many lives, particularly among the Jews. The name most associated with the Spanish Inquisition is the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada. An austere friar who wore a hairshirt for perpetual penance, Torquemada was nonetheless an ambitious cleric who endeared himself to Ferdinand and Isabella’s court.
Whatever his good intentions, Torquemada took advantage of several currents in the air in the late 1400’s. The first was Ferdinand’s desire to create a unified Spain; the Catholic faith would be such a glue, after the removal of Moors and Jews, and the Inquisition would be an invaluable propaganda tool in purging unbelievers. The second current was money: the royal court had exhausted its treasury in the military ventures against the Moors. As the Inquisition enjoyed the power to levy significant fines and confiscation as part of its operations, an aggressive campaign targeting Jews and Moors would provide a much-needed infusion into the royal coffers. It is worth noting that in Ferdinand’s time affluent Jews and Moors served in the royal court.
The third current is a bit harder to describe. The term “apocalyptic age” comes closest. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, Ferdinand and Isabella came to believe that they were consecrated by God for a glorious renewal of the Church, the turning of a new page in history. Such a vision changed them and their style of leadership. Apocalyptic times always carry a baggage of extremism, and Catholic apocalyptic has always featured a strong antisemitic odor. Seeing himself as something of a king of divine destiny, Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of all Jews in Spain by 1492.
Again, a quick look at the map indicates that for Spanish Jews expulsion was a significant trial. To the West, Portugal began adopting Ferdinand’s hard line toward Jews. To the south, i.e., Africa, Islamic nations along the Mediterranean were hardly a haven. Italy was a region is disarray with a Borgia pope on the throne. Ironically, one haven for Jews was the Islamic Ottoman Empire of the East, which sent ships to Spain to ferry refugees east. Suffice to say that the expulsion of Jews from Spain is another sad chapter in the long history of God’s Chosen People.
The apocalyptic spirit of the time was instrumental in another way: the emergence of Christopher Columbus. In truth, Columbus was no stranger to Ferdinand and Isabella; the Queen found him dashing and attractive, while many men in the court found him something of a bounder. In fact, Columbus was an accomplished mariner; his previous forays had taken him to the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Iceland. His study of maps, some dating to ancient times, convinced him that a sea voyage west was eminently doable. His problems were not with the sea but with the doubts and scorn of advisors in the Spanish court. Ferdinand consulted Columbus on military matters during his wars against the Moors, but was not ready [or financially able, for that matter] to fund an expedition to the Indies by heading West.
By 1492, however, Ferdinand and Isabella were thinking of themselves as the chosen rulers to win the world to the Catholic faith. The idea of bringing Christianity to yet uncharted kingdoms took on a religious fervor. Moreover, Spain’s archenemy Portugal was making considerable strides in its search to East Asia via a route around the tip of Africa to India. Consequently, the support for Columbus’s venture would materialize. Reston’s narrative of the first voyage to the “New World” is intriguing, as is his description of how the Spanish crown came to interpret what Columbus had and had not accomplished.
Dogs of God is one of those books that stimulates “branching out reading.” The author has provided a bibliography of about 125 sources, and since 2005 more historical interpretations have come into circulation. In recent years there has been considerable controversy about the impact of Spain and other colonial powers on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In his epilogue [pp. 330-338] Reston touches upon these issues in thoughtful ways. Since this work was published, “Columbus Day” and its meaning has been a matter of heated debate. Today’s [November 2, 2021] New Yorker has a lengthy piece on Columbus. History can sometimes be a painful pill to swallow, but we are better people for taking the time to swallow it.