Monthly Archives: April 2012


a quick note on In the Shadow of the Virgin

Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau begins In the Shadow of the Virgin: Inquisitors, Friars, and Conversos in Guadalupe Spain with an anecdote concerning the execution of Alonso de Paredes. By commencing with a powerful narrative that illustrates her central argument: that economics, politics, and (more tangentially) religious identity played the lead role in the Inquisition triggered by societal tensions cast upon “Old Christians” and conversos, or “New Christians,” Starr-LeBeau entices her audience to read further. Her thesis is complex and twofold. First she asserts that the Inquisition itself reshaped the identities of Christians and conversos. Finally, the modification of these subsequent identities altered “the exercise of local and royal authority” (1). Essentially, Starr-LeBeau demonstrates how these groups were exploited by a religious and authoritative power struggle created by a definitional dichotomy, and aligns her argument somewhere between Baer’s crypto-Jewish conversos and Netanyahu’s theory of complete assimilation into Christian society.

In Chapter One Starr-LeBeau delves into the history of Guadeloupe itself, its geography and socio-political location, since even before Juan I’s official establishment of the town’s Jeronymite order in 1398, (due to the spiritual resonance of the Virgin of Guadeloupe) the town “enjoyed an international clientele and was securely under the aegis of the Castilian monarchy” (17). It is no surprise then, that despite the Order’s reputation for humility and economic self-sufficiency, the Crown established the Jeronymite Order to govern the essentially tourist revenue-driven town due its aristocratic origins (some of its founders were members of the Castilian Court) (21).

As the town grew, so too did the powers of the friars themselves (especially the distinction between the Order and Guadeloupe’s citizens (28)). Connections to the king and “special indulgences” from the papacy reinforced the friars’ authority (31), and the town’s people pushed back against their increasing lack of autonomy (34). It is with this tension, that Starr-LeBeau introduces the broad issues of civil unrest involving New Christians in post 1391 of Iberia (38). Throughout, Starr-LeBeau frequently attributes civil unrest to periods of economic instability (40)—especially in Chapter Four, as the friars turned to conversos as an economic necessity in the 1460s and 1470s (111-121). Additionally, the contentious priory election of 1483, offered the mounting (constructed) tensions between the two religious groups an outlet: the Holy Office of the Inquisition (112).

Chapters Two and Three focus on the construction of religious identities and the forced negotiations/interactions of said identities, while Chapter Five examines how the Inquisition trials themselves impacted and formed religious, and thus, societal identities of New Christians (145). In Chapter Two, Starr-LeBeau uses a “thick description” of religious activities in order to denote the polarized identities of Old Christians and New Christians; however, it is often difficult to distinguish between lazy Christians and disloyal conversos (53). Further complications arise as “religious action or inaction could send multiple and sometimes conflicting messages about religious belief” (53).

Hence it was the inquisitors who needed to define the Judiazing conversos in relation to the “Old Christians” when, in actuality, each group’s religious observances varied (89). In fact, Chapter Three highlights the nonreligious aspects of interactions between Old and New Christians, which further underscore the arbitrary (though “spiritual”) nature of the Inquisition’s objective, “as most trades demanded working relationships with Old Christians” (95). In some cases the two groups even intermarried (98), though usually for status or money. Of course, Starr-LeBeau never maintains that the boundary between Old Christians and New Christians was indistinguishable. Many conversos participated in Judaizing activities, particularly women (100). Essentially, in Chapter Three, Starr-LeBeau stresses the perception of a New Christian’s belief system which depends upon “the opinions of family, friends, and friars, as well as the changing attitudes of the individuals themselves” (110).

Chapters Seven and Eight establish turning points within the town of Guadeloupe, like the internal reorganization of the friary, and emphasize the long-lasting effects of the Inquisition upon the town’s society; that seems like a logical conclusion, considering the fusion of religion and political authority, and the author’s assertion that “the friary serves as a microcosm of divisions within Guadalupe itself” (10). Starr-LeBeau further argues:

The political dimension involved in the establishment of new inquisitorial courts was not surprising, given the Inquisition’s status as an arm of the royal government, but the influence of political concerns also reflected the religious ambiguity at the heart of the inquisitors’ mandate. (149)

Thus fray Luis’ delirious diatribe was used to “cast suspicion on the converso community as a whole,” because even though he was likely mentally ill, he was considered a devout Christian (200-201). But it was all politics warped by suspicion. For example, consider everyone who testified against fray Diego de Marchena as opposed to fray Diego de Burgos (215). In the end—as a result of the Inquisition—the “Crown took advantage of the sacred approval of the friars and, by extension, the Virgin de Guadelupe, to emphasize a spiritual underpinning for their regime” (11).

Starr-LeBeau utilized documentary sources, inquisitorial testimony, civil records, local ordinances, archeological research and royal legal documents to articulate her arguments. She was careful to elaborate upon source limitations. For example, when discussing the population explosion in Guadalupe, she blatantly states that “specific numbers are lacking” (37). Additionally, she cautions that an “uncritical reading of inquisitorial documentation would be a grave mistake” (51), and often uses those sources as comparisons to paint a less biased frame of reference (10). Due to Starr-LeBeau’s unparalleled writing skills and ability to bring anecdotes to life, I found her argument to be easily digestible and informative. She painted a picture of Guadalupe that capitalized on human nature: the necessity of religious identities (which are so important in a medieval context), political authority, and the human nature that uses both to achieve one’s own ends.


scale of justice 2

Reed Trivia

Did you know that Obama’s comments about the Supreme Court striking down his health care law skewed the point of judiciary review (created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 and substantiated by the case Marburry v. Madison in 1803) and legal precedence?

He maintained that the Supreme Court will not kill his bill on that basis of the Court’s obligation to preserve previous legal decisions in similar situations. This is surprising–since Obama is liberal–and you might assume that he would diagree with the notion that the Court should uphold a law on the simple basis of precedence and fail to account for the context of the particular situation. Obama is a former Constitutional law professor, so as a legal argument, I understand where he is coming from.

Obama seems to be framing his argument in a political context, where the decision of the judges (if they defy precedent) indicates a purely political motive.

Hooray election politics!