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.


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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!



Reed Trivia

Did you know that by the 8th century, Buddhism was naturalized in Japan and began to blend with native beliefs? Previously Buddhism was used as a form of control by the ruling elite as it defined their identity within courtly culture.

communities of violence pic

A quick note on “Communities of Violence”

In Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, David Nirenberg uses compelling literary devices and an expansive—and varied—array of primary sources to illustrate both psychological and historical narratives for the Crown of Aragon. His underlying thesis was twofold, presented in two parts. The first component of Nirenberg’s central argument criticized the teleological portrayal of violence that encompasses medieval historiography pertaining to minorities (11) and focuses on “cataclysmic” instances of violence (7). From Nirenberg’s perspective, this extremely broad approach excluded viable historical information from a local context (12), and instead—as Mark D. Meyerson noted “tended to string together acts of violence, like so many beads in a gruesome necklace, in order to fashion a teleological narrative of persecution leading to the events of 1492…” (Medieval Academy of America 464). Nirenberg found a more complicated relationship between violence and the minority/majority that involved the politics surrounding medieval religious identity and the intentions behind those political endeavors (12).

Initially, after reading Chapter One, I wished Nirenberg had included some of his source limitations in the actual body of the text instead of the footnotes. For example, when discussing population ratios between Muslims and Christians in various kingdoms, he never mentions the issues with the population figures themselves. His footnotes are extremely comprehensive, however, and there, most of his source-related problems are meticulously examined (25). As the book progressed, I understood the detail with which Nirenberg actually investigated his sources (including Christian royal correspondence, Jewish chronicles, and numerous municipal archival documents). His research was so extensive, as he tracked the crusader shepherds through Aragon, he could discern gaps in documentation down to the week (72).

I appreciated the juxtaposition of both the cataclysmic events of the “Shepherd’s Crusade” and the more systemic violence found in Chapters Five and Six. Nirenberg’s comparative approach makes more sense then the paranoid-driven prophecy of Baer (90). In fact, Nirenberg mocks the author of History of the Jews in Christian Spain as he quips, “history, including that of the massacre at Montclus, was prophecy” (91). As evidenced in archival documents, the Montclus event occurred because the “pastorellos” believed they were crusading against Granada (an endeavor contemplated by the Crown for political reasons) (75).

Nirenberg’s fantastic literary techniques made the complex vocabulary and theoretical concepts of Communities of Violence more digestible. For example, the author uses metaphors to paint a relatable picture for the audience. When transitioning from part one of his book he employs this technique, “we must lower our gaze from thunderbolts of mass violence to the sparks generated by friction between groups…” (127). In another instance he compared medieval cohabitation between the three religious groups as “walking a knife-edge” (18). I found Nirenberg’s evocative images extremely helpful, and a welcome respite from his complicated verbiage.

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a quick note on the Southern Belle

I am hesitant to say the institution of slavery shaped the lives of young, elite women in the Old South; rather, I would argue it was the nature of the patriarchal society that shaped them both.

One must first understand the constraints placed on women by a patriarchal society. Men often used marriage to further their own economic status (Jabour 92). They championed a sexual double standard where women could not stray outside their marriage, yet men consistently engaged in extramarital affairs with both slaves and poor white women. In fact, white men believed slave women protected elite white women from men’s pervasive sexual appetites (91). Former slaveholders used their daughters’ debuts and the ritual of presenting them to society to reaffirm their own social status (118). The South’s “honor culture sanctioned hard drinking among elite men,” and spousal abuse stemmed from such behavior (91). Women had to prioritize their husband’s careers over their personal needs (175), and marriage pulverized women’s legal identities and economic rights.

After examining the plight of elite white women in the Old South, one can draw comparisons to the institution of slavery. While women were aware of their educational advantages and class privileges over enslaved blacks, both “were deprived of the fruits of their labor, their legal identity, control of their sexuality and rights to their children” (Jabour 10). Truly a theme of white male domination prevails in the antebellum South. These young women, like slaves, engaged in more covert resistance epitomized by their reluctance to come-of-age and “accept socialization into their assigned roles” (13). I would argue that just as the proslavery arguments were contrived by southern white men, so too was the myth of the southern belle; and both manufactured identities subverted slaves and white women into submissive positions.

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The Martyrs of Cordoba

In 9th century Al-Andalus, a Muslim-ruled area in the modern day south of Spain, Christian worshipers, or Mozarabs, were second class compared to their Arab counterparts. Many Christians underwent Islamisation, and as a result, more devout members of the Catholic church experienced an identity crisis. Forty-eight people, mostly clergy members and laymen (and women) with links to the monastery, martyred themselves by publicly denouncing Islam. A lecherous priest named Eulogius incited and chronicled the martyrs. Eventually the Muslim authorities put him to death.

In Martyrs of Cordoba, Jessica A. Coope presents a realistic thesis concerning the Cordoban martyr debacle using evidence primarily from two sources, the works of Eulogius and Paul Albar. Her theory underscores the Christian fanatic response to the increasing vibrancy of the Umayyad court (14). According to Coope, due to their marginalized position in society, Christians during the 850s, and the period leading up to it, found both social and economical reasons to adopt Islamic cultural components (3.) As a result of this one-sided assimilation, proponents of monasticism, particularly Christian clerics and laymen, found “the new dominance of a foreign cultural tradition devastating” (9). Hence the paranoid reaction of Christians to encroaching Islamic cultural ideologies was relegated to a specific subset of Cordoba’s Christian population.

Though Coope goes to great lengths to illustrate the Muslim-Christian tensions that consumed every level of Cordoban society (23), I wish she had spent more time analyzing the implications of religious power struggles within the confines of Cordoban families. For example, Nunilo and Alodia’s religious beliefs differed from their Muslim father, and later stepfather, so they were sent away, eventually exposed, and executed (23). Eulogius’ favorite, Flora, could not practice her faith because her brother was a Muslim. She fled, but he found her and brought her before the qadi. First she was beaten until the flesh on her neck was exposed. Six years later she was executed (24-25). Additionally, Rudericus, after trying to mediate between his Christian and Muslim brothers, was sold out by the latter brother. He was later executed for not renouncing Christianity (29). Coope concedes, “hatred between relatives in mixed families was one of the engines that powered the martyr’s movement” (29), but I kept wondering why. Perhaps the larger societal tensions that could not be expressed publicly manifested in private life. As the laws of physics demand, at some point that tension must release. Eulogius forcefully broke the ice and seemed to create an even more hostile environment where smaller, family ties buckled under amassing pressure.

Because Eulogius was clearly egotistical and manipulative (and after reading his Documentum concerning Flora, absolutely narcissistic (27)), I have an issue with Coope’s sources. True, she uses “other Latin and Arabic sources” to contextualize the martyr movement, but she admits most of her evidence stems from biographical accounts of Eulogius and Albar (xi). Coope seems to justify her dominant source due to the lack of progression in modern scholarship pertaining to medieval Spain (xi). In fact, in a review of Coope’s Martyr’s of Cordoba, Kenneth Baxter Wolf notes the lack of new data present in her argument (The Catholic Historical Review 307). Though Eulogius seemed to instigate the movement at every turn, Coope hardly focuses on his huge role. With the manner in which she presented her evidence, I am not convinced the Cordoban martyrs would have occurred in the absence of the meddling Eulogius.

With source-issues taken into consideration, as another review by J.N. Hillgarth maintains, Coope displayed a “valiant attempt” despite her source limitations (The American Historical Review 1531). I agree with her over-arching theme: “the public nature of Cordoba prompted Christians to think about their own religion in similar terms” (83), but I think her use of sources demanded too much supposition on her part as to the small-scale response of Cordoba as a whole. Sure, we can read Eulogius’ fanatical reactions, reveal whom he was reacting to and why, then work backwards; but if Coope is highlighting a societal trend, there has to be more evidence.


Reed Art

The historiography of art throughout the ages gives as much insight into the culture of the recipient as it does the lifestyle of the creator. A careful analysis of various art forms throughout time–whether dancing, painting, or sculpting–preserves the vitality of the human race in each of its stages as society continues its incessant march through time.

It is important to consume past art as voraciously as it is vital to indulge new creations. Why not connect with people who lived years, even centuries, before and explore the essence of what it means to be human; why we dance, why we sing, why we feel the need to capture life’s beauty on the rocky surface of cave walls. The message of Reed History is that we are all fundamentally the same. We have the same hopes, the same dreams and the same anxieties. No medium displays human-beings’ utter consistency better than art.

Check out some pretty fascinating artists, making history everyday.


1920s South Africa

Where did the British go? What happened to their civilizing mission and the ‘Hottentot Identity’ British missionaries psychologically achieved? The idea could not be expressed more aptly than by Sol Plaatje when he lamented that South African policy was “pacing backwards to pre-Union days, going back, back, and still further backward, to the conditions which prevailed in the old Republics, and (if a check is not applied) we shall steadily drift back to the days of the old Dutch East Indian administration” (Plaatje 5). Though why the steady progression in reverse? South Africans, both black and white, were consumed by the unrealistic—albeit strange—theory of Social Darwinism (Worden 73). The mental subjugation the British forced upon the Xhosa, Khoi, Twsana, Sotho, Zulu, and other native South African tribes reemerged with a more hierarchal “customary rule” that fed into the festering white supremacy of the Afrikaners. Politics became black and white, and the white population sought to cage their black laborers. The British won the war from a military/ capitalist perspective; however the Afrikaners won social domination as the British capitulated to the Boers because of Transvaal gold.


In light of the Afrikaners, ‘Mcfene’ comes to mind. A literal crushing of black South Africans politically, economically, and socially. Afrikaners were ruthless. In Singing Away the Hunger ‘Agnes,’ described the Boer policemen as a “nightmare” that made her physically shake (Singing 14).  The daily press served as propaganda and an extension of Union politics; a daily reminder that black South Africans, even women, needed passes to navigate out of unscheduled areas (Plaatje “Womens Passes…”). This super exploitation created what Peter Abraham’s character Leah tried to explain to Xuma, “…I come from my people, but I am no longer of my people. It is so in the city and I have been here many years. And the city makes you strange to the ways of your people…” (Abraham 10). An urban black working class emerged; juxtaposing the starving native Africans in crowded scheduled areas. The middle class became ‘elite’ when in their ‘homelands,’ as demonstrated by Agnes’ mother when she returned to her local church (Singing 22). Unfortunately, the non-elite, the impoverished, were viewed as disgusting and inappropriate (Singing 20). Though the British socially imposed those views, there was a significant gap between migrant workers, urban black workers, and rural natives. From a “white” standpoint, rural culture had no place in the burgeoning capitalist industries.

As the period of reconstruction after the Anglo-Boer war ended and the twentieth century dawned upon the Union of South Africa, one can feel the suffocating tension by simply reading documents like “Native Life in South Africa,” and novels like Mine Boy or Singing Away the Hunger. Everything happened all at once. The British procured their mine investments in the Transvaal after the civil war with the Boers. The Boers transformed into Afrikaners in the power vacuum left by the British. And the authoritarian Afrikaners treated all of the ‘natives’ like something other than human as they starved, wore sacks, died in the mines, and lost all rights as citizens by 1913. Unfortunately, black South Africans could not be culturally defeated with the Native Affair’s agenda during the 1920s. They would not be crushed completely. Not with men like Sol. T. Plaatje.