Inquisition and the Creation of the Other

Document Type

Book Chapter

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Publication Source

Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature of Medieval and Renaissance Spain


46 of the series: The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World

Inclusive pages




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Peer Reviewed



Americo Castro in Cervantes y los casticismos españoles (10) pointed out the fact that the inhabitants of the Peninsula were not totally aware of belonging to three different cultures (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) until as late as the 16th century. He also argued that Jews considered themselves as Spanish as their Christian neighbors. Other authors, like Stephen Gilman, establish that the identity of the converso – either from Jewish or Muslim origin – is not based on either a racial origin or a cultural inheritance, but rather in a certain amount of self-awareness of the individual with respect to the society (23). In order to call oneself a Jew or a Muslim, the person must consider himself a Jew or a Muslim.

In Spain, relationships between Christianity and the other two peninsular cultures before the expulsion of both can be characterized as a process that systematically pursues differentiation between the Christians, as the dominant group, and the Jews and Muslims, as the dominated groups. This process of removal from the center to the margins was achieved through judicial apparatus, everyday life, literary texts and the creation of special institutions like the Inquisition. The ultimate goal of Christianity was to attain the self-internalization of the individuals as Others; as the marked and different element.

The role of the Spanish Inquisition in creating the identity of the Other is not unimportant. A study of the declarations of the so called conversos and moriscos prosecuted by the Inquisition reveals a deliberate Christian effort in attaining the self-internalization of the defendants through a rhetorical discourse. The interrogated people showed a somehow consistent defense strategy: practices and cultural uses considered “Jew-like” or “Muslim-like” by the Inquisition, are seen by the accused as family traditions learned from their parents and relatives. For the defendants, these practices have lost the cultural or religious meaning they had for the previous generations. It is only when the inquisitor frames this practice as one belonging to a different culture that the defendant is made aware of his cultural otherness. Thus, the Inquisition is the institution in charge of creating or re-creating a cultural identity different from the Christian one. Through the interrogatory process, the inquisitors contribute to creation of the Otherness.

I study the cases of several conversos and moriscos accused by the Inquisition, whose testimonies were presented in front of the inquisitorial courts in Cuenca and Toledo during the 16th century. These cases led me to conclude that the absence of self-awareness of cultural identity could be some times a conscious strategy used by the defendant in proving his innocence, but at other times, it shows a genuine ignorance of belonging to a different culture or practicing non-Christian customs.

Generalizations are dangerous in talking about conversos and moriscos. Factors such as the place of origin, the date of the arrest, the level of education, and the cultural background of their spouses need to be taken into account. Nevertheless, I think that I prove the main role of the Inquisition in creating or reinforcing the Otherness of the defendants.


Medieval and Golden Age, Spain, Christians, Jews, Iberian Literature


Jewish Studies | Medieval History | Medieval Studies | Spanish Literature

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