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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Literature and the Church in Spain

By George Ticknor (1791–1871)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1791. Died there, 1871. From History of Spanish Literature. 1849.—Revised Edition. 1871.]

SPANIARDS had contended against misbelief with so implacable a hatred, for centuries, that the spirit of that old contest had become one of the elements of their national existence; and now, having expelled the Jews, and reduced the Moors to submission, they turned themselves, with the same fervent zeal, to purify their soil from what they trusted would prove the last trace of heretical pollution. To achieve this great object, Pope Paul the Fourth, in 1558,—the same year in which Philip the Second had decreed the most odious and awful penalties of the civil government in aid of the Inquisition,—granted a brief, by which all the preceding dispositions of the Church against heretics were confirmed, and the tribunals of the Inquisition were authorized and required to proceed against all persons supposed to be infected with the new belief, even though such persons might be bishops, archbishops, or cardinals, dukes, princes, kings, or emperors;—a power which, taken in all its relations, was more formidable to the progress of intellectual improvement than had ever before been granted to any body of men, civil or ecclesiastical.

The portentous authority thus given was at once freely exercised. The first public auto da fé of Protestants was held at Valladolid in 1559, and others followed, both there and elsewhere. The royal family was occasionally present; several persons of rank suffered; and a general popular favor evidently followed the horrors that were perpetrated. The number of victims was not large when compared with earlier periods, seldom exceeding twenty burned at one time, and fifty or sixty subjected to cruel and degrading punishments; but many of those who suffered were, as the nature of the crimes alleged against them implied, among the leading and active minds of their age. Men of learning were particularly obnoxious to suspicion, since the cause of Protestantism appealed directly to learning for its support. Sanchez, the best classical scholar of his time in Spain, Luis de Leon, the best Hebrew critic and the most eloquent preacher, and Mariana, the chief Spanish historian, with other men of letters of inferior name and consideration, were summoned before the tribunals of the Inquisition, in order that they might at least avow their submission to its authority, even if they were not subjected to its censures.

Nor were persons of the holiest lives and the most ascetic tempers beyond the reach of its mistrust, if they but showed a tendency to inquiry. Thus, Juan de Avila, known under the title of the Apostle of Andalusia, and Luis de Granada, the devout mystic, with Teresa de Jesus and Juan de la Cruz, both of whom were afterwards canonized by the Church of Rome, all passed through its cells, or in some shape underwent its discipline. So did some of the ecclesiastics most distinguished by their rank and authority. Carranza, Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, after being tormented eighteen years by its persecutions, died, at last, in craven submission to its power; and Cazalla, who had been a favorite chaplain of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, was strangled at the stake as an indulgence for an unmanly recantation, and then burnt. Even the faith of the principal personages of the kingdom was inquired into, and, at different times, proceedings sufficient, at least, to assert its authority, were instituted in relation to Don John of Austria, and the formidable Duke of Alva; proceedings, however, which must be regarded rather as matters of show than of substance, since the whole institution was connected with the government from the first, and became more and more subservient to the policy of the successive masters of the state, as its tendencies were developed in successive reigns.

The great purpose, therefore, of the government and the Inquisition may be considered as having been fulfilled in the latter part of the reign of Philip the Second,—further, at least, than such a purpose was ever fulfilled in any other Christian country, and further than it is ever likely to be again fulfilled elsewhere. The Spanish nation was then become, in the sense they themselves gave to the term, the most thoroughly religious nation in Europe; a fact signally illustrated in their own eyes a few years afterwards, when it was deemed desirable to expel the remains of the Moorish race from the Peninsula, and six hundred thousand peaceable and industrious subjects were, from religious bigotry, cruelly driven out of their native country, amidst the devout exultation of the whole kingdom.—Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and others of the principal men of genius then alive, joining in the general jubilee. From this time, the voice of religious dissent can hardly be said to have been heard in the land; and the Inquisition, therefore, down to its overthrow in 1808, became more and more a political engine, much occupied about cases connected with the policy of the state, though under the pretence that they were cases of heresy or unbelief. The great body of the Spanish people rejoiced alike in their loyalty and their orthodoxy; and the few who differed in faith from the mass of their fellow-subjects were either held in silence by their fears, or else sunk away from the surface of society the moment their disaffection was suspected.

The results of such extraordinary traits in the national character could not fail to be impressed upon the literature of any country, and particularly upon a literature which, like that of Spain, had always been strongly marked by the popular temperament and peculiarities. But the period was not one in which such traits could be produced with poetical effect. The ancient loyalty, which had once been so generous an element in the Spanish character and cultivation, was now infected with the ambition of universal empire, and was lavished upon princes and nobles, who, like the three Philips and their ministers, were unworthy of its homage; so that, in the Spanish historians and epic poets of this period, and even in more popular writers, like Quevedo and Calderon, we find a vainglorious admiration of their country, and a poor flattery of royalty and rank, that remind us of the old Castilian pride and deference only by showing how both had lost their dignity. And so it is with the ancient religious feeling that was so nearly akin to this loyalty. The Christian spirit, which gave an air of duty to the wildest forms of adventure throughout the country, during its long contest with the power of misbelief, was now fallen away into a low and anxious bigotry, fierce and intolerant towards everything that differed from its own sharply defined faith, and yet so pervading and so popular, that the romances and tales of the time are full of it, and the national theatre, in more than one form, becomes its strange and grotesque monument.

Of course, the body of Spanish poetry and eloquent prose produced during this interval—the earlier part of which was the period of the greatest glory Spain ever enjoyed—was injuriously affected by so diseased a condition of the national character. That generous and manly spirit which is the breath of intellectual life to any people was restrained and stifled. Some departments of literature, such as forensic eloquence and eloquence of the pulpit, satirical poetry and elegant didactic prose, hardly appeared at all; others, like epic poetry, were strangely perverted and misdirected; while yet others, like the drama, the ballads, and the lighter forms of lyrical verse, seemed to grow exuberant and lawless from the very restraints imposed on the rest; restraints which, in fact, forced poetical genius into channels where it would otherwise have flowed much more scantily, and with no such luxuriant results.

The books that were published during the whole period on which we are now entering, and indeed for a century later, bore everywhere marks of the subjection to which the press and those who wrote for it were alike reduced. From the abject title-pages and dedications of the authors themselves, through the crowd of certificates collected from their friends to establish the orthodoxy of works that were often as little connected with religion as fairy tales, down to the colophon, supplicating pardon for any unconscious neglect of the authority of the Church or any too free use of classical mythology, we are continually oppressed with painful proofs, not only how completely the human mind was enslaved in Spain, but how grievously it had become cramped and crippled by the chains it had so long worn.

But we shall be greatly in error, if, as we notice these deep marks and strange peculiarities in Spanish literature, we suppose they were produced by the direct action either of the Inquisition or of the civil government of the country, compressing, as it were, with a physical power, the whole circle of society. This would have been impossible. No nation would have submitted to it; much less so high-spirited and chivalrous a nation as the Spanish in the reign of Charles the Fifth and in the greater part of that of Philip the Second. This dark work was done earlier. Its foundations were laid deep and sure in the old Castilian character. It was the result of the excess and misdirection of that very Christian zeal which fought so fervently and gloriously against the intrusion of Mohammedanism into Europe, and of that military loyalty which sustained the Spanish princes so faithfully through the whole of that terrible contest; both of them high and ennobling principles, which in Spain were more wrought into the popular character than they were in any other country.

Spanish submission to an unworthy despotism, and Spanish bigotry, were, therefore, not the results of the Inquisition, and the modern appliances of a corrupting monarchy; but the Inquisition and the despotism were rather the results of a misdirection of the old religious faith and loyalty. The civilization that recognized such elements presented, no doubt, much that was brilliant, poetical, and ennobling; but it was not without its darker side; for it failed to excite and cherish many of the most elevating qualities of our common nature,—those qualities which are produced in domestic life, and result in the cultivation of the arts of peace.