BMCR 1994.04.03

1994.04.03, Hamilton, Heresy and Mysticism

, Heresy and mysticism in sixteenth-century Spain : the alumbrados. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1992. iv, 156 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780802029430.

Spain is a country where religion has been crucial for centuries. The popular image inevitably entails passionate, if not fanatical, devotion to the Catholic faith, and that image is played out in one dramatic historical event after another. Every school child knows that Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a passage to India, but he also was to convert any heathen he found on the way. That child also has learned that the mandate of the Spanish Armada that sailed for England in 1588 again involved militant religious conviction. Although the Eighty Years War which began in 1568 in the Low Countries was in reality a struggle too complex to be reduced to religious terms, its intricate politics were played out in terms of religion, and unquestionably the struggle often pitted Catholic Spaniards against Protestant Netherlanders. And finally that metaphor par excellence, the Spanish Inquisition, has served for nearly half a millennium as a symbol of repressive authoritarianism masquerading as piety.

My point is that Spain’s political and cultural history is deeply entangled with religion, both in reality and in mythic image. From its inception as a nation in 1492, when King Fernando and Queen Isabel conquered the last Muslim realm of Granada, expelled the Jews, and set Columbus afloat, until its self-revision in the 1980’s as a newly tolerant member of the European Community, religion has been the crucible on which Spain’s national identity was forged.

Given the prominence of religion within the political history of the Iberian peninsula, naturally there have long been publications on the more notorious issues like expulsions, wars with the infidel, or the Inquisition. Yet focus on these global conflicts has tended to imply that within the peninsula there existed a monolithic Roman faith by 1500, whereas in reality conflict and diversity flourished among Catholic Spaniards for more than a century after 1492. Certainly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the development of a variety of perspectives within the peninsula, and there were moments when there seemed to be as many competing brands of Catholicism in Spain as there were internecine sub-sets of Protestantism in Britain or Germany. Disappointingly for the scholar who has sought information on these more specialized Spanish groups, however, well-researched studies on them have been hard to find in English until quite recently.

Therefore Alastair Hamilton’s Heresy and Mysticism in Sixteenth-Century Spain: The Alumbrados is a welcome addition to the bibliography on particular facets of Spain’s rich ecclesiastical history. Thanks to Hamilton’s meticulous refinements, we can not only become acquainted with the movement called alumbradismo, but we can also distinguish between different generations of alumbrados, discovering nuances of philosophy and appreciating shifts of allegiance.

Who were the alumbrados ? Men and women who were “illuminated by the Holy Spirit” were part of several movements that began in Guadalajara around 1512. Their activity as a group endured for at least a century, but by the 1620’s their momentum had largely died out, dissipated amidst charges of fraudulence and imposture; alternatively it could be argued that by the third decade of the seventeenth century the alumbrados had simply become focused on issues that were fatally marginal to the original reformists and mystics. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see also that the sixteenth-century alumbrados who exhibited their mystical piety through trances, ecstasies, visions and levitations were playing a dangerous game in dangerous times. Spain was far from a stable politically when their movement came about. To a country that was still grappling with the results of the conquest of a large population of Muslims (whose conversion to Christianity had been obligatory), that had a sizable Jewish population (perpetually suspected of crypto-Judaizing practices after their forced conversions), the further threat of Lutheran heresy from Northern Europe in the sixteenth century placed an almost unbearable strain upon the social fabric. The alumbrados were reformers, and they did emphasize simplicity and the importance of a state of pure faith, which led to accusations that they also claimed to have no need of the sacraments of the Church. A newly-invented Spain was still negotiating the limits of its political and religious tolerance, and in this climate the individualism and antinomianism so sensationalistically displayed by the alumbrados left that group vulnerable to accusations of heresy. New Christians, that peculiarly Spanish term for recent converts from Jewish or Muslim faiths, came under suspicion of heresy whenever hostility surfaced towards their circle, and these antagonisms led quite predictably to accusations of Lutheranism, Judaism, and fraudulent conversion whenever the nuevo cristiano or converso embraced the marginal creed of alumbradismo.

Although Hamilton’s book is short, it contains an abundance of references to phenomena that will pique the interest of social historians. A substantial number of alumbradas were charismatic women, such as Isabel de la Cruz or Mariá de Cazalla, both of whom proselytized intensively and gained an impressive number of followers. Nor were their followers always drawn from the margins: their supporters sometimes included members of the higher nobility, making it clear that marginality in such a changeable situation was both fluid and relative. Mariá de Cazalla, for example, was a favorite of the Duke of Infantado’s wife and of his daughter-in-law the Countess of Saldaña; she also had a brother who entered the Franciscan order and was made chaplain to Cardinal Cisneros and eventually became visitor of the archbishopric of Toledo.

So is this a book that explores the flow of energy between the centers and peripheries of life in sixteenth-century Spain, lingering on the details of the lives of particular women, New Christians, or other individuals who did not enjoy a central position of power? No, it is not. Hamilton’s text is short, economical and rigorously focused on characters and events that could be seen as major within a traditional political history. Its strong points are its organization, clarity, and refinement of various cliches. But it does not seek to overturn standard tenets of siglo de oro history. Instead, we see those tenets supported by new examples: we find fresh instances of the well-known fear of novedades or novelty, additional citations of the well-established mistrust of humanism, more cases of misgivings about free intellectual inquiry. Because these unfamiliar particulars are often drawn from the ranks of the alumbrados, we learn more about that group, but we do not learn anything terribly surprising about the intellectual atmosphere that surrounded it.

No single study, and certainly no study of the brevity of Heresy and Mysticism in Sixteenth-Century Spain, can hope to satisfy the diverse personal interests of all readers in the 1990s. For some the book will stand as a reference work rather than an interpretive creation, and that stance will come as a disappointment. Feminist scholars may wish that the high proportion of female alumbradas had been given more emphatic study, just as students who prefer an interdisciplinary approach may find the work narrow in its traditional definition of history. Yet this clear and consistent focus is also the study’s strength. As a reference work, however slender, it can always be mined by future readers with wider, more adventurous interests. For the time being, the work makes an excellent beginning: it brings a neglected area of religious history into sharper focus, it provides bibliography for further exploration, it lays a judicious foundation for later work without dictating that work’s direction. Whether Hamilton’s cool, distant, dispassionate, objectifying tone does justice to the practitioners of dejamiento or ecstatic abandonment is a question that inevitably arises, but it will have to be answered by a different scholar and a different book.