- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006


By James Reston Jr.

Doubleday, $27.95, 363 pages, illus.


In our test-happy times, a relevance test for a heavy history might rate how much it resonates with us, while a roller-coaster quotient would measure the heights of a text’s thrills and depth of its terrors. On all these counts give five stars to the fiercely titled “Dogs of God,” which surveys a period that culminates in what James Reston Jr. calls the most important year of the last millennium, 1492.

Not just the year of the nominal “discovery” of America, 1492 marked a cascade of epochal events in Spain: the end of eight centuries of the Moors’ presence there, the rising terror of the Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from that land and, looking forward, the emergence of Spain as a proto-modern nation-state.

The year had obvious importance for the New World, which was amply populated by diverse, inventive and culturally accomplished peoples. After 1492 the western hemisphere would never be the same thanks to twin European scourges, one of them intended and the other by chance and fate, namely colonization and epidemic disease.

Likewise in Spain, the dynamic social and political equilibrium among Christians, Muslims and Jews passed the tipping point. Thanks to that seemingly parochial event Europe would never be the same — and would not have been even if the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria had sailed off the edge of the known world and never returned.

The convergence of these disparate events and trends, along with the intention to prove their connections, is evident in Mr. Reston’s telling subtitle: “Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors.” The defeat and ouster of the Moors enabled Spain’s monarchs to begin consolidating their realm and peoples; to this end they wove a set of policies and institutions (namely, the Inquisition) into new fabric. Then as they tested their mettle against other kingdoms and the papacy, they grubstaked an adventurer who sailed to new continents that would enrich his patrons and earn Spain’s membership in the first rank of European powers.

These feats were achieved by one of the great couples in political history, Isabella and Ferdinand, she politically savvy, personally wily and charismatic, he militarily deft, personally brave and charismatic. In their rise and exercise of power, each seems a titan; in tandem they made a juggernaut.

Each was courageous and lucky; witness Ferdinand survived having his head split “four fingers deep” by a Moorish assassin’s scimitar. If Isabella were the smarter of the two, perhaps that was the edge she needed to rule in a man’s world.

In any case, her political maneuverings and her consort’s military coups are thrilling, even cinematic, as Mr. Reston relates them. While on the way up, they could be played by Katherine Zita-Jones and Brad Pitt. Once on top, they’re Hepburn and O’Toole.

Until they came along, Spain was a ragtag collection of fiefdoms where one man in 10 could claim nobility. It was a religious and ethnic patchwork as well. The Moors’ dominance of Iberia peaked in the ninth century yet began eight centuries of intellectual flowering and commerce thanks to a tradition of tolerance. Since Islam respected Christ and the patriarchs, the Moors accommodated Christians and Jews alike. All these children of Abraham practiced their religions as they saw fit and prospered.

As the Moors’ hegemony shrunk to a toehold in Granada, Christians gained the ascendancy, while Jews maintained high social and economic status. Both Ferdinand and Isabella had Jewish blood, and perhaps Columbus too. Thoroughly integrated into the Spanish fabric, over the centuries many Jewish families converted, formally at least.

The climate changed during these monarchs’ reign as Spain became more predominately Catholic and as the papacy played more politics. Religious orders arose such as the Dominicans, so-called “hounds of God” eager to hunt down heresy. The pope revived a benign church office, that of the Inquisitor, to seek out nonconformity. Convicted heretics’ wealth (which among many Jews was considerable) was forfeited to the crown. Almost inevitably, a zealot went to the head of the pack: Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor.

A Sunday paper is hardly the place to describe the horrors Torquemada wrecked in the name of religious purity. Suffice it that a person suspected of heresy (that is, anything other than Roman Catholicism) was interrogated until he admitted guilt and was burned at the stake. If he did not confess or if heresy was “half proven,” torture was the approved resort — torture only with prescribed instruments because priests were admonished not to draw blood.

“When the rack did not produce the desired result,” Mr. Reston writes, “the churchmen turned to the water torture.” The prisoner was tied head downwards on an incline, his mouth forced open and covered with a cloth, then water was “poured over the cloth … until in gagging and choking the victim nearly asphyxiated. The terror of suffocation was extreme, and the processes was repeated … until the victim was ready to confess.”

Horrifying as it sounds, how familiar this rings: The very method some U.S. agencies are accused to have used to get “intel” from suspected terrorists.

The terror spread, a contagion. Zealotry seized the church and the court while tangential forces converged, among them the race with Portugal for a sea route to the orient. And when inquisitors fell short in purifying Spain, another solution was found: To cleanse her realm, the queen banished all Jews who failed to make perfect conversions to the Catholic faith and sent them packing in the Sephardic diaspora.

Mr. Reston summarizes a finale: Christopher Columbus, ambitious and cheeky, “knew how to adapt his grandiose dreams to the timbre of the court. If Spanish Christianity was on the verge of the final apocalyptic battle with Spanish Islam, his proposal could add to the glory of a Christian victory.

“As Spain [had been] reconquered for Christianity, so a New World might be unveiled in the dawning of a new golden age.

“In a cosmic drama, Discovery [of new realms] must join Reconquest and Purification [of Spain]. Together, the three fitted into the new heaven and the new earth that was promised in the book of Revelation. Ferdinand, Torquemada, and Columbus were to be the queen’s — and God’s — instruments in this passion play.”

If his adventure succeeded, Columbus promised Isabella to “fund a glorious new crusade to the Holy Land and wrest the holy Christian sites from the infidel.”

Mr. Reston presents one relevant and ominous object lesson in showing a domino effect at work, the process by which one aggressive initiative led to another until people of God behaved like satanic beasts in God’s name.

Another lesson is his demonstration of how awfully the great power of government can be applied when the governors believe themselves dedicated to what they consider the true faith. Personally, as a practicing Christian in 21st-century America, I find this scarier than Hell.

Mr. Reston falls short in some respects. Although listing a bibliography, his text offers no notes and few attributions of facts and quotes. Also, credit lines name the owners of the illustrations but not their origins; the ghastly drawings of torture which look almost modern would carry more weight if they were identified as genuine.

Be that as it may, “Dogs of God” is the last of Mr. Reston’s four books that “focused on stories of … history which have great resonance for the present day, questions of science and faith, of millennial expectations and fears, of clashes between civilizations and faiths.”

The conflict between the Catholic monarchs of 15th-century Spain and the Moorish caliphs of Granada was “a holy war… . Its ferocity and passion were no less than that of the Crusades or, for that matter, of the conflict that has been allowed to develop in the Middle East today, between the West and the Arab world, between Christianity and Islam.” Let us hope that the future’s history books about our times have less grim tales to tell.

Philip Kopper’s books include “The National Museum of Natural History” and “The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians.”

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