I was in university when I first discovered a passion for the Middle Ages. I loved studying mediaeval philosophy, history, and literature; in particular, I found a course on mediaeval Jewish history. I became obsessed with the world of Jews in the Middle Ages, imagining myself to be the daughter of a wealthy Spanish moneylender, or a poor Jew expelled from Europe, wandering with my family looking for a home. But in the twenty years or so since then, I've rarely thought about mediaeval times.
That is, until I read Erna Paris's latest book, The End of Days, which examines the history of Jews in Spain from the Dark Ages to the Inquisition and their eventual expulsion from Spain in 1492. As I read it, I was thrust back to my university days and my studies of mediaeval times, and then further back-back to the streets of Cordoba, Granada, and Saragossa. Back to a time when Jews were considered to be evil devil-worshippers who had to convert to Christianity or face burning at the stake at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.
Paris recreates that world with a keen eye, capturing the spirit, presence, and physical detail of a country gone mad, lost in an zealous craze to annihilate the Jews. She has done her work well. Like previous books such as Unhealed Wounds: France and The Klaus Barbie Affair and The Garden and the Gun: A Journey inside Israel, The End of Days is a detailed undertaking that is brought alive by Paris's passion for research and description.
Though she considers herself a journalist not a historian, she spent five years researching the book, travelling and visiting historical sites in Spain as well as spending hundreds of hours in libraries there and at the University of Toronto. She quotes from some of the most fascinating fifteenth-century documents that detail the world of Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisitor-General who wreaked terror in the hearts of ordinary men and women, who in turn felt they had no choice but to turn on their fellow-citizens.
She writes with the tension and skill of a mystery writer and the precision of a historian. She has painstakingly woven layer upon layer of detail into her accounts of mediaeval Spain. Comparisons have been made between her latest work and Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, a masterpiece of mediaeval history. Both these books, both based on solid research, are so good at conveying the feel of the periods they cover that they read like novels.
Paris, who calls herself a secular Jew, uses her cultural and religious identity as a lens to explore good and evil. That unique perspective fires her words, making the story she tells leap off the page.
She writes in the chapter called "Murder In The Cathedral": "The converso nobility of Saragossa did not have to wait before the Inquisition also reached their city. Torquemada appointed two inquisitors for the city: Gaspar Juglar and Pedro de Arubues alias Pedro de Epila, a canon of the Seo cathedral. Within days of their arrival, a full inquisitorial court was in place.
"Terror insinuated itself into the sumptuous, private palaces that lined the streets of Saragossa. Men and women eyed one another, their servants and their neighbours with trepidation, for it was rumoured that Inquisitor Pedro de Arubues was paying for information and hiring dozens of local familiars to spy...
"Arubues and Juglar wasted no time arresting and convicting their first prisoners; just six days after their appointment...they held their first auto-da-fè in the Seo cathedral. Four people-a married couple and two women-were led into the street barefoot, wearing the penitent's yellow robe of shame. One was convicted of eating meat on Fridays during Lent; another was condemned for fasting on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. All four were `reconciled' to the church. Their property was confiscated, they and their descendants were forbidden to hold public office, and they were ordered to wear the robe whenever they appeared out of doors.
"On June 3, 1484, a second auto-da-fè was held in the patio of the archbishop's house next door to the cathedral. Maestre Pedro de Arubues officiated, but this time the citizens of Saragossa were exposed to the full terror of the death sentence. Two men and one woman were condemned to the fire, the woman for giving clothes to `twelve poor Jews in honour of the twelve tribes of Israel.'...
"The powerful conversos of Saragossa quickly understood that they and their families had become the object of a deadly hunt. If they could not stop the Inquisition legally with the support of the old Christian nobility, they knew they were lost."
It is high praise to Paris's skill as a writer that although the reader knows the inevitable outcome of the Inquisition, The End of Days grips the reader so thoroughly. And her eye for detail helps bind the reader to the book. For example: "It was May 1484 and a white-hot sun scorched the desert plains of Aragon. From the walls of the city of Teruel, guards watched a retinue of men approach slowly on horseback. Two of them were dressed in long clerical robes; the rest seemed to be retainers.
"The guards alerted the city councilmen who had been waiting for this moment. The priests on horseback were known to them; they were inquisitors appointed to Teruel by Tomas de Torquemada, Inquisitor-General of the Holy Office, and it was common knowledge that they had been ordered to stay in Teruel until every abominable heretic was arrested and brought to trial.
"The city fathers-both old Christians and new-had prepared themselves to resist this flagrant assault on their independence. Torquemada was a foreigner, from Castile, and they did not like foreigners, especially those who were apparently licensed to impose frightening new laws that were not of their making."
Using this bounty of material, Paris more than effectively traces the roots of the hatred of Jews in mediaeval Spain to economic and social factors and to floods, famine, and plague, in particular, the Black Death. From there to the fires of the auto-da-fè is not far in Paris's eyes. Nor is it difficult to trace the long tentacles from the anti-Semitism and racism of mediaeval times to modern society. The picture Paris paints of the journey then and now isn't pretty.
She writes of a pogrom in the making: "The Jews of Valencia have asked for and received a promise of protection from their local authorities should the violence spread to their city, but all the same the stillness of this Sunday noon harbours a watchful edge of dread. Jews have lived here in Valencia since the time of the Romans, coexisting peacefully with Christians and Moors. But for the past year or so a local Dominican priest, Vincente Ferrer, has persistently called for their conversion and the destruction of Judaism itself, just like Ferran Martinez in Seville.
"Everyone is in high spirits as they begin to march toward the main entrance of the juderia, or Jewish quarter, at the Figera Gate shouting at bystanders to join them.
"Within minutes the swollen procession has reached the main entrance of the quarter. The young people shriek goading insults at the tops of their voices. `The archdeacon of Seville is coming to baptize you!' they shout mockingly as a few of their leaders push their way through the hate.
"Hearing the shouting, the Jews leave their tables abruptly. Quickly they lock the gates to the juderia, but-God help them-a few of the ringleaders are accidentally shut inside. One of these is struck during the commotion.
" `Help, they're murdering me!' he screams.
"Word spreads through the city like fire. A Christian child is being murdered by Jews..."
And so the pogrom begins, growing, fuelling itself, until there is nothing left. "On June 14, 1391, a report from the municipality of Valencia confirms that every survivor of the pogrom has been baptized-except those still in hiding. By August the flames of pogrom have spread across all of Castile and Aragon. Thousands of Jews are dead. Their communities are destroyed entirely:
"They will never recover."
This fiery dance around the maypole of death in mediaeval Spain is not so different, Paris argues, from the Nazis' final solution or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or anywhere in the world today where racism raises its ugly head.
But there are lessons to be learned. There was a time when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in complete harmony. Paris points to the lessons we can learn from the Moors who ruled Spain in the Dark Ages. Leaders in that time nurtured a tolerant atmosphere in which the three religious communities co-existed in peace. Jews had a valued place in society. And it wasn't until the Christians took over and felt the need to dehumanize and devalue the Jews that the Inquisition took hold. In tracing this sad progression Paris shows how easy it is for all of humanity, even the noblest among us, to let racism take root. There is only way course of action to combat this fatal seed: personal vigilance.
"If any truth has emerged during the course of my research," Paris writes in her concluding chapters, "it is that the expectation of ideological or political stasis is the most dangerous naiveté of all. Spanish society altered very slowly, almost invisibly, until an ethos that had prevailed for almost eight hundred years was undermined-or, more to the point, was finally seen to have been undermined. Those who found themselves excluded in this seemingly sudden shift were unprepared; they had not seen. In Germany, a social transformation that was in process for more than a century realized its apotheosis with Adolf Hitler, but there are still those who claim the Führer was an aberration. In France, the pendulum set swinging by the Revolution careened to the nationalist right a century later during the Dreyfus Affair, after which four decades of unrelenting and anti-Semitic, anti-democratic propaganda prepared people for an easy acceptance of the collaborationist Pétain government in 1940-the very land where minority emancipation had been born."
Debra Black is a feature writer for the Life section of the Toronto Star . She interviewed Erna Paris last year for the Star.