From Burgos to the Inquisition and the Aztecs

A Mulligan in Burgos

We came to Burgos by bus. Mom’s right pinky toe looks like a particularly lurid crime scene, so she’s not able to walk without pain and discomfort. One of the hospitaleros at the albergue, a kindly older man, was actually a doctor, and early this morning he drained Mom’s toe of pus, leaving in the thread so that it would not close up. He wrapped it in what little gauze and tape Mom had, but deemed the tape “for Barbie” and told her to find something better.  He told her not to walk on it.

Given the time we have left, we have decided to follow something like the advice Elmore Leonard gave about the secret to his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Like more than a few pilgrims, we will leave out the walk between Burgos to Leon, giving a miss to the hot, dry, flat, industrial landscape in between. We haven’t been able to sustain the average of 16 miles a day – and no stops in great cities or areas of interest – that traveling 500 miles in 30 days would require, so we’re going to give ourselves a mulligan.

The albergue in Burgos is the best one yet. It’s a new, clean building situated a block from the impressive Gothic cathedral. Beds are bunked in two pairs, along galleys, with storage lockers between the pairs. Each bed has a personal light and an electrical outlet. There’s a computer area (Burgos itself has wi-fi, though it’s not user-friendly), a kitchen, lockers for boots, storage for bikes, and a rooftop patio to dry clothes on.

The Cathedral in Burgos

Burgos is a beautiful little town. The centerpiece is the magnificent, two-tower Gothic cathedral. Once inside, I took a lot of pictures, but my mind was on Spain’s troubled history of religious intolerance. When I think about Spain, I think often of the Inquisition, that engine of forced conversions of Jews and Muslims, and of the destruction of a great civilization, that of the Spanish Moors and Jewry. I think of the destruction of rich civilizations like the Inca and Aztec, including the forcible conversion, or brainwashing, done to indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Spain is a land where religious intolerance has often joined up with state power for deadly consequences.

Spain, the site of holy pilgrimages and so many magnificent cathedrals, has a very troubled relationship with the use of religion as a weapon – not against terror, but as part of it. (This brings to mind Borat’s full-throated cry, at a Virginia rodeo that had given him a microphone, “We support your war of terror!”)

Inquisition and Auto da Fé

The Inquisition, that death-party brought to you by the same people (power couple Ferdinand and Isabella) who brought genocide to the Caribbean and South America, squarely straddles the middle of the Camino de Santiago’s thousand-year history. Indeed, Ferdinand el Catolico and Isabella el Catolico walked part of the Camino themselves. In 1574, Santiago de Compostela itself was granted a permanent inquisitorial tribunal, which was a license to print money.

So I wonder, in the decades around 1500, say, what did pilgrims on the path think of the Jews and Muslims being forcibly converted (conversos), exiled, and even helping to define a new term, auto da fe, which means, roughly, “to burn at the stake”. Guess what “auto da fe” means literally?

Act of faith.

The immolation of a supposed heretic, you see, was as an act of faith. A godly act, as it were.

Meanwhile, cathedrals were being built, in part, with money taken from Jews accused of heresy.  Not surprisingly, those accused skewed heavily toward the wealthy. Without its own budget, the Inquisition depended exclusively on confiscating the wealth of the denounced. This is what we now call a perverse incentive.

Only a few decades later, Martin Luther would protest such abuses of the Catholic Church and help to launch what is now called Protestantism. But his manifesto against the church was more concerned with its sale of indulgences, to the rich, to purchase the remission of punishment for sins. His “Ninety-Five Theses”, legendarily nailed to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, included a query as to why the Pope would take the money of poor people to build his basilica, but made no mention of the use of Jews as torches.

“Why does the pope,” he asked, “whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Luther believed that since the sinners had already been forgiven by God, imposing a fee to allow them to avoid earthly penance was wrong. Luther also objected to a saying attributed to Dominican friar Johann Tetzel, a salesman of indulgences, that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [or “into heaven”] springs.” But only fifty years after the lesser Shoah (what Jews call the Holocaust) that was the Inquisition, Luther was still calling the Jews “the devil’s people”.

The Church allowed those who walked the Camino (and other pilgrimage routes) to earn remission of punishment for sins. Sometimes, a pilgrim was ordered by the Church to walk the Camino as penance. Today in Flanders, part of Belgium, juvenile delinquents are still encouraged to walk the Camino as part of their rehabilitation.

Nowadays, there have been innovations of the sort you’d expect of a sophisticated capitalist society. Nowadays, there are churches, usually individual pastors, and almost exclusively located in the United States, who make millions not from sales of forgiveness, but from telling people God wants them to make millions, and he, the pastor, can show them how to earn God’s grace by becoming a millionaire first.

Aztec Gold

Julio noted that some of the cathedral’s artifacts of pure gold listed their origin, simply, as “Mexico”. There was no explanation for how the gold had come into Spanish hands, but history tells us it involved a great deal of blood.

The Indians’ own chronicles tell of appearance of Pedro de Alvarado in the patio of the main temple in Tenochtitlan. The chronicles mention the first rituals of a fiesta that was being celebrated, how “song was linked to song”, and then they describe the Spaniards’ entrance into the sacred patio:

They ran in among the dancers, forcing their way to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor.

They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some of them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.

They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails all spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entrails. No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape.

So this is what I was thinking as I walked through the cathedral and saw portrait after portrait of Mary cradling her dead son, saw the dramatic, bloody wounds to his feet, hands, and side, all carefully painted in by the artists.  Such tenderness, such compassion, side-by-side with the genocide of a people and its culture. The mind boggles at the rationalizations required to reconcile the two, but then man has never lacked the ability to tell himself two simultaneous, contradictory stories.

It’s something I catch myself doing almost every day. The only solution to this habit of mind is simply to keep watching it.

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One thought on “From Burgos to the Inquisition and the Aztecs

  1. Just finished teaching the Aztecs and the Spanish conquest. It’s shocking what people will do in the name of religion.

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