Whose Modernity? Spain, Inquisition, Empire, and the Quest for Certainty.
Most scholars of “modernity” sustain that the Reformation and the European expansion to the Americas called into question age-old certainties about nature and the authority of texts, the Bible included. Traditional certainties about the cosmos, humanity, and religion came crumbling down. Skepticism about scriptural and human authority created space for religious tolerance. Spain, however, stands as the antithesis of this liberal narrative of the “origins of modernity.” Spaniards not only expelled Jews and Muslims, but they also created an Inquisition both to identify “false” converts and to enforce religious dogma. Worse, the Spanish colonization of America allowed fanatical friars to seek to eliminate indigenous religions. There was no room for skepticism, doubt, and tolerance. In this narrative, early-modern Spain becomes modernity’s foil. In The Quest for Certainty in Early Modern Europe: From Inquisition to Inquiry, 1550–1700, however, the editors, Barbara Fuchs and Mercedes Garcia-Arenal, maintain that radical forms of skepticism and doubt did flourish in Spain, creating forms of political and religious “modernity” not unlike that experienced in northern European societies, Black Legend narratives notwithstanding.
Many contributors in The Quest for Certainty explore in great detail one particular argument, namely, that the mounting conflict of Catholicism with Islam and Judaism in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain created a culture rent by epistemological doubt. The continuous effort to convert Jews and Muslims exposed the population to the theological underpinnings of the three scriptural religions, eliciting constant reflection on belief. The very forces that triggered skepticism and a crisis of certainty in the European Reformation created doubt one century earlier in Spain. Forced conversion, in turn, generated doubt and a growing demand to differentiate false outward pieties from true inner conviction.
From the picaresque novel El Lazarillo to El Quijote, discerning the difference between testimony and truth became a central cultural concern.
Reading emotions became a way to assess the credibility of the accused in inquisition trials. Inquisitors read witnesses for tale-tell emotions. Theater, however, revealed that emotions could be staged. The rise of the theater created a market for verisimilitude and representation; so too did staging inquisitorial testimonies. Yet evidence and testimony could not plumb the depths of the “true” self. Deception and performance promoted skepticism and a deeply pessimistic understanding of the polity and human nature.
Stoicism and Probabilism became a solution to this Baroque morass of illusions and appearances. The second half of The Quest for Certainty explores the rise of “moral certainty,” a novel epistemological category that allowed theologians, moralists, and historians to integrate human testimony into the realm of the probable. Moral certainty was admittedly a shaky foundation upon which to reach metaphysical certainty but it was good enough to build pragmatic solutions to knowledge and governance.
Probabilism flourished in the Iberian Peninsula as a way to navigate a cacophony of potentially contradictory moral positions that could be supported by “nature” and at least one textual “authority.” Take, for example, abortion. Aristotelian natural philosophy had determined that embryos were “ensouled” or “animated” forty days after the father’s seed had “activated” maternal “matter.” Baptism was morally required only after ensoulment. Yet new early-modern theories of conception and matter called into question these scholastic theories and opened up new moral debates on requirements when to baptize miscarried or aborted fetuses. Many moral “probable” positions became both debatable and admissible.
Recourse to “moral certainty” led church magistrates to accept human testimony to validate objects and human remains worshiped by communities as sacred relics. New early-modern epistemologies also put a premium on the accumulation of empirical evidence, even permeating debates over the authenticity of relics and cults of saints. Such emphasis on empirical evidence also colored the way painters sought to present sacred images. Baroque painters put the new sciences of perspective, anatomy, and microscopy to good use to reproduce realistically sacred images. These images, in turn, could work as evidence of the sacred. Or not. Images could work either as evidence for truth or deception in belief.
This world of ambiguous evidence and moral certainty was built on the back of paperwork to validate human testimony before the law. Human testimony was flimsy, a likely distorted, biased reflection of the truth. Notarized testimonies had more credibility. The greater the number of witnesses in testimonies, the better. Proper use of judicially approved ways of collecting testimonies (number and procedure) increased moral certainty in probabilistic debates over relics. It was also central to the discerning of guilt in inquisitorial trials. In an age in which isolation and quarantine was the only effective remedy to curb the spread of plagues, towns tracked the spread of deadly diseases by obtaining as many notarized testimonies of neighboring communities and passersby as possible,
In the Introduction, Garcia-Arenal offers a thoughtful reflection on the problem of certainty and doubt in early modern Spain. Most individual essays, however, appear disconnected from her larger historiographical reflections. Many of the essays introduce larger Catholic geographies, including France and Italy. The Indies, however, are completely absent in this volume. What about the epistemological challenge of a previously unknown continent, America, to classical and medieval textual authorities?
But sixteenth-century America was more than an epistemological quandary; it also proved an enormous challenge to the pursuit of certainty in governance. Arndt Brendecke has argued that the goal of governing the Indies was to promote rivalries among different corporate groups to maintain legitimacy in a polity that was too far away. Rivalry encouraged constant reporting. The crown was kept informed while constantly bombarded by rhetorical exaggeration. The accumulation of biased information, not pragmatic truth, was the true objective of governing the Indies. This edited volume, unfortunately, misses an opportunity to explore America’s challenges to The Quest for Certainty.