Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book 96: Dogs of God

Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston, Jr.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book - the author says he considers this "the last of a quartet . . . all have focused on stories of ancient and medieval history which have great resonance for the present day, questions of science and faith, of millenial expectations and fears, of clashes between civilizations and faiths. All four books have peered into dark corners of Christian Church history" (339). Part of me really wants to read these other books because they sound like they are about interesting topics, Galileo, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (probably helps that I just read about his parents in Eleanor of Aquitaine), and Europe in 1000 (okay, that one I'm less interested in). However, I'm not sure if I'm interested in reading more by this author, even if his topics might sound interesting.

I admit, I thought it was just me - I kept drifting off in thought while reading this, and would then realize that I'd just read two or three pages without actually absorbing any information. Maybe I was just distracted while reading this - however, at some point, I think, it might also be the fault of the book that I kept letting myself get distracted.

In the book, Restin traces three events that all cumulated in the year 1492 - the reconquest of southern Spain (Granada and the such) from the Moors, the Spanish Inquisition leading to the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus's voyage to the Americas. The uniting theme between all of these is religion, and a certain view of empire. For the most part this book is very educational, and there was quite a bit going on in the fifty-some years that this books spans. However, at some point, it also just felt like there could have been a bit more analysis. It is rather odd - in some ways, I feel like he certainly judged certain people and their actions, and in other instances, it seemed like he was just giving us the opinion of the sources. He describes one of the Moorish leaders as a traitor and a coward (obviously, the guy's action speak for themselves but still I was surprised to hear him described/condemned in such terms, mostly the coward part). There were also a few other things where I could have used more of a "why does this matter?" - granted, I may have just missed some of the explanations when I started zoning out. He explains the Inquisition and its process very well, and I understood that much of it had to do with money - for everyone condemned, the crown would get some money, the judge doing the condemning would get money so I understand some of the motivation behind it. However, there was also an obvious religious motivation behind it since Church members pressured and convinced Isabella to do this: still, I don't think I ever quite got how having people that said they were Christians but were less than devout was actually hurting anyone . . . yes, I know, different times but I just wanted more on this. Or how people could possibly think the judge could dispense justice when he would benefit from condemning people. Also, I would have liked to know why Isabella kept turning to stricter and stricter churchmen at different times. Restin explains the appeal of one of them, but how did the rest gain their important positions, and why did she not want to listen to the more tolerant men?

Though Columbus was the first figure in the title, he actually takes a backseat to the other events. While Isabella and Ferdinand were obviously devout and saw themselves as Christian leaders, to the point where they felt certain prophecies applied to them, they were also very narrow-minded as a result, and used their religious ideology and vision to betray and break treaties and promises they had made regarding tolerance. Of all the people described in the book, most of them appear in a very unflattering light, with the exception of Isabella, Isaac Abranvel (a high ranking Jew affected by the expulsion) and Columbus. Columbus spends the last six years of the war against the Moors attempting to get money for his voyage, and it is only after the war is over, that the monarchs finally agree to finance him, all with the idea of spreading Christianity.

There was one statement towards the end of the book that kind of bugged me and it was about the crew men that had gotten syphilis from the women of Cuba and Hispaniola: "[they] had no resistance to the young women with beautiful bodies who welcomed them" (306). Yes, I'm sure all of these women attempted to seduce the white foreigners, and not a single one of them was coerced or raped on this first voyage of discovery. I'm sure there was some consensual sex before the people realized what was in store for them but I doubt that all of it was. And no, I don't know why that sentence struck me of all the other things in the book.

One other thing: since this book covers over fifty years, there are a ton of people that make appearances. Some of them barely seem important, but there definitely are a lot of names to keep track of as the favorites in the courts change. As I said, overall, it was educational, and probably a good introduction to this time in history. However, I would see this as more of an introduction to the topic, and possibly supplement it with other books for a more analytical view of history.

1 comment:

The Millers said...

I was just reading Atlas Shrugged and thought of you. You remind me a bit of Dagny Taggart, but less harsh. You have that same intensity! I am glad things are going well for you! We miss having you here though.