Heretics and Heroes

How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
Unabridged Audiobook Download

Heretics and Heroes book cover
Add Heretics and Heroes to Goodreads

From the inimitable bestselling author Thomas Cahill, another popular history—this one focusing on how the innovations of the Renaissance and the Reformation changed the Western world. A truly revolutionary book.
In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of the Renaissance and the Reformation (the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western world would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Death, Cahill traces the many developments in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past.  It is an era of just-discovered continents and previously unknown peoples. More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance if the West is to continue.


"It's hard to imagine a more palpable or engaging history of venal popes and the horrific torture and burning of heretics in the 1500s than Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, the sixth in his Hinges of History Series. Cahill is our king of popular historians, and rightly so. He is eminently learned and wise, fluent in several languages, and opinionated and unsparing in his view of history. . . . In a little over 300 pages, Cahill encapsulates several dozen major artistic, political and ecclesiastical figures across a spread of several centuries. He touches on so many subjects, is so knowledgeable on everything he touches on, is so pithy and sharp, it doesn’t matter if you know a little, a lot or nothing at all about Renaissance art or Northern Europe’s rocky break from Catholic Rome. Cahill, you feel, would be the ideal dinner or driving companion. In spirit and in narrative strategy, he’s the modern equivalent of popular journalist-historians like John Hersey, Jim Bishop and Walter Lord, who brought factual insight into events blanketed by popular myth." The Dallas Morning News

"Cahill is a felicitous writer. . . . [H]is erudition is impressive and engaging. No reader will doubt his enthusiasm for or knowledge of great Renaissance masters such as Donatello, Masaccio and Botticelli, as well as the freakishly talented Leonardo and that ruffian Caravaggio. Almost as important, Heretics and Heroes is illustrated in a lavish and handsome fashion. Anyone looking for a refresher on Renaissance art . . . or on Reformation conflicts and the subsequent wars of religion could do far worse than to pick up this breezy but reliable guide." The Washington Post

"The writing is crisp, conversational, and matched by very few non-fiction writers out there today. The great achievement of Heretics and Heroes is Cahill's seemingly effortless illumination of the Renaissance and the Reformation. I have learned a lot from what Cahill has done here." —James S. Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, and author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

"Cahill cheerfully explains the enduring value of the Renaissance and Reformation movements to 21st century Western principles, injecting humor and a conversational style into well-written and easily accessible chapters centering on controversial issues and mesmerizing personalities. . . . Well-chosen illustrations and discreetly placed asides clarify his arguments. . . . Cahill writes passionately about the era’s transformational art, the unexpected benefits of the Black Plague, and the intellectual struggles over secular and papal power, resulting in an entertaining yet thought-provoking examination of Western civilization." Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Cahill sets his delightfully analytic mind to the major transformations prompted by the Renaissance and Reformation . . . [he] makes it seem so simple to connect the dots, as the 14th through 16th centuries witnessed changes to every facet and walk of life--from the expulsion of the Moors in Spain to the emergence of nations and massive religious upheaval. The breadth of Cahill's knowledge and his jocular style of writing make for a remarkable book."Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Chapter I

Innovation on Sea and Land

Winter completes an age
With its thorough levelling;
Heaven’s tourbillions of rage
Abolish the watchman’s tower
And delete the cedar grove.
As winter completes an age,
The eyes huddle like cattle, doubt
Seeps into the pores and power
Ebbs from the heavy signet ring;
The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone,
Cold the heart and cold the stove,
Ice condenses on the bone:
Winter completes an age.

Thus the perspicacious W. H. Auden in For the Time Being. Like seasons, ages are seldom so precise as to end abruptly, while allowing another age to commence. Few events of European history have been as final as the Black Death in bringing to an end one age (which we might call the Innocently Playful Medieval) and bringing into view another (which we might call the Colder Late ­Medieval–Early Renaissance). But even at this interstice, old forms and old mental states hang on, while new forms and new mental states peek uncertainly into view. Locality often determines how boldly or timidly the new will come to supplant the old; and localities can find their integrity, even their ancient right to existence, open to question. (“This village has always been crown territory.” “But which crown, ­En­gland’s or France’s?” “Which religion, Christian or Muslim?” “Oh, and where, pray, is the boundary stone, the definitive separation between Us and Them?”)

At such a crossroads, it is difficult if not impossible to see much farther than one’s nose: the watchman’s tower is down and the prophet’s lantern out. Those who occupy traditional seats of power—­those who use signet ­rings—­may begin to find their perches less stable and secure, more open to question. The ordinary bloke, the commoner attempting to make his way in the world, is all too likely to experience a new if vague sense of unease, of doubt seeping into his pores like unhealthy air. It is not a time of dancing and embracing but of stepping back and taking stock. Yet life goes on: men travel and make deals, as they have always done; monarchs make decisions, as they have always done, with ­far-­reaching and often unpredictable consequences.


One such man was Christopher Columbus, born of undistinguished forebears near Genoa, long a shadowy petitioner at various European courts, now arrived at Córdoba to the new headquarters of Spanish royalty, the Alcázar, former stronghold of Muhammad XII, whom Spaniards called Boabdil; and two such monarchs were their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The year was a fateful one, 1492. To it, historians, looking backwards, have assigned the final expiration of the Middle Ages and the (as yet unheralded) birth of a new age.

Many Americans will recall having suffered through a school pageant or two meant to dramatize the monumental encounter between the Genoese ship captain and the Spanish royal couple. And since such dramatizations invariably contain almost as much misinformation as they do historical fact, it is worth revisiting the great moment with a colder eye.

The ship captain was probably born in 1451 at or very near Genoa, the son of a weaver who also sold cheeses on the streets of Genoa, then of Savona, his son helping out at both locations (“Parmigiano! Mozzarella! Gorgonzola!!”). The boy would have been called Christoffa Corombo in his native Ligurian, later Cristóbal Colón by Spaniards. Since documents of any importance were written in Latin, his Latinized name, Christophorus Columbus, which appears in his own hand as well as in other records of the period, was easily ­En­glished as Christopher Columbus. Though there have been numerous attempts to render Columbus as Jewish, or even Muslim, and to trace his origins to a European country other than Italy, there is no evidence to support such theories, but there is good evidence to support his birth as an Italian Catholic.

Genoa and Savona, ports on the Italian Riviera north of Corsica, offered adventurous boys many opportunities for seafaring apprenticeships. Columbus claimed to have first ventured to sea at the age of ten, and there is little reason to doubt him; surely by his late teens he was almost an old salt, and by his early twenties he had already docked as far away as the west coast of Africa, Chios in the Greek Aegean, Bristol on Britain’s west coast, Galway at the edge of the Atlantic, and probably Iceland. He also began to act as agent for a consortium of Genoese merchants, who traded far and wide. One of his voyages took him to Lisbon, where a brother, Bartolomeo, worked as a cartographer. In their collaboration we may glimpse the origin of Columbus’s great endeavor.

Thanks to the enormous expansion in world trade that had been booming for more than two centuries, Europeans of means had come to take for granted certain substances that did not originate in Europe, especially the spices, opiates, and silks of faraway Asia. No one (who was anyone) could any longer imagine doing without these things. But the fall of Greek Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 had created a profound and permanent alteration in international affairs. It was of course still possible to extract the expected goodies from the Far East, but getting them past the Turks required both more cunning and more ­gold—­and sometimes more ­blood—­than had been previously required, considerably raising the price of the beloved commodities by the time they came to market. (Imagine if Americans could no longer afford chocolate, salt, or cocaine, or if most of the ­Wal-­Marts closed down.) If Europeans could not dislodge the ­Turks—­which they could ­not—­what were they to do? At times, it seemed as if all the best practical minds of Europe were engaged in figuring out how to solve the problem. But think as much as they might, no one could come up with a solution. Except Columbus.

What he suggested made little sense. He proposed to sail around the world, heading west into the Ocean Sea (as it was then called) till he hit the Island of Cipangu (Japan, as identified in the writings of Marco Polo) or perhaps, if he was especially lucky, the fabulous coast of Cathay (China) itself. Maps of the period, inaccurate about many things, nonetheless show both the principal island of Japan (misshapen and lacking most of its fellow islands) and the coast of a strangely squeezed China. There are even attempts to sketch in the archipelagos of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The diameter of the spherical Earth had been calculated accurately by the Greek Eratosthenes in the second century BC, and his calculation was still widely known in the time of Columbus. Though no European foresaw what lay in wait for Columbus, since all thought mistakenly that the Ocean Sea, empty of land, was much larger than it was, almost all who could read and had looked into the subject understood that Columbus was seriously underestimating the overall size of the Earth.

Columbus, basing his calculations on inaccurate assumptions, theorized that the east coast of Asia could be reached by a European ship within a few weeks of its leaving port. The actual circumference of the Earth is about 40,000 kilometers, whereas Columbus assumed it to be closer to 25,000 kilometers. Compounding his mistake was his ­misreading—­in a Latin ­translation—­of a renowned ­ninth-­century Persian astronomer, Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir ­al-­Farghani, known to the West as Alfraganus. The Persian’s correct measurements were given in Arabic miles, which Columbus assumed to be the same as Roman miles. In actuality, Roman miles are about 25 percent shorter than Arabic ones. Had the Ocean not held the Americas and the vast sea been empty of land between Europe and Asia, Columbus and his crew, heading west, would have perished in the deep and never been heard from again. This had indeed been the fate of several earlier (and ­well-­known) attempts.

Columbus’s good luck lay not in his miserably wrongheaded calculations about distance but in his accurate knowledge of the North Atlantic trade winds, which flow in a great clockwise circle. How he came by this information we can’t be sure. It may have been the result of his own observations on his previous voyages, only some of which we know about. In any case, it was information not widely understood at the time, even if in our own day it is common knowledge to transatlantic airline passengers. As a result of his awareness of the ­trade-­winds pattern, he was able to keep them at his back, plotting a southerly outgoing course and a northerly homecoming one, both of which enabled him to travel much more quickly than others had been able to do. In this way, Columbus and his crew were saved from contrary winds, becalmings, and death by dehydration on the high seas.

Columbus was a man of high ­color—­reddish hair and ruddy cheeks enclosing a long, handsome face, surmounting a towering, tautly muscular ­body—­and of highly colored personality. People seem either to have been instantly attracted to him or to have taken an instant dislike. He gestured grandly and spoke engagingly and loudly with the confidence of the true aristocrat, which he was not but was determined to become. He always presented himself as a nobleman, alluding vaguely to his familial line and crest, the son certainly not of Italy but of Genoa, la Superba (the Proud One), city of cities, link between Europe and the great globe. Despite his poor resources, he managed to dress well, cutting a fine figure at the European courts he visited. No doubt his admission to the presence of several monarchs in succession was made possible by the convincing show he made. His fair coloring and cool eye (gray or green in different reports) bespoke his northern European genetic origins and assured his welcome by monarchs who were all engaged in marriage games to render their legitimate stock more blond and ­blue-­eyed.

But after he had made his impressive presentation, his proposal would be turned over to the scholars of the court, the people who had read all the books Columbus cited and many more, which he had failed to mention. Inevitably, the scholars would return to their monarch with the same conclusion: Columbus was a crackpot, not an investment opportunity. But, as we know only too well from recent dramas in our financial sector, sooner or later someone somewhere will make the investment. In the event, that someone was Isabella la Católica, reigning Queen of Spain.

Before this, Columbus had conducted a long dalliance with King John II of Portugal, whom he nearly succeeded in convincing. He sought out financial power brokers in both Genoa and Venice but came up short. He sent his brother Bartolomeo to Henry VII of ­En­gland with the astounding proposal. Henry, father to Henry VIII and founder of the Tudor dynasty, whose claim to the throne was quite shaky, said he would think about it. He thought and thought but had nothing more to say (at least not till it was too late). Meanwhile, Columbus found himself at the Spanish court, spending nearly six seemingly sterile years in the attempt to lure the monarchs into financing his scheme.

Ferdinand and Isabella were not naïfs. Hereditary monarchs and crafty sovereigns, they had created Spain by the ploy of their marriage, uniting Ferdinand’s Aragon with Isabella’s much larger Castile and then pushing the Iberian Peninsula’s one remaining Islamic kingdom into the sea. This last they had accomplished only in March 1492 after years of war and had come to occupy the Alcázar but minutes (as it were) before Columbus appeared once more to present his final and most eloquent plea. Political to their fingertips, the Catholic Monarchs allowed not a whisper of disagreement to squeeze between them. Their motto, “Tanto monta, monta tanto,” means something like “Each is the same as the other.” So don’t try any special pleading with one of us.

Columbus’s task was therefore a tricky one, but it seems from the scanty evidence that it was the queen, a woman of exquisite composure and silky speech, whose blue eyes and long gold tresses betrayed her high Castilian and Lancastrian origins, who was especially receptive to Columbus’s charm. Though the dark, jowly Ferdinand, whose stubbly beard was incapable of a close shave, would one day boast that he was “the principal cause why those islands were discovered,” it was Isabella who actually found the way forward for Spain to finance Columbus’s expedition. Columbus had already raised about half the needed cash from his Genoese contacts; and Spain, at the end of a long and draining military campaign, was out of cash. So Isabella donated her jewels (or at least some of them), knowing full well that her act of public generosity would necessarily drive all the nobles of Castile (and perhaps even of Aragon and of Ferdinand’s other territories) to follow suit in their effort to show themselves at least as generous.

The year 1492 was a busy one for the Catholic Monarchs. Besides their conquest of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada, they had begun to take considerable interest in the religious observances of their subjects. Like Doctor Johnson in the stagecoach, they felt that false doctrines should be checked and that those who dared espouse such doctrines should be punished by the civil power in union with the church of the realm. Venturing a bit further than Johnson might have done, they ­issued—­within days of their having situated themselves in the ­Alhambra—­the Alhambra Decree, expelling all unconverted Jews from Spain.

As we have already seen in the case of the Black Death, communities of Jews made convenient scapegoats in difficult times. But by this point, Jews had lived among European Christians for the better part of a millennium and a ­half—­often uneasily, sometimes (as in papal Rome) appreciated for their special skills, sometimes targeted for elimination. In general, insofar as Christians thought about them at all, Jews tended to be considered flawed or partial Christians, believers in the Old Testament but not the New, people ­who—­inexplicably—­failed to see that Jesus was the fulfillment of all their prophecies. They were not universally hated, as were the Muslims (called Moors or, more ominously, Saracens), those who had cooked up a new ­religion—­really, a ­heresy—­and stolen the Holy Places from their rightful owners, the Christians. The fast friendship Boccaccio describes between the two Parisian merchants, one Christian, the other Jewish, is a bit harder to imagine occurring between a Christian and a Muslim (at least in a Christian country).

Selectively admired or merely tolerated, Jews were an expected part of the European social scene. The expulsion from Spain, however, was not their first. On several prior occasions, Jews had been ordered to move en masse from a European country. In 1182 the teenage King Philip II Augustus of France, whose treasury was empty, had seized all Jewish property and forgiven all debts owed to Jews, provided only the debtors pay to the king 20 percent of what they owed. (Sixteen years later, Philip, feeling the adverse effects on French commerce of the departure of the Jews, would allow them to return.) In 1290, Edward I banished all Jews from his kingdom of ­En­gland, a ban that remained in effect into the 1600s. In 1306, King Philip IV the Fair (who was not) expelled the Jews of France once again. Though readmitted in 1315, they were expelled once more in 1322, readmitted in 1359, and ­re-­expelled in 1394. If the Spanish expulsion seems particularly harsh on account of the huge numbers involved and the efficiency with which results were pursued, it only signaled more execrable banishments to come: by the end of the Second World War, Ireland would stand out as the only European nation that had never expelled (and/or attempted to eliminate) its Jews nor subjected them to pogroms nor confined them to ghettos.

Parenthetically, we must lay at Spain’s door what was almost certainly the earliest of these European persecutions (and a characteristically Spanish one): the offer, laid out by the primatial archbishop of Toledo in 694, that all Spanish Jews choose between baptism and perpetual enslavement. Nor should we forget that in 1391 the newly crowned Spanish king, Henry III, encouraged the massacres of Jews in Seville, Córdoba, Toledo, and other cities of his realm.

Spanish Jews were given exactly four months from the date of the Alhambra Decree to clear out of the extensive realms of the Catholic Monarchs, not an easy feat for most to perform. Moreover, though departing Jews were graciously allowed to take their belongings with them, they were not permitted to take any “gold or silver or minted money.” (Remember: the Monarchs were experiencing an extreme cash flow crisis.) The punishment for failing to depart (or convert) was death. The punishment for Christians who attempted to hide Jews was confiscation of all property and cancellation of all hereditary privileges. So it is hardly surprising that not a few Jews publicly converted to Christianity and were baptized. These conversos, as they were called, elicited suspicion from their Christian neighbors. Were their conversions sincere or merely convenient? As many were subsequently discovered to have continued their practice of Jewish religious customs, Spaniards found themselves devising bizarre tests of Christian orthodoxy, such as forcing suspects to eat pork. (If you refused or gagged, you must be an insincere convert. Converts from Islam would soon be subjected to the same test—which did have a certain twisted logic behind it: prized Spanish ham, jamón ibérico de bellota, from well-bred pigs fed on the acorns of ancient oaks is the best in the world.)

The decree did not, however, produce the first conversos. Thanks to the efforts of Toledo’s archbishop nearly eight hundred years earlier, there was an ancient tradition of Jewish conversos within Spanish society. More than this, the pogroms of 1341, centered on Seville, had greatly expanded the class of converted Jews, many of whom had subsequently achieved high status in southern Spanish society. Two of these conversos, the bankers Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sánchez, would be numbered among the financiers of Columbus.

Many unconverted Sephardim (as the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were called, in contrast to the Ashkenazim, the Jews of France, Germany, and eastern Europe) found refuge in the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire and were able to remain there and even to thrive. The establishment of the State of Israel, however, on land that had previously been controlled by Muslims, as well as the grave diminishment of its prior inhabitants, has in our time provoked Muslim rage and a hostility toward Jews that had never before been characteristic of the relationship between the two communities of faith. Indeed, in the centuries during which Muslim rulers had held sway over the Iberian Peninsula, Jews could breathe much more freely there than they could in most Christian countries. They, like Christians living under Muslim rule, had to pay a special tax, but for these designated “Peoples of the Book” there was no specifically religious persecution.

The expulsion of unconverted Jews from Spanish territory was, however, but one prong of a campaign of increasingly cruel exactions on the part of the Catholic Monarchs. Though the terms of the treaty that followed their successful war against the Kingdom of Granada guaranteed religious freedom to their Muslim subjects, the Monarchs soon discarded that provision and began to hound unconverted Muslims, as well as those (Moriscos or little Moors) who only outwardly accepted Christianity, in a fashion similar to their persecution of Jews, if somewhat less vigorously. The marginally greater toleration of Muslims lay in the fact that they were even more intricately threaded through Spanish, and especially through Aragonian, society (though certainly not through other European societies) than were Jews, many Muslims even gaining positions of trust at the courts of various Spanish noble families, who valued their contributions and would not cooperate willingly in their persecution or banishment.

As early as 1478 the Monarchs had set up a new institution to ensure unity of faith throughout their realms. Even today, its name, the Spanish Inquisition, is capable of sending a shiver through many a breast. In recent decades, scholars have revised their historical judgments, now informing us that this Inquisition wasn’t as bad as its reputation. But it was a grim business for anyone who incurred its interest. And despite the inspired humor of the famous Monty Python sketches, featuring madcap English comedians galumphing into view in the getup of Roman cardinals and shouting “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” there was nothing bumbling, antic, or remotely silly about the men who staffed this merciless ecclesiastical tribunal.

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been inquisitions, arranged by the papacy in concert with local bishops. These had had, however, only a very occasional impact on medieval life, functioning locally, operating seldom and with some highly specified object, that is, the rooting out of a particular Christian heresy in a particular place. The most important inquisitions of the Middle Ages were directed against the Albigensians, who held an extreme Platonic conviction that God’s world was entirely spiritual and that all matter was evil, having been created by Satan. It is impossible to determine now how many Albigensians there were, centered primarily in the regions of Languedoc in France, the Rhine Valley, and (perhaps) Verona in Italy, but the extreme unattractiveness of their doctrine would seem necessarily to have limited their numbers. The popes, who directed inquiries into heresy from afar, were normally more interested in convincing the heretics of the error of their ways than in burning them alive. Only unrepentant holdouts were put to the torch.

The burning of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance stands as a sinister exception to the normal course of events and was enabled because the Council was in the hands of the voting bishops rather than of a pope, who would almost certainly have proved more irenic. There were then three popes striding about in different jurisdictions, each demanding universal obedience, and the Council’s main job was to put an end to this embarrassing state of affairs. Hus dared to question the claim of the conciliar fathers that they held their authority over the universal church “immediately from Christ,” which questioning the fathers could not abide, especially as they were themselves a tad uncertain about who in fact did hold such power. We should also not underestimate the impact that nationalism was already beginning to exert on the bishops (as on everyone else). Hus’s Czech movement was seen by many as an illegal nationalistic challenge to imperial German sovereignty. Many of the bishops were either German or at least in sympathy with the jurisdictional claims of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Spanish Inquisition—that is, an inquiry answerable to the Spanish Monarchs, rather than to Rome—was an innovation and a devolution from relatively humane papal standards. The scariest thing about it was its omnicompetence, the broadness of its mandate, its freedom to look into anything and anyone for any reason. The Monarchs had been encouraged to set up their own national inquiry into heresy among their subjects by Isabella’s personal confessor, Tomás de Torquemada, whose name is a stain on their reign despite the famous description of him by his contemporary Sebastián de Olmedo as “the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the savior of his country, the honor of his order” (the Dominicans, in case you were wondering).

Torquemada, a heavyset, brutal-looking man with an anxious brow, beady eyes, and a long, thick, bent nose, became an essential figure in the Monarchs’ self-conscious Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain, culturally reclaiming it from its centuries of Muslim rule during which Muslims, Jews, and Christians had lived side by side in a fondly remembered convivencia and had even collaborated with one another in preserving and translating seminally important religious and philosophical texts. Torquemada, hostile to any text from which he thought he could sniff a whiff of heresy, enthusiastically promoted the burning of Hebrew and Arabic books. But what he became most famous for was his enthusiastic burning of human beings, probably close to two thousand individuals in the course of his fifteen-year tenure (1483–1498) as Spain’s Grand Inquisitor.

Besides the public burnings, carried out with great solemnity and grand panoply as autos de fe (acts of faith), the numbers of those he ordered tortured were, according to even The Catholic Encyclopedia, “vast” and “on an unprecedented scale.”: “Exceptionally intolerant even for his times,” the entry continues, he established an exceedingly efficient “spiritual police system” that would continue to terrorize Spain for centuries, to be abolished only in 1834. Its official work was to investigate heresy among Christians, but it marched far beyond that mandate, investigating and punishing a wide variety of “spiritual offenders,” from so-called “crypto-Jews” to supposed witches to those accused of such sexual crimes as sodomy and bestiality. Even Spain’s most outsized (and orthodox) Catholic saints—Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross—would in the next century fall under suspicion and be shadowed for a time by the Spanish Inquisition, Loyola even cast into prison as a possible heretic on two separate occasions, experiences that convinced him to quit Spain altogether.

In the atmosphere of fear and hysteria that Torquemada encouraged, he himself could have been tried as a crypto-Jew. (Given how thoroughly Jews were threaded through Spanish society, this accusation could probably have been leveled against a great many Spaniards.) There were at least two Jewish conversos in his family line, one of them a grandmother. But Torquemada quickly achieved such control over Spanish society that no one would have dared question his antecedents for fear of attracting his attention. So hated did he become that he had to travel surrounded by fifty mounted guards and an additional 250 armed men.

It would be dismayingly reductive, however, if we were to attribute Torquemada’s success only to the craven fear he struck in the hearts of men and women. As Fyodor Dostoevsky would so awesomely dramatize the reasoning of Torquemada and his ilk in “The Grand Inquisitor,” the great story-within-a-story to be found in The Brothers Karamazov, the inquisitor’s insistence on shared universal belief expresses a yearning that may also be found in the human heart—a desire “to be united unequivocally in a communal and harmonious ant heap.” This “need for universal unity of mankind” against dissenters certainly appears and reappears throughout  history, and its impact on human affairs, as in Dostoevsky’s vivid accounting, should never be underestimated.

But besides this profound reality of hidden motivation—this infernal, usually unspoken quest for universality of belief—it must be said that many participants in witch hunts are simply disgruntled, jealous partisans in search of retribution against their betters. This is the motivation that Arthur Miller would bring to the fore in The Crucible, his remarkable play about the American witch trials of seventeenth-century Salem—which is also a play about Miller’s judgment on the tawdry machinations of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era.

Sensing the dark underside of the enthusiastic persecution of “heretics,” successive popes tried in vain to rein in the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. According to a bull of Pope Sixtus IV, “many true and faithful Christians, because of the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves, and other low people, and—still less appropriate— without tests of any kind, have been locked up in state prisons, tortured, and condemned as if they were relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and properties, and turned over to the secular arm to be executed, at great danger to their souls, giving a pernicious example and causing scandal to many.”

Despite this nice rhetorical flourish, Sixtus quickly backed off his resolve to inhibit Torquemada’s incursions once the pope found himself opposed by King Ferdinand, who was solidly in the rabid Dominican’s corner. Sixtus was one of a series of popes in this period who could have stepped right out of the pages of the Decameron. A lover of art, music, and literature, he built the Sistine Chapel (which is named for him), founded its famous choir, established the Vatican Archives, greatly enlarged the Vatican Library, and opened it to scholars. But he also made six of his feckless young nephews into cardinals, blocked all church reform, and was drawn into the huge Pazzi conspiracy, which resulted in the murder of Giuliano de Medici, the wounding of his brother Lorenzo, and a scandalous war between Rome and Florence. He then got Venice to attack Ferrara, switched sides, imposed papal penalties on Venice, and emptied the papal treasury, after which he sold indulgences and curial offices in order to refill his empty coffers.

His successor, who took the inappropriate name of Innocent VIII, was just a little worse. It was he who conferred upon Ferdinand and Isabella the title los Reyes católicos. He ordered a bloodthirsty inquisitorial witch hunt throughout Germany. He fathered several bastards, made his thirteen-year-old grandson a cardinal, created new church offices just so he could auction them off to the highest bidders, and interfered disastrously in international affairs, alienating kings unnecessarily and leaving the much-reduced Papal States in anarchy by the close of his reign. On his deathbed in the summer of 1492, in a last tremor of self-knowledge, he begged the cardinal electors to choose a successor who would be an improvement on him.

Thanks to a spectacular series of bribes and promises of future rewards by the winning candidate, the cardinals chose the Catholic Monarchs’ fellow Spaniard Rodrigo de Borja y Borja, the worst pope in history, father of several children (born both before and after his election to the papacy), including dear Lucrezia of the poisoned ring and Cesare Borgia (as the family name was Italianized), the model for Machiavelli’s prince. That the thrice-married and much-bedded Lucrezia actually poisoned the food of husbands and others she wished to be rid of, or that she slept with her father and her brother and had children by them, cannot now be proven conclusively. That the Borgias were vicious and implacable and threw howlingly good parties is indisputable.

Rodrigo took the papal name, forever infamous, of Alexander VI. His election on August 11, 1492, came but a week and a day after Columbus’s departure from the coast of Spain in three ships—the caravels Niña and Pinta and the larger carrack Santa María—headed for the unknown. We shall have reason to return to Rodrigo-Alexander. But for now let’s follow Columbus.

St. Patrick: The First Missionary

A selection from How The Irish Saved Civilization, everything you need to know about the historical St. Patrick, the extraordinary Iron Age man who became Ireland’s patron saint.  The real… More

Heretics and Heroes

In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through a time so full of innovation that the Western world would not again experience its… More