Saturday, August 26, 2006


Here is one more chapter in the life of my favourite converso. Next post will be the last you'll hear about him.

No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition....

In 1566, a campaign of ill will was launched against Leon by the Dominican Friars at Salamanca. Its main agitation was fuelled by rumors that more than once, Leon claimed to have found errors in the text of the Vulgate. He also asserted his view that many passages would have been made clearer and more meaningful had the Hebrew text been translated with greater knowledge and accuracy. Since the interpretation and translation of the Bible had been at the center of the Protestant heresy, these were extremely dangerous statements to make at that time.

Luis was an excellent Hebraist. His colleagues whose knowledge of Hebrew was much more inferior, were unable to debate with him with any measure of success. Furthermore, they found him arrogant, contentious and feisty. The animosity against him consolidated after he continually clashed with one of his colleagues, Leon de Castro, over revisions to a French version of the bible that the university was working on. His enemies joined forces and wrote a letter to the Inquisition, specifying that Leon and other professors were propagating through their teachings seventeen heretical propositions.[1] They accused the three professors more specifically of preferring “Vatable[2], Pagnini[3] and their Jews to the Vulgate translation and the sense of the Saints”. A student denounced Luis over the translation of the Song of Songs, copies of which were being circulated informally in campus. In his declarations before the Inquisition, the cantankerous Castro expanded upon Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures.

At the beginning of March 1572, Gaspar de Grajal was arrested by the Inquisition. Three weeks later, on March 26, another friend and colleague, Martinez de Cantalapiedra, was also arrested. Luis de Leon was prepared for his warrant when it arrived on the evening of 27 March 1572. The three professors were all Hebraists and were all descendants of conversos. According to Thompson, the trials of the three created one of the most significant crises in the religious and intellectual history of the sixteenth century. Their clash with the Inquisition was a confrontation of reason and moderation against not only a fanatical observation of one Biblical translation but also against a form of anti-Semitism. Luis spent five years in prison, Martinez even longer and Grajal died in prison before his case was completed[4].

Leon was imprisoned in the secret cells of the Valladolid Inquisition. For five long years he languished in solitary confinement. In a small room almost without air or light, with little to eat, he had to struggle with sickness, depression and a sense of outraged justice. For a long time he did not know who his accusers actually were and what those accusations were. Because of his delicate health, orders were given that he was to be tortured “softly”. He was denied the sacraments. Luis succeeded in holding firm, in spite of his bitter despair at times, and confronted all allegations with his own explanations. He was finally freed in December of 1576 and returned to Salamanca in triumph, to the applause of his students and colleagues. He was restored to his chair in the university.

According to tradition, he began the first lecture after his five-year imprisonment, as he always had done before, by saying “We were saying yesterday…”[5] Though not fully authenticated as an historical certainty, this story is most illustrative of the man’s inner courage and how he was perceived by others. What exactly he meant by it is a matter for speculation. Duran believes that he might have been asserting his invincibility, or he might have been claiming that time is insubstantial and inconsequential in the long view of things, or he might have been expressing a sort of Christian spirit of forgiveness.[6]. It is my opinion, subjectively formed on the basis of what I learned about the man, that he was trying to diminish the magnitude of the entire episode by dismissing it from his chronology, as no more than a blip on his radar screen. This, I think, was his way of dealing with the power of a morally bankrupt Institution, by reducing it to a non-event. In a way, time indeed had stood still for Leon, as he resumed his life from whence he left it, going on to new achievements and new victories.

[1] Duran, “Luis de Leon” pp. 28-32
[2] French Hellenist and Hebraist of the sixteenth century. Vatable is justly regarded as the restorer of Hebrew scholarship in France, and his lectures in Paris were largely attended, even by Jews. Yet he published nothing during his lifetime. Vatable's pupil Robert Stephens used his lecture notes for the material for the scholia which he added to his edition of the new Latin translation of the Bible by Leo of Juda (4 vols., Paris, 1539-45); The Sorbonne doctors sharply inveighed against the Lutheran tendencies of the notes of Stephen's Bible, and Vatable himself disowned them; yet, as they are a model of clear, concise. literary, and critical exegesis, the Salamanca theologians, with the authorization of the Spanish Inquisition, issued a new thoroughly-revised edition of them in their Latin Bible of 1584. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

[3] The Italian Dominican Santes Pagnini published an influential new translation to the Old testament in 1528. In his preface he wrote what amounted to heretical words for conservative minds: “the translation of Jerome is not uncorrupted”. (Thompson, p. 39)
[4] Thompson, p. 38
[5] This is the best known episode in his life. There is hardly a cultivated Spaniard that does not know it.
[6] Duran, “Luis de Leon” p. 35


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