Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors

By James Reston Jr.

Doubleday. 363 pp. $27.95

When I was in primary school, one date in history was considered so important that it had its own ditty. Remember this? "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two."

But a little ditty can't encompass all that happened that momentous year. Eight centuries of Islamic culture in Spain were wiped out after a bloody military campaign, and the Spanish Inquisition dramatically expanded its reach into every aspect of society. It was also the year in which the country's Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews from their realm.

James Reston's Dogs of God attempts to draw together these apparently disparate strands, arguing that Columbus's voyage to the New World was inextricably linked to the victory of Christianity over Islam in the Iberian peninsula. It's an interesting thesis, and his research has led him into a rich and fascinating period of European history. The last quarter of the 15th century was turbulent, violent and characterized by religious bigotry. It was also a time when mariners were pushing their caravels into uncharted waters. As Reston -- the author of three books on medieval history, including Warriors of God, an account of the Third Crusade -- makes clear, one of history's supreme ironies is that the European discovery of the New World and the rolling back of global horizons were sponsored by two monarchs whose vision of the world seems (to modern eyes) myopic and terrifyingly prejudiced.

Ferdinand and Isabella are the principal protagonists in Dogs of God, yet the lesser characters are no less colorful and grotesque. There's a lovely vignette about the effeminate King Enrique IV of Castile, known as El Impotente, and his attempt to artificially inseminate his wife. And the outlandish Pope Alexander VI makes several appearances, often in the company of one or another of his beautiful mistresses.

Reston's narrative begins in the 13th century, when Islamic rule in Spain was in its twilight. Many of the great centers of Moorish culture had already been reconquered by the forces of Christendom, yet a few Moorish cities -- notably Granada -- remained vibrant intellectual centers. The debt that modern Europe and America owe to Spain's Islamic empire of Al Andalus is an unfashionable subject and -- given today's political climate -- likely to remain so. Yet Reston rightly argues that some of the greatest achievements of the early Renaissance, including the discoveries of Columbus, were conceived in medieval Al Andalus. Islamic scholars translated Arabic science and mathematics into Latin and enriched the language with new words -- "zero," "algebra" and "elixir" all come from Arabic.

Yet when Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile were married in 1468, they vowed to destroy the last vestiges of Islamic rule in Spain. They pursued this goal energetically, capturing Granada in 1492. Their military zeal went hand-in-hand with a determination to rid their kingdom of heretics. The ensuing terror of the Inquisition -- the second strand in Reston's book -- makes for compelling reading. King Ferdinand's Dominican advisers (the dogs of God in the title) argued that Spanish Christianity was imperiled by the presence of conversos, or Jewish converts. They persuaded the monarchs to establish an inquisition, with Tomas de Torquemada as its chief architect.

The mechanics of the infamous auto-da-fe, or test of faith, are told with grisly relish. Water torture, death by fire and dismemberment were all in a day's work for Torquemada, whose diabolical goal was to utterly destroy Spain's thriving Jewish community. He maneuvered with Machiavellian adroitness, convincing Isabella that the enforced exit of the Jews was a necessary adjunct to the defeat of the Moors. In March 1492, the monarchs issued their Edict of Expulsion. With a stroke, Spain's Jews were forced into exile.

Up to this point in the book, Reston's narrative is coherent and convincingly argued. But where does Columbus fit into this tale of reconquest and inquisition? True, he set sail in the same year as the expulsion of the Jews. And he certainly saw his voyage as an evangelizing mission to bring Christianity to the heathen. But Ferdinand and Isabella themselves showed little enthusiasm for Columbus's proposed voyage and repeatedly denied it their blessing. It took the explorer six years to persuade the reluctant monarchs to sponsor him, and even then they offered precious little substantive help. One cannot help feeling that the author's thesis is similarly lacking in substance -- that an intriguing idea is marred by a shortfall of evidence. One other complaint is his tendency to be colloquial, which sits uneasily with the seriousness of the subject. Charles, Duke of Berry, is "wimpy," King Ferdinand is "strapping," and Columbus is "an oily huckster."

Although Dogs of God has its flaws, it is an engaging and highly readable book on a much-neglected subject. Reston points out in his prologue that the bombers who killed 191 Spanish commuters on March 11, 2004, justified their actions by invoking the defeat of the Moorish caliphate in 1492. The events in Dogs of God may have taken place more than 500 years ago, but there are times when they seem chillingly, worryingly familiar. *

Giles Milton is the author of five history books. His most recent is "White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves."

Drawing of a scene from the Inquisition