This article is Dr. Roth's attack and criticism

of William Thomas Walsh's book Isabella of Spain.


The Dublin Review

"A Quarterly and Critical Journal"

October 1932

London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd., pp. 219-231


ART. 5.




Dr. Cecil Roth

It is not often that an authoritative work on Spanish history appears in English. Considerable attention has therefore been drawn to a recent biography of Isabella the Catholic{1} —the first competent and well-informed work upon the subject since the days of Prescott. It must be stated at once, without demur, that Mr. Walsh's book is well written, and that it is on the whole abreast of the most recent researches; so much so, indeed, that it has actually been recommended by the Book Society. These facts render it all the more regrettable that it should be marred by a prejudice which (to quote the very moderate phrase of one critic) "goes beyond all reasonable limits". The author reads Spanish history with the eyes of the wildest anti-Semite; condones persecution as justified by necessity, if not dictated by statecraft; and places the most complete credence in any anti-Jewish libel, however absurd, however far-fetched, and however discredited. Thus the work repeats, and may even do something to popularize, certain gruesome allegations, long discredited, which have never been seriously repeated in this country during the present generation.

It must be noticed incidentally that the author is not in a position to pass any serious opinion on Jewish matters. He has made use of the researches of Kayserling and of Loeb, as well as the popularizations of Hyamson and of Lewis Browne. In many respects, however, he shows himself to be lamentably ill-informed. He devotes a long note (p. 621) to a vindication of scholastic philosophy, accentuating the fact that "it is interesting to notice that the greatest Jewish and Mohammedan philosophers were usually laymen, often opposed and persecuted by the rabbis and priests. In Catholic Europe, on the other hand, the most daring philosophers were commonly priests and monks." The latter part of this antithesis may be true; but the former is so far removed from the facts that it is absolutely impossible to mention even a single Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages who was not a rabbi. The author speaks (p. 471) of the colony of Spanish Jews which settled at Salonica "and formed there a colony which persisted until 1910, when the members were compelled to emigrate, and went to New York". It is obvious that he has never read any account of Salonica to-day, where, in spite of recent decadence, the Spanish-speaking Jews are still to be numbered by tens of thousands, and remain one of the largest of the local ethnic groups. Up to the close of the War of 1914-1918, indeed, they formed an absolute majority of the population. Most remarkable of all, he can repeat without comment the astonishing statement (p. 225) that the Jews "had cut out of the Old Testament the prophecies that seemed to Christians to refer so definitely to Jesus." One had thought that such crass credulity had disappeared with the Middle Ages. All of this is of no great importance in itself, but it is sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Walsh is not equipped to figure as an authority on matters in which Jews and Judaism are intimately concerned.

Mr. Walsh's prejudices are not restricted to the Jews. With them he groups their kinsmen, the conversos (otherwise known as Marranos, or New Christians), descendants of the victims of the Forced Conversions of 1391 and after, who notoriously retained their Jewish sympathies at heart. As to their numbers, he shows a strange want of proportion, placing them (p. 264) at as many as three millions. It is difficult, however, to overestimate their influence in the State. With the removal of the religious disabilities from which they had previously suffered, the social and economic progress of the recent converts and their descendants became phenomenally rapid. However dubious their sincerity, it was now out of the question to exclude them from any walk of life, as hitherto, on account of their creed. The Law, the administration, the army, the universities, the Church itself, were all overrun by recent converts of more or less questionable good faith, or else their immediate descendants. They thronged the financial administration, for which they had a natural aptitude, protest now being impossible. They pushed their way into municipal councils, into the legislatures, into the judiciary. The wealthier among them intermarried with the highest nobility of the land. Within a couple of generations there was barely a single aristocratic family in Aragon, from that of the King downwards, which was free from the taint of Jewish blood. Queen Isabella's Confessor, her Treasurer, and her Secretary all belonged to this category. Paul de Santa Maria, who had once been known as Rabbi Solomon Levi (Mr. Walsh, p. 618, calls him Selemoth!), became Bishop of Burgos. His son, Alfonso, who had been converted with him, succeeded to that dignity, and was one of the Spanish delegates to the Council of Basle. His brother, Gonzalo, was bishop of Siguenza. Juan de Torquemada, Cardinal of San Sisto, was of immediate Jewish descent, as were also the saintly Hernando de Talavera, Archbishop of Granada, and Alonso de Oropesa, General of the Geronimite Order. At Court, almost every high office was occupied by New Christians. Diego Gonzales was elevated to the post of Treasurer of Castile by the omnipotent Alvaro de Luna. The immensely wealthy Gabriel Sanchez (son of Alazar Ussuf of Saragossa) subsequently filled the same office in Arragon. Sancho de Paternoy held the post of Mestre Racional, or Comptroller of the Household, at the same court.

The epoch-making expedition of Christopher Columbus was rendered possible by a loan which Luis de Santángel, Chancellor and Comptroller of the Royal Household, and a grandson of the Jew Noah Chinillo, advanced (not, of course, according to Mr. Walsh, out of his own purse) to his royal master and mistress. He was, as a matter of fact, the first person to listen to the explorer's dreams seriously, and it was to him that the famous letter announcing the discovery of America was addressed. In intellectual, artistic, business, and scientific life matters were similar. It need hardly be added that the Marranos furnished their quota even to anti-Semitic agitators and litterateurs.{2}

It is these extraordinary figures who fill to a very large extent the background of Mr. Walsh's work. For the derivation of the term by which they are generally known it is natural that he should adopt unquestioningly (p. 20) the most remote and discreditable of the numerous hypotheses which have been made. "The Jews of the synagogue", he says, "sometimes called them Marranos, from the Hebrew Maranatha, 'the Lord is coming', in derision of their belief, or feigned belief, in the divinity of Jesus Christ." As a matter of fact, the term in question was never employed by the Jews, who invariably called their unfortunate brethren by the name of anussim, or the "forced ones". It thus cannot conceivably have had a direct Hebrew origin. It is, indeed, abundantly clear from a recent exhaustive monograph{3} that the term is merely an old Spanish one meaning "swine", first in its literal and then in its figurative sense.

In discussing any report which redounds, however remotely, to the discredit of his heroine, Mr. Walsh displays a considerable, and praiseworthy, critical acumen. At the same time, he accepts unquestioningly, with the utmost naivety, all accounts, however improbable, which reflect the prevailing popular prejudice against the Jews and conversos. The tendency begins to show itself in his Foreword. Here he recounts with horror how the Jews of Spain encouraged, or even invited, the Arab invasion of 709. Since no professing Jews were allowed to live in Spain at the period in question, it is highly probable that this report was in origin merely an attempt by contemporary Christian writers to palliate the sudden and complete debacle in their fortunes. In any case, the persecutions to which the Jews had been submitted by the Visigothic code (to which Mr. Walsh does not refer) were such as to explain, and even to justify, almost any means of escape to which they might have had recourse. This tendency continues down to the end of the book. The author regards the decadence of Spain in the seventeenth century as the result of the deliberate machinations of the Marranos, who systematically drained the country of its wealth. He does not realize, or at all events does not indicate, that the sole cause for the Marrano emigration was the persecutions of the Inquisition, which sent myriads of inoffensive persons to the stake for no other crime than practising in secret a few harmless ancestral rites, and which rendered it dangerous to a degree for any person of "New Christian" blood to live in the Peninsula.

In the intervening pages the same spirit consistently prevails. The villains of the piece, throughout, are the corrupt conversos, who present a constant contrast to the saintly figure of the heroine. So far does this tendency go that any person who plays a discreditable part in the history of the period is ipso facto set down by the author as a New Christian—in some instances with little or no basis in fact. Mr. Walsh suggests (p. 182) that Jews and conversos had a monopoly of bribery in mediaeval Spain—a statement—which, to one who knows the period, is little less than ridiculous. He "infers" (p. 240), without the slightest authority in documentary sources or in common sense, that it was by their converso brethren that the Jewish exiles of 1492 were so mercilessly despoiled. He goes so far as "condoning pogroms of inoffensive citizens of Segovia, Toledo, and elsewhere, and accepting it as a matter of course that Spanish Jews and conversos should be fined or punished in order to pay for the war against Granada" (I again quote The Times Literary Supplement, to avoid any suspicion of exaggeration). He describes the establishment of the Inquisition as marking "the beginning of the last chapter in the slow resurrection of Christian Spain" (p. 257). He puts forward the fantastic conjecture that the converso interest in the enterprises of Columbus was actuated merely from the desire to have a fresh reservoir whence to import slaves. All of this could perhaps be overlooked, as matters of mere antiquarian interest, in which Mr. Walsh is as much entitled to his opinion as the rest of the world are to theirs. What cannot, however, be passed over in silence is his resuscitation of, and implicit belief in, those revolting allegations which cost the Jews such untold misery in the Middle Ages, and which raise their head, sometimes with ghastly results, in the less civilized portions of the world even at the present time.

One of these is the story of the ritual desecration of the Host. "In 1405", Mr. Walsh writes (p. 125), "Dr. Mayr Alguadés and other prominent Jews (of Segovia) were executed for the theft of a consecrated Host from the Cathedral." There are two errors of detail in this sentence. Mayr Alguadés, though a physician, was not, and could not be, a "doctor" (Mr. Walsh should know his Canon Law better). Further, the theft was alleged to have taken place, not from the Cathedral, but from the Church of San Facundo. More important than this, however, is the spirit in which the preposterous story is accepted and repeated, both here and elsewhere in the volume. The details which are tacitly admitted ought not to satisfy even the most credulous modern mind. We are informed in the original sources that the sacrilege was discovered in consequence of an earthquake which it brought about (the breach thus made in the wall of the synagogue, now the Church of Corpus Christi, is still triumphantly displayed to the visitor). Quite apart from this supernatural feature, the story cannot stand a moment's rational examination. The object of the alleged sacrilege, in this as in every other case of the sort, was to commit a ritual outrage upon the consecrated elements, as the "body of Christ", by torture and flagellation, in imitation of the Passion. Now such action in a Jew would be completely paradoxical; for it presupposes a degree of belief in the supernatural qualities of the Sacrament which he could not conceivably hold if he retained his beliefs. In consequence of recent researches, the origin of the fable now appears to be fairly clear. Such sacrilege was generally alleged to become known by the action of the Host itself, which reacted to its torture by shedding blood. Now it has been found that dry food kept in a damp place may sometimes produce on its surface a minute scarlet organism, the so-called micrococcus prodigiosus, the appearance of which is not unlike a bloodstain. It is to this natural phenomenon, in all probability, that the frequent charges of Host-desecration in the Middle Ages, with all the suffering which they entailed, owed their origin. Even without this charitably rationalistic interpretation, however, the libel is still more fantastic (if such a thing were possible) than that of ritual murder, by which it was so frequently accompanied.

Of the latter, two instances are solemnly repeated, in all credulity, in Mr. Walsh's work. He attempts to anticipate criticism by a lengthy statement setting forth his views on the subject (p. 440):

Let it be said at once that there is no evidence that murder or any other iniquity has ever been part of any official ceremony of the Jewish religion. Several Popes and Catholic historians have defended the Jews from the blood accusation. "For some years", wrote Pope Paul III in 1540, "certain magistrates and other officials, bitter and mortal enemies of the Jews, blinded by hate and envy, or as is more probable, by cupidity, pretend, in order to despoil them of their goods, that the Jews kill little children and drink their blood."


It does not follow by any means, however, that Jewish individuals or groups never committed bloody and disgusting crimes, even crimes motivated by hatred of Christ and of the Catholic Church; and the historian, far from being obliged to make wholesale vindication of all Jews accused of murder, is free, and in fact bound, to consider each individual case upon its merits .... One must admit that acts committed by Jews sometimes furnished the original provocation ....

Notwithstanding the author's carefully chosen words, here we are back again, in a well-informed and admirably written work, with great popular appeal, in an atmosphere approaching that of the Middle Ages. It is the first time probably in living memory that the foul accusation has been made in this country.{4} For there is no mistaking the tendency of the passage, especially in the context in which it stands; and the chapter in which it occurs is ominously headed, RITUAL MURDER.

As to the general question, it is impossible to improve upon the words used by Menasseh ben Israel in pleading before Oliver Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews to this country, and solemnly repeated by Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell nearly a century ago, at the time of the Damascus Blood-accusation:

I swear, without any deceit or fraud, by the most high God, the creator of heaven and earth, who promulgated his law to the people of Israel upon Mount Sinai, that I never yet to this day saw any such custom among the people of Israel, and that they do not hold any such thing by divine precept of the law, or any ordinance or institution of their wise men, and that they never committed or endeavoured such wickednesse (that I know, or have credibly heard, or read in any Jewish Authours), and if I lie in this matter, then let all the curses mentioned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy come upon me, let me never see the blessings and consolations of Zion, nor attain to the resurrection of the Dead (Vindiciae Judaeorum, § xii).

So much for the general question. Let us now see how Mr. Walsh carries out the historian's duty, which he so admirably phrases, of considering every case on its merits. He adduces in his book two instances of alleged ritual murder. One is the case of Sepulveda, in 1468, in connection with which the account of the bigoted old chronicler Colmenares is reproduced verbatim (pp. 125-6):


At this time in our town of Sepulveda, the Jews, incited by Salomon Pichon, rabbi of their synagogue, stole a boy in Holy Week and inflicting upon him the greatest infamies and cruelties inflicted upon the Redeemer of the world, put an end to that innocent life: incredible obstinacy of a nation incorrigible to so many chastisements of Heaven and Earth. This misdeed, then, like many others in the memorials of the time, leaked out and came to the notice of our Bishop Don Juan Árias de Ávila, who, as higher judge at that time in causes pertaining to the Faith, proceeded in this matter and, on investigating the crime, had brought to our city sixteen Jews of the principal offenders. Some finished in the fire; and the rest were drawn and hanged in that part of the meadow occupied today by the monastery of San Antonio el Real .... Better advised were the people of Sepulveda, who, distrusting those (Jews) who remained there, killed several and forced the rest to go out of that territory ....


On no other shown authority than this typically mediaeval passage, instinct with superstition and with hatred, and actually omitted from most editions, Mr. Walsh accepts the whole story; and he subsequently refers (p. 441), as an historical fact, to the execution of the seventeen Jews of Segovia "for the crucifixion of a Christian boy!"{5} It is flimsy ground on which to indict, by inference, a whole people.


The other instance which Mr. Walsh recounts with a wealth of revolting detail is more important by far. It is that of El Santo Niño de La Guardia, which served as the immediate pretext for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and is thus in its way in the nature of a test-case. It was alleged that, a couple of years before, a number of Jews and conversos had ritually murdered a child at La Guardia, near Ávila, in imitation of the Passion of Jesus. The main object of this outrage had been to obtain the heart, which was to be used, together (of course!) with a stolen Host, to make a "cord with knots" for magical purposes. The chief witness was Yucé, or Joseph, Franco, a cobbler-boy of limited intellect, from whom a priest posing as a rabbi had obtained a "confession". Lea, the historian of the Inquisition in Spain, characterizes the whole story (much to Mr. Walsh's indignation) as "evidently the creation of the torture-chamber", adding that "it was impossible to reconcile the discrepancies in the confessions of the accused". To a consideration of it, however, Mr. Walsh devotes no less than twenty-eight pages (pp. 440-467).


As his principle authority, he uses the complete record of the trial of Yucé Franco himself, discovered and published by Father Fidel Fita nearly half a century ago. "Since then", he alleges, "it has been no longer possible to pretend successfully that it was a popular myth or a bit of anti-Jewish propaganda released by the Inquisitor General to justify the edict (of expulsion) of March 31. Yet almost no notice has been taken of this invaluable source-material outside of Spain." This is far removed from the facts. Lea made ample use of it, not only in his History of the Inquisition, but also in a separate study. Even Mr. Raphael Sabatini employed it in his Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. Above all, the new material was critically examined by Isidore Loeb in 1887, in the Revue des Etudes Juives; and it has since been regarded in Jewish circles as a commonplace source of information. Its importance is generally regarded, however, as being greater for the social background than for the elucidation of the facts. There is no need to go again here over work already done so well, or to call attention afresh to the manifold discrepancies and incredibilities of the whole account. M. Loeb makes it perfectly plain that, if the outrage was actually committed, it was for purely magical purposes, had nothing to do with any religious question, and cannot therefore be termed a "ritual murder"; and that, in any case, the perpetrators were baptized Christians, and not Jews. He goes, however, still further. The name of the child remained unknown until nearly one hundred years after the event, when it first figured on a memorial erected in his honour. There was considerable discrepancy as to his place of origin. No body was ever found. (The ordinary reader will not be satisfied with the theory of the parish priest of La Guardia that, since the Holy Child had shared in the passion of Jesus Christ, he had also been permitted to share in the glory of the Resurrection.) No enquiry was even made to ascertain whether any child who answered to the description had actually disappeared. It seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the whole affair was a mere figment of imaginations stimulated by repeated torturings, and that in reality the pretended "martyr" never existed.

The part played in the whole story by the companion libel of the desecration of the Host is noteworthy. According to the official record, the outrage was discovered in the first instance by the fact that some drunkards, rifling the knapsack of a certain converso wool-comber named Benito Garcia, at an inn at Astorga, found in it what appeared to be the consecrated wafer from the altar of some Catholic Church. He was immediately dragged off to the vicar, and, under the stimulus of repeated torture, made the admissions by which Yucé Franco was originally implicated. The object of the crime, on the other hand, was that Maestre Yucá Tazarte, a Jewish physician, might combine the heart with a Host in order to make a magical cord, with certain knots, which he was to send to Rabbi Peres, an otherwise unknown Jewish physician of Toledo. With regard to the provenance of the Host employed, there was considerable discrepancy. That, however, is incidental to the main question, which is (as has been seen) that the Jew did not attach the same importance to the Sacrament as the Christian, and thus could not conceivably have considered it to have any special efficacy.

When did the alleged crime take place? Even on this crucial question there is a fundamental discrepancy in the evidence elicited from the tortured prisoners. It was generally alleged to have been in 1488. But the luckless Yucé Franco, on whose evidence the prosecution principally relied, ascribed the whole affair to eleven years before—i.e. 1479. Mr. Walsh follows Father Fidel Fita in suggesting that these must have been a confusion of the Hebrew words for "eleven" and "two", which he alleges to have similar sounds. The idea that this ignorant youth spoke Hebrew is utterly fantastic. In any case the former word (according to the pronunciation which prevailed in Spain) is Ahat Ngassre, or else, in an extremely rare archaic form, Ngashte Ngassre: the latter, in the context, is Shte. Something more than the ear of faith is required to discern any phonetic similarity.

Mr. Walsh is highly indignant with Lea for stating that the confessions were all wrung out by dint of torture, and devotes a lengthy note (pp. 627-8) to demonstrating a slip which, to his mind, proves the latter's "intellectual dishonesty" in this matter. He himself, however, is not infallible in points of fact. While they were in prison, we learn in the official record, Benito Garcia admitted to Yucé Franco that his present sufferings were a divine retribution for his previous sin in outwardly following Christianity. Thus, for example, the two hundred lashes, which he had received were in punishment for his having forced his children with lashes in former days to go to Church. This Mr. Walsh distorts as follows (pp. 450-1): "The lashes . . . were not a torture, but a punishment . . . given him . . . for beating his children because they had gone (sic) to a Catholic Church." This is not the only instance of the sort. I do not accuse Mr. Walsh of deliberate ill-faith, as he does that superb historical craftsman, H. C. Lea. But he is certainly guilty, in a matter which is of something more than antiquarian interest, of a negligence which destroys his claim to consideration as a serious historian.

It is not necessary to go so far as some modern historians, and to condemn Torquemada as having engineered this episode for his own ends; even though we happen to be informed that he had recently quarrelled over a financial matter with Don Abraham Senior, Factor-General to the King and Queen and Chief Rabbi of Castile. The Inquisitor General may well have been, in this matter, the dupe of his inferiors, who were in turn the dupes of their own prejudices. They were all children of their age and environment—an excuse which Mr. Walsh unfortunately lacks; and it was not difficult for them, with the means at their disposal, to elicit from their miserable victims confessions which tallied in every respect with their own preconvictions. The tragedy of a persecution based upon an honest misunderstanding is more poignant by far than that of one inspired solely by hatred and dependent on misrepresentation.

The whole question is not, even after all this lapse of time, a mere literary polemic. The cult of El Santo Niño de La Guardia is still alive in Spain. Monuments have been erected to his memory; miracles are said to have been worked by his means; a religious work has been published at least as recently as the second half of the last century describing his martyrdom and achievements; while the great Lope de Vega wrote a play on the subject, which is still read.

The Catholic Church, indeed, has never set the seal of its approval upon the legend, and Catholic historians like the Abbé Vacandard have expressed their complete incredulity. No serious student can doubt today that the very existence of the child on whose account eight men were put to an agonizing death at Ávila on that autumn day in 1491 still remains to be proved. But the consequences did not end there. By assuming the truth of this absurd allegation, Mr. Walsh is implicitly justifying the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, when tens of thousands of men and women were driven forth from the country where their fathers had lived from time immemorial. The reflection is not upon the victims alone, but on their co-religionists, their kinsmen, and their descendants down to the present day. English public opinion will not censure a people on evidence which would not suffice to condemn a dog.

The writer of these pages is a Jew. In the course of some years of writing and teaching he has done his utmost to bring about a better appreciation of Roman Catholicism and its ideals of tolerance on the part of his co-religionists. He is never tired of demonstrating the essential kindliness of the Holy See in its dealings with the Jews, and the explanation of its occasional departures from this policy. He has repeatedly shown to the best of his ability how mediaeval persecutions were consistently discouraged by the Papacy, how it was under the direct rule of the Vatican alone that Jewish communities (such as those of Rome and of Avignon) were able to protract an unbroken existence from the earliest times to the present day, and how the advent of Protestantism (contrary to the generally received opinion) did nothing directly to ameliorate the Jewish position. It is because of his appreciation of the noble ideals and traditions of the Catholic Faith that he feels it his duty to raise his voice here in protest against this untimely attempt to stir up in Catholic circles old prejudices which the mediaeval Church was the first to condemn.

Cecil Roth



1. William Thomas Walsh, Isabella of Spain. London, Sheed & Ward, 1931. 15s. net.

2. The foregoing facts, and a portion of the phraseology, are derived from my History of the Marranos, now in the course of publication in America.

3. A. Farinelli, Marrano: storia di un vituperio. Geneva, 1925.

4. Only a year or two ago, however, the story was seriously revived in the course of an investigation by an ignorant police official in a Middle Western town in the United States.

5. The fact that the Bishop happened to be the son of the converso Diego Árias de Ávila, treasurer of Enrique IV, does not by any means add to the credibility of the tale. The New Christians were not distinguished for their pro-Semitism, and in many cases attempted to avert suspicion by a special display of zeal for the faith.


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