1492 - Discovery Era and Spanish Inquisition

Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella launched the inquisiton the same year they funded Columbus' first voyage to the Americas.

Christopher Columbus      

  The great Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus

           The legal scholar and historian Robert Williams argues that no single historical incident better illustrated the great transformations occurring throughout Discovery-Era Europe than Queen Isabella's acceptance of Antonio de Nebrija's Gramatica, the first study of grammar ever compiled for a modern European language.  click here for more

       When Nebrija presented it to the queen, she is reported to have asked, "What good is this?"  The meek scholar, fearful of drawing attention to himself and his landmark achievement, offered a simple but profound answer: "Language is the perfect instrument of empire."  The rest, as they say, is history.  

           The discourse of empire required monarchs to reconcile the duty of universal guardianship of the church with the practical demands of colonizing new lands.  As the rest of Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, these early discourses on the nature of conquest put Spain and Portugal in positions of leadership and dominance with regard to extending their trading empires beyond the boundaries of Europe. 

  • Under the new unified Spanish Crown, seven centuries of Moorish rule came to a bloody end at the battle of Grenada in 1492.
  •  The Spanish Inquisition gave Muslims and Jews a clear choice; either conform to the teachings of the Vatican, or flee.  Most fled.
  • The bloody intrigues between petty princes and minor kings, scattered across Europe, would be the midwives of nationhood that would begin to draw the new geo-political boundaries of Renaissance Europe. 

         In addition to these transformative events, Isabella and Ferdinand blessed (and financed) Columbus' bold voyage in search of a shorter route to the Indies.  If successful, it would enable Spain to leapfrog over the Portuguese colonies in Africa.  To underscore the importance of the church in any discussions of Spanish conquest and colonizing enterprise, the queen instructed Columbus to submit his proposal to a court of priests and canon law scholars, who granted their permission.

Ferdinand And Isabella

         Before Columbus had even returned from his first voyage, the Spanish crown had sent envoys to the Vatican with draft documents of title confirming Spain's right to Columbus' discoveries in the New World.  Spain's quick action demonstrates the importance that was attached to the legitimizing function played by the papacy in the Discovery Era.  It just so happened that the new pope, Alexander VI, was the Spanish prelate Rodrigo Borgia.  Never would he have become pope without the support of Isabella and Ferdinand.