Pretenders

Kenneth Fowler

  • Ways of Lying: Dissimulation and Conformity in Early Modern Europe by Perez Zagorin
    Harvard, 337 pp, £27.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 674 94834 3
  • Lucrecia’s Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in 16th-Century Spain by Richard Kagan
    California, 229 pp, £24.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 520 06655 3
  • ‘In his Image and Likeness’: Political Iconography and Religious Change in Regenshurg, 1500-1600 by Kristin Zapalac
    Cornell, 280 pp, $29.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 8014 2269 8

Perez Zagorin’s suggestion that the 16th and early 17th centuries, the era which encompassed the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, might aptly be described as the Age of Dissimulation comes in the conclusion to an exhaustive study. This was an age of new spiritual energies, of intensified faith, of heightened religiosity, of new religious sects, an age, in the memorable phrase of Lucien Febvre, ‘that wanted to believe’. The concomitant religious and intellectual intolerance presented those reluctant to conform with the need to equivocate, to dissimulate their true beliefs, a practice which Zagorin demonstrates was debated by theologians, casuists, philosophers and political theorists, who were able to draw upon an inherited literature concerning the legitimacy of deception. This stretched back through Medieval theologians to the Church Fathers and was based almost entirely on Biblical precedents.

We need not be surprised by the phenomenon. Our own century has produced informative instances of dissimulation in the face of persecution, notably in Fascist and Communist dictatorships, and countries under other forms of despotism; even in largely democratic countries citizens have been presented with dilemmas of truth-telling in the face of inquisitions into their political beliefs and affiliations. What distinguishes the period investigated by Zagorin is the scale of the problem, and the immense literature produced to justify or condemn deception. The theory and practice of religious dissimulation in Early Modern Europe were never peculiar to any single religious body. The earliest target of the Spanish Inquisition were the conversos, suspected of secret fidelity to Judaism and referred to as marranos, meaning ‘pigs’ or ‘unclean’. For the most part, however, the need to dissimulate arose from the confessional divisions within Christian society and the enforcement of orthodoxy and conformity by one Christian denomination upon members of another. The Jews could find authority for pretending to be Christians in the writing of the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, who had justified dissimulation on the grounds that the law was different for persons acting under duress rather than voluntarily, and in the distinction between inner intention and outward appearance which was common to Christian justification in the 16th century. Fear and physical danger caused men and women everywhere to disguise their beliefs behind a façade of participation. Fear of poverty, of loss of office or social position, was frequently as potent a factor in favour of dissimilation as fear of martyrdom, and the alternative of flight, recommended by Calvin and other reformers and apologists, merely exacerbated their dilemma.

Zagorin’s detailed investigations take him through the orthodox Churches which emerged from the Reformation – Lutheran, Calvinist, Swiss, Anglican – to the heterodox, dissident, radical wing of the Reformation, which included Spiritualists, Familists, and those who embraced Occultism and Libertinism. Rather fuller treatment is given to the Catholic Recusants in England and the doctrine and practice of mental reservation which was particularly advocated by the Jesuits. While Elizabeth I, unlike contemporary Catholic sovereigns, never instituted any heresy prosecutions or conducted a general inquisition into religious beliefs, her government did demand conformity to the national Church, with fines for non-attendance, the requirement of oaths from ecclesiastics and temporal officers, and it imposed other disabilities against Catholic priests and laymen. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Catholics who went to services of the established Church committed a reserved sin for which only a priest endowed with special authority could grant absolution. While such authority was granted to a number of English clerics, including Father William Allen, who in 1568 founded the seminary in Douai for the training of English missionary priests, and the Jesuit Robert Parsons, the position taken by the Catholic and Protestant authorities alike was that men faced damnation in dissembling their faith. Nevertheless, a way around the dilemma was found in the doctrine of mental reservation, which was most fully developed in this period by the Spanish author Martin de Azpilcueta, otherwise known as Dr Navarrus, whose casuistical Handbook for Confessors and Penitents first appeared in 1549 and had gone through 81 editions by 1625. In his commentary on a chapter in Gratian’s Decretum, Navarrus clearly assumed that the primary definition of a lie was ‘an enunciation contrary to the speaker’s mind rather than a false statement made with the intention to deceive’. Although not the first to enunciate the device of reserving a meaning in the mind to avoid the sin of lying, he elaborated it more fully than his predecessors. On account of the Jesuits’ close association with it, the doctrine became the subject of widespread controversy in England and had reverberations on the Continent because of hostility there towards the Jesuits.

Zagorin may go too far in attributing dissimulation to some of the occultists, libertines and unbelievers whom he sees hiding behind esotericism (Sir Walter Raleigh is a case in point), but his central thesis of the pervasiveness of dissimulation in 16th and 17th-century Europe is certain to stand. While few would argue with his view that Calvin’s dealings with the subject ‘demonstrate both his heroic religious commitment and his moral and intellectual intolerance’, his conclusion that Protestant casuists ‘showed a higher regard for truthfulness as an essential religious and moral obligation’ will doubtless raise some eyebrows. One would have liked to have seen some account taken of the relationship of the religious movements of the 16th century to the spirituality of the later Middle Ages. The sect known as the Family of Love, for instance, significantly centred in the Low Countries, was surely worth treating in this context, especially in view of his argument that ‘the dualism implicit in the spiritualist divorce of spirit from letter offered ingress to a doctrine of dissimulation.’ Had it been so in the 15th century, or was the groundwork somehow different then?

A central figure in the Family of Love was the famous printer and publisher Christophe Plantin, and throughout Zagorin’s pages one is reminded of the importance of printing, more often than not clandestine, to the dissemination of subversive religious ideas and casuistic treatises. Other clandestine literature, intended only for a restricted audience, was circulated in manuscript rather than in print. In his absorbing case-study of the treatment of deviance in Habsburg Spain, Richard Kagan has exploited the trial records of Lucrecia de Leon and her associates, and in particular four registers recording her dreams over a period of two and a half years from November 1587 to her arrest for trial by the Inquisition in Toledo in May 1590. His methodology and approach are essentially those pioneered by Ladurie, Ginzburg and Davis, who utilised similar source material. Lucrecia’s dreams were dictated to several churchmen, notably to Alonso de Mendoza and her confessor. Fray Lucas de Allende (whose interest in them was, to say the least, questionable), and to a secretary from Zamora, Diego de Vitores Texeda, who was employed by Allende and became Lucrecia’s lover.

Prophets and deviants were persecuted throughout Catholic Europe in the 16th century, and nowhere more than in Spain. However, Lucrecia was not just another visionary caught in the Inquisition’s net. The controversial nature of her dreams lay not in any religious content, but in their criticisms of Philip II’s reign (corruption in the Church, oppressive taxes, lack of justice, weak national defence), their references to persons and politics of the day, and the interest taken in them by a powerful group of noblemen at court. Her reputation soared after she predicted the defeat of the Armada almost a year before it set sail for England in 1588, and the seriousness with which her predictions were taken is suggested by the support which she secured at court and the attentions of the royal architect, Juan de Herrera, who designed a ‘bunker’ in the caves overlooking the River Tagus, to be stocked with food, arms and other supplies which would be needed for her and her supporters to survive the invasion and conquest of Spain. Among the most important of these supporters were the members of a confraternity known as the Holy Cross of the Restoration, founded by one of Allende’s closest accomplices, the soldier-astrologer Guillen de Casaos.

Lucrecia herself fits into no obvious category. She had little in common with such Medieval precursors as Hildegard of Bingen, Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. She belonged to no religious order and claimed no spiritual experience. She bore two children by her lover, the second during her imprisonment by the Inquisition. Her millennial perception of Spain’s future came to her in dreams, not visions. Nor does she fit the model of street prophets, who proliferated in Spain and Italy in the 1580s, although she was probably in touch with some of them. She may also have learned about Joan of Arc, and it is striking that she appeared in some of her dreams as a warrior woman come to rescue Spain from its enemies, although the image of the doncella guerrera was a standard Renaissance motif well-known to contemporary Spanish literature. During her trial she argued that she was a weak and unlettered woman manipulated by strong men, that she failed to grasp the significance of her dreams, that Mendoza and Allende had suggested them to her, or that they entered things which she had not recounted: but she also retracted some of this testimony, which was given in the torture chamber.

The motives of Lucrecia’s associates are equally difficult to unravel. Mendoza, Allende and Casaos were all interested in astrology and philosophy, and shared the same fascination with divination and oneiromancy. Mendoza himself was an accomplished scholar and theologian whose interests had led him to embark on writing a life of the street prophet Juan de Dios. It was he who arranged for Lucrecia’s dreams to be transcribed and masterminded their production. However, all three were also sharply critical of Philip II and some of his policies, and in Mendoza’s case Philip’s failure to recommend him for a bishopric may have sharpened criticisms.

Kagan’s account provides new insights into the interaction between city and court in a rapidly expanding Madrid, into the proceedings of the Inquisition, where the case dragged on for more than six years with a remarkable lack of security and often good relations between prisoners and inquisitors, and into contemporary marriage practices. The relationship between Lucrecia and Vitores, who in 1590 ‘gave to each other sworn words and promises of marriage after which they treated each other like man and wife and knew each other carnally, although they did not speak to anyone about it’, reminds one of the Florentine lovers Giovanni and Lusanna whose secret liaison has been superbly reconstructed by Gene Brucker, and it argues the persistence of clandestine marriages in the post-Tridetine period.

A curious omission from Zagorin’s book is any discussion of dissimulation in Reformation Germany, and neither is there any reference to it in Kristin Zapalac’s study of Regensburg. The author seeks to demonstrate changes in religious and political attitudes wrought by Lutheranism, which transformed the relationship between man and God, government and governed, parents and children. In the courtroom the imagery of the Last Judgment gave way to a more humanistic vision of justice. While Professor Zapalac examines the strands of Humanism which mingled with Lutheran piety to transform the vocabulary of political discourse, insufficient weight is given to Renaissance influences. The imported imagery of Good Government is a case in point. Nor is her argument that changes in the language of legal formulae reflected new perceptions on the part of citizens and testators sufficiently persuasive.