There’s nothing quite like studying history to change your life. No, I don’t mean this in the “those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” divination of your future. Just as surely as language is equal parts communication and personal identification, a good analysis of history is a combination of knowledge and deep perspective that tells you something about yourself. It’s not about predicting the future, it’s about how you fit into the world right now.
My daughter had a simple assignment in school: find a figure to research thoroughly enough to write a convincing monologue for a kind of pageant where all the students would act out historical figures. She wound up being more or less assigned Ysabella, aka Isabella, Queen of Castille and Aragon, when no better ideas came to mind. It seemed as good as any other figure.
The problem with Ysabella soon became obvious. Her main stepping-stone to power and fame was the Spanish Inquisition. In addition, she was the key backer of Christopher Columbus and the process that gradually enslaved a hemisphere. How do you portray a person that, as far as you can tell, should have been tried in some kind of court for Crimes Against Humanity?
My daughter learned quickly that as hard as the monologue was starting to sound, history itself is even harder. It turns out that the Spanish Inquisition was Ysabella’s idea because there so many smaller, scattered pogroms going on throughout the country. As Queen, it seemed natural to take this popular uprising and, through the blessing of the church, turn it into a vehicle for unifying the nation. Ysabella didn’t invent the Inquisition, but actually learned how to tame and use it. The carnage was probably reduced because of her action.
This was consistent with Ysabella’s main motivations: to unite what we call Spain and to save people through the salvation of the Church. We naturally see her methods as brutal, but they were consistent and demonstrate a determination not seen in monarchs before or after her. In fact, her pairing with Ferdinand of Aragon saw Ysabella as by far the senior partner, using Ferdinand largely as a figurehead in a male world.
Her action in the New World is also more complex. Yes, Spain did loot Peru and other places and was generally not kind to the natives. However, it was Ysabella who prohibited slavery and had Conquistadores put on trial for brutality – including Columbus. She was probably the only moderating force of any real weight in the whole operation.
What does this mean to my daughter or anyone else today? It’s easy to see the Spanish Inquisition as brutal and simply wrong, but much harder to understand it in context. People do things for reasons, and if you want to prevent something horrible from happening you have to understand the reasons why horrible things happen. Go one level deeper, and you can see that while actions may easily be judged as right or wrong, what’s inside a person takes a lot more understanding.
I’m happy with what my daughter is learning at Great River School, a charter school here in Saint Paul. It may seem a bit against the grain, but that’s only natural. A long list of facts prepared by someone else isn’t history – it’s the search for understanding that takes us right up today that really makes a history lesson.
Even I learned a little something. I didn’t realize Ysabella’s contribution had as much nuance and potential some positive effects. I think this is history well-taught!
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