Patrick J. O’Banion is a former professor of history. He now teaches church history around the world with Training Leaders International. He is the author of This Happened in My Presence: Moriscos, Old Christians, and the Spanish Inquisition in the Town of Deza, 1569–1611 and The Sacrament of Penance and Religious Life in Golden Age Spain. His new book, Deza and Its Moriscos: Religion and Community in Early Modern Spain, is in the Early Modern Cultural Studies Series.
Not many people have heard of Deza, a small town in Spain’s least-populated region. Nowadays, it’s trying to maintain a grammar school, draw in some tourism, and encourage a few professionals to give up on city life. Most who recognize the placename connect it with the infamous Román Ramírez (1540–99). He was a secret Muslim, town magistrate, renowned folk healer, master storyteller, and—oh, yeah—he kept a demon named Liarde. Thanks to early modern politicians, inquisitors, theologians, poets, playwrights, novelists, and even the gossips who worked Spain’s rumor mill, his name endured the centuries, albeit as a byword.
I’d never heard of Deza or Ramírez (or Liarde, for that matter) until, one spring day in 2006, while living in Madrid, I took the early bus to Cuenca to visit the inquisitorial archives there. On the way, I poured over the catalogue and, while many major cities had only a few dozen entries, I was astonished to find hundreds of references to Deza. What, I wondered, had happened there?
Over the next decade, as I picked at the historical record, I discovered three things: First—and this was pretty obvious—Deza attracted so much inquisitorial attention because it had a relatively large Morisco population. Moriscos were the descendants of Spanish Muslims who were pressured into baptism early in the sixteenth century. For many of Spain’s hundreds of thousands of Moriscos, the conversion only went skin deep, and, a century later, a royal edict ordered their expulsion.
In Deza, these “New Christians” comprised about a quarter of the population, enough for a distinct community and too many to be ignored by their “Old Christian” neighbors. Ramírez was among their number and, at various times in his life, served (albeit informally) as a religious instructor, encouraging Moriscos to reject Christianity and embrace Islam. The Moriscos’ baptisms, imperfect conversions, and ultimate expulsions informed, by way of contrast, what it meant to be truly Spanish. And debates about the Moriscos fed directly into discussions about “race” that helped legitimize the Atlantic slave trade and that undergirded scientific racism in later centuries. In other words, the story of Spain’s Moriscos still resonates.
Second, I discovered that Ramírez’s larger-than-life biography was intractably entwined with those of Deza’s other inhabitants. This may seem dreadfully obvious, but it matters. You see, when it comes to Moriscos, we have lots of graphs and demographic charts and a few anecdotes. We know what their religious and political opponents said about them. We have some anonymous Morisco manuscripts. We know a bit about the lives of a few important individuals, and we have a fair amount of theoretical conjecture about what the rest must have been like. But rarely can we hear any individual members of the larger community speak or interact with others.
Deza’s archival legacy, however, has proved strikingly rich. Over the years, I pieced together diverse snapshots of historical moments from inquisitorial, ducal, municipal, episcopal, parish, private, and various legal archives from all over Spain. Collectively, they provide a window onto the gritty reality of daily life for the town, especially its community of Moriscos. I listened in fascination as the expected storyline of children growing into adulthood, marrying, bearing children, growing old, and dying was filled out with unexpected details of trips abroad, secret trysts, family feuds, inside jokes, heartfelt devotion, tears, foodways, songs, and stories. In other words, Deza helps us hear the voices of a historically anonymous and silent people.
Here’s the third thing. This was the story of a small town and its equally small population of maybe 2,000 inhabitants. But it was also something more than that. Deza had many points of contact with the outside world. Feudal lords, visiting inquisitors, episcopal representatives, Aragones Muslims, purveyors of royal power, and so forth constantly meddled in local affairs. In turn, Deza shaped the world beyond its walls. These trajectories of influence interacted in complex and unexpected ways.
Case in point: In the 1590s, local political enemies denounced Ramírez to the Inquisition. But he diverted the trial away from the region’s Islamic activity, largely by highlighting his status as a repentant diabolist. Ramírez died in custody with his trial incomplete, but the tribunal concluded it posthumously, casting him as the terrifying embodiment of crypto-Islam, diabolism, and anti-monarchicalism. A nominally Christian subject of the Spanish king was thus exposed as having been a secret Muslim capable of deploying demonic power in service to Islamic states bent on political and religious supremacy in the Mediterranean. It was an incendiary combination and Ramírez’s disinterred bones featured as the centerpiece for a moment of staged political theater that steered the king toward his decision to expel all members of that faithless and false community. Back home, news of Ramírez’s condemnation reverberated as well, widening the gulf between Moriscos and their Old Christian neighbors.
The historian Trevor Dadson once lamented that Morisco history is “like a house built the wrong way round, with roof put on before the foundations have been dug and the walls erected.” Scholars have assumed that we know what was actually happening on the ground because we’ve read abstract descriptions and top-down analyses or because, in the absence of sources, we’ve applied critical theory to describe what they must have been like. In either case, we’ve assumed that Moriscos (in Deza and elsewhere) were all of a piece, monolithic, static. They weren’t. There are hundreds of other cities, towns, and villages, like (and unlike) Deza, and the stories of their Morisco communities await the telling.
Like every author, I have all kinds of hopes for my book. Some are personal; many have to do with scholarly debates; a few pertain to more public matters. Of the latter category, my most ambitious hope for Deza and Its Moriscos is that readers, in hearing the stories of this group of forgotten people, will find their ears better tuned to hear the people around them—especially in their neighborhoods and communities. I’m fully aware that this is an absurdly heavy burden for a scholarly monograph to bear. But it is, at least, fitting. After all, the story I tell of Deza is a tragic one, in large part because the townsfolk, both Moriscos and Old Christians, failed to love—and, consequently, to listen to—their neighbors. I’ve often asked myself what sort of intervention might have averted that tragedy in Deza. The answer, I think, is not one single thing, but rather many small ones. And I hope that this book is one small thing that helps us listen better.