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F or centuries, visitors from the rest of Europe were disgusted by Spain. The problem was not that city streets remained unpaved, or that its rough mountain roads could not accept wheeled carriages. The insinuation was that Spain was not a proper European country.
How could it be, if it put up with such people? Europeans were meant to be Christians. England, for example, had done the same thing two centuries earlier. Isabella and her husband followed this up with forcible conversions of Spanish Muslims. The human cost was ghastly. But, it was thought, Spain was finally pure. Spain had long hosted the three religions of the book. Jews appeared first, while Roman legionaries brought Christianity and Islam arrived with overwhelming force when north African invaders swept across Spain in the 8th century — giving rise to the long Christian reconquista that Isabella and Ferdinand finished off in Granada.
In Muslim Cordoba, scribes produced 60, books a year, while the largest library elsewhere in Europe boasted just This did not make it a multicultural arcadia. Envious Christian neighbours were regularly whipped up into lynch mobs by populist preachers. That is why many Jews converted in the 14th century. It also explains why the Spanish inquisition was set up — with Isabella believing, in this case wrongly, that most families with Jewish ancestors were fake Christians.
With the moriscos, however, the opposite was true. Few properly embraced Christianity. To contemporaries, then, ethnic and religious cleansers were heroes. Despite the repulsion that it provokes today, the inquisition barely raised eyebrows. It was, in any case, less cruel and bloody than the witch-hunts that swept through much of Europe.
Few years, or places, have packed so many pivotal events into a single year as Spain in He began a world-transforming exchange of plant and animal species between continents, while exporting the terrors of gunpowder, sharpened steel and smallpox.