Cause, but Little Effect
What does the date 1492 have to do with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov? It is not a question of tremendous historical importance, yet it is nonetheless linked to a great historical significance, i.e., the meaning, more or less, which should be derived from the interconnected events. Sadly, however, few students of history or literature, or both, could show the link between the year 1492 and Dostoyevsky’s best novel: for the year 1492 was not just when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon America, but also the year in which, fourteen years after the start of the Spanish Inquisition, King Ferdinand II decreed that all Jews were to be expelled from Spain. This promulgation of expulsion did little to solve the conflicts between Catholics and Jews in the greater part of the country, as at least half of the Jews did not leave and were not forced to do so, and many others converted externally but continued to practice Judaism in secret (commonly called a crypto-Jew). Since the Jews were no longer supposed to be in Spain by decree of official authority, their continued residence and frequent false conversions complicated the situation and tensions tightened. As such, combined with international tensions between Spain and almost every other major power of Europe in the middle of the previous millennium, the Spanish Inquisition, particularly the Inquisitors, gained a powerfully negative and ludicrously exaggerated reputation for malevolence. This reputation had a not-insignificant effect on the historians of Europe and America, including W.H. Prescott, who rhetorically dressed the Inquisitor General Valdes in the robes of Satan in his unfinished history: a history read by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and likely, but not definitively, influential upon the story of Ivan Karamazov within The Brothers Karamazov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.”
Clearly, the two things are not definitively, certainly, or inarguably linked. That is not the point behind this little demonstration of seemingly irrelevant knowledge. The point is that most people in America, hearing the date 1492, think, “The year Columbus discovered America!” It is a fact drilled into every student from the time he is 5 until he is 18 – and oftentimes even after that. Sadly, this is considered studying history. Oftentimes, students of the rigorous discipline of brute memorization mistakenly called history can spout out the entire Declaration of Independence, the date of the Battle of Hastings, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the last four years of the First Constitutional Era, the second Caliph of Islam (depending upon which Caliphates he chooses to accept as valid, of course), and the birth date of every member of the Hapsburgs; and yet, he will know less of history than the man who call explain what the year 1492 might have had to do with Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. History, as an academic discipline, is not the study of what happened in what year, with what people involved; those are simply parts of the study of history and are meaningless without the whole, without the seeing of why it is important that some guy crossed a river in a Mediterranean peninsula in the year whatever and other such fascinating non-facts.
Unfortunately, many modern historians, particularly those who like to assist in the composition of the long, droll textbooks which are better suited to physical than intellectual use, having never developed a taste for seeing history as a relation of causes and effects on the intellectual, moral, and material conditions of cultures and societies, often fill in these lacunae with their own twists and turns. Certainly, no history will be truly unbiased, for they are written by men, who are necessarily prejudicial by nature. Nonetheless, insofar as a historian is instructed to see the connections between events and persons, between things far distant that are linked together, he will be more inclined, so long as he is not a man with an agenda of manipulation, to report that which actually happened, and in an interesting and intellectually stimulating way. It is harder for a historian to justify an absurd theory or interpretation when he can see for himself precisely why things were said or done. Perhaps, were fewer historians experts on dates and little else… there would not be so many contradictory reports on history.
(If you want to know more about the Spanish Inquisition, I recommend Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, from Yale University Press. If you want to know more about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, read it. Constance Garnett’s translations of Russian literature are always pleasing).