By Matthew Hughes
Published Online, 2012
Introduction: On 22 April 1532, the Holy Office of the Inquisition detained María de Cazalla for “being a heretic, an apostate from [the] Holy Catholic Faith, an abettor and defender of heretics, and a defamer of the Holy Office and its ministers and officials, [holding and believing] in Lutheran errors, and those of people called alumbrados but who rather should be called blind, and other types of heresy.” Over the next two years, inquisitors would interrogate and torture María in hopes of restoring her to the orthodox fold. At the end of it all, they failed in convicting this alumbrada, instead abjuring her de levi and fining her one hundred ducats.
The process of María de Cazalla is an example of the episodic campaigns of detection and repression launched by the Inquisition against those known as alumbrados or “illuminated ones.” The alumbrado movement occupied an ambiguous middle ground for inquisitors, who deemed some (but not all) of them heterodox, who recognized some of their leadership as conversos, and who mistook some of their beliefs for the luteranismo that the inquisitorial core so roundly condemned. Josè Nieto captured the sensibilities of modern historians when he described the contest between Inquisition and alumbrados as “one of the most bizarre cases in the religious history of Spain.”
But just how bizarre were these “illuminated ones”? No medieval inquisition ever reached the kingdom of Castile until the late fifteenth century, unlike the Crown of Aragón where the inquisitorial probe uncovered various forms of propheticism and Lullism around a century earlier. To ascribe the alumbrados a peculiar position in the religiosity of the sixteenth century would be off the mark, for their practices echoed many traditional aspects of medieval spirituality. In comparing the trial of María de Cazalla with Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, one of the most notable works of medieval mysticism, the present study aims to demonstrate how the main components of alumbradismo may be discerned in a single normative example of medieval mystical theology. Limitations of space require the focus on two fundamental aspects: the practice of spiritual abandonment to the love of God, and the superiority of an interiorized spirituality grounded in severe self-abnegation. Although the alumbrados practiced certain fundamental elements of Christian mysticism, they should be remembered not as mystics, but rather as radical, modern evangelical thinkers inspired by the literal message of sacred texts.
The sixteenth century in Spain manifested many difficulties for inquisitors. Here is a time of transition from old to new; from medieval to modern; a period of dynamism marked by fierce religious enthusiasm and political unrest as seen in the Comuneros revolt in the early 1520’s. Cultural advancements resulting from scientific breakthroughs and globalization through the discovery of the New World transformed the world into a casa común o comunidad humana. The contagious germ of religious fervor filled the air as prophetic apocalypticism, and illuminated beatas flourished amidst the wider European thought explosions initiated by the Devotio Moderna. Fully invested in its paranoid campaign of limpieza de sangre, the Inquisition fought to preserve the purity of Spanish Christianity against the taint of Judaism and—from around 1520 onwards—the specter of luterantismo, the humanist teachings of Erasmus, and just about anything heterodox through what some have called a “pedagogy of fear.” Indeed, given the mere scope of issues touched upon within the process of María de Cazalla alone, we are given insight into the grave confusion ambiental reigning during the time of the alumbrados.