Kirstin Downey likes to write about strong women. “The Woman Behind the New Deal” paid overdue tribute to Frances Perkins, the nation’s first female US Cabinet member and architect of the Social Security Act. Downey’s new biography gives similarly appreciative treatment to a leader whose achievements are more controversial: Isabella of Castile, the “warrior queen” who guided the Christian Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula and launched the Spanish Inquisition.
When Perkins rewrote her government’s social contract with its citizens, she gave them unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. When Isabella rewrote her government’s social contract with its Muslim and Jewish citizens, she reneged on the 1491 agreement allowing them religious freedom and ordered them to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Nonetheless, Downey solicits our admiration for a ruler who brought order to the Iberian peninsula and a visionary who financed the overseas expeditions of Christopher Columbus and others that made Spain a world power.
Both the order and the expeditions were directed by Isabella’s fervent religious faith. She believed Spain needed to be unified as an entirely Catholic country and the pagans of the New World brought to Christianity, with the gold extracted from their lands used to pay for the defense of Europe against an expansionist Muslim empire. The “Ottoman Turks seemed on the verge of wiping Christianity off the map,” writes Downey; this overstatement is among several maladroit attempts to provide “context” for Isabella’s actions that often sound more like rationalizations.
Downey doesn’t defend the Inquisition, but such comments as in “most cultures, opposing religious doctrine has been tantamount to defying political authority” and “in those days, there was no presumption of innocence” scant the fact that a good many contemporaries were shocked by its brutal methods — and it’s quite a feat to be criticized by a Borgia for harsh tactics. Nor is it entirely convincing when Downey asserts that Isabella’s husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, was responsible for the Inquisition’s worst excesses, since she otherwise works hard to claim for Isabella alone accomplishments traditionally credited to the couple together.
Generations of schoolchildren were taught that their marriage, uniting Aragon and Castile, inaugurated the Spanish nation-state; Downey correctly insists that Isabella continued to govern larger, more populous Castile on her own. (The inclusion of Ferdinand’s name, always first, on official documents was a symbolic gesture to salve his pride.) Documents from the long, complex negotiations over the marriages of their five children to various European royals also support Downey’s contention that “Isabella was the driving force” in foreign affairs as well as domestic, but it’s misleading to present her use of dynastic alliances to further political goals as a sign of her particular genius; that’s the way diplomacy was conducted in the 15th century.
A veteran journalist usually focused on business and economics, Downey seems off-balance in a field remote from her area of expertise. The cautious, slightly stilted tone here is in marked contrast to the confident panache with which she assessed the personalities and programs of the New Deal. There’s a lot of unnecessary repetition, as if she feared readers would forget from one chapter to the next that the emir of Granada made threats against the Christian kingdom to his north in 1478, or from one page to the next that Queen Urraca ruled Castile from 1109 to 1126. Downey strains to provide fresh material by jarringly inserting 21st-century insights into a 15th-century story. The suggestion that Isabella’s father and half-brother were both sexually abused by older men who became privileged favorites in their governments is at least backed up by some evidence. There’s none for the pop-psych explanation of Isabella’s unease over reports of an Ottoman army massing to attack Rhodes: She was “a new mother with the heightened protective instincts of most women toward their vulnerable young.”
Downey has crafted a capable, thoroughly researched account of Isabella’s life that clearly conveys her crucial role in stopping the Muslim advance into Europe and making Spain a wealthy nation dominant in world affairs for 200 years. It’s understandable that she wants to celebrate a queen who so effectively wielded power at a time when few women did, but Isabella could stand a more critical assessment.
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”