Authors: Carl Zimmer
The good man of good race always returns to his origins,” he wrote, “whereas the miserable man, of bad race or lineage, no matter how powerful or how rich, will always return to the villainy from which he descends.”
In the late 1400s, Jews in Spain found themselves defined as a race of their own. For centuries, Jews across Europe had been tormented for all sorts of concocted crimes against Christians. In fifteenth-century Spain, thousands of Jews tried to escape this persecution by converting to Christianity,
The self-proclaimed “Old Christians” remained hostile, rejecting the idea that Jews could escape their sinful inheritance with a mere oath. Nor could their children, for that matter, because Jewish immorality was
carried in their blood and embedded in their seed, passed down from one generation to the next. “
From the days of Alexander up till now, there has never been a treasonous act that did not involve a Jew or his descendants,” the Spanish historian Gutierre DÃaz de Games declared in 1435.
Spanish writers began referring to unconverted
alike as the Jewish “race.” Christian men were warned not to have children with a woman of the Jewish race, in the same way that a fine stallion shouldn't be bred with a mare from a lower caste. In 1449 the Spanish city of Toledo began turning this hostility into law, decreeing that even a trace of Jewish blood disqualified a subject from holding office or marrying a true Christian.
The ban spread across Spain, expanding its scope along the way. Jewish blood now barred people from getting university degrees, inheriting estates, or even entering some parts of the country. In order to define Jews as a separate race, the majority of Spain had to define itself as a race of its own. Noble families now claimed that their genealogies extended back to the Visigoths. They boasted of the cleanliness of their blood, known as
limpieza de sangre
. They extolled the pale skin of Old Christians, which revealed the
blue bloodâcoursing in the vessels beneath. The phrase would survive for centuries and cross the Atlantic, becoming a label for upper-class New Englanders.
Official certificates of purity were required for marriages between powerful Spanish families and for lucrative government posts. The Spanish Inquisition would follow up with their own detective work, getting testimony from relatives and neighbors. The inquisitors would investigate any rumor of Jewish ancestryâa report that an ancestor worked as
a clothes merchant or a moneylender could be enough to arouse suspicion. The discovery of even a single Jew in one's ancestry could spell doom. Wealthy families would hire special race researchers, called
to marshal proof of their
limpieza de sangre
. Of course, just about every noble family actually
did have some Jewish ancestry. The
grew rich by inventing chronicles that left it out.
The label of race emerged around the time that Europeans began colonizing other parts of the world. They discovered more people to whom they could attach the label.
I have found no monsters,” Christopher Columbus wrote in a letter from the Caribbean in 1493. Instead of Cyclopses or Amazons, he encountered people, whom he named Indians. Columbus was not sure what to make of them at first. They seemed to flout Aristotle's rule about skin color: Even though they lived under a fierce sun, their skin was not black like that of Africans. They lacked clothes, steel, or weapons. Yet Columbus was impressed by their skill in building and piloting canoes. “A galley could not compete with them by rowing, because they travel incredibly fast,” he said. “They are of subtle intelligence and can find their way around those seas.”
While Columbus may have found some things to admire in the Native Americans he encountered, he didn't hesitate to force them into slavery. He dispatched some to work on farms or in mines; he sent hundreds more to Spain to be sold, although most died during the voyage across the Atlantic. Conquistadors and settlers followed Columbus's example. While some theologians pleaded that they treat Native Americans more humanely, others justified slavery by race.
They declared Native Americans to be natural slaves, incapable of reason and designed by God to serve European masters.
For them there is no tomorrow and they are content that they have enough to eat and drink for a week,” wrote the Spanish jurist Juan Matienzo. “
Nature proportioned their bodies so that they should have strength for personal service,” said another scholar. “The Spaniards, on the other hand, are delicately proportioned, and were made prudent and clever, so that they should be able to lead a political and civil life.”
Yet Native Americans suffered so badly from new diseases and hard labor that their population collapsed. In response, Charles V outlawed their slavery, although many ended up as impoverished peasants toiling on haciendas.
Now a new supply of workers had to be imported to take their place:
For centuries, a vigorous slave trade had moved people out of sub-Saharan Africa into Europe, the Near East, and South Asia. The enslavers justified the practice by dehumanizing the enslaved. In 1377, the Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun, declared that Africansâas well as Slavs, another enslaved populationâ“
possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.” But Khaldun still subscribed to a Hippocratic view of heredity. The black Africans who moved north into the cold climate of Europe, Khaldun claimed, were “found to produce descendants whose colour gradually turned white.”
Muslims first brought African slaves into Spain in the eighth century, and their numbers grew as Portuguese traders captured Africans and brought them back to Europe. And yet the social boundaries between slavery and freedom remained loose. Some slaves of African ancestry gained their freedom and spent the rest of their lives alongside Europeans. Some joined the crews that sailed with Columbus to the New World.
As slave traders began shipping their cargo
straight to Brazil, Peru, and Mexico, Europeans developed more enduring justifications of slavery. Some declared it a curse that Africans inherited from their biblical ancestors. Theologians had long claimed that Africans were
the descendants of Ham, one of Noah's sons. After Ham saw his father naked, Noah cursed him, declaring that Ham's own son, Canaan, would never know freedom. “A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers,” Noah said.
In the 1400s, European scholars revived the story of Ham, casting it as the foundation of a distinct race, its cursed essence marked by dark skin. In 1448, the Portuguese scholar Gomes Eanes de Azurara wrote that because of Ham's sin, “his race should be subject to all the other races of the world.
And from this race these blacks are descended.”
Of all the powerful families in Europe, none worked as hard to keep themselves free of hereditary taint as the Habsburgs. Their blood ran blue, as their detailed genealogies could attest. To maintain their
purityâand to keep the world's greatest empire intactâthe Habsburgs only married among themselves. Cousins married cousins. Uncles married nieces. And yet the more time passed, the more the Habsburgs of Spain became burdened with hereditary suffering. The Habsburg jaw was the most prominent of their afflictions. Scientists have examined the paintings of Philip II and the other Habsburg kings to make a diagnosis, and they now suspect that the Habsburgs did not actually have an enlarged lower jaw so much as
a small upper jaw that failed to develop to its full size. Philip II also suffered from other troubles familiar to the Habsburg family, including asthma, epilepsy, and melancholy.
To protect the family's power, Philip II married Maria Manuela, his first cousin. Genetically speaking, though, she was even more closely related than that. Philip's parents, Charles and Isabella, were also first cousins, while Maria Manuela's own parents were Charles and Isabella's siblings. Her father was Isabella's brother, and her mother was Charles's sister. The result of this close union was a sickly son born in 1545,
Don Carlos. The right side of his body was less developed than the left, causing him to walk with a limp. He was born with a hunchback and a kind of deformed rib cage called pigeon chest.
Don Carlos was ten when his father became king. The boy wailed inconsolably and often refused to eat. But his many troubles didn't stop Philip from naming Don Carlos his “universal heir” at age twelve, destined to inherit all the kingdoms Philip had inherited from his own father, Charles.
By the time Don Carlos was nineteen, however, it was obvious to everyone, his father included, that something was very wrong. One visitor to the Spanish court wrote, “He is still like a child of seven years.” Philip himself agreed. “Although other children develop late,” the king wrote, “God wishes that mine lags far behind all others.”
In his early twenties, Don Carlos grew violent. He once hurled a servant out of a window for displeasing him. He wasted hundreds of thousands of ducats. He tried to kill a nobleman. Philip decided that his son's “natural and unique temperament” would never change, and that he could not be allowed to rule. The king put on a suit of chain mail, assembled a group of
armed courtiers, and stormed his son's room. They nailed Don Carlos's windows shut, removed all the weapons, papers, and treasure from the prince's room, and turned it into a prison cell. Don Carlos died there a few weeks later, on July 24, 1568, at age twenty-three.
Philip II remarriedâthis time choosing his own niece, Anna of Austria. In 1578, they had a son, Philip III, who succeeded his father twenty years later. Philip III married a cousin of his own and ruled till 1621, whereupon his own son, Philip IV, took over. It was during Philip IV's reign that the Spanish Empireâlong the greatest power on Earthâwent into decline. The Spanish army grew weak, and Portugal slipped from Philip IV's grasp. Gold and silver continued to arrive from the New World, but it headed straight to bankers elsewhere in Europe rather than enriching the people of Spain, who suffered from plagues and famines.
Philip IV was insulated from the chaos within the confines of his huge palace. He hung masterpieces by Rubens on the walls and listened to poets sing his praises. They called him the Planet King. The endless pageantry was disturbed only by the king's worry that his planetary throne might slip out of Habsburg hands if he didn't produce a son and heir.
Along with the Habsburg jaw and other ailments, the dynasty began to suffer an increasing number of miscarriages and infant deaths. Although they were among the most pampered people on Earth at the time, they suffered
a higher rate of infant mortality than Spanish peasant families. Philip IV's first wife, Elisabeth of France, had a long string of miscarriages and babies who died young before her death in 1644. Their son, Balthasar Charles, managed to survive to age seventeen before dying of smallpox in 1646. The Habsburg dynasty now faced a crisis: It had no heir to succeed Philip IV after his death.
After Balthasar's death, Philip IV married his son's fiancÃ©eâand his own nieceâMariana. In 1651 she bore the king a daughter, Margaret Theresa, who would survive for twenty-two years. But over the following years, she had two more children who died young. In 1661, when their son, Philip Prospero, died at age four, Philip IV blamed their deaths on his lust for actresses.
When we look back to the seventeenth century, it can be hard to understand why Philip IV didn't recognize that the heredity of his family was to blame. But hardly anyone at the time thought about heredity this way during the years of the Habsburg dynasty. One of the few exceptions was the writer Michel de Montaigne, who published an essay in 1580 called “Of the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers.”
Montaigne was a French courtier who retired from political life in 1571 to sit in a castle tower and reflect on vanity and happiness, on liars and friendship. While he found comfort in this solitude, pain intruded on his contemplation from time to time, thanks to his kidney stones. One day, Montaigne transformed the stones into grist for an essay.
“It is likely I inherited the gravel from my father,” Montaigne guessed, “for he died sadly afflicted by a large stone in the bladder.” Yet Montaigne had no idea how one could inherit a disease, as opposed to a crown or a farm. His father had been in perfect health when Montaigne was born, and remained so for another twenty-five years. Only in his late sixties did his kidney stones first appear, and they then tormented him for the last seven years of his life.
“While he was still so remote from the disease,
how could the light trifle of his substance out of which he built me convey so deep an impress?” Montaigne wondered. “Where could the propensity have been brooding all this while?”
Simply musing in this way was a visionary act. No one in Montaigne's day thought of traits as being distinct things that could travel down through generations.
People did not reproduce; they were engendered. Life unfolded as reliably as the rising of bread or the fermenting of wine. Montaigne's doctors did not picture a propensity lurking in parents and then being reproduced in their children. A trait could not disappear and be rediscovered, like a hidden letter. Doctors did sometimes observe certain diseases that were common in certain families. But they didn't think very much about why that was so. Many simply turned to the Bible for guidance, citing
the passage telling of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
Whatever Montaigne's doctors might have said about his father's kidney stones, he probably would have dismissed it. He hated doctors, like his father and grandfather before him. “My antipathy against their art is hereditary,” he said.
Montaigne wondered if such an inclination could be inherited, along with diseases and physical traits. But how all of that could be carried from one generation to another in a seed, Montaigne could not begin to imagine. “The doctor who can satisfy me on this point I'll believe as many miracles of as he pleases,” he promised, “provided he does not give meâas doctors usually doâa theory more intricate and fantastic than the thing itself.”