Ten Ways to Break the Law in 16th Century Spain
From the perspective of a twenty-first-century secular democracy that upholds religious pluralism, gender equality, and LBGT rights, sixteenth-century Spain was a harsh and unforgiving place. Though some crimes, such as murder and robbery, were crimes just as they are today, others were specific to a Catholic country whose rulers were intent on enforcing absolute religious, cultural, and moral conformity on their subjects, and whose laws often targeted particular ethnic, social, or religious groups considered to be alien or deviant. Here are ten common offenses, some of which may surprise you:
- Eating certain foods: If you were one of the Muslims known as Moriscos, forcibly converted to Catholicism, and you ate couscous—even in your own home—you might find yourself hauled up in front of the Inquisition and accused of worshipping the “sect of Muhammad,” regardless of whether your dietary preferences had any religious significance for you. Moriscos, like converted Jews or conversos, were also liable to arrest if they refused to eat pork.
- Washing and bathing: The old Moorish practice of public bathing was generally frowned upon in sixteenth-century Spain, since public baths were associated with prostitution and immorality. However, Moriscos who performed the full-body guadoc, or even washed their hands and face on a hot day, were often suspected of preparing themselves for Islamic prayer. Case in point: a Morisco woodcutter from Murcia named Juan de Spuche died from torture after being denounced to the Inquisition for washing his face and hands in the 1550s.
- Women walking in public with their faces covered: The wearing of the almalafa—the equivalent of the niqab—by Morisca women was prohibited by various Hapsburg ordinances as a Moorish practice, and punishments could include fines, flogging, or banishment. Christian women who covered their faces with cloaks or veils were also subject to punishment, since they were suspected of engaging in clandestine romantic or sexual liaisons.
- Prostitution during Lent: Prostitutes, or “public women,” were tolerated in Hapsburg Spain, and some towns and cities established their own municipal brothels. Nevertheless, prostitutes were obliged to wear yellow cloaks and confine themselves to designated areas, and were not allowed to practice their profession during Lent or on important religious festivals.
- Reading The Decameron or the Divine Comedy: Both texts were included in the Inquisition’s Index of banned foreign books in an attempt to keep the influence of Protestantism out of Spain. These books were not only religious texts. A 1554 royal ordinance decreed that anyone bringing unlicensed foreign novels into the country would be subject to confiscation of property and the death penalty.
- Homosexuality: An extremely serious offense. Punishable by burning at the stake or by a stretch in the galleys at “the king’s oars”—a punishment intended to provide manpower for the Spanish fleet that frequently amounted to a death sentence.
- Adultery: Cuckolded husbands were legally entitled to kill their wives and their wives’ lovers in a public place, and such executions did occur, though there were also occasions in which the adulterous wife begged her husband for forgiveness and received it.
- Blasphemy: A wide-ranging offense that could include anything from taking the Lord’s name in vain or doubting the existence of God to questioning the Virgin Birth. Dreams and visions with religious content were also considered blasphemous or an expression of dangerous religious individualism. Better not to talk about them.
- Banditry: This endemic threat to public order in sixteenth-century Spain was facilitated by the advent of flintlock weapons (easier to carry out ambushes). Perpetrators included aristocratic “gentleman-bandits,” disgruntled friars, impoverished day laborers, and Moriscos. Their crimes were considered particularly serious because they were committed in despoblado—on the open road or in the wilderness—and therefore beyond the reach of Spanish law. Punishments included hanging, flogging, imprisonment, and the display of the body parts of notorious bandits on the city walls or on the public highway.
- Wearing gold or silver embroidery on your clothing or on your nightclothes: Such adornments were supposedly reserved for royalty and constituted a challenge to the social hierarchy when worn by others. The “abuse and disorder in the matter of clothing and garments” were also regarded as social evils since they led both men and women to “use up their wealth in vain” on articles of ostentatious clothing. Such prohibitions were not effective, and sixteenth-century “bling” remained extremely popular.