III. Humanism in 16th Century Spain

Reform to doctrine emerged in the early sixteenth century both as a response to the need to evangelize the New World and to eliminate dissension in Iberia. The political policy of the time was clearly centered on economic growth even as spiritual edification grew in importance. At this time, there was no clear distinction between the objectives of church and state.1 There were, however, critiques of both institutions that emerged from the humanist tradition of Erasmus, which ultimately gave rise to the Golden Age of Spain. [15. Amy A. Oliver, ed, The Role of the Americas in History (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1992), 220-222.] Erasmians hoped for mutual understanding and respect based on individualism. Contact with the New World greatly exacerbated their aim for Christian unity based on choice, not coercion.

"Erasmus of Rotterdam." Created by Hans Holbein the Younger. Source

As expressed by Antonio de Montesinos in his 1511 sermon, this vast mission field offered ample opportunity for men to act as the “voice of Christ” to a population not yet reached with the gospel of Christ. 2 This time saw the emergence of charismatic women as teachers of the pursuit of the Holy Spirit and messengers of the power of God’s will to make a difference through even low peasant women. 3 Blind adherence to church doctrine was discouraged by rising humanist thinkers, who instead emphasized the internal condition of an individual’s heart and mind. Mind is of particular note, since this was also an era of intellectual openness and pursuit. Churches were taught to educate all people in the ways of the Catholic faith. Many spaniards built private alters in their homes for individual worship and dance. 4 An edict issued by Inquisitor General Manrique on 23 September 1525 classified this practice as heresy and inquisitors began investigations into the “enlightened” women. 5

"Young Peasant Woman from Spain with Basket of Eggs" by Enea Vico. Emerging religious belief said that even this woman should have the right to navigate her own faith. This was an unorthodox view of religion and would eventually be suppressed by the end of the 16th century. source.

Desiderius Erasmus’s essay, The Praise of Folly, ultimately conveyed a warning against self-deception and offered satirical insight into the absurd piety of the Catholic church in the areas where it sought to cover corrupt practices. 6 Devoutly Catholic, Erasmus was concerned with reforming the church from within. Again, his assertion centers on the idea that the inside of a personis more important than the outside. He asks why priests are never condemned for their sinful actions, when they live in voluntary service to the church, and advises Christians to respect, above all, the authority of scripture. 7

"Page From the Praise of Folly," created by Hans Holbein in 1515. source.

In 1516, Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros oversaw the completion the Polyglot Bible– a project he began and funded. He did so out of a conviction to revive the study of scripture on a grand scale. This piece of literature and the emphasis on mass production of the Bible suggests the importance of individual pursuit of spirituality.

"Biblia polygotta." Alcalá de Henares, Spain: Arnaldi Guillelmi de Brocario, 1514–1517. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. source.

Lazarillo De Tormes, the later work of an anonymous author, served as a critique of the hypocrisy of the church and boldly expressed anti-clericalism. It was apparently greatly influenced by humanist thought, since the main character survives by self-preservation. 8

"Lazarillo de Tormes and His Blind Master" by Theodule-Augustin Ribot c. 1880. This is a later painting based on the mid-16th century work of literature. source.

The flourishing of humanism in the early sixteenth century correlated strongly with the emphasis on individual mission to the New World. For the church and for the state, there was a fine line between wanting Spanish subjects to act out of their own free will and conviction and a desire to maintain orthodoxy.The Council of Trent addressed the latter with official reforms in ernest during the 1560s. 9 Contact with and conquest of the New World significantly complicated the notion of who should possess the right to exercise free will and became a topic for debate in the early sixteenth century.



  1. Hanke, 5.
  2. Hanke, 87-89.
  3. Mary Giles, ed. Women in the Inquisition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 4-5.
  4. Ibid., 9.
  5. Ibid., 4.
  6. Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, trans. John Wilson, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9371 (accessed November 15, 2010).
  7. William Barker, The Adages of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Inc., 2001), 242-252.
  8. Robert S. Rudder, ed. and trans., The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, His Fortunes and Misfortunes as Told by Himself, http://www.lazarillodetormes.com/ingles.htm (accessed November 15, 2010).
  9. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, http://www.archive.org/details/thecatechismofth00donouoft (accessed November 14, 2010).

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