Friday, January 05, 2018

Purity of Blood?


atlasobscura |  The phrase limpieza, “purity of blood,” came into common use in the sixteenth century. The phrase was understood literally, not metaphorically: Medical belief held that blood was the principal of four humors in the body, because it circulated the other humors. Blood therefore played an essential role in establishing a person’s character.

The most important conflict over limpieza discrimination came in the mid-16th century. The Toledo archbishop, Juan Martínez Silíceo, limpieza’s strongest proponent, recommended imposing purity-of-blood restrictions in his archdiocese.

The most prominent cleric to resist this was Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. Loyola befriended Spanish conversos at the University of Paris, who eventually became some of the founding members of the Jesuits. Diego Lainez, a converso, succeeded Loyola as the order’s superior general.

The prominence of conversos within the Jesuits meant it was inevitable that the order would come into conflict with Archbishop Silíceo. Silíceo banned members of the order from acting as priests without first being personally examined by him. Jesuits could only win Silíceo’s favor by adopting limpieza, and Loyola refused to comply. This significantly impeded the growth of the order in Spain.

But the resonances of Spanish limpieza restrictions went far beyond their effect on the Jesuit order. Iberian initiatives—African race slavery, the discovery of America, the development of plantation agriculture—made limpieza a force in the development of anti-black racism.

Beginning in the 1440s, Spain and Portugal entered the African slave trade, formerly dominated by Islamic countries. The discovery of America and the development of plantation agriculture considerably expanded African slavery. Between 1500 and 1580 Spain shipped approximately 74,000 African people to America; this number increased to approximately 714,000 between 1580 and 1640.

Along with slavery, Spain exported limpieza. In 1552, the Spanish Crown decreed that emigrants to America must furnish proof of limpieza. The Spanish deployed limpieza throughout Spanish America and the Portuguese adopted it in Brazil. In its new environment, limpieza began to mutate, beginning to refer to an absence of black blood as well as an absence of Jewish blood.

In both cases, the idea was that “impure” blood could taint a person’s character. In 1604, historian Fray Prudencio de Sandoval compared the impure natures of blacks and Jews: “Who can deny that in descendants of Jews there persists and endures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude and lack of understanding, just as in the Negroes [there persists] the inseparability of their blackness. For if the latter should unite themselves a thousand times with white women, the children are born with the dark color of the father. Similarly, it is not enough for the Jew to be three parts aristocrat or Old Christian, for one Jewish ancestor alone defiles and corrupts him.”

The main target of limpieza in the Americas was black blood. Limpieza was used to discriminate against Africans both to justify race slavery and to enforce the distinctions that a race slave system required.