By Joe Palmer
At least according to the running gag in the hilarious Monty Python sketch. The three actors dressed in snazzy red robes are easy to laugh at with Palin bumbling confusion over how many chief weapons it has, mocking diabolical laughter, and fake torture devices (the dishrack, the soft cushions, and the comfy chair). I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition to appear in a comic, even a Vertigo one, but there they were partway through the first chapter arc in Madame Xanadu written by Matt Wagner.
Tragically, the historical Inquisitors have nothing in common with the comedic cut-ups except the red robes. The office of the Spanish Inquisistion was created by the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinad, the same couple who financed Columbus’ voyage to the New World. As Columbus sailed, the monarchs cleansed the last Spanish region of Moors, ending centuries of Arab rule. A post 9-11 mindset only reinforces a subtle Judeo-Christian attitude that ending Arab rule would be a positive accomplishment,
This was not the reality for Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism or be exiled or for another minority group of particular relevance to us today: sodomites (gay men) and tribads (lesbians). While in many respects this was the dawn of a Golden Age for Spain, it was also the start of a reign of oppression and terror at the hands of the ecclesiastical Inquistion whose sole purpose was to enforce and maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Today we decry the extremism of Iranian ayatollahs or the Taliban all the while thinking we’re superior in that such horrors could never happen in the West because we’ve still an implicit religious conceit. The truth is horrific, rarely acknowledged horrors were done by the Catholic Church to people accused of heresy and sodomy for which, to my knowledge, it has never apologized.
The flashback in Wagner’s story informs us the date is 1493. Tomas de Torquemada, emblazoned in his red robe, stands over two males Jews stripped to loincloths. They’re accused of defying the Alhambra Decree (enacted March 31, 1492) which stated any Jew who wished to stay within the Spanish domain must convert to Catholicism or be exiled. This order is also known as the Edict of Expulsion as it created a mass exodus of Jews bound for Northern Africa and parts of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe where they intermingled with already established Jewish communities. The decree also stripped Jews who left of any gold or silver. Those who converted,as well as the converted Muslims, were the objects of suspicion and bigotry as a new desire for conformity and purity intensified. Outsiders of German, French, or English nationalities were suspect of promoting Lutheranism while Italians and Muslims of sodomy.
One of Wagner’s Jews confesses while the other remains defiant, an act which condemns both men to death by burning at the stake. The condemned’s cart winds its way out of town, going past Madame Xanadu and Marisol, a female companion who explains the men’s dire circumstances. “Novia”, a Spanish word spoken by Marisol caught my attention here. The definition being romantic partner or girlfriend. A close up on their hands as part (Marisol to make a delivery and Xanadu to gather “special ingredients) only emphasized my suspicion that these two women are more than friends.
Arriving at the church, Marisol is instructed to deliver the vestments she’s sewn directly to the head priest, Torquemada. While the quality of the liturgical garments exceed Torquemada’s expectations, Marisol comes under suspicion of witchcraft because of her red hair and needle pricks on her thumb. Only Marisol’s assertion that the priest in nearby Tomares hears her confessions eases the Inquisitor’s apprehension. Marisol relates the unsettling incident to Xanadu’s upon returning to the humble cottage they’ve shared for six years. During Marisol’s absence, Xanadu has brewed a batch of her life extending elixir from the ingredients found in her foraging, and she offers a cup to Marisol. Apparently it also acts as an aphrodisiac as Marisol attests the drink makes her “downright wanton”. Their amorous kiss on the last page confirmed my hope that these two are indeed romantically involved.
Their closely guarded secret will likely lead to their undoing though because two spying children have observed the women embracing. Tragedy befalling LGBT characters in stories is all too often tiresome. However, I’m quite interested to read how Wagner brings Xanadu and Marisol’s lives into conflict with the Spanish Inquisition over the next four issues of this story arc. To my knowledge this will be the first time a comic has dealt with the consequences to gays and lesbians during the Inquisitions. Such consequences were often dire and fatal, as the Siete Partidas (Seven Part Code) enacted circa 1265 by Alfonso X made sodomites the scapegoat for natural disasters and prescribed punishments for these acts which surely were the result of God’s anger with these crimes against nature. Did you think this was Jerry Falwell’s original idea? It is the seventh Partida that deals specifically with sodomy, rape, incest, witchcraft, procuring, heresy, blasphemy, and suicide. According to Wikipedia, punishments included:
Death or loss of a limb
Life of labor
Permanent exile with confiscation of property
Permanent exile without confiscation of property
Infamy or loss of office
Public flagellation, wounding, or naked exhibition while covered with honey to attract flies
The last three punishments were reserved for lesser crimes. Louis Compton, in his “Homosexuality and Civilization” illustrates the gruesomeness with a recount of German Hieronymus Munzer’s account of seeing six naked corpses “hanging upside down with their genitals about their necks” in the small town of Almeria in 1495. An edict issued by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1497 mandated that anyone convicted of “pecado nefando” “shall be burned in flames of fire.” The same fate could await anyone who attempted to commit sodomy. A provision that conveniently allowed the royal treasury to confiscate the property of the convicted proves greed is one of the seven deadly sins, just not for the hoarder.
Several years ago there was an outcry from some gay quarters accusing Marvel of torturing, killing or maiming a number of its LGBT characters such as Freedom RIng, Frenchie DuChamp, Wiccan, and either Moondragon or Quasar in various stories. While I found the objections relatable, I also understood Joe Quesada’s assertion that bad things can happen to good characters, even LGBT characters. It will certainly be a tragedy if public humiliation, torture, and death awaits Marisol (as we know Xanadu is alive in the 21st century), but it will be relevant and warranted for its fictional portrayal and bringing to light of such grim and historical events.
This June 28th marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Much progress has been made in four decades, but there is much more to be accomplished. However, the history of persecution against the LGBT community began long before Stonewall, before the foundings of the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE, before the flourishes briefly expressed during the somewhat laissez-faire attitude of the Harlem Renaissance, and still before the days when Verlaine and Rimbaud were in love and Oscar Wilde was imprisoned over an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. While you’re contemplating your plans for Gay Pride you might consider reading up on LGBT history. The not light summer reading, both Homosexuality and Civilization and Gay Life and Culture – A World History edited by Robert Aldrich are good starting points.