An Edifying Human Sacrifice

Last post I dealt with some of the methodological problems raised by working on the history of sexuality from a cross-cultural perspective. Today, we will get our hands dirty with a case study, and see what happens when we start to dig into the sources.

We’ll start with the story of Hamete, a Muslim slave who converted to Christianity right before being burned at the stake for the crime of sodomy in Catholic Spain in 1616. This case shows the role played by the control of sexuality within a context of religious conflicts. Hamete was prosecuted along with other Christian defendants, but the treatment he received was far more severe than that suffered by his accomplices. Moreover, his conversion was performed publicly to restore the moral order of a society that felt its balance being threatened by transgressive sexual behaviours and religious intermingling. As a historian, however, I do not want to write Hamete’s hagiography. After all, among his charges was the attempted abuse of a child. What is relevant to notice, though, are the authorities’ biased attitudes towards him, and the symbolic role of his conversion. Hamete, the stranger, was a scapegoat, and his death was staged theatrically as a sign of divine intervention in a corrupted world, which would supposedly reinstate both religious and social order.

First of all, let’s try to understand the context. How could a case like this take place in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century? During the middle ages, the Iberian peninsula—back then known as Al-Andalus—was under Muslim rule. Despite the ongoing war carried on by Christian armies against Muslims, in Al-Andalus Jewish and Christian minorities were governed by their own laws and authorities. Though marked by recurring outbreaks of violence, this experience represents the most enduring historical example of cultural coexistence in the Mediterranean region. This situation began to deteriorate around the fourteenth century, and came to an end in the fifteenth, when the Catholic monarchy gained control of the whole Iberian Peninsula with the conquest of the Muslim emirate of Granada (1492). Christians began to persecute Jewish and Muslim religious minorities, forcing their conversion to Christianity. The entire history of early modern Spain is the history of that trauma. In Spain, the Muslim population was forced either to embrace the Christian faith or to migrate by an edict of the 12 February 1502. The political option of mass conversions generated an ongoing conflict between the Christian majority and the moriscos population. Moriscos were forced to give up not only their beliefs, but also their language, clothes, make-up, hairstyles, habits, and diet. Every manifestation of cultural diversity was potentially seen as proof of religious and social transgression. This conflict came to an end when King Philip III, in 1609, undertook the radical decision to definitively expel the moriscos from the soil of Spain.

In this context, sexuality played a crucial role in exerting social control over religious minorities. Since the middle ages, a long-lasting tradition of anti-Islamic literature associated Muslims with sexual transgression. The accusation of sodomy took centre stage in these accusations. Beyond the rhetoric of polemicists, this attitude concretely influenced the administration of criminal justice in Spain. Quantitative analysis of the inquisitorial trials in Valencia shows that Moriscos, Muslims, and black men were the most strictly prosecuted for the “nefarious crime” of sodomy.

Hamete, first arrested in Seville for an attempted rape against a child, confessed to many other crimes. He admitted he had been paid by a Christian nobleman to be his active partner in several homosexual encounters. The noble, Pedro Dávila, succeeded in escaping trial, running away from Seville and taking refuge in Italy (1). Their story is narrated by Pedro de León, a Jesuit who at the time served as a confessor in Seville’s jail. He reported how he had taken Hamete “in his hands” to catechize him. “John the Baptist” was Hamete’s new Christian name. León was surprised to see “how eager he was to become a Christian.” The “desired” baptism took place the same day Hamete had to mount the steps to the scaffold (2). At 4:30 in the morning, the convicted travelled the route from the infirmary to the chapel of the jail, which had been adorned for the occasion with golden and silver plates and sumptuous curtains. Hamete’s own look was embellished by a garland of flowers. With his prayers, the godfather (the administrator of the jail) helped the new convert thank God “for the rich gifts he shared with him, by making him a Christian” (3).

After the sacrament was administered, the scene moved to the public stage. Four members of the Society of Jesus carried Hamete/John to the scaffold. The crowd admired the way he looked after the conversion and praised the lord for already “seeing him going to heaven straightened” (4). Before the ultimate sacrifice, he was asked again if he had anything to complain about, or if he felt any anger in his heart, but “with great joy”—and here de León reports a direct speech that mocks the ungrammatical Spanish of a non-native speaker— he replied that no, he did not have any “bad thought”, all “was beautiful,” “all good going to God,” “baptism water to wash all evil” (5). Everyone felt deeply moved, and also—with shameless bad taste, at the very least—envious of the destiny of “this man,” who was “a Turk until few hours before,” and was then worthy to be admitted to Paradise.

A horrific detail sealed León’s narrative of the event: after being burned at the stake, the slaughtered body was not so hideous (“tan feo”) as others used to be after the fire: his mouth was closed and his face looked quiet (6). After describing the execution, de León’s report turned into an astonished reflection on the mysteriousness of God’s ways, who mercifully saved some unbelievers by means of fire, consenting at the same time to the eternal condemnation of the free-born Christian who decided to run away.

Pedro de León radically opposed the “edifying” tale of the Muslim slave’s conversion to Christianity and the path of abjection undertaken by the runaway. In de León’s account, the Muslim slave burned at the stake in the public square is living proof that “the last are blessed because they shall be first,” but only after a disciplinary intervention that makes them “straight” (se iba al cielo derecho) by means of fire (7).

Many layers are intertwined in this complex narrative. The public mise-en-scene of the execution worked as a catharsis: those who were perceived as a threat to the social order were also the ones who would restore and reinforce it through their sacrifice. Clearly, Father de León had no doubts: the action of the judges and the performative power of the law derives directly from God’s will. The fact that many noblemen were able to escape the consequences of a trial because of their favourable social position is not even taken into account by the Jesuit. He also ignored the possibility that some non-Christians would have converted so as to, at least, avoid the horrible suffering of being burned alive.

The purifying fire not only worked as a deterrent. It also had the function of reinforcing the hierarchical order that regulated social relations between Christians and Muslims in Spanish society. Hamete’s sin was that he penetrated a Catholic nobleman, thereby completely subverting both religious hierarchies and the idealized conceptions of masculinity among the Spanish aristocracy, which was densely influenced by the military myth of the Reconquista of Spain against the Muslim “occupation.” On the other hand, Pedro Dávila “humiliated” himself by paying to be sexually penetrated by a Muslim man. According to the moral codes of the time, his subversion deserved the worse of the moral condemnations. Following León’s account, Hamete is, indeed, the “spiritual winner” of the story. However, the reality behind the narrative is that his social position granted Dávila impunity, while Hamete had to suffer the horrible agony of fire at the stake.

This blog is a translated adaptation of parts of my book: U. Grassi, Sodoma. Persecuzioni, affetti, pratiche sociali, Roma, Carocci, 2019

Suggested readings:

On Spain and Religious minorities:

David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996

David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago, University of Chicago, 2014

Mercedes García-Arenal (ed.), After Conversion: Iberia and the Emergence of Modernity, Leiden, Brill, 2016

On sodomy in Spain:

Rafael Carrasco, Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia. Historia de los sodomitas, (1565-1785), Barcelona, Laertes, 1985

Cristian Berco, ‘Social Control and its Limits: Sodomy, Local Sexual Economies, and Inquisitors during Spain’s Golden Age’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 36, no. 2 (2005), 331-358

Vincenzo Lavenia, ‘Sessualità, islamofobia e inquisizioni nell’Europa moderna’, in Le trasgressioni della carne. Il desiderio omosessuale nel mondo islamico e cristiano, secc. XII-XX, eds. Umberto Grassi and Giuseppe Marcocci, Roma: Viella, 2015

On death sentences and ritual:

Adriano Prosperi, Crime and Forgiveness: Christianizing Execution in Medieval Europe, transl. by Jeremy Carden, in press with Harvard University Press


(1) “Este desdichado hombre que andaba en estas hediondeces estaba ya acusado por este mismo delito, y que pendían sus causas en la Audiencia”. Pedro de León, Compendio de las industrias en los ministerios de la Compañía de Jesus. The earliest manuscript dated to 1619. I refer to the critical edition Grandeza y miseria en Andalucia. Testimonio de una encrucijada Histórica (1578-1616), ed. Pedro Herrera Puga S.I. (Granada: Facultad de Teologia, 1981), 590.

(2) “Cogílo en las manos y catequicélo y era cosa notable el ver las ansias que tenía por verse cristiano… Llegóse el día deseado en que lo había de recibir, que fue el mismo en que había de morir, y no cabía de contento, y decía: ¡Ah Señor, y qué tarde te conocí!… Confianza tengo yo, Dios mío, en vuestra misericordia, que me habéis de dejar que yo vea esta hora tan dichosa”: ivi, 590-591.

(3) Ivi, 591.

(4) Ivi, 591.

(5) Ivi, 591-592.

(6) Ivi, 592

(7) Ivi, 591.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.