University of Rochester

Ryan Prendergast Finds Unexpected Resistance in Literature from the Spanish Inquisition

June 3, 2011

In his new book, Reading, Writing, and Errant Subjects in Inquisitorial Spain, Ryan Prendergast, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, argues that the Spanish Inquisition did not silence all its critics, particularly novelists and playwrights working at the time.

Published by Ashgate Press this spring, the book focuses on Miguel de Cervantes' enduringly popular novel, Don Quixote, which was published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, as well as Moorish novels and theater from the Inquisitorial period. "This text grew out of the larger question of how, within a given context of censorship, authors see their work and its relationship to their culture," said Prendergast.

According to Prendergast: "Exclusion based on race, class, and religion doesn't go away. Sometimes the context is different, but it's the same issue." To that end, his book addresses how religious and royal authorities conflated citizenship in Inquisitorial Spain with Catholicism, to the exclusion of Muslims, Jews, and other groups. He considers how literary texts from that period manage to critique political and religious intolerance, despite the threat of the Inquisition's legendary, though often exaggerated, punishments.

"These issues from early modern Spain are still coming up as we consider 'the other' in contemporary debates about national and religious identities. My book considers the rhetoric spun around how people are seen as different because of religion and how that ties into Inquisitorial culture," said Prendergast.

These timeless issues help him connect his research to the classroom, where the challenge is to make things relevant to students, he says. It helps that Don Quixote, considered by many to be the first "modern" novel, is often very funny in its self-referentiality. "Cervantes lays bare the threads of how to read and write, and plays with the form and content of what will become the novel," something Prendergast says surprises students reading a 17th-century text.

In 2003, Prendergast earned his doctorate in Spanish from Emory University in Atlanta. Prior to this book, he also has published articles in the Bulletin of the Comediantes and Modern Language Studies. His latest research project concerns entremés and other short theatrical works in early modern Spain.