After writing an award-winning biography of Frances Perkins (The Woman Behind the New Deal), former Washington Post reporter Kirstin Downey turns her attention to a woman with far broader influence: Isabella, the queen of Castile.
What three words would you use to describe Isabella?
Fervent, far-sighted, relentless.
Why did you want to write about her?
I’m fascinated by the important roles women have played in history, and which have been, for the most part, almost entirely overlooked and ignored. Women have been studied if they had a reputation for being sexy or beautiful—think Cleopatra; or if they are the wife or sister of someone famous—think Eleanor Roosevelt. The way our society handles the roles of epoch-changing women is to mention their names, and then move on to the next important man or social movement.
I was also haunted by the dark aspects of Isabella’s character, particularly by the Spanish Inquisition, which Isabella was responsible for launching in Spain. I wondered how a person could manifest two different aspects of character simultaneously. That is, open-minded to some new ideas and terribly close-minded about others.
What I heard, saw and read in books never explained it. I was determined to try to unlock the riddle.
What do you think was her greatest impact on Spain and the world?
Europe was on the way to becoming a Muslim continent because of the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Turks into Europe. Constantinople fell to the Turks when Isabella was 2 years old, and the Turks said they intended to take Rome next. Her actions and legacy prevented that from happening. Because of her, two continents of the seven on the globe speak Spanish. Because of Isabella and her mission to convert the Americas to Christianity, the pope today is an Argentinian Catholic who leads the largest single block of faithful on the planet.
In the late Middle Ages, there were about 100 million Christians, and most of them were in Europe. Now there are more than 2 billion Christians, and most of them live outside Europe.
What do you think gave Isabella the greatest pleasure?
She was deeply religious and experienced some kind of religious ecstasy associated with her Christianity. Her religiosity shaped Spanish culture. She forced everyone in Spain to become Catholic because she thought their souls were at risk if they were not practicing Christians. People who didn’t wholeheartedly practice Catholicism were forced to leave Spain or face death by burning as a heretic. I imagine she wouldn’t much like people writing critical histories about her, either, so I am so burned at the stake.
What question do you most want to answer about this book that we haven’t asked?
Question: How did Machiavelli, who was roughly a contemporary of Isabella, entirely miss the world-changing significance of Isabella in his book The Prince?
Answer: You’d have to ask Machiavelli, but I’d blame it on sexism.
Author photo by Michael Lionstar
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Isabella.
This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.