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Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain, July 1936

Bruce Lincoln

Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 27, No. 2. (Apr., 1985), pp. 241-260.

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Tue Nov 13 17:12:37 2007
Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain,
July 1936
U n i v e r s i ~of Minnesota

In the first weeks of the Spanish civil war. there occurred massive popular
assaults against the Catholic Church in those cities which did not fall to the
Nationalists' rising, the Church having been widely (and correctly) perceived
as hostile to the Republic and sympathetic to the generals who sought its
overthrow. As rumors of priests firing on the populace from church towers
circulated wildly. churches and convents were rapidly sacked and burnt.
Supporters of the Republic killed religious personnel in large numbers-
certainly well into the thousands-while desecrating and destroying church
paraphernalia and cultic objects en nlasse.'
Of all the actions taken against the Church, however, among the most
horrific was a macabre spectacle played out in numerous towns and cities: the
exhumation and public display of long-buried corpses of the priests. nuns, and
saints entered within church grounds, some of which had been naturally
mummified by the dry Spanish heat. Such incidents were reported from
Batea. Belchite, Berga, Canet de Roig, Fuenteovejuna, Minorca, Orihuela,
Oropesa, Peralta de la Sol, Vich, and e l ~ e w h e r eand
, ~ there is photographic
evidence from some of the larger cities. Thus. in Toledo, at the Church of San
Miguel, the disinterred corpses were displayed upon the central altar (Figure

Research for this article was made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities research
grant, for which support I am most grateful.
I Works on the anticlerical violence of the Spanish civil war are understandably often quite
extreme in their rhetoric and presentation of data. Among the more reliable commonly cited
studies, compiled after the heat of the conflict and following years of research. are Antonio
Montero Moreno, Historia de la persecucidrl religiosa en Espaiia, 1936-1939 (Madrid: Bibli-
oteca de Autorcs Cristianos, 1961j, and (Fray) Justo Perez de Urbel. Los martires de la lglesia
(Barcelona: Editorial AHR, 1956), although even these leave much to be desired at times.
Montero Moreno gives a figure of 6,832 religious killed during the war (4,184 secular clergy,
2,365 monks, 283 nuns), most of whom would have died during the outburst of the first few
weeks of the conflict (pp. 762-67, with a full listing given on pp. 769-883). The most frequently
cited general history of the conflict, Hugh Thomas. The Spanish Ci\.il War. 2d ed. (New York:
Harper and Row, 1977). 270. accepts this figure, although in his first edition (1961). Thomas
cites slightly higher figures (p. 173).
See Montero Moreno, Historia de lapersecitcicin. 6 3 n . 36. 331 n. 3: A. de Castro Albarran,
La grar7 \.ictima: La 1gle.tia Espanola martir de la revolucitjrz roja (Salamanca: n. p.. 1940). 159-
60: [Juan Estelrich], La per.sc'curion relrgieuse en Espagrze (Paris: Plon. 1937). 39, and photos
following pp. 80, 104.

0010-4175185'2266-1394 $2.50 C 1985 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History

2. Spectators react to exhumations at Iglesia de la Ensenanza, Barcelona.

From Juan Estelrich, LN /jersec.ution rc,ligirir.se en Espagne (Paris: Plon,
1937), before page 33.
FIGURE1 . Exhumations displayed on altar of the Church of San
Miguel, Toledo. From Fray Justo Perez de Urbel, Los
martires de Iu Iglrsicr (Barcelona: Editorial AHK,
1956), facing page 48.
3. Exhumations displayed at door of Iglesia de la Ensenanza, Barcelona. From Perez de
Urbel. Los murtires de la Iglesiu, facing page 97.

4. Crowd reaction5 to exhumations at Iglesia de la Ensenianza, Barcelona. From Perez
de Urbel, Los rnurrires tie la Iglesia, facing page 49.

1). The altar of the Carmelite Church in Madrid was similarly adorned with
skulls, as rniliciunos clowned and masqueraded about it. Within the same
church, the mummified remains of two young women, together with those of
a fetus or young infant, were discovered and publicly displayed as evidence of
sexual depravity within the Church.' Perhaps the most notorious incident,
however, occurred at the convent cemetery attached to the Iglesia de la
Ensefianza in Barcelona, where the bodies of nineteen Salesian nuns were
exhumed and exhibited, flanking the doors of the church and spilling out into
the street (Figures 2-4). Here they remained for three full days (23-25 July),
during which time more than forty thousand people filed past them, some-
times silent, but more often jeering."
Almost immediately these desecrations were seized upon by propagandists
for the Nationalist cause, who cast the exhumations as conclusive proof, not
only qf the "antireligious" nature of the entire Spanish Republic, but of its
very "inhumanity," "barbarity," or " b e ~ t i a l i t y . " Throughout
~ the war and
long after, religion proved to be the sole issue with which international sym-
pathy could consistently be generated for the cause of Francisco Franco's
Nationalists, and accounts of the exhumations, often accompanied by maca-
bre and grisly photographs, regularly occupied a prominent position in the
writings of his apologist^.^ In truth, they sought to establish a sweeping view

The events at the Carmelite Church were extremely embarrasbing to the Republican govern-
ment. as evidenced by the fact that. when the Madrid newspaper ABC ran a photograph of the
exhumed mummies on I August 1936. it was immediately suppressed by an order of the D ~ r e c -
cidn General de Seguridad. Montero Moreno. Hisroriu de la persecr~c.rd~i. 431 n. 3 .
" The fullest account of the events at the lglesia de la Ensetianza is found in Antonio Perez de
Olaguer. El rerror rojo en Cutul~rtia(Burgos: Ediciones Antisectarias. 1937). 18-21. although
the nature of the source hardly inspires unqualif~edconfidence. It is this incident which continues
to be mentioned in most general histories of the civil war. e.g.. Thomas. Spanish C i ~ , iWar.
l 272:
Gabriel Jackson. The Spanish Reprrblic and rhe Ci~,ilWar (Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1965). 290: Pierre Broue and Emile Temime. The, Re~,olrrfior~ and the Ci~,ilWar in Sl)ain. T .
White. trans. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1970). 126.
" ~ o . for instance. the judgment of Castro Albarran. La gran vicrima. 158: "Con 10s
caduverc,~tzofrreron hombres, sitlo besrias." The most important such judgment. however. is
that voiced in section 6 of the Joitir Lerrer of the Sparirsh Episcopate, ro the Bishops o f f h e Etzrire
World. (issued I July 1937). in which the exhunlations of the preceding year are cited as the chief
evidence in support of the contention that "La rerol~rcirit~ fire' 'inh~rmana.'" Text given in
(Archbishop) Isidro Goma y Tomas. Por Dios \ por Espana (Barcelona: Rafael Casulleras.
1940). 575.
It is worth noting that the act of defin~ngcertain others as less than human is a necessary step in
the process of rendering their killing licit. as was observed by Sinione Weil in her celebrated letter
to Georges Bernanos (with reference to the atrocit~esperpetrated by the Left in Catalonia, which
she witnessed during the first months of the civil war). Text available in translation in Murray A .
Sperber. ed., Anti I Remernher Spain (New York: Collier. 1974). 259-63. esp. 262.
According to Francisque Gay. Duns Ies flammc,s er [ions I(, satzg: Les crimes conrre Ies
eqlises et les pr6rrc.s etz Espugne (Paris: Bloud et Gay. 1936). 8. press agencies in France first
carried photos of the Madrid exhumations on 28 July 1936. which caused an immediate and
powerful publ~creaction. L'Aubr and other Catholic publications repeatedly referred to such
incidents in their coverage of the civil war. as did the London Daily Muil. Osserrarore Romutlo.
of the struggle that raged within Spain, in which their movimiento was nothing
less than a holy war o r righteous crusade-cruzadu being the term they
favored-on behalf of Christian civilization, with the Spanish Reconquista
and Inquisition as its guiding precedent^.^
Partisans of the Republic were thus thrown on the defensive with regard to
the religious issue. and they sought to justify the early assault upon the
Church in various ways. although rarely were the exhumations themselves
mentioned. Since the war, however, even those liberal historians most sym-
pathetic to the Republic have been forced to acknowledge these events, and
they regularly depict them as a regrettable excess perpetrated by uncontrolla-
ble fanatics in the stress of c r i ~ i s . ~
In some measure, this attitude is quite close to that of the Nationalist

the official organ of the Vatican. made prominent mention on 19 August 1936 of the Barcelona
exhumatlons. as did Henry Luce's Time for September 1936
Outraged denunciations of the atrocities appeared in Gay. D a t ~ sIe7 flammes. 34-37: (Vice-
Admiral) H. Joubert. La RrrcJrre il'c,spagne cJt le Catholici.~me(Paris: SGIE. 1937). 21: [Estel-
rich]. La pc,rsc'c.rrtron relrgrerr.se. 39: LUISCameras. The Glory ofMarr~redSpart~ (London: Bums.
Oates and Washboume. 1939). 93: E . Allison Peers. Spain. rhe Church. arici the Orciers (1939:
rpt. London: Bums. Oates and Washbourne. 1935) 165: Reli~rorrsPersecutiori in Spain tinder rhe
"Repuhltc." 1931-1939 (Washington. D.C.: Spanlsh Embassy. Office oi Cultural Relations.
n.d.1. 21: Castro Albarran. La Gran Vicrima. 159: Montero Moreno. Historrcr cir lu persecricidn
518: Constantino Bayle. S . J.. QlrP pasa en Espatia:) A 10.7 Catci1ic~o.rciel mrrncio (Salamanca:
Delegacibn del Estado para Prensa y Propaganda. 1937). 53.
Photos appeared in [Estelrich]. La pc,rsc;c~rrtiotireligrerrse, preceding p. 33: Bayle. Qucjpasa en
Es,r~atio'~7: and Perez de Urbel. Los murtires, facing pp. 48. 49: as well as In Ttme. 7 September
1936. p. 31: and the British Sutrrrciu~Revter~.15 August 1936. p. 199. to name but a few.
The official history of the civil war issued under the Franco regime was. of course. entitled
Historiu cie la crrizacia espatiola. Joaquin Amaras Iribarren. ed.. 8 vols. (Madr~d:Ed~ciones
Espanolas. 1940-44).
For other articulations of the Ideology of the c.ru;ocf(~,see such works as Bayle. Qrrcjpusu rri
Espono.': Aniceto de Castro Albarran. Glrerra sonra: El setrriilo C~itci1ic.ociel r?ior.irnienro na-
ciotial tspariol (Burgos: Editorial Espanola. 1938); or even so recent a volume as Angel G a r c ~ a .
La I~le,\iaEspafiola y el 18 ilc, Jrrlro (Barcelona. Ediciones Acervo. 1975). where the civil war is
st111 interpreted as flrst and foremost a war of religion. and where it is argued that the title
"Cruzada Nacional" is most fittlng for what was nothlng less than the defense of Christlanlty
See, e.g.. pp 192-93.
For crit~quesof the use of the crusade theme as propaganda. aee Juan de Itumalde. El
Carolrcrsmo Y Iu c~rrr:uciu de Fronco. 3 volb. (Bayonne. Editorial Egl-lndarra. 1956-65): and
Herbert R. Southworth. El rniro ile lo cru:--oda ilc, Frat~co(Paris: Ruedo Iberico. 1963). esp. 175-
I have been able to locate reference to only one attempted defense of the exhumatlons. that of
Jean-Rlchard Bloch. an ~ntellectualaffiliated wlth the French communist party. whose commen-
tary appeared In the September 1936 issue of Vu, a Pans publlcat~onwhlch. regrettably. was not
access~bleto me. His remarks-in w h ~ c hhe quoted a apecatator at the Barcelona display of
corpses to the effect that "depuis le temps qu'elles etaient enfermees. ces nonnes, elles avaient
bien le drolt d'0tre remlses en liberte!"-provoked outraged responses by Ga). Dutis les
flurnmes. 34-37 (whence this quote is taken) and Cameras, G l o n of Morr\red Spain. 93.
For the obligatory references to these events in more recent general histories of the c i v ~ lwar,
see Thomas. Spar~ishCivil War. 272: Jackson. Spanirh Reprrblic. 290; and Broue and Temime.
Revolution anci Civil War. 126.
propagandists. for both sides characterize the exhumations as an aberration
from the realm of normality, differing only as to whether they should be
deplored and forgiven or ferociously requited. I submit. however, that as
scholars we can dismiss no human action as "aberrant," but must seek the
sources and meanings of even the strangest and most repugnant conduct,
which on closer analysis may prove to be far more significant and expressive
than the stereotypical. automatonic behaviors that we think of as comprising
normality. What follows is an attempt to remove the Spanish exhumations of
July 1936 from the realm of the aberrant: to place them within a specific
historical context, to locate phenomenological analogues in similar contexts.
and to speculate on what may have been expressed in and accomplished
through these dramatic and chilling acts.

T H E S P A N I S H C H U R C H A N D ~ Z N T I C L E R I C I Z LV I O L E N C E I N T H E

July 1936 was hardly the first time that mobs had attacked the Church in
Spain. Churches and convents were burned in many cities during 1834-35 in
the first Carlist war and again in 1868 at the outset of the second Carlist war.
This was repeated in Catalonia during the Semana Trigica (Tragic Week) of
1909, and once more throughout all of Spain in 193 1 during the first months
of the Second R e p u b l i ~ O
. ~n several of these occasions religious were mur-
dered and other atrocities committed. among which we must note the exhuma-
tion and public display in July 1909 of the bodies of cloistered nuns in
Barcelona. I U
Details aside, one is struck by the frequency of these assaults. for almost
without exception in recent history. whenever there was rebellion in Spain,

"or general survelh of church-state relat~onband ant~cler~cal \,lolence in S p a n d u r ~ n gthe

nineteenth and tuent~ethcenturies. see. otrer ulra. F. Garcia de Cortazar. "La I g l e ~ ~ ena la c r i 5 1 ~
del e ~ t a d oE ~ p a n o (1898-
l 1923)." in 1'111 Coloqttio dr Putt. Ltr ~.rrsrstie1 esrtrcio Espairol. 1898-
1936. M . Tunon de Lara. rr trl . eds (Madrid. Ed~torialCuadernos para el Dlalogo. 1978). 333-
77: Julio Caro Barqa. Itrrrotlirc,(,l(jfl11 lrfi11 lltsrorru i.otirrttrporcit~c.trdel tttiri-i~lrrtcu/t.\,,ioEvl~uirol
(Madrid: E d ~ c ~ o n eISTMO. h 1977). JoaC blanucl Cuenca. "lgles~a!estado en la Eapana contem-
poranea (1789-1913)." In his Estrrcico.\ .\ohrt, la Iglr.si~r Ecputioltr dcl XIX (Madrid: E d ~ c ~ o n e ~
Rialp. 1973). 35- 1 13: Ra! mond Carr. Spur~i.IHOX-I939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1966).
463-72: Jose )I, Sanchez. Rrf(1rtn trtld Rctrt.rtof~.Titc Polcrri~o-Rc~lr,qioi~.\ Bat.i,yt.oloid of tile
SIILUII.\~~ Cii.111Vtr1-(Chapel Hill. Lniverb~tlof North Carolina Prehs. 1963). Gerald Brenan. 717r
Sl?cit7rshLcib~rtt7tii(Cambridge: Cambridge Unicers~t!, Presb. 1971 1. 37-56: and Mariano Gra-
n a d o ~ .La 1rrc,trroti rrlrgiosa <.ti t p t r t i u ( M e x ~ c oClt). Ed~cionehde "Las Espanab." 1959).
Biased but ubeful are Peerb. Sputtr. Clr~rrcit,afici Ordrrc: and A Orts Ramos. At~rtttctitieIt1 lglritr
untr el I P I ~ L I I I ~ U I ~ I Ifu.x(~rxrtr
~ ~ I I ~ O ( Paris: Aasociat~onH~spanoph~le de France. 19371 An ~nformat~ce
chapter la devoted to the role of rel~gionIn the Span~shc ~ \ , u~al r In Guenter Leu!, . Rc.li,qioti u t ~ d
Re~~oitirtotr ( N e u York. Okford Uni~erhit)Preha. 19731. 313-30. but Lewy's underatand~ngof
re\,olut~on1 5 \o one-\idedl) pol~tlcal.at the ekpenae ot social and economlc dlmenhions. that he
actuall) portrala the Church's role ;I\ that of .s~ipl)ortr~i,q a re\olut~on.i.e . the Nationallat rlblng
against the Republ~c( p . 567). a \ l e u uhich In rnl opinion i h noth~ngbhort of per\erbe
l 0 See Joan Connell!, Ullman. The Trtr~tr. IVrcX. ,A Srtrtl\ of Anrr-C/rrrctrlr.\r?~iti Spait7. 1875-
191-7 (Cambridge. Harvard Uni~erslt)Presh. 1968). eap. 217. 231. 236-47. 153

the Church was a prime target of the masses. And while the political complex-
ion of the Church's enemies changed-the Liberals taking the lead in the
nineteenth century, the Radicals of Alejandro Lerroux in 1909. and the Anar-
chists in 1931 and 1936-the fact that those seeking social change felt com-
pelled to attack the Church with direct physical and material violence re-
mained constant. Not only did they sense the Church to be antipathetic to their
cause, but they also believed it to be a sufficiently important (and vulnerable)
target within those forces aligned against them to require direct confrontation.
The reason in all instances was fundamentally the same: from the period
immediately after the Peninsular Wars to the present day, the Spanish Church
has been a classic model of what I have elsewhere called "the religion of the
status quo." that is, a religious institution which, in exchange for the material
support of the dominant class within a given society. propagates an ideology
which futhers the political and material interests of the dominant class, while
claiming for that ideology the status of eternal and sacred truth.ll From the
restoration of Ferdinand VII in 1814, the Church has closely allied itself with
the monarchy and the wealthy, an alliance made indispensable to the Church's
survival by the sweeping appropriation of its lands pursuant to laws enacted
under Liberal Prime Minister Juan Alvarez Mendizibel between 1835 and
1837. Officially established as a state church, the Spanish Catholic hierarchy
made telling use of its monopoly on primary and secondary education, its
dominant role in charity, and its control over formalities of birth, marriage,
and death, to disseminate throughout society certain doctrines possessed of
powerful political implications: obedience to authority, redemption through
suffering, and trust in otherworldly rewards."
Although the wealth of the Church was often denounced by its opponents,
it was less the possessions of the Church which gave rise to violent anti-
clericalism than its consistent service to the interests of the wealthy while
simultaneously paying lip service to the cause of social justice. Nowhere may
one better perceive the masses' view of the Church's hypocrisy and enmity
toward the common people of Spain than in the rumors which prompted
church burnings in the summer of 1834 and again in February 1936. In the
first instance, it was told that a cholera epidemic in Madrid was caused by
wellwater poisoned by monks. and in the latter, that nuns were giving chil-
dren poisoned sweets. l 3 These tales. as well as other persistent rumors (arms
stored in convents, women cloistered against their will and tortured. priests
firing on crowds from church towers), whether possessing any truth o r not.

Bruce Lincoln. "Note\ tornard a Theor) of Rellglon and Recolutlon." In Re11,ytori.Re-

be111o11.Rei,ollrriori. ,411 I ~ l r r r d t s i ~ ~ ~ ~trrlti
/ o l uCt~o\.\-CtrItrrr~il
r\ Collzc~tco~l
of E ~ I r .\ B L~ncoln.
ed. (London: tvlacmillan. 1985). 266-92.
See the literature clted in note 9, especiall! the anal)si~of Brenan. Sptrriirh Luh?ri~lt/~, 33-
I ' Peers. Spain. Church. irrld Orderr. 68. 158.

are best understood as metaphors whereby popular opinion found expression,

the Church being cast as a lethal masquerader, a superficially benevolent
eminence that preyed on the young and polluted the very sources of all life.14
With the establishment of the Second Republic in 1931, the Church lost
much of its traditional position. The hotly debated article 26 of the new
constitution abolished Church schools, establishing secular education in their
place; it dissolved the Jesuit order and forced registry of all other orders with
the Ministry of Justice, and it forbade the Church from acquiring property or
engaging in commerce. More important than any of these specific reforms,
however, was the fact that the class which the Church had served so well no
longer held political control of Spain. Of necessity the Church now shifted
from its role as a religion of the status quo to become what 1 term a religion of
the counterrevolution, accommodating the new ruling parties as best it could
for a time, while working for restoration of the old dominant class.15
Support for the old order was clear from the stance assumed by the primates
of the Spanish Church (Cardinal Pedro Segura y Sienz-banned from Spain
for his outspoken hostility to the Republic-and Cardinal lsidoro G o m i y
T o m i s ) , and from Church involvement in the right-wing parties and coalitions
which stood for election in 1933 and 1936, particularly the Confederacion
Espanola de Derechos Antonomas (CEDA) of Jose Maria Gil Robles.16 With
the victory of the Popular Front in February 1936, however, those groups
which sympathized with and stood to benefit from a restoration of the old
sociopolitical order (although not necessarily of the monarchy itself)-that is,
the landed and commercial oligarchies, the officer corps of the army, the
Carlists, and the Church hierarchy-began preparing to retake power by other
means. The rising of 17-19 July 1936 and the civil war which followed are
best understood as their counterrevolution. l 7
In those cities where the rising failed-Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia,
Toledo, Granada, Milaga, Badajoz, and others (but not cities of the Basque
country, where attitudes toward the Church have traditionally been quite
different from those in the rest of Spain)-the Church stood exposed as the
chief remaining representative of the ancien re'gime, the army having been

I J On rumor as the metaphoric articulation of latent popular sentiment, see Peter Lienhardt.
"The Interpretation of Rumour." in Studies in Social Anthropolog~:Essays in Me~noryo f E. E.
Evans-Pritchard. J . H . M. Beattie and R. G . Lienhardt, eds. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
1975). 105-31. esp. 128-31
'"Lincoln, "Notes toward a Theory of Religion and Revolution."
I h For the best account of the Church's role in the years 1 9 3 1 3 6 , see Sanchez. Rej'orr?~
Reucfion. 65-213. Highly misleading are the presentations of Peers. Spain. Church, urld Orders.
and U.Massimo Miozzi, Storiu della Chiesa Spagt7ola (1931-1066) (Rome: lnstituto Editoriale
del Mediterraneo. 1967).
1' Only recently has serious attention been focused on the Right in the years leading up to the
civil war. See Richard A. H. Robinson. The Origin.\ of Frtrnco's Spain (Nebton Abbot: David
and Charles. 1970): Mart~nBl~nkhorn.Carlrsm and C r i s i ~in Spuir~ (Cambr~dge:Cambridge
Univers~t? Press. 1975). the latter h a v ~ n gparticular emphas~son the role of rel~gion.
REVOLL'TIONi\RY E X H U M A T I O N S IN S P A I N , J U L Y 1 9 3 6 249

defeated and the wealthy having earlier fled. Accordingly, it was not long
after the immediate threat from the insurgent garrisons had been put down that
the newly formed popular militias-or merely the mobs-turned their atten-
tion to the Church. The burnings, murders, and atrocities which followed
were their attempts to sweep away the last vestiges of the old order and to
initiate a full-fledged social revolution. I s
Such an analysis may help us to understand the general nature of the
violence against the Church in July 1936, but we are still a long way from
comprehending the specific significance of the Spanish exhumations. In the
absence of personal testimony from knowledgeable participants-and one
suspects that such testimony will never be forthcoming-we cannot hope to
achieve a full understanding of the conscious and unconscious motives which
prompted these acts. What follows is thus a series of "interpretive ventures,"
essays in the literal sense of the term, which suggest various ways-none of
them definitive, nor exclusive of the others-whereby we may attempt to
understand why the exhumations took place and what their authors meant to
communicate and accomplish through them.


I . Millennia1 Antinomianism
One of the most obvious points which can be made regarding the Barcelona
exhumations is still one of the most important: they were an affront to decen-
cy.I9 A fundamental norm of civilized behavior-that the dead be treated

l 8 Numerous authorit~esand propagandists of various parties have aas~gnedthe chlef role In

the anticlerical outburst of 1936 to militants of the anarchist organlzatlons (Federacibn Anarquista
Iberica (FAI) and Confederaci6n Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). uhich mere particularly influential
in Catalon~a.Certainly such an analysis has a certain plausibil~ty. given the e x p l ~ c ~ t l"anti-
theistic" intellectual stance of Spanish Anarchists. on which see Joae A l ~ a r e zJunco, Lu ide-
ologia polltrcu del A17urq1tismoEspuriol (1X68-19/03 ( M a d r ~ dSiglo : Veint~nnoEd~tores.19761.
29-36, 204- 13. Also, uhereas Marxists in general-with occasional exceptions such as Engels.
Eduard Bernstein, and Antonio Gramsci-hace tended to disrnlss rellgion as an ideological
superstructure whlch can onl) distract one from the cruclal task of attack~ngthe material and
sociopolit~calbase of one's class enemies. anarchists slnce Mikhail Bakunin (who rema~ned
alwals the most important anarchist theoretician In Spanish circles) considered religious institu-
tions and doctrines to be one of the foremost obstacles to real libert!. and thus the) inaisted that
the Church be attacked directly
These points notu~thstanding.I am inclined to believe that the role of the Anarchists in the
Spanish exhumatlons and other anticlerical violence of 1936 has been overemphaalzed. I base this
opinion on t u o facts: first, this k ~ n dof violence occurred throughout Lo)alist Spain. and not on11
in areas uhere the FA1 and CNT were iniluential: second. similar outbreaks predate the entry of
anarchism into Spain. To be sure. the Anarchists played an Important role. but they uere hard11
alone in this aspect of the fur!
l q One must not overstate the case and c l a ~ m that a un~versalnorm u a s involved. Zoroastrians.
for instance, regard burial as a sacrilege. for it pollute\ the sacred earth uith impure matter. and
their scripturea celebrate the exhumer of b o d ~ e sas the man u h o most causes the earth to rejoice
(L'idevdar 3.12) I am indebted to rn! colleague Wlad Godzlch. Profeasor of Comparat~veLiter-
with respect-was violently and publicly, wantonly and even gleefully tram-
pled. Yet for all that abusing the dead has been universally abhorred-incest
and cannibalism (the latter of which is only a variation on abuse of the dead)
alone being condemned with equal consistency and vehemence-we must
emphasize that, like all prohibitions, this is a cultural norm and not a natural
law. It is itself a social construction, propagated by the members of society for
the good of society, but still transgressible by those who define themselves as
standing outside and/or in open revolt against the social order.
Western literature, in fact, begins with the story of such a rebel, who began
by protesting the unjust disposition of wealth, power, and prestige within this
world, and was ultimately driven to an obscene display of rage. refusing
burial to a fallen enemy whose corpse he obsessively dragged through the
dust.'O One need not turn to literature, however, to locate such examples, for
the history of religions is replete with them. Among the better known are the
practices of the Aghorins (those without dread), a class of ~ a i v i t eascetics of
Tantric bent still operative in Benares, whose cult centers in cemeteries and
cremation grounds, where they drink from skulls, eat feces and all manner of
flesh-including human-in defiance of normative vegetarianism, engage in
incestuous intercourse and in relations with prostitutes, and meditate on ex-
humed corpses. Far from being orgiastic revels. these are sacred rituals in
which the Aghorins seek to enact their absolute liberation from the human
condition itself. together with all its arbitrary restraints. It is significant also
that they live lives of vagabondage and thoroughly reject the fundamental
structure of lndic society, the caste system."

ature at the Un~versityof M~nnebota,for havlng recounted to nie the folloulng stor) told him b)
his father. In the late thirties. Godzich pPre had attempted to arouse s)nipath) for Franco in rural
Poland b! telling of the Spanish exhumation\. but ma\ ama7ed to find that the peasants mith
whom he spoke mere barely moved b! hi\ account. Only later did he dibcocer that as pan of their
preservation of certain pre-Christian ideals and rituals of famil~alwlidarit! betmeen the licing and
the dead, these people regularly visited graveyards and enacted a cariety of behav~orsbordering
upon exhumation. and thub found the Spanihh ecents no cause for cenhure or outrage.
xJ See Charles Segal. T11e T / ~ e t ?o~ferhe Mirrilariotl of thr Corpse it1 the lliud ( L e ~ d e nE: . J .
Brill. 1971 ); and Jean-Pierre Vernant. "La belle niost et le cadavre outrage." In Lo mort, les
morrs dutrs les soctirc'.\ atrcrentre\. G . Gnoli and J.-P. Vernant. eds. (Cambridge: Cambr~dge
Univerist! Press. 1982). 15-76, the latter of mhich expands upon points made earlier b) James
Redfield. Nofirre trtld Ctllrttre iti rllr Iliad (Chicago: Unicersit! of Chicago Press. 1975).
It 1s also uosth noting that it was bhortl) after her return from service in the Ptrrrido Obrrro de
Unficaci4n Marrtsiu (POUM) m~litiaIn Aragon and Catalonia. mhere she was profoundl)
shaken by the atroc~tiesof the recolution. that Simone Well publibhed her essay. "L'lliade ou le
p o h e de la force." Cal~irrsdu Sud, I9(December 1910). 230. and 20(Januar) 1911 ) . 231.
uhich begins uith a med~tatlonon the corpse of Hektor. that rl~itlgto mhich a once-proud human
being u a s reduced by the force of Akhilles
On the Aghor~nh (or Aghori,, as he t r a n x r ~ b e dthe terni), see Mircea Eliade. Yoga.
Imrnor.ral~r\. atlif Freeifom (Princeton: Pr~nceton U n i ~ e r s ~ tPress.
) 1969). 296-301: or. more
recent. Jonathan Parr). "Sacr~ficial Death and the Necrophagoub Ascet~c." In Llrarh utld rhr
Regenerariot7 o f Life. M . Bloch and J . Parry. eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge Universit! Press.
1982). 71-1 10. esp. 8 6 1 0 1 .
One might also consider the Hamatsa (Cannibal) dance of the Canadian
northwest coast, the centerpiece of the Kwakiutl winter ceremonial. After a
period in the wild, during which time he is said to be with the deity "Man
Eater," the Hamatsa dramatically reenters society, smashing his way through
the roof of the house in which the ceremonial is held. Raging beyond control,
he assaults the others present, biting them and eating their flesh, then escapes
to the wild once more. Lured back by magical songs, the promise of more
flesh, and dances in which naked women carry corpses, which they offer him
to eat, the Hamatsa is captured and ritually tamed. The personification of
unrestrained hunger and those drives which threaten to tear civilization apart,
he is a force that must be acknowledged and subdued if the social order is to
It is in millenarian movements, however, that the deliberate flouting of
such fundamental taboos as those against incest, cannibalism, and abuse of
the dead have been best attested and most seriously studied. Describing the
antinomian extremes of Melanesian Cargo Cults, Peter Worsley considers
them to be "the deliberate enactment of the overthrow of the cramping bonds
of the past, not in order to throw overboard all morality, but in order to create
a new m ~ r a l i t y . " ~ More
' probing still is the analysis of Kenelm Burridge,
who also interprets such episodes as representing part of a transition from the
old order to the new. but who goes further, to describe antinomianism as a
liminal stage or dialectic moment in which "no rules" come into being as the
radical antithesis of "old rules" and the necessary precursor of synthetic
"new rules" yet to appear.24
That Loyalist Spain in the late summer of 1936 was in the throes of a
millenarian upheaval is evident from the writings of those who were there. A
militant, almost ecstatic egalitarianism pervaded many regions, in which all
signs of social hierarchy in dress and demeanor disappeared. The state for all
intents and purposes ceased to function beyond Madrid, all control falling to
spontaneous workers' committees. Factories, farms. and utilities were collec-
tivized, wages equalized, a militia established in which there were often no
ranks, commands, o r formal discipline. Women fought alongside men as
comrades. Waiters and bootblacks ceased to be obsequious, and rejected tips
as condescending charity. Peasants refused to wait for members of important
committees, asserting that they too were busy men. A utopian enthusiasm was

" A nem and most interesting interpretation of the Hamatsa has recently been offered by
Stanley Walens, Fra.\ting ~ , i t Cant7ibals:
l~ An Essay on Kbt'aktutl Co.smology (Princeton: Prince-
ton University Press. 1981), esp. 138-63. See also the classic accounts in Franz Boas. K\r,akiutl
Ethnograpb. Helen Codere, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). 171-279; and
Ruth Benedict. Patfrrns of Culturr (Boston: Houghton blifflin. 1959). 177-81.
'3 Peter Worsle) . T l ~ rTrurnpet Shall Sound: A Study o f "Curgo" Cirlfs in Melanesrtr, 2d ed.
(New York: Schocken. 19681, 250.
' Kenelrn Burridge. R.'e\t, Heai,rn. ,Yrkr, Etrrth (New York: Schocken. 19691, esp. 166-68.
rampant, which subsided only as the tide of the civil war turned in Franco's
favor, while the infighting on the Republican side shifted to the benefit of the
Communist party and the detriment of the Anarchi~ts.'~But prior to the
attempt at establishing the "new rules," there was an ominous, violent and
profoundly shocking phase of "no rules" in the summer of 1936, during
which political enemies were ruthlessly murdered, churches burned, and dis-
interred corpses were placed on public display. In part, these may have been
practical steps aimed at demolishing what was left of the ancien regime, but
they were also the spontaneous dramatization of absolute liberation from all
bonds of the past, even from those of common d e ~ e n c y . ' ~

II. Rituals of Collective Obscenie

Revolutionary or millenarian outbursts of antinomian excess generally appear
to be quite spontaneous. No doubt the involvement of most who participate in
them is not premeditated, but simply results from enthusiasm of the moment.
Speaking of participants in incestuous orgies within several Cargo Cults,
Burridge recalls: "The people to whom I've spoken cannot really explain
afterwards why they've done that in particular. They're in a daze."" In other
instances, however, it is clear that those involved do have consciousness of
purpose, and that by perpetrating premeditated atrocities they attempt to trans-
form themselves and others through their unprecedented a c t ~ . ' ~
The famous Mau Mau oaths provide an important case in point.'9 Ar-
tificially constructed by leaders of the rebellion from the vast store of tradi-
tional Kikuyu symbolism, they played on two basic themes. One of these was

25 The most famous eyewitness accounts of these days are George Orwell's Homage to
Catalonia (1939; rpt. New York: Harcourt. Brace and World. 1952). and Franz Borkenau's The
Spanish Cockpit (1937: rpt. Ann Arbor: University of Michlgan Press, 1974). Other, less cele-
brated, testimonies are of equal or in some Instances, even greater value. as for example Mary
Low and Juan Brea, Red Spanish Notebook (1937; rpt. San Francisco: City Lights, 1979); H.-E.
Kaminski, Ceux de Barcelone (Paris: Edltions DeNoel. 1937): John Langdon-Davies, Behind
Spanish Barricades 11936, rpt. New York: Robert M . Mcbnde. 1937); and Augustln Souchy
Bauer, With the Peasants of Aragon (Minneapolis: Soil of Liberty, 1982).
26 This may help explain the difference which Borkenau. Spanish Cockpit, 251-57, observed
between "mass terrorism" and "police terrorism." the former being characteristic of a liminal
period which. while intense, subsides with the emergence of "new rules." The latter terrorism,
however, is decidedly nonliminal. being the institutionalized repression whlch accompanies and
makes possible the imposition of "new rules."
2' Remarks at the International Research Conference on Religion and Revolution. Min-
neapolls, 10 November 198 1.
28 It was the consistent charge of the Catholic Church and the Nationalist government that the
assault on the churches was premeditated. Given the sheer number of assaults throughout Spain
and the rapidity with which they were executed. the charge is plausible, but exaggerated accusa-
tlons such as the allegation that seventy-nine Russlan agitators entered the Republic to coordinate
the anticlerical attack (thus the bishops' Joint Letter, sec. 6 , para. 3, reproduced in G o m i , Por
Dios y por Esparia, 575) have never been substantiated and make one extremely wary of
accepting the charge of premeditation too readily.
29 The best treatment of these oaths is Roben Buijtenhuijs. Le mouvemmt "Mati-Mau" (The
Hague: Mouton. 1971 ). 255-98.
R E V O L U T I O N A R Y E X H U M A T I O N S IN S P A I N , JULY 1936 253

initiation, the traditional Kikuyu initiatory ceremonies having atrophied badly

under British rule. Through the administration of complex and binding oaths,
however, prospective activists were elevated to a new level of adult responsi-
bility unattainable under colonialism. As Kareri Njama says of his own oath-
taking, "I had been born again in a new society with a new faith."'O
In addition to their initiatory significance, the oaths also consciously played
on themes of purity and defilement. Involving forbidden deeds such as the
drinking of blood, eating of excrement, intercourse with animals, and so
forth, the oaths placed all who took them into the state of what Kikuyu call
thahu-"spiritual stain." Oath-takers willingly assumed this state of stain,
thereby adopting the status of outlaws, persons cut off from society and all its
demands for proper behavior. Moreover, they assumed this role, not as iso-
lated individuals, but as part of a group, the members of which were bound
together by the stain (Western authors have inaccurately used the terms guilt
and shame) which they shared. Intentionally shocking, even obscene, such
rituals served as a powerful means of political integration, fusing those who
celebrated them into a unified antisociety, set on a course of rebellion from
which there could be no turning back.
Nor is it only exotic peoples under colonial rule who have had recourse to
such "rituals of collective obscenity," as Max Gluckman characterizes the
Mau Mau oaths.31 Thus, according to both Plutarch and Dio Cassius, those
who joined in the conspiracy of Catiline against the Roman Republic (63 B.c.)
perform a human sacrifice and together ate of the victim's flesh, in order to
bind themselves together in their bold ~ e n t u r e . ' Again,
~ the most radical
phase of the Nizari Isma'ili (Assassin) movement was inaugurated by a feast
given on 8 August 1164, at the height of the fast-month of Ramadan. This
banquet was referred to as the Festival of the Resurrection (Qiyama) by Hasan
11, leader of the Nizari community, and it was meticulously stage-managed to
produce "a solemn and ritual violation of the law," in the words of Bernard
Lewis, for not only were all participants forced to break their fasts, but the
pulpit was so positioned that, in facing it, all attending had their backs to
Mecca, in violation of Islamic religious law, the Shari'a." Hardly an over-
sight, this dramatized the explicit message of the festival: the end of the

'(I Kareri Njama. Mau Maufrorn Withrn, 121. cited in Buijtenhuijs, Lr motivrment " M N u -
Mati," 260.
3 1 Max Gluckman. "The Magic of Despair." in his Order and Rebellion in Tribal A.frica
(New York: Free Press, 1963). 137-45. In many ways, however, Glucknian's analysis must now
be replaced by that of Buijtenhuijs.
32 Dio Cassius 37.30.3. Plutarch. Cicero 10.3. Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 22, recounts the
same story. but expresses skeptic~snias to whether it is true or merely propaganda directed
against Catiline by h ~ enemies,
s chiefly Cicero.
3 3 Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
1967). 73. On the festival of the Qiyama, see also Marshall G. S. Hodgson. The Ortier of
Assassins (The Hague: Mouton, 1955). 148-58.

Shari'a and the entry of all who accepted Hsan's proclamation into a new,
paradisal state of being. At the same time, this was a proclamation of indepen-
dence for the Nizari community, and a renewal of their war against Sunni
orthodoxy as well as with the Saljuq empire which that orthodoxy supported.
Since the Saljuqs and their Sunni apologists could certainly be expected to
condemn those who had profaned Ramadan, all in attendance were thereafter
bound irrevocably to Hasan's cause.
Even the Terror of the French Revolution might be considered-in part, at
least-as a ritual of collective obscenity, although one might hesitate to offer
such a characterization had not one of its chief authors done so first. It is
reported that Danton himself told the future Louis XVIII, "It was my will that
the whole youth of Paris should arrive at the front covered with blood bt8hic.h
would guarantee theirfidelih. I wished to put a river of blood between them
and the enemy."34 In similar fashion, the exhumations and other atrocities
against the Church committed the militants, and indeed all of Loyalist Spain,
to a venture from which there could be no turning back, for they could
henceforth expect no mercy from Franco's cruzada, had they ever in fact been
able to do so.

111. Iconoclasm
In considering the exhumations as an instance of millenarian antinomianism
and as a ritual of collective obscenity, we have tended to focus on what they
accomplished for those who performed them: enacted their radical freedom in
the first instance, and forged their militant solidarity in the latter. But we must
also consider what exhumation did to those against whom it was performed,
for there can be no mistaking the aggression implicit in the act. That aggres-
sion, of course. was not directed principally against the individuals ex-
h ~ m e d , ' but
~ against the religious institution which they represented and.
beyond that, against the social order which that institution served. Like the
widespread burning of churches. decapitation of religious statues, and car-
nivalesque mockery of ecclesiastic paraphernalia, the exhumation of nuns'
bodies may be considered-in a broad sense. at least-as an act of iconocla-
Although we still lack a general phenomenological investigation of ico-

34 Cited in Christopher Dawson. The Gods of Re\'ollction New York: Mlnerva. 1975). 80.
Emphasis added.
15 NO specific attitude toward the per\ons exhumed is consistently ev~dentIn the inc~dents
reported. Thus. while most ~ncldentsdiscussed in Castro Albarran. LN jirun ~.icfrrnu.159-60.
seem to involve prominent vlctims who were particularly scorned by their exhumers ( e . g . ,Queen
Marla of Castille. B ~ s h o pTorras y Bages, and Vifredo el Velloso, the conqueror of Catalonla),
those d~scussedin Montero Moreno. Historici dr lu prrsecricrbn, 64, 43 1-32, lnvolve anonymous
vlctlms who were perceived to be victims of the Church themselves and were consequently
mewed with some measure of sympathy (e.g.. children said to have been secretly executed by
priests. young women said to have been raped w~thinmonasteries. monks interred with peniten-
tial instruments said to be tools of torture).
R E V O L U T I O N A R Y E X H C M A T l O N S IN S P A I N , J U L Y 1 9 3 6 255

noclasm, I provisionally define this act as the deliberate and public shattering
of sacred symbols with the implicit intent of dissolving all loyalty to the
institution which employs those symbols, and, further, of dissipating all re-
spect for the ideology which that institution propagates. In and of itself,
iconoclasm has no specific political content, although it has always a political
vector. being directed against a specific power structure. Quite often it is
employed as an instrument of conquest or colonial oppression, as, for in-
stance, in the celebrated felling of the Germans' sacred oak at Geismar by St.
Boniface or the missionaries' destruction of the chief shrine of the god Oro in
Tahiti, which produced a native rebellion against colonial rule.36
Conversely, revolutionary movements also make frequent use of ico-
noclasm as a weapon against the regimes they seek to overthrow. During their
dechristianization campaign of 1793-94, Hebertists and others promoted
massive demonstrations, such as that staged by Joseph Fouche in Lyons,
where asses decked out in cope and mitre dragged copies of the Gospels
through the streets.37 The English civil war abounds with instances of radical
soldiers tearing down altar rails. crosses, and images, and a major intent of
the Taiping Rebellion was to cleanse China of idolatry and orthodox Confu-
Whether repressive or revolutionary, any act of iconoclasm is a highly
charged and complex religiopolitical operation, the efficacy of which derives
from the conscious and unconscious linkages between multiple types of
power. To begin, one must recognize that those who venerate an icon or other
religious symbol regularly do so with a sense that it is a locus or representa-
tion of or entree to sacred power? An iconoclastic party. however-which is
usually set off from an iconolatrous party by differences of class and/or
national origin-rejects these claims, out of the conviction that either ( I ) the
icon in question lacks power or (2) no such thing as sacred power exists.
3h On the felling of the sacred oak. see Willibald. C'itu Botrifacii. ch. 6 (text and translat~on
ava~lablein M . Tangl and P. H. Kiilb et ul.. eds.. Briefe dcs Botrifirilt.~rltrd Willihuldl Lebc,~rd e
Botrifurirt.~, new edition. Reinhold Rau. ed. (Darrn5tadt. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
1968). 494-95. On the de5truction of Oro's shrine and it\ repercu5slonh. 5ee W~lhelmMuhl-
mann. Arioi irtrd .llnrnciiu: Eitrc. eihtrolo~isc~irc, rc~liqiotrr,~o:ioIoqrsc~irc~,
lord irr.siorisc~hc~
ribw Pol\tre.sr.sc he Kitlthiitlde (Wiesbaden: Franz Stelner. I955), 214-25. One rnisht also note
the practice of a conqueror disrupting the bone5 of deceased members of the dynasty which he
overthrew, as was common, for instance. in the ancient Near East. For some examples. see Mary
Boyce. A Hisiorv of Zorousrricitristn ( L e ~ d e nE. : J. Brill, 1982). 11. 55.
'' The be,t general work on the campalsn of dechri5tianitation is Michel Vovelle. Rclr~iotlc.t
lci cic~clrrrsiicit~i.suiiotr
rc;~~olrtiiotr: dc. l'utl I1 ( P a r ~ sHachette.
: 19761. w h ~ c his, however, larsely a
statistical and derno@raphicstudy and not a dramnturyical one. For the dechri\tianizat~onspecta-
cle,. see Mona Otouf. Lu tc'ic. rcjl ollttiotl~roire1789-1799 (Paris: Gallimard. 19761. 9 9 1 2 3 ei
'X On the iconoclasm of the English civil war, see John Ransome Phillip,. Tlre Reformation of
Irnagrs: Drstrlictiot~of Art in Et~gland.1535-1660 (Berkele): Universit) of California Press,
1973): on that of the Taiping Rebellion. Vincent Y . C Shih. The Taipitl~Idc~olog~ (Seattle:
University of Washington Press, 1967). 23-29.
3"ee the discussion of Venet~aNewall. "Icons as Symbols of Power," in S?.rnbols c~fPorter.
Hilda Ellis-Davidson, ed. (Totown. N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield. 1977). 61-99,
It follows that an act of iconoclasm is never an attempt to destroy an icon's
sacred power, for iconoclasts act with the assurance that it has none. Rather, it
is their intent to demonstrate for all observers to see-be they iconoclasts,
iconolators, or neutral-the powerlessness of the icon, and simultaneously to
demonstrate that the party of the iconoclasts possesses superior intellectual,
political, andlor material power than that of the iconolators. In truth, ico-
noclasm effects a double disgrace to the latter by exposing, first, the bank-
ruptcy of their most cherished beliefs and, second, their impotence in the face
of their enemies' assault.
Any number of examples could be cited to show that such dynamics were at
work in the anticlerical violence of 1936. To take but one, it is related that
during the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo, a group of militiamen brandished a
famous statue of Christ in front of the fortress, taunting the Nationalist sol-
diers within: "Here we have the Cristo de la Vega! We're going to burn it. If
you are Catholics, come down and stop us. We'd stop you if you did the same
with a figure of Lenir~."~"Like any provocation, an act of iconoclasm is an
implicit show of force, and the more audacious the provocation, the more
confident of their power the provocateurs seem to be.
In the early days of the civil war, devotional objects, including great works
of art, were destroyed in vast numbers, provoking an anguished response
from the Church and its sympathizer^.^' Ordinarily the Nationalist denuncia-
tions of anticlerical actions treated iconoclasm and the exhumations sepa-
rately, for the bodies of religious are not normally considered to be icons, nor
is exhumation, strictly speaking, an act of iconoclasm. Yet it is also true that
religious are consecrated persons, their very bodies made holy not only by
their moral lives, but also by the sacraments which they have received. As one
Jesuit apologist for Franco's cause put it, these bodies had been nothing less
than "living temples of God" (templos vivos de D i o ~ )TO . ~tear
~ such sacred
entities from their hallowed resting places and to subject them to mockery
andlor desecration may surely be considered an act of iconoclasm in precisely
the sense discussed above. For it was through their savage violation of sacred
objects-a corpse being as much an object as it is a person-that the ex-
humers dramatized their rejection of all claims to sacred status and, further,
40Cited in Carreras, Glory oj'.UarpredSpai~~, 99, from an account which appeared in the paper
Exrremadtira on 15 October 1936. These sources being highly sympathetic to the Nationalist
cause, and thus devoted to glorifying the "heroes of the Alcazar," a fitting end is provided for
the story. According to Carreras and his source, two of the militiamen strayed into the 11ne of fire
from the Alcazar while burning the statue, whereupon they were shot and pitched into the fire
4'See, for instance, the final section of Montero Moreno's Historia de la Persecuctdn. 627-
53, devoted to inc~dentsof iconoclasm and entitled "El martirio de las cosas" [ The martyrdom
of things]. One of the most effect~vepieces of Nationalist propaganda is devoted entirely to
photos of heavily damaged rel~giousart: Manuel Augusto, Via crucis del Serior en rirrras de
Esparia (Barcelona: Editora National. 1939).
42Bayle. Que pasa en Esparia?. 53.

their confidence that those who held such claims to be valid-that is, the
traditionally faithful, whom they considered to be their class enemies-were
at that moment utterly powerless to defend the things they held dear.

IV. Sanctih, Corruption, Profanophany

The preceding analyses may help to shed light on the significance of the
Spanish exhumations, but the specific symbolism of exhumation itself is still
to be considered. The question remains: Why would anyone rip ancient bodies
of religious from their tombs and set them on public display?
In many instances-including some of the most publicized, as, for exam-
ple, Toledo and Barcelona-no motive was ever offered or elicited, a fact
which left Nationalist propagandists free to invoke necrophilia, sadism,
andlor satanic possession as the only possible explanation^.^^ Yet in other
cases, the exhumers did not remain mute, for they claimed that the specific
corpses which they displayed constituted concrete evidence of either sexual
depravity or the practice of torture within churches, monasteries, and con-
vents. Thus, fetal remains and corpses of young children were prominently
displayed in many instances, as were the bodies of monks or nuns in peniten-
tial orders who were buried with their scourges or other implements of pen-
a n ~ eMoreover,
. ~ ~ the trials which followed events of the Semana Tragica of
1909 developed a significant record concerning the motives of those who
exhumed and displayed corpses of religious at that time, who had sought to
present graphic evidence of corruption within the C h ~ r c h . ~ '
Within the context of exhumation, the category of corruption is an ex-
tremely important one, for like its near synonyms, rottenness and decadence,
corruption is most concretely and emphatically manifest in the state of bodily
decomposition. Quite literally, corruption-like its Spanish cognate corrup-
cidtz-denotes the state of having fallen apart, the term being derived from
Latin cor-ruptid (for con-ruptib), an abstract noun with passive sense built
upon the verb rumpb, "to break into pieces."
The most disquieting of all natural processes, bodily corruption inevitably
comes with the passage of time: dead flesh putrefies and decays. From a
theological perspective, however, bodily corruption is a moral process as
much as a natural one, for decay is the final physical result of a sinful-that is
to say, corrupt-life. And, what is more, the bodies of those who are purified
of sin through the sacraments of the Church and the practice of a saintly life
43See, for instance, Castro Albarran, La gran ~,ictima,159-61; [Estelrich]. La persdcutron
rrlrgieuse. 39. Along s ~ m ~ lIlnes,
a r speaking of the revolutionary iconoclasm in general, Montero
Moreno, Historia de la persecucidn, 649, calls it a "diabdl~coo nletscheano asesitlato de Dios."
Montero Moreno. Historia de la persecticidn, 64 (note in paticular the cases of the
Carmelite Church and Capuchin Convent in Madrid, The Franciscan Convent in Berga and that at
Fuenteovejuna), and 432 (note the cases of the Salesian Convent and the Minimas de Jesus Maria
in Barcelona).
4sSee Ullman, Tragic Week, 201, 227, 246-47, 253, 276-77, et passim.
do not decay, but partake of eternity, freedom from decomposition being one
of the foremost proofs of sanctity. Nor is this view peculiar to the Catholic
Church, as is shown by the reverent display of Lenin's body in Red Square,
and we note with interest that the Anarchists of Barcelona, appropriating parts
of this symbolism, had the body of their fallen leader, Buenaventura Durruti,
embalmed and placed under glass in November 1936.46
If the absence of corruption constitutes an argument for the presence of
saintliness, the presence of corruption may conversely bear witness to sancti-
ty's absence, as in the celebrated section of The Brothers Karamozov where
the corpse of the widely revered Father Zossima began to stink. Seizing upon
this as a sign of divine judgment, the enemies of Father Zossima were jubi-
lant, while his partisans stood unable to defend him or his doctrines, particu-
larly given that his body had decomposed even more rapidly than
Ordinarily, the stench of putrefaction arouses disgust or revulsion, revul-
sion being the reaction of those who would deny their mortality when con-
fronted with the hard evidence of what it means to be mortal. Father Zos-
sima's enemies, however. perceived something quite different in his reeking
corpse, which caused them to exult rather than recoil, for the fumes revealed
to them that one for whom great claims had been made was in fact not
different from other men, but equally subject to death, time, and decay. The
episode was nothing less than a "profanophany," a revelation of the pro-
fanity, temporality, and corruption inherent to someone or something-a
profanophany here accomplished through the natural process of bodily decay.
Like the funeral of Father Zossima, the Spanish exhumations may be un-
derstood as profanophanies, in which inherent corruption was revealed
through profoundly distressing bodily means. Indeed, it is difficult even now
to look at the pictures of these remains without experiencing genuine terror or
even nausea at their state. Yet we are told that the crowds laughed and jeered
at them in July of 1936, a response which is only comprehensible. I submit,
when we recognize that the derision was not directed at the corpses of those
unfortunate individuals. but at the pretensions of the Church, a church which
was represented in those tortured bodies. Just as the layer of preserved skin
accentuated by its contrast the reality of death in those corpses which were
mummified, so also the veil of sanctity in which the Church cloaked itself
served only to accentuate its underlying corruption. Despite its claim to eter-
nity, the Church stood naked in its temporal reality-like all temporal crea-
tures and institutions, subject to death and decay. At this, some spectators
laughed, experiencing joy or liberation at the degradation of the mighty, while
others mourned in silence and brooded on revenge.
"Low and Brea, Red Spcinrslr Notebook, 2 15
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Tile Brot1rc.r~ Kurumo:ov. Part 3. Book 7. Sect~onI . "The Breath of
R E V O L U T I O N A R Y E X H U M A T I O N S IN S P A I N , J U L Y 1 9 3 6 259


If nothing else. I hope to have established that the Spanish exhumations merit
serious study. No human action is truly aberrant. just as no human action is
without meaning. and extreme acts-however repugnant-call for the most
intense study of all because they have the potential for uncovering important
aspects of humanity that are usually masked by the demands of civility and
Certainly this brief study-whose contribution should surely be amplified
with the evidence resting in Spanish archives and (if they could be obtained)
the testimonies of surviving witnesses-will not be the final word on the
exhumations. and 1 have sought only to offer some suggestions which arise
from my reading of the data. Inevitably. these suggestions are colored by my
own interests and preconceptions. particularly as regards the general theme of
religion and revolution. to which I have devoted some attention in recent
years. In earlier studies. I have tried to show how reli,'0 1 0 ~ sstructures-
myths. sacred symbols. rituals. categories of leadership. views of history. and
the like-are regularly appropriated. not just by one party within a revolution-
ary struggle. but by all parties. each one choosing and adapting those struc-
tures which are most useful to it in its struggle with its a d v e r s a r i e ~ . "Even
when participants in a revolutionary struggle claim that their positions and
motivations are entirely secular. rational. or even antirelik'710~s-as was true
for the parties of the left in the Spanish civil war. most of all for the Anar-
chists-powerful mythic. ritual. and soteriological dimensions may still be
recognized in their rhetoric. ideology, and actions.
The Spanish exhumations, however. have consistently been presented as a
telling example of revolutionary violence against religion-all religion. as
indeed against all decency .lButY as the result of the above examination. I am
more than ever convinced that this is not so. First. it must be stressed that the

See L I I I C ~ I I"Notes
I. t o ~ a r da Theory of R c l i ~ i o nand Revolut~on". ic1c.m. "Der polltihehe
Gehalt des hlythos." In ,4/c.heriiigu. ode,- clir h ~ g i t i i l ~ i i Zrir: c l ~ ~ Sriteiieii :it ,W) I I I ~ I O R I C . Schci~rlli-
,iisrriic.c. ioici R?/i,qioii, Hans Peter Ducrr, ed. (Frankfort. Qurnrarl Verlag. 19831, 9-25 (Italian
tran~lation. uith add~tions.In Srlccii L, i~iorerioli cli \ri~r.iuclrllr 1-e/i,qioiii: R~!ffuc/cPrtt~i::otii
triireiiiir? r,o/loric,. 7 t 1983). 75-86): iclo~i. " ' T h e Earth Shall Becorne Flat'-.A Study of
.4pocalqptlc Imagery." Coi?i,r>c~r.utii,~ Strcclic.\ iii Soc.irtv criici Hisror.\ . 25. 1 ( 198.1). 136-53
Note, for inhtance. the opin~onvoiced with~nthe Spanish b~ahop,' Joiiir Lcrrer (Gornb. P11r
Die, ) ['or E.<,r>uiiu. 57 1 ) (emphah~radded):
And because God is the most profound foundation of a \*ell-ordered society-as w ~ t hthe
Spanihh nation-the c o ~ n m u n ~revolution.
st In alliance \ * ~ t hthe armed forces of the Go\ernment.
wah cihoi,e c r / / , antidiv~ne.The cqcle of secularizing Iesislat~onof the 1931 Constitut~onculmi-
nated in the dcbtruct~onof everything that was of God.
[ Y porque Dios es el ma5 profundo cimicnto de urla hoeledad b~crlordenada-lo era de la
nacidn cspaiiola-, la rcvolucidn cornuni\ta. aliada de lob ejerc~tosdel Gobierno, fuC, sohrr
todo, ant~divina Se cerraba ahi el ciclo de la Icgihlatitin lalea de la Conbtitucitin dc 1931 con la
destrucci6n de cuanto era cosa de Dios.]
exhumations, like all anticlerical violence in Spanish history, were not an
assault on religion, but on one specific religious institution, an institution
closely aligned with the traditionally wealthy and powerful. At the same time
that the exhumations were a ferocious assault upon and mockery of that
institution, they must be understood also as something akin to the horrific
foundation ritual of a new religion, a millenarian creed that felt a new heaven
and a new earth emerging at that very moment, and which rejoiced in the
overthrow of the old." It is only when viewed thus that the complex nature of
the Spanish exhumations becomes apparent in its entirety: simultaneously an
act of iconoclasm, profanophany, initiation, revelation, liberation, of destruc-
tion and creation alike.

On the rnillenarian nature of the Spanish anarchists. see the discussion in Brenan. Spanish
Labyritlth, 13 1-202; E. J. Hobsbawn, P r i ~ n i t i v eRebels (New York: W . W . Norton, 19651, 74-
92: and rny own brief remarks on the rhetor~cof Buenaventura Durruti in "Der politische Gehalt
des Mythos," 19-20. Other,, however, have been critical of this view-which ult~mately
derives from the work of Juan Diaz del Moral, Historiu de lus ugituciones catripesinas an-
duluzus-Cdrdobu (Madrid: Revista de Derecho Privado, 1929)-in recent years. See. e . g . ,
Ternrna Kaplan. Anarchists of Andalusiu. 1868-1903 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1977). esp. 210-12: and Jerome R. Mintz, The Anarchists (fCusus Viejus (Chicago: Univerbity
of Chicago Press, 1982). 5 , nn, 5-7.