The Inquisitions of History: The Mythology and the Reality | Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
An ecclesiastical inquisition in Europe was a court system adapted from Roman law. It was an institutional tribunal charged with protecting orthodox religious doctrine and church discipline. From 1414-1418 (Constance) and 1438 (Basle), the church was shaped by lawyers who were consulted for the councils. Canonists were needed for church order and to make crucial distinctions.
Jurists keep good records, clean records and abundant records. Curialists write neatly. Scribes are taught to be legible. Because of this legal infrastructure, we can today study the inquisitions, unlike some other institutions which are lost to us due to a lack of quality documentation. Fortuitously, inquisition material survived European wars. We should also use the plural and speak of “inquisitions” since there were a number of them in different times and places. We now use the capital letter “I” to refer to a specific historical inquisition, such as the Venetian or Spanish, or even the earliest one during the Albigensian era in southern France. For the Inquisition and its procedures in Italy during Galileo’s time, we have John Tedeschi’s The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy (1991).
Due to the work of newer historians, such as Edward Peters in his Inquisition (1988), we use The Inquisition to speak of the mythology surrounding these institutions. Such mythology passed down to us as folklore, the result largely of successful Protestant anti-Roman propaganda, particularly coming from the Spanish Netherlands.
When medieval Europeans used the word “inquisition,” they referred first to a judicial technique, not an organization or body. There was, in fact, no such thing as “the inquisition” in the sense of an impersonal bureaucracy with a supervisory chain of command. Instead there were those individuals appointed as “inquisitors of heretical depravity” who were assigned by the pope or by the local bishop to inquire into heresy in particular areas. They were called such because they applied a procedure known as inquisitio which could be translated as “inquiry” or “inquest”. In this process, which was already widely used by secular rulers (Henry II used it extensively in England in the twelfth century), an official inquirer called upon the public for information on a given subject from anyone who felt he had something to submit. Normally, this information was treated as acutely confidential. The official inquirer, aided by competent consultants, then weighed the evidence and determined whether there was reason for further action.
This procedure contrasted with the Roman law practice typically used in other ecclesiastical courts. Here, unless the judge could proceed on clear, personal knowledge that the defendant was guilty, the judicial process had to be based upon an accusation by a third party. This informant was punishable if the accusation was not proved, and impeachable during an investigation which allowed the defendant to confront witnesses.
By the end of the thirteenth century, inquisitors were assigned to many regions of continental Europe. The majority of these were members of the Franciscan or Dominican Orders since members of these two orders were seen as pious, educated and mobile. Inquisitors, when appointed by Rome, worked in cooperation with the local bishops.
Sentence for offenders was often passed in the name of both. By far, most sentences seemed to consist of uncomfortable penances such as wearing a cross sewn onto one’s clothes or traveling on a long pilgrimage. The inquisitor’s primary goal was not to punish the guilty but to identify them, get them to confess and repent their sins, and restore the identified penitents to the fold of the ecclesial community. Ten percent or fewer of the more serious cases resulted in execution, a punishment reserved for obstinate heretics (those who refused penitence and reconciliation) and lapsed heretics (those who accepted penitence and reconciliation at one time, yet then returned to serious and voluntary error).
Recent studies with greater scientific rigor have been better able to separate the inquisitions of history from The Inquisitions of legend and myth. This is a happy circumstance for us in the new millennium. While Pope John Paul II and thus the official Catholic Church saw fit to apologize for the failures of the past (especially in March 2000), secular historians now tend to speak of how fair the system actually was. They observe how many people were released because of technicalities in the law which withstood whim and abuse. They note how many opportunities the accused persons had to avoid further prosecution. It was not an outrageous ecclesiastical court system, given the times and compared to the parallel civil court system. Spain, the object of much scorn by England, was a comparatively enlightened country, as Henry Kamen and Jocelyn Hillgarth point out in their books.
Ever since the sixteenth century, the Inquisition has been synonymous with terror, bigotry and persecution. Distorted views of its activities persist. Kamen’s first study of the Inquisition, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, published in 1965, quickly established itself as the chief introduction to one of the most notorious institutions in Western history. Later the same book was completely revised and rewritten. It is currently the most up-to-date and comprehensive re-evaluation of the subject. Helen Rawlings in her The Spanish Inquisition (2006) surveys the relevant literature and credits Kamen with launching a movement to set straight the historical record.
Based on thirty years of new research and a transformed view of the Inquisition, Henry Kamen’s account sweeps away old misconceptions and revolutionizes Inquisition studies. He accepts that there is little evidence for the alleged Jewishness of the conversos who were the Inquisition’s first victims, and he gives a new assessment of the significance and consequences of the expulsion of the Jews. He presents a major revision of the impact of blood purity prejudices in Spanish society, revises the figures given for the execution of heretics by the tribunal and assesses Spanish persecution in the context of executions in neighboring countries. He offers a completely new picture of the notorious system of censorship, now seen to be much less effective than often presented. And he reveals the role of efficient foreign propaganda in the creation of the diabolic image of the Inquisition.
Foreign propaganda created a mythology around the Spanish nation and character, more broadly than the topic of the Inquisition. The serious works of Jocelyn N. Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms, 1250-1516 (2 vols., 1976-1978) and The Mirror of Spain, 1500-1700: The Formation of a Myth (2000), also seek to correct the distortion.
Kamen illuminates the atmosphere of fear and oppression that typified the period of the Inquisition, placing it within the context of fear generated by community tensions. He also shows perhaps for the first time that the famous auto de fe was not a product of traditional Spanish piety, but a deliberate tool of the inquisitors, invented in the sixteenth century in order to boost their political standing.
This carefully considered study of the dreaded tribunal, based on extensive reading and archival research, is entirely accessible to the general reader. Possibly The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision is destined to become the definitive reference work on the subject.
Henry Kamen is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a professor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona. Author of many standard studies on Spanish and European history, his recent biographies include studies of Phillip II, the Duke of Alba, and Phillip V of Spain, known as “the king who reigned twice.” His recent non-biographical works are Spain, 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict (third edition, 2005) and Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity (2008).
Because of the controversial nature of this subject, care must be taken in choosing authors and readings. Until recently, Protestant-inspired literature on the Inquisition tended to be hostile to the Catholic Church per se, while Catholic literature tended to be narrowly apologetic and justificatory. Always underlying the differing views were the “black legend” or the “white legend”, both of which were legends and not history.
Even today, there are still disputant Protestants and general readers who seem blissfully innocent of the professional histories available, written by competent secular authors and free of religious bias. Cultural Protestants with less than critical approaches to history and secularists in the English-speaking world may still naively rely on Charles Henry Lea’s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1887, 4 volumes), clearly a dated polemical work. However, even Lea (1825-1909) is not completely without merit in the “history of this history” because he did use some original sources, something not seriously attempted before him. Lea is not the “father” of Inquisition studies, however, and for that degree of scholarship we have to go outside the English-speaking environment.
The father of Inquisition studies is Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823). That is to say, he was more interested in the original documents than in fabricating propaganda. He stole the documents when the French occupation of Spain ended, and he was required, as a French collaborator, to take refuge in Paris. His methodology or use of the documents is not something we can build upon today, but it was a start or rather a departure from the merely polemical. Many “histories of the Inquisition” were available before Llorente, but their reliability was always vitiated either by faulty method or a guiding apriori.
Illustrating its ongoing utility, Llorente’s “Histoire critique de l’Inquisition en Espagne” was reprinted in a Spanish edition in 1980 in four volumes.
After Llorente, we owe much to Henry Charles Lea who was a tireless researcher. His anti-Catholic bias may have hindered him, but he was far more sensitive to documents, and single-minded in collecting them, than anyone before him. The Inquisition had been neglected, and it was almost virgin territory for him. After these pioneers, we enter our own century fully. Henri Maisonneuve published in 1942 his “Études sur les origines de l’Inquisition.” And after him, we find a fairly rapid succession of authors and works appearing in the second half of the twentieth century including Benzion Netanyahu and Brian Pullan. Among other studies in the new millennium, we can count Christopher E. Black’s “The Italian Inquisition” [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009]. Illustrating an ongoing popular interest in the subject, Cullen Murphy’s “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” (2012) is literary wit and entertainment but not academic history.
We are living in the “Golden Age” of Inquisition Studies ─ because we can finally study it with some seriousness, detached from the religious controversies of the past. Unfortunately, the public at large is unaware of the state of this newer scholarship on the Inquisition.
An earlier version of this article appeared as “Beyond the Myth of the Inquisition: Ours is ‘The Golden Age’,” Faith and Reason, vol. XVIII, no. 4, (Winter 1992) 335-358; and as “Oltre Il Mito Dell’Inquisizione,” I and II, (I.T.) in La Civiltà Cattolica(143/IV/3419 [December 5, 1992] 458-467; 143/IV/3420 [December, 19, 1992] 578-588.) Revised and abridged version called The Inquisitions of History: State of the Question posted on Roma Locuta Est, 13 January 2012.
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Father Brian W. Van Hove, S.J. is the chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.