The Inquisitions of History: State of the Question

The Inquisitions of History: State of the Question

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. Jurists keep good records, clean records, and abundant records. Curialists write neatly. Scribes are taught to be legible. Because of this legal dimension, we can study the inquisitions today, unlike many other institutions which are lost to us due to a lack of documentation. Luckily, too, inquisition material survived European war. 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 have begun to use The Inquisition to speak of the mythology surrounding these institutions which has come down to us as folklore, largely the result of successful Protestant anti-Roman propaganda, particularly in the Spanish Netherlands.

When medieval Europeans used the word “inquisition,” they were referring 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 chain of command overseeing it. Instead there were those individuals appointed as “inquisitors of heretical depravity,” assigned by the pope or locally by the bishop, to inquire into heresy in specific 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 specific subject from anyone who felt he or she had something to submit. Normally, this information was treated as very confidential. The official inquirer, aided by competent consultants, then weighed the evidence and determined whether there was reason for further action. This procedure stood in contrast to 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 on an accusation by a third party who was punishable if the accusation was not proved, and in which the defendant could confront witnesses.

By the end of the thirteenth century many areas of continental Europe had been assigned inquisitors. The majority were members of the Franciscan or Dominican Orders because these two Orders were said to be 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 seem to have consisted of uncomfortable penances such as wearing a cross sewn onto one’s clothes or going on a long pilgrimage. The inquisitor’s goal was not primarily to punish the guilty but to identify them, get them to confess their sins and repent, and restore them to the fold of the ecclesial community. Perhaps ten percent or fewer of the more serious cases resulted in execution, a punishment reserved for obstinate heretics (those who refused to repent and be reconciled) and lapsed heretics (those who repented and were reconciled at one time but 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 was a happy circumstance as we entered the new millennium. While Pope John Paul II and thus the official Catholic Church have seen 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, of how many people were released because of technicalities, or how the law was not abused because it was not whimsical but the law, and of how many opportunities the accused persons really had to avoid further prosecution. It was not an outrageous ecclesiastical court system, given the times, and when compared to the parallel civil court system. Spain, the object of much scorn by England, was a relatively enlightened country, given the times, as Henry Arthur Francis Kamen points out in his books.

Ever since the sixteenth century, the Inquisition has been held synonymous with terror, bigotry and persecution, and distorted views of its activities persist today. Henry Kamen’s first study of the Inquisition, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (1965), quickly became established as the best introduction to one of the most notorious institutions in Western history. Later this book was revised and rewritten, and it is currently the most up-to-date and comprehensive re-evaluation of the subject. Helen Rawlings in her The Spanish Inquisition [Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006] 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 new 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 gives a very new picture of the notorious system of censorship, now understood to be much less effective than once presented, and he sketches the role of efficient foreign propaganda in the creation of the diabolic image of the Inquisition.

Kamen reconstructs the atmosphere of fear and oppression that typified the period, placing it within the context of fear generated by community tensions. He also demonstrates for the first time that the famous auto de fe or auto-da-fé 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, but is also destined perhaps to become the standard reference work on the Inquisition.

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, some recent works include biographies of Phillip II and Phillip V of Spain─ “the king who reigned twice”.

Because of the 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. There was always the “black legend” and the “white legend,” both of which were legends, not history.

Even today, there are still diehard Protestants and general readers who seem unaware of the professional histories available by competent secular authors who are free of religious bias. Uncritical Protestants in the English-speaking world still naively rely on Charles Henry Lea’s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1887, 4 volumes), clearly a dated work of polemics. However, even Lea (1825-1909) is not 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 we have to go outside the English-speaking environment.

It must be acknowledged that 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 constructing propaganda. He stole the documents when the French occupation of Spain came to an end 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 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.

Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.

Alma, Michigan

Abridged and revised version of “Beyond the Myth of the Inquisition: Ours is ‘The Golden Age’,” Faith and Reason, vol. XVIII, no. 4, (Winter 1992) 335-358; also 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.) Posted on Ignatius Insight, 29 April 2008.  Revised January 2012. Posted on Roma Locuta Est, 13 January 2012.


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