Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision

There are very few subjects on which more nonsense has been written than the Spanish Inquisition. Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision is a bold attempt to approach the subject without hysteria and in a relatively unbiased manner. The book was originally written during the 1960s. Kamen extensively revised and to a considerable extent rewrote the book for its 1997 second edition.

The Spanish Inquisition was established by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1478 and was finally suppressed in 1820. There had been earlier inquisitions and there were other inquisitions in other parts of Europe, but the Spanish Inquisition existed to deal with certain peculiarly Spanish problems. Spain had been conquered by the Moslems in the eighth century AD. Under Ferdinand and Isabella the Christian Reconquista, begun several centuries earlier, would finally be completed. This confronted the Catholic monarchs with the problem of how to deal with huge Jewish and Moslem minorities. The solution ultimately adopted was to offer these minorities the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion. A very large proportion of both minorities chose conversion. This led to a further difficulty - to what extent were these conversions sincere? Were these “New Christians” really Christian or were they merely outwardly conforming whilst remaining in actuality Jews and Moslems? If the latter were the case then these minorities could be seen as a major threat to the unity and security of the realm.

The Inquisition’s first task was to discover the extent to which the “conversos” or Jewish converts to Christianity were still secret Jews. 

As the sixteenth century progressed the Inquisition found itself dealing with another equally serious menace - the rise of Protestanism. Later in the century armed insurrections by “moriscos” - Moslem converts to Christianity - would became the Inquisition’s major focus. The Inquisition also, in later years, concerned itself with other religious questions but the problems of the conversos, the moriscos and Protestanism were by far the most important questions addressed by the Inquisition.

It is important to realise that these threats were by no means imaginary. Kamen makes it clear that most moriscos were most certainly not genuine Christians and that a large number of even third and fourth-generation conversos were not genuine Christians. And the threat of Protestantism was very real indeed. While the idea of trying to enforce religious unity is deeply unfashionable today it’s important not to impose our values on people from other times. At the time religious unity seemed to be not only important but vital. And the Spanish Inquisition was largely successful in achieving its objectives.

The Inquisition has of course been for centuries been reviled for its cruelty, for spreading a reign of terror and for impoverishing intellectual life. Kamen explodes these myths. The Inquisition had little impact on the lives of most Spaniards and was not especially unpopular. Compared to the rigours of secular justice both in Spain and elsewhere in Europe it was positively benign. The prisons of the Inquisition were far more humane that the secular prisons. The Inquisition used torture sparingly by comparison to other courts. Prisoners were entitled to a trial and while the legal procedures left something to be desired an innocent person had a reasonable chance of securing an acquittal. Fewer than two percent of those charged were executed and the total number of executions was fairly small.

There were abuses and the anonymity of witnesses was a major problem but on the whole, as persecutions go, it was distinctly mild.

It’s also fascinating to note that the Spanish Inquisition took little interest in witchcraft and in fact by and large strongly opposed prosecutions for witchcraft on the grounds that most if not all supposed witches were merely deluded. Executions for witchcraft were extremely rare in Spain and executions for that crime by the Inquisition were very rare indeed.

The book’s main fault is that it’s rather loosely structured and it really needed the services of a good editor, but then that’s a fault with almost all academic titles these days.

Henry Kamen’s book is a valuable corrective to the ludicrously exaggerated (and often entirely false) popular views of of an institution whose aims are today deeply out of fashion but which achieved its aim of creating religious unity and stability.

Highly recommended.

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