Sunday, 21 January 2007

The Inquisition and Propaganda

I finished Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition: An (sic) Historical Revision a while ago. It was an exquisite, scholarly, painstakingly detailed and researched work on the Spanish Inquisition. I cannot adequately summarize the work without running to great length, but suffice to say that the stereotypical portrayals are enormously wrong. A few points from the book:

  • Excepting Castile, the Inquisition did not directly affect most of the Spanish population, especially those in rural areas.
  • The inquisitorial prisons were on the whole better than secular equivalents in Spain.
  • It almost completely avoided the witch-burning craze when this swept across England and France.
  • The Crown deliberately opposed papal control of the Inquisition, especially when the Papacy moved to curb both its power and excesses.
  • Except when it interfered in secular matters, it was supported, with reserve, by the Spanish people.
  • Proportionally, very few Protestants were punished by the Inquisition.
  • After the first twenty years, executions were not commonplace, and in the whole of its existence as little as 2% or 3% of those punished, were punished capitally. This is less than the secular proportion.
  • In sections of its history, other countries (esp. the Netherlands) executed more people than Spain.

Nonetheless, if the book has dispelled the bloody and evil aura so often pervading the traditional "Inquisition", it has certainly brought home the inherent injustice of some of its judicial aspects (secret witnesses and testimony, usage of sheer hearsay), and the way in which it focused the racialism of sixteenth century Spain, rather than abolishing it. While we can argue that its effects were not on a whole nearly as catastrophic as has been supposed, it remains wholly true that to converso communities (Muslim & Jewish converts, often forced to convert due to economic/social pressure and inevitabilities) it was indeed catastrophic and abominable, and rightly did John Paul the Great apologize publicly for the faults of the Church during that time, for we failed both Jew and Muslim, neglecting to let the Light of Christ transform the narrow cruelty of human sectarianism.

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