Burned at the stake
How the Inquisition invented enemies where there were none
21 January 2009
So what does a marsupial private eye read over the silly season? Naturally, I’m drawn to tales of crime, punishment and intrigue and if you throw in the moral and economic decline of a civilization, you’ve got me in as surely as if you’d offered me a cold cider.
Toby Green’s Inquisition – The Reign of Fear (published last year in paperback by Pan) is dedicated to “all those who suffered at the hands of the Inquisitions of Portugal and Spain”.
Over the last half-century, rightist historians have attempted to recast the Inquisition as a bureaucracy that got a few things wrong, a lot of things right and was not, in any case, worse that anybody else at the time. This book is both a history of the institution, illustrated with cases drawn from its voluminous achives, and an agument against that view. It is also, by analogy, a warning against the hysteria and irrationality of the current War on Terror.
In its inception the Inquisition was about the needs of burgeoning Spanish nationalism. Previous Inquisitions had been run by Rome, but the Spanish and Portugese versions were established by the monarchy for political purposes with a franchise somewhat reluctantly granted by the Vatican.
The founding of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 was followed by the Portuguese version in 1536. They established a reign of fear and irrationality that spread to the Iberian colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
The Iberian peninsula had been invaded and mostly conquered by the Moors in 711. They ruled unopposed and with magniminity, by the standards of the day, until 1085, when Christians recaptured Toledo. By 1248 the Christians had driven the Muslim rulers out of Iberia and inherited a rich multiethnic mix of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
In 1391 there were riots against the Spanish Jews and most converted to Christianity. They were known as conversos, and the vast majority proved happy enough with their new status, diligently practicing the rites required of them, although retaining some Jewish ethnic customs. The vast majority became, in fact, conventionally devout Catholics. It was a similar story with the remaining Moors, known as moriscos, who were poor, and mostly engaged in agriculture. These were overwhelmingly converted by the sword in the early 1500s, although, by that time, some Moors had lived as Christians for hundreds of years. Like the conversos, the moriscos retained many ethnic customs.
In essence, the establishment of the Inquisition was driven by the desire of the new monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabelle of Castile to unite a country riven by dynastic warfare and the social tensions unleashed by urbanisation. The new rulers were persuaded that the warring Christian majority might be united by an Inquisition against an “enemy within”. The subsequent history of persecution of these minorities is long and complex, and Toby Green illustrates, through the detail of individual cases brought before the tribunals, how it rotted moral and intellectual life, even as the Iberian states triumphantly expanded their global empires.
Once established, the Inquisition became impregnable for three centuries and the attempts of successive popes to rein it in failed. Pursuing its dream of a pure Christian state, the Inquisition’s witch hunts against ‘crypto Jews’ and undercover Muslims (most of whom were actually devout Catholics) ethnic-cleansed the Iberian Peninsula, at the price of economic havoc and intellectual stagnation.
The analogies with our own times leap off the page. The suspension of civil liberties and legal norms and the incarceration of suspects in horrendous jails without charge or trial recall ‘rendition’ and Guantanamo Bay.
Torture, especially the notorious potro – today known as ‘waterboarding’– became routine. When a confession, real or fanciful, was extracted, the victim faced punishment by the lash, imprisonment, the galleys, and confiscation of property. Those were the minor ‘penances’. Others were relajado – literally ‘relaxed’ – to the civil authorities to be put to death, either by being burned alive, or if lucky, to be garrotted first. Periodically, elaborate public festivals, the autos-da-fe, were staged to popularise these grizzly punishments. In its fanaticism, the Inquisition even made war on the dead. The bones of heretics convicted long after their death were exhumed for immolation or they (and those convicted in absentia) were burned in effigy.
Even reconciliados – those who had confessed, repented and been punished – were forced to wear the sanbenito, a white shirt decorated with demons, and after their death, the garment was displayed triumphantly in their parish church.
Not surprisingly, Spanish society became obsessed with limpieza de sangre – purity of blood – the absence of Jewish or Muslim ‘impurities’ in lineage. Those who could afford to do so wasted vast sums on bureaucratic investigations to prove (or invent)‘Old Christian’ credentials.
In a phenomena that echoes the rise of contemporary Muslim fundamentalism, many conversos and moriscos, who had converted in good faith, turned back towards their ancestral religions as a reaction against continual prejudice and persecution. And many converso intellectuals fled across the border to France where they joined the ranks of the Enlightenment. Thus, the fanaticism and intolerance of the Inquisition fostered its own eventual downfall.
With Iberia purged of the first wave of invented enemies, the Inquisition turned to other targets: Protestants, witches, homosexuals, dissident theologians, academics. In time, it became a vast censorship machine dedicated to keeping modernising ideas, in all spheres of human endeavour, out of the Iberian states.
It was a sad thing to sit on the beach and read this book, knowing that in Gaza, half-way across the globe, the mighty US-equipped army of the self-proclaimed ‘Jewish State’ was trying to terrorise Muslim and Christian natives of what’s now called Israel into fleeing the remaining coastal sliver of the country known only half a century ago as Palestine.