Joseph PEREZ, The Spanish Inquisition. News Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. 248. ISBN 0-300-10790-0.
Reviewed by James R. KELLY, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458

With talk of shariah, the role of torture in national security, and the clash of civilizations, it’s time for a fresh look at the Spanish Inquisition. Joseph Perez, emeritus professor of history at the University of Bordeaux, proves to be a good guide, carefully sifting the evidence, debunking myths, and placing religious data in the ethnographic contexts of power, class, and race. So developed is Perez’s sociological sense, especially his sense of the functions of scapegoat, that he greatly distances himself from recent efforts to find a consoling past irenic era among the three Abrahamic faiths: "We need to challenge the preconception of a Spain in which the three religions based on sacred books—Christian, Muslim and Jewish—existed tolerantly together throughout the first centuries of Muslim domination and continued to do so in the Christian Spain of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Tolerance presupposes an absence of discrimination against minorities and respect for the points of view of others. In the Iberia of the eighth century to the fifteenth, such tolerance was nowhere to be found. The Christians and the Muslims were equally convinced that it was they who held the truth and that their own respective faiths were incompatible with the faiths of all others. If they acted with tolerance, that was because they could not do otherwise; unwillingly, they accepted what they had no means of preventing. .. A ‘de facto‘ tolerance, suffered rather than desired.…(In the Inquisition) what changed was not people’s mentalities, but the circumstances. The golden age of the Spain of three religions had coincided with a phase of territorial, demographic and economic expansion;. Jews and Christian had not had to compete in the work market… and the militant anti-Judaism of the church and the monks had found few supporters. But the social, economic and political upheavals of the fourteenth century, and the wars and natural catastrophes that preceded and followed the Black Death, created a new situation” (1,2, 5).

The Inquisition, of course, did not begin in Spain. But it’s in Spain that the Inquisition takes the firmest and longest roots , allowing us to take it for a Weberian ideal type of the use of repression and terror to protect truth and achieve political security. The origins were messier. The emergence in Southern France of Catharism—a world-denying dualism most likely originating in 10th Century Bulgaria—which taught that Satan created the world and the flesh and whose highly ascetical perfecti rejected both the corruptions of the Catholic hierarchy and it’s legitimacy, led to Pope Innocent III (118 - 1216), after the failed efforts at persuasion by the Cistercian monks (soon to be replaced by the new mendicant orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans) and the assassination of a legate, to call for an internal Albigensian Crusade (1209 - 1229). We might mark the beginning of the Inquisition (a crusade within Christendom to regain minds and hearts and territory) with Innocent 111’s convening in Rome of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 which issued canonical legislation mandating that not only bishops but also lords and indeed all the faithful were required to seek out heretics and deliver them to a special church tribunal for trial and, if found guilty and recalcitrant, delivered to the secular order for capital punishment.

Both the extremity and the spread of the Inquisition took time. When the bishops were chiefly in charge of discovering and converting heretics, the penalties tended, by comparison, to be modest. Innocent III in his 1199 bull vergentes in senium ruled that both church and state could confiscate the lands of proven heretics, he did not envisage a death penalty, as conversion required that the confiscated property be returned. The Inquisition spread from southern to northern France and then to Germany and much, but not all (and especially not in proudly independent Venice) of Italy; and there was no Inquisitional success in Eastern Europe, the Scandinavian territories nor in Britain.

And then there was Spain, where it officially lasted from 1478 to 1834, and which involved, by Perez’s revisionist calculations, “fewer than 10,000 death sentences…. A far lower figure than is usually suggested.” For a comparative sense, Perez points to the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the Inquisition-absent Religious Wars in Europe and the great number of witches burnt in Germany. (The Spanish Inquisition most often treated witches not as heretics but as disturbed people more in need of pity than punishment). He notes that while Galileo was condemned in Europe, the University of Salamanca authorized the teaching of Copernicus as an optional subject for study. As for the economic decline of Spain in the 18th century, Perez attributes this not so much to the expulsion of the Jews but to the cultural choice of not permitting, especially in times of decline, the wide disparity between wages and prices and profits that make for the capital accumulation requisite for early capitalism.

But Perez’s comparative perspective does not lead the reader to any sense of a “gentler and kinder Inquisition”. It’s prime purpose was to punish relapsed (marranos) baptized (converses) Jews. But the first Grand Inquisitor, Toquemada, successfully argued that to fully protect the converses the Jews must be expelled. Next came the Muslims. Then (though few) the Lutherans. Throughout Perez draws the reader’s attention to the nation-building or, more exactly, the concentration of political power that the Inquisition served. He points out that the prime movers of the Inquisition were the sovereigns Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and their regal power quickly contained papal authority: "The appointments of grand inquisitors always took the form of a ‘motu proprio’ in which no reference was made to any nomination of the part of the king of Spain, However, that subtlety fooled nobody: it was certainly the kind who nominated grand inquisitors and who, in consequence, indirectly controlled the Inquisition…. The Inquisition lasted for as long as the political authorities wished it to..." (103-4). Papal efforts to claim control over the fates of the accused, even when they were bishops and cardinals, constantly failed. Paul 1V (1555 - 1559) even plunged the papacy into the war against Spain, the chief promoter of the Catholic Reformation. Perhaps the ideological and social control utility of the Inquisition for political functions can best be seen in the Inquisition’s placing on the Index the colonial critiques of Los Casas and the expulsion in 1767 of 2,641 Jesuits from Spain and 2,630 from their South American missions primarily because of the natural law teaching of the Jesuits Suarez and Marianna that, as a last resort, people had the right to revolt against tyrannical power.

A state controlled religious inquisition clearly serves, to be anachronistic, hegemonic functions. It’s social control function (turning power into discipline) are powerfully evident in the great dramatic moment of the Inquisition, the auto da fe’ (the act of faith). The point of the Inquisition (and the inquisitor was prosecutor, jury and judge) was the elicitation of an act of faith both from the accused and from the people at large. After the trial, and announced weeks before, a great Sunday or holyday procession of accused was led by inquisitors with green crosses and kettledrums and trumpets and military volleys, followed the next day by a last day of judgment spectacle comprised of mass, sermon—interrupted by Pentecostal-like invitations to express belief—on a large platform with the recalcitrant on the top tier and those who had reconciled on the lower tier. The ceremony took all day and often lasted into the evening. There were rooms under the platform for the inquisitors, town officials, monks, etc. to eat and drink and refresh themselves. The auto da fe’ was the catholic imagination gone wild:

At five in the morning, the convicted prisoners left the prison in a procession, flanked by two rows of familiars (inquisition workers) and soldiers. Behind the White Cross, also known as the bush, because followed by the effigies of the condemned who had taken to flight, the coffins containing those who had died before they could be judged and, finally, the condemned themselves with special caps on their heads, carrying quenched candles, and wearing the clothing that indicated the nature of their respective sentences. This consisted of that famous tunic of infamy, the sambenito, a tunic made from two lengths of cloth, one in front and one behind, in the form of a scapular, but without any hood, on to which red crosses were sewn. The prisoners did not all were identical sambenitos. The color and cut varied according to their respective crimes and sentences… Those who were ‘reconciled’ subsequently had to wear the sambenito whenever they went out, throughout the period of their sentence; they could only remove it in their own homes” (162). A “preacher delivered a sermon exalting the Catholic faith, rejecting heresy, and urging the accused who still persisted in their errors to repent before dying… those sentenced to death who repented were strangled before being tossed on to the pyre. Only those who refused to recognize their errors were burnt alive” (163). “Whenever one of the condemned converted at the last moment, before the sentence had been pronounced, the proceedings of the auto da fe’ were interrupted. Candles were lit, canticles were sung, and the black draperies deflowering the crosses were removed” (164). “An Inquisitor would then ask a number of questions relating the principal points of Catholic dogma, and the accused and the public answered together: ‘Yes, I believe.’ The psalm Miserere Mei was then sung, a few prayers were recited, and as the Veni Creator was chanted, the Green Cross, up until then veiled by a black cloth, was uncovered. More prayers followed; then, finally, the inquisitor granted absolution to the ‘reconciled’ and handed over those sentenced to death to the secular branch.” (165). “According to tradition, the laymen who carried the wood to the pyre received special indulgences, but the clergy did not because, for them, that would have been an offense” (168).

That last sentence can serve to remind us that the Inquisition was always accompanied by a severe tension caused by the religious requirement that faith be sincere and not coerced, as paradoxical as that might sound in the context of an Inquisition unhesitant to use torture. Vincent Ferrer (1350 - 1419) insisted that he did not wish to force conversion upon anybody and was merely “helping grace to produce its effects. Canon law said that torture could only be used once, and so inquisitors eventually determined that the torture has merely been “suspended” not concluded. A confession obtained under torture was not considered valid; it had to be repeated, in another room and to a clerk. Only the state, not the inquisitors, burned the recalcitrant at the stake. Up to the very end, a confessor was standing by, ready for admission of guilt. For someone to die a heretic and evoke the admiration of the crowd was a calamitous occurrence. When such a late conversion occurred, the ex-heretic was mercifully strangled before his corpse was dropped to the burning pyre.

These tensions have long since worked themselves out in Christianity. But it took time. The governing body of the Inquisition was the Congregation of the Holy Office. Only in the 18th century did it reduce its inquisitional functions to the censorship of books, the Index. In 1965, Pope Paul VI changed its name to the Doctrine for the Congregation of the Faith. It still seems to be the case that the Congregation devotes more of its efforts to conserving by repressing error rather than renewing by permitting, if not encouraging, exploration of theological truths in new settings and in different cultures. But before we allow ourselves any individual smugness and lapse into a whatever liberalism, we should remember that it was a quite secular and committed progressive who wrote “the telos of toleration is truth” (Herbert Marcuse , A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Beacon, 1965: 90).

As for the Inquisition-like characteristics Westerners easily find in Islamic thought and actions, Perez’s attention to the political absorption of religious energies in the Spanish Inquisition, and the powerful role of scapegoating a nation-binding “other,” can serve to keep alive the imperative of interfaith dialogue and the critique of contemporary uses of religious feeling for hegemonic purposes.

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