Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Spanish Inquisition by Joseph Perez

The Spanish Inquisition   [Joseph Perez, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-10790-0 ; Translated from the French]

     I found this brief history and analysis of the Spanish Inquisition to be a real eye opener. The institution is followed from its inception in 1479 to its final abolition in 1834. The book is structured into two parts the history per se and the setting of the 'Holy Office' in the political, economic and social life of Spain.

     It should be noted that the Spanish Inquisition, in contrast to the Inquisition elsewhere in Europe, was more a creation of the state as opposed to the Church.While the Inquisition everywhere operated separately from the regular ecclesiastic hierarchy uniquely in Spain it was under the control of the monarchy rather than the Papacy. The personnel of the Spanish Inquisition were, from the first, appointed by the monarch. The Holy Office soon became a lucrative cash cow,for the state as the benefits of property confiscation accrued to the Crown.

     The Papacy initially tried to assert control, but this was a total failure. In general the Vatican failed in many other efforts to extend its power over and against that of the "Catholic Monarchs" of Spain. Appointees to bishoprics were nominated by the Crown. The government also exercised its power to decide whether Papal Bulls would or would not be proclaimed in Spanish territories. The Bull condemning the enslavement of native populations in the New World, for instance, was forbidden to be read in Spanish possessions.

     Once established the Inquisition developed a bureaucratic apparatus. Unlike modern state bureaucracies the Holy Office was actually quite effective. This meant that it periodically "ran out of victims". This is in contrast to modern bureaucracies who simply can never reduce the supply of victims (called "clients" in modern social work bureaucratese). Actually changing the social conditions that produce the raw material that these kindly souls work on isn't even conceivable.

     The Inquisition had to shift its focus several times in its history. It was originally set up to ferret out 'crypto-Jews'. These were people who had publically converted (conversos) to Christianity in response to the long history of Iberian anti-Semitism culminating in the expulsion of the Jewish minority in 1492. They were suspected, occasionally with cause, of practicing Judaism in private. These were the golden days of Torquemada, the confessor of Ferdinand and Isabella who was appointed Grand Inquisitor.

     As the sixteenth century wore on the  'New Christians' , also known as marranos, became less and less a publicly acceptable target as the generations separating them from Judaism multiplied. Luckily (for the Inquisition at least) there were "crypto-Muslims", also known as moriscos  to search for. This population was forced to convert in the early 16th century. In contrast to the Jews these people lived in rather compact areas, and there was the possibility of rebellion to trouble the monarchs, along with a potential foreign ally in the Ottoman Empire. In 1568 they rebelled in the area of the former Emirate of Granada. Finally in 1609 the moriscos, along with unconverted Muslims, were expelled. The delay (and relatively less harsh treatment) as compared to the Jews was likely connected to the possibility of the Muslims fighting back.

    Jews and Muslims, actual or "hidden", became scarce despite the application of Blood Purity criteria that were used against the descendants of the minority religions. The Inquisition began to turn its "social work" to Protestantism, Humanism and Illuminism (Spanish alumbradors). The latter was a semi-mystical current of opinion with no connection to the more recent 'Illuminati'. Suspicion of witchcraft and sorcery, usually mislabelled peasant superstition, provided a small amount of busywork for the Holy Office functionaries, but the 'witch-craze' frenzies of Northern Europe were conspicuously absent. So-called "witches" were treated far more leniently than other targets.

     The Inquisition in its decline tried to assert jurisdiction over simple "sin" as opposed to "heresy". This lacked the enthusiastic backing of the Throne, but it at least kept the wheels turning.
"By turning its attention to the mass of Old Christians and by, in many cases, quibbling over the meaning of words-sorcery, superstition, improper talk, deviant behavior- while continuing to pursue Judaisers and Protestants if any still came to their notice the Inquisition found a way to survive right up to the early nineteenth century". (pages 92-93)

   In its dotage the Holy Office became more and more what it was under the religious camouflage, a political police. The Inquisition was too useful to the state for it to be abolished.
"Above all, for the State authorities, it had become an instrument of control used for the repression of all ideological and political opposition.In this respect, it could still prove to be terrifyingly effective, as we shall see in relation to the Macanaz affair and the Olavide trial. By the end of the eighteenth century, essentially the Inquisition was operating as a political police force devoted to opposing the introduction of revolutionary and liberal ideas." (pages 93-94)

     Having drunk almost to the dregs of the blood and Jews, Muslims and their descendants, along with Protestants, Humanists, Illuminists and other "heretics" the Inquisition stumbled onwards until it was finally abolished in the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath. The Holy Office gradually declined in both importance and severity.When the liberals re-established the Constitution in 1820 the populace of Madrid rose up and stormed the Inquisition's prison. They found only one inmate there. The last person murdered by the institution was a Valencian deist, Cayetano Ripoll, in 1826. The final abolition came in 1834 when the Holy Office under another name, (the 'Faith Commissions') sunk beneath the weight of history. In 1838 the Spanish intellectual Larra coined its epitaph:
"Here lies the Inquisition, the daughter of faith and fanaticism. She died of old age." (page 100)

     As previously mentioned this book is only half chronological history. The latter half is a study of the personnel, operation and structure of the Holy Office.  There is also a chapter detailing the typical "trial" of the presumed heretic. The mutual effects of the Inquisition and economic trends, literature and science are looked at in detail. The penultimate chapter is concerned with the relations of the institution and the political authorities. The Holy Office was very much a weapon of regalist centralism. This work ends with a comparison of the Inquisition to modern totalitarian regimes such as Nazi-ism and Soviet Communism. In my opinion the latter case is closer to the mark, and a comparison of the Holy Office to modern "attitude correction" bureaucracies" might also be apt.

     Very interesting. This book seems to be about the right length for the simply curious, neither too brief nor too long. An excellent introduction to the subject.


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