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Edward O'Brien

A new look at the Spanish Inquisition

We are all familiar with the popular notion of the Spanish Inquisition, which for centuries has been portrayed as an instrument of monstrous tyranny imposed on Spain by evil clergy and officials. In an attempt to eradicate heresy, the Inquisition, as we have been told, at its discretion caught innocent Spaniards accused of heretical views, tortured them with endless cruel interrogations, and often tortured them to obtain meaningless confessions. And then the convicts were thrown into dark dungeons, where they waited for death at the stake. Millions of people are said to have died this way.

The Dominican monks, prejudiced, ignorant fanatics, ruled everything, we were told. This, they say, was a dark page in Spanish history. What child — be it of a Protestant or Catholic family — has not been told of the sinister, gloomy horrors of the dungeons of the Inquisition? In the pages of books whose authors are inherent in a true genius of the imagination - take, for example, Edgar Poe - the brutality of the Inquisition looks as good as the Gestapo. I remember reading Poe and shivering at his every word.

It is true that historians have long known that popular opinion of the Spanish Inquisition was only part of the "black legend," a body of texts created in the sixteenth century that denounced Spain and its Catholic faith. In the 1500s, Catholic Spain was the largest continental power. Its Protestant enemies envied Spain and often resorted to lies in an attempt to overthrow Spanish rule. The people of Northern Europe portrayed the Spaniards as a dark, cruel, greedy, vile, ignorant and narrow-minded people. Mostly the inquisitors. The distorted image of the Inquisition is based on political rivalry, contempt for the Catholic faith and racial hatred of the Spaniards.

But today, new, surprising facts are becoming known, and the dark web of lies and myths - the racist distortion of the image of the Spanish national character, Spanish culture - is fading. A BBC documentary aired on 9 June 1995. TV channels often present all sorts of nonsense about the Church, but this time it was different. Spanish scholars, using computers to study the original records belonging to the pen of the staff of the Inquisition, showed that the Inquisition had neither the ability nor the desire to rule Spain.

Historians interviewed by the directors say that in the 16th century, four out of five Spaniards lived in the countryside, far from the cities where the Inquisition operated. Back then, vehicles were, by our standards, primitive. The inquisitors were to travel throughout the country to interrogate cases involving accusations of heresy. In the winter, however, the roads were muddy, and in the summer there was stifling heat. The inquisitors - university legitimacy accustomed to urban comfort - did not want to leave the cities. Moreover, the average Spanish peasant did not ask subtle theological questions: he was more concerned about not starving to death. Heresies were rare. And the rector of the village parish, when he was told that the inquisitors would finally visit his area, instructed his flock not to accuse anyone, to speak as little as possible so that they could return home quickly. Yes, it doesn't sound like a grim legend, but it's true. The whole tone of the BBC film was cool, straightforward, fine. The facts were presented in a convincingly modern way.

The most important circumstance noted by Spanish scholars is that ecclesiastical inquisitorial tribunals were both fairer and more humane than civil and religious courts anywhere else in Europe at the time. Knowing this, prisoners from secular prisons in Spain sometimes began to blaspheme so as to be handed over to the Inquisition - the conditions of detention there were more lenient.

Modern Spanish scholars point out that heretics have been treated worse in other countries than in Spain. Catholics in England suffered terribly under the Protestant regime. The American historian William T. Walsh writes: "In Britain 30,000 people were burned for witchcraft; in Protestant Germany - 100,000." Those accused of witchcraft have also been brutally executed in Scotland. Carl Keating quotes: "It is well known that the belief in the justice of the death penalty for heresy was so widespread among the reformers of the sixteenth century - Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their followers - that it could be said that they reached tolerance. only when they have lost power. "Fans of the" black legend ", hearing about this, plug their ears.

For Catholics who want to know what the historical Inquisition really was, it would be helpful to read both Walsh and Keating. Both authors belong to the Catholic Church, but neither is trying to whiten the Spanish Inquisition. Abuses existed. There were cases of cruelty, harassment, personal revenge. And it would be strange if they were not found in a human institution that has been operating for so many years. There was also torture in the BBC film; but torture cannot last longer than 15 minutes, cannot be applied twice on the same person. And Walsh added that the use of torture required the presence of a doctor, who ordered it to be stopped immediately. There were other precautions.

It must be honestly admitted that three popes - Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII and Alexander VI - tried to soften the excessive severity of the early Spanish Inquisition. The following question must also be asked: is it legal for a person to be imprisoned or sentenced to death because his beliefs are heretical? Is this the way of the gospel, is it the way of reason? Walsh writes that no Catholic today wants this Inquisition to return. But we also do not want to hide our past. After all, as Leo XIII said, "the Church does not need anyone to lie."

We serve God in truth, and therefore we must know the whole truth about the Inquisition and refute the ridiculous myths that the enemies of the Church are creating.

For example, Thomas de Torquemada, the great inquisitor, whose name has already become a symbol of ruthless cruelty, in fact ... restrains the excessive jealousy of the early inquisitors in many areas, including mitigating torture and restricting its use. Walsh thinks the torture was no worse at Torquemada than at the US police station in the 1930s. In addition, during Torquemada's entire term as Grand Inquisitor (1483-1498), 100,000 prisoners passed before various tribunals throughout Spain. Of this number, less than two percent were executed. In Barcelona from 1488 to 1498 "one of 20 prisoners was executed" (23 in total). Although about a thousand, one thousand and five hundred were still executed at his expense, and - according to the usual method at the time, by burning, Torquemada was not the monster that the "black legend" presented to us.

For those who want to be able to defend the Church against these accusations, we have other information. For example, Keating points out that there were three institutions under the name of the Inquisition: the medieval Inquisition was founded in 1184 and disappeared with the disappearance of the Cathar heresy; The Roman Inquisition was founded in 1542 and was "the least active and kind-hearted"; the Spanish Inquisition has "the worst reputation of all." The Roman tribunal convicted Galileo - he was not tortured, but was under house arrest and eventually died in his bed, receiving ... a papal pension!

The Inquisition has never been to England, Scandinavia, northern and eastern Europe. We also know nothing about its existence in Ireland and Scotland. And that means a lot: although in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church flourished in these parts, it did not need the Inquisition there. Medieval Catholicism is not synonymous with church tribunals.

Today, following the publication of new data from the BBC, we are particularly concerned about the way the Inquisition is portrayed in works of art. For example, the fictional character of Dostoevsky's famous novel, the Grand Inquisitor, is a walking nightmare that commands the whole country and is about to kill Christ, who returns to Spain in the 16th century. Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor is a ghost, the fruit of delusion, sprouted on the ground of ignorance. Is it possible to believe what the writer writes about? Can art be built on lies? Torquemada does not rule Spain and will never kill Christ. And Edgar Poe with his story? Its plot is fake, the atmosphere is fantastic - what's left? But the power of art is great, and all these writings will not cease to excite the imagination and oppose the truth. They will remain literary thorns in the eye of the Church. And it is unlikely that in the near future those who want to harm the Church will give up such a convenient weapon as the "black legend."


First publication (in English): "The Wanderer", February 15, 1996


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