Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

June Books 23) The Spanish Inquisition: A History, by Joseph Pérez

I didn't know a lot about the Spanish Inquisition before reading this fairly comprehensive but also short (221 pages) account. Pérez gives plenty of detail on how it operated, as a powerful and brutal autnomous judicial system within the Spanish state, from 1480 to 1834 (admittedly rather gutted of its authority in its final decades). Several interesting points that arose for me:
  1. Though run by Church officials, the Inquisition was more an arm of Madrid than of Rome; the Spanish king and government exercised control over it as far as anyone did. Though it was set up to extirpate heresy, this was heresy treated as a crime against the civil order.
  2. The context of 1480 was that of the final victory of Christian rulers over Muslims in Spain, which of course could not be known to be final at the time; Pérez seems to consider that a fair amount of the Inquisition's persecution of backsliding converts from Islam or Judaism was a response to a real phenomenon rather than a witch-hunt of imaginary foes.
  3. Speaking of which, the Inquisition rarely took charges of witchcraft per se seriously and tended to acquit accused witches brought before it.
  4. Having said that, the Inquisition was far more brutal and violent than other judicial mechanisms dealing with religious difference, even in a bloodthirsty and bigoted period of history.
Two things would have helped me to appreciate the book more. The first, which is more my fault than Pérez', is that I have very little knowledge of Spanish history, and cannot really relate to any of its monarchs after Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V and Philip II, so rather than fitting the narrative from 1600 to 1800 into a framework that I already knew, I was trying to reconstruct the historical background from the intense details given by Pérez. The second is that, although Pérez does reflect a bit on the comparative dimension, we could have done with more of it; apologists mutter that even Calvin's Geneva burned Servetus (who had of course escaped the Spanish Inquisition himself), but to me the interesting question is, how come nothing like the Spanish inquisition developed in other Catholic countries, most notably in the Papal states?

I did have one laugh-out-loud moment, when zealots complained that the public reading of the edict of faith, which described heretical practices in some detail, was actually disseminating knowledge of the practices it was supposed to condemn. I doubt if it made much difference; I shouldn't think anyone was really listening.

Anyway, a cheap remainder purchase a couple of years ago which justified the £2 it cost me.
Tags: bookblog 2011, religion, world: spain

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