Why the “Lessons” Drawn from History Are Often Partisan Nonsense That We Uncritically Embrace Unawares

Rod Dreher posted something on his blog a few weeks ago about the French Prime Minister’s admission of French efforts to round up Jews during WWII. He is right to praise Monsieur Hollande, but ends his post with this:

The tragedy in all this is that the effort to stamp out “monstrosity,” even “under its most harmless guises” can also lead to a fanaticism, and to evil. This is the lesson of the Inquisition. How difficult it is to learn to live with a certain amount of evil in human society, to protect society from even greater evils.

I’ve always admired Mr. Dreher, but this “lesson” is historically obtuse.  I do not want to dwell on this too much, but I hear this refrain so often from intelligent, educated people that I feel honor bound as an historian to write something about it (even though I’m pretty sure no one is going to read this).

First of all, it’s important to understand what the “Inquisition” was and was not.   The practice of appointing “inquisitors” to judge someone’s orthodoxy began in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with the rise to prominence of canon law (many, if not most popes in this period were actually trained in canon law rather than theology).   The pope or a bishop would appoint these inquisitors, usually Dominicans, to investigate claims of heresy, partly because prior to the creation of the office of inquisitor there was no formal legal standard for adjudicating accusations of heresy.  Now, one might think that having no formal way to condemn someone as a heretic is a good thing, but prior to the creation of inquisitors, it was not uncommon for mobs to seize someone they thought was a heretic and, among other things, put them to death.  (See the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on this subject).  And so the Church decided there ought to be some sort of due process to prevent this type of outrage, and this is where inquisitors came from.  In the Middle Ages, they mostly handed out penances to people (pilgrimages and the like), and only a few people per year were handed over to the civic authorities for punishment.  This is other thing to recognize:  though inquisitors did on occasion, in violation of canon law, use torture in their investigations, they did not kill anyone.  The power to punish by death was jealously guarded by the state, and was usually requested by the state in cases of heresy because heresy was virtually synonymous with treason; the Faith was part of what kept medieval societies in line, policing techniques and government control not being nearly as strong as they are in the modern West.  So no one died at the hands of the Inquisition, if by that one means that clerics performed executions.  In effect, inquisitors originally were more like independent prosecutors, brought to deal with a special case.  This extraordinary characteristic of the office of inquisitor–being freed from any oversight–is also what has made independent prosecutors problematic, and it is not surprising that people abused it.  But this is not the result of fanaticism, just plain, tedious moral laxity.

But what about the Spanish Inquisition?  This too, in the end, didn’t really have much to do with the Church’s putative “fanaticism.”  Pope Sixtus IV (of the Sistine Chapel fame) gave his dispensation for the inquisitors of Spain to be freed from papal oversight in 1478.  This was the period when the Reconquista of Spain from its Muslim conquerors was taking place, and scholars have generally concluded that the main impetus behind the Inquisition was the government’s wish to root out a potential fifth column within the newly conquered territories.  This process, of course, was very easy to abuse, and many who had grievances against or simply hated converso families (conversos were Jewish families that had converted to Christianity in previous centuries) used the Inquisition to terrorize them.  The Pope very soon regretted his decision, as letters from converso communities came flooding in to ask for help.  He tried to intervene on their behalf, but King Ferdinand (yes, that Ferndinand) politely told him to go piss off.  Thus, the Spanish Inquisition handed over somewhere between 3 and 5000 people for execution in its nearly 350 year history (it was abolished in the early 19th century by Napoleon), but most took place during this early period, from 1478 to the early 1500’s.  This is still a horrible injustice, and bad enough as it is, but it is not the result of fanaticism nor is it on par with modern atrocities with which thoughtless commentators often lump it.

More than this, there was actually some positive benefit to the Inquisition in some respects.  The creation of legal standards for heresy trials was, again, an attempt by the Church to create some sort of due process for those accused of heresy, and this had a very peculiar effect in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries.  In those centuries, a witch burning craze swept through Europe, in which some where in the realm of 150,000 women were put to death for being witches.  However, almost no women were put to death in Spain during the same period, mainly because the inquisitors in Spain had much higher standards of evidence did than did secular legal bodies elsewhere in Europe.  Scholars have come to recognize (without excusing or condoning the deaths of people convicted of heresy) that much of image of the Inquisition in the Anglophone world especially was shaped by the “Black Legend” of the Spanish in England, and by 19th century French and Spanish liberal writers who wanted to attack the Church’s political power.  It is from them that we get wild claims as to the number of the Inquisition’s victims (in the millions, in some cases), and it is their wildly exaggerted image of the Inquisition that inspired, among other literary creations, the “Grand Inquisitor” of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.

What about Galileo?  This again may offend modern sensibilities that an institution has the right to censor someone’s opinions, but the Galileo affair is much more complicated than that.  For starters, one must take into account the historical backdrop to Galileo’s condemnation–the Reformation and its fallout were the reason the Roman Inquisition came into existence in the first place.  Secondly, the Roman Inquisition, as noted above was a legal body; when Galileo first met with Robert Bellarmine and the other inquisitors in 1616, he gave his word that he would not write about the heliocentric system as if it had already been proved to be true.  I’m not clear as to what form this agreement took, but I suspect it was an oath they extracted from him, and the breaking of his promise (when he published A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632) was the legal basis for his condemnation in 1633.  Again, this may offend modern or Protestant sensibilities, but it was not “fanaticism” that motivated the inquisitors.  Moreover, Galileo’s condemnation in 1633 was tied to court politics:  the current Barberini pope at the time, pope Urban VIII, was an old friend of his, and he wrote his Dialogue at his patron’s request.   Barberini had asked him merely to compare the geocentric and heliocentric models, but Galileo, for whatever reason, decided to attack the older model.  He not only did so, but mocked the words that one of his interlocutors in the dialogue used to defend the geocentric model (whom he named Simplicius, to drive home his point), which were in fact words drawn from a work the pope had written himself in defense of the older model.  In other words, Galileo, who was an experienced hand at court maneuverings, blundered badly, and his patron reacted by having him condemned.  One can condemn the pope’s reaction, but it had nothing to do with fanaticism.  And in any case, the Inquisition was right:  Galileo had not proved his theory to be true.  This would have to await the theoretical genius Newton, as many historians of science have come to recognize.

I could go on, but sufficed to say there is plenty of scholarly literature out there that can fill you in.  I recommend especially the works of Henry Kamen, whose The Spanish Inquisition, I have on my bookshelf, as well as Edward Peters’ Inquisition, as starting points.  These lectures by Thomas Madden are another place to look.  (For the Galileo affair, you might try this book by Stillman Drake; this book by Mario Biagoli explains the role of Galileo’s experience as a courtier in his scientific endeavors, as well as the role of patronage in 17th science more generally.)  There is also the article on the Inquisition on the New Advent website.  Finally, if you are too impatient to read books, there was a very good documentary done back in 1994 by the BBC (of all networks!) called The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, which features, among other scholars, Henry Kamen himself.  I have never been able find this anywhere for sale, but someone has kindly posted it on Youtube, where you can watch it in its entirety.

Well, I hope that wasn’t too preachy.  Obviously, not everyone has the time that an historian does to read up on such things (and the Inquisition is not my area of specialization, I should point out).  But with all apologies to Mr. Dreher, one should be careful in attempting to draw simple “lessons” from history in the manner that he too often does.   It might be more exciting, more captivating to the imagination to presume that malificent zeal is primary source of evil in the world, but historically speaking, this is not the case.  For every evil that men perpetrate out of misplaced zeal (Al Quaeda) in this world at least as much is due to a habitual, unselfconscious embrace of evil (think Abu Gharib).  In the case of the Inquisition, at any rate, the latter is a much better explanation for its sins than the former.


~ by Alypius on August 26, 2012.

4 Responses to “Why the “Lessons” Drawn from History Are Often Partisan Nonsense That We Uncritically Embrace Unawares”

  1. […] to determine matters of heresy, not laymen.  (I have mentioned this before, in a post on the Inquisition.)  Thus the real novelty and irony of More’s persecution of heretics  is that More, in agreeing […]

  2. The Inquisition kept Spain and Italy in intellectual darkness for three centuries while France and Britain led European civilization.

    The Inquisition was a means of persecuting and oppressing Jews (Marranos).

    The popes pressurized the English and French monarchs in the middle ages to legalize torture, for inquisitional purposes.

    The inquisition set up in Goa and Manila in response to Francis Xavier burned people at the stake — local people — for protestantizing,, hinduizing and judaizing. (and of course “sodomy”).

    I don’t think it’s an expression of faith to rejoice in this.

    • Hello Joseph,

      I think you may have misread my post. I was not suggesting that the torture and execution of heretics was a good thing, nor was I “rejoicing in it.” I believe it was evil, and I believe I said as much in the post. What I was objecting to was the modern tendency to treat as the unique example of evil par excellence, in an ideological way. And I doubt very much the Inquisition by itself “kept Spain in intellectual darkness.” There were plenty of other forces in Spain capable of doing that, which if I am not mistaken was part of the point that Henry Kamen and other revisionists on the subject have been trying to make: namely, that the influence of the Inquisition has been exaggerated for ideological purposes. That was my point in criticizing Rod Dreher in the first place, and the real point of the post.


  3. For the oppressive impact of the inquisition in Italy, see Leonardo Sciascia and the very readable history by Andrea del Col: http://www.libreriauniversitaria.it/inquisizione-italia-xii-xxi-secolo/libro/9788804534334

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