December 4th, 2008

Apropos of nothing, I have posted on my website a little essay on the Spanish Inquisition. I was stirred into activity by some reservations I had about a (pretty good) presentation by the other guy to the local amateur history society. I’m not a professional and don’t have access to a university library, but the outline is clear enough. My contribution may at least earn an afterlife in the underworld of plagiarised term papers. Conscience money donations please to the IRCT.

PowerPoint summary after the jump.

* The Spanish Inquisition, unlike its Roman and Languedoc namesakes, was not an arm of the Catholic Church but a religious secret police of the Spanish monarchy.

* The Papacy can and should be blamed for enabling it administratively and ideologically for three centuries.

* The initial aim of the Spanish Inquisition was not the extirpation of heresy, as the Spanish conversos were mildly eccentric Catholics not secret Jews. Widespread hatred of the conversos, underpinned ideologically by a novel theory of racial antisemitism, was met by Ferdinand and Isabella with a large but controlled programme of scapegoat sacrifices; the Inquisition was created by the monster Ferdinand for the purpose, with papal backing for deniability.

* The later Inquisition did become an an instrument for enforcing Catholic orthodoxy, with decreasing intensity but ever-widening categories of enemies: Moriscos, Lutherans, humanists, bigamists, homosexuals, blasphemers, etc. It anticipated modern police states with its bureaucracy and army of informers (“familiars”).

* The long-term effect of the second phase in stultifying Spanish intellectual and political life was greater than that of the first ferocious wave. The converso martyrs were deliberately forgotten by their descendants and have few if any memorials.

* The distinct, but related, inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands had greater consequences in contributing to the Dutch revolt and eventual independence. Out of tactical necessity and the personal convictions of William the Silent, the Dutch Republic practised a religious tolerance unknown to Catholics, Orthodox and early Protestants alike. Later a justificatory theory of religious liberty was developed by English Puritans such as Roger Williams and John Milton and passed into the Enlightenment mainstream.

* The “black legend” of the Spanish Inquisition is itself a legend. IMHO, this organisation holds a special place in the long catalogue of historical horrors not by its scale but by its unique combination of pioneering police-state methods, celebratory perversion of justice, and unChristian blasphemy.

I have no great lessons to propose, just two random thoughts.

First: the memory of horrors is chancy. The 500 or so victims of the religious struggle in the English Reformation are remembered competitively by English Protestants and Catholics, the well over 5000 victims of the Spanish Inquisition are forgotten. The default is forgetting, memory is hard work.

Second: secret police forces, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Stasi, are very stable structures. They are hated, but can usually ensure their own survival. The regimes that run them may eventually collapse, but for other reasons – commonly losing a war or external support. It’s a sobering thought as our privacy and rights of due process are steadily eroded in the GWOT, in Britain even more than the US. How can we ever claw back these lesser but still serious attacks on our liberty?

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