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Thoughtful well-researched account of the most evil institution in European history.
on 23 December 2012
Toby Green, a fluent Spanish speaker, has immersed himself in the voluminous records of the Inquisition. He has applied both psychology and humane common sense in attempting to understand the motivations of those involved. He does not dwell excessively on the details of torture, but focuses on how the fear of torture facilitated control over ever aspect of life. Since Spain was the "superpower" of its day, and Spain and Portugal were the first European empires, the power of the "Spanish Inquisition" extended over five continents.
Green describes how over the three centuries of its existence, the Inquisition persecuted, tormented, humiliated, tortured and killed Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Protestants, Freemasons, homosexuals, witches, rape victims of both sexes, free-thinkers of all kinds, and anyone whose thinking, behaviour, or achievements deviated in the slightest detail from the norm.
His analysis shows however that above all else they persecuted devout Roman Catholics- members of the very Church that they purported to protect. Thus even on its own terms, the Inquisition was utterly counterproductive, creating the very enemies that it purported to be suppressing. Their meticulous records record that their victims often begged their interrogators to tell them what they should confess to, so as to terminate their torture. Some even learned Jewish prayers so they could incriminate themselves more plausibly. During period eruptions of rebellion, Spanish peasants would declare themselves to be indeed Muslims or Jews, even though by now they had lost almost all knowledge of these religions.
Looking at the psychology revealed in detailed case studies, Green shows that due to its reliance on informants, who were generally motivated by personal malice, the Inquisition encouraged and fed upon spite, greed, jealousy, resentment, lust, and every other form of evil. Thus its effect on the "spiritual life" of the people was entirely detrimental.
Finally, Green demonstrates the disastrous effect of the Inquisition on Spain as an Imperial power. Those genuine Jews and Muslims whom they initially expelled were the most educated and productive element in society. They continued to oppress the most distant descendants of those whom they had forcibly "converted" to Christianity, treating Islam and Judaism as if they were racial "taints" rather than beliefs that could be changed. By the 18th Century, while Britain and France forged ahead into the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, and the philosophical "Enlightenment", the Inquisition focused on the censorship of books, stunting the intellectual life of Spain. Even being unusually talented was dangerous- Green records a ship's pilot who having sailed from Peru to Chile in record time, was accused of being in league with the Devil! Indeed, even washing one's hands before eating or after defecating was sufficient grounds for arrest on suspicion of secret adherence to Islam or Judaism. This must have been conducive to disease outbreaks- not that the Church authorities would have cared, so long as the dead had been baptised.
The Popes, though aware of the excesses of the Inquisition, were unable or unwilling to reform it. The Inquisition perished only with the demise of the Spanish Empire, which it had so disastrously undermined. Toby Green gives us good cause for optimism in showing how all repressive institutions must sow the seeds of their own destruction.
My only criticisms of the book are firstly that at times Green lapses into excessively colloquial or emotive language, which is unnecessary as the facts speak for themselves. Secondly, the narrative jumps about between different topics and periods. Thirdly, although his suggestion that the Inquisition's obsession with "purity of blood" lies at the root of modern American racism is indeed evidenced by the Spanish terminology denoting imperceptible admixtures of African blood (e.g. musteefino = 1/16 or 1/32 African), I feel other factors must predominate since America was always a Protestant society.