Inquisition: The Reign of Fear Paperback – Unabridged, 1 Feb 2008
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A break-out book by one of our best narrative non-fiction authors
About the Author
Toby Green is the author of three previous books and his work has been translated into six languages. He has travelled widely in Africa and Latin America, and now lives with his wife and daughter in the West Country.
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Indeed, reading Green's book I was struck not by the uniqueness of the Inquisition but by how many of its procedures have made a depressing resurgence in the last decade under the banner of the 'war of terror': arbitrary arrest; secret courts and secret evidence; indefinite detainment; even state torture. (The disgraceful contention of the Bush administration that water-boarding does not constitute torture is surely disproved by the fact that it was one of the three techniques most commonly applied by the Inquisition - the others being the rack and suspension).
The temptation of states to "work the dark side", in Dick Cheney's phrase, when faced with threats to social order is a perennial one. For this reason, the study of the Inquisition is more relevant than ever.
Moreover, the documentary evidence available to historians of the period has been transformed in the last thirty years with the opening of many Inquisitorial archives in Spain, Portugal and Rome. This is certainly a good moment for a new popular history.
However, I found Green's book exasperating. There are a number of problems.
First, he is attracted to the grandiose generalisation:
'The fact that excesses of power always, in the end, destroy their perpetrators is a source of consolation, and a testament to the complex and paradoxial nature of the human condition that emerges from the remarkable stories which fill the archives of the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain.'
The meaning of this is not clear. But in so far as a meaning can be extracted - those who abuse power always get their comeuppance - it is the most sentimental twaddle.
Second, there are inconsistencies. For example, Green writes on page 6:
'From 1478 to the mid-18th century the Inquisition was the most powerful institution in Spain...'
Four pages later we read that the Inquisition in Spain was 'subordinate to the monarchy'. So was the monarchy more or less powerful than the Inquisition? Or doesn't the monarchy count as an institution for these purposes?
Third, much time is wasted on speculation. After noting that the inquisitor-general Torquemada suffered from gout in his later years, he writes:
'The rich diet which tends to lead to this condition may also have produced an excess of full-bloodedness which his life as a monk could not satisfy; perhaps this made him peculiarly suited to the demands of his job with the Inquisition, which required, after all, a peculiar mixture of anger, repression and energy.'
The idea that we should conclude that Torquemada was well-suited to his job (by whatever criteria that should be judged) simply because he had gout is pretty silly, particularly when the conclusion is reached via the 'excess of full-bloodeness' nonsense.
Fourth, Green's condemnations of the Inquisition using the lazy buzzwords of political correctness and therapy are tiresome. The institution, he complains, had a 'misogynistic' world view; it lacked 'empathy'; there was 'an outward concern for morality, but no thought to what this might do to people's inner emotions'. Ticking off the officers of the Inquisition for their failure to be feminist, empathetic, touchy-feely New Men seems both pointless and absurd. The former British prime minister John Major memorably said that we should 'condemn a little more, and understand a little less'. One wishes Green had adopted precisely the opposite approach.
Finally, the prose style is, at least intermittently, godawful. Three Green sentences:
1. 'A curious relationship developed between the year of the Islamic heresy and the actual spread of that heresy itself: just as with the theoretical implications for physics of Schrodinger's cat, so in history and politics - the perception of danger and enemies contributed decisively to the reality.'
2. (After saying that historical research into the Inquisition has not considered what motivated the persecution...) 'And yet in the climate in which the research was conducted, one could see how such an omission could come about: the volume of information about the atrocities and the creeping advance of the persecuting culture, the accumulating 'evidence' of the threat, all inevitably pushing consumers of this information into relating to it on its own terms, so that it became difficult to perceive it from any external perspective and gain a psychological understanding of what was really going on'.
3. 'Henceforth, erudition and reading were to be undertaken with caution'.
The first two examples fall into the category identified by Martin Amis: sentences you have to read twice, even though you didn't want to read them once. The third is not grammatical (you can't 'undertake' erudition).
Despite the great interest of the topic, I struggled to get through this book. I don't recommend it.
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.
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