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on 28 April 2007
Baigent and Leigh are perhaps most famous for being two-thirds of the authors of the infamous The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a work not noted for its adherence to strict historical method, or indeed strict history. So I was intrigued to see how they would handle this more factual area. Depressingly, the answer turned out to be less with science than with tabloid sensationalism.
This book alleges to be a wide-ranging study of the activities of the Papal and Spanish Inquisitions from the time of their creation in the thirteenth century to their modern day incarnation. However, my doubts were raised before we'd even left the introduction, as I read:
"Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor has seared itself into our collective consciousness as the definite image and embodiment of the Inquisition." [p. xiv]
Frankly, the only Inquisitor burned into my mind is Michael Palin's soft cushion-brandishing one, and in any case, what has this to do with the historical issues they are supposed to be examining? This was not the last example of this, sadly: works of Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arthur Miller and André Gide being waved around in a quite inexplicable manner, as though they were primary sources!
When, finally, we do come to some history, this is sadly lacking. There might be nothing wrong with the facts cited by Baigent and Leigh, or with the conclusions they draw from them - but they've given no proof of that. Almost without exception, no sources are cited: when the odd direct quote does appear and has a footnote, this turns out to be a secondary source. One entire chapter ('Enemies of the Black Friars') appears to be not much more than a straight precis of Norman Cohn's excellent The Pursuit of the Millennium: one is left wondering if there is any original research here at all.
My other complaint about the first half of this book can be amply illustrated by one prudish sentence:
"And there were numberous additional refinements [to methods of torture], to obscene to be transcribed." [p. 73]
Play fair, guys. Half the reason we're reading the book is for the graphic descriptions of torture, so don't titillate.
So far, so mediocre. If they'd stopped halfway through, this would have been an acceptable, if short and unoriginal, introduction to the subject. Then suddenly it all goes horribly wrong.
The second half of the book is a confused mess of ecclesiastical and political history of the last three centuries, coupled with utterly pointless rants relating to the authors' previous work (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Freemasonary). They seem to take very personal objection to certain individuals within the Vatican hierarchy, and abandon any pretence of scholarship in favour of piling up every bit of negative speculation they can: they claim, for example, that the Church's attempts to control the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to coincide with its own doctrines - what monotheist would do differently? - is a "conspiracy", not the feeble defensiveness it so plainly was.
I am no fan of the Roman Church myself, but surely it deserves better enemies than these.