Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition is an amazing experience. It is a highly detailed, supremely scholarly and ultimately enlightening account of an historical phenomenon whose identity and reputation have become iconic. So much has been written about it, so many words have been spoken that one might think that there is not too much new to be learned. But this is precisely where Kamen's book really comes into its own, for it reveals the popular understanding of the Inquisition as little more than myth.
He explodes the notion that the busy-bodies of inquisitors had their nose in everyone's business. It was actually quite a rare event for someone to be called before it. And in addition, if you lived away from a small number of population centres, the chances were that that you would hardly even have known of its existence.
Also exploded is the myth of large numbers of heretics being burned at the stake. Yes, it happened, but in nowhere near the numbers that popular misconceptions might claim. Indeed, the more common practice was to burn the convicted in effigy, since the accused had fled sometimes years before the judgment, or they might have died in prison while waiting for the case to reach its conclusion. The intention is not to suggest that the inquisition's methods were anything but brutal, but merely to point out that perceptions of how commonly they were applied are often false.
Henry Kamen skilfully describes how the focus of interest changed over the years. Initially the main targets were conversos, converts to Christianity, families that were once Jewish or Muslim who converted to Christianity during the decades that preceded the completion in 1492 of Ferdinand and Isabella's reconquest. Protestants were targeted occasionally in the following centuries, but it was the families of former Jews that remained the prime target, sometimes being subjected to enquiry several generations after their adoption of their new faith. A focus on converts to Christianity gave rise to a distinction between Old and New Christianity, an adherent of the former being able to demonstrate no evidence of there having been other faiths in the family history.
What consistently runs through arguments surrounding Old and New Christianity, a distinction that was also described as pure blood versus impure blood, is that at its heart this apparent assertion of religious conformity was no more than raw xenophobia and racism. Henry Kamen makes a lot of the contradiction here, since Spain at the time was the most "international" of nations, having already secured an extensive empire and sent educated and wealthy Spaniards overseas to administer it. In addition, of course, Spain was emerging from a long period when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived competitively, perhaps, but also peacefully under Moorish rule. It is worth reminding oneself regularly that the desire and requirement for religious conformity during the reconquest was imposed from above.
Completing Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition prompts the reader to reflect on which other major historical reputations might be based on reconstructed myth. One is also prompted to speculate on the future of an increasingly integrated Europe, a continent forcibly divided for half a century where xenophobia and religious intolerance might be closer to the surface than most of us would want to admit.
In my History A Level course of many years ago the 'Golden Age" of Spain did not enjoy a good press. From the perspective of the very angloc-centric view of history that was served to us, the Spanish along with 'Bloody Mary' threatened to plunge England back into medieval darkness and were of course the unrepentant villains of the Armada, from which we were rescued by 'Good Queen Bess'. Beyond Britain the arrival and efficient use of the printing press in the Protestant Northern Europe of this time, ensured that the 'Black Legend' was shared by all right thinking people. Within this received view it was hardly surprising that the dark deeds of the Spanish Inquisition only served to confirm all our worst fears, as was made iconically clear for a whole generation by the Monty Python team.
But History is surely interesting precisely because time moves on and we are eventually forced to take a longer view. Henry Kamen needs little introduction as one of the great scholars of Spanish history. The history of the Catholic Church in Spain is still painfully intertwined with recent history , so it is good that it is an outsider who approaches this difficult subject. This is revisionist history but is not an attempt at whitewash. It would be difficult to claim too positive a re-reading of the Inquisition, and he does not in my opinion try to seduce us with this. What Kamen does seek to do is to set his subject in the context of the excessive religiously inspired violence going on at this time throughout Europe in both Catholic and Protestant countries. Nowhere is this a pretty picture. The study does not just deal with punishment. It sets the Inquisition in the political picture of the time, the perceived risks of the Reformation, the impact it made on humanism and science in the Peninsular and its relation to ordinary people. It was of value to me to understand better the procedures of the Inquisition and to realise that death sentences were not the automatic outcome presented by popular prejudice.
Why then only four stars? This is no comment on the clarity of the research or its presentation but rather a warning that the average reader may find too much detail. For the specialist in this field I would however have no hesitation in recommending this excellent book.