Review: Inquisition

Edwards Perers - InquisitionTitle: Inquisition
Author: Edward Peters
Paperback: 362 pages
Publisher: University of California Press, 1989
Language: English

This brilliant study is immensely valuable to the amateur historian on three levels. The least of these is how it shows the Inquisition as the outcome of the legal system of Ancient Rome. It also examines in detail the organization, procedures, process and results of the various inquisition throughout an 800+ year history based on the notoriously meticulous records recently released from the Vatican Archive. More importantly, it compares the process of the inquisition to that of secular courts and legal processes of the periods.

This in itself would be enough but Peters go further to examine how the historical inquisition was transformed from the historical reality into the myth of the Inquisition we think we know today. That’s a lot of ground to cover in 300-odd pages of text.

The fact is there is not and has never been an Inqisition. No such monolithic agency controlled solely by the Pope ever existed. There were, however, many smaller, often national, inquisitions which had key staff appointed by the pontiff. There was a Spanish inquisition (all Monty Python and Mel Brooks jokes aside), a Roman inquisition, etc. Each of these agencies was completely separate and independant of each other.

The second key point to keep in mind is that we’re dealing with a time where religion was not seens as a personal choice but a public act. Faith was not a matter of the conversation between an individual conscience and the divine but a political act of communal cohesiveness. This was not an attitude imposed from above but as deep a belief of the common people as the notion of individualism in, say, the modern United States. Before the inquisition existed and when it was deemed too slow to act, lynch mobs and local lords dealt with any considered by them a heretic.

It must be remembered that since the time of the Emperor Augustus, to fail to uphold the religion of the leader of the community was treason and Traitors were executed. When the Emperor Constantine became Christian, this notion was maintained. The main driver for the Council of Nicea was to develop for and on behalf of Constantine the limits beyond which a belief may be considered heretical. This morphed into the idea that the people accept the religious belief of the ruler. The various inquisitions were established to get someone who understands theology judging such cases rather than the accused being solely at the mercy of the local lay authorities.

In this regard, one aspect the book fails to cover to my satisfaction is why after the fall of Rome and the inital formulation of doctrine did the quest for heresy re-commence in the 12-13th centuries. I suggest the cause is that the failure of the second and subsequent crusades was popularly blamed on the impuruty of western Christendom. This and the massive clerical reform movements of the period cannot be divorced in my mind from the hunt for heresy within Europe.

During its heyday, the only criticism leveled against the various inquisitions was that they operated too slowly. Why concern oneself with rules of eveidence, taking statements, assessing witnesses, etc when we all know who the heretics are and need to kill them for the good of the community? Prisoners in secular jails awaiting execution for criminal offenses were known to falsely confess to heretical beliefs simply to get moved into an inquisition prison where the rules of whichever inquisition ran the place guaranteed them at least one meal a day and other luxuries. The inquisitions were also much less likely than the secular authorities to use torture on an accused.

So, how exactly did inquiries into heresy in particular places and times get transformed into the the myth of a vast, bureaucratic machine determined to exterminate difference?

The short answer has two parts to it. First, the rise of Protestantism transformed relgion from something public to a matter of individual faith and needed to attack the catholic church in order to gain legitimacy for themselves. All Protestant literature of the period portrays the Inquisition as the political arm of the church concerned only with continuing 1500 years of suppression of the “true faith” (as opposed to Protestantism being a 16th century invention). Second, the Enlightenment exaulted the idea of reason in the face of the superstitious primitivism of the dark ages (yep, it was these guys who coined this term to refer to the middle ages).

Both these pushes, one in the 16-17th century, the other in the 18th century, defined the church as anti-individual, anti-reason and even anti-god in order to promote their own agendas. There was a large anti-Spanish element to it all as well. Then at the start of the 19th century, Matthew Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe and the other writers who invented the Gothic grabbed this idea and made it as lurid as possible. Stories of shadow-hiding inquisitors torturing and molesting semi-naked faithful women sold in the hundreds. This is the myth of The Inquisition we still labour under today.

Peters is one of a number of scholars writing some truly transformative history about the history of religion in western culture. The book is based on documentary evidence and eye-witness accounts rather than received notions of the past. I reckon it’s next to impossible to change such deeply ingrained myths such as The Inquisition but Peters make a damned good argument. Well worth the read.