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“To March into Hell:” Reassessing the Inquisition

“To March into Hell:” Reassessing the Inquisition

Since its establishment in 1478 by the Spanish monarchy, the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición has widely been viewed outside of Spain and in the Jewish world as the relentless agent of religious persecution, mass murder as well as, in part, intellectually responsible for the creation of a racist expression of anti-Semitism which ultimately led to Nazism’s genocidal war against the Jewish people. For sure, recent assessments of the Inquisition do not seek to absolve either the Spanish monarch or the Church of blame for their evil works but rather establish a verifiable, empirical record of the Inquisition and its crimes against humanity.

Briefly, Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their realm, created the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. The monarchial Inquisition superseded the Vatican’s medieval tribunal by the same name and in a sense sought to complete the spiritual work of the Catholic Reconquista of Iberia. The Inquisition’s roving Tribunals viewed Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism with great suspicion, fears widely reinforced by economic and political concerns. The first auto-de-fe (act of faith) took place in Seville in 1482. The following year, Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor. Ten years later, the Jews were expelled from Spain. Torquemada was succeeded by Diego Deza, who was as zealous as his predecessor in prosecuting “heretics” but ironically was later accused by being “of Jewish blood” by his enemies. Although the Inquisition eventually lost most of its vigor, it was not officially disbanded in Spain until 1834, earlier in some Spanish colonies.

From the start, observers and then historians of the Inquisition have debated the number of its victims and causalities. Today, historians talk about the historiography of the Inquisition in terms of “Black” and “White” Legends. The Black Legend began in anti-Spanish circles in Italy in the 16th century, spread to the Protestant world and was then widely used by anti-Catholic philosophes during the Enlightenment as well as by Britain and Holland in their respective struggles against Spain.

In world literature, writers like Edgar Allen Poe in the United States and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Russia seized on the most hellish aspects of the Inquisition and deepened the Black Legend of the Inquisition in the popular imagination. Even the 1964 musical, Man of La Mancha, utilizes the Black Legend approach to the Inquisition in its retelling of Cervantes’s 17th century masterpiece, Don Quixote and its complex assessment of Spain, chivalry and madness. By contrast, political and religious apologists for the Inquisition, most recently associated with Spain’s Franco regime and its subsequent supporters forged a White Legend about the Inquisition with the intent of minimizing its worst aspects.

In many ways, the year 1998 was the turning point in the writing of Inquisition history. First, extant Inquisition archives in Spain covering the years 1542 to 1903 (but which admittedly did not include the earlier, more murderous phase of the Tribunal apparently lost during the Napoleonic era) were “opened. Second, also in 1998, Henry Kamen, a British professor of Spanish history published his The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (Yale University Press), widely held as the most important work on Inquisition history, in which he systematically debunks the Black Legend and resets the number of Inquisition executions from as high as 150,000 to the 2,000 to 3,000 range. By contrast, European witch trials at the same time resulted in as many as 10-15x more executions, mostly of women, which also raises a number of disturbing questions including the historical valuation of women in Western society.

A second, weaker revision of Inquisition history is offered by Stanford University historian, George M. Fredrickson, in his 2012 book, Racism: A Short History. Fredrickson, among others, argues that “B. Netanyahu’s [the father of the Prime Minister of Israel and a leading Inquisition historian] claim that limpieza de sangre [purity of blood] anticipated Nazi attitude toward Jews overstates the case in his massive, controversial 1995 book, The Origins of the Inquisition. In the first place, the doctrine was applied unevenly and enforcement was irregular. Many offices and opportunities remained open to those with Jewish ancestry” and that “certificates of pure blood could be purchased.”

“Marching into hell,” as Don Quixote would have it, has been a difficult journey for new historians of the Inquisition. On the one hand, they are seeking to set the record straight. On the other, most do not mean to excuse the deep prejudices which motivated and sustained the Inquisition. The death of thousands of innocent people and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands is not to be forgiven but must be remembered accurately.

Finally, the place of the Spanish Inquisition in popular Jewish history has yet to be fully reassessed. While most Jewish college level textbooks and encyclopedias now discretely avoid suggesting casualty numbers, the Black Legend version continues to color the Jewish Inquisition narrative. Moreover, broader persecutions in Iberia, including Muslims are rarely mentioned in Jewish texts. Spain and Portugal both seem eager to make amends with the world Jewish community despite deep anti-Semitism at home. Not surprisingly, while Spanish and Portuguese Jews have been invited to “return” home, Iberian Muslims have not. History, lived and written, changes slowly.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and an adjunct professsor of Jewish history at Gratz College. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a history of Jewish life in greater Philadelphia.

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