Lessons from the Inquisition

spanish inquisitionThis is how the great Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, prefaced his 1937 publication of The Spanish Inquisition:

The Spanish Inquisition was until yesterday an antiquarian diversion. The events of the past few years… have converted it into a dreadful warning. The author must request the incredulous reader to believe that, however contrary appearances may seem, this book is based on authorities, manuscript as well as printed… and is not intended as a satire on present-day conditions.

Chapter IX (Alarms and Diversions) begins:

Protestants, Moriscos [Muslims] and Judaisers constituted the major preoccupation of the Spanish Inquisition. But there was nothing too small… for its notice. There were so many pitfalls for the faithful: so much from which he needed protection: so many seemingly innocent statements the theological implications of which…were of the most serious nature. With all these matters, the Holy Office occupied itself: and, as time went on, its tentacles extended over the whole of Spanish life, secular no less than ecclesiastical.

Readers should draw their own conclusions about the contemporary relevance of this history. I am just in middle of reading this marvelous work. It combines mastery of the history, literary panache, telling anecdotes, and moral insight. It is well worth reading if you are in any way curious about the Inquisition.


4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Inquisition

  1. A little-known fact among Jews is that while the likes of Torquemada, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, or Adrian of Utrecht, were persecuting The heretics among their ranks, —the Jewish leaders in Spain, Portugal and Italy were also runing their own version of the Inquisition. One cannot help a sense of cognitive disonance when the accounts of prominent Jewish historians like Yithzak Baer, Haim Beinart or Moshe Lazar are read, in which they describe cases when corporal punishment, torture, and even death was inflicted by order of the heads of the “Berurei Averot” (Sin Magistrates) or the “Mukadmim” (Elders) upon Jewish informants (malshinim); willful converts to Christianity (meshumadim)—not the compelled ones or ‘anusim’— or young women who engaged in romantic relations with Gentiles was inflicted in order to maintain (in the words of Yitzhak Baer) “the strict observance of the laws and commandments considered vital to the preservation of the (Jewish) nation and the faith”—(see his “Toldot Hayehudim Bisfarad Hanotzrit” p. 138).

    • Fascinating. btw, “cognitive dissonance” is often misused. Mostly misused, Leon Festinger would not approve. i was in school with his daughter soph year, she being one year earlier. (not younger). nit-picking.
      But, yours is a fascinating erudite comment. not to detract, just bugs me when everyone misuses that phrase. but how could a non-psych person know???

    • Corporal punishment is a Torah concept which Ezra obviously has a problem with.

  2. I think that Bentzion Netanyahu’s “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” is generally regarded as a better history of the Inquisition. He demonstrated that the vast majority of conversos persecuted by the Inquisition were, in fact faithful Christians.

    Bentzion Netyahu’s editor, Joseph Epstein, relates (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/38335/personal-history?all=1) that Netanyahu asked the question: why should we accept the explanations that thieves and murderers use to justify their depredations? Criminals lie all the time.

    As Netanyahu demosntrated, rather than the rooting out of crypto-Judaizers for religious motivations, the Inquisition was political, racist, and just plain greedy. The Old Christians were a majority, they resented the conversos. Limpieza de sangre – the “purity of the blood” was the way to rob and suppress the upstarts; the Inquisition’s racial laws were taken over by the Nazis in the Nuremberg Laws.

    But, as Epstein writes, “Benzion’s aim however was not to exploit the Inquisition as a warning to assimilationists but to clarify a persistent and profound historical falsification.”

    Roth was a wonderful writer as well as an important historian, but perhaps better not to draw conclusions from ideas that later and better scholarship has shown to be in error.

    Netanyahu was no slouch as a writer himself. His 1400 page masterpiece is a terrific read.

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