Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Inquisition - An Overview

To dismiss the Inquisition as a bunch of reactionary religious nuts is too simplistic. The Inquisition was a church body with the task of suppressing heresy, meaning beliefs other than those sanctioned by the Catholic Church. It is worth noting that the early Church tolerated diversity of opinion and used persuasion to bring people back to orthodox beliefs.

The first significant outing of the Inquisition was the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, a sect in what is now southern France who advocated a purer form of Christianity. The Pope outsourced control of the local Inquisition to the King of France. The Kingdom of France was then one territory amongst several in what we now call France. By the end of the crusade, when the Cathars had been crushed, France had absorbed huge amounts of new territory in the Languedoc, often replacing local aristocrats with Frenchmen.

Catholic monarchs earned their legitimacy through Papal recognition so had an interest in suppressing theological opposition to the Papacy. The Medieval Catholic church was morally and financially corrupt and saw frequent outbursts of opposition from people wanting to purify the institution. Some of these, such as the Hussites, were serious challenges. The Papacy more or less kept the lid on dissent until many northern German princes supported the Reformation of Martin Luther.

In Italy, the Popes used the Roman Inquisition as a weapon in their fight for political supremacy against the [Holy Roman] Emperor.

In 1453 the Turkish army captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, creating the possibility of an Islamic conquest of Christendom. In the far west of Europe, the Christian kingdoms of the northern Iberian peninsula had slowly conquered their southern Islamic rivals, forcing many Muslims and Jews to convert. The two main Christian kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, joined together in a dynastic marriage. The monarchs had limited power over the autonomous cities and regions, and aristocrats with their own private armies.

I think maybe Spain was different from much of Europe in that it had three significant religious groups – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – and that national identity was fused with religious identity. The mob demanded discrimination against converted Jews and their descendants – the idea of purity of blood – which had no place in Catholic doctrine, but was accepted. The Inquisition only had authority over those who had converted to Catholicism (although later it implicitly recognised Protestant baptism as legitimate, so it could prosecute foreign-born Protestants).

The Inquisition in Spain was outsourced by the Papacy to the Monarchy, and was about the only national institution. I do not know the degree to which the Inquisition followed the Monarchy’s political agenda, but clearly a Spanish national identity emerged. Despite a number of eye-wateringly large bribes to the Vatican, the Inquisition was also established in Portugal. 

Within the Catholic Church the Inquisition came under the control of the Dominicans (an order of monks) who used it to bash their Franciscan rivals. The Inquisition controlled doctrine, so was immensely powerful in internal Church politics. Inquisitors – appointed by the Monarchy in Spain and Portugal - had some power over local bishops, often appointed by local aristocrats.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition were self-funding out of property confiscated from their prisoners. Outside Iberia the Inquisition was clearly seen as unjust (for example, the secret denunciations and people not being tried in open court) and its officials experienced a number of popular revolts. I have the impression that the “Old Christian” majority in Spain and Portugal felt the Inquisition was on their side.

To be descended from heretics was itself a cause for suspicion of heresy, so New Christians (descendants of converted Jews) were an obvious and easy target. New Christians tended to be in commerce or the professions, the importance of which was not understood in a mercantilist economy. Targeting them was probably popular with ordinary people, who could feel superior to the ‘other’, while appearing to support Church doctrine and making a little money for the Monarchy. I sense there was also a political element, especially when Portugal broke away from Spain. The Portuguese identity of the victims was stressed.

Were the prisoners of the Inquisition authentic heretics in Catholic eyes? I suspect some were and many weren’t. Actually, I don’t think the “Jews” were a homogenous group. Maybe we can differentiate between the mega-wealthy who left Iberia around the turn of 16th Century, those who were what me might describe as “middle class” and as tradesmen. I note that many New Christians remained in Spanish and Portuguese territory – or returned to it – when it was possible for them to live elsewhere. It may be that they had no choice, or that the Inquisition was seen as a risk of the job. I wonder if – as with the drug industry today – it was the less important people who got caught. Of course, once someone had been despoiled of their property and remained in Spain, they might be targeted again.

I note that when they had the opportunity, very many New Christians chose to assimilate into the general Catholic population.

The Inquisition was an organisation of individuals. I suspect some were sadistic and had mental health issues. Some probably genuinely believed they were helping their prisoners achieve salvation, a goal so important that the means justified the ends.

I plan to expand these thoughts on my Sephardic Genealogy website.

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