Monday, May 11, 2015

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition


“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” is one of the most famous lines from one of the most well known Monty Python skits. Today, it might be better to say that no one understands the Spanish Inquisition but everyone talks about it. Just in the past week I read two opinion pieces that used the Inquisition as a kind of code word for human cruelty and injustice. Earlier this year even President Obama equated the Inquisition with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS Moslem fanatics. The President had to go back 500 years in time to find a kind of moral equivalence of what is going on today in Iraq and other Moslem countries.

It is a sad fact that once misinformation has become so ingrained in the popular imagination, it takes on the quality of myth so that even the most careful and balanced research is not able to overcome it. It’s not that the Spanish Inquisition did not happen but rather that that it has been almost totally misunderstood in both its origins and in its actual practices. 
I remember poring through a massive study of the Spanish Inquisition by renowned Jewish scholar Benzion Netanyahu back in 1995. If the name sounds familiar, it is because the author was the father of Bibi Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel. Although Benzion Netanyahu took a leading role in the founding of the State of Israeli, he will perhaps be best remembered as a great scholar. His field of study was the Spanish Inquisition and his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, revolutionized the study of the subject. ***

Few people understand that the Inquisition in Spain was not directed against Jews in Spain but against Christians. The Inquisition had no authority to persecute or even investigate the Jewish population. It was specifically chartered to deal with popular charges leveled against Christians of Jewish ancestry and their families who had converted to Christianity. These converts were known as “conversos” and there were elements in all levels of Spanish society who suspected that the conversos were not sincere Christians even if their families had converted more than a century before.

Periodically charges were made that the conversos had only converted to gain political or financial advantage. Indeed, they were often suspected of adhering to their Jewish beliefs in secret, and even working to undermine Christian society. Some regarded them as a kind of “fifth” column in the struggle against the Moslems in Granada.

It is true that many of the conversos had prospered during the century before the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Some had risen to high places in the administrations of the various Kings of Castile. Aristocratic grandees who regarded themselves as pure-blooded Christians without any trace of Judaism in their veins were often jealous and contemptuous of these conversos in high places. Among the lower classes it didn’t help the reputation of the conversos that some of them had become tax collectors or tax farmers for the Royal government.

The one major point I recall from Netanyahu’s 1000 plus pages was that he demonstrated that the charges leveled against the conversos were wrong. He marshaled an enormous amount of evidence to show that the conversos were almost always sincere, even dedicated, converts to Christianity. Like many converts, before and after, these converts from Judaism to Christianity in medieval Spain could even be more zealous or committed than the cradle Catholics of the time.

Descendants of conversos often become theologians and clergymen. Some bishops and abbots of famed monasteries could trace their origins to converso forebears. Even Torquemada, the first head of the Inquisition in Castile and a favorite of Queen Isabella, had converso roots.

Nevertheless, in times of political turmoil, military defeat, or economic hardship the conversos were often blamed. Sometimes the charges erupted into mob violence and riots. It was to deal with these charges and riots in very difficult times, that Ferdinand and Isabella sought permission from the Pope to set up an Inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile.

Isabella had inherited the throne under the most dangerous of circumstances. Castilian grandees or warlords disputed her right and authority. The King of Portugal put up a rival claimant to the throne and launched an invasion of Castile. Once these threats were somewhat subdued, she had to turn her attention to the constant border menace of the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.

Islam was a real threat. In 1480 an Islamic naval expedition had landed on the Adriatic coast of Italy and destroyed the city of Otranto. The invaders tortured and killed 12000 of the 22000 inhabitants of the city. Every priest was murdered and the Archbishop of Otranto was sawed in two. Those who were not killed were forced to convert or taken into slavery. In Spain there was constant border fighting and raids with the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.

It was a time of great peril from both within and without and fear led to the inevitable outcry of charges against the conversos. Isabella turned to the Church for permission to establish an Inquisition in Spain to deal with the charges directed against the conversos and unite her country in the war effort. One historian has called the Spanish Inquisition “a disciplinary body called into existence to meet a national emergency.”

The word “inquisition” has the same root as the word “inquiry.” The inquisitors were to look into the charges, call witnesses, and take testimony. In its origins the Inquisition resembles the way in which President Obama has ordered his Justice department to examine the causes of local unrest and riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. An outside body is called in hopefully to fairly and impartially examine the charges and counter-charges in an emotionally charged situation.

The fact that the great, great majority of the conversos accused before the tribunal of the Inquisition were released is a testimony to Netanyahu’s thesis that they were innocent, sincere Christians and that the charges leveled against them were baseless. Since the publication of Netanyahu’s book, historians have had to alter their perspective on the Inquisition, its methods, and its results.

In many ways the Inquisition represented an enormous improvement in prevailing methods of justice throughout the European and Moslem worlds at the time.  The proceedings of the Inquisition were carried out in public and not in secrecy. Its prisons were only temporary detention centers with conditions much better than in local jails. There were no pits with giant swinging razor sharp pendulums. Torture was rarely used in contrast to the methods almost universally used in other European and Moslem countries. Even when torture was applied, there was little danger to life and limb.

Here are some quotes from a modern historian whose study followed upon Netanyahu’s groundbreaking work.

“The scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers…have little basis in reality.”
“The tribunal had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.”
“The proportionally small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a blood thirsty tribunal.”
“In reality the public execution of criminals in other countries was not very different from an auto de fe, and more frequently outdid the auto in savagery.”
Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition has become synonymous with barbaric cruelty and injustice. In the wars of religion that followed upon the Protestant Reformation, a “Black Legend” arose primarily in Protestant England, which found itself involved in a life and death struggle with Catholic Spain. The Black Legend has gained mythical status and is still used as a weapon to batter Spain and the Catholic Church. It was one of the factors behind the hatred engendered in modern history by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.


*** Netanyahu dedicated the book to his eldest son, an Israeli commando who died in the attempt to free hostages in an airplane on an airstrip at Entebbe in the 1970s.


There were atrocities on both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Before anyone considers that there was a “correct” side in the conflict, they should consider the role of the Franco government during WWII.  Spain was a neutral during the war and it was almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Moreover, it insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied territories.  The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.


1 comment:

  1. C. comments:

    It is interesting that you connect the Inquisition and the the Spanish Civil War. Historically, Spain has been very tolerant of Jews and of the Arabs who invaded their country in 711. Spaniard, Jew, and Moslem have lived together for hundreds of years. However, one cannot discount the attitude of the "pure" Spaniard or Christian toward the Jews and the Arabs. Even those who did convert were not considered first class citizens by the "castellanos puros". There continues to be discrimination of the "castellanos" toward those who are not "pure". One has to understand the Spanish notion of honor to fully understand that the pure Spaniard does not fully recongnize the "intruders". The Spanish are the most tolerant yet intolerant of peoples. They are such a complicated combination of arrogance and pride set against a need to live and let live. In short, they tolerate yet hate at the same time.