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No one expects the you know what

No one expects the you know what

Cullen Murphy, author of a recent book on the Inquisitions, Spanish and otherwise, answers 10 questions for the Huffington Post. Number 2 is arresting:

How many people were burned at the stake?

No one really knows. The inquisitors were excellent record-keepers — at times truly superb. One surviving document gives the expenses for an execution down to the price of the rope used to tie the victims’ hands. But a lot of the records have been lost. An estimate that has wide credibility among historians is that about 2 percent of those who came before Inquisition tribunals were burned at the stake, which would mean several tens of thousands of people. The rest suffered lesser punishments.

As is #7

7. When I think “Inquisition,” I think “torture” — is that real or is it a myth?

Torture was an integral part of the inquisitorial process, mainly to extract confessions — just as it was part of the systems used by secular courts of the time. Modern historians explain that the Church tried to regulate torture, establishing clear guidelines for its use. Unfortunately, limitations on torture never really work — that’s one lesson from the Inquisition, and from the recent American experience. It’s never hard to justify applying a little more physical coercion once you’ve decided that physical coercion is fine to begin with. Medieval inquisitors, limited to one session of torture per person, sometimes conducted a second or third or fourth, arguing that it was just a “continuance” of the first.


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Donald Schell

Woops, typoland, floating halfsentence:

“No, I’d go further, though she shared Ferdinand and Isabella’s Renaissance (not medieval) sense that anything as big and complex as a state (not an alliance of dukedoms under a king, but a state) had to use language, race, and religion to achieve solidarity and loyalty.” raggedy uncompleted thought. Where I was going is this-

Fortunately for us Elizabeth’s settling on shared prayer as a base of solidarity is more medieval than Ferdinand and Isabella’s more modern assaying individual conscience and belief.

Donald Schell

This is a good Q and A, but in placing the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, Murphy misses what may be its most troubling warning. Ferdinand and Isabella were (in some ways like Elizabeth I) inventing the nation-state. Elizabeth had a different, somewhat less brutal way of establishing uniformity and unanimity (at least in England itself). No, I’d go further, though she shared Ferdinand and Isabella’s Renaissance (not medieval) sense that anything as big and complex as a state (not an alliance of dukedoms under a king, but a state) had to use language, race, and religion to achieve solidarity and loyalty. A hugely disproportionate number of Basques died in the Spanish Inquisition – often condemned for witchcraft because of their ‘strange tongue.’ Watch it unfold to the anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Communists? Socialists? Europeans? Jews? Remember Stalin and Pol Pot? Or Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And consider the bitter edge of today’s electoral politics with trumped up fear of immigrants and a scapegoating of differing opinions as’just not American.’

The Inquisition raged full force in a time radical change, global ambitions, burgeoning scientific discovery, startling breakthroughs in scholarship and literature, none of the marks of the Middle Age’s stability and slow change. Religion was a first and easy way to begin an experiment on economic and political solidarity based on officially defining who ‘we’ are alike and using bureaucracy and meticulous legal procedure (and yes, torture and manipulation of law) to protect the newly imagined kingdom as state from danger.

The Inquisition emerges on the threshold of modernity and becomes (religious or not) modernity’s raging shadow returning again and again in deadly power wherever uniformity to deliver us from our fear replaces embrace of difference.

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