Page 15, 12th February 2010

12th February 2010
Page 15
Page 15, 12th February 2010 — A delicate labour

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Organisations: YALE
Locations: Rome


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A delicate labour

The Italian Inquisition wasn’t really as bad as it’s been made out to be, argues Jonathan Wright

The Italian Inquisition


Given the endless parade of sensationalist and muddle-headed tomes, the general reader might be forgiven for not realising that serious study of the Inquisition has undergone some spectacular re-fashioning in recent decades. One hopes that Christopher Black’s wonderful new book will continue the work of setting straight the record.

We should be honest. The various inquisitorial tribunals that were established by the Church during the medieval and early modern eras had their moments of gore and grotesquery. The over-zealous inquisitor was not uncommon, torture was sometimes applied, and, by modern legal standards, procedures left a lot to be desired. But there’s the important point: imposing our sense of justice and jurisprudence on the past can be a perilous enterprise.

In the context of its time the Inquisition wasn’t conspicuously awful or deranged. There were excesses, and even contemporaries said as much. The first few decades of the Spanish Inquisition, which sprang to life in the 1480s, were grotty but, after a while, things simmered down. As for the Italian Inquisition (inaugurated by papal order in 1542), it could, by 16th-century standards, be described in surprisingly positive terms.

The deeds done and the processes involved sometimes appal us but we have to recognise that they were neither unusual nor especially harrowing. Moreover, and as Black contends, there was often an effort to pursue legal levelheadedness. When an accusation of heresy, witchcraft or moral laxity was made, most Inquisitors analysed the facts in detail. If the charge was lodged anonymously, or if it didn’t stand up to initial evidential scrutiny, it was likely to be ignored. When a seem ingly genuine case arrived on the Inquisitorial docket, strenuous efforts were made to probe it in a relatively fair-minded fashion. Defence counsel was often available, scurrilous rumour was apt to be exposed, and the punishments were, for the most part, relatively mild. There was sometimes torture, yes, but resorting to it required (at least in theory) special dispensation from Rome and, as many savvy Italian Inquisitors realised, tortured confession was the least reliable route to the truth. More to the point, there were few 16thcentury tribunals (either secular or ecclesiastical) that didn’t sometimes see wisdom in deploying the rack.

This isn’t to defend the Italian Inquisition: primarily because judging the past isn’t any of the historian’s business. He is there to report the facts and this is something that Black does with great skill and nuance. This wellresearched book focuses on the nuts and bolts of Inquisitorial procedures within the Italian peninsula. We are shown how the tribunals gathered and sifted evidence, their record-keeping practices, and the crimes with which they were fixated. At first, battling fledgling Protestantism was the priority but, since Protestantism never really managed to secure a firm Italian foothold, new obsessions soon took arose: combating blasphemy or sexual misconduct and quizzing Jewish converts or the well-born ladies who had visited prostitutes in search of love magic.

Black’s book highlights the tensions that defined the Italian Inquisition. It was supposed to be centralised, well-defined, and under close Roman supervision. In reality, it was often a hodgepodge of regional idiosyncrasy.

Some inquisitors were perceived by contemporaries as fair and decent, others were denounced as hard-line fanatics. In some places inquisitorial business was carried out with general popular support; in others it came up against the resentment of rival judicial bodies.

The Inquisition’s tribunals crept into the lives of countless earlymodern Italians. Bishops came before it, as did people who’d converted to Islam during sojourns in Turkey, and those who had idly mocked their local priests. The net was wide and, for the historian, sorting out fact from fiction isn’t easy. Even the sources aren’t always helpful.

Enter the notary who, to save time when jotting down testimony, relied on that most frustrating of phrases: inter alia dixit, among other things said.

Giving voice to the Inquisition and those who came before it is a delicate labour. Our best bet is to strive for even-handedness and read as many records as possible with a critical eye. This is Black’s credo and it pays handsome dividends.

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