Reading Matter

This is the book I brought with me to read while I stay here in St Patrick’s College, a Roman Catholic seminary…

7 Responses to “Reading Matter”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Judging from the top of the book you have the hardback. I admit that when reading a book on the Munich underground about the aftermath of World War 2 I had the dust jacket off!

    This book seems to be only about the Inquisition(s) in Spain and Portugal, and therefore misses out a great deal of activity elsewhere and earlier. Pope Gregory IX, in the first half of the 13th century, greatly ramped up Inquisitorial activity. His Bull Vox in Rama stating that devil-worship involved cats led to their mass killing, probably hastening the spread of the Black Death by rats a few generations later. In 1252 Innocent IV licensed the Inquisition to use torture, in his Bull Ad Extirpanda. The context was that, following the re-introduction of Roman Law, which had routinely used torture, torture was again increasingly being used in criminal trials to convert suspicion into certainty via confession (although Aristotle had pointed out that torture was as likely to elicit lies as truth, to make it cease: Rhetoric 1.15.26). Innocent IV merely insisted that limbs must not be broken, torture should not cause death, and it should be used ‘once.’ Inquisitors could take that to apply to each charge against someone, or regard a single session as open-ended. (Centuries earlier Pope Nicholas I had refused torture as church practice, in his responses of AD866 to the questions of the Bulgars, whose leader was playing Rome off against Byzantium.) The most common tortures used by the Inquisition, breaking no limbs and bringing forth no blood, were the rack (stretching of the body, dislocating major joints), the tightening around limbs of cords (which might reach to the bone), waterboarding and strappado (hoisting in unnatural positions; the victim might be repeatedly lifted and dropped short of the ground so as to tear muscles and dislocate joints). Other unpleasantly imaginative torture devices which are often said to be involved were used for other crimes than heresy, in which the church was not involved, or for slow executions by the civil authorities. (The church formally left executions to the civil authorities, to keep its hands clean in its own eyes, and it advocated the burning of heretics.)

    The historian Ladurie’s unique portrait of a mediaeval Pyrenean village, Montaillou (1975), is based on records of the Inquisitorial interrogations of the villagers by a local bishop, Jacques Fournier. (It is unique because it is an authoritative view of peasant life rather than the concerns of the aristocracy.) This region was a last outpost of Catharism – which is certainly inconsistent with Catholicism – and Fournier, who demonstrated his willingness to interrogate under torture, dispatched five Cathars or Waldenses to be burned. (Waldenses were a pre-Reformation evangelical Christian movement.) Fournier went on to become one of the Avignon Popes.

    Scholarship has reduced the numbers burned by the Inquisition from the first estimates made in the 19th century, but in Spain alone from 1540 to 1700 some 90,000 people were tried and about 1000 burned; this after the most lethal activity and when the population was much less than today. As with the KGB, dread of the Inquisition was universal. In the 19th century, Juan Antonio Llorente, a senior official of the Spanish Inquisition who became ashamed, published a revealing book. Llorente had access to records now lost, so he is a valuable source – but he should be read in the original, as some English translations are abridged and contain errors about the numbers brought before the Inquisition. I hope that Toby Green did his homework. Henry Charles Lea published a 4-volume History of the Inquisition of Spain early in the 20th century; chapter 7 of book 6 (in vol. 3) is on torture and is online at

    Click to access 6lea7.pdf

    This chapter includes a transcript (translated) of the 1588 torture of Elvira del Campo, showing the horrible psychological technique used: once she knew the charges against her, she was repeatedly exhorted, under torture and immediately after it, to “tell the truth,” with no further information provided to her. H.C. Lea also published a 3-volume History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages; he was one of the first historians to insist on using authentic sources.

    The inquisitors, including the notorious 15th century Inquisitor-General of Spain, Tomas Torquemada, were mostly Dominicans and were paid from the property of ‘heretics,’ which was subject to confiscation. This gave inquisitors strong motive to find people guilty as the Dominicans were ‘mendicants,’ dependent on charity.

    The Inquisition claimed no authority over non-Christians, but the (unbiblical) practice of baptising babies, rather than people who had freely chosen the faith, in conjunction with the fact that everybody except Jews and Muslims were baptised at birth, meant that almost all people might be subject to it. A particular target of the Spanish Inquisition were Jews who had converted in order to avoid being expelled from the country. They were regarded with great suspicion.

    I wonder if this book falls for the claim that a Colonel Lehmanovsky, in Napoleon’s army, led troops who liberated starving and naked wretches from torture chambers concealed beneath the floors of the house of the Inquisition based in Madrid. A man claiming to be Lehmanovsky toured America years later touting this story. Dungeons might have existed but no other eye-witnesses have reported the claim of prisoners being set free, and many details are inconsistent what is known of Napoleon’s suppression of the Inquisition there.

    The Inquisition(s) are probably the most horrible episode in the tale of politicised Christianity. Suffice it to say that the New Testament gives no license to Christians – Catholic, protestant or Eastern Orthodox – for the church as a corporate body to be in politics. Gospel Christianity portrays itself as being exclusively about how to be changed for the better in a way that one cannot do for oneself. I doubt that the Inquisitors had undergone that process, no matter what they claimed. Unlike the people they had Latin and knew the Bible, leaving them no excuse.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s actually a paperback, but, yes, it is focused on Spain and Portugal. It’s pretty grim reading.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Do let me know whether the author gives due honour to the scholarship of HC Lea, and understands the problems with Llorente’s numbers and Lehmanovsky’s account.

        Here’s Mel Brooks’ view of it:

        Good job he’s Jewish!

      • telescoper Says:

        I might do a quick review of the book if I get time. I have to finish it first!

      • telescoper Says:

        I can say that there are numerous references to H.C. Lea in the bibliographical notes. I just read a discussion of Llorente’s statistics which is very sceptical. There are no references to Lehmanovsky in the bibliographical notes.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That sounds promising. NB There is more than one spelling of ‘Lehmanovsky’ doing the rounds, but every one I have seen begins with the same first two letters.

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