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Book Review: The Spanish Inquisition – An Historical Revision by Henry Kamen

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Henry Kamen´s The Spanish Inquisition is an amazing experience. It is a highly detailed, supremely scholarly and ultimately enlightening account of an historical phenomenon whose identity and reputation have become iconic. So much has been written about it, so many words have been spoken that one might think that there is not too much new to be learned. But this is precisely where Kamen´s book really comes into its own, for it reveals the popular understanding of the Inquisition as little more than myth.

He explodes the notion that the busy-bodies of inquisitors had their nose in everyone’s business. It was actually quite a rare event for someone to be called before it. And in addition, if you lived away from a small number of population centres, the chances were that that you would hardly even have known of its existence.

Also exploded is the myth of large numbers of heretics being burned at the stake. Yes, it happened, but in nowhere near the numbers that popular misconceptions might claim. Indeed, the more common practice was to burn the convicted in effigy, since the accused had fled sometimes years before the judgment, or they might have died in prison while waiting for the case to reach its conclusion. The intention is not to suggest that the inquisition’s methods were anything but brutal, but merely to point out that perceptions of how commonly they were applied are often false.

Henry Kamen skilfully describes how the focus of interest changed over the years. Initially the main targets were conversos, converts to Christianity, families that were once Jewish or Muslim who converted to Christianity during the decades that preceded the completion in 1492 of Ferdinand and Isabella´s reconquest. Protestants were targeted occasionally in the following centuries, but it was the families of former Jews that remained the prime target, sometimes being subjected to enquiry several generations after their adoption of their new faith. A focus on converts to Christianity gave rise to a distinction between Old and New Christianity, an adherent of the former being able to demonstrate no evidence of there having been other faiths in the family history.

What consistently runs through arguments surrounding Old and New Christianity, a distinction that was also described as pure blood versus impure blood, is that at its heart this apparent assertion of religious conformity was no more than raw xenophobia and racism. Henry Kamen makes a lot of the contradiction here, since Spain at the time was the most “international” of nations, having already secured an extensive empire and sent educated and wealthy Spaniards overseas to administer it. In addition, of course, Spain was emerging from a long period when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived competitively, perhaps, but also peacefully under Moorish rule. It is worth reminding oneself regularly that the desire and requirement for religious conformity during the reconquest was imposed from above.

Completing Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition prompts the reader to reflect on which other major historical reputations might be based on reconstructed myth. One is also prompted to speculate on the future of an increasingly integrated Europe, a continent forcibly divided for half a century where xenophobia and religious intolerance might be closer to the surface than most of us would want to admit.

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  • Julie

    Thank you for this.