Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cecil Roth's "The Spanish Inquisition" (Steak Knives)

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to be a light read, but nonetheless, you fetch the comfy chair and dive in to what is certainly one of the darker periods in European and Christian history.  The net effect of this experience is at once deeply sickening and all too familiar. 

That I've been reading a lot of history of all stripes lately led me to pick this up while in Florida; another deep-discounted tome at a bankrupt Borders outlet, I think I paid $2 US for it (so a little less than $2 CDN).  Big topic, why not take a chance.  I had no idea of the author's credentials, and as you can tell by the cover design (though I'm not 'judging'), it appeared a somewhat generic effort.

It turns out the author, Cecil Roth, was a Jewish historian of some distinction, and very prolific (wiki puts him at over 600 works).  This touches on the first 'surprise' for me as somewhat ignorant to inquisition history going in.  The initial impetus for the inquisition was essentially an anti-Jewish initiative that went a little something like this - 'encourage' all the Jews in Spain to convert to Catholicism (or else), then, even after generations, continue to marginalize these 'New Catholics' (or 'Marranos'), and based on ethic and religious dread, set up an inquisition to ferret out those who are suspected of persisting in such spiritually dangerous Jewish behaviour like wearing clean clothes on Saturdays and not liking pork sausage.  Torture, burn, repeat.

I don't mean to make light, obviously, but it's an all too predictable and recurrent process in history.  Eventually, the inquisition expanded to include Christian converts from Islam (again, 'encouraged' to do so), and Protestant sympathizers.  But at its genesis and core, this was a racial exercise.  'Old Christians', while still subject to the inquisition, received much lighter consideration and punishment throughout the inquisition's 300 year tenure (another 'surprise' for me).

The gory details are recounted at length, which made for some gut-wrenching passages.  The 'acts of faith' (or 'auto de fe') were public spectacles, with those already dead not being spared the indignity of the pyres.  In some cases, the living would be led alongside exhumed rotting corpses and skeletons to the fires, which conjures up such a disgusting scene that I have trouble reconciling what this experience must have been like for the condemned and the audience (with any sympathy expressed for the victims likely to cast suspicion on the state of your own soul).

All properties of the victims were confiscated by the inquisitors, who became fantastically rich in the process.  Roth notes the simple bias this created in ensuring a guilty verdict to help line their own pockets and keep the engine moving.

If all this is sounding like a familiar episode in the 20th C., I wouldn't be at all surprised.  Roth's text was written in the mid-1930's, and he alludes to the stinking winds of contemporary (though more 'scientific') Anti-Semitic activities.  It's deflating that he notes the Spanish Inquisition as the darkest chapter in Jewish history just a few years ahead of the Nazi's 'final solution.'

Roth also points to the toll this took on the Spanish Empire (the inquisition's arm reached to the new world, even India), robbing it of some of its brightest minds and expending its energy at self-destruction rather than constructive efforts.  Still, he also makes a case for the role played by this secular effort in keeping the heterogeneous Spain unified - albeit through collective terror.  [Note: While supported by an initial Papal Bull, the inquisition was ultimately managed by secular authorities.]

As William S. Burroughs so sagely pointed out, "man is a bad animal."

No comments: