The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The popular notion of the Inquisition is that of a monstrous tyranny spanning the centuries, bent on eliminating heresy wherever it was found, torturing people for confessions and condemning them to being burnt at the stake. It is often claimed that hundreds of thousands or even millions of unfortunates died at the hands of the Catholic church in this fashion, and that Jews and Protestant reformers were particular targets. It’s commonly raised when opponents want to criticize Christianity.

However, historians have known for some time that this view of the Inquisition is vastly exaggerated. Many archives are available, and a number of books have been published by historians in recent years that correct the record.

What was the Inquisition? Inquisitions were church tribunals instituted by the Catholic church (usually in conjunction with the state) to combat heresy, although their remit was eventually broadened to other offences. They were concerned primarily with baptised Catholics. Inquisitions could use torture to obtain confessions, and handed unrepentant heretics over to secular authorities to be sentenced. There were actually a number of inquisitions – the Medieval Inquisition, from 1184 to 1500s; the Spanish Inquisition, from 1478-1800s; the Portuguese Inquisition from 1536-1800s; and the Roman Inquisition, from about 1588 to 1800s.

The Spanish Inquisition is the most notorious of these. It was actually established and controlled by the Spanish monarchy working with the church and concentrated on conversos – Muslims or Jews who had converted to Catholicism and who were suspected of maintaining their old religious practices. In 1492 the Spanish monarchy expelled Jews from Spain, and many converted to Catholicism to avoid expulsion.

So was the Spanish Inquisition really as genocidal as some claim? As far as historians can tell, approximately 5,000 executions were carried out during the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, or perhaps 15 a year. Not insignificant, but certainly nothing like popular claims. To put these figures in context, China executes thousands of its citizens per year. Most people accused of heresy were acquitted or had their sentences suspended. Yes, torture was used in a small percentage of trials, but the use of torture was routine throughout Europe at the time. Inquisition trials were actually fairer and more lenient than secular trials. It should be noted too that capital punishment was very widely used during this period for a broad range of offences.

Up until 1530, Protestant reformers were not targeted by the inquisitions, because Protestants did not exist until this period. There were very few Protestants in Spain, so few Protestants were affected. The Roman Inquisition targeted Protestants in Italy more deliberately, which resulted in most Italian reformers leaving Italy.

So how should Christians treat accusations regarding the horrors the church has inflicted via inquisitions? Facts are important, particularly when they have been so distorted. We should endeavour to have an accurate picture of the historical context and to separate truth from exaggeration. But conversely, we should never attempt to minimise past wrongs committed by the church. It is abhorrent and deeply regrettable that anyone was tortured and executed with church involvement, no matter what the actual numbers are.

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

Kamen, Henry. The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition. 1994. Timewatch series, BBC.

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here