The Politics of Spanish Inquisitors

Between Court and Confessional: The Politics of Spanish Inquisitors
Kimberly Lynn
Cambridge University Press   391pp   £60

From 1478 a new ‘Inquisition’ against Christian ‘heresy’ spread throughout Spain and its overseas possessions in Europe (Sicily) and America. It would last until the 19th century and acquire a reputation for almost totalitarian cruelty, but was attacked at the time by Spain’s enemies and by lovers of religious liberty. In recent decades it has been the object of a vast amount of historical work by scholars from various countries.

In this carefully researched monograph Kimberly Lynn focuses sharply on individual inquisitors who made the system function in the 16th and 17th centuries. Her chosen five careers cover a wide range of the Inquisition’s activities, in Spain itself, Sicily and Latin America. Using many manuscript and printed sources, she traces the lives of these officials, most of them priests and all trained in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. We follow them in their usually considerable ambitions, as they struggled in local tribunals, or tried to make their way at the centre of Spanish power, either on the governing council of the Inquisition (Suprema), or in the royal court. The chapters on the five selected inquisitors are introduced by a discussion of the history of the institution and to the ways in which historians have tackled it. In the last chapter and epilogue more general issues are raised about the values of the Inquisition and their implications for its target groups – converts from Judaism and Islam, Protestants and those whose religion was not in accordance with that laid down by the Catholic hierarchy. This is a demanding read, but we emerge much the wiser about what made these men tick as they wrote up the trials that they conducted and composed histories and treatises about the institution to which they devoted their lives, often in difficult and even dangerous circumstances. Yet the book’s strength is also its weakness.

We find ourselves sucked into the inquisitorial mind. This is a good thing insofar as a writer should identify closely with her subject, but the reader gains, rightly or wrongly, the alarming impression that Lynn appears to swallow the official line. The word ‘heretic’ never receives such qualifying inverted commas, Luther, Calvin and the other Protestant reformers are (a) wrong and (b) a menace. Judaism is a threat to society, Native American religions are not religions at all and the worst enemies are reformers within the Catholic Church. Thus the unwary reader would never know from this account that the mid-16th century witnessed a major debate between the legalistic gospel of the inquisitors in Spain and Italy and those, including the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé Carranza and the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, who preached a gospel of mercy and reconciliation. Carranza and Pole were not lawyers like the inquisitors presented here but theologians and Lynn appears to accept without question the inquisitorial doctrine that jurists, some of them not even priests, were better equipped to define the niceties of Christian doctrine than those who were trained in it and lived it. Carranza is presented partially, in both senses of the word. In the latter pages of the book it is suggested that criticism of the Inquisition is largely justified by ideas that originate in the 18th-century Enlightenment, as though the moral values of earlier centuries were somehow different and the Inquisition’s violence and oppression were therefore acceptable. Yet there was public, and even official, opposition to religious intolerance from the very beginning of the Spanish Inquisition and it is a shame that this scholarly and otherwise enlightening account takes so little notice of it.

John Edwards has recently completed a biography of Archbishop Pole (Ashgate).

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