Spare the Thumbscrews

The Italian Inquisition by Christopher F. Black

About 13 years ago, word began to circulate among historians that the archive of the Roman Inquisition was being opened to scholars. This, for specialists in the field, was an extraordinary development, the bringing down of an intellectual Berlin Wall. For decades, eminent Catholic historians, armed with letters of recommendation from the most senior Monsignor they could lay their hands on, had been refused access. Only a handful of individuals, with high-level contacts in the Curia, were successful. But from 1998, when the change of policy was officially announced, any serious academic researcher could get in.

As with the Berlin Wall, this change had much to do with the then Pope, John Paul II. But there the similarities with 1989 mostly come to an end. For although this was a liberating act for scholars, what the subsequent scrutiny of the archive mostly showed was that the Catholic Church had been troubling itself with false fears. It was almost as if the Roman authorities had themselves been taken in by the old Protestant propaganda line, believing that to open the archive would be to lift the lid on a pullulating mass of oppressive practices and sadistic torture.

Luckily, the central archive in Rome was not the only set of Inquisition records available. There were major local archives in Venice, Udine, Florence and Naples, as well as others further afield. Using these, scholars had already done much work dispelling the old myths and stereotypes. Henry Kamen’s classic book on the Spanish Inquisition (a very different organisation, as it was essentially a branch of the Spanish state) had begun the task of dismantling the “Black Legend” in that country. Other writers, such as Carlo Ginzburg in his famous study of the heretical miller Menocchio, The Cheese and the Worms, had noted the Inquisition’s scrupulous respect for legal process.

Historians studying the early modern witch-craze, and the trials from which most of the surviving evidence is derived, had begun to make comparisons from which the southern European Inquisitions could only benefit. Not only was the mania more severe in northern Europe, there was much more use of torture there, and more executions. In the how-to-be-an-inquisitor manuals written in Italy and Spain, while the reality of diabolism was assumed, there was also much sensible advice, warning that accusations could come from local jealousies and vendettas, pointing out that some people — especially women — might confess to invented crimes out of genuine self-delusion.

Meanwhile, historians of science had continued to worry away at the precise nature of the Inquisition’s objections to Galileo’s cosmology and physics. Historians of the book had done much new research on the nature of censorship in the early modern period — in particular, on the internal strains and contradictions of the system, and on the ways in which authors and publishers were able to bend the rules.

With so much work already done by the last one or two generations of scholars, and so much new material recently emerging from the Roman archive, there is a real need for an overview of the whole subject. And that is what Christopher Black, an eminent historian of early modern Italy, has now supplied, with a marvellously detailed survey of how the Inquisition operated throughout the Italian peninsula (plus Sicily, of course, and Malta, and some Venetian territories in the eastern Adriatic) from its origins in 1542 until the end of the 18th century.

The book is densely packed with information and supplemented by a whole series of statistical tables. Black has done original research, but he has also mastered everything that is worth reading on the subject. The abiding impression given by this book is of clarity, calmness and good sense. There is no whiff of either hysteria or special pleading. Readers can feel confident that they are in very safe hands.

Which is just as well, as the picture that emerges is very complex. When the Inquisition began its work in the 1540s, the main concern was with Protestantism and related beliefs. 

This was a tricky business, as the distinction between Catholic and Protestant was much less clear to people at the time than it would become in retrospect. Leading Catholic churchmen were influenced by Erasmian humanism, and were keen to promote a new, more active lay spirituality, emphasising the individual’s direct relationship with God and thus, perhaps, de-emphasising some aspects of the Church’s role. Cardinal Reginald Pole, the intellectual leader of the English Catholics, and Cardinal Giovanni Morone, the chairman of the final session of the Council of Trent, displayed these tendencies and both were fingered by the Inquisition.

Sometimes when the Inquisitors went after a popular local bishop, they encountered fierce resistance. Sometimes they clashed with secular rulers (especially, but not only, the proud patrician government of Venice) and came off worse. In some cases, grassroots opposition prevailed: in Sicily, for example, an attempt to introduce the Spanish practice of publicly shaming the families of the accused was violently rejected. But in many cases the real difficulties and frictions came, predictably enough, from other parts of the ecclesiastical machine: bishops had their own local jurisdictions to preserve, and did not always react well to keen young Dominican inquisitors parachuted in from Rome.

For what we have to remember is that early modern European states were heavily — but inefficiently — regulated societies. When the flow of Italian “Protestants” dried up, and the Inquisition turned increasingly to offences involving blasphemy, anticlericalism, superstition and sexual misconduct, these were all matters that were regulated by ecclesiastical and secular courts in most parts of Europe. Indeed, as other studies have shown, the attempt to monitor people’s private lives could be just as intrusive in Calvinist Geneva or St Andrews as in Catholic Florence or Bologna.

True, the Inquisition’s attempts to control the press were much more thorough — and, undoubtedly, more damaging to intellectual life. The number of executions under the Roman Inquisition (perhaps 1,250 for the whole period covered in this book) was certainly greater than the number of executions for heresy in some of the more tolerant Protestant states of northern Europe. But capital punishment was being imposed by secular courts all the time. Offences which, as pious Christians believed, could endanger other people’s immortal souls were treated sometimes more leniently than crimes, such as robbery, that harmed only their bodies or their possessions.

Although voluntary appearances before the Inquisition were common (prompted, often, by the suggestion of a confessor), no one would really have wanted to be investigated by it. For the unlucky few, there could indeed be torture and an agonising death. But, if forced to choose between the Inquisition and a secular court, many would have opted for the former. As this book shows, they had good reason to do so.

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