- The Spanish Inquisition
The subject of the Inquisition has attracted a great number of writers and produced a multitude of studies of varying quality. It is a theme that has to be approached with care, because most of us have strong preconceived ideas of what we like to think it was. Yale University Press has now sponsored a book on the Inquisition by a respected historian of Spain who specializes in the sixteenth [End Page 164] century. Joseph Pérez's study, translated from a small volume he brought out three years ago in French, is a brief, useful, and generally balanced account that gives a fair summary within the space available. He covers a good part of the tribunal's history, giving in addition quick explanations of most of the crucial and hotly debated aspects of its career. Unfortunately, this exhausts the positive aspects of the work. By contrast, there are good reasons for being extremely wary about the book, which seems to have got through the careful vetting to which Yale usually subjects the studies that it chooses to publish.
The most glaring deficiency in this book is that it relies exclusively on rather outdated literature in French and Spanish, and deliberately ignores the extremely innovative and imaginative corpus of scholarship on the Inquisition produced in the last fifty years by English-speaking scholars (a few books in English are slipped into the bibliography at the end, but have clearly not been read). French scholars notoriously have a habit of ignoring research in English, but in this case the consequences are deplorable, leading to a presentation that in many cases is both erroneous and untenable. A few examples will suffice. The author accepts as gospel the statistics for executions in the tribunal of Valencia given a generation ago by a Spanish doctoral student who was a bit careless about the way he read the documents (172), when the latest study (in English) reduces those figures by two-thirds. He accepts as reliable the calculations made by Jaime Contreras for the number of people who were tried by the Inquisition (173), when irrefutable published work in the 1990s has shown that the Contreras figures are quite simply false, with errors of nearly one hundred per cent in some cases. The need to simplify information also leads to statements that are unfortunately untrue. For example, the author affirms that inquisitors had to make annual visits to their areas, but that "in practice two years would elapse between visits." Since the fact is that more frequently fifty years or even more would elapse in many of the tribunals, one may ask what quality of information is being offered here.
On matters that are the most delicate and controversial of all, such as the impact of the Inquisition on culture, the author appears at times to be moderate and then opts suddenly for conclusions that predate the era of serious scholarship. For example, he claims that "by dint of setting the faithful on their guard against dangerous books, it eventually put them off reading altogether" (187). This amazing claim, which is followed by another that "research and thought were eventually sterilized" (195), is a faithful repetition of the nineteenth-century tradition, which used to put the blame for all the negative aspects of Spain's society on the Inquisition. Those of us who live in Spain know that Spaniards do not read, but it is some while since people blamed the Inquisition for it. Since the author also concludes that the Inquisition was an "anticipation of modern totalitarianism" (223), and then devotes three pages to comparing it to the Stalinist system, it is clear where his ideological sympathies lie. Finally, the reader should watch out for several oddities, such as the use throughout of the Portuguese form auto da fe for a ceremony that was Spanish; the reference to Charles V's sober and scholarly chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy as, for some inexplicable reason, "Wild [End Page 165...