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September/October 2005 · Historically Speaking35 New Perspectives on the History of the Spanish Inquisition Helen Rawlings The Inquisition was one of the most powerful and polemical institutions used by the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate heresy and protect the unity of Christendom. Although tribunals were operative in Bohemia, France, and Italy in medieval times, it is the Spanish Inquisition—first established in the kingdom of Castile in 1478 under Queen Isabella I and suppressed 356 years later in 1834 under Queen Isabella II—which has left its mark on the whole history ofWestern civilization. While sharing many features of the Aragonese tribunal set up to deal with the threat of Catharism emanating from French territories in the 1 3th century, the Spanish Inquisition was different in one fundamental respect: it was responsible to the Crown rather than the Pope and was used to consolidate state interest. It soon acquired a reputation for being a barbarous, repressive instrument of racial and religious intolerance that regularly employed torture as well as the death penalty and severely restricted Spain's intellectual development for generations. At the first auto defe held in Seville on February 6, 1481, six Jewish converts to Christianity (known as conversos) were burnt at the stake for secretly adhering to the faith of their forefathers. By 1488, according to a contemporary observer, a further 700 had met a similar fate at the hands of the local tribunal. In the name of orthodoxy a great wave of violent persecutions of alleged heretics had begun. An estimated 100,000 cases came before the Inquisition's twenty-one peninsular and colonial tribunals in the period 1540-1700 alone. The rigors of the Inquisition gave rise to the so-called "Black Legend"—an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots, propagated by her foreign (mainly Protestant) enemies in the mid-16th century, which survived long after the Holy Office's final extinction. Given the controversy surrounding its existence and reputation, the Spanish Inquisition has generated an enormous volume ofhistorical literature, forging a number of "schools" or "generations." The American scholar Henry Charles Lea, in his monumental four-volume history, was the first to challenge the apologetic approach of much traditional Spanish scholarship and fully explore the archives of the Inquisition to produce a detailed critical study of its role and influence .1 Despite the considerable advances The "Black Legend" depicted in Ferdinando Gorges (16291718 ), America painted to the life (ca. 1658-59). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. made by Lea and other writers of his generation , until the middle of the 20th century the Spanish Inquisition continued to be examined by conservative historians as a fundamental instrument of the Catholic state which, via its suppression of Jewish, Islamic, and Protestant heresies, strengthened the religious and political unity of the Spanish kingdoms. It was not until after the death of General Franco in 1975 that the history of the Inquisition began to be treated with greater objectivity and impartiality by Spanish scholars , free from the prejudices of the past, giving rise to a thorough reexamination of its function and ambit. It is highly significant that this flourishing of revisionist literature has coincided with Spain's own process of political and social democratization. It is now clear from the work of the French historian Jean-Pierre Dedieu (1979) that the Inquisition was not a static institution but went through various stages of development during the 350 years of its existence, adapting itself to the changing religious, social, and political climate.2 It is possible to distinguish between the four major phases ofits history : Phase 1 (1480-1525): This was a period of intense persecution directed specifically against the newly-converted Jewish community, suspected of religious backsliding, who were hounded out without mercy and punished with full rigor. Phase 2 (1525-1630): The emergence of the Reformation in northern Europe prompted the Inquisition to widen the net of its inquiry to include Protestant heresy (of negligible impact in Spain). Subsequently, in an attempt to strengthen the foundations of Catholic belief, it rooted out Old Christians for minor offences against the faith. During this second phase, it also hardened its pursuit of Moorish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 35-37
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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