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  • The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834
  • Patricia Lopes Don
The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834. By Francisco Bethencourt. Translated by Jean Birrell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 504 pp. $114.00 (cloth); $40.99 (paper).

The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834 by Francisco Bethencourt was originally published in 1995 as L'Inquisition à L'Époque Moderne by Librairie Anthème Fayard. Bethencourt has recently been appointed Charles Boxer Professor of History at King's College London. Thus, Cambridge University Press has released this slightly revised and updated version of the earlier work in English translation by Jean Birrell and with a new title, perhaps to give it a wider readership particularly among global historians.

Bethencourt offers the first general history of the Inquisition since Henry Charles Lea, describing it as "an intermediate level of approach, between global history and 'national' history" (p. 2). The book has an interesting periodization for a general history, surveying the Inquisition not from its beginnings in Rome but from the founding of the Spanish Inquisition in the late fifteenth century. The countries of study are Italy, Spain, and Portugal, with some information about the overseas empires. Bethencourt's general history sets out to answer several questions, but they can be condensed to two: How and why did the Inquisition survive for centuries? What effects did this long encounter with Inquisition have on the "value systems and social configurations" of the three southern European countries? (p. 28). To anchor this ambitious project, Bethencourt has devised four categories, or "lines of approach," for a "systematic macro-analysis" of this institution across space and time: "rites and etiquette, organizational forms, strategies of action and systems of representation" (p. 29). At first glance, this seems to be a structural-functional argument sandwiched between two culture history categories. But Bethencourt argues that he has done this intentionally, using "different methods to answer the questions I pose" (p. 2). However, they may also be categories of necessity. As Bethencourt notes, the research is a combination of his own original [End Page 870] work on the Portuguese Inquisition combined with a very comprehensive investigation of the secondary literature. His synthesis, therefore, is dependent on the analytical choices of these other historians, and the two types of analytical categories reflect the different tacks that Inquisition studies has taken over the last thirty years, moving from primarily social and institutional history to incorporate cultural history approaches, particularly gender history, history from below, and representations history.

Interestingly, one expects the book to be divided into these analytical categories, perhaps as sections with chapters on particular aspects of the Inquisition. Instead, the book is divided into rather traditional chapter headings, sometimes presenting the analytical categories and sometimes combining them. First, a chapter titled "Organization" provides a traditional explanation of the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the various Holy Offices: communications, regulations, entrenchments, and bureaucracies. This is followed by a chapter titled "Presentation," meaning the ceremonial trappings and the officials who served in them, or the rites and etiquette. Then there is "Appointments," on the hierarchy of the Inquisition in various places, again the organizational forms. That is followed by "Edicts" and "Visits," which are strategies of actions but also presentation. A very long chapter follows on the subject of the auto-da-fé (with a very nice section titled "Production and Reception"), which combines rites and etiquette with the systems of representation. The body of the work ends with a couple of very brief treatments of the "Status" and "Representations" of the Holy Offices primarily in the later periods, and the way the institution tried to obtain a favorable reputation but often drifted toward redundancy, rot, and ridicule. Interestingly, there is much less on the actual inquisition or questioning itself, a factor that recent historians of the Spanish Inquisition have focused on because it reveals a good deal about the values and social configurations of Spanish society as they intersected with the Catholic Church over time. But such an approach lends itself to micro-analysis and national history rather than the macro-analytical aims of this project. On the whole, the reasons for the order and presentation of these chapters are unclear...