The myth of the Inquisition refuted by modern historians
The black legend of the Holy Inquisition. The Enlightenment popular myth of a brutal and bloody institution is better known than the conclusions of modern historiograph. We have collected quotes from leading international specialists of the Inquisition.
The word Holy Inquisition evokes in the collective imagination scenes of grim torture, bloodthirsty monks and fires.
The distinguished italian historian Franco Cardini, full professor at the University of Florence, defines this «an ocean of filthy, unmentionable junk in paper, computer-telematic, cinematographic form»1Franco Cardini , preface by R. Camilleri, La vera storia dell’Inquisizione, Piemme 2001, p. 12.
Yet, continued Cardini, there is «a large, recent and reliable scientific literature» provided by «scholars of different orientations (and none of them suspected of pro-Catholicism) who have confirmed with various and documented arguments that the inquisitorial courts were far from the instruments of blind fanaticism and ferocious obtuseness that the eighteenth-nineteenth-century pamphletism has persisted in declaring»2Franco Cardini , preface by R. Camilleri, La vera storia dell’Inquisizione, Piemme 2001, p. 8.
In this dossier (constantly updated), we have collected the conclusive judgments of the main international scholars of the main Catholic inquisitions (medieval, 12th-14th century, Roman, 1542-1965 and Spanish, 1478-1834).
Their studies reveal a portrait of a severe and sinister institution (no one wants to create a white legend!), but a long way from the stereotypes and black legends in which propaganda has enveloped her.
1. HISTORICIANS AGAINST THE BLACK LEGEND OF THE INQUISITION
A collection of quotes from eminent scholars regarding the Inquisition and the black legend.
Agostino Borromeo, professor of Modern History at the La Sapienza University of Rome:
«Protestant circles of the XVI century spread throughout Europe the false belief that the courts of the Inquisition were ruthless. Yet the recourse to torture and the death penalty were not as frequent as has long been believed. As for witches, it makes us think that there were about a hundred fires in Portugal, Spain and Italy compared to the fifty thousand victims in the rest of Europe, especially in the land of the Reformation»3Agostino Borromeo, in P. Mieli, Poche le streghe bruciate dall’Inquisizione, Corriere della Sera 28/06/04.
Adriano Prosperi, emeritus professor of Modern history at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa:
«An aura of mystery surrounds the institution of the Inquisition, fueling legends of all kinds. It has been used in polemics about police states, the totalitarian systems of our century, the extermination of Jews and so on. The historical novels of the nineteenth century onwards were constantly fed by it […], demonized by the Protestant controversy, attacked with determination by the Enlightenment to the point of defusing the link with the “secular arm”»4Adriano Prosperi, Tribunali della coscienza. Inquisitori, confessori, missionari, Einaudi 1996 p. XIX, XVII. «As for the Inquisition, the word risks evoking the dark aura of the violent and arbitrary image of that court developed in modern centuries. In reality, the attempt to create a court that is rule-conscious and committed to the search (inquisitio) of the truth could even mean progress over the previous situation. Among the rules, one in particular limited the use of torture, admitted for cases of heresy by Pope Innocent IV with the bull Ad extirpanda (1252) but only in the presence of important clues and on the condition of limiting its duration and excluding old, sick ones. , pregnant women and children»5Adriano Prosperi, Il seme dell’intolleranza. Ebrei, eretici, selvaggi: Granada 1492, Fondazione Carispe 2011, p. 39.
Peter Godman, professor of Medieval History and the Renaissance at the University of Tübingen:
«The Roman Inquisition exerts a profound influence on the popular imagination. Although, for much of Europe’s modern history, secular judges rarely performed better, and perhaps even worse than their Roman Inquisition counterparts. Thus, the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy are still condemned today by those who do not know the purposes and practices of the Holy Office and endorse the myth and the legend with all its misleading generalizations [… ]. If the convictions of the inquisitors appear to us today at least doubtful, we must recognize that we are expressing a moral, rather than historical, judgment. This second type of judgment becomes important when it is based on evidence. The evidence contained in the Vatican archives does not allow to make a simplistic comparison between the Inquisition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the totalitarian systems of the twentieth […]. The dark secret of the Roman Inquisition was that there were no secrets. No sinister plot of domination, no grandiose repression project guided the action of the leaders and officials of the Holy Office. The daily reality faced by inquisitors and censors was simpler, more complex and more surprising than the well-worn stereotypes that the controversies and dark legends would have us believe […]. Stereotypes are associated with false moralism and genuine ignorance, to provide the most convincing and commercial version of the Inquisition. Attracted by the repetition of familiar stereotypes, readers are invited to attend the show in which their prejudices are confirmed, a show that remains fun and easy to stage because no special knowledge and research are required. It is sufficient to replicate for the umpteenth time the scene of the sentences supported precariously by fictitious evidence, easier to find than the sources of the archives.»6Peter Godman, I segreti dell’Inquisizione, Baldini Castoldi Dalai 2004, pp. 13, 64, 301, 321.
Bartolomé Bennassar, emeritus professor of Contemporary History at the University of Toulouse:
«An analysis of the language of common views on the Inquisition, conducted according to modern quantitative methods, would probably give the highest frequency rate to the words: Torquemada, intolerance, fanaticism, torture, stake. The Inquisition, however, was quite another thing, even though this was also in the first thirty years of its history […]. After the spread of the Black Legend (the former traitorous secretary of Philip II, Antonio Perez was largely responsible), the Inquisition is of all Spanish institutions the one that in the eyes of the Enlightenment opinion constitutes the most perfect symbol of Spanish “fanaticism” . It matters little that this opinion is contestable»7Bartolomé Bennassar, Storia dell’Inquisizione spagnola, Bur 1994 pp. 7, 337.
Andrea Del Col, professor of History of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ages at the University of Trieste:
«For the liberal historians of the nineteenth century, all those persecuted by the Inquisition became the martyrs of Protestantism or free thought […], during the eighteenth century, the Inquisition became one of the targets of the Enlightenment and it became a symbol of religious obscurantism […]. The return to the archives and documents led to the discovery that the Holy Office in Spain was not as bloody as had been believed and that after the first decades of the seventeenth century it was very cautious in the persecution of witches». Compared to the Roman Inquisition, «it appears from these studies that it was not as bloody as was believed. Why be surprised? The few killings of heretics, carried out in the name of God for reasons related to the defense of the Christian faith, even if carried out legally, we consider aberrant, but perhaps it is precisely the ordinary functioning of the institution, supported by judges-officials careful to respect canonical norms, the most important and sensitive aspect of the Catholic Inquisition […]. The images of interrogations, torture, auto dafé and fires are generally post-factual and are often conditioned by the black legend»8Andrea Del Col, L’Inquisizione in Italia. Dal XI al XXI secolo, Mondadori 2021, pp. 6, 8, 13, 14.
Jean Dumont, French historian and specialist in the Spanish Inquisition:
«There are still books in circulation that speak of hundreds of thousands of victims of the Spanish Inquisition: books written by people who copy propaganda sources of the nineteenth century and who do not even know that almost information can be obtained from the archives. complete. A Danish specialist, Gustav Heningsen, completed the counting of 50,000 trials spanning 150 years and found around 500 cases of executed death sentences, that is 1%. Other scholars have confirmed these data. The Spanish Inquisition is the daughter of its time and should be compared to similar phenomena in other countries, for example to the tens of thousands of deaths of anti-Catholic repression in Ireland and England. As for modern consciousness, is it really that certain that it is more tolerant than yesterday? The ideological, racial, communist or national socialist repression has killed millions, a thousand times more than the Spanish Inquisition»9Jean Dumont, in Cristianità, n. 131, march 1986.
Thomas Madden, president of the History Department of Saint Louis University:
«By the mid-16th century, Spain was the wealthiest and most powerful country in Europe. King Philip II saw himself and his countrymen as faithful defenders of the Catholic Church. Less wealthy and less powerful were Europe’s Protestant areas, including the Netherlands, northern Germany, and England. But they did have a potent new weapon: the printing press. Although the Spanish defeated Protestants on the battlefield, they would lose the propaganda war. These were the years when the famous “Black Legend” of Spain was forged. Innumerable books and pamphlets poured from northern presses accusing the Spanish Empire of inhuman depravity and horrible atrocities in the New World. Opulent Spain was cast as a place of darkness, ignorance, and evil. Although modern scholars have long ago discarded the Black Legend, it still remains very much alive today. Protestant propaganda that took aim at the Spanish Inquisition drew liberally from the Black Legend. But it had other sources as well. From the beginning of the Reformation, Protestants had difficulty explaining the 15-century gap between Christ’s institution of His Church and the founding of the Protestant churches. Catholics naturally pointed out this problem, accusing Protestants of having created a new church separate from that of Christ. Protestants countered that their church was the one created by Christ but that it had been forced underground by the Catholic Church. Thus, just as the Roman Empire had persecuted Christians, so its successor, the Roman Catholic Church, continued to persecute them throughout the Middle Ages. Inconveniently, there were no Protestants in the Middle Ages, yet Protestant authors found them anyway in the guise of various medieval heresies. In this light, the medieval Inquisition was nothing more than an attempt to crush the hidden, true church. The Spanish Inquisition, still active and extremely efficient at keeping Protestants out of Spain, was for Protestant writers merely the latest version of this persecution. Mix liberally with the Black Legend, and you have everything you need to produce tract after tract about the hideous and cruel Spanish Inquisition. And so they did […] The Spanish Inquisition, already established as a bloodthirsty tool of religious persecution, was derided by Enlightenment thinkers as a brutal weapon of intolerance and ignorance. A new, fictional Spanish Inquisition had been constructed, designed by the enemies of Spain and the Catholic Church»10Thomas Madden, The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition, in Crisis, october 2003.
Maria Elvira Roca Barea, former professor of History at Harvard University and collaborates with the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC):
«In Spain, the persecution of witches was something very unusual, especially when you consider the mass persecution of Protestants, causing thousands of executions for witchcraft without any legal process. The Inquisition not only pursued Catholic dissidence but also crimes such as the exploitation of prostitution, child abuse, currency counterfeiting. It was not just questions of faith, but people who had committed very serious crimes were also being tried. The Inquisition has offered greater guarantees to the accused, in fact procedural law in the Catholic world owes a lot to the Inquisition because it has established a judicial system with inquiries, judges, defenders»11M.E. Roca Barea, Analfabetos ha habido siempre pero nunca habían salido de la universidad, El Mundo, 17/12/2016.
Anna Foa, professor of Modern History at the La Sapienza University of Rome:
«The image of the Roman Inquisition as a realm of torture and evil now has a life of its own, ending up resembling those fake news which is much talked about today. In the course of the previous two decades there had already been a vast historiographical review in this field, which, however, had gone, more than in the direction of a request for forgiveness, in the sense of a revision of the so-called black image of the Inquisition, through studies that, especially with regard to the Roman Inquisition, they had rather questioned the number of its victims and its role in the persecution ». Modern historiography, however, has not affected the “common knowledge or even in the dissemination of the media, aimed more at sensationalism than at the accuracy of the data. The gap between scientific studies and common knowledge was thus further accentuated, and very little of the most recent acquisitions in historiography had become part of the widespread image of the terrible Inquisition tribunal. Just surf the net, read the titles of the latest books that have appeared, to realize it. The gap between rational knowledge – the result of reflections, historical approaches, documentary analysis – and the mythological one is now insurmountable. It is written and affirmed that the Inquisition has made millions of deaths from witchcraft with the same confidence with which it is claimed that vaccines are the cause of autism. But had we really hoped that access to archives, the growth of materials available to scholars, their specialist knowledge, their distinctions, could crack the realm of myth, of not knowing, of prejudice? But why should it have been like this? The last twenty years, which have passed since the opening of the archives, are also those that have seen the growth in society as a whole of the mythological factory, the emergence of much more useful tools for its affirmation than paper and the images themselves, the breaking down the barriers between true and false, between knowing and not knowing, between reality and fiction. Passions and prejudices prevail over knowledge and knowledge. They shout louder. No archive – we should know it, we should have learned it from the events of past centuries – can get the better of them, no document can refute a consolidated prejudice, undermine a stereotype»12Anna Foa, Nessun documento riesce a sconfiggere il pregiudizio, in Osservatore Romano, 17/05/18.
Henry Kamen, professor of Spanish History at the University of Warwick:
«The Inquisition as an omnipotent torture body is a 19th century myth, while it was an underpowered institution, whose courts were scattered and had only a limited scope and methods. they were more humane than those of most secular courts. Furthermore, death on fire was the exception, not the rule».13Herny Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, Yale University Press 1999.
Christopher Black, emeritus professor of Italian History at the University of Glasgow:
«The Inquisition in Italy may seem a dark and unattractive subject, but it is not as macabre a story as legends and prejudices may suggest, nor does it resemble distorted images which Francisco Goya dedicated to the last phases of the Spanish Inquisition […]. I share the arguments of Adriano Prosperi and Simon Ditchfield, according to which the Roman Inquisition, despite its dark side, was also a creative and educational force, which helped to define and influence Italian culture at least until the 19th century»14Christopher Black, Storia dell’Inquisizione in Italia, Carrocci Editore 2013, p. 23-25. «John Tedeschi – “the godfather of the current image of the Inquisition” – energetically and decisively debunked the “black legend” that enveloped the Roman Inquisition in the past. The way in which Tedeschi illustrated the inquisitors’ attempts to judge fairly , to educate as well as punish, had a strong impact on my interpretative approach. Tedeschi highlighted how the Roman Inquisition was not “a caricature of the court, a tunnel of horrors, a judicial labyrinth from which it was impossible to escape”, and Anne Jacobson motivatedly added that it “offered the best justice possible criminal in modern Europe”»15Christopher Black, Storia dell’Inquisizione in Italia, Carrocci Editore 2013, p. 32. «Contrary to widespread myths, the Roman Inquisition issued few death sentences (unlike the secular courts). The sentence to perpetual prison rarely meant life imprisonment, but something between three and eight years in prison (which could often become house arrest)»16Christopher Black, Storia dell’Inquisizione in Italia, Carrocci Editore 2013, p. 238.
Joseph Pérez, professor of History of Spanish and Latin American Civilization at the University of Bordeaux-III:
«In the Europe of the Enlightenment, and of the Encyclopédie, dominated by the ironic and biting thought of Voltaire, the word Inquisition became synonymous with fanaticism and obscurantism. For Protestant writers and for the antipapist intelligentsia of central and northern Europe, the ecclesiastical tribunal was the symbol of the tyrannical spirit with which the Roman Church sought to prevent the minds of its faithful from being contaminated by the dangerous germs of free thought. Even in recent decades, historians and writers have contributed to spreading the belief that the Inquisition was the Church’s weapon against dissent and in many respects the historical model of ideological surveillance services with which the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century persecuted their opponents. But the reality, hidden under a thick blanket of clichés, is at least partly different»17Joseph Pérez, Breve storia dell’Inquisizione spagnola, Corbaccio 2006, p. 4.
Marina Montesano, full professor of Medieval History at the University of Messina:
«The history of witchcraft and witch hunts fascinates and attracts numerous readers in Italy, even though it is not widely practiced on a scientific level in our country: in the German world as in the Anglo-Saxon one, things are different and the historiographical updating appears to be more advanced. Here, for example, the idea continues to circulate that witchcraft is a phenomenon that arose from ignorance of the dark Middle Ages and not, as is more correct, from the full modern age. It was during the flourishing of the Renaissance that ideas and tools were developed to prosecute witches, and it was in the midst of the modern age that the most serious and numerous convictions were recorded in Europe. If a precise estimate of the number of victims in Europe is obviously impossible, historiography is now able to propose probable data: in the entire period between the mid-fifteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, death sentences range between 40 thousand and 60 thousand, despite the fact that the publications on the subject often give blatantly absurd figures, which even go so far as to speak of millions of victims. About half of Europe’s death sentences were imposed in Germany. Above all, two factors weighed heavily on the history of witchcraft in the Germany of the Holy Roman Empire: the Reform – with the consequent conflict between Catholics and Protestants – and the extreme fragmentation of political power. Both of these situations, albeit in different ways, ended up increasing and aggravating the phenomenon. Luther and Calvin do not seem to have given much weight to witchcraft and neither reformer developed an innovative form of demonology, but the Devil, in their opinion, exercised real power in the world. The comparison between Germany and Spain is instructive: in the Iberian Peninsula, victim of a centuries-old “black legend”, there was actually a very moderate judicial use of torture and a very low number of victims, if compared to central-northern Europe; the courts of the Supreme (the supreme council of the Inquisition, which depended on the Crown) were in fact reluctant to impose the death penalty, generally preferring milder sentences . Furthermore, the accusations were more similar to the traditional ones of magic, rather than of witchcraft as it were “modern”, that is, accompanied by demonic pacts and homages, magical flight, infanticides and so on. How many witches were sentenced to death in Spain? They should be around 300».18Marina Montesano, Superstizioni dell’età moderna, Il Manifesto, 31/12/2011.
Rodney Stark, professor of Sociology at Baylor University and editor-founder of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion:
«We read of hooded men in dungeons lit only by torches using instruments of torture on the naked bodies of men and women whose only crime is that they had some thought that the Church considered heretical. The torturers are utterly merciless, and they work in the sure belief that the smell of human beings’ burnt flesh is “pleasing to the Holy Trinity and the Virgin.” The most shocking truth about the Spanish Inquisition is that everything being told is either a total lie or a gross exaggeration! The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition was invented and disseminated by English and Dutch propagandists in the 16th century, during the wars against Spain, and has since been repeated by bad faith historians, misled, anxious to uphold an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots. These English historians (but also Spanish defectors) also openly expressed their contempt and antagonism towards Roman Catholicism, an attitude which was reflected in the fact that Catholic students were not admitted to Oxford and Cambridge until 1871. No wonder these hateful accusations nonsense were held during the long epoch of intense anti-Catholicism which in England (and the United States) lasted until the 20th century. But there is no excuse for those irresponsible contemporary “scholars” who continue to support such claims, while ignoring or dismissing the remarkable research on the Inquisition that has been conducted in the later generations . These new historians (many of whom are neither Spanish nor Catholic) base their critical views on documents from the complete archives of the Inquisition both of Aragon (Zaragoza, Navarre, Barcelona, Valencia and Sicily) and of Castile – which together constituted the Spanish Inquisition – to which they had full access. They revealed that, unlike the secular courts active throughout Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent organization in terms of justice, detention, due process and atonement»19Rodney Stark, Il trionfo del cristianesimo, Lindau 2012, pp. 436, 437.
Nathan Johnstone, professor of History at the University of Portsmouth and Canterbury Christ Church University:
«The anti-religionists seem unconcerned to check whether their understanding is accurate. Contra Hitchens, no-one was accused of being diabolically possessed for the simple reason that possession was not a crime but a diagnosis. And only in the ‘superhunts’ that for a few decades afflicted a handful of areas in the Holy Roman Empire, may something like the equation of suspicion with conviction have existed. Contra Stenger, the Inquisitions killed very few witches and no serious historian now believes the number of executions for witchcraft exceeded 50,000»20Nathan Johnstone, The New Atheism, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion, Palgrave Macmillan 2018, p. 21.
Helen Rawlings, professor of Spanish Studies at the University of Leicester:
«The term “black legend” refers to an attitude prevalent in northern Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century when criticism of the Inquisition began to emerge in countries politically and ideologically opposed to Spain. Protestant pamphlets in the Netherlands, German states, England and France vigorously promoted the wild reputation via the press. The legend, partly spawned by exiled Spanish Protestants, was designed to enact the blackest facts about Spain and its rulers making it synonymous with all that is repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, as well as intellectual and artistic backwardness. Among the most critical accounts of the Inquisition written outside Spain is that of the English Protestant John Foxe, who exaggerated the repressive practices of the Holy Office by helping to spread an anti-Catholic opinion. A text that had major influence on the propagation of the black legend was written by Reginaldus Gonsalvius Montanus (probably a Protestant Spaniard), published in Heidelberg in 1567 in Latin and soon reprinted in several languages […]. But detailed research carried out since the late 1970s by a new generation of international scholars has fundamentally challenged the traditional approach to the history of the Inquisition and required a profound reassessment of its role [… ]. In the first place, the Inquisition was not even remotely close to the commonly perceived bloodthirsty and repressive instrument of ideological control. The repressions of 1480 were short-lived and for most of its history, the execution rate remained below 2%, an average of five people per year. Torture and the death penalty were applied only rarely, almost exclusively during the first years of its existence and much more on old Christians than on dissident religious minorities. Any judgment of the institution must therefore take into account the historical period and the context in which it operated»21Helen Rawlings, The Spanish Inquisition, Wiley-Blackwell 2005 pp. 5, 8, 13.
Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, professor of History at the University of Minnesota:
«In contrast to images presented in popular culture, however, no such thing as the “Medieval Inquisition” existed, either in terms of the name itself or the organized and efficient persecutory institution those capital letters suggest. Only “in polemic and fiction” did “The Inquisition” exist, “a single all powerful, horrific tribunal whose agents worked everywhere to thwart religious truth, intellectual freedom, and political liberty. This is the myth of “The Inquisition” that emerged over the past four hundred years, both as a result of deep hostilities between Catholic and Protestant writers of the intervening centuries and of grisly cinematic renderings of dark-robed, pitiless inquisitors sending innocents to a fiery death.»22Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2011, p. 88.
Dennj Solera, research fellow in Modern History at the University of Bologna:
«Many reconstructions deviate significantly from the reality described in the documents of the time, often giving us a misleading idea of what the Inquisition and its representatives were. Removing any historical object from its specific context means exposing it to the most disparate interpretations, often tending to apologetic forcing […]. The narrative model of the inquisitor was formed in a continuous intertwining between works of artistic-literary fiction, on the one hand, and vague references to historical sources on the other “, as for example Dostoevsky did in Brothers Karamazov, where «the most famous image of the inquisitor» was modeled on «from the aversion that the writer had towards the clergy and Catholicism [… ]. The many documents received by the court allow us to understand how significant are the points of discrepancy that emerge between the literary inquisitor and the inquisitor of history […]. Being an inquisitor was not an easy task as those who limited themselves to the black legend of the Holy Office might believe, according to which the court of justice was governed only by ruthless, cruel friars, always eager to instruct processes and burn people»23Dennj Solera, La società dell’Inquisizione, Carocci 2021, p. 15-18, 27-28.