Inquisi­to­r­i­al Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Oth­er Heretics

Richard L. Kagan; Abi­gail Dyer, eds. and trans.

  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Kagan, a his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins, and Dyer, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, fur­ther illu­mi­nate the his­to­ry of that ever­fear­some and ever-fas­ci­nat­ing insti­tu­tion, the Inqui­si­tion. Their sources have not pre­vi­ous­ly been avail­able in Eng­lish. They have retrieved tri­al accounts in which the accused were com­pelled to pro­vide nar­ra­tives of their lives, i.e., con­fes­sion­al biogra­phies char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Ear­ly Mod­ern peri­od. Inter­roga­tors hoped that the biogra­phies“ would lead to self-incrim­i­na­tion and the incrim­i­na­tion of oth­ers. Six cas­es” were stud­ied. Three involved per­sons of Jew­ish back­ground, and two per­sons of Morisco (Islam­ic) her­itage. Each chap­ter con­cerns a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal, social, or reli­gious issue which the Inqui­si­tion deemed its respon­si­bil­i­ty in the 16th and 17th cen­tu­ry. Among the crimes” cit­ed were dis­re­spect for the mar­riage sacra­ment, usurpa­tion of divine celes­tial author­i­ty, sodomy, and judaiz­ing. This work fea­tures a con­cise analy­sis of the Inquisition’s ori­gins and stages of devel­op­ment, as well as a fine descrip­tion of the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal world. The work casts doubt on the stereo­typ­i­cal por­trait of ear­ly mod­ern Spain as a rigid, con­formist soci­ety with few pos­si­bil­i­ties for social, reli­gious and geo­graph­i­cal mobil­i­ty. Appar­ent­ly, sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion were able to adapt to and uti­lize shift­ing iden­ti­ties. This work con­tributes to the grow­ing debate over the true nature of the Inqui­si­tion. Kagan and Dyer warn that accept­ing the long-held descrip­tion of the insti­tu­tion as a mono­lith­ic ter­ror is sim­plis­tic. A set of uni­form pro­ce­dures was estab­lished, but dif­fer­ent tri­bunals and inquisi­tors applied them in dif­fer­ent ways and in a man­ner that allowed pris­on­ers room for maneu­ver and for nego­ti­at­ing their trial’s out­come. The Holy Office exer­cised a con­sid­er­able degree of lenien­cy in the han­dling of indi­vid­ual cas­es.” Fur­ther­more, The Inqui­si­tion was, in fact, less prone to tor­tur­ing and exe­cut­ing pris­on­ers than were sec­u­lar courts in Spain and oth­er parts of Europe.” Kagan and Dyer imply that the Inquisition’s most sin­is­ter aspect was per­haps its secre­cy. Knowl­edge of the fate of those whose lives were record­ed on these pages should dis­cour­age a revi­sion­ist approach to the Inqui­si­tion. Nev­er­the­less, there is much inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion in this vol­ume. The stat­ed inten­tion — to put a human face on accused and inter­roga­tor— has been achieved. Maps in each chap­ter are use­ful. This book’s cov­er is adorned appro­pri­ate­ly with an illus­tra­tion of an El Gre­co paint­ing of a severe-look­ing Roman Catholic Cardinal.

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

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