The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision

This is the third edition of Henry Kamen’s classic history of the Inquisition. The principal conclusion of the first edition (The Spanish Inquisition [1965]) was that the Inquisition was a weapon of social warfare used mainly to obliterate the conversos—converted Jews—as a distinct class capable of offering social and economic competition to “Old Christians.” This was a compelling hypothesis, powerfully stated, and it influenced an entire generation of historians. I found the second version (Inquisition and Society in Spain, [1985]) perplexing: inasmuch as I was one of those convinced by the original statement, I perceived it as a whitewash that sought to exculpate the Inquisition, and I could not understand what motivated the apparent moral flip-flop between the first and second versions. On that score, the present, third version is more clearly articulated and also more successful, I think, in assessing and integrating the vast corpus of Inquisition historiography that has appeared over the past thirty years. The most important finding of the portion of research that can justly be labeled “revisionist” is that the Inquisition, as an bureaucratic institution, was not the intrusive, all-powerful behemoth as typically it had been portrayed but was institutionally flawed, only sporadically effective both temporally and geographically, and not ideologically monolithic.

All that is well, but Kamen takes great pains both to establish his own moral distance from the Inquisition and its zeitgeist and to exonerate and exculpate. He is one of a number of authors who argue that neither Ferdinand nor Isabella were anti-Jewish, nor—for that matter—anti-Muslim (p. 26); nor did they subscribe to any “deliberate policy” to impose religious uniformity (p. 61). But Kamen supplies no other plausible explanation for the expulsion of the Jews or the war against Granada or the persecution of Muslim minorities. After describing the ruthless extirpation of Protestantism, he concludes the Spanish reaction was “almost humane” compared to religious persecution in other countries. With regard to the impact of censorship, the Inquisition was not unique in Europe in imposing thought control, nor can it be blamed for fossilizing academic culture for 300 years (p. 133). Kamen denies that Spain was cut off from contact with the outside world, then admits the “unquestionable isolated state of peninsular culture” (p. 135). After relating horrible details of imprisonment, he concludes that prison conditions were not all that bad (p. 192), then goes on to state that the proportionately small number of executions among all cases is an effective argument against the “legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal” (p. 203). The facts ought to speak for themselves, rather than requiring adornment with constant exculpatory pleas.

The Inquisition was one of a number of institutions that were complicit in creating a paranoid society. In attempting to demonstrate that the Inquisition’s institutional reach was limited, revisionist historians have been reluctant to admit that its psychological reach might not have been so limited. In a recent review in this journal (April 1999, p. 624), Kamen claimed that “One of the most serious defects of the majority of recent studies on the medieval and early modern Inquisitions is that they base themselves squarely on the available documentation.” Some of the conclusions of revisionist historiography mentioned above arise from a historical discourse that lacks social-psychological depth. That the tribunal censored only a tiny percentage of publications, for example, may not have mitigated the fear of reprisal with which authors had to live. Its institutional reach was not coterminous with its psychological reach. Absent such analytical frameworks, we have little recourse but to believe what the documents state.





By Henry Kamen