Devil in the details

The Spanish Inquisition
December 2, 2005

Helen Rawlings's book seeks to add to the collection of short histories of the Spanish Inquisition that have appeared since 1997, when Henry Kamen last revised his standard full-length study of the institution.

Like Kamen, Rawlings focuses mainly on the period before 1700. Her thematic chapters cover the new Spanish foundation of an Inquisition between 1478 and its abolition in 1834.

She first provides a brief survey of the historiography of the Inquisition between the 16th century and the present day. Then come chapters on the institution as such and its dealings with converts from Judaism and their descendants ( conversos ), converts from Islam and their descendants ( moriscos ), "Protestants" and "minor" Catholic heresy, including blasphemy, bigamy and solicitation in the confessional. The last chapter outlines the history of the Inquisition between the mid-17th century and 1834.

Rawlings claims to destroy "myths" about the Inquisition in a form accessible to students and non-specialist teachers. The stress is on brevity and accessibility. The book aims to combine an overview of the complex history of this notorious institution with brief dips into source material to give students a flavour of the "Inquisition experience".

Unfortunately, the result often falls short of these aims. To begin with technical matters - the index is poor and unhelpful. Some important figures cited in the main text, such as Boabdil and Alfonso de Valdes, are excluded, and in other cases only some of the relevant page references are indexed. The compiler seems to be unaware that "Olivares" and "the Count-Duke Olivares (sic)" are the same person: the latter is included, the former is not.

Second, the book's usefulness to a non-specialist is diminished because, although a glossary of Spanish terms is included, there is no equivalent for specialised English terms, which are normally not explained in the text. Particularly muddling is the habitual use, without definition, of the English "Illuminist" without a link to the original Spanish term, " Alumbrado ". Such lack of method is a feature of the whole book, as is the occasional use, again without explanation, of terms that require deep specialist knowledge.

There are, however, more serious matters of methodology and content. In several chapters Rawlings makes statements, not least about the Inquisition's notorious cruelty, that she contradicts a few pages later, thus seriously misleading the inexperienced reader. Even more alarming is her tendency to make statements about the tribunal and its context that sound like dogma but in fact refer to highly controversial matters.

Sometimes her expressions are plain wrong, as in her references to something called "the Protestant Church", which never existed, and she appears to accept, largely uncritically, the Inquisition's own, often wildly inaccurate, categorisation of its opponents. She even appears to believe in "witches".

Some of these problems are probably largely stylistic, not necessarily reflecting Rawlings's true thoughts, but they add to the unease created by this book. Space prevents the detailing of other concerns, but it is respectfully suggested that greater editorial care would have made the book recommendable as a treatment of a vital and controversial subject. Sadly, a fine opportunity has been largely lost.

John Edwards is research fellow in Spanish, Oxford University.

The Spanish Inquisition

Author - Helen Rawlings
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 174
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 631 20599 3 and 20600 0

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