The archive of the Catholic Church's Inquisition, covering thousands of heresy and witchcraft trials from 1542 to 1903, has been opened officially to researchers.
For years, only a handful of people were permitted to study the records of countless indictments ordered by the Inquisition, many of them involving torture and execution, and the transcripts of meetings about banning books and grappling with major developments in modern thought.
The historic opening was announced at a conference in Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern descendant of the Inquisition, and by the Accademia dei Lincei, Italy's premier academy of sciences.
"There is material of tremendous interest," said Adriano Prosperi, professor of modern history at Pisa University and a renowned specialist on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, who spoke on behalf of the accademia.
"We have been more familiar with the medieval phase of the inquisitions, when these were run by Dominicans and Franciscans in various parts of Europe. Now we have the official records of the work of the Roman Inquisition in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries."
Professor Prosperi was granted a first glimpse of the 4,500-volume archive only last year. His previous requests for access had always been refused.
In 1542, Pope Paul III created a supreme Roman tribunal to oversee the work of what became satellite inquisitions. As highest court, the Roman Inquisition was supposed to be a temporary body to establish and maintain orthodoxy. "Instead," Professor Prosperi explained, "it lasted for more than four centuries, becoming a kind of semi-independent secret police, radically conditioning the Catholic Church's development until well into the 20th century."
After 1542, few European countries accepted the Roman Inquisition's authority or its right to extradite defendants. The records in the archive, which is housed in the 16th-century palace next to St Peter's Basilica, mostly concern trials in the Italian states, which recognised its authority.
According to Monsignor Alejandro Cifres, the archive's director: "The material provides a new vision of the Inquisition, which was not as monolithic and obscurantist as is generally believed. It also sheds light on the many theological debates that followed from the Protestant Reformation, as well as on the confrontation with the Enlightenment and the new scientific and philosophical theories of the 19th century."
The archive holds records of debates over theological issues such as whether baptisms performed by Calvinists and Anglicans could be considered valid and whether the formula used to baptise the Huron Indians of North America - "I baptise you in the name of the Father and the Son of the Wind" -was acceptable.
"There is a constant obsession with universality," Professor Prosperi said. "The volumes should also provide information on the Inquisition's dealings with Jews in the Italian states. There are records of trials for disrespect for Catholic processions or ceremonies and against Jews who had converted to Catholicism and were accused of continuing Jewish observances."
Unfortunately, most transcripts of actual Inquisition trials are missing. Taken to Paris by Napoleon, they were destroyed between 1815 and 1817 by order of Monsignor Marino Marini, who had been sent from Rome to recover them. What remains is the complete collection of the transcripts of all of Inquisition meetings held from 1542 to 1903.
The archives of the Inquisition/ Holy Office's activities during this century still remain closed by the Vatican.