Evil Just Is

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • The Italian Inquisition by Christopher Black
    Yale, 330 pp, £35.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 11706 6

This is one of Christopher Black’s verdicts on the work of the Roman Inquisition:

The human casualties among major thinkers were fewer than might have been expected; Bruno might have been saved, Galileo could have suffered worse; Campanella endured lengthy imprisonment; Giannone and Crudeli were partly just unlucky.

So that’s all right, then: just unlucky. Back in the 1980s, one of the more memorable sketches on Not the Nine O’Clock News was a solemn mini-documentary entitled ‘The Devil: Is He All Bad?’, featuring the liberal opinions of a trendy vicar and careful accounts by a nice suburban couple of the mitigating features of their practice of sacrificing virgins. There is a whiff of that wonderful parody of fair-mindedness in the historical judgments provided by Black in the course of his absorbing tale of inquisitions in the Italian peninsula between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is reassuring to know from him that the Roman Inquisition helped discourage ‘undesirable superstitious beliefs and practices’. On the subject of the respective merits of torture by fire applied to feet coated in pork fat and torture by suspension by the arms when tied behind the back, inquisition suspects would no doubt nod sagely at Black’s opinion that ‘a fire that scalded the feet might be less harmful for a man likely to be sentenced as an oarsman to the galleys than injury to the shoulders.’

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