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.’

A religion claiming to be based on precepts of love and forgiveness cannot but hang its head in shame at the record of inquisitions in the Western Church of the Latin Rite. Maybe inquisitions didn’t achieve such a high percentage of executions as contemporary secular courts among those they indicted, and maybe they didn’t torture people so often; maybe fewer witches died at the hands of Italian and Spanish inquisitions than elsewhere in Europe, because inquisitors were much more professional than other judges in their assessment of evidence. But still, it won’t do. In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church obliquely acknowledged that it wouldn’t do, by twice renaming the Roman Inquisition, latterly as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Joseph Ratzinger was head of this organisation before he became pope. The outlook of an inquisitor has been likened to that of officials in the Cheka, Bolshevik Russia’s first secret police, where the aim was not merely to repress, but to change society for the better. There is often a fine line between idealism and sadism, but it does no favours to idealism, religious or secular, to use too much historical empathy in excusing those who have crossed the line.

Inquisitors would no doubt retort that they did their work on good biblical principles, and that their first effort was always to persuade and reconcile the erring. It was not their fault if the erring obstinately continued to err (that is, after all, the strict definition of a heretic); in fact, it was their duty to rid society of such pollutants. Inquisitors could point, for instance, to Acts 19.19-20 to justify book-burning, since in the course of what the writer of Acts presents as a spectacularly successful missionary visit to Ephesus, St Paul the Apostle presided over a holocaust of books of magic arts, worth in total 50,000 pieces of silver. ‘So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily.’ More than one painter of the Counter-Reformation, or his ecclesiastical patron, found this an edifying subject for art, and Black has chosen one example for his book-jacket: a dramatic version by the Flemish artist Maerten de Vos, with an enthusiastic St Paul having to be restrained in his zeal. De Vos transposed this first-century scene to the Counter-Reformation Europe that he knew. He has codices being consigned to the flames in place of the scrolls of the ancient world, and a large excited crowd in attendance around the scaffolding in the marketplace: an unlikely setting for church activity in the small-scale and powerless beginnings of the Christian faith.

Certainly, medieval inquisitors did not invent the concept of heresy, which is embedded in the later layers of New Testament literature in a series of bilious references to ‘sects’, and which went on richly to flourish as Christianity elaborated boundaries around its beliefs from the second century CE. Nor did medieval Western inquisitions invent that terrible death for heretics, burning them alive. Christianity borrowed burning at the stake from its great third-century enemy the Emperor Diocletian, who decreed burning for the new synthesis of monotheistic belief known as Manicheism, a dualist religion whose answer to the problem of the existence of evil has not been bettered: evil just is, and that’s all there is to it. Christian leaders were just as offended as Diocletian by Manicheism and other dualist religious systems, and once bishops came to share in the power of Roman emperors, they noted the precedent. Burning alive for beliefs similar to Manicheism was intermittently used in the Christianised Byzantine Empire from the seventh century, though not very often, and the Byzantine burnings ceased soon after Western Latin Christianity took up the burning of heretics in the 11th century. In fact, there was a long tradition in the Orthodox Church of leading churchmen criticising burnings at the stake, which has little or no parallel in medieval Western Catholicism. In later centuries, burnings resumed in Orthodox Muscovy, thanks initially, or so it seems, to prompting from Western Latin envoys of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1490. Once the Orthodox Churches of the East and the Balkans were in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, persecuting Christian heretics was in any case no longer a practical proposition for Orthodox Christians, who were thus saved from themselves by their subjection to another religion.

Another outbreak of dualist belief occurred in southern France in the 12th century, probably inspired by the Eastern dualism which the Byzantines had fought: these heretics were known as ‘the pure’ – Cathari – or ‘people of Albi’, Albigensians. It took decades of crusading to wipe out their power, and there remained a neurosis about whether they would return from concealment, having bided their time and hidden their heresies. A Spanish Augustinian canon, Dominic, formulated one response to the situation: he gathered preachers who would lead a life so simple and apostolic in poverty as to outdo the austere Cathar leadership, and thus convince people that the official Church was a worthy vehicle for a message of love and forgiveness. Not only that, but Dominic’s ‘brothers’ (fratres or friars) would have the best education that he could devise to make even their simplest message intellectually tough. Alongside the coming of the friars, the Church authorities set up tribunals of inquiry to investigate the beliefs of the inhabitants of the former Cathar regions: these were the first inquisitions, proceeding along guidelines drawn up by a great Council of the Church called to the pope’s Lateran Palace in 1215. Over the next centuries, such tribunals proliferated because they were useful against other forms of deviant belief, particularly in Spain, as Christianity clawed back territories from Muslim rulers and faced the problem of people who converted suspiciously quickly from Islam or Judaism. And all the while, the Dominicans continued their association with the institution that had emerged from the same Albigensian crisis as themselves. These highly skilled communicators soon dominated inquisitions, just as they dominated medieval Europe’s universities. In a rueful division of their Latin name, some came to call them Domini canes, ‘hounds of the Lord’. The other major grouping among the friars, the followers of Francis, also staffed inquisitions but, as Black points out, Franciscans rapidly lost their already minority share of the inquisitor market during the 16th century.

So there were inquisitions long before there was the Inquisition. And in fact there never was ‘the Inquisition’. There was the Spanish Inquisition, an organisation created in the 1470s under the control of the peninsular monarchs Fernando and Isabel of Aragon and Castile, in a cession of power to temporal rulers which the papacy soon bitterly regretted. This novel organisation’s main concern was to create a ‘purified’ and strong Latin Christianity free from heresy or non-Christian deviation, and to spread this Christian monoculture throughout the Spanish Empire which in the next decades emerged across the oceans. So the Spanish Inquisition principally targeted secret Jews and Muslims, seeking to discipline the outburst of spiritual energy which the destruction of multicultural Spain had released in the late 15th century. Among the victims was a courtier from the Basque Country, Ignatius Loyola, who fled the Inquisition for study at the University of Paris, with momentous consequences for the Catholic Church through his founding of the Society of Jesus. Mindful of his own encounter with the Spanish Inquisition, Loyola saw to it that his Jesuits never followed the Dominicans into staffing inquisitions, a highly significant statement of principle not noted in Black’s narrative.

Another spiritual guru of interestingly creative opinions, Juan de Valdés, whose brother Alfonso was secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor and whose uncle had been burned by the Inquisition for secret Jewish practices, did better than Loyola; he got out of Spain before the Inquisition could finger him. He escaped to the Kingdom of Naples, a Spanish possession covering nearly half the Italian peninsula, which was spared the attentions of the Spanish Inquisition because, in a pleasing clash of jurisdictions, the pope refused to authorise its presence there. In Naples, Valdés spent a fruitful decade developing a new vision of Christianity whose adherents might be described as Valdesians, or Spirituali, in allusion to the role of the Holy Spirit in his thinking. Valdesianism was generous, exploratory and not a little sympathetic to the purer monotheisms of Judaism and Islam, now so repressed in his native country. Valdés entranced some of the noblest names in Italy, with popes and cardinals in their pedigrees – Gonzaga, Colonna – and some of the best minds, including Michelangelo. Even a thoughtful, nuanced and cultured English cardinal in exile, Reginald Pole, who had a better claim than Henry VIII to be king of England, became a – not uncritical – admirer of the ambiguous Spaniard. In the 1530s, it looked as if Valdesianism might shape the future of the Western Latin Church.

That it did not was largely thanks to the institution that is the main focus of Black’s book: the Roman Inquisition, founded in 1542 as one solution to the crisis that engulfed the Western Church after its mishandling of the case of Martin Luther. Behind this deliberate imitation of the Spanish Inquisition placed firmly under the control of the papacy was a Neapolitan nobleman and career cleric, Gian Pietro Carafa. He became the nemesis of the Valdesian movement, and anyone whom he suspected might be part of it, even unto the third generation. Black does not indulge in character sketches, and only gradually does it become apparent that Carafa, later Pope Paul IV, was one of the nastiest men of the 16th century, even by the exacting standards of Reformation and Counter-Reformation nastiness. Cardinal Pole privately called the Roman Inquisition which Carafa masterminded ‘satanic’. Paul IV was a good hater, and his hatreds ranged from the trivial to the profoundly important. He hated nudity in art. He hated Jews: he confined the Jewish communities of the Papal States in ghettos for the first time and made them wear distinctive yellow hats. He hated the independent spirit of the Jesuits, and once they had lost the temporising skills of their founder, Ignatius, on his death in 1556, Pope Paul forced them to surrender much of their freedom to make their own decisions and began remodelling them into a more conventional religious order. He also hated senior clergy like Pole, who had fostered the Spirituali. He never had the satisfaction of burning Juan de Valdés at the stake, since Valdés died the year before the Roman Inquisition was founded, and, much to his annoyance, he never caught up with Cardinal Pole, but he and his faithful acolyte in inquisitioning, Michele Ghislieri (who later became Pope St Pius V), devoted much of their considerable energy to eliminating any trace of Valdesianism from the whole Church of Rome. On the way, they took in the confusingly similar-sounding medieval heresy of Waldensianism, not to mention Protestantism; it isn’t surprising, given the very considerable items on its menu, that the Roman Inquisition had little interest in extending its persecuting skills to witches. Its finest hour was the persecution, torture and execution in 1567 of an Italian nobleman called Pietro Carnesecchi, a friend of Gonzaga, Colonna and Pole, whose wretched fate Black describes in detail. After that, Valdesianism and the Spirituali were cowed out of the devotional life of Italy, and Tridentine Catholicism was the poorer for it (some exiles from the movement became imaginative and innovative Protestant Christians, which Carafa would have seen as proving his case). Only the Jesuits, who had originated as part of that murky world but who were remarkably adroit in disguising that fact later, carried on something of the spirit of these lost energies.

One of the consolations of the fascinating and depressing story which Black has to tell is the alternative tale that emerges from his diligent array of evidence: contemporary contempt and hatred for the work of inquisitions. Some may regard it as poetic justice that the Dominican patron saint of inquisitors, Peter Martyr, ended his days hacked down with an axe by an angry Cathar in 1252. Among the necessary expenses for Paolo Costabili, the inquisitor of Ferrara in the 1560s, were extra guards to protect him, since a series of executions (burnings and beheadings) had, as Black puts it, ‘rendered Costabili unpopular’. And hurrah for the mobs of Rome whose jubilant reaction to the death of their holy father Paul IV in 1559 was to burst into the offices of the Inquisition and wreck its archives (a bad setback for the hounding of Pietro Carnesecchi). And how one’s heart does not bleed for the Mantuan inquisitor Domenico Istriani da Pesaro, who in 1596 lamented the difficulty of providing enough copies of the new papal index of prohibited books, which had in any case ‘disgusted many people in the city and surrounding area … How could he publish his index without the means to implement it, and cope with the whispering against it?’ Hurrah also for the enterprising publishers of Europe, who looked eagerly to the latest edition of the index and used it as a library list for advertising their wares to good Protestants and not so good Catholics. Perhaps the final word should go to Black’s quotation of a pious and also clear-sighted nobleman of Brescia called Elia Capriolo, angrily reproaching the Dominican inquisitors of his city in a sensibly anonymous pamphlet of 1505:

You seize from the Valcamonica certain old women who are stupid and frozen in a kind of mental daze, and you interrogate them about their faith, the Trinity, and other such topics. You bring in scribes and drag out proceedings; you conduct examinations under torture so that, by inflicting pain and torment on women who are admittedly little different from brutish beasts, you may appear as guardians of the Christian faith.