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The best books on The Inquisition

recommended by Toby Green

African Voices from the Inquisition: The Trial of Crispina Peres of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau 1646-1668 by Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, Philip J. Havik & Toby Green

African Voices from the Inquisition: The Trial of Crispina Peres of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau 1646-1668
by Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, Philip J. Havik & Toby Green

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The Papal, Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions left records that are goldmines for historians. However, as Professor Toby Green explains, getting caught up in one of their investigations was no fun at all. Here he chooses five books to help you understand why the Inquisitions were created, what they were trying to achieve and why they lasted so long.

Interview by Benedict King

African Voices from the Inquisition: The Trial of Crispina Peres of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau 1646-1668 by Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, Philip J. Havik & Toby Green

African Voices from the Inquisition: The Trial of Crispina Peres of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau 1646-1668
by Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, Philip J. Havik & Toby Green

Read

Before we got on to the books can I just ask, what was the Inquisition? Or should we say, what were the inquisitions?

There is the original Papal Inquisition, or Medieval Inquisition, as it’s sometimes known, which were tribunals which were effectively conducted by local church officials, under the auspices of the of the Papacy. But then, in the late 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition was established with its own courts and its own institutional apparatus, which effectively developed a separate kind of authority—granted by Rome initially, but with a separate institutional existence. That had never previously existed. The Portuguese Inquisition followed in 1521. The Papal Inquisition actually continued, particularly in the Papal States, into the 19th century.

But the famous ones that people know about are the Spanish and the Portuguese Inquisitions. There are various reasons for that, but one of the things which does distinguish them is that they were truly global institutions. The Portuguese Inquisition had a tribunal in Goa. Many people over time came from parts of Africa, but even more from Brazil, for trial in Lisbon. The Spanish Inquisition had separate tribunals in Mexico City, in Lima and in Cartagena. They were global institutions at an early time.

Could you tell us a bit about your book, African Voices from the Inquisition?

This is a project which I’ve been involved in for eight years or nine years with two of my colleagues, Philip Havik and Filipa Ribeiro da Silva. We’re publishing the English translation of the complete inquisitorial trial of a woman called Crispina Peres, who was born in what’s now Guinea Bissau in about 1615, and who was eventually sent to Lisbon for trial by the Inquisition for witchcraft. The trial is probably the most complete picture that exists of daily life in this part of West Africa, or even any part of West Africa in the 17th century, because you have a huge range of evidence for different aspects of social life.

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We’re publishing it primarily because it is an unparalleled source for the history of West Africa. In as far as it sheds light on the Inquisition I think people might be surprised to discover that there was a trial of an African woman in Lisbon. So it speaks quite a lot to the global reach that the Inquisition had and the way it connected the colonies of Portugal and Spain to the centre. There are very few studies of the Inquisition that have looked at the role of the Inquisition in Africa. There have been quite a lot of studies on Latin America, for instance. So, there are a number of reasons why this is an important document to produce.

Let’s get on to your book recommendations. First up is Henry Charles Lea, The History of the Inquisition of Spain. This is quite a whopper, in four volumes [See also: Volumes II, Volume III and Volume IV].

Yes. It’s the classic history of the Inquisition, which is why I’ve included it here. Lea was an American historian of the medieval church and had previously written about the medieval Inquisition. And then he wrote this four-volume history of the Spanish Inquisition based on what, for the time, was a really a remarkable amount of new archival research in Spanish archives. And it’s stood the test of time. It’s over 100 years old now but, if you if you want a four-volume history of the Inquisition, this is the book for you, because it does have a lot of original sources and original stories. And at the same time, it gives a strong narrative and a comprehensive overview.

I think historically, it’s a significant book, because it marks the beginning of the end of the ‘black legend’—this idea that Spain was a particularly barbarous country and that its barbarity was epitomised by the Inquisition. That was a story that did the rounds in Protestant Europe in the late 16th and early 17th century in particular. That narrative was then revitalised in the 19th century. The Inquisition comes to an end with the end of absolutism. It’s finally abolished for good in 1834. And its final Inquisitor General Llorente, wrote this very controversial and provocative history of the Inquisition, after he had fled Spain, denouncing its crimes. That revitalised the legend. But Lea’s is a more measured, and complete history. And so that’s really where the modern historiography of the Inquisition starts. It’s also a readable book. There are lots of reasons to start with this one.

Why was the Spanish Inquisition founded?

The Spanish Inquisition was founded in the 1470s because of long-running tensions within Spain. Spain had been in a process of civil conflict for 15 or 20 years. There were also conflicts over whether Isabel was the rightful heir to the Castilian throne, or her sister Juana, who was allied to the Portuguese crown. Anyway, there’d been a lot of conflict. And at the same time there were the New Christians, the Conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity at the end of the 14th century and into the 15th century, often under duress.

There were many who felt that they weren’t faithful Catholics and that they still practiced aspects of the Jewish faith, which was heresy. So a lot of things came together, and the Conversos, who generally lived in urban areas, had quite a lot of political and commercial influence. They were a target for frustrations. There were also lots of social and political reasons why creating a sense of unity by conducting a campaign against a generally unpopular group was not a bad idea, particularly in a situation where Isabella had not been universally claimed as the rightful heir to the throne and had unified Castile with Aragon.

“It’s over 100 years old now but, it’s stood the test of time”

Those were the some of the things which went into the foundation of the Inquisition. Why did the Papacy grant permission for a new tribunal to be established? Well, it was requested by Ferdinand and Isabella in the first place, but I think there is a context of a broader crisis of Christendom, which had been growing since the fall of Constantinople in the 1450s. Allied to that was the reality of Spain increasingly becoming a more powerful player in Europe. The late 15th century was a time of change and all those factors contributed towards Spain establishing its own tribunal.

Of course, once you’ve founded an institution and given it lots of powers, it’s then quite hard to rein it in.

Who appointed the Inquisitors?

There was a Council of the Inquisition. But the Inquisitor General was appointed by the crown in consultation with the most important churchmen in the state. The Council of the Inquisition was responsible for appointing the other inquisitors.

Did the Inquisition leave huge archives of meticulously kept notes?

It certainly did. Some of them were burned, during the Revolutionary era of the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic invasions, but a lot of them have survived. Most of the Portuguese Inquisition material has survived. But sadly for historians, the Goan Tribunal archive was burned in its entirety in the early 19th century, so the only things that have survived from Goa are letters sent to the Council of the Inquisition in Lisbon. And that’s particularly sad because Goa was responsible for areas like Mozambique, and Portuguese possessions in Asia, so quite a lot is lost to history.

Let’s move on to the next book—a very famous one—Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie’s Montaillou. This deals with events long before the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

It is a classic book about the Inquisition that dealt with the Cathar heresy. The process of investigation by the Inquisitions was quite common to the Papal inquisitions, and to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. And you really get a sense of that in this book. There aren’t many books that are accessible to a general reader, which really give a sense of the remorselessness of the process of investigation and the way it could really affect a community. This book really does convey that. It also really reveals what a goldmine the Inquisition records are for social historians. This is the book that, in many ways, began the revolution in microhistory. It’s a good book for thinking about both the inquisitorial process, but also why the records are so fascinating for historians.

Was this Inquisition a permanent office, or did it just start to deal with the Cathar heresy and then, once that was dealt with, it was shut down?

It wasn’t permanent. When there was a need visits and inquiries were made.

Were the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions founded as permanent institutions?

Well, that’s a good question. What is permanent? I shouldn’t think when it was founded 1478, that anybody imagined it was still going to be around 350 years later. They must have hoped to deal with those heresies quicker than that.

God willing… Let’s move on to the next one. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. What’s the story this book tells?

This is another very long book. You mentioned the Conversos. They are the epicentre of the thing, the reason why the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions are founded. This is the best history that we have about the origins of the Inquisition in 15th century Spain. It’s a very detailed book, quite an academic book, and it’s built on an enormous amount of research. It takes a very modern approach to looking at this, arguing effectively, that an idea of race began in Spain in the 15th century, with the presence in society of people who were descended from Jews, but were Christians, and so had an ambiguous status. This racialised idea of Jewish converts, it argues, drove a hatred of them and led to the founding of Inquisition. It’s a very modern history. But it also tells a narrative story. If you want a readable book written in the last 20 years that explains why the Inquisition was founded, this would be the one I would choose.

When did the issue of those Jewish converts arise as a perceived problem? Did it long precede the reconquest of Granada in 1492?

There had been a Jewish community in Spain for a long time. The key thing that happened—and Netenyahu goes into this in the book—is that in 1391, there was a series of riots against the Jews in many cities in Spain. There are lots of reasons for this. Economic and social pressures caused by the Black Death may have been quite a large factor. But anyhow, this is what happened at the end of the 14th century, and after that a lot of Jews did convert to Christianity. But they did so under duress, because of what had happened. So that was one of the problems. They were given 20-odd years to make their conversions good, so there were no real investigations made into how effective these conversions have been initially. But then the narrative started to change in the 1410s, and 1420s. This is the kind of thing that which Netanyahu looks at.

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In his first book, which he wrote in the 1970s, he looked at those original conversions of the 1390s. And he looked at Hebrew sources from North Africa to see how effective they had been and he argued that actually, they had been quite effective, they had been converted, but they weren’t accepted as converts as such. So it’s a book which is based on the author’s knowledge of all of the relevant languages.

Next up is Stuart Schwartz’s All Can be Saved.

This was published 10 or 12 year ago.  Schwartz is an historian of various aspects of Latin America, usually Brazil. This book was almost a counterpoint to the traditional idea we have of the Inquisition, that it didn’t brook any difference, that it indoctrinated a uniform approach to faith. What Schwartz found in viewing interrogations of people in Inquisition archives, and in a wide range of other sources in both Spain and Portugal and in their empires, was a popular belief that, in fact, all could be saved. People did actually believe that all could be saved, regardless of their faith. It’s a book about a multicultural society, and the popular adherence to an idea of tolerance, even though that existed alongside the realities of the Inquisition.

It does draw on Inquisition sources, but it’s not top-down history. This really helps you think about what people actually made of it all, how it actually changed their daily lives, beliefs and practice. It’s an interesting book from that point of view.

How did the Inquisition go about its business?

What generally happened was that an Inquisitor would make a visit to a settlement or a town. On arrival he would issue something called the ‘Edict of Faith’, which meant that for 30 days, anybody who knew anything which was contrary to the faith or suspicious should come and announce that to them. So, it was a tribunal, which made it your moral duty to gossip, and denounce your neighbours. That can be appealing to some people.

And to what extent did its investigative methods involve torture? 

That was part of the black legend. It certainly did involve torture, but then civil tribunals in Britain, and in most countries involved torture. I think that’s usually forgotten. The Inquisition certainly persisted with torture, perhaps for longer. There is some evidence of it in the 18th century.

“People did actually believe that all could be saved, regardless of their faith”

But actually, in many ways, it was its other forms of cruelty that had a much deeper impact on people. It would bankrupt you, for example. Take the case of Christian Peres in our book.  She was the most successful trader in her town, which is probably why she was denounced. Her rivals didn’t like her success. They clubbed together and denounced her and they had enough power to get her deported. The trial broke her completely, financially. She was in Lisbon for two or three years, eventually, you know, she went through the auto da fé, and she was sent back to Guinea-Bissau. We don’t know what happened, because the trial ends with her being very, very ill in bed, but her husband had also died in this process, and it seems very likely that she died shortly after. This is a typical story of Inquisition, you’re taken away, thrown into jail for three or four years, you have to pay for your own travel costs and for your food. You bankrupt yourself, and then you’ve got nothing left.

That was terrifying, every bit as much as torture. And then, if you did go for an auto da fé you might be banished from your town, which might mean you could no longer earn any money, you were away from your relatives, your descendants weren’t able to work in certain occupations. There were lots of reasons to be scared of the Inquisition, beyond the headline ones.

Let’s go on to James H. Sweet’s Domingos Alvares African Healing and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World.

This is a fascinating book. If I had to read only one of these books, I would probably choose this one. But then I am a historian of West Africa. This is a book based on one Inquisition trial in the middle of the 18th century. Domingo Alvares came from what is now the Republic of Benin. He was sold into slavery, crossed the Atlantic, went to Brazil, went to various sugar plantations in north-eastern Brazil, but managed to get a reputation as a very powerful healer. He moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he effectively set up shop. Lots of people, Africans, Creole Portuguese, people from a whole different range of backgrounds consulted him. He became so famous that the Inquisition accused him of sorcery, but really he was just too powerful. So they deported him to Lisbon and his whole life story comes out in this one trial, which James Sweet, an American historian, uses as a way of looking at the individual life history of this one person.

“They made it your moral duty to gossip, and denounce your neighbours. That can be appealing to some people”

And again, it’s a fascinating example of how an Inquisition trial can give you the life history of somebody who had been an enslaved African in the 18th century. But he also uses it as a window on to understanding the different roles of Africans in different parts of the Atlantic and even in Portugal. Once he’s released, Domingos Alvares is found having discussions on religious life and belief with priests in the Algarve. It’s really a fascinating history and, also one, which, again, reveals the power of the Inquisition to take somebody from Brazil back to Lisbon for trial.

Was he enslaved when he was taken in by the Inquisition?

By that time, he had managed to buy his freedom.  Urban slaves, in particular, in Brazil might often be able to buy their freedom because they might earn money on their own account, which they could give to the people who owned them, and hence buy their freedom.

Were slaves generally taken in by the Inquisition?

No. Usually people taken in by the Inquisition in some way or other had powerful enemies. This is a very unusual case, which is one of the things that makes it such an extraordinary book. Because of the reputation he had gathered in Rio, the local church saw him increasingly as some kind of a rival. So that was one of the reasons he got picked up by the Inquisition.

If you could have had a sixth book, what would it be?

The Inquisition is not a topic which many women have written much about. The book I would have loved to have included here, is by the Spanish historian called Mercedes Garcia-Arenal, who is the best historian of the Moriscos at work today. Her book Los Moriscos was originally published in 1975, and was republished 20 years later in Madrid. Sadly not translated into English, it is an extraordinary piece of historical research which has stood the test of time, and reveals in great depth and humanity the extent to which Spain’s Muslim population who had been forcibly converted to Christianity (the Moriscos) formed such a key part of Spanish society, and also the way in which the Inquisition targeted them from the 1570s onwards, leading to the tragedy of their expulsion from Spain in 1609.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Toby Green

Toby Green

Toby Green is the author of a number of books, including Inquisition: The Reign of Fear (Macmillan, 2007), The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western African 1300-1589 (Cambridge University Press) and A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Penguin, 2019), which won a number of literary prizes. He is Professor of Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture at King's College, London. His latest book is The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (C. Hurst & Co, published April 2021).

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Toby Green

Toby Green

Toby Green is the author of a number of books, including Inquisition: The Reign of Fear (Macmillan, 2007), The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western African 1300-1589 (Cambridge University Press) and A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Penguin, 2019), which won a number of literary prizes. He is Professor of Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture at King's College, London. His latest book is The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (C. Hurst & Co, published April 2021).