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An Inquisition into “Inquisicion sobre la Inquisicion”

16 February 2022

Nobody expects to find (very many) defenders of the Spanish Inquisition. I did– thanks to my friends at Librería México Antigüo, for only 150 pesos (and delivered to my door!), Alfonso Junco’s Inquisicion sobre la Inquision (a 1967 reprint of a book originally published in 1933… that will be important later).

This is not the modern interpretation… which seeks to get beyond the “Vincent Price movie” scenarios we have, but — based on the actual court records (and the Inquisition was one of the first European courts to keep full transcripts) which present a very different picture.

Not Vincent Price, but not (quite) Monty Python… and, in an era when European states were merrily executing all kinds of dissenters and “free-thinkers”, surprisingly lenient compared to most. As I’m fond of pointing out, between Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Tudors, just in little old England, managed to execute somewhere about 10 times their citizenry than the Inquisition did during its entire 250 year history (at a time when the sun never set on the Spanish Empire)… maybe 3000 people, and mostly for what were generic capital crimes (murder, rape, etc.) in the course of their “heresy”. What particularly has struck me, from works like Henry Kaman’s The Spanish Inquisition (Yale University, 1997), is that so many of our preconceptions were wrong: witches were never much of a concern to the Inquisitors (they needed verifiable evidence, not the “spectral evidence” we read about with the Salem trials) which was mostly laid down to mental illness or (here in Mexico) magic mushrooms. And, while people were, indeed, burned at the stake (usually after kindly executions slit the throats or strangled the unfortunate victims) the events were extremely rare, and most of the “people” being burned were effigies of those who’d been condemned but allowed to escape, or died in prison. And, as it was, the inquisitors — as clergymen — were forbidden to shed blood, so any torture (a feature, not a bug, of all European “justice systems” of the time) was limited, and in the rare cases it was used, the accused had to be turned over to the regular courts. As it was, canny lawyers often encouraged their clients to commit blasphemy in court, in order to be transferred to the more lenient inquisition, which also kept cleaner, more sanitary, and safer jails than that housing “ordinary, decent criminals”.

Even if, as Kamen mentions, the 90% of Spaniards would have been unaware that the Inquisition even existed (and my estimate for the colonies is closer to 99%) and never would have been affected by it one way or another, it was designed to root out “thought crimes” and ruthlessly stamp out dissent. With the “Enlightenment” thinkers of the 18th century mostly seeing “heresy” as a relatively harmless difference of opinion rather than a serious criminal matter, and Spain, and its colonial subjects, if not “good” Catholics, at least not openly challenging the supremacy of the Church, the Inquisition mostly turned its attention to crimes by the clergy (especially “seduction”… mostly what today we’d call sexual harrassment, generally taking place during confessions… and incidentally, one reason the Church introduced confession booths to keep the confessor and confesse physically separate) and thorny theological issues related to marriage and family life (one of the more interesting Inqisition investigations in Mexico was in 1758 case of “Mariano Aguilera — an intersex who, intially Mariana,,at adolescence becoming Mariano and considered male by his community and his family. And the family of the girl he wanted to marry, although his parents, and their parish priest, had their doubts as to Mariano’s ability to perform his conjugal duties, as the Church required for a canonical marriage. The inquisitors went to the trouble of meauring Mariano’s vestigal penis, and calling in what passed for sex therapists in their day as consultants in considering whether such a marriage would be lawful. Deciding it wasn’t, the inquisitors refused a marriage license, but … with a wink and a nod… suggested the couple just move somwhere they were unknown, and get on with their lives [Sex and the Colonial Archives: The Case of “Mariano” Aguilera, Hispanic American Historical Review, 2016, 96:3, pp 421-443]). As it was, the Mexican Inquisition had too small a staff (headquartered in Mexico City), and expected to cover a territory stretching at times from Alaska to the Straits of Darien, as well as the Philippines, Guam, and the Pacific Islands to be much of a threat or even a presence to … anyone, including the clergy.

What makes the Inqisition of historical interest — as interesting as Mariano’s case is, and the abiding interest in unquestionably unjust persecutions like that of the Carvajal family (of Jewish descent, the original “sin” was that the head of the family was dealing in indigenous slaves, in violation of Pope Paul III’s bull of 1537, Sublimis Dei, the case went on for years as documents had to be notarized and sent from Spain to Mexico, and ended with a few family members being burned at the stake [García-Molina Riquelme, Antonio M. La familia Carvajal y la Inquisición de México, UNAM, nd]) is less what it did, than how it has been the touchstone for any and all ideolgical persecutions.

The short answer, of course, is it fed into the ideological demands of Spain’s political rivals, especially the English (whose historical point of view most of us inherited), and — from the mid 18th century onwards, of those within Spain and the Spanish speaking world, who sought to reform their governments and/or at the very least separate Church and State, or were inately hostile to the Catholic Church.

Which puts those of us interested in the “Black Legend” in a quandry. The field was originated, and largely dominated by reactionaries, the first scholars having been Spanish monarchists who — while they couldn’t exactly hope to “Make Spain Great Again” — could at least justify the darker corners of their history, and claim Spain had had a “civilizing mission” unlike the perfidious English and devious French and uncouth Dutch, with their heretical and tacky commercial interests in the world.

Which finally brings us to Inquisicion sobre la Inquisicion. Written before the Inquisition archives were open to scholars in the late 1990s, it’s a product as much of its time, as of its author. In 1933, when Inquistion first appeared, Mexico was done with Catholic counter-revolutions, the Cristiada having been crushed by 1929, the remnants either scattered, having taken refuge in the United States, or absorbed into the nascent fascist Synarchist movement. Alfonso Junco was a rare bird, never “officially” a Synarchist, but a fascist none-the-less. Despite his decidenly out of step (especially during the Cardenás era) ideas… openly supporting the Spanish Nationalists while the state was busy rescuing the resettling Spanish leftists and shipping what Ernest Hemingway called “good Mexican rifles” to the Republicans. Along with his intellectual peers like Octavio Paz, willing to fight the good fight against Franco and his minions.

What’s unusual is not that Junco makes some of the same points more modern writers note… the Inquisition wasn’t THAT bad , and there weren’t THAT MANY people burne (yuck!) — he comes up with only 43 in Mexico between 1527 and 1715, based on research published in 1905 — but that he argues that the Inqusition was not only necessary, but moreover correct to insure conformity among the people, and to foster the authoritarian state.

Having written on the Cristero movement (Gorostieta and the Cristiada: Mexico’s Catholic Insurgency 1926-1929, Kindle Edition, 2011… AHEM!!!!) I’ve read plenty of Fascist “historians” and am familiar with Junco’s publisher, Editorial Jus and the pro-Francoist Mexican press of the era. It wasn’t all that unusual at the time to find people defending the “traditional” Church, or even authoritarian government within Mexico (which was, after all, more than slightly authoritarian anyway), or an admiration for Spain (apparently still with us in the 21st century) but the authors of these documents are either forgotten, or like the too-long lived Salvador Borrego ( who, among other books wrote a “. . . glowing biography of Hitler [Pintor, Soldado, Fuehrer], and an  apologia for the Waffen SS . . .” before he was sent to Hell at the age of 103), best forgotten.

Oscar Wilde said “There are no bad books, only badly written ones” and Inquisicion is not all that badly written. There is some useful data, the quotes appear to be correct, and there is value in Junco’s careful exposition of the ideological arguments going back to Aquinas that permitted atrocities, even if — as he (and even I admit) — were less atrocious than many of us have been led to believe. And Junco for all his most grievious faults, was not a bad writer.

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