Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jonathan Kirsch's "Grand Inquisitor's Manual": Book Review

Efficiently told, often convincingly argued, this surveys the late medieval and Spanish secret police, courts, and prisons where "heretical depravity" could lead to execution, a life sentence, ostracization, or exile and destitution. Kirsch extends the parallels with Stalinist, Nazi, and contemporary applications of authoritarian suppression of what an authority deems thought-crime. He strives throughout to alert us to the parallels that for nearly seven hundred years have perpetuated the crushing of what "heresy" means in its Greek derivation: "choice."

That this choice lies within the individual dissenter infuriates the forces seeking monotheism, and/or conformity of expressed opinion. Kirsch cites Kafka's "The Trial": "You can't defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess." The show-trials and the torture were applied to not only punish resistance, but to exact the ultimate humiliation-- to reduce the accused to admit accomplices, among his or her family and loved ones.

"Fautorship," the aiding and abetting of heresy however unintentionally by one's circle of friends and family, itself could land any sympathizer, entirely uncomprehending or wholly aware, into prison as a heretic. Such pressure ensured that the eradication of some heresies in medieval Europe was nearly total. For those "guilty" of having one-sixteenth in Spain or one-fourth in the Reich degree of "Jewish blood," there was no way to escape sentencing for ancestral ties. A cadaver decades later could be exhumed and found guilty; its descendants could then be found suspected of heresy. The wealth accrued by such ambitious investigations to snare the guilty or excuse the innocent, funded by those found guilty or seeking exoneration, furthermore, corrupted the institutions that ruled all the citizens, and by such data the apparatus of Church and State grew into its modern reach and cruel imposition. Naming names, Kirsch shows skillfully, became the goal of every inquisition. To catch one guilty party, one early functionary gloats, a hundred innocents merit pain.

Kirsch touches on intriguing sidelines: the revisionist historians who finesse legal vs. moral niceties, the inability of monotheism to compel fidelity among humans hard-wired for diversity in thought and belief, and the "free-associative sexual libel" of the biblically based "impulse to equate theological error with sexual adventure." (40) As an aside, I remained curious if the legality that allowed the Church to "abandon" heretics once tortured and sentenced as guilty into the secular authority for the death penalty to be carried out had any asserted Catholic medieval parallel in the infamous scripturally justified separation by the Jewish authorities of Christ's fate at the hands of Pilate, but Kirsch does not cite any medieval predecessors of this rationale from earlier exegesis.

Reviewers on Amazon have noted the same flaws I found: uneven documentation, a wavering attitude resisting any firm tally of how many medieval victims resulted, and a slanted, if humanist and understandably offended, tone. I would add an over-reliance on a few studies about the medieval period, too rapid a glance at witchcraft in the pre-early modern period, and a tendentious attitude regarding the McCarthy era, given that later historians have unmasked some "real" spies who were working during that period in the US. Their undercover presence does not excuse the excesses of the HUAC proceedings, but as a scholar, Kirsch should have nodded towards revisionist data recently uncovered for Cold War Soviet espionage as he had for those challenging the status quo in medieval studies.

However, the bulk of his readable, brisk presentation focuses on the lack of actual guilt among earlier prisoners for deviation vs. the inquisitorial topsy-turvy rationale. Without any knowledge of one's accusers, the evidence amassed, or the charges weighed, the accused might be charged with heresy. A vulnerable woman, especially from fifty to seventy, eccentric, might be blamed for witchcraft after a botched midwife's case, a bucket of spoiled milk, a neighbor's illness. Out of such coincidences, the devil was seen to infect the social order.

The family of one arrested might find themselves homeless and penniless; the crime could be charged for one nine or ninety-six; any who refused to confess were then made to be tortured, for rarely could any escape sentencing. If one refused to confess, one hid one's stubborn, devilish motivation, If one confessed, one betrayed one's complicity. If one gave the names of others to save one's soul, one showed one's terrible connection to a sinister underground network of diabolic fifth columnists. Under the Soviets, the Spanish, the Gestapo, one finds the same set-up repeated as with the Holy Office. Eradication of any rebellion demanded total compliance, for one's own soul and to terrorize one's neighbors and community into submission. By such reasoning, "the victims of torture were the only ones to blame for the necessity of putting them to torture." (98)

Alonzo Salazar y Frias, a Spanish friar-inquisitor, noted: "There were neither witches nor bewitched, until they were talked about." (147) He hunted Jews and Muslims instead. "I have not found the slightest evidence, from which to infer that a single act of witchcraft has really occurred." (188) Perversity, however defined, meant that the forces of clerical and monarchical power would crush those accused. Mercy seemed extremely rare, and cruelty became the norm, for hundreds of years.

As a lawyer as well as historian, Kirsch navigates the intricacies of such "logic" in the name of crushing conformity deftly. He integrates scholarly predecessors smoothly, and while he may not offer as much original research, he presents in an accessible fashion the best of what's been researched and argued for hundreds of years. The fate of the Spanish Jewish converts, or holdouts, is demythologized by Kirsch deftly, for he shows how most were ardent Christians rather than defiant crypto-Jews, but also how "purity of blood" strategies inspired future Nazi outrages. Kirsch reminds us how far the terrible continuum stretches-- just over a hundred years after the last Spanish execution, crackdowns under Hitler commenced.

And here Kirsch keeps the lessons of the fragile prisoner and defiant rebel fresh, those unfairly burnt, those whose consciences could not give in to false confessions, those tormented into delusion, those beaten to death or driven mad. He also portrays those incarcerated and/or burnt alive for the "crime" of greeting a Cathar "perfectus" unwittingly, or sheltering a persecuted freethinker on the run. Ensuring that none evaded such "justice" meant that cities and towns needed to coordinate testimonies and confessions. These reports were carefully kept, humble or outrageous the faint words exacted by fear and torture as set down by scribes may seem to us today.

They form our first international database, as the medieval friar-inquisitors stored duplicate records that allowed neither the accused nor his acquaintances to escape scrutiny, for long years after. The ranks of the tainted grew as names were named, a prerequisite of arrest being this duty for the accused to accuse others. Not even corpses of those sentenced were safe from immolation. One rarely escaped the inquisition's penalties once they were extended, and the reign of terror, although somewhat exaggerated by a few, for many thousands accused or associated with those found guilty of such defiance against the norm appears to be horrifying indeed.

As Kirsch sums up: "The fundamental fact that real human beings suffered and died at the hands of the inquisitors for nothing more than a thought-crime-- or no for no crime at all-- is sometimes overlooked in the scholarly debate over the Inquisition. Now and then, we need to recall the ordeal of the Jewish 'converso' named Elvira del Campo, stripped naked and put to torture by the Spanish Inquisition in 1568 because eating pork made her sick to the stomach, if only to remind ourselves of the human face of the Inquisition: 'Lord,' she cried, 'bear witness that they are killing me without my being able to confess!'" (210) (Posted to Amazon US 1-19-10)

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