Book Review: Toby Green’s “Inquisition: The Reign of Fear” – by Nialler

greenIn 1484, Juan Gerces de Mercilla was cheered by the arrival of The Inquisition in his home town Of Tuerel. Married to the daughter of a wealthy local businessman, this impoverished local noble hated his in-laws. The installation of Juan de Solibera as local inquisitor was not welcomed by the townspeople, who resented his presence, but through the summoning of sufficient toops he gained control of he town and began the process of enquiring into the behaviour of the townspeople. Within 18 months, the list of the dead had grown to include Mercilla’s in-laws – all obligingly turned over to Solibera by Mercilla himself. Even from the earliest stages, The Inquisition was being used as a tool to gain power locally, and to consolidate it at a national level.

The story of de Mercilla is just one of the many which Green uses to illustrate and colour this excellent history of one of history’s darkest periods. He doesn’t seem to want to leave it entirely in the past, though, and, while he never explicitly compares those events to modern events, it is difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the Inquisition’s tools – including anonymous accusation, covert surveillance, secret trials, summary justice, and above all else, fear – with the threat posed by totalitarian States right up to the present day.

In another creepy reminder of the present, The Inquisition even euphemised its victims, by calling the process of burning them “relaxing” them.

The book has its weaknesses, though. Green seems excessively keen to absolve the Church of total blame for The Inquisition. Despite the fact that the trials were sanctioned by a Papal Bull, he emphasises that the victims were always handed to the secular authorities for punsihment. He also falls short of enumerating actual deaths, instead weakly pointing out that if the first fifty years are discounted, The Inquisition was responsible for less deaths than the witch-hunts which scarred Europe in the 16th century. True it may be, but to discard those fifty bloodied years is an arbitrary device with no justification. It’s not as if the data isn’t there; Green’s book in itself is adequate testimony to the efficiency and attention to detail of the Inquistors. As campaigns against heresy go, it was an extraordinarily well documented one. Luckily so, as Green has to cover a period of 350 years, and a campaign which ranged from Goa to South America – a feat he achieves with some style.

All in all, and despite the sole caveat about the extent of Rome’s role in it, “Inquisition” is a triumph of research and accessibility and is strongly recommended.

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