Historian dismisses “black legend” about the Inquisition

In an interview with the Spanish daily ABC, historian and editor of a new study containing the results of an international conference on the Inquisition which took place at the Vatican in 1998, Agostino Borromeo, rejected falsehoods promoted by the “black legend” about the subject.

During the interview, the Italian history professor spoke about the 800-page volume which pulls together the conclusions of 60 historians and experts from around the world.

Borromeo told the Spanish newspaper the book “dispels the idea that those accused almost always ended up burned at the stake.”  “The punishment of heretics began in 1231 and ended with the abolition of the last Inquisition, that of Rome, in 1870, and it had different characteristics according to time and place.  The Spanish Inquisition, which was very active until it was abolished in 1834, judged 130,000 people in its entire history, of which less than 2% were condemned to death.”

“For a long time, judgments were confused with death sentences, and it was said that 100,000 were executed—a figure completely unreal.  Although some were sentenced to prison or to the galleys, most were given spiritual sentences: pilgrimages, penances, prayers, etc,” said Borromeo.

Asked about the punishment used by Inquisitions in other countries, Borromeo said that “between 1551 and 1647, it Italian court of Aquileia condemned only 0.5% of accused to death.  On the other hand, the Portuguese Inquisition between 1450 and 1629 condemned to death 5.7% of its 13,255 cases”

Borromeo added that the total number of cases in the entire history of the Inquisition which resulted in death sentences is around 2%.

Regarding torture, Borromeo said the study reveals surprisingly that “it was used in less than 10% of the cases and always in much more benign conditions than in the civil trials of the day.  Torture shocks us a lot today—unfortunately less so after what we saw in Iraq—but for a long time it was part of the normal process.”

The Italian professor explained later that “the Medieval Inquisition was not the same as the Inquisition of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were much more sensitive to injustice.  In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition was very popular because heretics were seen as enemies and as dangers.  And the death penalty was very normal then.”

Lastly, Borromeo pointed to changes in the historical understanding of the Inquisition.  “Since the 16th century until the end of the fist half of the 20th, the Inquisition was a controversial subject.  Some used it to attack the Church, others responded with apologetics that went to ridiculous extremes, like saying that the trials were actually State trials and Church trials, which is false.”

“During her first 1000 years, the Church was opposed to the death penalty.  Then she accepted it for almost a 1000 more years.  John Paul II has asked for forgiveness for anti-Semitism and for the use of violence.  As historians, it is not for us to judge, but to clarify,” he concluded.

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