Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Inquisition

I decided to address this question briefly in its own thread, since it is from before Spring Break.

"Trent,can you address one more issue? During the Inquisition times many books were burned. You spoke on preservation of Greco-Roman classical literature. Can you elaborate this?"

I. Re: Inquisition

First, a note about the "Inquisition". This term gets used a lot without much precision. The inquisition was a former tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church (1232-1820) created to discover and suppress heresy. It was fairly informal throughout the Medieval period and differed vastly from place to place. It should be noted that the practice was originated by a secular authority--Frederick II of Italy--and all the corporal punishments were carried out--by canon law--by the civil magistrate. Different Popes had different attitudes toward the use of inquisitors during the Medieval period.

Most of the (largely exaggerated) stories people hear are about the more formal and rigorous use of inquisitors--originally judges appointed to try people for heresy according to canon law. Again, the Grand Inquisitor--now made famous in the chapter by that name in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamozov--was appointed by the King of each country (subject to papal approval) and some countries did not promote the use of inquisitors. Most Americans will be familiar with the Spanish regents Ferdinand and Isabella--the ones who commissioned Columbus. They used their considerable influence to protect their inquisitors from censure when the Pope threatened to depose them. As a result of the excesses in Spain, the iteration of the inquisition during the Protestant Revolution--under Pope Paul III--was strictly regulated. Tales of widespread horrid abuse by the Spanish Inquisition are typically gross exaggerations if not outright fiction.

There is a thorough history of the Inquisition here, a medium-sized history here, and a brief response here (further links here including Fact v. Fiction).

II. Re: Burning of Books.

One of the duties of the latter-day Inquisition was the Index of Forbidden Books (read about it here). The idea of freedom of the press or even free speech generally does not necessarily conflict with the practice of banning books. Note that recently a man was sentenced to prison in Germany for denying the Holocaust. Still, no one would say--point blank--that Germany does not have freedom of speech. In France there is a division of the government which determines which non-French neologisms may be used in print. There have even been laws (for example the Toubon law) enacted which require that all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions include a French translation and which require quotas of French-language songs (at least 40%) on the radio. Yet we would not say--without reservation--there is no freedom of speech in France.

Rather, different societies place different restrictions of the exercise of free speech. So yes, books were burned (they didn't have land-fills in those days) to protect people from being mislead by them. Even some Bibles were burned! Why? Some anti-Catholic propagandists will tell you it's because they didn't want the common person to be able to read the Bible for themselves or they were inherently opposed to vernacular translations. A brief perusal of the heretical notes in the Geneva Bible, for example, tell the true tale. Early Reformers actually added their own philosophy right in the text of the scriptures--much like the modern Protestant "Study Bibles"--and this simply could not be tolerated. For a great little history of the Church and the Bible see Where we Got The Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church written, I think, when the author was still a Calvinist.

III. Preservation of Classical Culture
There's a good brief (and a bit breezy) summary in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. The book is somewhat controversial, since--as I've pointed out in a few previous quotes--moderns hate to give any credit to the Catholic Church. Keep in mind it is a popular history, but the basic narrative is accurate and there are many more in-depth books I can recommend if you want to follow it up. Cahill is not my kind of Catholic, and I have my own disagreements, but the book is still the best overview of the topic.


Blogger oxi_b said...

thank you for addressing these questions.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006 9:22:00 AM  

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