The Medieval Review 10.11.05

Bethencourt, Francisco. The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834. Past and Present Publications. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 491. $110 ISBN 978-0-521-84793-3. $39.99 978-0-521-74823-0.

Reviewed by:

Gretchen Starr-LeBeau
University of Kentucky

In 1995, Francisco Bethencourt published his masterful comparative study of early modern European inquisitorial courts, L'Inquisition à L'Époque moderne. Espagne, Portugal, Italie, in Paris. Translations appeared shortly thereafter in Bethencourt's native Portuguese (1996) and Spanish (1997). Bethencourt's work quickly became an essential resource for its ambitious geographically comparative and chronologically broad scope, bringing together first- hand knowledge of the documentation of the various inquisitorial courts in Spain, Portugal, (and to an extent their overseas colonies), as well as the various inquisitorial courts in the realms of early modern Italy. Yet his work has been less accessible to English- language audiences until 2009, when this long-desired translation into English appeared. Finally, Anglophone audiences can take advantage of this excellent translation, which maintains the strengths of the original while adding new material not available in the original French.

The Inquisition: A Global History, as ably translated by Jean Birrell, combines a broad scope with an impressive level of precision and specificity of detail. One can learn details about the establishment of the courts, for example, and broadly comparative material within the span of a few pages. Bethencourt's comparative approach is particularly useful as it encourages readers familiar with one of these courts to examine that court with new eyes, and reconsider what is significant about all these courts as a result. At almost 450 pages of prose (not including bibliography) it is a substantial volume, but one that can be read in its entirety or dipped into for specific information.

After a useful introduction, the first chapter discusses the foundation of the various tribunals. The second chapter analyzes the organization of the tribunals, including regulation and their bureaucratic structures. The third chapter presents an innovative analysis of inquisitorial self-presentation, including emblems and etiquette. Chapter Four discusses appointments to the tribunals. The fifth chapter provides a close reading of the edicts published by the inquisitorial courts. Chapter Six analyzes inquisitorial edicts, and Chapter Seven provides a lengthy and detailed study of the auto-de- fe. Chapter Eight explores the status of the inquisitorial courts, while Chapter Nine examines representations of the Holy Office outside the courts and outside those kingdoms where it was active. The last chapter provides a comparative account of the abolition of the various inquisitorial courts.

The Inquisition: A Global History has four main strengths. First is the impressive archival work that Bethencourt engaged in for this book. Very few scholars have looked closely at archival documents from more than one or two inquisitorial courts. Bethencourt, by contrast, visited more than a dozen libraries and archives in researching this work. Not surprisingly, he has most thoroughly examined the sources available in Lisbon; but he is successful in his stated goal of engaging in truly comparative work, rather than leaning on his knowledge of one court and leavening that knowledge with a few examples from elsewhere. The solid archival foundation and thoroughgoing comparative nature of this work is highly important, allowing scholars to understand better the distinctive qualities of each court, as well as what united them. His chronological range is equally significant; the courts operated differently in different eras, yet the temptation to imagine that procedures at one time prevailed throughout is as great as the difficulty of moving beyond national boundaries in understanding how the courts operated. The challenges in even launching such a project are significant. The linguistic and paleographical demands of the project, even before crafting a compelling and persuasive argument, partly explain why so few scholars have attempted such work. Bethencourt's Inquisition stands as a success all the more impressive for the structural challenges he faced in carrying it out.

Secondly, Bethencourt's methodological approach and use of this material is also innovative. Rather than attempt a synthetic narrative of the various tribunals, Bethencourt takes a thematic approach, focusing particularly on some aspects of these courts that are still little understood. For example, he turns his attention to how inquisitors chose to represent their authority through elements such as the rites and ceremonies they employed at various events such as investiture of their authority. He also engages in a detailed study of the symbols and pictorial representations of inquisitorial authority, a topic that had previously received surprisingly little attention. This analysis of inquisitorial ritual and representation, influenced by scholars such as Bourdieu (among many others), is a shift in focus from so many inquisitorial studies, which still often focus on the victims or, more recently, the inquisitors. Concomitant with this is Bethencourt's decision to focus his archival work, not on the trials themselves, but on other forms of (less studied) documentation, including procedural materials, correspondence, regulations, visits, and administrative records.

The third main strength of The Inquisition: A Global History is Bethencourt's detailed analysis of the auto-de-fe, the concluding ritual of inquisitorial trials in which (in Iberian jurisdictions, including Spain's inquisition courts in Sicily) the sentences of those found guilty were read aloud, and the guilty penanced and reconciled or executed. Bethencourt systematically read through accounts of autos-de-fe, sermons preached at these occasions, and literary representations of the autos-de-fe in an attempt to understand the ritual practices associated with autos-de-fe and how they changed over time. Bethencourt provides a close reading of the ritual elements--symbols, processions, abjuration, etc.--that came together in the auto. Bethencourt interprets the auto-de-fe as a rite of passage as defined by Van Gennep, and includes in that the "afterlife" of the auto-de- fe, that is, the continued memory of the auto and consequent penance and re-education of penitents through elements like the penitential garments, or sanbenitos, hung up in churches as a reminder of an individual's censure. Yet Bethencourt goes father than this, and the most interesting aspect of this chapter is Bethencourt's discussion of debates over establishing and organizing the ceremony, and particularly the various perceptions and reception of the ceremony among participants and those in attendance. Finally, a discussion of the presentation of heretics by the Roman Inquisition, and a comparison and contrast with the Iberian autos-de-fe, is most illuminating.

The fourth element of note in this book is new to the English translation as compared to the original French, namely, the extended introduction. More than an introduction to the book, it includes a historiographical essay exploring the long trajectory of historical writing about early modern inquisitorial courts, from the seventeenth century to main trends in contemporary historical writing. This introduction is an enormously useful orientation to the field, and makes an interesting bookend with Chapter 9, "Representations," that examines external representations of inquisitorial courts--in art, prose, and in dictionary definitions of the word "inquisition" itself- -and how those representations shifted over time.

The book does suffer from some limitations: its essayistic format is not a best first introduction to the topic; that remains Edward Peters's Inquisition (Free Press: New York, 1988). There is less about legal questions or the American tribunals than one might want, and those looking for narrative or procedural information will need supplements from elsewhere. But the scope and the effect of this work are truly profound, and Inquisition studies are the better for it.