Over the course of a lifetime we come to “know” many things that we haven’t personally studied, about history, science, art, and a plethora of subjects. At best, however, our knowledge is usually informed by the most popular (and hopefully most accurate?) view of the subject at the time that we happened to study or encounter it. It’s rare that we have the time to go back and revisit the latest research on subjects that don’t affect our daily lives. This can lead to jarring disconnects, however, when we are finally confronted with more accurate information, where our implicit understanding that we’ve held for years (or decades) is challenged, and it feels like our world has had its axis shifted.
I hope that my discontent with Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision wasn’t simply that knee-jerk reactionary response. Kamen generally makes the case that the Inquisition had less of an impact on Spanish history than is popularly believed, because the Inquisition itself was less powerful and bloodthirsty than has generally been portrayed (and that its various iterations over nearly 400 years were meaningfully distinct from each other). I can’t argue with his research: the point that other parts of Europe executed similar proportions of their population (or more) on charges of heresy and witchcraft during the same period is an important benchmark/gut check for the impression we (at least in the English-speaking world) have inherited of grotesque horrors (perhaps due to the “Pit and the Pendulum”? Perhaps even earlier?). At the same time, I think Kamen is too quick to dismiss the impact of fear on a culture, and of the power of claimed continuity. It takes a particularly thick skin to expect that a Protestant living under the threat of execution in the 1560s would a) know and b) find comforting that the Inquisition’s focus had shifted and it wasn’t really “the same Inquisition” as had expelled the conversos seventy years prior. Most groups change (certainly their members do) over time, but the sense of continuity is part of what gives them power and identity beyond simply being collections of individuals. I also don’t find myself particularly moved that “it was a violent time, lots of other courts killed people too.” Yes, it’s important to ground our perceptions of the relative risks in facts, but it felt to me like Kamen got carried away in his contrarian revision thesis here, arguing that because the Inquisition wasn’t the very bloodiest of courts over the period of its existence, therefore it wasn’t that important or fearsome. This reminds me of arguments that say that poor people in the U.S. don’t have hard lives because they’re better off than the average person in Somalia; it may be true, but we don’t live our lives in comparison to other countries or macro-geographies, we live them locally (in time and space), and if the Inquisition felt like a meaningful threat to residents’ security of body or property, that’s what counts. My own main takeaway is that it takes surprisingly little actual violence to create an impression of fear/brutality that lasts through generations (especially with a little help from English based anti-Spanish propaganda).
In every era, however, it’s important to recognize that our understandings may be disproven. The Unmaking of the Medieval Christian Cosmos begins by outlining the Aristotelian cosmology that prevailed in Medieval Europe. This view of the universe included solid spheres for each of the heavens, was finite, bounded by a solid “Empyrean” and geocentric. I’m fascinated by the creative thought that went into rationalizing/assessing the nature of cosmic elements in each of these models, e.g., if “the Blessed” reside in the Empyrean and it is solid, what are the implications for their sensory abilities?” We often think of scientific discoveries as simple observations, but many have wide-ranging implications (both philosophical and practical), and the work of interpreting and inferring the right consequences from a new discovery is often as important as the initial discovery itself (in my opinion). There’s a somewhat anti-religious narrative that I’ve often heard that posits that “stupid medieval people were so beholden to the Bible that they didn’t realize that the earth goes around the sun.” This feels grossly unfair. The Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe were observationally based as well (not simply theologically derived), and Copernicus himself was no heretic; he studied canon law, and Pope Clement VII was reportedly pleased to learn of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system. Insights are also non-linear; Tycho Brahe’s system (developed decades after the Copernican) had the planets orbiting the Sun, but the Sun orbiting the Earth to fit his philosophical model. At one level, he wasn’t wrong, either. There is no one fixed point in the universe, so it’s as accurate to say that the sun moves relative to the earth as the other way around (though that also implies acceptance of the view that when I drop my coffee cup the whole universe shifts “up” to meet it rather than it falling to the ground; mathematically equivalent, but it makes everything else messier). Lastly, the Newtonian model of the solar system, (which posits that the center of the solar system is its center of mass, not, strictly speaking the sun) emerged in 1713. This is also a point worth noting: what took me a few sentences to describe as a simple, fairly logical evolution of thinking took 170 years from Copernicus to Newton, and that’s just publication, to say nothing of widespread acceptance. This whole timespan was less than that of the Spanish Inquisition, which had been under way for ~50 years prior to Copernicus and would continue for 100+ after Newton. Though the two are not directly related, there is perhaps something poetic in recognizing that the fight to preserve an established institution pre-dated and continued beyond some truly cosmic shifts in thought. The pace of change of ideas may be faster now than it was then, but lifetimes pass in which we “know” and accept a new theory, only for them to be not only disproven, but for our whole view of the universe to be shifted. To me, this all argues for a combination of humility and skepticism in our thought and research. The skepticism to question even the most fixed beliefs (to quote Hamlet out of context, “Doubt that the Sun doth move”), and the humility to recognize that we’re not the end of the story either. Our foundational elements will doubtless be overturned in time as well.
P.S. I love learning new words, and “hexaemeron” is a keeper, meaning “the six days of creation.” I’m not sure when I’ll use it in common conversation, but I’ll try to find a time.