Was the Spanish Inquisition ever a thing?

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
11 November, 2022

As Monty Python reminded us, you never expect the Spanish Inquisition. So its appearance in a New Zealand Initiative Insights column might well seem a little unsettling.

When it comes to reports of a free speech crisis in English-speaking countries today, though, the Spanish Inquisition can help reassure us that talk of ‘cancel culture’ is all smoke and no fire.

The Spanish Inquisition, you see, has generated a lot of hot air. One historian has referred to Medieval Europe as “a persecuting society.” But how many people were actually persecuted?

Sure, some heretics got burned at the stake. But how many such episodes were there? As Jacob Mchangama reveals in his recent history of free speech, there were probably not more than three thousand – not many when you think of all the people who weren’t roasted alive.

And sure, up to two millions Muslim books may have gone up in flame in Granada in 1499. But again, we need to think of all the Christian books that got away scorch-free.

In 1277 the University of Paris did issue a list of 219 ideas that couldn’t be discussed or even listened to. As modern fans of ‘deplatforming’ have pointed out, though, banning discussions within universities doesn’t mean they can’t be held outside of them.

The main thing that so-called ‘cancel culture’ and the Medieval Inquisition have in common is the pitifully small number of people affected. We hear of two inquisitors, for example, who managed to question a mere 5 471 people – in 201 days of work!

You might worry, of course, that these kinds of investigations could have a broader chilling effect on speech, even in times like ours, where firings are mercifully metaphorical.

Thankfully, the sceptics of modern cancel-culture are on hand to remind us that most people throughout history have reacted to reports of peers being censored, questioned, or investigated by just shrugging their shoulders and carrying on saying whatever they want.

That’s what makes it so useful to think about the Spanish Inquisition today (even if you still never quite expect it).

According to the historian Juan de Mariana, some Spaniards described being ‘deprived of the liberty to listen and talk freely’ during the Inquisition as ‘the most wretched slavery and equal to death.’

Just like anyone who complains about the wider effects of censorship today, they were obviously a bunch of snowflakes.

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