Did a Catholic Entity Make This Film? Not at All. The *BBC* Did - in 1994.
*The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition*
Incredible but true: the BBC made this special feature film debunking the Black Legend/la leyenda negra, focusing on the reputed vileness of the Spanish Inquisition.
The BBC!! Not an entity known to be a friend to the Catholic Church, as far as I can tell.
And it’s not “whataboutism” to aver that the Spanish Inquisition’s number of total victims was very low compared to those of other methods of capital punishment widely practiced in Europe then; it’s merely placing things in the context of their times. Decapitation was a common means of execution. Hanging, drawing and quartering were officially sanctioned means of torture and killing. Life was truly “nasty, brutish and short.”
I’d even read somewhere years ago (perhaps in Henry Kamen’s book, The Spanish Inquisition: an Historical Revision) that some miscreants would also deliberately commit a “crime” that would merit going before an Inquisitional court instead of a civil one. Why? Because people knew that they would suffer much less harsh penalties at the hands of the former than those of the latter.
This article makes a similar point, and then some:
The Spanish Inquisition Was a Moderate Court by the Standard of Its Time
(goes into good detail explaining all the steps entailed by an “inquisition” — well worth a read).
Three forms of torture were used by the Inquisition: the strapado (hanging by the wrists), toca (waterboarding, essentially), and porto (also known as the wrack). Bad as these all unanswerably are, they are mild compared to what awaited a defendant in England, where you could be crushed to death, as Margaret Clitherow was [see below for more about her - TL], unless you halted the torture by entering a plea. It is also impossible to avoid the observation that the methods of the Inquisition would be remarkably familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase “enhanced interrogation.”
But unlike civil jurisdictions, and indeed some modern practices, the Inquisition permitted no risk “to life or limb,” meaning “death or permanent injury.” A physician was on hand to ensure that the procedure was halted if he feared lasting damage might be inflicted. Also unlike other courts, in almost all cases the Inquisition authorized torture to last no longer than two 15-minute sessions, with a day between each, for the prisoner to recover — definitely not a standard more recent practitioners have imposed on themselves.
Moreover, confessions made under torture were inadmissible as evidence. To be of any use, they had to be repeated freely when any threat of further coercion had been removed. You might reasonably ask why bother having torture at all if you cannot use any confession you extract, but this was part of the point: Torture was ubiquitous in courts of the time, and the Inquisition’s use of it, while objectively horrific, was downright progressive when seen in context. The limitations imposed on its use were a means of removing it as a practice. It was a serious leap forward in the legal evolution of Europe, which not so long before had still practiced trial by ordeal.
[ … ]
LEARN ABOUT the alleged crimes of which Margaret Clitherow (cited above) was accused of, and her consequent “trial” and execution by “peine forte et dure” in Elizabethan England. Even just reading about it is not for the faint-hearted.
MAR 26 – ST MARGARET CLITHEROW, (1556-1586), WIFE, MOTHER, MARTYR, “PEARL OF YORK”
I’m wondering why no film has yet been made about her life and martyrdom. I think her remarkable story can rival that of the way more famous Tudor Catholic martyr and saint, Sir Thomas More.
While such official practices rightly incur revulsion in most of us today, modern citizens of decency easily err by applying 20th to 21st century standards to legal actions and events that took place many centuries ago.
(We’re not even talking about certain unspeakable abuses that continue in named and unnamed locales and institutions today. Are we all more truly enlightened than the Inquisitors of yore, considering these ghastly sins being committed away from public view?
And yet, to learn about a monarch unusually enlightened for her time, one could do worse than read about another remarkable Catholic woman, Queen Isabel of Spain.)
The 2 articles below, posted below the linked video, present a summary of the documentary film’s contents.
A Spanish version of the feature can be found at the bottom of this page.
’The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition’
(runs under an hour)
The FIRST article below is a good description of this documentary film. Yet, it has strangely been erased from the current website’s posts, but can still be found as an archived page on the Wayback Machine.
The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition
The 1994 BBC/A&E production, "The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition" exposes the common understanding that the Inquisition was a vast pogrom of non Catholics as largely the creation of Protestant propaganda.
In its brief sixty-minute presentation, "The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition" provides only an overview of the origins and debunking of the myths of torture and genocide. The documentary definitely succeeds in leaving the viewer hungry to know more. The long-held beliefs of the audience are sufficiently weakened by the testimony of experts and the expose of the making of the myth.
The Inquisition began in 1480. Spain was beginning a historic reunification of Aragon and Castile. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile created a unified Hispania not seen since Roman times. Afraid that laws commanding the exile or conversion of Jews were thwarted by conversos, i.e. synagogue-going "Catholics," Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned an investigation or Inquisition. They began the Inquisition hoping that religious unity would foster political unity, and other heads of state heralded Spain's labors for the advent of a unified Christendom. The documentary clearly and boldly narrates the historical context, which intimates that the Spanish were not acting odd by their contemporary standards.
The Inquisition Myth, which Spaniards call "The Black Legend," did not arise in 1480. It began almost 100 years later, and exactly one year after the Protestant defeat at the Battle of Muhlberg at the hands of Ferdinand's grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1567 a fierce propaganda campaign began with the publication of a Protestant leaflet penned by a supposed Inquisition victim named Montanus. This character (Protestant of course) painted Spaniards as barbarians who ravished women and sodomized young boys. The propagandists soon created "hooded fiends" who tortured their victims in horrible devices like the knife-filled Iron Maiden (which never was used in Spain). The BBC/A&E special plainly states a reason for the war of words: the Protestants fought with words because they could not win on the battlefield.
The Inquisition had a secular character, although the crime was heresy. Inquisitors did not have to be clerics, but they did have to be lawyers. The investigation was rule-based and carefully kept in check. And most significantly, historians have declared fraudulent a supposed Inquisition document claiming the genocide of millions of heretics.
What is documented is that 3000 to 5000 people died during the Inquisition's 350 year history. Also documented are the "Acts of Faith," public sentencings of heretics in town squares. But the grand myth of thought control by sinister fiends has been debunked by the archival evidence. The inquisitors enjoyed a powerful position in the towns, but it was one constantly jostled by other power brokers. In the outlying areas, they were understaffed in those days it was nearly impossible for 1 or 2 inquisitors to cover the thousand-mile territory allotted to each team. In the outlying areas no one cared and no one spoke to them. As the program documents, the 3,000 to 5,000 documented executions of the Inquisition pale in comparison to the 150,000 documented witch burnings elsewhere in Europe over the same centuries.
The approach is purely historical, and therefore does not delve into ecclesial issues surrounding religious freedom. But perhaps this is proper. Because the crime was heresy, the Church is implicated, but the facts show it was a secular event.
One facet of the Black Legend that evaporates under scrutiny in this film is the rumor that Philip II, son of Charles V killed his son Don Carlos on the advisement of the aging blind Grand Inquisitor. But without a shred of evidence, the legend of Don Carlos has been enshrined in a glorious opera by Verdi.
Henry Kamen of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona said on camera that researching the Inquisition's archives "demolished the previous image all of us historians) had."
The special may be disturbing to young children. There are scenes of poor souls burning at the stake and close-ups of the alleged torture devices. Scenes depicting witches consorting with pot-bellied devils are especially grotesque. For kids, this is the stuff of nightmares.
Discrediting the Black Legend brings up the sticky subject of revisionism. Re-investigating history is only invalid if it puts an agenda ahead of reality. The experts once true believers in the Inquisition myth were not out to do a feminist canonization of Isabella or claim that Tomas de Torquemada was a Marxist. Henry Kamen of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona said on camera that researching the Inquisition's archives "demolished the previous image all of us (historians) had."
And the future of the Black Legend? For many it may continue to hold more weight than reality. There is the emotional appeal against the Church. The dissenters of today may easily imagine Torquemada's beady eyes as a metaphor of the Church's "dictatorial, controlling, damning" pronouncements. The myth is also the easiest endorsement of the secular state: "de-faith" the state and de-criminalize heresy. Who will be the revisionists in this case? Will the many follow Montanas' lead in rewriting history?
Our 20th century crisis of man playing God — usurping power over conception, life, and death — leaves us with no alternative but to qualify our demythologization of the Inquisition with a reminder: 3,000 to 5,000 victims are 3,000 to 5,000 too many.
BBC and A&E
The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition
Rice, Ellen. "The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition." Catholic Dossier 2, no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1996): 16-17.
The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition
JON SORENSEN • 8/5/2013
Many Catholics squirm at the very mention of the Spanish Inquisition, oftentimes conceding to claims that it was the most brutal time in Church history. But was it really as brutal as it is often described?
If you have never seen the BBC documentary The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, I highly recommend it. At a little over forty-five minutes, it summarizes the most recent scholarship about the “Black Legend,” how it began, and why it persists.
Here are just a few of the more interesting points covered in the documentary:
The “Black Legend” began as an anti-Spanish propaganda campaign that succeeded largely because of the invention of the printing press. The Inquisition was the prime target.
Inquisitors were not fanatical priests as they are often portrayed. In fact, many of them were not priests at all but legal experts trained in Spanish schools.
Contrary to popular belief, torture was rarely used. It was used less by the Inquisition than it was in the tribunals of other countries throughout Europe at the time.
Stories about cruel torture methods used by the Inquisitors and the terrible conditions in which prisoners were kept were completely falsified. The Inquisition actually had the best jails in Spain.
Prisoners of secular courts would actually blaspheme so that they could be transferred to Inquisition prisons and escape the maltreatment of the secular prisons.
Persecuting witchcraft was a craze in Europe at the time, and secular courts were not tolerant of these kinds of offenses. The accused were often burned at the stake. The Inquisition, on the other hand, declared witchcraft a delusion. No one could be tried for it or burned at the stake.
The Inquisition was virtually powerless in rural areas.
In the entire sixteenth century, the Inquisition in Spain executed only about 50 people, which is contrary to the “Black Legend,” which numbers the executions in the hundreds of thousands.
Of all the Inquisitions together throughout Europe, scholars estimate that the number of people executed ranged somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. That averages, at most, about fourteen people per year throughout the entire continent over a period of 350 years.
FOR THOSE WHO PREFER TO VIEW IT IN SPANISH (or know others who do), this version is introduced by a Spanish presenter, and English dubbed in Spanish:
‘La inquisición española. BBC de Londres. Documental de 1994’
You might all be “inquisitioned-out” by now!
Thank you for your interest and patience in making it this far!
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