In This Review

The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision
The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision
By Henry Kamen
Yale University Press, 1998, 369 pp

In this troubling but ultimately unsatisfactory work, which follows quickly on the heels of his well-received Philip of Spain, the prolific Kamen has written a provocative revisionist account of the Spanish Inquisition, drawing both on his well-known youthful research on this subject and 30 years of scholarly reconsideration. Much of the image of the notorious tribunal, Kamen claims, originates in anti-Spanish Protestant propaganda, and a "comparison with the cruelty and mutilation common in secular tribunals shows the inquisition in a relatively favorable light. This in conjunction with the usually good level of prison conditions, makes it clear that the tribunal had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy." Kamen also reassesses the consequences of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, whose numbers he believes have been greatly exaggerated by other historians (he puts the number at 80,000, compared to 300,000 or 400,000), and he finds scant evidence for the alleged Jewishness of conversos -- persons converted from the Jewish or Muslim faith and their descendants -- who were the Inquisition's principal victims. While it is certainly true that the Inquisition plays a larger-than-life role in traditional anti-Spanish propaganda, and that many prejudices about Spain have been subsumed in a facile attribution of Spain's decline to the Inquisition's ferocious defense of religious orthodoxy, he takes relativism and apology too far. Historians are divided over how the conversos should be religiously defined, but it seems almost obscene for a historian centuries later to claim glibly that those Spanish victims of the Inquisition condemned for being Jews, and who in the face of dispossession and torture, and even as flames consumed their bodies, still chose to profess their faith, were in the end not Jews at all because their everyday practice was imperfect and they were "unrecognizable as Jews." Whatever else could a converso have done in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the Inquisition encouraging denunciation of those who "keep the Sabbath according to the Law of Moses"?