Friday, June 18, 2004

The "Inquisition" Revisited

Thomas Madden has an informative piece regarding the Inquisition.

In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, Pope John Paul II wanted to find out just what happened during the time of the Inquisition's (the institution's) existence. In 1998 the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. Now at last the scholars have made their report, an 800-page tome that was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on Tuesday. Its most startling conclusion is that the Inquisition was not so bad after all. Torture was rare and only about 1 percent of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition were actually executed. As one headline read "Vatican Downsizes Inquisition."

Madden describes how "[t]he amazed gasps and cynical sneers that have greeted this report are just further evidence of the lamentable gulf that exists between professional historians and the general public." He is correct on this last point. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, "historical revisionism" has become equated with "politically correct" view of history and is viewed negatively. The fact is, it usually takes the general public a generation or sometimes two, to catch up with the latest historical findings.

The origins of the American Revolution, a much debated topic to this day, is still taught as either a social movement or a rebellion led by and kept alive by heroic figures like George Washington or John Paul Jones. While certain aspects of this are true, these historical "schools of thought" have, generally speaking, been around since the 19th and early 20th century, respectively. More recent scholarship has argued about the conservative nature of the Revolution, the ideological origins, the influence of Enlightenment thought and a host of other interpretations. The scholarship of the last 50 years is still basically ignored, not because it is invalid, but, possibly, because it may be too nuanced to teach. Regardless, we are reticent to "relearn" what we thought was historical "truth" as we don't realize that historians had their own agendas when writing of events. Bias isn't something new, we are just more aware of it. This applies to the field of history, too. Hence, revision in history is critically important as it helps us get closer to the real truth.

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