The modern historiography of the Inquisition, most of it by non-Catholic historians, has resulted in a careful, relatively precise, and on the whole rather moderate image of the institution, some of the most important works being: Edward Peters, Inquisition; Paul F. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press; John Tedeschi,* The Prosecution of Heresy*; and Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition.
Some of their conclusions are:
The inquisitors tended to be professional legists and bureaucrats who adhered closely to rules and procedures rather than to whatever personal feelings they may have had on the subject.
Those rules and procedures were not in themselves unjust. They required that evidence be presented, allowed the accused to defend themselves, and discarded dubious evidence.
Thus in most cases the verdict was a “just” one in that it seemed to follow from the evidence.
A number of cases were dismissed, or the proceedings terminated at some point, when the inquisitors became convinced that the evidence was not reliable.
Torture was only used in a small minority of cases and was allowed only when there was strong evidence that the defendant was lying. In some instances (for example, Carlo Ginzburg’s study of the Italian district of Friulia) there is no evidence of the use of torture at all.
Only a small percentage of those convicted were executed - at most two to three percent in a given region. Many more were sentenced to life in prison, but this was often commuted after a few years. The most common punishment was some form of public penance.
The dreaded Spanish Inquisition in particular has been grossly exaggerated. It did not persecute millions of people, as is often claimed, but approximately 44,000 between l540 and l700, of whom less than two per cent were executed.
The celebrated case of Joan of Arc was a highly irregular inquisitorial procedure rigged by her political enemies, the English. When proper procedures were followed some years later, the Inquisition exonerated her posthumously.
Although the Inquisition did prosecute witchcraft, as did almost every secular government, the Roman inquisitors by the later sixteenth century were beginning to express serious doubts about most such accusations.
The Inquisition has long been the bete noir of practically everyone who is hostile to the Church, such as Continental European anti-clericals. But its mythology has been especially strong in the English-speaking lands, including America.
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