Magazine article The Spectator

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Magazine article The Spectator

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Article excerpt


by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh

Viking, 16 99, pp. 318

It used to be said that the Devil had all the good tunes and there have been times when a Christian, reading Hume, Voltaire, Gibbon or Nietszche, felt bound to agree. They scoffed at religion with wit and style. This autumn, however, Old Nick seems to have lost his touch, for, closely following John Cornwell's unconvincing book on Pope Pius XII, Hitler's Pope, we have an another intemperate attack on orthodox Catholicism presented as a history of the Inquisition.

The authors are Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the duo who, with Henry Lincoln, wrote the highly successful farrago of historical speculation, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In this new work, The Inquisition, they follow Cornwell in explicitly linking a supposedly damning episode in the Church's past with the policy of the present Pope, John Paul II, and his 'Grand Inquisitor', Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Inquisition, they rightly point out, was a legal process established by Pope Innocent III to identify Cathar heretics in Languedoc. The law under which it operated was derived from the code of the Roman empire which had some 60 injunctions against heresy, and the use of torture and the burning of unrepentant heretics were also part of that Roman heritage. It was not the brain child of St Dominic who initially sought permission from Pope Innocent III to preach to the pagans on the Vistula but was redirected to Languedoc; nor was it simply 'the product of a brutal, insensitive and ignorant world'. The Inquisition was encouraged by a number of humane and sagacious rulers as a means of preserving order: the highly intelligent Emperor Frederick 11 of Hohenstauffen, who was almost certainly an atheist himself, authorised the burning of relapsed heretics, and the Emperor Charles V, having seen the dire results of religious differences in his Dutch domains, emphatically endorsed the work of the Inquisition in his kingdom of Spain.

Baigent and Leigh, however, show no interest in understanding the subtleties and paradoxes in the history of the Inquisition, nor do they give us the benefit of the researches of contemporary historians. Their principal source is the work of the American historian, Henry Charles Lea (there are over 40 references to his books) whose History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages was first published in 1888 and who accepted too readily Protestant propaganda from the time of the Reformation. In the same way as their book is illustrated with ancient engravings showing the atrocious torture of brave Protestants or comely witches by hooded Dominicans, so Baigent and Leigh's statistics show the wild exaggeration of an earlier age. They talk of 'the hundreds of thousands whose bodies were forcibly sacrificed for the sake of their souls', and describe how 'in Seville alone, by the beginning of November, the flames had claimed another 288 victims'. Compare this with the judgment of the foremost historian of the Spanish Inquisition, Henry Kamen, made in 1997:

It would seem that during the 16th and 17th centuries fewer than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru.

Kamen is quoted by Baigent and Leigh but clearly they prefer the dramatic statistics and the gory details to be found in Lea. …

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