Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world. Light obtained by burning heretics on pyres is not what he had in mind. Simon Whitechapel’s Flesh Inferno is the third (or second (or who gives a fuck)) book in Creation’s Blood History series, and deals with the Spanish Inquisition. Where did it come from? What lessons should we learn from it?

Abolished in 1834, the Inquisition lives on as a symbol of unchecked power and religious tyranny. It’s a universal grindstone that sharpens any ax: religious vs secular, Catholic vs Protestant, Catholic vs Jew, authoritarian vs libertarian.

Whitechapel writes from a secular background (the first sentence contains the words “I despise the Catholic church”), and doesn’t try to be fair, because the facts (as he sees them) are prima facie unfair. The Inquisition was extremely bad, and an inevitable consequence of a worldview that denies the value of doubt. Torquemada burnt and rent flesh because he knew it was right to do so. He never questioned his own deeds: he already knew the answer.

“Am I going too far?” doesn’t even decode as a sensible question to a zealot. He was carrying out God’s will. Can you breathe too much air? Live too much life? Although nonreligious authorities can (and have) been equally brutal, but usually it’s to accomplish a goal. Religions (and there are atheistic religions) have a unique ability to commit atrocities even when it’s impractical, lacks a payoff, and causes harm to their own adherents. As CS Lewis said:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

The book itself is confusingly marketed. The back cover reads like a horror movie (“…during his reign of terror the dungeons of Castile were drenched in blood and it’s streets sooted with human ashes”),  and most people probably picked it up because they wanted gruesome descriptions of torture. But the book spends far more time on psychology, linguistic analysis of words and Biblical exegesis. If anything, Flesh Inferno falls between two stools (or pews): too short and polemical for an academic resource, too dry to entertain the Hardcore History crowd.

But maybe history itself is drier than commonly supposed. Although the cover blurb states that “nearly some 9,000 perished in [autos-da-fe] – and nearly 100,000 in the dungeons – during Torquemada’s reign alone” the actual book states that Torquemada was probably responsible for only around 2,000 direct executions. Is that a lot? Perhaps. It’s also the number of homicides reported in the United States of America every two weeks during the crack epidemic. Museums often feature elaborate and diabolical medieval torture equipment, but most of these are artifacts from the Victorian period. If you were tortured by the Inquisition, it would probably be with something cheap and easy to hand. A rope. A whip. Hunger and thirst. Your own body. Bad but boring.

Whitechapel is good at connecting different ideas from apparently unrelated fields. The reciting of Psalms during torture is contrasted with Pavlovian conditioning. The smell of roasting human flesh (evocative of pork) is suggested as a possible inspiration for a Spanish anti-Semitic slur “marrano” (filthy pig). I didn’t like the editorial decision to have every translated passage matched with its untranslated Spanish, regardless of length or relevance. On page 75 there’s a block of uninterrupted Spanish that spans across four straight pages. There’s simply no need for this, and it comes across as a strategy to push the book’s page count as high as possible.

Comparisons between the Inquisition and Nazism are inevitable and obvious, but Whitechapel gets something out of it: the similarities between the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) and the Nazi concept of Blutschande (“blood defilement”). This is something I’ve always wondered – why has Christianity, a faith with overt universalist literature (Romans 5:1, among many others) so often associated with ethnic concerns of blood? Is this a universal impulse that finds its way into all human affairs? Or is there something in the religion itself that enables this thinking?

No clear answer is forthcoming. History is an Ouija board, and when you imagine the past, you are also (at least in part, sometimes in whole) imagining the present. Facts are facts, but our interpretation of them changes with the weather. Joan of Arc was a nationalist figure until that went out of fashion, an ecclesiastical figure until that went out of fashion, and now exists as a cross between a Disney princess and a “grrl power” feminist icon. Christopher Columbus has been an explorer, a pioneer, a symbol of Italian pride, and is now a disreputable villain. Soon he’ll be alchemized into something else. Time’s crucible spares nobody except the obscure and forgotten, and when we are dead our descendants will imagine inaccurate things about us.

In particular, there’s often a bias to depict the past as more violent, lurid, and gruesome than it actually was. Maybe this is to exculpate our current society – a failing civilisation can appear successful by rewriting history to be worse. Or maybe it comes from a need to create interesting stories. Romantic 19th century woodcuts of the Barbary wars depict dramatic swordfights on crowded decks, gunsmoke swirling around scimitars and turbans. The actual diaries of the soldiers involved in these battles recall lots of boredom and pipe smoking, with occasional pauses to fire a cannon. The past doesn’t complain when we revise it. Nobody’s ever been sued for libel by a historical figure. But one can’t escape the impression that historians are like those Jewish POWs who swallowed the family jewelry so it wouldn’t be discovered. Yeah, there’s a pearl in there somewhere. Are you ready to go searching through shit to find it?

The book is out of print now, and used copies might be hard to find. If you’re looking for a history book, there are surely better options available, but Flesh Inferno asks a number of interesting questions about the past, and finds an angle that probably would have been impossible within the confines of straight history. It’s difficult to study a pile of ashes and discern the causes and reasons, but it’s a worthy task, and perhaps a necessary one. Someday, fires might burn again.

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