George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Book details inner workings of Spanish Inquisition

Mon, 04/07/2014

LAWRENCE — When someone in 1578 hung a doll-like effigy from the door of the church in the Mexican town of Tecamachalco, inquisitors spent four years trying to uncover who was responsible for misusing one of its symbols.

It carried dire consequences in the colony as inquisitors conducted nine trials, interrogated dozens of witnesses and even utilized torture seeking to find the perpetrators as part of the Spanish Inquisition. A University of Kansas researcher who uncovered detailed notes from the little-known 436-year-old case says it provides an important look into a world without freedom of religion and other staples of a democratic society.

“The Inquisition and the laws that supported it stand as the model against which the United States developed its laws and its principles,” said Luis Corteguera, a KU professor of history whose book “Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition” covers the scandal in Tecamachalco.

Corteguera said the book looks at how the Inquisition affected ordinary people – describing it as a cross between a soap opera and a detective story — in a small town. He said most historical documentation of the Inquisition instead focuses on those in positions of power. A bulk of the materials for the case is housed at The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.

The Tecamachalco case illustrates the lengths to which inquisitors went to protect symbols and use of the Holy Office’s name, as opposed to lying, forgery, defamation, rape, theft and physical aggression that did not tend to concern them as much. The hanging of the effigy was a small crime, but he found about 380 pages of documentation devoted to the case while most cases of sacrilege are typically covered in five to 20 pages.

“It showed an institution that saw the defense of its symbols as so important that it would spend four years on a petty case, and then it punished them really severely with exile, up to two hundred lashes, and ten years rowing in the royal galleys,” Corteguera said.

Themes of the case and the Inquisition are still relevant today in discussions about the limits of power on institutions or human rights, he said. And he argues the U.S. Constitution aims to protect certain rights to prevent the kind of judicial system that led to  the Inquisition, which provided the opposite of freedom of religion and presumptive of innocence in judicial proceedings, for example, both of which are covered in the Bill of Rights.

“The history of the Inquisition gives us a perspective into what we think the United States should be,” Corteguera said. “We want this country to be the polar opposite of the Inquisition, of its ideas and its ways of doing business, such as the use of secrecy and torture.”

There are three scenes in the book in which inquisitors use torture – a topic still relevant today as U.S. officials in the past 10 years have struggled with policies to govern investigating terrorism suspects. Other controversies, such as allegations of ethnic cleansing in other countries or the current debate on surveillance and privacy in the digital age in wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks last year, also have themes connected to the Inquisition.

“All of those kinds of things always bring back the fear of the Inquisition because it always sort of stands as the antithesis of what we want this country to be,” Corteguera said.

The University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Death by Effigy,” which won the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies Book Publication Award in 2012, as a paperback edition later this year.

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