Inquisition Meant Repression for Portugal, Brazil, Scholars Say (second of Three Parts)
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Inquisition Meant Repression for Portugal, Brazil, Scholars Say (second of Three Parts)

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Most people have heard of the Spanish Inquisition, but the Portuguese Inquisition is relatively unknown. An important aspect of the First International Congress on the Inquisition, held here in May and in Lisbon in February, was bringing to light the impact of the Inquisition on Portugal and its colony, Brazil.

Professor Angel Alcala of Brooklyn College (City University of New York) presented a paper on intellectual repression, comparing and contrasting the Spanish and the Portuguese Inquisitions, showing their interrelation and probable interdependence.

Except for the years 1536-1550, the kings of Spain entrusted prior censorship of books not to the Inquisition but to a Royal Council, he said. The Inquisition, however, retained the right to prohibit books approved by the Royal Council, a policy it continued until 1834, in Portugal, however, the Inquisition always was entrusted with prior censorship until 1768.

“Spain was always independent from the Roman (Catholic) Inquisition, in both juridical matters and in intellectual repression,” he said. “But Portugal reissued Portuguese printings of Roman Indexes, and Portugal’s King Dom Sebastiao in 1576 added censorship by a local bishop and by a palace official. In addition, Spain never contemplated ritual burning of heretical books, while Portugal mandated this in 1579, to take place at the end of the autos de fe there. Portugal gave a tremendous emphasis to “lascivious things,” dealing with literature puritanically and hypocritically.”

Portugal was also more intolerant than Spain with regard to jokes and satire about religious personalities. In addition, Portugal carried “to the extreme” the Council of Trent’s prohibition against translation of the Bible into the vernacular, Alcala said. No literary works or theater that included biblical passages or scenes could be translated into Portuguese.


“It was without saying that both Inquisitions practiced a careful policing of all channels of the dissemination of culture,” Alcala continued. “In Spain, however, writers were accused because of their work. In Portugal, writers were tried and sometimes burnt not because of their writings but because of their secret Jewish religious practices. Although it was true that no writer was exterminated because of his intellectual ideas, the general situation of cultural repression created a general ‘fear of ideas’ and ‘fear of books’. People were even afraid to let anyone know they could read, since being able to read and write could make one a suspect for having ‘foreign’ ideas.

Alcala added that in order to build a comprehensive cultural comparison, more research would be necessary. “But what we know up to now seems to confirm that the Inquisition was the most important factor of social control in both Spain and portugal, in all aspects of their collective life — religious, political, cultural, literary and social,” he said. “The Inquisition is more important because it contributed to this historical retardation, still or until recently being felt in some areas, than because it started by persecuting Judeo-converts.”

There was much informal discussion among congress participants as to whether the conference too heavily emphasized the Jewish, or New Christian, aspect of the Inquisition. While many papers dealt with the Jewish question, others covered such subjects as persecution of witches, the relation of the economy to the Inquisition, literature, individual cases, the Inquisition in Latin America and human rights.


Professor Henry Kamen of University of Warwick, London, whose book “Inquisition and Society in Spain” (University of Indiana, 1985) is considered definitive by many Inquisition scholars, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the concentration of the conference on the Jewish aspect was misleading. He said the persecution of New Christians was a major component of the Inquisition in Spain until 1500 and in Portugal and Brazil until 1580. Afterward, the Jewish issue was “minimal in the totality of the Inquisition,” he said. Like Alcala, he cited censorship as more critical and pervasive.

The Congress also was relevant to the study of repression in modern times. Because Brazil lived under military dictatorship from 1964-85, participants here were especially aware that the questions of power and control are contemporary. Professor Bartolome Bennassar of the University of Toulouse, France, said:

“Through these seminars, we are trying to show the totalitarian spirit is present in all times. This congress is an alert against the damages and injustices that any system with principles similar to those of the Inquisition may bring.”

The theme of the Inquisition indeed seems current, because it deals with the oppression of the human being, political instrumentalization of religion and the relationship between state power and individual freedom. In the 20th century, we have witnessed ideological, political and religious repression and persecution, of which the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to the Jewish question is perhaps the most obvious example. The main difference between the three centuries of the Inquisition and oppression in our time is that today’s technology is capable of making torture and genocide more efficient.

(NEXT: Modern Manifestations of the Inquisition.)

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