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The Inquisition by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (Viking £16.99)

The Inquisition by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (Viking £16.99)

A s history consists of what you can remember, any mention of the Spanish Inquisition these days tends to bring to mind an image of Michael Palin armed with a cushion. However, Baigent and Leigh are authors who, separately and together, have spent considerable time exploring religious history's more lurid connections through the device of the historical detective story - their bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail tracked a somewhat Pythonish path through cryptically coded parchments, secret societies, the Knights Templar, the Cathar heretics, and a dynasty of obscure French kings. But the romantic connection of European royal bloodlines, freemasons and the search for the holy grail worked only if you were prepared to swallow numerous suppositions as hard facts. Ultimately, too many of the authors' previous books have been aimed at those who need to believe in global conspiracies. Their fascination with the Templars and the Freemasons mines a seam of quasi-historical investigation that remains highly popular with readers seeking an overall gameplan to religious history.

With The Inquisition, however, they are on surer ground. Here we have seven centuries of religious indignation, commencing with the monk Dominic de Guzman's outrage at the Cathar heresy in southern France (which prioritised direct divine experience over church ritual) and reaching a peak in 15th-century Spain with Torquemada conducting the kind of purges we now associate with Stalin. (Although Spain is most commonly associated with the Inquisition, Spanish involvement began relatively late in the movement's history.) The Inquisition was less about point-scoring against individuals (although there was plenty of that) than a spectacularly hypocritical attempt to control entire populations.

As missionaries set out to convert the New World, so inquisitors quickly followed in their footsteps. It seems unfair that torture should follow conversion so hastily, but it was considered necessary to punish heresy in order to purify the Catholic faith.

Yet there was an ecclesiastical queasiness about torture, specifically the visible flowing of blood, which resulted in all manner of bizarre sophistry; racks and thumbscrews were preferred over pointed blades, and red-hot metal had the advantage of cauterising wounds. Inquisitors found ways around the papal bulls that limited their powers. Although they were forbidden from conducting more than half an hour of torture on a single victim, they arranged sessions in sets to cover various confession points on their charge-sheets. Death sentences were used as a last resort because of the concern for "saving" souls - although a warning watch was kept for would-be martyrs - and it was considered that a convert who would betray his friends was more useful than a roasted corpse.

The severest penalties inflicted were reserved mostly for Jews, forcing many families to renounce their faith. Inquisitors were required to produce, or at least manufacture, evidence for each case they sought to prosecute. Spain depended on Jewish financial support, but finally anti-Semitic feeling was brought to such a head that the remaining unconverted families were expelled. Spain, it was said, banished sensuality with the Moors and intelligence with the Jews. Protestants, Franciscans, mystics and finally "witches" made natural victims, with the text of the Malleus Maleficarum or "Hammer of Witches" providing a ludicrous guide for would-be torturers. Filled with proto-Freudian phobias, it highlighted classic male fears of women, cleanliness and sex, reserving most of its worst cruelties for innocent females. The Inquisitors were thorough bookkeepers, and kept macabre details of the amounts they spent on wood for pyres and tethering-ropes for convicts. Their trials were recorded with the kind of painstaking attention to detail one associates with present-day police-state interrogations, but because the agents of the Church were dealing with conceptual abstractions, information could be twisted into any desirable pattern. And so the witch trials swept across Europe, with their trick questions and endlessly crafty proofs of guilt, their flesh-tearing pincers, their racks, wheels and mass burnings.

Torquemada, a central focus to the Inquisition, is disappointingly covered here, and remains an enigma. He was, it seems, an austere, pitiless fanatic, a strict vegetarian who dressed plainly and hoarded immense wealth, but no further detail is provided, and this leaves a damaging hole in the narrative. Panicked by the random barbarism of the Inquisitors, the population experienced a form of collective madness. Thousands of lives were taken. Hysteria was born of ignorance, and nations were in turn kept ignorant by clerics who wielded power by exercising a monopoly on learning. This is the authors' abiding image of the Catholic church as an oppressive tyranny continuing to spread its harm through the centuries, later reformed as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now at the end of the century facing a war with the forces of rational science and psychology. The book suffers from a shortage of original material, with much information rehashed from late works, and illustrations which are over-familiar to anyone with more than a glancing interest in the subject. The strengths of recent user-friendly history books that have followed in the wake of Dava Sobel's Longitude lie in their concentration of purpose, but Baigent and Leigh use the subject of witch-hunts to roam across some extremely well-thumbed topics. When the Freemasons appear in the narrative to pose fresh threats to the Church, the authors can't resist returning to their old stamping ground, and soon we are off into the controversy of the Dead Sea Scrolls and present-day examples of fundamentalist Catholicism, climaxing with a demand for the Church to acknowledge links with its sadistic past. It's a pity, because although the book works well as a primer and there's much for the casual browser to discover, a lot of the material is obvious and opinionated, displaying the authors' past tendencies to generalise. A little more concentration on the movement's origins and practices - not to mention the exploits of its most legendary miscreant - would have yielded the kind of fascinating material that appears only in early chapters here. It would have been interesting to read about the Spanish Inquisition that no one expects.