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Monday, August 08, 2011

The Mexican Inquisition of The Sixteenth Century


The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century
by Richard E. Greenleaf
University of New Mexico
p. 1969

   When you are talking about the present, it's appropriate to reference the past.  One of the main flaws of the discipline of history has been the habit of omitting "bad facts" as lawyers call them: Facts that are true, but lead to unpleasant conclusions about the present.  In this regard, the organized persecution of minorities is a mother-load of unpleasant facts.  We are talking about facts that are often obtained under torture, facts that led to mass-murder but facts, none the less, and often facts where no other written record exists, so therefore, useful facts despite their unpleasantness.

   The use of Inquisition trial transcripts as a legitimate source for the study of history in the US only dates till the mid 1960s- specifically, this book by Richard Greenleaf.  Although Greenleaf points to the existence of two books about New Mexico.  The idea of using Inquisition transcripts as a source for "micro-history" or as some would call it "writing about some guy from the past" was either developed or popularized by an Italian professor, Carlo Ginzburg- an Italian who wrote his big hits in the 60s and 70s but continues to be a force in historical study to today.

   Thus, when it comes to looking at various Inquisitions, there are multiple potential sources: Papal, Spanish, Mexican, with records kept in different places.  Due to the overwhelming tendency to ignore these records in the first part of the 20th century, history has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to simply cataloging all the interesting historical information in these records, and Greenleaf's The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century is a call to arms in that regard.

    Greenleaf is not writing micro-history, rather he's writing exactly what he says he's writing in the title, simply using previously ignored materials in a new way.  Greenleaf's book is useful in a way that micro-historical books are not in that it purports to summarize the phenomenon discussed.  When you buy a book called The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century, you want to find out when it was, who were the main players, where it happened, how big it was, etc.

    To understand the history of the Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century requires understanding the intercine political struggles of various mendicant orders in Spain during their Age of Empire.  I won't bore you with the details but the main players were the Dominicans and the Franciscans, with the Augustinian's playing a diminished/secondary  role.  The Mexican Inquisition was mainly concerned with heresy among the European settlers and their descendants.   After a brief period going after Natives (discussed previously) after the 1540s the Inquisition settled down and focused on the important people: Conversos and ship wrecked English pirates.

   As an aside, this a phenomenon that persisted in countries settled by Spain well into the 19th century.  Specifically, the book on whaling I read talks about Protestant sailors being imprisoned and even burned at the stake because of their Protestantism.   That's...pretty embarrassing for those (South American) countries.

   The funniest, and I do mean funniest, part of this book is the idea that the Spaniards, faced with their own, 16th century version of the "Wild West" thought it was a swell idea to send over Priests to prosecute wealthy land-owners out in the provinces for taking the lord's name in vain.  I don't care what economic persuasion you follow, harassing the moving and shakers of your colonial economy for petty religious crimes is NO WAY to develop a colony. That's not a moral judgment, just a practical judgment.

   And I'll just say up front that I think there is a direct link behind this sort of behavior during the 16th century and the kind of place that Mexico has become in the 21st century.  Specifically, Mexico, like many other ex-colonies, have a weak civil society BY DESIGN.  Like, the governments of the afflicted nations have Governments and Elites that conspired AGAINST civil society for generations and across political lines.  Personally, I think the way to "solve" the problems different countries face is not to fund the government but to fund the opposite of the government, the voluntary associations that Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about on his tour of America.

    Within our country, the debate between limited government types and the rest shares a common ground in the idea that in a functioning democracy the federal government draws the lines but doesn't color in the picture.  It's embodied repeatedly in the legal principles of our constitution- that states can do more but not less then what the feds require, and that the people are the reservoir of residual, non-enumerated rights.  Mexico was missing that back in the 16th century, and they are missing it today.

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