February 2009

February 2009

Understanding the Inquisitors
by James Muldoon

The Inquisition in Portugal
historia completa das Inquisições

Detail of an auto da fé from Joseph Lavallée, Historia completa das inquisicões de Italia, Hespanha, e Portugal..., LIsbon, 1822.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

The phrase “I found it at the JCB” with its emphasis on documents, books, maps, and other physical elements of research misses one of the most important aspects of finding things at the library. Quite often fellows find something that throws a new light on their research or learn of a text of which they were previously unaware because at lunch or over coffee they wondered “Does anyone know anything about…” and another fellow or staff member responds with “Have you ever looked at ….” or “Do you know the work of ….?” 

In my own case, as a medievalist who works on canon law, I recently obtained an insight into a longstanding competition between canonists and theologians over which was the superior discipline when Martin Nesvig asked me to read a piece that he had written on the staffing of the Inquisition in Mexico. It turned out that the old medieval debate between canonists and theologians took on a distinct form in Latin America where it became an issue of careers and social status and where it showed the differences in the ways in which theologians and canonists reacted to charges of heresy and violation of Church law. Nesvig’s work opened up to me the social history of the Inquisition and the inquisitors, something not easy to uncover in the surviving medieval materials. 

I found that my questions about fourteenth-century European canon law were illuminated by his study of seventeenth-century colonial Mexico. Often times what one finds at the JCB is not so tangible as a physical object. Sometimes the amorphous question provides the most concrete result of all.

James Muldoon is a professor emeritus of Rutgers University and an Invited Research Scholar of the John Carter Brown Library.


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