The Inquisition by acquisition

Editor’s note: Cullen Murphy appeared at the National Constitution Center on Tuesday, January 24th in a conversation about his latest book, God’s Jury. To hear a podcast of the program, click the play button below.

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Henry Charles Lea

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate venue for a discussion of the Inquisition than the National Constitution Center. The fact is probably not known to many, but Philadelphia stands at the very heart of the story of scholarship. What is the connection between this city and the centuries-long effort by the Catholic Church to suppress dissent and punish those it feared?

Take the elevator to the sixth floor of the Van Pelt library, at the University of Pennsylvania, and you will find that the doors open on to the nineteenth century. In 1881, the historian Henry Charles Lea replaced his ample garden with an equally ample library at his Philadelphia home. After his death, the books and furnishings were given to the university. The walls, thirty feet high, are paneled in eastern black walnut. Dramatic staircases rise to a balcony that girds the room. Marble busts gaze down from the up- per reaches. The bookshelves hold 7,000 volumes (and represent only part of the collection).

Lea was the most accomplished American historian of his era, and at his desk in this library he produced three weighty tomes on the Medieval Inquisition and four volumes of equal heft on the Spanish Inquisition. The achievement is all the more remarkable given that Lea had almost nothing to work with: the relevant research materials simply weren’t available in America. In 1842, the president of Brown University had noted that “the means do not exist among us for writing a book, which in Europe would be called learned, on almost any subject whatever.”

Lea was seventeen when that statement was made, a quirky and precocious boy. His family was educated and wealthy, and Lea was taught almost entirely at home by a private instructor. As his interests turned to history, he confronted the handicap all American scholars faced: few books, no manuscripts. But Lea had money to spend. He wrote to booksellers across Europe, acquiring what he needed. Libraries and monasteries lent him original manuscripts. If manuscripts were for sale, he bought them. If they could not be borrowed or bought, he had them copied. It was a good time to be a book buyer. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had upended the nobility and the Church; private libraries beyond counting had been dumped on the market. “If Mr. Lea is not stopped,” Benjamin Disraeli warned, “all the libraries of Europe will be removed to Philadelphia.”

The Inquisition was not Lea’s original focus. He worked up to it slowly, starting with medieval French history, then ecclesiastical history, then legal history. Eventually, in the 1880s and 1890s, Lea turned to writing the great works on the Inquisition that would secure his reputation, tossing off monographs on clerical celibacy and the moriscos of Spain in between. When he died, in 1909, he had just undertaken a major study of witchcraft. He left behind a collection of books and manuscripts relating to the Inquisition that was believed at the time to be unsurpassed anywhere outside the Vatican.

Lea was sometimes criticized as an amateur, but in terms of results he was by any standard a professional. He was no admirer of the Church, and saw the Inquisition as the embodiment of forces that impeded the advance of civilization. “I have not paused to moralize,” Lea wrote, “but I have missed my aim if the events narrated are not so presented as to teach their appropriate lesson.” But his work marks the point at which Inquisition history passed from the hands of the sectarian pampleteers into those of true historians.

Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large at Vanity Fair.

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