The embarrassing withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has kept thousands on edge and rightly so. However, many progressives have not missed the opportunity to display their derangement and irrational hatred for Christianity and have jumped to compare the Taliban to the Inquisition and the situation of women in European Christendom, or the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
An example of this is libertarian influencer Gloria Alvarez, who tweeted “Conservatives forget that when their religion was the same age as Islam is today, they were doing the same little things that The Taliban is doing today. Seems like extremism runs rampant between the 1,400th to 1,500th birthday.” Interestingly, Alvarez is PragerU’s Latina poster child, so she seems to forget her dilemmas with Judeochristian fanaticism when it’s time to make a video that can get millions of views on YouTube.
The second example is biologist Richard Dawkins, who said “The Abrahamic holy book, in all its versions, is a vile document if taken seriously & literally. Fortunately, most ‘people of the book’ don’t take it seriously. Those that do, commit the vile acts of cruelty, misogyny & bigotry prescribed by it. Afghanistan is a prime example.”
This view of European Christendom (the misnamed “Middle Ages”) as a historical equivalent to the more bloody versions of Islam is deeply flawed, especially with regard to the status of women in Christianity between the 10th and 16th centuries and the situation in which they live in Afghanistan today. I will focus here on the Inquisition and the view of women in European Christendom.
What is and what is not the Inquisition?
First, before explaining some of the myths about the Inquisition, it is necessary to provide some context. The Inquisition existed in a historical period when talk of a right to defense or the presumption of innocence was laughable. The Taliban exists in a world where, at least on paper, these rights are recognized worldwide and torture is condemned. The Inquisition had nowhere to look for better examples (and, in fact, implemented many procedural safeguards previously non-existent), the Taliban have them just around the corner.
That is where, among so many things, Alvarez is wrong: The Taliban is incomparable with the Church in the 14th and 15th centuries by mere historical contextualization because today there are already more humane models of justice than the brutality imposed by the Taliban.
This is not to say that a model of justice like that of the Inquisition is acceptable in the contemporary world, but it is to say that such a comparison is a severe case of historical blindness. For the Inquisition era, the Inquisition was an advance in due process and the rights of the accused. The Taliban are a step backward in human rights and due process wherever you look at it, even within Islam itself.
Second, Inquisition is a very broad term. There were local inquisitions and the pontifical Inquisition. Each had different purposes. The Spanish Inquisition was born to study the cases of Jewish converts to Catholicism who practiced Judaism in secret, the Polish Inquisition and the one present in some German principalities were more focused on investigating witchcraft and paganism, and in one of its stages, the French Inquisition was dedicated to fighting against the Cathar heresy.
Thus, there are different inquisitions with their particularities and processes, which have changed a lot in their more than 600 years of history since their first establishment in the south of France.
However, in general terms, the reality of the Inquisition is very different from what people like Alvarez and Dawkins believe. The black legend speaks of hundreds of thousands of deaths in the courts of the Inquisition, fantastic torture machines, witch hunts, among other elements far removed from reality.
One of the most respected Hispanists in the world, Henry Kamen, calculated that in the period of the greatest activity of the Spanish Inquisition, between 1482 and 1530, no more than 2,000 people died at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. After 1530, executions at the stake were rare and sporadic. In total, other authors say that in 350 years of existence, there were probably no more than 5,000 deaths at their hands. When comparing the death sentences of the Inquisition with those of the common courts, the figure pales. For every 100 death sentences by the civil courts, there would be only one by the Inquisition.
In turn, compared to the civil authorities, the torture applied by the Inquisition was “humane.” According to historian Consuelo Sanz, it prohibited the spilling of blood, causing internal damage, causing death, disabling any member of the body, lasting more than 15 minutes, and required the presence of a doctor. On the other hand, confessions obtained by torture were not valid by themselves because they had to be ratified by the prisoner 24 hours after the torture was applied. All this, for the time, was a procedural advance.
In fact, Sanz relates cases of people accused of sodomy who blasphemed against the Church or the saints to be prosecuted by the Inquisition instead of the civil courts. That is to say, the Inquisition was not considered at the time a cruel tribunal among so many other civil and religious courts, but one that offered more guarantees of justice than the civil ones.
However, it is undeniable that there were abuses in the Inquisition, as in the case of Juan de Chinchilla, recounted by Henry Kamen in his book The Spanish Inquisition, who confessed to having carried out Jewish practices at one point in his life. Dozens of people testified that Chinchilla was a good Christian, but he was condemned to death at the stake.
Faced with cases like this, Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull in which he added more procedural guarantees for the defendant to avoid abuses. According to Kamen, the bull had the following guarantees: “the accused would be provided with the name and testimony of the accusers and would be allowed to have lawyers; episcopal prisons would be the only ones used; and appeals to Rome would be allowed. The bull was absolutely extraordinary because (…) it declared for the first time that heresy was entitled, like any other crime, to a fair trial.”
Therefore, the conclusion of Kamen and respected by almost all historians of the Inquisition is devastating against the ideas of Alvarez, Dawkins and similar people:
“For the Inquisition to have been as powerful as some have implied, the fifty or so inquisitors in Spain would have had to have had a huge bureaucracy, a reliable system of informers, a regular income, and the collaboration of secular and religious authorities (…) there is no reason to believe that the Inquisition was a sinister tyranny imposed on the population without their consent. It never enjoyed sufficient power to become a tyranny (…) in some regions its effects were lethal; in others the people never saw the Holy Office at any time in their lives.”
Women in European Christendom had more rights than Afghan women
This brings me to my second point: it is simply absurd to compare the situation of women in European Christendom with that of the Taliban. Let’s start with a very simple thing: how many women were sentenced to death by a civil or religious court during European Christendom for walking down the street with their faces uncovered? Exactly, none.
Was music or art forbidden in any Christian kingdom? On the contrary, royalty and the Church were great patrons who promoted Renaissance art and created some of the artistic works that, to this day, continue to invite us to contemplation. Perennial philosophy created perennial art. The same cannot be said of the Taliban.
None of this is to say that the situation of women in European Christendom and their rights is comparable to today. However, to gloss over the past and say that everything is the same and that any situation of oppression belongs to the past as if they were all the same thing is historically myopic.
One would have to ask Alvarez et al if in the society she has in mind, would it be possible for a Bettisia Gozzadini, the first female graduate of the University of Bologna in 1237 and later professor of law, to emerge. Could in such a backward society arise a Novella de Andrea or a Luisa de Medrano, professors of law and philosophy respectively in the 14th and 16th centuries?
How could such a fundamentalist society give rise to a Beatriz de Galindo, professor of Latin and grammar in the time of Isabella the Catholic, or a Margaret Roper, daughter of St. Thomas More, considered one of the best Latin translators of her time?
Could such a world give rise to one of the best poets of the Spanish Golden Age, such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? It seems to me that in a society like the one painted by Dawkins and Alvarez, the authorities would be closer to cutting off her hands than to kissing them.
Could the Maid of Orleans, the peasant girl also known as Joan of Arc, emerge in such a regressive world to lead entire armies to end the English occupation of France? Could an illiterate young woman like Catherine Benincasa stand up to the Pope and order him to return to Rome in such a society? It would seem that, in such a world, she would end up burned at the stake and not recognized as St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church.
Could it be said, in such a society, that the second most important author in Spanish of the time was a woman? I think not, but any connoisseur of Castilian literature knows that St. Teresa of Jesus is one of the summits of our language. Could the multifaceted mind of St. Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most brilliant authors of the twelfth century, be applauded in such a world? Can you imagine Afghan mullahs receiving spiritual advice from a woman? That is what hundreds of priests did with Hildegard and Therese.
In fact, it could be argued that medieval women were freer than in the 17th and 19th centuries since feudal customary law tended to be more egalitarian with respect to women than the law that emerged in modern nation states, influenced by Roman law, where women were an extension of the pater familias’ property. And the moderns are more to blame for this change than the Church.
And this is not my invention. It is stated by historian Régine Pernoud, author of Women in the Time of Cathedrals. In that book, she also explains the case of medieval abbesses, spiritual leaders of great monasteries who accumulated great temporal power, at the level of civil authorities and bishops. One such case is that of the abbess of Fraumünster, in Switzerland, who appointed mayors and judges in her territory and belonged to the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire.
Abbesses were women of great power and not merely anecdotal events. Their mandates spanned centuries, and their power declined with modernity. In England, they were treated with the dignity of princesses, deliberated in national assemblies and even participated in ecclesiastical synods.
An emblematic case in Spain is that of the Abbess of Las Huelgas, who, according to the official protocol was “noble lady, the proclaimed superior, legal curator in spiritual and temporal matters of the royal abbey, and of all the convents, churches and hermitages of her filiation, of the towns and places under her jurisdiction,” who exercised her temporal authority over about fifty villages and led civil and criminal courts and authorized the priests under her territory to preach, hear confessions and celebrate the Eucharist. Is it even imaginable, a woman running a community board under the Taliban? I leave the answer to you.
At the same time, in medieval times, women’s property had protections, while today in Afghanistan and many other parts of the Islamic world, they cannot even own property without the permission of their husband or father. In 13th century France, the married woman remained the inalienable owner of her property and had the right to share in what she acquired in the marriage and to inherit half of her husband’s property in case of death. She did not need her husband’s authorization to represent his interests in his absence.
Were women at that time exclusively devoted to housework and confined to the house as we usually imagine and as is the case under the Taliban? Hardly. First, because the home and the factory were confused. In the house, there was also the business, whatever it was: blacksmithing, bakery, carpentry, boiler making, goldsmithing, bookbinding, or any other. Therefore, women played a fundamental role in these businesses and in many occasions they were the teachers of the apprentices who worked under their husbands or they were the ones who sold in the street what they produced in the home/workshop.
There are records of women who paid taxes independently of their husbands (i.e., had their own business) and many widows or women whose husbands were at war maintained the family business. Pernaud mentions a study that calculated the trades in Frankfurt between 1320 and 1500 and found that there were 65 trades in which only women worked, 85 in which only men worked, and 38 in which the ratio was equal. Could the same be said of Afghanistan or much of the Muslim world? I doubt it.
And that is why the violent repression of women under the Taliban is incomparable to European Christendom, since it would say with St. Isidore of Seville and Hugo of St. Victor (of the 7th and 8th century) that woman nec domina nec ancilla, sed socia: she is neither master nor slave but companion.
It is easy to fall for the cheap story to sell more books or get a few likes, but the historical truth is far from these silly narratives. Women and society in Afghanistan are much more repressed than in European Christendom for the simple fact that Catholicism is not Gnostic.
In Gnosticism, evil is related to the material: the world and the flesh are evil, the good is purely spiritual. Thus, man must purify himself and destroy everything in the world that does not allow him to reach this spiritual elevation. Therefore, it is necessary to prohibit television, the arts, sex beyond procreation, alcohol, any entertainment and any activity beyond that which is purely necessary for subsistence. All extremists are always Gnostic. The detachment from the world is a noble ideal as long as it is voluntary.
Catholicism is a stranger to this dualism. Faced with puritan Gnosticism, which only knows how to say no to the world and its pleasures, and paganism, which only knows how to say yes, Catholicism says “it depends.”