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Recap of Presentation – Jews on Trial: The Papal Inquisition in Modena, 1598-1638

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The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012, I had the opportunity and pleasure to introduce Professor Katherine Aron-Beller at the presentation of her new book, Jews on Trial: The Papal Inquisition in Modena, 1598-1638. As previously posted on In Custodia Legis, the event was jointly hosted by the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, and the Law Library of Congress. The Law Library’s Megan Lulofs Kuhagen live tweeted on the event. Professor Aron-Beller’s remarkable research skills and balanced presentation facilitated a noteworthy event.

Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst, Law Library of Congress and Professor Katherine Aron-Beller by Megan Lulofs Kuhagen

Professor Aron-Beller focused on the topic of the status of Jews during the Papal Inquisition in the Italian duchy of Modena between 1598-1638. Her book was made possible by the author’s access to extensive records with detailed accounts of trials from Modena’s  inquisitorial offices kept by medieval notaries. Professor Aron-Beller began with a discussion of the origins of the Inquisition in Spain during the 15th century. She outlined the establishment of Inquisitorial tribunals in Portugal, and then throughout the Italian peninsula, until by the late 1580s, “the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office had authority over forty-two inquisitorial tribunals.”

According to Professor Aron-Beller, the Jews were not subject per se to the Holy Office of the Inquisition, unless  they engaged in conduct expressly described in the governing documents: such as sheltering heretics; possessing blasphemous books; mocking Catholics; or disrupting Catholic ceremonies or places.  They could also be censured for unnatural behavior which was defined as the “violation of the laws of nature” or what Pope Innocent IV had called in 1245, “acts against the laws of morality.” She suggested that the general religious and cultural norms of the Catholic and Jewish communities concerning issues related to familial life, matrimony, parental duties and rights, rearing of children, and other related topics were broadly shared by both communities. In that sense “unnatural” behavior, persecuted as criminal by the Inquisition, did not discriminate between Catholic and Jewish subjects.

Evidence in inquisitorial trials consisted mostly of witness testimonies. Evidence-gathering procedures against both Catholic and Jewish defendants were based on the Mosaic prescription that guilt must be established by the testimony of two witnesses. Jewish suspects were asked to swear their testimony on the Hebrew Bible. Legal assistance was a common practice in inquisitorial procedures during this period. Suspects were either assigned a canon law procurator or could procure their own advocate.

Sentencing usually took place for Catholic defendants on the steps of the Cathedral, while sentencing for Jewish defendants took place in private. More severe punishments, such as banishments, were reserved for Catholic heretics and apostates. Inquisitorial procedures represented a sort of “improvement” or “humanization” from the criminal Roman law procedures applied by the secular civil justice systems. Torture and death sentences were more frequent in the civil courts of that time and offered fewer opportunities for offenders to plead their cases. According to Professor Aron-Beller, the Inquisition’s conscious lenience toward Jewish offenders, its objectivity and fairness toward Jews, and the types of punishments were far milder than in the secular courts at the time. Inquisitorial punishments against Jews in Modena were relatively mild, and consisted mostly of monetary fines.

Professor Aron-Beller gave an example during her presentation of a case involving the wealthy Modenese Jewish Sanguinetti family in 1602. The facts of the case relate to a love story between Miriana Sanguinetti –the daughter of the wealthy Jewish banker Viviano Sanguinetti— and Ludovico Mirandola, her Catholic suitor. Professor Aron-Beller drew an interesting parallel between this love story and Shakespeare’s tragic comedy, The Merchant of Venice. Our author narrated the main aspects of the testimonies provided by Miriana, her father, Ludovico, neighbors, servants, and other witnesses, in order to bring to the audience the real drama involved in the forbidden courtship between the two young lovers, one Jewish, one Catholic.

The author used the story to illustrate the point that the most common offenses prosecuted by the Inquisition originated as a consequence of the social and sexual interaction between Jews and Catholics. Such interactions had important legal ramifications at the time, and related to issues of community identification, dowry obligations, family allegiances, and the right of inheritance.

So as not to leave our readers in suspense, let us reveal the end of the story:  Miriana married her Jewish cousin, Michello Sanguinetti.

Pope Innocent IV defined unnatural behaviors in a 1245 Papal bull.  For a collection of Papal bulls, see the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection (Bullae Diversarum, 1542 and Bullarium Romanum, 1638). Below is a list of bulls cited in Professor Aron-Beller’s book.

  • 1252 Bull Ad exstirpanda by Pope Innocent IV (heretics are “murderers of souls as well as robbers of God’s sacraments and of the Christian faith …”, they are “to be coerced—as are thieves and bandits—into confessing their errors and accusing others, although one must stop short of danger to life or limb”)
  • 1376 Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicholas Eymerich (assessment of a century and half of official Inquisition into the Albigensian heresy).
  • 1478 Bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus by Pope Sixtus IV (through which the Spanish Inquisition was established in the Kingdom of Castile)
  • 1542 Constitution “Licet ab initio” by Pope Paul III founded the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition (its duty was to defend the Church from heresy)
  • 1573 Enchiridion iudicum violatae religionis, ad extirpandas haereses, theoricen & praxim summa breuitate complectens: opus admodum vtile, non soluÌm iudicibus ipsis, assessoribus & consultoribus, sed etiam accusatoribus, atq[ue] adeoÌ reorum procuratoribus & aduocatis : cui accesserunt eiusdem auctoris opuscula duo, vnum, Annotationum in Zanchinum, alterum, De dignitate episcopali. (Iacobi Simancae Pacensis Episcopi). Published/Created: Antuerpiae: Ex officina Christophori Plantini, prototypographi…
  • 1581 Bull Alias piae memoriae by Pope Gregory XIII (Jewish physicians were prohibited from attending to Christians)
  • 1581 Bull Antiqua Iudaeorum Improbitas by Pope Gregory XIII (the Pope submitted the Jews to the Inquisition in all cases of blasphemy and offense against the church)

For those interested in the topics discussed above, you will find below a basic bibliography of resources available at the Library of Congress upon request.

Update: The event video was added below.

Comments (4)

  1. Dante,
    This is a wonderful recap of Professor Aron-Beller’s presentation, and your comments and bibliography add immeasurably to the program and to understanding the Inquisition in Modena.

    • In case you missed it, you can watch the webcast of Prof. Aaron-Beller’s talk.

  2. A notable account of an interesting book; really shaked my previous notions on the subject.
    Congratulations to the author and to Mr. Figueroa.

  3. I just had a student, in my high school library, request a primary source for when Pope Innocent IV permitted the use of torture on heretics in 1252. Thiis blog was very helpful.

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