So, I finished reading Abercrombie’s The First Law series. I quite liked it despite the various criticisms I’ve mentioned in the past, but I wanted to mention something that struck me about the book’s most interesting character, the torturer of the Royal Inquisition, Sand dan Glotka. Abercrombie devotes a great deal of time and attention to Glotka and it shows. His backstory is involved and interesting, his descent from superficial hero to deeply introspective anti-hero is compelling, and he manages to come off in a sympathetic manner despite the many awful deeds he consciously elects to perform. There is only one significant problem with the character of Glotka.
The greater part of the Inquisition as portrayed in The First Law is a load of historical bollocks.
This will no doubt come as a complete surprise to most readers of fantasy fiction, but the popular image of an inquisitor as a sadistic, red-handed, heavy-breathing religious fanatic is about as historically accurate as a portrayal of a hook-nosed, money-grubbing Jew whose favored beverage is the blood of Arab or Christian children. The image is actually based on 19th century Russian fiction that was drawn from what is now known as The Black Legend, the collective set of anti-Spanish propaganda concocted by the various rivals of Imperial Spain starting in the 16th century.
Dostoevsky’s unforgettable tale of the Grand Inquisitor from his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, created an indelible image of cruel, self-righteous evil that remains with us today. But the fact is that Abercrombie’s Royal Inquisition probably has a bigger body count throughout the three books of the series than the Spanish Inquisition managed to amass throughout the 345 years of its existence.
In fact, the historical Inquisition, or rather, the most infamous of the four historical inquisitions, accounted for fewer deaths on an annual basis than Abercrombie’s Bloody-Nine did in practically any battle in which he participated. To be specific, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for pronouncing 9 death-sentences per year, which is less than one-quarter of the number of annual executions presently being performed in the USA.
It is ironic indeed that Glotka is portrayed as being blood-drenched and worn out from his exhaustive torture sessions, as the historical inquisitors were not permitted to shed blood and only performed a single torture session of 15 minutes. The reason was that torture was only used to secure a confession to a crime of heresy that had already been attested by witnesses, although it should be kept in mind that heresy was tantamount to royal treason in a time of war because the epic, centuries-long struggle of the Reconquesta was in its final stage. Torture was least often used by the Inquisition in Valencia, where only 0.5 percent of those tried were forced to undergo it, while the highest rate was at the notorious tribunal of Seville, where 11 percent of those tried underwent torture. (A glance at a map of Spain will partially explain this significant difference; Seville was about 60 miles from the Castillan border with the Nasrid Emirate of Granada.) This means that fewer than 10,000 people were tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, about 30 people per year on average. Nor were inquisitors permitted to kill anyone. Executions were even less common than torture, as the records show that of the 44,674 individuals tried between 1540 and 1700, only 804 were categorized as being relictus culiae saeculari, or released to the secular authority for execution. Overall, historians estimate that between 2,000 and 3,230 people were executed by the crown during the 345 years of the Spanish Inquisition. In comparison with other judicial systems of its time, the Spanish Inquisition was remarkably organized and humane; one can even go so far as to say it was demonstrably more judicious and law-abiding than many modern courts today.
In Abercrombie’s defense, it must be pointed out that if one disregards the torture porn element, he does get two very significant aspects of his fictional inquisition correct. The first one is the royal aspect. Despite its Papal authorization and clerical personnel, the Spanish Inquisition was a secular bureaucracy of the Spanish crown; inquisitors were agents hired by the king. (Or to be more initially specific, by his wife, the Queen of Castile.) Under strong pressure from King Ferdinand, Pope Sixtus IV granted both Spanish monarchs permission to establish inquisitions in a bull entitled Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus on November 1, 1478, but neither King Ferdinand nor Queen Isabella actually got around to establishing one for another two years. The second correct aspect is the way in which the primary concern of Abercrombie’s inquisition is not related to religion, but rather ensuring loyalty to the crown. The same was true of the historical Spanish Inquistion, as the initial impetus for setting it up appears to have been the brutal sacking of the Aragonese city of Otranto by a Turkish fleet in 1480, and there is almost surely a direct connection between the sack of Otranto, (July 1480), the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, (September 1480), the subjugation of the Emirate of Granada (1492), and the subsequent expulsion of the non-converting Jews (1492) and Muslims (1502).
For all that his awful occupation is almost entirely fictitious, Sand dan Glotka remains a fascinating character study. But it is always important to remember that fiction, no matter how well it is written or how convincing it happens to feel to the reader, is not a reliable means of obtaining a historical education. And one more thing. The inquisition never ended. It still exists today, although it is no longer called the Roman and Universal Inquisition, but is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The present Grand Inquisitor, who now bears the title of Cardinal Prefect, is His Eminence William Levada of Long Beach, California.