Judicial Use of Torture: Did Medieval Europe Learn It From Islam?
by John J. O’Neill
In my newly-published book, Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, I argue at length that a great majority of the things commonly regarded as “Medieval” were in fact introduced to Europe from Islam, and that it was Islam, and not the Huns, Vandals and Goths, which terminated Classical Civilization, the rational and humane civilization of Greece and Rome. This civilization survived in Europe and in North Africa and the Near East until the seventh century, at which point it was destroyed by the Muslim conquests.
In point of fact, Islam’s influence upon Europe was much greater than is commonly imagined, but that influence was entirely negative. Not only did the Muslims terminate Classical Civilization, but in time they dragged Europe, on many levels, down to a more barbarous level of culture. It was from the Muslims, for example, that Christian Europeans got the idea of “Holy War,” a concept that would have been unthinkable in earlier centuries. And from Islam too, the institution of slavery, as well as the slave trade, received a new and powerful impetus.
Contrary to the beliefs of some modern anti-Christian writers, Christianity brought an immediate and dramatic improvement in the living conditions of slaves, the poor, and the oppressed, in the Roman Empire. In Holy Warriors, I show how the Church, in the early centuries, bit by bit made the holding of slaves morally indefensible and eventually helped bring about the entire institution’s abolishment. And just as Christianity worked inexorably to alleviate the condition of slaves, so its influence revolutionized the penal code and led to more humane treatment of prisoners. The first step was taken by Constantine, who, out of respect for Christ, abolished the barbaric punishment of crucifixion. Constantine also attempted (unsuccessfully) to abolish gladiator contests, though these barbaric entertainments were in fact finally outlawed less than a century later, after a monk named Telemachus was killed by spectators whilst separating two gladiators in a Roman arena.
It was precisely the same with the use of torture in order to extract evidence or confessions: the Church worked to rid society of it. In the words of Philip Schaff:
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“The church, true to her humanizing instincts, was at first hostile to the whole system of forcing evidence. A Synod of Auxerre (585 or 578) prohibited the clergy to witness a torture. Pope Gregory I. denounced as worthless a confession extorted by incarceration and hunger. Nicolas I. forbade the new converts in Bulgaria to extort confession by stripes and by pricking with a pointed iron, as contrary to all law, human and divine (866). Gratian lays down the general rule that ‘confessio cruciatibus extorquenda non est.’“ (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. IV: Medieval Christianity. AD. 590-1073)
Thus the attitude of the Church until the twelfth century. After that however there was a complete and dramatic turnaround. From 1215 onwards, the Church, which had hitherto worked to alleviate the condition of captives, now became the advocate of the most barbarous forms of torture. In the words of Schaff,
“… at a later period, in dealing with heretics, the Roman church unfortunately gave the sanction of her highest authority to the use of torture, and thus betrayed her noblest instincts and holiest mission. The fourth Lateran Council (1215) inspired the terrible crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, and the establishment of the infamous ecclesiastico-political courts of Inquisition. These courts found torture the most effective means of punishing and exterminating heresy, and invented new forms of refined cruelty worse than those of the persecutors of heathen Rome. Pope Innocent IV., in his instruction for the guidance of the Inquisition in Tuscany and Lombardy, ordered the civil magistrates to extort from all heretics by torture a confession of their own guilt and a betrayal of all their accomplices (1252). This was an ominous precedent, which did more harm to the reputation of the papacy than the extermination of any number of heretics could possibly do it good.” (Ibid.)
What could have caused such a complete volte face? A clue perhaps comes in the fact that not all parts of Europe accepted the new directive with enthusiasm:
“In Italy, owing to the restriction of the ecclesiastical power by the [German] emperor, the inquisition could not fully display its murderous character. In Germany its introduction was resisted by the people and the bishops, and Conrad of Marburg, the appointed Inquisitor, was murdered (1233). But in Spain it had every assistance from the crown and the people, which to this day take delight in the bloody spectacles of bullfights. The Spanish Inquisition was established in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by papal sanction (1478), reached its fearful height under the terrible General Inquisitor Torquemada (since 1483), and in its zeal to exterminate Moors, Jews, and heretics, committed such fearful excesses that even popes protested against the abuse of power, although with little effect. The Inquisition carried the system of torture to its utmost limits. After the Reformation it was still employed in trials of sorcery and witchcraft until the revolution of opinion in the eighteenth century swept it out of existence, together with cruel forms of punishment. This victory is due to the combined influence of justice, humanity, and tolerance.” (Ibid.)
That the Inquisition found its spiritual home in Spain is of course well-known: Why this should be the case is neither known nor understood. Explanations have tended to resort to chauvinistic or frankly racist statements about the inherent character of the Spanish people. Even Schaff hints at such when he refers to the Spaniards’ delight in bullfighting. But there is a far more rational explanation; one that makes perfect sense of the facts. Unique among the nations of western Europe, Spain spent many centuries under the domination of Islam. Now Islam, unlike Christianity, had no difficulty whatever with barbarous forms of execution such as crucifixion or with torture. Torture was employed by the Prophet himself, and in one notorious incident he had the Jewish leader of a community he had attacked tortured until he should reveal the whereabouts of the town’s treasures. When the man broke and revealed the secret, Muhammad nevertheless had him executed. (al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 512).
Muslims of course have always viewed Muhammad as the model of the perfect believer, to be emulated wherever possible. And so we should not be surprised to find that torture and mutilation, as well as the most barbaric forms of execution, were regularly employed by the Prophet’s followers throughout the centuries. Thus the history of Islam in Spain, from its very inception, was little more than an endless litany of tortures, crucifixions, massacres and rapine. Historians of Spain, even those well-disposed to Islam, have as a rule been scathing of the new faith’s impact upon the country and upon the character of its people: According to Richard Fletcher, as Islamophile a writer as may be found,
“The period of maximum turbulence and dislocation in the peninsula as a whole seems to have been the half-century or so after the outbreak of the Berber revolt in 740. Breakdown of public order, disruption of administrative structures and legal routines, faction fighting and vendettas, the forcible transfer of communities from one place to another, random slave-raiding and cattle-rustling — all the things to which Theodulf referred in one of his poems, perhaps with an inward shudder, as ‘overwhelming disaster’ — all of these must have had the gravest social and economic consequences, at which we can only guess. In some areas these would last for centuries. In the tierras despobladas olive groves and vineyards would go untended, grass and scrub would encroach on road and threshing floor, squatters in the abandoned towns would look round in alarm for their children at the thud of collapsing masonry. Cities like Salamanca would not rise from their rubble until the twelfth century.”( Fletcher, The History of Moorish Spain, pp. 31-2) This description of the country is restrained in the extreme and glosses over or ignores the horrific reality on the ground. For the war brought to Iberia by the Arabs and Berbers was like no other. According to Louis Bertrand, rapine and destruction was the order of the day from the very beginning:
“To keep Christians in their place it did not suffice to surround them with a zone of famine and destruction. It was necessary also to go and sow terror and massacre among them. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, an army sallied forth from Cordova to go and raid the Christians, destroy their villages, their fortified posts, their monasteries and their churches …” (Louis Bertrand, The History of Spain (19 ) p. 91)
The Spanish Christians, intermixing with the Arabs and Berbers for many centuries, now began to adopt many of their foes’ characteristics:
“The worst characteristic which the Spaniards acquired was the parasitism of the Arabs and the nomad Africans: the custom of living off one’s neighbour’s territory, the raid raised to the level of an institution, marauding and brigandage recognized as the sole means of existence for the man-at-arms. In the same way they went to win their bread in Moorish territory, so the Spaniards later went to win gold and territory in Mexico and Peru.
“They were to introduce there, too, the barbarous, summary practices of the Arabs: putting everything to fire and sword, cutting down fruit-trees, razing crops, devastating whole districts to starve out the enemy and bring them to terms; making slaves everywhere, condemning the population of the conquered countries to forced labour. All these detestable ways the conquistadores learnt from the Arabs.
“For several centuries slavery maintained itself in Christian Spain, as in the Islamic lands. Very certainly, also, it was to the Arabs that the Spaniards owed the intransigence of their fanaticism, the pretension to be, if not the chosen of God, at least the most Catholic nation of Christendom. Philip II, like Abd er Rahman or El Mansour, was Defender of the Faith.” (Bertrand, Ibid., p. 160)
We note here that it was from the Iberian Peninsula too that in the fifteenth and sixteenth century a new age of slaving and slave-trading was launched. Bertrand continues:
“Finally, it was not without contagion that the Spaniards lived for centuries in contact with a race of men who crucified their enemies and gloried in piling up thousands of severed heads by way of trophies. The cruelty of the Arabs and the Berbers also founded a school in the Peninsula. The ferocity of the emirs and the caliphs who killed their brothers or their sons with their own hands was to be handed on to Pedro the Cruel and Henry of Trastamare, those stranglers under canvas, no better than common assassins.” (Bertrand, Ibid., p. 160)
That the Popes, inhabiting Italy, should acquiesce in the revival of torture in Europe, can also be attributed to the influence of Islam. For centuries the Italian Peninsula stood on the front-line of the never-ending war between Islam and Christendom; a war which the Muslims themselves decreed to be endless. Southern Italy, as well as Sicily and Sardinia, for some time suffered the fate of Spain — with the same results: Christians of those regions too now began to adopt the attitudes and customs of their Islamic foes. Some became involved in the slave-trade; others kept harems stalked with numerous concubines and presided over by eunuchs; still others revived the old customs of torture and crucifixion, customs long previously abolished by the Christian prelates and monarchs who reigned before the seventh century.
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.