I’ve been a tourist long enough to know that it’s impossible to see it all first time, or even seventh time. I’ve been going to Malta pretty regularly since 2010 and I’m still finding places that I’ve not been to before. The Inquisitors Palace in the city of Birgu has been on my list for a while and this last trip, I finally got to visit.
What a mad bunch they were.
I’ve bandied about the phrase ‘What’s this, another Spanish Inquisition?’ without ever really knowing what it meant. Yes, I had a vague idea that it had to do with the Catholic Church and that it was far from a shining period in the Church’s history. But I’d never quite realised what it was all about and just how nasty it actually was and that it was only one of many. The Inquistion that hit Malta came centuries later, the Roman inquistions of 1542 and onwards.
The list of things you could be tried for included: abuse of the sacraments, possession of prohibited books, infringement of abstinence, bigamy, apostasy, magical activities and superstitious remedies, heretical opinion, false witness, profanation of the sacred, blasphemy and obstructing the Tribunal. In today’s parlance, the profanity that might escape after stubbing my toe, or the simple act of throwing some spilled salt over my shoulder, or daring to believe something against the norm would have been enough to have me in the docks. Madness.
Once a girl turned 9 and a half and a boy turned 10 and a half, they were subject to inquisition (interesting the difference there). While just about anyone could land them in the docks with an accusation, it took 72 witnesses to bring up a bishop. Definitely a case of us and them. While the museum was at pains to point out that torture was seldom resorted to, the gear was all there. There’s a manual – a Guideline for Inquisitors – written back in the 1400s that theorises:
The torture is not an infallible method to obtain the truth; there are some men so pusillanimous that at the first twinge of pain they will confess crimes they never committed; others there are so valiant and robust that they bear the most cruel torments. Those who have once been placed upon the rack suffer it with great courage, because their limbs accommodate themselves to it with facility or resist with force; others with charms and spells render themselves insensible, and will die before they will confess anything.
I reckon that one is still being read in places today. I was quite surprised at the number of inquisitors who went on to become pope. Nay, I was shocked. The whole thing of instilling the fear of God in someone, another phrase I bandy about with impunity, has taken on a whole new meaning. Even the thought of being denounced was enough to drive sane men mad in those days. And once heresy crept into a town or village and the inquisitors arrived, the locals had 40 days to confess or suffer the consequences. How many convinced themselves of their own guilt and fessed up to nothing at all? To quote the great Bertrand Russell:
Fear is the basis of the whole – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.
Given the beauty of the city, it’s hard to imagine that it was home to such terrible times. Birgu (aka Vittoriosa) is one of what are known in Malta as The Three Cities and to my mind it is far more impressive than the capital Valetta. And is even more impressive than the walled city of Mdina. If you’re ever in the vicinity, be sure to step outside the usual tourist route and pay it a visit. You won’t be disappointed.