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Bureaucrats with torches

What the Inquisition really announced about the world

Say what you will about the Inquisition, but it was an unequivocal success in one respect: Everyone knows its name. The Inquisition has long since been transmuted, by a kind of mental alchemy, from historical episode into universal metaphor. It has become a byword for intrusive and brutal intolerance — for moral certainty wielded with pitiless zeal.

At the same time, without really thinking about it, we’ve come to regard the Inquisition as safely in the past, a high-water mark of benighted medieval prejudice: the glowering interrogators in their hoods, the creaking winches and tightening ropes of the rack, the flickering torches applied to pyres outside the walls of Seville or in the cobbled marketplace of Rome.

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