Yesterday’s reference to the martyrdom of St. Pancakes inspired me to investigate Jewish martyrs to the Inquisition, in particular

the martyr Latka of Gravas, a pious East European Jew who refused to convert to Christianity and in consequence was shredded, fried in hot oil, and then fed to his reluctant coreligionists before they were burned at the stake.

Reading the lives of the saints does terrible things to your mind. So does reading about the Inquisition, as in a recent New Yorker book review by Adam Gopnik:

In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Cullen Murphy argues that the Inquisition, far from being a “medieval” relic, is an institution as deeply rooted in modernity as the scientific tradition that it opposed. Its fanaticism, its implicit totalitarianism (with inquisitors investigating every crevice of its victims’ lives), its sheer bureaucratic brutality makes it central to who we are and what we do. Its thumbprint is everywhere: the Gestapo, the K.G.B., the Stasi. Even our own Guantánamo-making apparatus — more than twelve hundred government organizations focus on national-security concerns, Murphy tells us — has a forebear in Torquemada and the men in the red hats. Murphy’s tone is calm, but he can vibrate to the victims’ preserved cries for mercy, which he reproduces from transcripts that the Inquisition kept. He makes a grand and scary tour of inquisitional moments, and we are then asked to compare our own readiness to torture when what we fear threatens us. Murphy’s point, entirely convincing, is that Dick Cheney’s “one per cent doctrine — if there’s any chance that terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, we have an obligation to do whatever we have to do to make sure that they haven’t — is ancient and all too easily universalized. Torturers always do their work with regret, and out of last-ditch necessity, certain that the existence of their country or their church or their values depend on it. We know the cruelest of fanatics by their exceptionally clear consciences.

(Gopnik goes on to point out that the terrible effect of the various Inquisitions didn’t depend on mass killings, as you might have thought from Voltaire’s Candide, but instead turned on a few highly visible public torturings and awful deaths. Pour encourager les autres.)

Well, this started out as silliness but got really dark really fast. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.


2 Responses to “Martyrdom”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    It took me a few minutes to decide that the “Latka of Gravas” story
    was meant to be silly. I was momentarily horrified. But that may be my obtuseness. Still, some pretty nasty things have been done to Jews–often en masse–over the centuries. And we retain some of
    the stories and even use them liturgically, although I’m not always
    sure precisely why (and I dislke them, but that may be my fastidiousness–is that a word?).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I did use the category “Silliness” and linked to Latka Gravas, but I refrained from marking it straight out as (attempted) humor. Just like the Martyrdom of Saint Pancake. Always a risky strategy, to be sure; I get mail every so often about stories in the Onion, which I have to explain is humor, not reporting.

      Fastidiousness is a fine word.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: