The Inquisition was certainly a memorable era in human history, but modern society prefers to forget it, because it’s a dark and creepy skeleton in civilization’s closet (one of countless thousands). What can we learn from the Inquisition? For many years I filed it under simple insanity — medieval society was insane, and the evidence for this was overwhelming. Case closed.
My diagnosis of insanity was correct, but incomplete. I had assigned full blame to twisted religion, and by doing this, I missed much of the story. I was recently looking at Witchcraze, by Anne Llewelyn Barstow, and it gave me a brisk eye-opening dope slap.
For example, around 1550, as the witch craze was picking up steam,
Europe was being flooded with precious metals stolen from the Native Americans, and serious inflation was driving up the price of everything. Population now exceeded the stratospheric levels that existed prior to the Black Death, but this time around society wasn’t rescued by major pestilence. “Overpopulation created a land shortage, followed by the inevitable food shortages, hunger, unemployment, and unrest.”
The merchant class remained fat and happy, but the 99% suffered in wretched poverty. “Begging, vagabondage, homelessness, and theft increased; a vast underclass was created. As the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, tension between them rose.” Old ladies and odd people weren’t the cause of the economic turbulence, but they were blamed for it, and burning them provided an effective solution, according to the magical thinking of the day.
With the arrival of the seventeenth century, conditions worsened.
Barstow described a 100 year depression that hit most of Europe. From the early seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century, Europe was rocked with turbulence, an era that historians have labeled the General Crisis. It was a time of abundant warfare, political conflicts, religious battles, and intellectual disputes. Inflation led to rising prices.
The bubonic plague did not walk off the stage in 1350. Smaller epidemics struck periodically in various widespread regions (life remained rich with filth, rats, and fleas). English records indicate that the plague returned in 1361, 1363, 1365, 1369, 1371, 1373, 1375, 1378-82, 1390, and 1399-1400; followed by 20 acute epidemics in the fifteenth century, five in the sixteenth, and four in the seventeenth.
For excitement and variety, Mother Nature also threw in periodic epidemics of typhus, smallpox, malaria, measles, syphilis, and dysentery. She also thinned the cattle herds. Rinderpest moved into
Europe, and it killed 1.5 million cattle between 1709 and 1714. During the Inquisition years, rabies spread across Europe, turning numerous canines into vicious mad dogs that aggressively attacked people without provocation, spreading an extremely painful disease that was always fatal. This led to extermination campaigns, like one in , in which up to 900 dogs per day were killed. Madrid
Throw in a long list of regional famines. Then add a longer list of regional wars and rebellions, like the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), in which six million died. It’s easy to see that the Inquisition era was not a time when obese peasants sat on plush couches in air conditioned family rooms, munching on corn chips, guzzling cola-flavored sugar water, playing video games, listening to music, smoking their bong, and texting their friends.
Today, trend watchers understand that collapse is now unfolding before our eyes, as we move beyond the era of cheap and abundant energy. Time is running out for the world as we know it. There is not unanimous agreement as to whether our collapse will be slow or catastrophic, because the future remains unknown, as usual. But most would prefer a kinder and gentler slow collapse. Viewed from the peak of the Roman Empire, which maintained a functional economy across much of Europe, the Middle East, and northern
Africa, the Inquisition era can be seen as part of a slow collapse, when centralized control gradually disintegrated into chaos.
The prosperous consumer societies of today are living in a manner that is radically different from the historic norm for civilized people. Let me say that again, because this is something that most people cannot comprehend — in the 8,000 years of civilization, the normal life for most working people more closely resembled the Inquisition era than how industrial consumers live today. In his incredible book, A New Green History of the World, Clive Ponting came to the stunning conclusion that prior to 1800 “almost everyone, everywhere in the civilized world, lived on the edge of starvation.” Only in the last 200 years has a significant portion of humankind temporarily escaped from the traditional (civilized) norm of living in close proximity to poverty and malnutrition.
A 200 year binge on cheap fossil energy has temporarily replaced a muscle-powered way of life. The temporary era of antibiotics, vaccines, public sanitation, and high-tech medicine has given us a brief vacation from the traditional nightmares of contagious diseases. The temporary era of chemical-guzzling industrial agriculture had created an obesity epidemic and a catastrophic population explosion. The temporary era of soil mining, fish mining, water mining, forest mining, and mineral mining has produced a bizarre way of life that is notable for its extreme levels of waste and pollution. It’s hard to imagine what life in 2100 will look like, but it will bear little resemblance to the “prosperous” societies of 2000.
It is very important to understand that all of the serious crises that confront us today seem to have their roots in the domestication of plants and animals. Prior to domestication, the wild and free way of life was vastly more functional, despite its defects. Wild freedom was the norm for almost all of human history — it’s not a theoretical concept that dropped out of a shimmering rainbow cloud of magical thinking. All of us carry the blood of our wild and free ancestors, and all of our newborns remain wild and free animals for the brief period prior to their plunge into the enculturation process.
Today, we are depressed, obese, unhealthy, and spend the best years of our lives performing robotic work routines in order to acquire trade trinkets that allow us to shop for things we do not need because we have an insatiable hunger for the social status that comes from hoarding vast quantities of frivolous belongings. We periodically have large yard sales to make space in our basements and garages for piling up even more stuff that we have no real need for. We believe that endless economic growth is possible, because we believe that technology has unlimited power to convert the living planet into unnecessary consumer products forever.
If there are still people in 2100, who will they consider to be crazier — the consumers or the witch killers? Yes, the Inquisition may have brutally murdered a few million people, but the consumers have blindsided the health and stability of the entire living planet — the land, the seas, and the atmosphere.
It is as if our entire culture is possessed by an evil spell of self-destruction. But spells can be broken, and curses can be lifted, if sincere bold efforts are taken, and good luck prevails. Remember that the Inquisition ended long ago — the evil energy dispersed. Be aware that there will also be a day when consumer society passes into history, and gets pushed into our skeleton closet of creepy old stories. There will be a day when the last civilization dies. One way or another, sooner or later, the craziness will pass, and the Earth will heal.
This may be the only life we ever live, and the evil curse commands that we spend it working, shopping, and being awesomely trendy — a spectacularly meaningless living-death existence — planet-killing Zombie hoarders. We don’t have to follow the crazy herd. We don’t have to throw away our lives foolishly obeying the fashionable whims of a crazy peer group. If our insane society demands that we burn old ladies, or destroy living planets, we don’t have to play the game. There are better paths. It’s time to imagine them and pursue them.