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The Headsman (original title, Shadow of the Sword, 2005, dir. Simon Aeby) is not, as I’ve said before, a very good movie. But it does illustrate an interesting historiographic issue. Historiography, for those of you who aren’t history grad students, is essentially, the history of history. It’s the study of how ideas about the past have changed and evolved over time. For example, American presidents tend to be polarizing figures, and when they first depart office, there is often a strong sense among scholars about what their presidency was like. But as time goes by, more facts and documents become available, and historians acquire a sense of perspective about them, the consensus often changes. For example, in the late 60s, many historians tended to rank John F. Kennedy as a very good president, but as younger historians less swayed by Kennedy’s personal charms have begun to consider him, his reputation has tended to drift downward toward a more average presidency. There are some signs that the same thing is beginning to happen to Ronald Reagan. So when historians study these men and read the scholarly works written by them, it’s important for the historians to understand how various scholarly works fit into the evolution of scholarly thinking about that president (and presidents in general). That’s a simple example of historiography.

To me, the most jarring thing in The Headsman is the Inquisitor (Steven Berkoff). He appears about halfway through the film and pretty much becomes the villain of the piece, ordering Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to torture and execute various people, and in one scene, joining in to torture an unfortunate prostitute. Most of the tortures we see in the film are genuine practices, such as strappado and the use of pillywinks. But the film invents a form of torture, the thin wire wrapped around the fingers as you pray and then pulled tight enough to cut into the skin. The Inquisitor has no name, does not dress like a monk or priest, and instead dresses all in black, with a shaved head. So there’s no doubt that he’s evil.

The outfit he's wearing here is the one he wears through the film.

The outfit he’s wearing here is the one he wears through the film.

On the surface, the oddest detail about the Inquisitor is that he’s explicitly referred to as being Spanish. It’s never really addressed why a Spanish Inquisitor would suddenly show up in a town in Austria. The film says the Emperor sent him, but it’s never explained why the Emperor got someone to come from Spain, apparently on short notice, to handle a job that a lot of German officials could probably have handled.

So the Inquisitor initially puzzled me as a character, until I suddenly realized that the film was tapping into an old historiographic concept known as the Black Legend (La Leyenda Negra in Spanish). This was a concept first proposed in 1914 by Spanish historian Julián Juderías, in an important work of the same name. Later historians have developed the idea of the Black Legend into an important piece of historiography for Spain.

The Black Legend, according to Juderías and his followers, is the notion that Spain in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period was a uniquely cruel and barbaric society that tolerated and encouraged all manner of vicious practices that we today consider atrocities. Under the influence of the Black Legend, the Spanish government has been depicted as politically oppressive and hostile to all non-Catholics, the Spanish Church has been painted as filled with religious fanatics who opposed all religious, intellectual, and artistic freedom, and Spanish explorers have been seen as wantonly destroying three civilizations in Central and South America (the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas) out of greed and power-hunger. This idea emerged out of propaganda put forward by Spain’s political enemies and by Protestants, who found it useful to demonize the Spanish, and these ideas embedded themselves in much of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century historical thought about Spain. Spaniards of this period don’t need any justification to be cruel and evil; they just are.

A typical illustration of the Black Legend

A typical illustration of the Black Legend

One of the best known examples of the Black Legend is the infamous Spanish Inquisition. In the popular imagination, the Spanish Inquisition was a branch of the Catholic Church devoted to rooting out heresy with a zeal that allowed them to ignore the unimaginable cruelty and dehumanization they were inflicting on Jews, Protestants, witches, and other people unfortunate enough to fall into their clutched. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the Black Legend’s version of the Spanish Inquisition is the famous Monty Python sketch.

While the scene is comedy, you can see it riffing on notions of what the Spanish Inquisition was like. Michael Palin’s inquisitor says that the Spanish Inquisition’s weapons include fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. Later, they call for various horrific torture implements including the rack, the soft cushions and the comfy chair, whose mention is always accompanied by a sinister sound-spike. The idea is that these people will say and do anything they need to in order to achieve religious conformity to the pope. The Black Legend invented all sorts of horrific forms of torture for them to use; one of the more famous examples is Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, in which a razor-sharp pendulum slowly cuts a victim in half. There is never any need to explain what motivates these men; they’re just one-dimensional cruel zealots, like Berkoff’s character.

The problem with such a depiction of the Spanish Inquisition is that it is wildly inaccurate in many ways. While the Early Modern era had a variety of horrific methods of torture, their use was actually sharply controlled by canon law. In The Headsman, accused people are immediately put to torture, when in reality torture was required to be a last resort, one used only after the accused had refused repeated requests to confess voluntarily, and usually used only in the absence of witnesses. When torture became an option after repeated interrogation sessions, the accused was first shown the torture implements and urged to confess so as to avoid them. Then in a later session, the accused would be tied into an implement such as the rack and warned that if he didn’t confess, the implement would be used at a later time. Only on a third exposure to the implement was it actually used. Of course, some torturers may have ignored the mandated procedure and jumped straight to torture, but that would have been as illegal then as the police beating a confession out of a defendant would be today.

Another major flaw in the popular notion of the Spanish Inquisition is seen in Palin’s statement that they were “almost fanatically devot[ed] to the pope.” The surprising reality is that the Spanish Inquisition was not a branch of the Catholic Church at all. It was actually an arm of the Spanish monarchy, staffed by clergy but ultimately in the service of the kings of Spain. So it was in essence a political agency, charged with establishing royal power through doctrinal uniformity. It was essentially outside of papal jurisdiction, because the pope had little control over what the Spanish government did.

The idea that it was anti-intellectual is also false. In the early 17th century, at a time when there was a rising tide of witch-hunting across much of Europe, a Spanish Inquisitor conducted a series of scientific tests and determined that there was no such thing as witchcraft, and that witches were at worst people deluded into thinking they could perform magic. Most accusations of witchcraft, he concluded, were false. As a result, the Spanish Inquisition thereafter showed almost no interest in charges of witchcraft, making Spain one of the first regions of Europe to abandon witch-hunting.

None of this is intended to deny that the Spanish Inquisition did terrible things to many people. They opposed religious freedom, but then, so did every other government agency in Europe. They tortured and executed many people, but again, almost every state in Europe employed torture and execution. What the Black Legend helps us understand is that Spain was not unique in doing things we today consider monstrous. We think this only because stories circulated by Spain’s 16th and 17th century enemies found their way into conventional historiography and are still being reinforced today in films like The Headsman. Honestly, I really shouldn’t have been surprised when the Inquisitor showed up; I should have expected it in a film of this low caliber.

Want to Know More?

Tragically, The Headsman is available on Amazon as SHADOW OF THE SWORD.