Inquisition, by Edward Peters (Free Press, 362 pp.; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by William S. Stafford, associate professor of church history, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria.

Did “the Inquisition” really occur, or were there merely many inquisitions throughout history? In his book Inquisition, Edward Peters, an eminent medieval historian at the University of Pennsylvania, traces the journey of inquisition through 21 centuries, from a legal procedure in ancient Roman law, through a modified use of that procedure for church discipline in the Middle Ages and early modern times, to the creation by Protestants and Enlightenment liberals of the mythical Inquisition, which has survived as an ideological whipping boy to the present day.

Peters is not chiefly interested in offering an addition to the literature on the actual historical inquisitions of the Roman church. Still less is he joining the many groups who used “the Inquisition” as a mythological darkness that would make their own light seem bright by comparison. His book is a commentary on an insight dear to modern historians: Any community relies on common patterns of thought to help define itself, and finds deviance from those patterns threatening to its integrity. Thus the Roman church established legal means (often gentler, because of their pastoral intent, than the secular courts surrounding them) to detect heretics, bring them to repentance, and to reaffirm the “orthodoxy” that kept society together.

There is a further pattern, however. Groups can define their own identity by developing an evil portrait of their enemies. Thus the Reformation created the myth of the Inquisition, a united, omnipresent, omnipotent engine of the pope to repress the gospel. The ...

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