Dr. Thomas O’Connor packs Cooper Hall

The College at BrockportDr. Thomas O’Connor, a professor at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Maynooth, rejects the traditional belief that the Middle Ages, particularly the Spanish Inquisition, were filled with executions and torture. O’Connor delivered a guest lecture to Brockport students and faculty in Cooper Hall on Thursday, Nov. 11.

At the 7:30 p.m. start time students and visitors were still pouring into the room. The history department faculty brought out additional chairs and asked people to sit closer together in order to accommodate the crowd, which was clearly larger than had been expected.

O’Connor was introduced by history department chair Alison Parker and by professor Owen Ireland, Ph.D. The Brockport faculty highlighted the distinguished career of O’Connor as well as the exchange program that The College at Bockport has established with NUI Maynooth.

Every fall a professor from Maynooth visits Brockport and every spring a professor from Brockport visits Maynooth. Students are encouraged to study abroad at Maynooth for a semester or a full year.

O’Connor has been at Maynooth since 1994. He has published four books and holds the dual roles of a professor and dean at the school.

“O’Connor speaks Spanish, French, German, Italian and Gaelic but will be giving tonight’s lecture in English with a slight Irish accent,” Ireland said.

O’Connor began his presentation with some pictures of the Maynooth campus, including a water color of the oldest buildings from 1799 and several pictures of the campus today.

The main topic of the lecture was “The Spanish Inquisition and the Foreigner: A New Angle on the Early Modern Irish in Europe and Farther Afield” or “something like that,” O’Connor joked.

The lecture lasted slightly more than an hour and was followed by a brief question and answer session. About three quarters of the presentation dealt with general information on the Spanish Inquisition, and the last quarter consisted of tales of the personal lives of the Irish who became involved in it.

A great deal of information on the Inquisition is housed in the Maynooth Archives, which contain the Salamanca Papers. This special collection is filled with Spanish language documents dating from 1592-1950.

Modern historical research on this and other archives has changed many scholars’ view of the Spanish Inquisition. The view from the Enlightenment onward has been that medieval Spain was “a place where human freedom could not survive.” Today scholars are examining this theory more carefully and coming to different conclusions.

O’Connor presented the Inquisition as a “system based in laws” and not as chaotic or arbitrary as previously believed. Only 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition ended in capital punishment, far less than the civil courts of the time. Moreover, the Inquisition became an instrument of social control that was demanded by the state, not the church. The main targets of the Inquisition were Catholic converts from Judaism and Islam who had fallen back to their old faiths, as well as Protestants.

No talk on the Inquisition would be complete without a discussion of death and torture. Under the system of law at the time the accused were considered guilty until proven innocent. The way to escape the charges against you was to confess or accuse someone else of worse crimes. Torture wasn’t viewed as a punishment, but rather a way to help people focus and see the truth more clearly.

O’Connor showed a medieval map of Europe as the people at the time believed it to look.

“What I love about this map is how big Ireland is and how puny the other countries are,” he joked. Highlighting the close physical proximity of Ireland and Spain, he said there had always been a close connection between the two nations.

For centuries, the Spanish have sailed north “to steal our fish,” O’Connor said. Many Irish also immigrated to Spain and Spanish colonies where they found themselves involved in the Inquisition.

The Irish abroad found themselves to have “an unfortunate association with England,” O’Connor said sarcastically.

The English were largely Protestants, making anything associated with them suspect. Some Irish brought trouble on their own heads by loudly spouting their religious views at local pubs.

“Do not drink heavily and get into a conversation about theology,” O’Connor advised.

Never afraid to speak their minds, one Irishman told the Inquisition he left his homeland because it was “the most miserable island in the world.” Judging by the large turnout and number of people interested in studying at Maynooth, it seems that some Brockport students would disagree.

Lecture at a Glance

  • The Inquisition was a “system based on laws.”
  • Only 2 percent of criminal cases ended in capital punishment.
  • The Inquisition was an instrument of social control.
  • Accused were guilty until proven innocent.
  • Confessing or accusing others was common.

Source: The Stylus

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