British academy


The Inquisition and the Renaissance

Mr Alexander Murray FBA, University College, Oxford

Thursday 9 December 2004, 5.30pm

If our historical vocabulary were to be cut down to some two dozen basic words, the terms 'Inquisitions' and 'renaissance' would belong to it. This could not be so unless they represented fundamental markers or compass-points in our corporate sense of identity and of our place in history. The inquisition is remembered as an institution so repulsively cruel that its very name is blackballed from polite company: today’s coroners order 'inquests', governments, ‘enquiries’, when both would have been inquisitions in Latin. The Renaissance has the complementary fortune, standing for all we admire, so that – by an equal and opposite motion – no century between the ninth and nineteenth now fails to claim a 'renaissance' for at least a part of itself. Historical words gain privileges of this kind only at a price. The realities these two refer to have been torn from their contemporary context to be type-cast for modern purposes, like foreign slaves bought at a market for domestication in homes far from their own. Mr Murray's lecture will seek to restore them to their late medieval and early modern birthplace, and in doing will display them as really tow aspects of one phenomenon, the emergence – to use another term edging its perilous way into privileged historical vocabulary – of the territorial nation state.