Modern Inquisitions

Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World

Modern Inquisitions

Latin America Otherwise

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Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 13 illus. Published: October 2004

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Andes

Trying to understand how “civilized” people could embrace fascism, Hannah Arendt searched for a precedent in modern Western history. She found it in nineteenth-century colonialism, with its mix of bureaucratic rule, racial superiority, and appeals to rationality. Modern Inquisitions takes Arendt’s insights into the barbaric underside of Western civilization and moves them back to the sixteenth century and seventeenth, when Spanish colonialism dominated the globe. Irene Silverblatt describes how the modern world developed in tandem with Spanish imperialism and argues that key characteristics of the modern state are evident in the workings of the Inquisition. Her analysis of the tribunal’s persecution of women and men in colonial Peru illuminates modernity’s intricate “dance of bureaucracy and race.”

Drawing on extensive research in Peruvian and Spanish archives, Silverblatt uses church records, evangelizing sermons, and missionary guides to explore how the emerging modern world was built, experienced, and understood by colonists, native peoples, and Inquisition officials: Early missionaries preached about world history and about the races and nations that inhabited the globe; Inquisitors, able bureaucrats, defined who was a legitimate Spaniard as they executed heretics for “reasons of state”; the “stained blood” of Indians, blacks, and descendants of Jews and Moors was said to cause their deficient character; and native Peruvians began to call themselves Indian.

In dialogue with Arendt and other theorists of modernity, Silverblatt shows that the modern world’s underside is tied to its origins in colonialism and to its capacity to rationalize violence. Modern Inquisitions forces the reader to confront the idea that the Inquisition was not only a product of the modern world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but party to the creation of the civilized world we know today.


Modern Inquisitions engages with theoretical questions of the highest importance for contemporary scholarship, while also revealing intriguing aspects of personal experience and daily life in the early modern Andean world.” — James Krippner , Social History

“[F]ascinating. . . . Silverblatt’s study achieves a resonant and relevant historical understanding.” — Eric Wertheimer, Early American Literature

“Perhaps the greatest significance of Modern Inquisitions is that it highlights the difficulty of dealing with an institution that nowadays would be considered a moral and physical horror. Such understanding is so important and so uncomfortable because we know that these things are not confined to the distant past. Silverblatt herself says that Modern Inquisitions is ‘a cautionary tale’; and events in the time since the books’ publication have only served to show how timely and pertinent its central claims really are.” — Andrew Redden , Journal of Latin American Studies

“This book delivers much of what it promises so boldly in the title: a well-reasoned and richly documented argument as to how the Spanish Inquisition in the seventeenth century viceroyalty of Peru became the agent of the kind of ‘state-thinking’ and ‘race-thinking’ that were essential to the full fledged ‘modern’ European nation-states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. . . . The book should be read by any scholar concerned with these vital processes for its exceptional clarity, sweep, and cogency.” — Nils P. Jacobsen, Journal of World History

“This book is a significant contribution to debates regarding the nature of nation states as well as an interesting overview of the current state of discourse on the origins of the modern world.” — Aaron Ogletree , Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“This is a penetrating analysis, building through incremental case studies into a powerful and convincing argument. It throws much light on many elements of Peru’s colonial experience—but more startling and valuable are the ways in which its wealth of detail is brilliantly reconfigured to strip bare the crudest parts of our most recent history.” — Nicholas J. Saunders , Times Higher Education

“This rich study is a challenging read for undergraduate students, but I found it well worth the effort for the stimulating discussion it provoked, especially among students with little or no background in Latin American history. It promises to be a classic work that specialists will be unable to ignore.”
— S. Elizabeth Penry , Sixteenth Century Journal

" [A] penetrating analysis, building through incremental case studies into a powerful and convincing arguement. It throws much light on many elements of Peru's colonial experience--but more startling and valuable are the ways in which its wealth of detail is brilliantly reconfigured to strip bare the crudest parts of our most recent history." — , Times Higher Education

"[F]ascinating. . . . By providing a suggestive interpretation of the not so distant past, this book will prove valuable to scholars and graduate students alike, as well as to highly motivated undergraduates." — Carlos Pérez , History: Reviews of New Books

"A critical intervention into the nature of state structures and the elements of modernity, Modern Inquisitions reframes Peruvian history (1590s to 1640s) to reveal an intimate, cultural colonization as well as a modern, watchful, state." — Rachel Sarah O'Tolle , Journal of Anthropological Research

"Elaborated with extensive archival research and argued with great clarity, the book is an essential read for students, scholars, and general readers interested in colonial Peru, the Inquisition, and colonialism's relationship to the modern state." — Kathleen Ann Myers , American Historical Review

Modern Inquisitions is a superb inquiry into the obscured American origins of modernity. With exceptional lucidity and judicious indignation, Irene Silverblatt persuasively argues that the Spanish Inquisition in colonial Peru was a modern institution that intimately intertwined race-thinking and bureaucratic rationality. By illuminating the subterranean currents shaping the modern world, this outstanding book renders the violent civilizing hierarchies they have carved at once more comprehensible and more intolerable.” — Fernando Coronil, author of The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela

Modern Inquisitions is an extraordinary work of research and interpretation. Based on painstaking archival research in the Lima Inquisition records, it makes crucial contributions to the debates about race, state-formation, and colonialism.” — Barbara Weinstein, author of For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920–


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Irene Silverblatt is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is the author of Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. She is past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory (2001–02).

Table of Contents Back to Top
About the Series ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue 3

Three Accused Heretics 29

Inquisition as Bureaucracy 55

Mysteries of State 77

Globalization and Guinea Pigs 99

States and Stains 117

New Christians and New World Fears 141

The Inca’s Witches 161

Becoming Indian 187

Afterword 217

Appendix: Notes on Bias and Sources 227

Notes 235

Bibliography 283

Index 293
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3417-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3406-4
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