The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XV. Later Historians
§ 26. Henry Charles Lea
Henry Charles Lea (1825–1909) may be placed at the head of the group. He was a prosperous Philadelphia publisher, the grandson of Mathew Carey, the publisher, nephew of Henry C. Carey, the economist, and son of Isaac Lea, a naturalist notable in his day. To this family inheritance add a general Quaker background and we may understand the origin of his desire to describe some of the most striking phases of the history of religious zeal. In two book-reviews published in 1859 he managed to introduce a great deal about compurgation, the wager of battle, and ordeals. His interest in the subject was so much aroused that he subsequently revised the essays in a volume called Superstition and Force (1866). It was followed by The History of Sacerdotal Celibacy (1867) and Studies in Church History (1869). These books were written in such hours as he could snatch from business. Convinced that the two kinds of labour could not be carried on jointly with perfect success, he gave up authorship for a time. In 1880 he was able to retire from active business and devote himself to literature. The books written in this second period are richer in the evidences of research and broader in plan and judgment. They are The History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages (3 vols., 1888), Chapters from the Religious History of Spain Connected with the Inquisition (1890), History of Auricular Confession (3 vols., 1896), The Moriscoes in Spain (1901), History of the Inquisition in Spain (4 vols., 1906–1908), and History of the Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies (1908). When Lea died he was preparing a history of witchcraft.
These works are monuments of industry and learning, and they deal with a most difficult class of phenomena in a scientific spirit. They have encountered the opposition of most Catholic writers, but some, notably Lord Acton, have given them their approval. Lea did not hesitate to lay evils at the doors to which he thought they belonged. “I have always sought,” he said “even though infinitesimally, to contribute to the betterment of the world, by indicating the consequences of evil and of inconsiderate and misdirected zeal.” He was accused of interpreting his documents improperly and of showing only the dark side of the mediæval church. As to the first point it is difficult to find a man who can pass upon its truth. Lea himself was, perhaps, the fairest critic in the field. That he was not narrowly prejudiced is shown by his treatment of the motives of Philip II in his inaugural address as president of the American Historical Association. As to the second charge, we should remember that Lea did not propose to write about the light sides of the church. He was dealing with a dark phase of history, and he did not try to make it lighter than he thought it should be made.