The Spanish Inquisition is being revived in the Windy City, in one of the city's premier palaces of intellectual diversity, the Newberry Library.

Such research centers were often targeted by the tribunals and torturers of the Inquisition as repositories of iniquity. But even the gentle librarians of the Newberry have hailed the Inquisition's arrival in the form of an exhibition titled "Faith, Law and Dissent: The Inquisition in the Early Modern World." A press release calls it a "one-of-a-kind" event. This refers to the exhibition, although the same might be said of the Inquisition itself.

The display, is the first of its kind in America, says an expert on auto-da-fe' (the term for the sentencing or burning of a heretic). It includes reproductions of hair-raising woodcuts from the period showing victims in the clutches of their religious torturers. Lacking the electricity and drugs of modern ghouls, the Inquisition's experts nevertheless set standards for frightful treatment that Hollywood is still trying to duplicate: the rack, the pulley and water torture.

Your flesh may crawl a little to learn this, but "Inquisition scholarship is one of the growth areas of European social history today," says historian Stephen Haliczer of Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, one of the curators. At an international conference at the university, nearly two dozen European and U.S. scholars delivered papers this month on the 13th-century ecclesiastical tribunals, which took shape in Italy and flourished there and in Spain and Portugal for the next 500 years.

Thousands of Jews and Moors who had converted to Catholicism were put to death, chiefly at the stake. Scores of thousands were imprisoned for long periods, had their property confiscated, were enslaved and chained to the oars of galleys or were expelled from the country.

As the 16th-century Reformation took hold, Protestants also came within the Inquisition's grasp.

These long-ago, long-distant topics of suffering seem remote from the American breadbasket. But from a historian's point of view, Haliczer says, the tribunals' records are "invaluable for the enormous insights we can gain into the way people thought hundreds of years ago."

The Inquisitors were operating a criminal court, Haliczer says, "but their concern was with crimes of thought and belief. They inquired deeply into the thought systems . . . . While the Inquisition remains a controversial and painful topic, it can tell us much about those times."

And ours, too, it seems.

"The whole interrogation was organized around getting a confession. Torture was used in secular courts; the Church used it too. Court was adjourned while the thumbscrews were applied. The screams of the victims frequently were included in the transcript."

The zeal to find and punish dissidents and disbelievers led to widespread censorship and hunts for witches, sorcerers and alchemists. All this contributed to the ossification of politics and intellectual life in Spain and Portugal, Haliczer says.

"It created an atmosphere of conformity and traditionalism," the historian says, touching on one reason why scholars in this time of confrontation between democracies and totalitarian regimes may be turning to the Inquisition with new interest.

"New ideas in law, religion and medicine were condemned. It was a very painful chapter in the history of religion," Haliczer notes. "The degree to which religious intolerance remains in the world today relates to the Inquisition."