No one expects The Spanish Inquistion! The Truth behind the Myth

Nicholas Schofield FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

The Black Legend

We recall standing before a book store window on Maria-Hilfenstrasse in Viennain July 1939, when the Nazi propaganda was in high gear, and seeing the bloodcurdling display of posters and pictures of imaginary scenes from the Inquisition. “See there,” Goebbels was saying, “that is what will happen to you if we do not rescue you from the Church.” [The Truth About the Inquisition John A. O'Brien, 1950, Paulist Press, p.5]
Dark dungeons, hooded henchmen, terrible tortures and brutal burnings all constitute the traditional image of the Inquisition, neatly summing up for critics of the Church the repressive, sinister side of Catholicism. The ‘Black Legend’ of the Inquisition has existed for well over four hundred years, receiving an early manifesto in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and gaining a contemporary make-over in the famous Monty Python sketch, which, despite the tongue-in-cheek humour, presents the tribunal in terms of ‘fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope,’ making it an ever-present threat in society - ’no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.’

The Inquisition is regularly listed as an example of the Church’s violent and corrupt past, often alongside that of the Crusades. In the aftermath of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture in September 2006, Turkish journalist Abdulhamid Bilici argued that ‘the church is trying to cover up its vicious acts which began with the Crusades, the Inquisition, and continued with colonialism and fascist movements in modern times.’ Likewise, Sandeep Banerjee of the Times Of India suggested that ‘the Spanish Inquisition could lay claim to being one of the bloodiest chapters of human history, scripted by the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office the current Pope once headed before his elevation.’

Understanding the Past

One of the most challenging tasks of a historian is to understand the mentalities of past ages, which so often seem completely alien to our own. The Inquisition was the product of a period when religious orthodoxy and unity were seen as paramount. It is hard for us to enter into this mindset, living as we do in the pluralistic twenty-first century, where religious liberty is widely accepted as a basic human right. It is crucial to remember that Church and State were inextricably linked up until the French Revolution. While faith today is treated as little more than a lifestyle option, in the past religious orthodoxy was equated with social order and security and thus became an important concern for any regime. Heresy was a crime that affected both Church and State and sincethe time of the Emperor Justinian (483-565) had had ecclesiastical and secular penalties.

Indeed the identification of religious heterodoxy with treason is not unique to the Catholic Church. Plato held that a State had the duty of prosecuting those who dissented from the official religion. The Catholic historian,William Thomas Walsh, even placed Moses as the ‘first real inquisitor, as a Torquemada would have understood the word’ and referred to the Prophet’s first descent from Mount Sinai and the slaughter of 3,000 men who had indulged in idolatry around the Golden Calf. Moreover, from St Alban to St Thomas More, the Church’s martyrs have suffered because their beliefs were seen to threaten the political status quo.

Heresy comes from the Greek, heresies, which means ‘choice.’ Heretics had chosen to leave the One True Fold and in doing so they threatened the religious, social, cultural and political order. It was perfectly understandable that the Inquisition should emerge from such a mentality - to put a check on heresy, ensure orthodoxy and, strange though it might seem, promote peace, security and unity.


To avoid any confusion, we need to recognise that over the centuries there have been several ’Inquisitions’ in various parts of the Christian West, created to deal with different crises. In a sense, every bishop is called to be an ‘inquisitor,’ watching his flock for signs of ideas and practices that go against the Faith, correcting and, where necessary, cutting off. The first Inquisitions were not centralised bodies, like those of later centuries, but consisted of individual Inquisitors appointed by the Church to investigate heresy in a particular area. Their first major concern was with the dualist heresy of Catharism, which was concentrated in southwestern France. It has been estimated that in mid-thirteenth-century Languedoc about 1\% of cases resulted in execution, 10\%imprisonment and the rest lesser penances. By the 1330s the heresy had disappeared from the area. The fourteenth-century Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard Gui, author of Practica Inquisitionis is famously portrayed in the film version of The Name of Rose as a bloodthirsty fanatic. However, he condemned just forty-two heretics to death during his fifteen years of office.

The Roman Inquisition was established by Paul III in 1542 (Licet ab initio) as a way of centralising the various episcopal tribunals under the authority of the Pope and pushing forward the Catholic Reformation, with a special focus on combating Protestantism. The Holy Office’s importance can be seen in the number of its officials who went on to become Pope: its first head, Gian Pietro Carafa (Paul IV), Michele Ghisleri (St Pius V), Felice Peretti (Sixtus V) and Giovanni Antonio Fachinetti (Blessed Innocent XI). Although it does not suffer from as dark an image as the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition has often been criticised for condemning the pantheism of Giordano Bruno (burned on the Campo de’Fiori, Rome in 1600) and the heliocentric theories of Galileo(condemned in 1632). It came very near to trying Cardinal Pole (the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury) and investigated Cardinal Morone (later a key figure in the third session of the Council of Trent), both suspected of Protestant sympathies. The Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition was renamed the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1908, and, in 1965, became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, aiming to ‘promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.’ Its former Prefect, Benedict XVI, has, of course, often been referred to by his critics as the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ who dared silence the likes of Leonardo Boff, Tissa Balasuriya and Charles Curran.

It is also worth noting that from 1536 an Inquisition existed in Portugal and its territories (including Goa and Brazil). Full discussions of these tribunals would require separate articles. Here we are concerned with a brief survey of the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

What was the Spanish Inquisition?

Ferdinand and Isabella founded the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 and it was eventually suppressed by the second Queen Isabella in 1834. The late fifteenth century had seen the effective union of the Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the culmination of the reconquista, with the capture of the Islamic kingdom of Granada (1492). The Inquisition became a powerful instrument to ensure unity of faith, now that Christianity was triumphant, and also unity between Aragon and Castile, for it was the only institution that operated in both kingdoms.

Ferdinand and Isabella are called the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ and it was during their reign that Catholicism became the dominant force in the Iberian peninsula. Medieval Spain was characterised by the uneasy coexistence (or convivencia) of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It was one of the few Western countries that had not expelled the Jewish community - English critics of the Inquisition forget that the Jews were expelled from this country in 1290. Despite living in separate areas called aljamas and being barred from public office, the Jews made an important contribution to society, especially in the fields of medicine, trade and banking. Indeed it was this wealth and influence, together with their virtual escape from the horror of the Black Death (partly due to their separatealjamas), that caused rising anti-Semitism.

A Time of Tension, Fear and Unrest

Rumours regularly circulated that the Jews were poisoning wells, desecrating the Blessed Sacrament or ritually crucifying Christian children. In 1391 roughly a third of the Jews in Christian Spain were massacred and a further third chose to convert to the Faith rather than suffer further persecution. These became known as the ‘New Christians’ or conversos. Although many of these rose to high positions, tensions still remained, especially during times of crisis, and many suspected the conversos of secretly maintaining Jewish customs and beliefs and thus threatening the order of society.

This was the original concern of the Inquisition. Conversos were investigated not so much for explicitly denying their new creed, but for continuing Jewish practices, such as reading Hebrew texts, marking the Sabbath and eating unleavened bread. The first decades of the Inquisition was its most brutal period and perhaps as many as 2,000 victims, mostly conversos, were burnt at the stake between 1480 and 1530. The Inquisitor of Córdoba sent 134 conversos to their deaths over a six-month period between 1504 and 1505, although he was later dismissed for his zeal.

The Jews themselves were not normally subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, although there were exceptions, as in 1490 when six Jews were convicted of kidnapping and murdering a young Christian boy at La Guardia, near Toledo. Unsurprisingly the ‘conversos problem’ irreparably damaged the coexistence of the Christian and Jewish communities. In 1492, the same year as the victorious conquest of Granada, a royal edict gave the Jews the choice of either converting or leaving Spain. Since about half the Jews chose baptism the edict of expulsion increased the converso population and the workload of the Inquisition.

Heresy Seen as Social Subversion

With the expulsion of the Jews, the Moorish community, centred on Valencia and Granada, now found itself increasingly vulnerable. Although valued, like the Jews, for their contribution to the economy, the reconquista spirit still remained at the heart of Spanish society and the Moors were particularly feared for their natural allegiance to the Ottoman Turks, the great scourge of Christendom. After the fall of Granada in 1492, the Muslim community was promised religious freedom but, ten years later, were given an ultimatum to either convert or leave Spain. The majority chose to stay and were carefully watched by the Inquisition in case they showed signs of secretly returning to their old ways, such as using Arabic, keeping Ramadan, wearing Moorish costume or even dancing thezambra. The Moriscos were eventually expelled by Philip III between 1609 and 1614.

However, the secret followers of Judaism and Islam only constituted part of the Inquisition’s brief. There were other enemies within Spanish society. The Inquisition tracked down followers of the Humanists and, more critically, the Illuminists or Alumbrados, who promoted a personalist, mystical religion which denied the necessity of the Church and public worship. This campaign led to encounters between the Inquisition and a number of saints and mystics, including the chief pillars of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. St Ignatius of Loyola was questioned for his Erasmian and Illuminist sympathies in 1526 and the Spiritual Exercises was included on the Inquisition’s Index of censored books. In 1531 St John of Avila was imprisoned for his view that ‘it was better to give almsthan to found chaplaincies,’ a view which had much in common with Illuminism, but he was eventually cleared. His great disciple, St Teresa of Avila, was also suspected of the alumbrado heresy and her autobiography was impounded until four years after her death.

Fear of Protestant Influence

In the late 1550s two Protestant ‘cells’ were uncovered in Valladolid and Seville and new laws were passed almost immediately strengthening censorship and forbidding students to study abroad. The Inquisition directed its efforts against the perceived Protestant threat, especially in the Barcelona, Saragossa and Seville areas, and famously arrested the Spanish Primate, Bartolomé Carranza (Archbishop of Toledo and once Papal Legate to the England of Mary Tudor) for his suspected Lutheran sympathies. His case was eventually referred to Rome, where he was found to be innocent of actual heresy but ordered to reject sixteen Lutheran propositions and do penance at the convento of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Heresy understandably became identified with foreignness and a number of English, Dutch and German sailors and merchants were interrogated and punished. The first Protestant Englishman to be burnt for heresy was John Tack in Bilbao in May 1539 and other victims are celebrated in the pages of John Foxe. Spain was deemed an unsafe place to visit and treaties were made in 1604 and 1630 to protect English subjects in Spanish territory.

An Agent of Reform More Than Persecution

The Inquisition also concerned itself with more minor offences: blasphemy, superstitious behaviour, and a range of sexual crimes (fornication, bigamy, perversion and solicitation in the confessional). These ‘minor’ matters constituted around 59\% of the cases processed by the Inquisition and rarely resulted in the death sentence. Especially in the field of minor religious deviance, the Inquisition acted as an agent of Tridentine reform, correcting unorthodox beliefs, stamping out superstition and incorporating doctrinal tests into the procedures of interrogation—from 1565 the accused were asked to make the sign of the cross and recite the Pater, Ave, Credo and Salve. The Inquisition was more concerned with reconciliation and re-education than repression. The Real Inquisition

It should be noted that the Inquisition in Spain was primarily an agency of the Crown and, in this respect, it differed from the medieval and Roman Inquisitions. Although it was staffed by clerics and religious (appointed by the Crown), and its creation was approved by Sixtus V in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition was often criticised by popes and bishops. Sixtus V recommended moderation soon after the tribunal was set up, Leo X encouraged the prosecution of false witnesses and Paul III urged the Neapolitans to resist the introduction of the Inquisition by their Spanish masters (1546).

The Spanish Inquisition functioned according to a strict procedure, enshrined in Torquemada’s Instrucciones (1485). When the inquisitors arrived in a locality, the first step was the proclamation of the Edict of Grace, which listed the various heresies against the Faith and encouraged sinners to ‘relieve their consciences’. In the early days of the Tribunal, those who accused themselves voluntarily within a period of thirty or forty days were treated with mercy and offered reconciliation with the Church without severe punishment. The grandfather of St Teresa of Avila, Juan Sánchez, was a wealthy conversos who took advantage of one such Edict and accused himself of crimes that undermined the Church. He was sentenced to be paraded through the streets, along with his children,on successive Fridays, wearing the sambenito, a yellow garment of shame marked with a large green cross and tongues of fire. Humiliating as it was, he felt he was avoiding the greater dangers of arrest and imprisonment.

Rough Justice, but Comparatively Good Conditions

Along with personal confession, penitents were expected to name their accomplices. Of course, accusations depended as much on feuds and disputes as matters of real heresy. It was reported, for example, that many Jews denounced conversos because of their betrayal of Judaism, while genuine converts to Christianity were keen to inform on those who were bringing the New Christians into disrepute. If the case was deemed serious by the theological advisers (calificadores) and the accused had not themselves come forward, an arrest was made. The accused was taken to an inquisitorial prison and his or her property was confiscated until sentence was passed. The costs of his upkeep in prison were covered by items that were auctioned off. If a case was delayed the sequestration ofproperty brought great hardship to his family, although after 1561 dependants were supported by the sale of confiscated possessions.

In the popular imagination, the Inquisition was seen as a greedy body obsessed with profiting from the misery of its victims. As Helen Rawlings writes, ‘the reality was that for much of its existence the debts of the Holy Office outweighed its profits’ and the most important source of income was not confiscated property but, after 1559, the revenues of fifty-four cathedral and forty-seven collegiate canonries.

Inquisitorial prisons had high standards for the times and were inspected several times a year—indeed, there is evidence that some prisoners in secular prisons deliberately made blasphemous remarks or announced they were heretics in order to be transferred to the care of the Inquisition.

Prisoners were isolated and, since it was hoped they would examine their consciences and confess, they were not initially told of the accusation made against them or the identity of their denouncers. Torture was employed by the Inquisition, as with other tribunals of the period, although its use was limited and subject to strict controls. To take one example, out of the 400 or so conversos interrogated at Ciudad Real between 1483 and 1485, only two were definitely tortured. By the eighteenth century it was virtually unknown, and in 1816 Pope Pius VII forbade its use in any Church tribunal. Throughout the Inquisition’s history, most prisoners either confessed or were convicted on the strength of the accusations made against them.

Lurid Protestant Propaganda

However, the familiar image of the Inquisition remains the dark torture chamber, where victims faced the torments designed by the wicked inquisitor. In his famous Rise of the Dutch Republic (1855), John Motley wrote:

The torture took place at midnight, in a gloomy dungeon, dimly lighted by torches. The victim— whether man, matron, or tender virgin—was stripped naked and stretched upon the wooden bench. Water, weights, fires, pulleys, screws—all the apparatus by which the sinews could be strained without cracking, the bones bruised without breaking, and the body racked exquisitely without giving up its ghost—was now put into operation. The executioner, enveloped in a black robe from head to foot, with his eyes glaring at his victim through holes cut in the hood which muffled his face, practised successively all the forms of torture which the devilish ingenuity of the monk had invented. The imagination sickens when striving to keep pace with these dreadful realities.
There were three forms of torture used: the potro (a rack with cords that were pulled tightly around the limbs), the garrucha or strappado (the victim was raised in the air with a heavy weight tied to his feet, normally resulting in dislocation) and the toca (the pouring of a large quantity of water down the victim’s throat). The torturers were not evil-minded friars but, in most cases, public executioners hired for the session. Most of the ‘ingenious’ tortures portrayed in novels and films were not in reality used by the Inquisition. One of the more bizarre of these was the ‘Iron Virgin.’ Indeed, so controversial was it that the Catholic Truth Society published a pamphlet on the subject in 1897. The Iron Virgin was a hollow figure of the Blessed Virgin that embraced the victim with sharpiron spikes—‘two entered his eyes, other pierced his back, his chest, and in fact, impaled him alive in such a manner that he lingered in the most agonising torture. When death relieved the poor wretch from his agonies, perhaps after days, a trap-door in the base was pulled open and the body was allowed to fall into the moat or river below.’ In actual fact, such a device was never used in Spain and was most probably a Protestant fabrication.

Auto da Fe

The inquisitorial process consisted of a series of hearings, in which both the denouncers and the defendant gave testimony. With the help of his lawyer, the accused had two strategies: abonos (finding favourable witnesses) or tachas (demonstrating that the denouncers were prejudiced). The consulta de fe then met to discuss the case and pass sentence. If the decision was not unanimous it was passed to the central Suprema.

After months, even years, of proceedings in the privacy of the Inquisition prison, the verdict was solemnised in a ceremony called the auto de fe (act of faith), either publicly (auto público general) or semi-privately (autillo). The latter was more common and the former occurred occasionally on great feasts in the presence of local worthies and large crowds. The tribunal of Toledo held twelve public autos between 1575 and 1610 and some 30,000 are said to have attended the auto of 1610 at Logroño, a town with a population of only 4,000. As Helen Rawlings explains, ‘the auto de fe was a part-religious, part-judicial ceremony that taught a lesson to all those present, the faithful and the non-faithful, of what the consequences of non-submission might be before the tribunal offaith on earth and its counterpart, the divine court on high.’ These were not orgies of mass burnings but rather, in their baroque heyday, a theatrical and symbolic expression of the supremacy of the Faith, the mercy of the Church and the order of society.

The ceremonies kicked off with a procession on the evening before, in which the Green Cross and olive branches (the Inquisitorial ‘logo’) were carried to the main square and prayers were said. The following morning Mass was celebrated, breakfast provided and a large procession formed, the condemned carrying lit candles. Two stages were erected—one for the officials and the other for the penitents. A sermon was preached (Sermón de la Fe) and sentences were then pronounced.

Death Penalties A Rarity

Penalties included the wearing of the humiliating sambenito, whipping, fines, service in the galleys, exile or imprisonment. For relapsed heretics or the impenitent, the most severe punishment was relaxation to the secular arm for execution, which took place separately from the auto de fe at the quemadero (place of burning). If the condemned repented at the last minute, they were garroted as the flames were lit. Frequently effigies were burned for those condemned in absentia.

The Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the deaths of between 3,000 and 5,000 people during its 350-year history, about 2\% of all cases, with executions peaking in the tribunal’s first fifty years (mostly converso) and at the end of the sixteenth century (mostly morisco). This is a bad enough statistic but a far cry from the exaggerated estimates made by some sensationalist writers. According to Henry Kamen, the leading revisionist historian of the Inquisition:

it has been estimated that in nineteen of the tribunals, over the period 1540-1700, under two per cent of the accused were executed (i.e. relaxed in person). If this is anywhere near the truth, it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries less than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru - possibly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe.
Around the same time, hundreds of executions took place each year in England and tens of thousands of alleged witches were put to death in northern Europe. Comparatively far more executions take place each year in the modern United States, where there were 4,863 executions between 1936 and 2005.

A Popular and Respected Institution

The Inquisition was not the repressive ‘Big Brother’ that some writers have described. For much of its existence it was under-staffed, poorly financed and totally dependent on the support and co-operation of the local population. Remote areas such as Galicia and the Basque country were seldom visited by inquisitors. The Inquisition also seems to have been popular—or at least respected—for much of its existence, despite the fear that it inevitably generated in some quarters. It was regarded as a guarantee of stability and a pillar of society. As Henry Kamen pointed out:

the tribunal was, after all, not a despotic body imposed on them tyrannically, but a logical expression of the social prejudices prevalent in their midst. It was created to deal with a problem of heresy, and as long as the problem was deemed to exist people seemed faith as the problem was deemed to exist people seemed to accept it. At every moment the inquisitors were convinced that the people were with them, and they were not necessarily wrong…. At no time in ancien régime Spain—neither in the Castilian revolts of 1520 nor the Andalusian urban risings of 1648 nor in any other act of social unrest—did the populace attack the Inquisition as a religious institution.
Summing Up

The Inquisition was half a legal tribunal (with its interrogations, trials and sentencing) and half an extension of the confessional (concerned with the examination of conscience and reconciliation with the Church). The secrecy of its operation - prisoners even being made to swear not to reveal anything about their experiences on their release - inevitably led to a ‘Black Legend.’ However, recent research has confirmed the traditional arguments of Catholic apologists and backs up the following extract from an article on the Inquisition in the Dublin Review of 1850:
The secret arrests and mysterious disappearances will The secret arrests and mysterious disappearances will prove to be the purest invention. An arrest under the order of the Inquisition involved a minute and rigorous previous enquiry and, in later times, required a royal assent. The bolts and chains, under the weight of which the prisoners are described as groaning, are no less creatures of the novelist’s fancy; the use of such restrictions being entirely unknown, except when they were necessary to restrain a determined suicide. The abodes of perpetual darkness, to which the heroes of so many harrowing narratives are condemned, turn out to be lightsome and airsome chambers; and all the other horrors popularly attributed to the material of the system, are equally the result ofprejudice or of dishonesty.
The Truth Behind the Myth

American Catholic apologist, Karl Keating, has asked exactly what the Inquisition proves about the Church:

That the Church contains sinners? Guilty as charged.
That the Church contains sinners? Guilty as charged. That at times sinners have reached positions of authority? Ditto. That even otherwise good Catholics, afire with zeal, sometimes lose their balance? True, all true, but such charges could be made and verified if the Inquisition never existed.
The Inquisition remains in some ways a most unfortunate The Inquisition remains in some ways a most unfortunate episode in the history of the Church and its effects could indeed be cruel and repressive. However, much of its activity has been misunderstood and exaggerated and its work needs to be seen in the context of the times and alongside the more positive aspects of the Catholic Reformation, such as the foundation of new religious Orders and the education of the Catholic clergy and laity. As we have seen, the Inquisition aimed to promote peace, unity, reconciliation with the Church and, in the case of religious ignorance and superstition, re-education.

Perhaps we might even borrow the words of Monty Perhaps we might even borrow the words of Monty Python and say in conclusion: no one expects the truth behind the myth of the Spanish Inquisition.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2007