The Spanish Inquisition


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“So with all that, about the Medieval inquisitors, let’s jump forward on that timeline as I mentioned to now the 15th Century where you have the creation of these institutional tribunals like I mentioned to you, the most famous one being the Spanish Inquisition.

Now the Spanish Inquisition is a bit unique in history. The reason why it came about was because of a unique situation in Spain at the time. Spain was a unique place in Christendom, because you had the three major faiths of the world all present, all living together in Spain at the time. You had Christians, you have Jews, and you have Muslims, right, so unlike any other place throughout Christendom. And so this created a unique and interesting situation for the Spanish people as whole.

And the Inquisition was called to really address a special situation in Spain. And this situation was the situation that’s known as the conversos, or people who were known as conversos. And what these people were, these were people, these conversos, were people who had converted from Judaism or from Islam to being Catholic. So they were converts to the faith, but they were converts from Judaism and Islam.

Now most conversos, most of those who converted from those backgrounds, those conversions were authentic. There were a few conversions that were false, and there were some who converted who still maintained their Jewish and their Islamic kind of cultural traditions and cultural heritage. So many, especially Jews, who became conversos would still live together in the community. And there might be Jews who were with people who were still practicing Jews, but then also Jews who had converted to the Catholic faith living together in the same community. Many of these conversos still practiced kosher, so they didn’t eat certain foods. They maintained certain parts of their cultural heritage and tradition.

And so what grew up in Spain then, is you had these what became known as Old Christians, began to look at these people who had been Catholic and lived in Spain for generations and generations, they began to look at these New Catholics, these conversos with kind of a suspicious eye. Many of them were upset at the success of many of these conversos. Some of them kind of worked their way up through the Church as well as through society in Spain, and so they became really jealous of their success. And so theories and rumors began, conspiracy theories began to be spread about the conversos that they were still secret Jews. You know, that they were still secret Muslims. And how could we trust them, they’re really traitors.

This was before the completion of the Reconquista, or the deliberation of Spain from Muslim forces, didn’t happen until 1492. But for 20 years here you’re still dealing with a situation where there are Muslim armies and Muslim groups predominantly in the south of Spain, and so these Old Christians could say, “Well, these conversos could open the gates of the city to an Islamic army to come in and kills us. And how do we know that they’re actually Catholic?” That kind of thing.

Now, this is, you know, these rumors are just that, they were rumors and they were conspiracy theories. They’re not based on any kind of historical accuracy whatsoever. But we all know how rumors work, right, and how scapegoats and how people begin to point to other minority groups. We’ve seen that throughout our history, throughout human history, especially in the most recent last Century, the 20th Century. So this kind of got out of control, rumors and conspiracy theories.

So ultimately what happened was the Crown, King Fernando and Queen Isabella, asked the Pope to grant them authority to establish an Inquisition to investigate the situation of these conversos. And that’s exactly what happened. So Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 grants that authority, the Crown then has authority now to establish an Inquisition in Spain, an institutional tribunal that had the job of investigating this converso situation. And so they did that.

Now one thing is to look at this in more detail you see that really the reason why the Spanish Inquisition was created was through politics, when you look more deeply at this. The Crown wanted to consolidate their power, especially in the south of Spain. When you look at where the Spanish Inquisition was really established, it was in the south of Spain, especially in the cities, in the urban areas, areas that were not completely under the Crown’s control. So a lot of this was generated by politics.

There was also concern, they began to believe these conspiracy theories about whether or not these conversos were, to use modern parlance, a national security risk. Now, were these people really a threat to our national security? Well we really need to figure that out. So it was again more focused on that than on really the faith, although that was an element of it.

Now again, the Spanish Inquisition, just like the Medieval inquisitors, only had jurisdiction over those who had been baptized, right? So practicing Jews, practicing Muslims had nothing to fear from the Spanish Inquisition. It was only those who had been baptized. Conversos, any others. Any baptized person was liable to be brought before the Inquisition if they were suspected of being a heretic.

So how this was organized was, again, this was under royal and not Papal control. As you go through the history of the Spanish Inquisition, there’s actually – even in the early parts of it, there were some abuses that began to be shown to light. This got back to Pope Sixtus IX, some irregularities in how the Inquisition was handling itself and handling cases. He sent a letter; Pope Sixtus did, to the Spanish authorities to try to combat that abuse. King Fernando got wind of that and was very upset, sent a letter back to the Pope, which was really a rebuke to the Pope, saying, “What are you doing? You gave me authority to hold this Inquisition in Spain. This is my country, this is my area, this is my territory, I have control of it, not you.”

Very different situation from what we experience with the Church today in terms of things, right? But that’s the way it was then. So it was really a royal organ, not necessarily an organ of the Church at all. There was an organization to it, there was a Council of six members appointed by the King. This Council was presided over by the Inquisitor General, and then what happened was the Inquisitor General then would establish institutional tribunals in certain cities throughout Spain. As I mentioned, most of these were in the south of Spain.

And they were governed; the procedures were governed by a set of rules very similar to those that the Papal inquisitors also utilized. The first set of these procedures was issued in 1484 by the infamous Tomás de Torquemada, who was one of the first Inquisitor Generals of the Spanish Inquisition.

So how they operated was very similar to how the Medieval inquisitors, as I mentioned, operated. These inquisitors would come into a town, they’d establish the Inquisition, they would then preach at Sunday mass or at a special feast day. “We are here, here’s the faith, if you know of anyone, or if you yourself have embraced heresies, come and tell us.” They do the same things, they’d issue an edict of grace or a period of grace for anywhere from 30 to 40 days where you could voluntarily come and confess. You would receive a light penance if you did so. If you came during this period of grace, your goods, your property, would not be confiscated. If you didn’t do that and you were brought before the tribunal later, the Inquisition later, your goods, your property was confiscated.

So after the period of grace, then there was a period of denunciations where people could come and say, you know, “I say Farmer Joe going to this meeting with other people, he’s engaging in heretical activity, I just know it.” They would come and give testimony before the inquisitors; they would then try to gather evidence to see if this was correct.

So the system of justice at the time, both secular and Church, relied on the collaboration of the community. That’s one thing to keep in mind, is that the Spanish Inquisition was actually – it was not an unpopular thing. Were there critics of it in Spain at the time? Yes. But was there like a huge revolt against it or were the people upset with it? No, they weren’t at all. And in fact, it wouldn’t have existed for as long as it did if there wasn’t support from the people and also obviously support from the Crown.

So now the accused would come before the inquisitors, who would assess the evidence of whether or not someone was suspected of heresy. If there was enough evidence, either material evidence or verbal evidence to believe someone was a heretic, then you would be brought before the tribunal and an arrest warrant was actually issued for you, you would be arrested, brought before the tribunal, your goods confiscated for the length of the trial, and you would be placed in jail. And you were actually placed in an ecclesiastical jail, a church jail.

And what’s interesting is that Church jails at this time were much better than any secular jail. And we actually have accounts, this is somewhat humorous, but you actually have accounts of people who are accused of secular crimes being in a secular jail actually blaspheming in the secular jail so that they would be considered a heretic and moved to an ecclesiastical jail because the conditions were so much better in the Church jail. So the Church actually took care of people much better, in a better way than those in the secular world did as well.

So as I mentioned, the goods of the accused were confiscated and inventoried. If you were found innocent or if you confessed, then your goods were given back. If you were convicted, if you were obstinate in your heresy and you were remanded to the State, then your goods were confiscated by the Inquisition.

Now, what’s different from the Spanish Inquisition and the Medieval inquisitors was that you were actually allowed, the accused were allowed an advocate. So kind of like a lawyer, somebody to advocate for your side, someone who could call witnesses, someone who could disavow witnesses who came before the inquisition.

You were also afforded the opportunity to provide a list of people who hated you, who maybe owed you money or who had some kind of bias against you. You could give that list to the inquisitors and then they would check off that list with anybody who would come and give testimony against you and they would immediately just reject that testimony, because obviously you had either a dog in the fight, you had some animus against the accused and so they wanted to make sure that this was really, you know, a good legal system and something that was based on authentic legal principle.

So again, you could call favorable witnesses, you could disable hostile witnesses, you could present extenuating circumstances, “Yes, I said this blasphemous thing, but I was drunk at the time so I was not within my complete wits, it was not of my free will.” “Okay, fine.” You could plead insanity, you could say I was young and I was just young and stupid, I didn’t know what I was saying. I didn’t understand the faith, I was dumb. And all these things were admissible, and the inquisitors would look at it and if found to be true then you either would receive a form of penance or you’d be let go.

Now in terms of torture in the Spanish Inquisition, this is very similar to the Medieval inquisitors, very, very similar. Again, it was rarely used. Just like in the Medieval period of time it was used only once. It’s estimated by one historian that it was only used in about 2 percent of the cases. Right, so 98 percent of the time, 98 percent of the cases, torture was never, ever used. Again, this is a complete contrast to that myth that the Inquisition was all about torture and killing millions of people.

Again, it was used much less frequently than in secular courts. Torture was a staple part of the secular judicial system in 15th Century Spain, but not so in the Spanish Inquisition. It was limited to only 15 minutes in duration, and all torture sessions were carefully recorded. Inquisitors, representatives of the Bishop and a secretary were all required to be there. So there were multiple people there, it was not just one person and the accused or the inquisitors and the accused, there were other witnesses present as well.

Also, doctors were required to be there, because the intent was not to maim or kill or permanently hurt someone, it was, again, it was a form of physical punishment to elicit a confession, not used as a form of punishment. Again, same thing like the Medieval inquisitors, if you confessed under torture, they waited a day and the day after you had to then repeat that confession to make sure that it was valid and legitimate.

Now, once you have gone through the process, you’ve had this hearing, evidence has been collected against you, you’ve been given the opportunity multiple times to repent. Let’s say you did repent, or maybe you didn’t and you’re obstinate in your heresy, then the inquisitors would pass a sentence. And in some cases this was issued privately, but also in the Spanish Inquisition you had something unique called the auto-da-fé, which is just a Latin term which means an act of faith, right, the act of faith.

And so you would go into the public area, usually the public main square of the town, the inquisitors would process all of those who had been accused of heresy into the town and then their sentences would be publicly read, so everyone knew what, you know, Farmer Joe received, what kind of sentence he received from the Inquisition.

Now, some of the verdicts that were possible, is you could be acquitted. Not enough evidence presented to say that you actually were heretic, fine, you’re acquitted and let go. If you confessed and you repented, then you were given a form of penance, right, just like the Medieval inquisitors. In some cases you were called to wear what was known as a sambenito, or an actual garment. It was yellow in color that either one or two diagonal crosses on it and you had to wear that any time you went outside your house. You didn’t have to wear it inside. But any time you went outside the house you had to wear this. You had to wear it for either a certain period of time or through the rest of your life, it depended on your particular case.

Other cases, other punishments where you were given a fine, a monetary fine, you could be banished from the region, just from the towns, sent someplace else. You could also be sent to prison. Now, when we think of prison we think of highly guarded, efficient prison systems like we have in our country and other places. But in this case it wasn’t the situation. There wasn’t really a effective and well-established penal system or correctional facilities.

So what they did instead was, even if you were given like a lifetime imprisonment, that usually only amounted to about ten years. In most of the cases, prison was spent either in your own house, so you were under house arrest, or you were sent to a monastery, had to spend time at a monastery, or you were sent to a hospital. There was really no well-established correctional facilities where you whiled away your time for your life or for ten or so years. It was rarely ever in an actual jail, it was in those other situations.

Also, you could be physically punished as well. In some cases that was flogging. Now again, if you were a obstinate heretic, and you refused after multiple opportunities to confess, then you were remanded to the State just as in the Medieval period of time, and then the State, the punishment for heresy in the secular world was death. And so, most of those who had been remanded to the State were executed by being burned at the stake.

Now what are some numbers here for the Spanish Inquisition? Remember again, it was against Canon law for the Church to execute anyone, so she did not do the execution, the inquisitors handed over, remanded the person to the State, they performed the execution. And so some numbers here. At the height of the Spanish Inquisition, from 1480 to 1530, the height of the period of time when the Inquisition was really active in Spain, it’s estimated that there were 2000 individuals who were remanded to the State and executed. Two thousand, all right, this is a far cry from the millions that most people think or that the myths have perpetuated.

So that equates to, if you do the math, about 40 people a year. In other places, in other times, you look at the 350 years of the entire Inquisition; this Inquisition of Spain lasted for a long period of time, for about 350 years. Of the whole time of the Inquisition, about 4000 people in Spain were executed as a whole. Again, far cry from the millions that most people think, or again, most critics of the Church will cite or will say.

Now, what’s interesting is if you compare the Spanish Inquisition to what also is going on during the time of its existence in other places in Europe, mostly Protestant countries, although not solely. But you had this witch craze going on, especially in the 17th Century, in the 1600s. You had witches being burned at the stake. One historian has estimated 60,000 women, mostly women, there were some men, who were burned at the stake for being witches, mostly in Protestant countries.

What’s interesting is if you look at the history of the Spanish Inquisition and also the Inquisition in the Italian city-states at the time, there was really no cases of burning of witches. The reason for that is because once it was known in Spain, for example, that somebody was accused of being a witch, the inquisitors went and investigated and they said, “There’s no witchcraft here, this person’s just delusional, suffering from some mental issues, but not a heretic and not a witch, not a threat to anybody, we don’t need to do anything.”

Same thing in the Italian city states in Rome and other places. Very little, if any, persecution of witches in those areas. But in Protestant countries, Germany and areas of France, and other places, high, high level of persecution of witches. So it’s very interesting to make that kind of distinction.

So again, one assessment from an historian, it’s clear that for most of its existence, the Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death, either in intention or in capability. It had an execution rate of well under 2 percent of the accused. Again, 98 percent of the cases did not result in any form of death at all.

Now again, the Inquisition in Spain had support from the people. It wasn’t necessarily overly popular, but there wasn’t a huge uprising against it. In fact, it would only have occurred and lasted for as long as it did with support from the people. It lasted, as I mentioned, for a long period of time, from 1478 to basically 1834 was the final act of suppression.

Now, what did the Spanish Inquisition bring to Spain? If we look at this objectively, we see that in Spain, Spain was different than these other countries in Christendom at the time. Spain, because of the Inquisition actually, had religious peace. So when you get to that early part of the 16th Century and later, this is a period of time of the Protestant Revolution, when Christendom is breaking apart because you have Lutherans Zwingli and Calvin and others preaching this heresy, preaching different teachings from the faith and pulling people away from the Church into Protestantism.

That didn’t happen in Spain. In fact there very, very few Protestants that ever were erupted or ever came about in Spain as a whole. Also in Europe as you go along in the 17th Century, there’s religious wars. Remember after every heresy there is usually a violent period of warfare. In Europe in particular in Germany of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th Century, horrific amount of death and destruction during that time. Spain was freed from all that, right, there was no religious war, there was no conflict, there was no horrific violence during that period of time at all, at least within Spain.

And so what’s interesting too is when you look at this, there’s very limited impact on the people of Spain as a whole. As I mentioned, the Spanish Inquisition was really rooted and centered in urban areas. So if you lived outside of the urban areas, outside of the towns, you lived in the rural areas, you had no contact at all with the Inquisition. One historian has written this, he said, “The evidence suggests that the Inquisition never built up in organizational apparatus of social control, and that its impact on the daily lives of most Spaniards was infrequent and marginal.”

Now contrast that with the myth that people have about the Spanish Inquisition that it was this all-powerful, omniscient Inquisition that controlled everything about the lives of people in Spain. It’s just not true at all.

So how do we have these myths, I mean how does this come about? And we’ll end with this. How do we come about with all of these different myths? Well, really what happens is, once you get into the – as I mentioned, the 16th Century and the rise of Protestantism, you begin to see a tax on the Church. So, different Protestant authors began to use the printing press to write books, to write tracks against the Spanish Inquisition, and to really create this propaganda against the Church. To create the myth that millions of people were being tortured and being executed for the faith. That the Inquisition really was this monolithic organization bent on controlling the minds of everyone, and that’s just not true at all.

Again, this was the creation of different Protestant authors and the enlightenment period which you get into the 17th and 18th Century in France. It also picks up and then you have your modern day critics as well, who gravitate towards these false narratives that have their origins in the 16th Century, and then they continue to maintain it. Not at all supported by historical fact whatsoever.

What’s interesting is, when the major historian of the Spanish Inquisition, a man by the name of Henry Kamen, wrote a book, originally I think it was back in the ‘70s called The Spanish Inquisition, based on the historical record at the time, what he believed, and it was very, very critical and it kind of went along with a lot of different myths and whatnot that had previously – that had come from the Protestants and other authors.

But fast-forward a few years from there in the ‘90s, he writes a revision to that book, and so now his book is called The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. And he basically rewrote his book based on new information and new documents that he had uncovered in a new look at the whole Spanish Inquisition. And he overturned previously what he had believed, and he saw that this Inquisition was not what these false narratives present.

And this is what he wrote about the effect of the Spanish Inquisition. He said, “Indeed, the Inquisition meddled very much less than we might think. Both defenders and opponents of the Inquisition have accepted without question the image of an omniscient, omnipotent tribunal whose fingers reached into every corner of the land. For the Inquisition to have been as powerful as suggested, the 50 or so inquisitors in Spain would need to have had an extensive bureaucracy, a reliable system of informers, regular income, and the cooperation of the secular and ecclesiastical authorities. At no time did it have any of those.”

So this whole myth of this Spanish Inquisition is again just that, it’s a myth, not supported by historical fact. So whether we’re talking about the Papal inquisitors or the Spanish Inquisition, obviously we need to be armed with historical fact, we need to be able to understand the context in which these events happened in society, in Christendom and in the Church itself so that when we are approached by those in our family, our co-workers or others that come to us and say, “Hey, what about the Spanish Inquisition, what about the killing of millions of people,” we have an ability to talk to them and to engage them and provide historical fact for them so we can defend the Church.”


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