The Spanish Inquisition

by A.R., A. B., & D. C.


Over the years there have been periods of time that have seen the massive execution of individuals in a culture. The reason for their deaths can be as trivial as hair color or as serious as religion. Time after time, aggressors have struck out against minority groups: the Nazis in Germany, the Tutsis in Africa, and, as discussedin this paper, the Spanish, during the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was an ecclestastical court whose duty was to seek out and rid the Church of any and all unorthodox beliefs. It originally began in 1223 and went to an extrem barley seen before. The Spanish Inquisition led to the deaths of thousands of Spanish Jews and Muslims. While many men contributed to these atrocities, Thomas de Torquemada was one of the key players. In addition, the complexity of the Spanish Inquisition was critical to it's imapct. Finally, the forms of punishment invented during the Inquisition were numerable and very complex. The Spanish Inquisition cast its influence on many of the peoples of the world. Hopefully it's lesson will never be forgotten.

Thomas de Torquemada lived from 1420 to 1498. Born at Valladolid, he entered the Order of Preachers as a young man. Later, he became a Dominican Friar, theologian, canonist, and Cardinal. In 1474 Torquemada was appointed Confessor to Queen Isabella. It was in this position that he used his influence to spread his ideas and vision of the upcoming Inquisition.

In 1478 King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile agreed with Pope Sixtus IV to begin the Spanish Inquisition. It was to cleanse the Church of heretics in Spain and abroad. The King and Queen had been reluctant to begin the Inquisition since the Church would need to take some of their independence for the Inquisition to work. Queen Isableea was counciled by Thomas de Torquemada to allow the Inqusistion to begin. She initially resisted, but after some time finally agreed to solicit a Papal Bull from Pope Sixtus the IV. The Papal Bull, a letter from the Pope to all the lands governed by Christianity, was issued on the date of November 1, 1478. The Bull allowed for the appointment of two or three ecclesiastical inquisitiors for the detection and suppression of heresy.

Crow (1963) said, "The Inquisition was always under the control of the Crown, and it was efficiently used to increase the royal power by depriving the suspected converts of their lands, their wealth, and their influence." (p. 145) The Inquisition began as persecution against Muslims and Jews, but then turned against political opponents to try and give national unity to their domains. The inquisition was organized so that a high council of five apolistic inquisitors assisted the Grand Inquisitor, who was initially Thomas de Torquemada. This served as the Chief Inquisitorial court in the land. There were nineteen lesser courts that operated in Spain and three others that worked in the colonies. A council of administration called La Suprema was added, and this had jurisdicition over all measures concerning the Christian faith. The council, similar to the high court, was run by the Inquisitor General. "Inquisitor General had direct access to the sovereign and exercised absolute and unlimited power over the whole population and was superior to all human law. No rank high or low escaped his jurisdiction." (Crow, 1963, p.27) In February of 1482, seven additional inquisitors were commissioned by the Pope. The first inquisitor General appointed by the Pope and backed by Isabella, was Thomas de Torquemada.

Eliade (1967) noted that between 1484 and 1498 Torquemada set down the basic procedure of the Inquisition in a series of Instrucciones. The 54 procedures were published in 1576. Major Arthur Griffits (1991) stated "Thomas de Torquemada was rigid and unbending and knew no compromise." (p.28) Ironically, Torquemada had descended from a Jewish family, yet during the Inquisition, he was harsher toward people of Jewish heritage than any other. In 1492 he supported the expulsion of the Jews from the newly united Spain. Then in February of 1482, seven additional inquisitors were commissioned by the Pope. This was just the beginning in a long line of indignities passed on to the Jewish people and numerous other peoples.

Chief among the cause of the Inquisition was the envy and hatred of the Jews in Spain. Anti-Semitism started in Spain for many reasons. First, Jews had become prominent in their communities and were very wealthy. Also, the Moorish rulers extended welcomes to them that ordinary Spaniards never saw. In addition, the Jews were known to practice usury, and that helped to spark the Inquisition.

Jews were forbidden to mix freely with Christians, their residences restriced to certain limited quarters, they were subjec to irksome, sumptuary regulations, de barred from all display in drress, forbidden to carry valuable ornaments or wear expensive clothes, and they were held up to scorn by being compelled to appear in a distinctive, unbecoming garb, the badge or emlem of their social inferiority. Jews were also interdicted from following certain professions and callings. They might not study or practice medicine, might not be apothecaries, nurses, vitners, grocers or tavern keepers, were forbidden to act as stewards to the nobility or as farmers or collectors of the public revenue.

(Griffiths, 1991, p.19)

Thomas de Torquemada died before the end of the Inquisition. However, there were several other Inquisitor Generals who would push the Inquisition farther along the road of anti-Semitism. These people increased the bitterness of the Inquisition to prove their loyalty to Christianity and to Spain. The Inquisition was accepted at first as an agent of public protection, but the Inquisition quickly became a public menace.

The Inquisition allowed for anybody, rich or poor, criminal or exile, to accuse somebody that they thought was a heretic. According to Bahr (1993), "Informers were encouraged to accuse those they suspected, but the accused were never confronted by their accusers, and the convicted were not allowed to appeal to the Pope." (p.40) There were many different ways of proving a heretic. Some of them almost anybody could be guilty of and some of them were directed toward a specific sector of the population. Lloyd (1968) commented, "The presumptive proofs of guilt were as clearly defined as they were commonplace. It was enough that a suspect wore his best suit on the Jewish Sabbath, that he ate with Jews, that he washed a corpse in warm water, that his children had Hebrew names, and so on-habits sustained by countless converts, sincere or dishonest." (p.19)Crow(1963) added, "For Moors bathing was presumed to be prima facie evidence of apostasy...The phrase "The accused was known to take baths...'is common in the records of the Inquisition." (p.149) If ancestors of anybody had any Jewish blood, that person could be taken as a heretic. Vives (1967) noted, "...if a man wanted to avoid the rigors of the Inquisition and social ostracism, he had to prove that not only was he a faithful Catholic, but that he was not a convert, and that his ancestors had all been Catholic. A process known as "The cleanliness of one's blood." (p.93n) The cleanliness of ones' blood gave way for Lope de Vega's quote: "I am a man, Although of humble breed, Clean of blood and never stained by Hebrew or Moorish." (Griffiths, 1991,p.16-17) A problem with the Inquisition is that most of the noble families of Spain had intermarried with the Jews and were therefore more susceptible to the Inquisition than the common people. In fact, King Ferdinand was of Jewish blood from his mother's side, and Thomas de Torquemada had descended from Jews who had converted. (Read, 1975)

The process that one had to go through when being charged as a heretic was complex. The many steps were difficult even for those who wanted to love. Major Arthur Griffiths (1991) explained them:

First came the denunciation, followed by the seizure and the commencement of an inquiry. The several offenses imputed were next submitted to those logical experts name 'Qualifiers' who decided 'whether there was a true bill,' in which case the procurator fiscal committed the accused to durance. Three audiences were given him... The charges were next formulated but with much prolixity and reduplication. They were not reduced t writing and delivered to the accused for slow perusal and reply, but were read over to him, hurriedly. On arraignment he was called upon to reply, then and there, to each article, to state at once whether it was true or false...If the accused persisted in denial he was allowed council, but later the council became an official of the Inquisition and naturally made only a perfunctory defense. An appeal to torture was had if the prisoner persisted in denying his guilty, in the face of plausible testimony, or if he confessed only partially to the charges against him, or if he refused to name his accomplices. (p.66)

Anybody could accuse anybody else of heresy, a son could accuse a father; a mother could accuse a daughter; a neighbor could accuse a neighbor, and all accusations whether signed or anonymous were accepted. (Griffiths (1991) refers to Llorente who explains the actions of the penitent.

As laid down in the ordinances of St. Dominica, the penitent, it was commanded should be stripped of his clothes and beaten from by a priest three Sundays in succession from the walls of the village to the gate of the church; he must not eat any kind of meat during his whole life; must abstain from fish, oil, and wine three days in the week during life, except in case of sickness or excessive labor; must wear a religious dress with a small cross embroidered on each breast; must attend mass every day, if he has the means of doing so, and vespers on Sundays and festivals; must recite the service for the day and night and repeat the patemoster seven times in the day, ten times in the evening, and twenty times at midnight. If he failed in any of these requirements he was to be burned as a relapsed heretic. (p.16-17)

If any one did not say all that he or she could or seemed reluctant to speak, the examiners occasionally ruled that torture should be used. It included the infliction of pain to every limb or organ and to almost every separate muscle and nerve. It was inflicted by the regular public executioner who was called in for the purpose and sworn to secrecy. Kamen (1965) clarified "Some common punishments were reconciliation, confiscation of property, imprisonment, exile from the locality, scourging, the galleys, relaxation, reprimand, acquittal, dismissed and suspended, or sanbenito." (p. 182) A Sanbenito was a penitential garment used in the Medieval Inquisition. It was usually a yellow garment that had one or two diagonal crosses.

Heretic to be killed wearing a Sanbenito.

People who were punished in this fashion would wear it for any period from a few months to life. "The instruments of torture were first exhibited with threats, but when once in use, it might be repeated day after day...If any irregularity occurred, such as death... the inquisitors were empowered to absolve one another." (Griffiths, 1991, p. 67) "The Galleys were devised by King Ferdinand. They constituted an economical form of punishment, and it was a cheap source of labor without using slaves."(Kamen, P. 185) "There was no sanctity in the grave for corpses of heretics were ruthlessly disinterred, mutilated and burned." (Griffiths, 1991, p. 27) As a heretic was led to the galleys or being whipped, he or she would be led through the city. During this tour the people would throw stones and shout profanities at the heretics. Women were treated much the same as men during the Inquisition. During whippings they were both led half naked through the town and were whipped on average 100-200 times

The water torture was used to extort confession. The patient was tightly bound to a potro, or ladder, the rungs of which were sharp-edged. The head was immovable fastened lower then the body, and the mouth was held open by an iron prong. A strip of linen slowly conducted water into the mouth, causing the victim to strangle and choke. Sometimes six or eight jars, each holding about a quart, were necessary to bring the desired result.

(Griffiths, 1991, p. 70-71)

If you were found guilty you were "relaxed" or ceremonially burned alive. Being burnt at the stake was the ultimate penalty during the inquisition. To be "reconciled" meant anything from denial or civil rights to life imprisonment. This usually involved the confiscation of all property. These events occurred, yet torture was usually not used until every other possible way of extracting information had failed.

The prisons were not much better than the forms of torture. Many prisons were unsuitable and often unsafe, the wearing of fetters was common. Prisoners often, incidentally, speak of their chains...More then one prisoner occupied the same room, and much evidence was secured in this way, as each hoped to lighten his own punishment by inculpating others... Writing materials were permitted, though every sheet of paper must be accounted for and delivered into an officials hands. Lights were not permitted however.

(Griffiths, 1991, p. 64-65)

The Instructions were amended in 1488 to say that the inquisitors could confine a man to his home or to another institution such as a convent or hospital, with the result that many prisoners served sentences very comfortably.

The church was unbending in it's treatment and form of punishment. The blatant lies that were told by many accusers were accepted as truth. The Inquisition was a struggle for many peoples. The Muslims, the Moors, the Jews and numerous other religions other then Christians took many losses in this time period. The Inquisition was a very tragic part in history. Yet it's lessons are there to learn from and teach younger generations so that it will not happen again.

The map at left shows the location of the main Spanish tribunals during the Inquisition. Redrawn by Alex Ross.


Works Cited
Here are two links

Mel Brooks humor site on the Spanish Inquisition from The History of the World Part I.

Monty Python's take of the Spanish Inquisition.


This webpage was written by A.R., A.B., and D.C., 3/23/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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