The Question: Perspectives on the 15th Century Spanish Inquisition
There is a fine line between certainty and zealotry; between acting for one’s perception of justice at any cost and the employment of human compassion . . . a line that once crossed can mean the difference between great accomplishment and great tragedy.
It is often taught to us that to hold strong to one’s principles is a commendable practice, and is even some of the very thread by which heroes may be woven. However, if that thread is frayed by violence and intolerance, what is woven are the robes of utter villainy. When corrupt or mislead passions go beyond the individual, and become both legally and religiously sanctified by nations, it becomes a fulcrum within our history and society that shifts us from an issue of simple criminality to complex conspiracy, or even genocide. It forces humanity to face a vital question: how does one survive when fear disguises itself as reason? The question of survival, fear, and the fallibility of so called ‘truths’ must have been in every mind when, in the year 1480, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain gained papal approval for the initiation of one of history’s most notorious doctrines: the Spanish Inquisition.
Conflict between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was nothing new to the 15th century European world, for indeed troubles had existed almost from the very beginning.
What distinguishes the Spanish Inquisition from all previous conflicts was not just the scope of human lives that it encompassed, or that such prejudices were officially written into the script of law, it was that it had become so organized and systematic and institutionalized.
Additionally, the Spanish Inquisition is notable for the amount of fear that it generated . . . it had created an entire society based on fear. Most obvious was the fear that Muslims, and more so Jews, had of persecution, but what is often neglected in our understanding is the fear within the whole of society and in particular the Inquisitors themselves. At first you might think this to be a dubious claim, after all it was the Christian Inquisitors who were the perpetrators, so what were they so afraid of? To explain this let us first take a look at the policies, motivations, and history behind it.
You could say that the story of the Inquisition starts all the way back to the 5th century B.C. during the Zoroastrian persecution in Persia. The Zoroastrians, who themselves had suffered similar persecutions, instituted laws restricting the rights of Jews. To circumvent these laws some Jews publicly denounced their faith and converted, while in secret continued to practice Judaism. This created what is commonly called crypto-Judaism: Jews whose conversion was not for spiritual purposes, rather practical/political purposes. Crypto-Judaism also occurred during the Crusades and throughout history in nations such as England where laws hampered the potential prosperity for non-Christian peoples. Jews, free from legal yet prejudicial restrictions, were in time able to prosper and gain more and more political and economic power.
In the year 1252 A.D., Pope Innocent IV officially authorized the construction of ‘holy edifices’ (Inquisitional prisons) and the invention of new devices of torture for which to
be used for the extraction of confessions from those suspected to be heretics in his Papal Bull Ad Extirpanda. He demanded that all civil rulers and all commoners must assist in the work of the Inquisition or face excommunication.
Such classic and horrible devices such as the iron maiden and the heretic’s fork arose from the warped imaginations of Inquisitional monks. These devices came to be inscribed with the motto “Glory be only to God”, but there was no glory to them or those that utilized them.
Over the following centuries techniques of ‘interrogation’ continued to be refined, and included not just physical means but also psychological means. The wearing of black robes, coercion, removing of subject’s clothes to create a sense of humiliation and vulnerability, and other such techniques that were later mimicked by Nazi Germany came to be standard practices. Many such methods that became favored involved the use of children, often as ‘witnesses’ against their parents, for it was found that children were far less resistant to such utterly cruel and inhuman methods as those pioneered by Pope Innocent IV’s faithful Inquisitors.
Women were also particularly targeted for it was believed and taught by the Church that they were the ‘impure’ sex, and thus far more prone to dealings with the Devil. Manuals outlining the ‘proper philosophies and progressions’ for Inquisitors, such as the Grand Inquisitor Bernardus Guidonis’ Practica Inquisitionis (Practice of the Inquisitor) and Nicolaus Eymerich’s (the Grand Inquisitor of Aragon) Directorium Inquisitorum were written to standardize ecclesiastical court procedures.
Cruelty had taken-on a scientific level of technique with a religious level of devotion, producing some of the very darkest chapters of our history.
During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, crypto-Judaism and the power that they had obtained over the years was foremost on the minds of government and church officials. People were told to be ever watchful of signs of crypto-Judaism, such as seeing no smoke from a person’s chimney on Saturdays. Their concern was that crypto-Jews, or ‘Conversos’ (converts) or ‘marranos’ (pigs) or ‘new Christians’ as they were commonly called, threatened not only their political power but also the solidarity of Christendom. Conversos, it was believed, were aiding Jews to circumvent the law and were ‘converting Christian souls to the heresy of Judaism’. As Cecil Roth (1899-1970) the British Jewish historian said: “infidels outside the Church to heretics inside it”, and “Jews in all but name, and Christians in nothing but form”. It was this concept of ‘subversives’, hidden within society that spurred an outbreak of general fear that spread across all of Europe. Not only did this fear take the form of anti-Semitism, but also showed itself in the widespread witch-hunts (considered a part of the Inquisition) which would result in claiming thousands of lives itself, and utilized many of the same methods of interrogation and justice as were pioneered by the Spanish Inquisitors.
Whether or not a person was actually Jewish, Muslim, a witch, a convert or a Christian really wasn’t so much the issue as was the accusation of being a ‘heretic’ of any form. Anyone who had any enemies, for really just about any reason, could have been at risk. It was not an unknown practice to accuse others with little or no evidence of support simply to rid them from your life. Because those accused had no right to legal counsel, no right to face or even know of their accusers, and favorable character references automatically meant the charge of accomplice, for those without moral concern it was an easy crime to get away with.
The mandate of the Spanish Inquisition was to ‘fight religious heresy and root-out the crypto-Jews and Muslims from the new Christian populace by any means necessary’. Many non-Christians were exiled from Spain to take residence in Italy, Germany, and other nations . . . many others were sentenced to death or died within the prisons. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that perhaps eighty to ninety percent of those who died from the Spanish Inquisition did so in the prisons without ever being officially sentenced.
Areas deemed to be burdened by an abundance of heretics were given a forty day grace period during which anyone living there could confess by recanting their ‘ill-faith’. If someone that was accused during this period did not confess to heresy in the time allowed then they would be woken in the dead of night following the fortieth day and taken to the nearest holy edifice for further questioning – by force. Property was confiscated to pay the Inquisitors, jailors, and civil authorities for their work.
Once a person was apprehended for heresy, both civil and religious representatives held an inquiry. Witnesses against the accused (never for the accused) would provide their testimony without the subject being present. The number of required witnesses varied according to the social station or caste of the accused. Bishops required no less than seventy-two witnesses, while commoners only needed two. Deacons had to have twenty-seven, dignitaries only seven, although the qualifications to be a witness against someone ultimately required little more than being able to provide a story of the slightest suspicion. If the accused was found guilty, they were taken to be “relaxed” (burned alive) in the town square so that everyone could ‘share in the victories of Christendom over the heretics’, and be themselves warned of the fate that awaited them should they dare disagree with the Church.
Exact numbers of those killed or exiled by the Spanish Inquisition are difficult and controversial due to records being lost by war and claims of exaggeration from both those critical of the Church (claiming higher numbers) and those supportive of the Church (claiming lower numbers). Predictions vary widely. Juan Antonio Llorente, the Secretary General of the Inquisition from 1789-1801 estimated that 31,912 people were killed between the years of 1480-1808, and that 341,021 people were ‘processed’.
Hernando de Pulgar, who was the personal secretary to Queen Isabella, is reported to have stated that 2,000 people were burned in the ten years from the official beginning in 1480 to the year 1490. Philip Schaff (a leading historian of the 19th century) said that 8,800 people were burned in the eighteen years of the infamous Torquemada alone, yet historian R.J. Rummel claims the number was closer to 135,000 with only less than ten percent of that being people who were actually sentenced. It seems fairly clear that the majority of victims were claimed during the Inquisition’s height from 1480-1530, but whatever the exact numbers were, nobody will ever really know for sure.
It is perhaps difficult for us to understand how human beings, while proclaiming their holiness and piety and their supposed interest in justice, could fall to such depths of true and total evil as did the Inquisitors, the Church, and the governments that they dominated. What is all the more difficult to understand is that many did and continue to believe that Inquisitional Spain was a model worthy of favorable recognition for their organization, efficiency, and legal processes. It is assumed that the Inquisitors felt their philosophies and methods to be reasonable and justified . . . simply a moral reaction to the issue of immorality.
Their fear of those with differing ideas, and of those that might have gained the power to create change beyond their control, would most likely not have been admitted. They believed it was a matter of survival. They believed it was a matter of acknowledging and taking action for the sake of truth. It is a portrait of ultimate irony that by following what they believed to be right that they created so many wrongs. The fear that they had, whether it is believed to be justified or not, proved perhaps more devastating then any plague, for what was lost was more than life . . . it was humanity itself. And the loss of that humanity continued for centuries, arguably to the present, in the form of renaissance sexism, modern interrogations of P.O.W.s, extremist Jihad, and its contribution to the glorification of power by violence. From the Jews in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the civilians of Maoist China and Stalin’s Russia, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Christians of ancient Rome, and all who have ever had to face death or disgrace for the matters of their own minds, there has been asked this most difficult question: how does one survive when fear disguises itself as reason?