Inquisition, Spanish

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INQUISITION, SPANISH. Since its inception the Spanish Inquisition has been controversial. In 1478 Ferdinand of Aragón (ruled 14711504) and Isabella of Castile (ruled 14741504) requested papal permission to establish the religious tribunals in Castile. Unlike the medieval papal Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was a hybrid religious-secular institution under the authority of the crown, which appointed its officials and supervised its operation. The tribunals employed judicial procedures that were both contrary and offensive to existing Castilian legal practice. The establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in the kingdom of Aragón, which already had its own (albeit moribund) papal Inquisition, was seen as an affront to the kingdom's privileges, and one inquisitor was assassinated in the cathedral of Zaragoza in 1485. During the sixteenth century northern Protestants used the Inquisition as a cornerstone of the anti-Spanish propaganda campaign later dubbed the Black Legend. Even in its abolition the Inquisition was controversial, as it took three attempts to suppress the court, which lingered until 1834.

Since the fifteenth century the Inquisition has inspired a lively and sometimes lurid debate over the nature of its policies and practices.


The first inquisitors arrived in Seville in November 1480. Their mission was to extirpate heresy and punish the guilty. Court procedures drew on medieval inquisitorial practice, distilled into the Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicolau Eimeric in 1376. The medieval Inquisition had been founded to combat Catharism, but the Spanish Inquisition's special target was the new heresy of "Judaizing." During the fifteenth century, either by force or choice, many Spanish Jews had converted to Christianity. Some of these New Christians (conversos) continued to practice Judaism secretly while advancing rapidly in Christian society. Seville, the first city targeted by the Spanish Inquisition, was home to a large and wealthy converso community. Several hundreds of people were tried and punished in a short period of time, and similar scenes were repeated in Córdoba, Ciudad Real, Toledo, and Valencia.

The Inquisition used several degrees of sentencing. For those found guilty of heresy, there was relaxation to the secular arm of justice (for death by burning), relaxation in effigy for those heretics who had fled or previously had died, and reconciliation for those who abjured and promised to return to the Christian fold. In all cases, the property of those found guilty of heresy was confiscated. Both during and after public humiliation and sentencing at the ceremony known as the auto da fe, the condemned were obligated to wear a distinctive penitential tunic (the sanbenito ) over their clothes, and they and their male descendants were banned from holding public office for several generations. Undoubtedly, for those Old Christians who were determined to eliminate unwanted competition from the converso class, the Inquisition was an efficient weapon.

The Inquisition's formative phase lasted until 1517. A well-defined institutional structure took shape. At the top were the inquisitor general (also called the grand inquisitor; the first was Friar Tomás de Torquemada [14201498]) and the royal council, known as La Suprema. Several permanent tribunals emerged at this time, while others functioned briefly and then disappeared. During the formative years the tribunals focused almost exclusively on Judaizers. The limited evidence that survives from this period suggests that perhaps as many as 15,000 to 20,000 people were tried during this time, nowhere near the 340,592 suggested in 1808 by the Inquisition's critic and former secretary Juan Antonio Llorente (17561823). One must remember furthermore that a great many of the sentences were handed out in absentia or posthumously, so even during this period of fierce persecution about 30 to 40 percent of those arrested ultimately faced the death penalty.


The Inquisition's period of greatest influence occurred in 15691621, during the reigns of Philip II (ruled 15561598) and Philip III (ruled 15981621). Before then, under Charles V (ruled 15171556), the Inquisition had suffered from a lack of direction. Prosecution of Judaizers had run its course, and aside from prosecuting the heretics known as alumbrados and the followers of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) in the 1520s and 1530s, the tribunals were left without a well-defined mission. The decade of the 1550s changed all that, however, when Protestants were found in Seville and at the royal court at Valladolid. Under inquisitor general Fernando de Valdés (14831568), the tribunals were reformed and redirected toward combating Protestantism.

Eventually numbering a total of sixteen tribunals in Spain, two in Italy, and three in the New World, the Inquisition took over responsibility for censorship and contraband and greatly expanded its prosecution of various religious crimes. In addition to Protestants, conversos, Moriscos (converted Muslims), and foreigners, ordinary Spaniards were drawn into the tribunals, as even the most casual religious oaths and statements became worthy of scrutiny and correction. Detailed questioning of prisoners, once limited to those accused of the most heinous heresies, now was applied to the most unlikely suspects, who were usually fined a ducat or two (a heavy fine for most) and sent on their way without further ado. The large majority of all cases undertaken by the Inquisition took place during this period.

During this period each tribunal functioned at a high level of efficiency thanks to the efforts of two groups of officials, one consisting of professional, salaried career men and the other made up of unpaid volunteers. The professional core of each tribunal included two inquisitors, lawyers for the prosecution, secretaries, a jailor, a bailiff, and a doorman. Periodically one inquisitor was required to go on a circuit (the visita ) of his district, while the other inquisitor remained at home to handle business there. The tribunals relied heavily on various types of unpaid officials. First, there were the two networks of familiars and comisarios. The familiars were laymen charged with carrying messages and arresting suspects and delivering them to the Inquisition, but they were not spies and informers. The comisarios were priests who assisted in the gathering of evidence at the local level. To assess the heretical content of the accusations, the inquisitors were advised by theologians known as calificadores. At key stages in a trial inquisitors were required to consult with voting members of the tribunal, who voted on whether or not to indict, torture, and convict. Cases involving the death penalty were sent to the Suprema for review and approval, and each tribunal

Cases in the Spanish Inquisition, 15401700
(Excludes the tribunals of Cuenca, Cerdaña, and Palermo)
Judaizers Moriscos Protestants All Others Total Total Relaxed
4,397 10,817 3,646 25,814 44,674 1,604
9.8% 23.2% 8.1% 57.8% 100.0% 3.5%
Adapted from Jaime Contreras and Gustav Henningsen, "Forty-four Thousand Cases of the Spanish Inquisition (15401700): Analysis of a Historical Data Bank," in Henningsen and Tedeschi, 116. Included in the category "All Others" are propositions and blasphemy (27.1%), bigamy and solicitation (8.4%), acts against the Inquisition (7.5%), superstition (7.9%), and various (6.8%). The "Total Relaxed" involves only those sentenced to death in person.

was required to maintain detailed correspondence with the Suprema about all of its affairs.

The period 15691621 also witnessed a series of controversial trials. First, the archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain, Bartolomé de Carranza (15031576), was sucked into the vortex of court intrigue that consumed the early years of Philip II's reign. Carranza's trial, which lasted from 1559 to 1576, started in Spain and ended in Rome. He was all but exonerated of the charges of heresy in 1576 but died shortly thereafter. A second politically motivated trial was the case of Philip II's secretary Antonio Pérez (15391611), who was implicated in the murder of another secretary. After Pérez escaped to Aragón in 1590, Philip tried to recapture him using the Inquisition of Zaragoza. The use of the Inquisition in this manner provoked such widespread discontent in Aragón that Philip was forced to order in the army. Despite these two famous cases, such overt political abuse of the Holy Office's power was rare. However, the Inquisition believed it was entirely justified in closely monitoring Spain's spiritual writers and preachers, who were suspected of having Protestant tendencies. Nowadays the list of those tried or called in for questioning reads like a who's who of Spain's most famous religious men and women, including, among others, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint John of Ávila, Friar Luis de Granada, Saint Francisco de Borja, Friar Francisco de Osuna, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and Friar Luis de León.


The Inquisition declined with the Spanish empire in the seventeenth century. As the tribunals pulled back from their ambitious program of vigilance, caseloads and revenue fell. The tribunals focused on cases of Portuguese conversos living in Spain, witchcraft and superstition, and censorship. In the eighteenth century the Inquisition could not stop the slow spread of Enlightenment ideas to Spain, and the country's intellectuals increasingly began to see the tribunals as out of step with the times. With the Napoleonic invasion of 1808, the courts were suppressed for the first time, at the hands of French officials and Spanish liberals. Conservative nationalists, however, fighting for independence and the return of Ferdinand VII (ruled 1808, 18141833), claimed that the court was the guardian of Spanish identity and morals. The Inquisition was restored without powers in 1814, only to undergo a lingering death between 1820 and 1834.

The Holy Office was suppressed for the final time by official decree in 1834, but historians have argued about its significance ever since. In the nineteenth century Protestant historians and Spanish liberals blamed Spain's backwardness on the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, which were seen as having terrorized the country, suppressed the basic rights of freedom of speech and religion, and retarded economic growth and scientific thought. In the twentieth century, with the advent of murderous anti-Semitic and totalitarian regimes, the focus shifted to understanding the Inquisition's role in the long history of the persecution of Jews and repression of entire populations. Under the pro-Catholic dictatorship of Francisco Franco (18921975; ruled 19391975), censorship prevented Spaniards from freely evaluating the Inquisition's legacy, and in the 1970s the most objective work was carried out by foreign historians interested in the new social history and history of mentalités. After the collapse of the regime in 1975, Spaniards in the 1980s and 1990s joined in a renaissance of Inquisition studies to understand their country's complex history. The large body of scholarship produced since 1975 has considerably modified and fleshed out understandings of the Holy Office, which has come to be seen as considerably less monolithic and ruthless than was previously thought.

See also Catholicism; Conversos; Ferdinand of Aragón ; Isabella of Castile ; Persecution ; Philip II (Spain) ; Spain .


Primary Sources

Beinart, Haim, ed. Records of the Trials of the Spanish Inquisition in Ciudad Real. 3 vols. Jerusalem, 1974.

Eimeric, Nicolau, and Francisco Peña. Le manuel des inquisiteurs. Translated and introduced by Louis Sala-Molins. Paris, 1973.

Jiménez Monteserín, Miguel, ed. Introducción a la Inquisición española: Documentos básicos para el estudio del Santo Oficio. Madrid, 1980.

Secondary Sources

Alcalá, Ángel, ed. The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial Mind. Boulder, Colo., 1987.

Bennassar, Bartolomé. L'Inquisition espagnole: XVeXIXe siècle. Paris, 1979.

Contreras, Jaime. El Santo Oficio de la Inquisición en Galicia, 15601700. Madrid, 1982.

Dedieu, Jean-Pierre. L'administration de la foi: L'Inquisition de Tolède, XVIeXVIIIe siècles. Madrid, 1989.

García Cárcel, Ricardo. Orígenes de la Inquisición española: El tribunal de Valencia, 14781530. Barcelona, 1976.

Haliczer, Stephen. Inquisition and Society in the Kingdom of Valencia, 14781834. Berkeley, 1990.

Henningsen, Gustav, and John Tedeschi, eds. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods. DeKalb, Ill., 1986.

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. London, 1997.

Lea, Henry Charles. A History of the Inquisition of Spain. 4 vols. New York, 19061907.

Monter, William. Frontiers of Heresy: The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Nalle, Sara Tilghman. Mad for God: BartoloméSánchez, the Secret Messiah of Cardenete. Charlottesville, Va., 2001.

Starr-LeBeau, Gretchen D. In the Shadow of the Virgin: Inquisitors, Friars, and Conversos in Guadalupe, Spain. Princeton, 2003.

Sara Tilghman Nalle