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Spanish Inquisition Summary Essay

In talking with audiences about my new book, "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World," I've found that the same questions come up over and over. Here are the Top 10.

1. I know what the word "Inquisition" means, even use the word myself sometimes, but my history is shaky. What does it refer to?

It was a means used by the Church to enforce orthodoxy. Inquisitors would go out into troublesome regions, question people intensively, conduct tribunals and mete out punishments, sometimes harsh ones, like burning at the stake. Depending on the time and place, the targets were heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and sometimes people who held superstitious beliefs. The Inquisition everyone has heard of is the Spanish Inquisition, but there was more than one Inquisition, and the earliest, at the start of the 13th century, wasn't in Spain. And although Jews were sometimes the focus of that first Inquisition, as they primarily were in Spain, the more urgent targets were Christian heretics in the south of France and northern Italy.

2. How many people were burned at the stake?

No one really knows. The inquisitors were excellent record-keepers -- at times truly superb. One surviving document gives the expenses for an execution down to the price of the rope used to tie the victims' hands. But a lot of the records have been lost. An estimate that has wide credibility among historians is that about 2 percent of those who came before Inquisition tribunals were burned at the stake, which would mean several tens of thousands of people. The rest suffered lesser punishments.

3. Over what period of time are we talking about?

Roughly 700 years. The official start is usually given as 1231 A.D., when the pope appoints the first "inquisitors of heretical depravity." The Spanish Inquisition, which begins under Ferdinand and Isabella, doesn't end until the 19th century -- the last execution was in 1826. At the outset, the main focus was on Jews and "judaizers" -- Christian converts of Jewish ancestry who were accused of secretly adhering to Judaism. The Roman Inquisition, created to fight the Reformation, and run from the Vatican, doesn't come to an end until the 20th century.

4. Does it survive in any form? I sometimes hear about theologians today getting into trouble.

The Vatican's Congregation of the Inquisition was formally abolished in 1908 -- but it may be more correct to say it was renamed. It was turned into the Holy Office, which in the 1960s became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the department that Cardinal Josef Ratzinger ran before he became Pope Benedict XVI. It occupies the palazzo built for the Inquisition in the middle of the 16th century. And it's still the department that keeps an eye on what theologians write, sometimes calling them on the carpet.

5. Does the Inquisition explain why Spain in some ways took longer to modernize than France or England?

Historians do ask this question, but you'll get different opinions. The "yes" answer will point to the wholesale expulsion from Spain in 1492 of many thousands of Jews -- people who were often highly educated professionals. And it will point to the attempted suppression, over centuries, of intellectual inquiry of all kinds. The same kind of suppression occurred in Italy. The problem is figuring out how effective the suppression really was, not to mention disentangling the influence of the Inquisition from other factors. Bottom line, though: No one argues that the Inquisition was a force for enlightenment.

6. Did Torquemada himself have Jewish ancestry?

Historians have looked into this pretty carefully. The consensus seems to be that Tomas de Torquemada, who directed the Spanish Inquisition in its earliest (and bloodiest) years, did not have Jewish ancestry, but other members of his extended family probably did. This wouldn't have been unusual in Spain. Over the centuries there was considerable mixing among Christians, Muslims and Jews, especially in the higher ranks.

7. When I think "Inquisition," I think "torture" -- is that real or is it a myth?

Torture was an integral part of the inquisitorial process, mainly to extract confessions -- just as it was part of the systems used by secular courts of the time. Modern historians explain that the Church tried to regulate torture, establishing clear guidelines for its use. Unfortunately, limitations on torture never really work -- that's one lesson from the Inquisition, and from the recent American experience. It's never hard to justify applying a little more physical coercion once you've decided that physical coercion is fine to begin with. Medieval inquisitors, limited to one session of torture per person, sometimes conducted a second or third or fourth, arguing that it was just a "continuance" of the first.

8. Is waterboarding torture?

Vice President Dick Cheney called waterboarding "a dunk in the water." The Justice Department attempted to define torture so narrowly that nothing came up to the torture threshold unless it risked causing irreversible impairment, organ failure or death. The inquisitors believed that waterboarding was torture. That's why they used it.

9. How does the Index of Forbidden Books fit into the picture?

It was created by the Roman Inquisition to deal with the onslaught of books -- many of them advancing ideas the Church didn't like -- made possible by the printing press, and over the centuries the Index grew and grew. It existed for a very long time -- it wasn't abolished until 1966. The impulse to criticize still has some life. A decade ago Josef Ratzinger expressed concern over the "subtle seductions" of Harry Potter.

10. The "Making of the Modern World" part of your title -- what's the argument?

The Inquisition was based on intolerance and moral certainty. It tried to enforce a particular view, often with violent means. There's nothing new about hatred and persecution; human beings have been very good at this for millennia. What's new about the Inquisition is that persecution is institutionalized. It persists for generation after generation. That requires organizational tools that were being newly developed in the Middle Ages. How do you create and manage a bureaucracy? How do you collect information and organize it in a way so that you can find what you need? How do you discover what people are doing and thinking? We take the ability to do all these things for granted. When you look at the Inquisition, you see these capabilities coming into existence. You see the world becoming modern.

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10 Things You Should Know About the Inquisition

Essay on The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was the most famous of the numerous Papal Inquisition that took place during the Middle Ages. In three hundred years that it lasted, the accused, which included Jews, Moors, Lutherans, and those who were accused of practicing witchcraft, had their possessions taken by the state, their fates tried in the papal courts, and their dignity trodden by the public. Nearly forty-five thousand cases were tried in Spain and its territories, but conflicting figures show the number dead; some say nearly thirteen thousand were burned at the stake and tortured, whereas some statistics show only about nine hundred died during the Inquisition (Henningsen, 110-120). Nevertheless, the Inquisition, as it should be, is a most frowned upon time in history; the crown’s motives were Machiavellian in nature and the papal and church’s motives were ecclesiastically bigoted.


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In 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand V of Aragon to his cousin Isabella of Castile united the two most powerful provinces of Spain (Hauben, 23). During this time, Spain was becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of Spain’s wealth was contributed by the Jewish population, which was very successful during this time period because of Christian church laws against usury (Slade, 1). Prejudice against the Jews had also risen during this time, especially after a riot in 1391 incited by a Spanish archdeacon named Martinez. Martinez called for the citizens of Spain to “purge themselves of the filthy Jews”. The estimated number of victims for the riot is said to be a little over one thousand (1). After this ordeal, a number of Jews, called conversos, professed themselves as Christians to escape persecution. Many Christians were questioning the sincerity of these conversos as they began to dominate Spanish society. Many Christians believed that the conversos were not true to the faith and this blasphemy merits expulsion from Spain (Lea, The Inquisition 443). In 1478, the proof that these skeptical Christians wanted surfaced. A young man was courting a young Jewish girl. The young man was going to visit the young girl when he happened upon a congregation of Jews and conversos partaking in a “mysterious celebration”. This celebration was, in fact, the Jewish Passover. This problem was further accentuated because the Passover occurred at the same time as the Catholic Holy Week. A few months later, at the urging to the heads of the Spanish Church, Pope Sixtus issued a Papal Bull, a letter from the pope to all Christian countries, giving authority to an Inquisition (Slade, 3); however, the Spanish Crown was given authorization (Lea, The Inquistion 443).

The expulsion of Judaism was only a pretext, not the true reason of the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition; Ferdinand and Isabella had ulterior motives (Slade, 3). Ferdinand was a devious king and wished to destroy local autonomy throughout Spain. He saw the Inquisition as a weapon for furthering centralization and his political control. Ferdinand also saw the opportunity to put those imprisoned during the Inquisition to hard labor. The crown also had the chance to add to its wealth by repossessing goods and property of the accused. Both Ferdinand and Isabella had a strong religious piety and supported ecclesiastical reform in Spain. They saw Jews, Muslims, and Protestants as big threats against the Catholic Church and its well being (Hauben, 17-18). Isabella was even to have vowed during her youth to eradicate the Jewish population in Spain if given the crown. This rhetoric of racial purity was popular with the Catholics of Spain who were fed up with Jews earning most of Spain’s income and become more predominant in society. In 1478, Isabella I established the Spanish Inquisition (Slade, 3).

The Inquisition was run by the Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition, also known as the Suprema. They had jurisdiction in all matters of heresy and blasphemy. An Inquisitor General was selected by the crown to preside over the meetings of the Suprema and head the entire inquisition. In 1483, Isabella I elected the Dominican monk Tomas de Torquemada as the Inquisitor General. Torquemada was a zealous Catholic who believed that non-Catholics posed a threat to destroy the Church and the country of Spain. (Hauben, 19-21)

Thirteen local tribunals were set up all around Spain and were controlled by the Suprema. In each of these tribunals, there were two or three inquisitor-judges, a prosecutor, secretaries, and theological consultants. These local tribunals had dual duties being judicial and enforcement. Unlike judicial courts, these tribunals had the ability of investigation. An inquisitor who issued an Edict of Faith visited each tribunal every year the Edict of Faith, which was a miniature questionnaire given to Christians under the threat of excommunication to opportunity to denunciate heretics. When the tribunal saw something suspicious or something suspicious was reported it would publish an Edict of Grace, which allowed a period of thirty to forty days to all those who wished to come forward to confess their sin. Confessors were usually pardoned or only given a light sentence, but there was a catch: those who confessed must reveal his accomplices (23-25). This tactic made the Christian public spies for the tribunals; this entailed less work for the tribunal. Once the period in the Edict of Grace ended, those who were accused had their possessions taken by the state and were brought to trial (Lea, Religious History 445).

The tribunal followed a strict, secretive “guilty until proven innocent” technique in court. The only way a person could save himself from being convicted as if he made a list of his enemies, and if it contained any of his accusers, then their evidence was discontinued. However, the biggest problem in the legal procedure was that the accused never knew the identity his accusers and their witnesses. The accused was given a court appointed counselor, whose purpose was to convince the accused to make a sincere confession (25). If a confession was made, a punishment was dependent on the gravity of the offence. For example, in a case in Seville, a smith had the habit of saying: “May all of the apostles and their chief die in Heaven and sex miles around it if anyone should happen to have gone out for asparagus, or whatever he might get a hold of.” This was considered blasphemy and he was sentence to a public flogging, a mild punishment (Henningsen, Gustav, and Amiel 103). The most serious offense would be the practice of Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, or anything non-Catholic. A person accused of practicing these religions would be killed or expelled from the country. In 1492, Spain issued an Edict of Expulsion, which expelled all Jews from Spain (Slade, 3). If any Jews were left in the country, they were killed on the spot or imprisoned. Interestingly, many of the Jews that were imprisoned were sent to row and work on Christopher Columbus’ armada of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, which is known for its accidental discovery of America in 1492.

Very often, if the accused did not confess, the court would use torture to garner one. These torture tactics were administered by Torquemada in 1483 and are the most famous aspect of the Inquisition. The two most popular torture devices were the strappado or pulley and the aselli or water torment. The strappado was a device that used ropes to strap a person in by their arms and legs, and then weights were attached to the ends of these ropes. The person was raised to a certain level and then the ropes ere released. This would make the body stretch painfully, sometimes enough to produce death. The aselli was when as a person was brought to lay down on a trestle with sharp edged spikes and strapped with an iron band. Their feet would be above their heads. Using a jar, water would be poured into the mouth and nose, producing a state of near-suffocation. Then, the cords binding the person to the trestle would be tightened until it seemed the tortured’s veins would explode (4). If a confession after torture is heinous enough then that person was sent to die at an auto de fe, Portuguese for “act of faith.” An auto de fe was a public execution which the sentence of the accused was announced amongst much ceremony and celebration. The heretic was then burned at the stake to instill shock, awe, and fear of the Inquisition into the minds of the Faithful. The auto de fe’s became a morose favorite with the public (Hauben, 25).

The auto de fe had an ulterior motive. The purpose of the auto de fe was the church law that forbid the church to be a direct party in death or the shedding of blood (Lea, Religious History 345). As a result, the church “relaxed” or handed over the guilty to the secular authorities. Once handed over to secular authorities, they would be killed almost immediately. Their families were constantly harassed and were not safe from threats until they left the country (Sheriden, 268).
It is a wonder that the Inquisition lasted over three hundred years and nine monarchs. Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand I, was convinced that the Inquisition was the only way to “prevent the heresy of Luther from penetrating into Spain.” Charles II kept the Inquisition because during his reign, Spain and Portugal re-united briefly, revealing many Jews who fled to Portugal. Lastly, Charles IV supported the Inquisition because it was a means of suppressing a revolution. He feared a revolution, like the one that took place in France during his reign (Hauben, 34). The Spanish Inquisition was broken up in 1808 when the French invaded Spain, but it was not completely suppressed until 1834 (37).

The Spanish Inquisition is generally a morbid and ignored part of Spanish and Catholic history for good reason. The actual statistics of those who died in the Inquisition is conflicting; before recent research found old manuscripts and recordings of the number of cases, the number hovered around three hundred thousand, with eighty-four thousand burned at the stake. Juan Antonio Llorente, a Spanish historian and self-professed liar, gave these figures to the Church (“The Spanish Inquistion, 3). Historians have found that the total number of cases is around forty-five thousand (Henningsen, Gustav, and Amiel 111-20).

Some 200,000 Jews left Spain and its territories during the 320 years the Spanish Inquisition spanned. As a result, Spain lost a sizable percentage of its population. The expulsion of the Jews also expelled most of Spain’s wealthiest taxpayers. Spain suffered a great financial loss, which they have yet to recover from completely. Not only that, Spain was one of the few diverse European countries, housing Jews, Moors, and many other ethnicity’s. After the Inquisition’s ethnic purging, Spain has become homogenous state (Peers, 54).

Not only did Spain loose its greatest monetary resource, it also suffered a great lose in the arts. The Inquisition dampened progress in arts and technology due to the general public’s fear of the repercussions an invention or idea that did not agree with the crown would do (Henningsen, Gustav, and Amiel 134). When the majority of the Moors and Jews left Spain, they brought their pottery and glass-welding skills with them. The beautiful and renowned Moorish architecture is no more in Spain, but much of it can be found places east of Spain such as Sicily and Italy. After the Inquisition the Jews, Moors, and Muslims made a mass exodus to countries east of Spain, especially since the brief re-union of Spain and Portugal made it unsafe to reside in Portugal. The exiled ethnic groups, Moors and Jews in particular, flourished in Italy and other Eastern European countries. The Moorish glass-welding technique has been a staple in Italian art and Jewelry for more than five hundred years (Peers, 113).

Many of the racial overtones that fueled the Spanish Inquisition still exist in Spain today. There have even been reports of small towns conducting “mini-Inquisitions” in which the townspeople torture and kill those who ere accused of heresy, especially Protestantism (“The Spanish Inquisition, 3). The Catholic Church declines to acknowledge these rumors, but does contend that since Spain is 99% Catholic, it should be only expected that bigotry should occur between Catholics and a conflicting religion. The Church, however, does acknowledge that the Inquisition was a grave mistake, but states that many of the statistics and reports of torture were greatly falsified and exaggerated (Sheridan, 259-60).

Many historians agree with the Church’s claim that the statistics are exaggerated. Some even say that there were not enough Jews, Moors and Protestants in Spain to account for the number of them tortured and killed. Recently, the Nation of Islam, a radical sect of the Muslim religion, published a book that questions the actually existence of the Spanish Inquisition. They further contend that the Spanish Crown and the Jews were on amicable terms and traded Black slaves with each other. The book also accuses the Jews of bigotry and racism against Africans and the black race (Hunt, 1).

The Inquisition proved to be Spain’s biggest mistake, as its wealth has ceased since its suppression in the 19th century. It is one of the darkest periods in Spanish history. By far, the greatest number of cases tried was for Judaism (Peers, 54). These were also the cases that were tried the most severely. Although, it can be said that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella executed the Spanish Inquisition for the purity of faith and state, the materialistic and ecclesiastical desires of the crown, aristocracy, and church certainly factor into the reasons for the perpetuation of the Inquisition (Slade, 3). If there is one lesson to be learned from the Inquisition, it is to never tolerate prejudice, bigotry, and greed in any form. In retrospective, it seems so sophomoric to let for Spain to let its pride overshadow simple humanity. Hopefully, Spain would have learned its lesson by now, but judging from the repugnance modern Spain had practiced against different religions, it seems that they have not.

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