Academic journal article History Review

The Spanish Inquisition: Simon Lemieux Examines the Hard Facts about the Inquisition and Counters the Common Caricature. (Talking Points)

Academic journal article History Review

The Spanish Inquisition: Simon Lemieux Examines the Hard Facts about the Inquisition and Counters the Common Caricature. (Talking Points)

Article excerpt

The Spanish Inquisition is commonly associated with torture, cruelty and oppression; and it is often seen as a forerunner of the secret police of modern dictatorships. Yet how accurate is this picture of an institution set up in the late 15th century to root out heresy and unbelief in that land? This article aims to place the Spanish Inquisition in its correct historical context. To do this, there follows firstly an outline of its main aims, methods of operation and historical development, secondly an overview of the historiography of the institution, and finally an examination of the ways in which one can view the Inquisition.

Origins and Aims

The concept of inquisitions to root out religious heretics was not novel when, in 1478, Pope Sixtus IV authorised the creation of a Spanish inquisition. Such a body had previously operated in the Kingdom of Aragon, but had largely fallen into disuse. Castile by contrast had never experienced one. These newly united kingdoms, under joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, decided to set up such a body (which began its work in 1480) primarily to deal with the problem of the large numbers of converted Jews (Conversos) who were suspected of continuing to practise aspects of the Jewish religion after apparent conversion to Catholicism. Following the formal expulsion of all non-converted Jews from Spain in 1492, the problem of the Conversos increased. The roots of the Spanish Inquisition can therefore be traced quite clearly back to anti-Semitism. In 1518, the Inquisition became a permanently unified body under one head, the Inquisitor-General. It is worth pointing out that, from the start, the Spanish Inquisition was almost entirely controlled by the Spanish Crown rather than Rome. Its head and chief officials were royal appointees, it operated largely without reference to the Papacy, and appeals to Rome from the Inquisition were not permitted by the Crown. Importantly, throughout its existence, it was the only Spanish institution those authority ran throughout Spain.

How the Inquisition Operated

At the top was the Suprema (the Supreme Council of the Inquisition) all of whose members were appointed by the Crown. Below this were the two secretariats of Castile and Aragon, which dealt with the administration of tribunals not only in mainland Spain, but also in parts of the New World, the Balearic islands, Sardinia and Sicily. The total number of tribunals varied during the period but reached its maximum at 21 in 1638. Each tribunal normally had three inquisitors who conducted visitations across their `patch'. They relied for much of their information about suspects on the several thousand local informers known as familiars.

The historian Henry Kamen describes the procedure of the Inquisition as being founded on fear and secrecy. When inquisitors began operations in a locality, they would firstly present their credentials to the local church and secular authorities, and name the day when all locals would have to go to a high mass to hear an edict read out. This comprised a long list of offences ranging from Jewish and Muslim (and later Lutheran) heresies, to moral offences such as blasphemy, bigamy, sodomy etc. Until around 1500, there was a period of grace or amnesty, when those who came forward voluntarily to acknowledge their sins were reconciled to the church without suffering serious penalties. After 1500, however, the `edicts of grace' were replaced by `edicts of faith' which encouraged denunciation by others for the crimes and heresies listed. Prior to arrest, the evidence from the denouncers was placed before a number of theologians (calificadores) for scrutiny to decide whether the charges involved heresy (the English equivalent today might be a case going before the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether a charge should be pursued). The Inquisition was only permitted to try cases that involved heresy. …

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