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Instrucción de la Inquisición de Sevilla

The Inquisition undoubtedly shaped the long period of Spanish History Spain from 1478 to 1834. Its mark still remains evident today in the frequent use of words such as “inquisitive” and “inquisitorial” which are usually spoken in reference to intolerance towards the ideas, beliefs or practices of others.

The word “inquisition”, however, originally had much more to do with specific characteristics of the specific penal process carried out during the Late Middle Ages. These characteristics were the investigative, careful and methodical actions carried out by the judge in order to discover the truth. In this way, years later, Sebastián de Covarrubias stated in his work Tesoro de la lengua castellana (Treasury of Castilian Language) (1611) that the word “inquirir” [inquire] meant “buscar, pesquisar, preguntar, hacer diligencia para saber la verdad de algún hecho” [to search, investigate, show diligence to know the truth about some fact], where “la pesquisa por excelencia” [the search for excellence] conducted by the “Santo Tribunal de la Fe” [Holy Tribunal of Faith], for which the inquisitors were its “integérrimos jueces” [most honorable judges]. The author of this first monolingual dictionary of the Spanish language must have known something about this since he was, in fact, consultor of the Holy Office.

Indeed, in light of the previous criminal process, based on the accusation, defense and proof of the facts provided to the judge by the parties and in which the accuser also ran the risk of being condemned if the guilt of the accused was not successfully demonstrated, the final centuries of the Middle Ages involved the development of the inquisitive judicial process where the judge not only made his ruling, but had also previously investigated the crimes, captured the guilty and tried the cases. This model of criminal prosecution, the basic principles of which spread throughout Europe not only in ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but also in secular jurisdiction, thanks to the publication of the “Derecho común” [Common law], the legal culture that was taught in universities and had a dual purpose, since it linked the legal system of the monarchies to that of the Church, which was called utrumque ius.

The publication of this judicial procedure saw significant development as of the end of the 12th century, following the Pope’s appointment of some inquisitor judges, with the purpose of suppressing the practice of certain heresies, which had exceeded the limited territorial jurisdiction of the bishops. Heretic practices, especially those of the Cathars and Albigensians, seriously affected the great religious and political value of Europe’s Catholic unit.

In Spain, this type of inquisition was only present in the Kingdom of Aragon, and it was unknown in Castile. However, on November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV granted a bull to the Catholic Monarchs, authorizing them to appoint inquisitors who would persecute the false converts coming from Judaism. This text can be considered the origin of the Spanish Inquisition, since it led to the creation of the Supreme Council and General Inquisition a few years later.

This Council, as higher tribunal of the Hispanic Holy Office, was presided by the Grand Inquisitor, a person appointed by the Pope upon request of the king, who was given extraordinary jurisdiction and often played an important political role in the Monarchy administration. A large network of district tribunals, usually led by two inquisitors, who were initially intended to be a jurist and a theologian, depended on this Council.

The geographical jurisdiction of this Inquisition extended from Castile to most lands of the Spanish Monarchy, meaning that the crimes falling under its competence ceased to be those exclusively related to the false conversion of Jews and Muslims as well as Lutheranism, and gradually included other types of crimes, such as bigamy, sexual offenses, superstitions and blasphemies, since it was understood that such behaviors could entail a distorted, and possibly heretical, interpretation of the Church’s dogma and doctrine.

In this sense, any dissenting opinions could be considered a crime of heresy, something exceptionally serious, since this crime has the nature of a “crimen de lesa majestad divina y humana” [crime of divine and human lèse-majesté], in other words: against the law of God and the law of man. This was especially relevant if similar beliefs were shared among groups, “sectas” [sects] or “conventículos” [conventicles].

The Spanish Inquisition was also responsible for literary censorship and the control of printed books abroad, however, this censorship should not be confused with the censorship practiced by the temporal authorities prior to the publication of the books. For this reason, it is even more interesting to see how the universal Hispanic hegemony occurred at the height of the inquisitorial power and despite the apparent contradiction with the oppressive nature of its activity, one of the most notable phenomena of the universal culture arose, which was the “Golden Age” of Spanish arts and thought.

Relación, Madrid, 1723

Such contradiction between efficient inquisitorial censorship and the essential exercise of freedom required by all intellectual and artistic creations is, without a doubt, a phenomenon worth of study and reflection.

With this approach, the Inquisition, as a mixed ecclesiastical and political judicial institution, sought to control not only the written and verbal acts and manifestations that could be considered crimes of heresy, but also the conscience of individuals themselves. This was carried out in the interest of saving the soul of the potential heretic, or simple heterodox, as well as benefiting the moral and political well-being of society.

This is clearly an unexplainable phenomenon from our current Western mindset, but it is true that it was accepted by nearly all of Europe’s political societies of the Old Regime. Therefore, without having the slightest interest in starting black legends or pink legends about said type of intolerance, I believe that the Spanish Inquisition was no more cruel or bloody than the Inquisition of other Catholic or Protestant countries.

Furthermore, it is demonstrated that its procedures, as compared to other jurisdictions, usually provided guarantees such that the types of torture practiced, such as the “potro” [the rack], were more psychological than gory. Even the number of death sentences was relatively low, especially if we compare this number to the thousands of women who were burned at the stake throughout Europe during the same years. What is true is that the Spanish Inquisition worked better and more efficiently than the other European inquisitions.

Another notable aspect of the inquisitorial action was the secrecy that enshrouded all matters related to the actions of the Holy Office. The Inquisition itself affirmed, as recounted by Eduardo Galván, that in secrecy there was todo su poder y autoridad..., pues cuanto más secretas son las materias que en él se tratan, son tenidas por sagradas y estimadas de las personas que de ellas no tienen noticia [all its power and authority..., since the greater the secrecy of the matters addressed therein, the more holy and esteemed they are by those who know nothing about them].

Thus, one circular approved by the Supreme Council, of 1607, imposed secrecy with the following terms: […] que la observancia del dicho secreto, demás de las cosas de la fe o en qualquiera manera dependientes de ella sea y se entienda a sí mismo de los votos, órdenes, determinaciones, cartas del Consejo en todas partes y materias sin dar noticia de ellas a las partes ni a personas fuera del secreto [the observance of said secrecy, in addition to the matters of faith or in any way dependent thereon, shall be and is understood from the votes, orders, resolutions and circulars of the Council for all parties and matters without providing information about them to parties or people excluded from secrecy]. Another circular from the same Supreme Council, of 1647, established that the printers must not print any document en hechos, o en derechos, sobre causas o negocios de fe o dependientes, a favor o en contra del reo, ni sobre otro negocio que toque al Santo Oficio [about the facts or rights of the cases or matters of faith or dependent thereon, in favor or against the prisoner, nor about other matters involving the Holy Office] without express permission from the Grand Inquisitor or the Council, under the penalty of excommunication and the considerable fine of one hundred ducats.

Even the so-called Instrucciones [Instructions], which were the regulatory fundamental norms of the actions of the Inquisition, were included in this policy of “secrecy”, which made it so that they failed to have one of the essential aspects of any legal norm: publicity.

It is true that it was considered appropriate to print them for better distribution and for internal use, as evidenced by several documents provided in this exhibition, but, as mentioned, the knowledge and use of these documents were strictly limited to tribunals of the Holy Office.

Experienced inquisitors wrote detailed manuals of the procedural practice, which were the subject of previous exhibitions organized by Bibliotheca Sefarad, but this type of knowledge of the “style” or methods of the inquisitorial procedure was also strictly limited to judges and other officials who were sworn to secrecy.

Henry C. Lea narrates an anecdote which demonstrates the extent to which this inquisitorial secrecy was defended. As it seems, shortly after the approval of the Instrucciones of 1561, a well-known jurist of the time had the audacity to ask for a copy of them. Then the prosecutor, to whom the request of this counsel was given, declare that granting said request was unprecedented. He also stated that the parties could not make inquiries about the methods of the tribunal since the Instrucciones had been exclusively approved to guide them, whereas others could only get to know them through their procedural application. This strict prosecutor made his decision taking into consideration that if the inquisitorial Instrucciones became part of public knowledge, ill-intentioned people could argue about whether the “style” of the Inquisition was good or bad.

Alegación de Pedro Romo de Ortega

These considerations not only highlight the interest in, but also the usefulness of the documents that comprise this exhibition. It is true that inquisitorial regulations and documentation lost its secretive nature two centuries ago; however, its application and development by the Supreme Council, through the many, well-selected documents displayed, offers a novel and original perspective. This is especially relevant to the numerous accounts about the autos da fé that are shown, which are quite representative of the inquisitorial activity, specifically during the 18th century. A century that is certainly closer to present day, but perhaps less known or at least less studied by the scholars of this institution.

There is just one last comment that I would like to make. Knowledge of History has a very important social purpose since it helps us see the amount of progress we have made towards recognizing human dignity, as well as making us aware of the risk of letting history repeat itself. Furthermore, it shows us the long path to perfection that still lies ahead. Nevertheless, one person, who was probably completely sane and whose intelligence was under inquisitorial watch, left us with the saying that history is: émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir [emulator of time, deposit of actions, witness of the past, example and notice for the future, warning for what is to come] (Part one, chapter IX).

For this reason, dear exhibition visitor and possible reader of these lines, I ask you to also reflect on a short passage from the famous article El Día de Difuntos de 1836 [The Day of the Dead 1836] by Mariano José de Larra, contemporary author of the final moments of the Spanish Inquisition. In said article, our Figaro uses metaphorical language to describe how he contemplated different tombs in the cemetery, and upon discovering the epitaph of one of them, he claims: Más allá: ¡Santo Dios! «Aquí yace la Inquisición, hija de la fe y del fanatismo: murió de vejez». Con todo, anduve buscando alguna nota de resurrección: o todavía no la habían puesto, o no se debía de poner nunca [Behold: Holy God! “Here lies the Inquisition, daughter of faith and fanaticism: died of old age”. Nonetheless, I was searching for a note of resurrection: either it has not yet been placed or it should never be placed].


Juan Carlos Domínguez Nafría, Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation