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The Inquisition in Spain

The Inquisition stems from religious intolerance. It views heresy as an illness which must uprooted out of those who are affected, for their own sake, for they have strayed from the teachings of true soul-saving religión, and for the sake of protecting their contemporaries’ spiritual soundness and their peaceful co-existence.

Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, the Medieval Inquisition, also called the Roman Inquisition, had been created by papal authorities in the 13th century to fight heresies that had emerged in southern France and in northern Italy. Dominican friars had been tasked with the enterprise, which was carried out throughout Europe, spreading to the Kingdom of Aragon in the Spanish península. The Inquisition owes its name to the investigative nature of the inquisitor’s job. Heretics had to be uncovered and exposed before they were tried and punished.

The peaceful co-existence of believers of three different persuasions (Christians, Moslems, and Jews) grew increasingly difficult in the Middle Ages. The relationship between Jews and Christians soured badly. The very presence of Jews in Christian Spain was deemed intolerable, leading to the Expulsion decree in 1492. But cryptojudaism was suspected to run Deep. Converts were suspected to be hypocrites (ie. false converts) who actually remained Jewish. Hence the Catholic Kings’ plea to the Pope Sixt the Fourth to establish the Spanish Inquisition. The Pope obliged by issuing a bull in on the first of November 1478.

The Inquisition was first established in Castile and later spread to the Kingdom of Aragon, to Spanish dependencies in the Mediterranean and to New World dependencies (in which Native Americans were not expected to comply.).

Whereas the Roman Inquisition’s dealt with religious issues only, the Spanish Inquisition was engaged with by state authorities and occasionally made use of to address political matters (eg. the trial of Antonio Perez, Philip the Second’s secretary). The Grand Inquisitor headed the Inquisition. The top official was selected by the King for the Pope to appoint him officially. The Grand Inquisitor chaired the Council of the Supreme, the body that ruled over the entire network of Inquisition courts. In each of the courts, inquisitors labored, be them jurists or theologians, together with calificadores (whose responsibility whether the detainee’s misdeeds qualified as heresy or not), secretaries and other non-clergy collaborators called familiares of the Holy Office.

Once a specific set of beliefs or behavior had been categorized as heresy by an edict of grace or an edict of faith, once the heretics had been urged to steer a new course and repent, arraignments began, usually set off by denunciations. The defendant was then detained in solitary confinement and was not told what the pressed charges were or who had pressed them, all for security reasons. That information was disclosed to the defendant when the examination of the case was initiated. Thus is confounded the most infamous aspect of all Inquisition trial methods, is the handling of cases behind the wall of secrecy. Torture could be resorted to, as it was in regular cases tried by secular state courts. The defendant could call witnesses who would testify in his favor or reject witnesses if he knew beforehand that they wouldn’t.

Trials ended with a sentence. Occasional auto da fé were staged, grand shows rather inconsistent with the Inquisition’s deeply ingrained obsession with secrecy.

The sentence could consist in punishment or penance, reconciliation or public burning on the stake. Pennants were required to renounce their erroneous beliefs; the abjuration was termed de levi or de vehementi depending on how serious the offence was. They were convicted to wearing the sambenito (the pennants’ costume), to flogging, to incarceration, to serving as oarsman in the galleys or the burning at the stake, the latter being the punishment of choice for those who wouldn’t renounce and for relapses, i.e. second-time offenders. The execution was carried out by secular authorities that the Holy Office released, i.e. entrusted, its victims to.

Deflecting the dangers of false converts ceased to be the Spanish Inquisition’s sole raison d’être as it branched out into the fight against other types of heterodoxy, namely Protestantism. In addition, the Inquisition undertook to detect any kind of deviance from doctrinal tenets in any misdemeanor or sin. He who remarries is guilty of not accepting the holy nature of everlasting matrimony .He who fornicates is guilty of not accepting that sexual intercourse out of wedlock is a sin, and so forth. In its fight against heterodoxy in all its countless shapes and forms, the Inquisition involved itself in a large number of aspects of social life. It suspectingly watched even mystics and bigots; it took to defining socially acceptable sexual mores, to policing blasphemous speech and to censoring literature and theater. At the late stages of the Inquisition, the inquisitors took on jansenists and free masons.

The Inquisition has often been said to have been a court bent on extermination, driven by religious fanaticism. How fair is that judgment? Not that anyone would ever imagine to vindicate the burning of a single log of those ghastly stakes, nor acquiesce to even one second of the suffering of those who bravely refused to give up their beliefs to save their very lives and fell to the thuggish brutality of their contemporaries. Yet it is now accepted as historical truth that the Inquisition took the lives of 2% of those it chose to try. Not more. The most recent research has substantiated that after the bloodbath seen at the end of the fifteenth century, the total number of people burnt on stakes in all of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reached 600, in other words 3 people a year in the entire kingdom. This number is obviously dwarfed by the number of executions sentenced by secular state courts over the same period of time. In the eighteenth century, the Inquisition focused on censoring books and not very much else. The above mentioned data pale next to that of the brutal religious repression in Old Regime European countries. The witch hunts carried out in Germany and England took hundreds of thousands of lives. The French Revolution executed thirty thousand people, no less.

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, a number of liberals championed the abolition of the Inquisition. This gave rise to heated debates that culminated in the Cadix Parliament, leading to the abolition by decree on February 22nd 1813. Those figures argued that the definition and enforcement of orthodoxy was a prerogative that should be the bishops’, not any other body’s; and that detention and interrogation of suspects behind the wall of secrecy was unconstitutional. After a stop and go period in which Fernando VII’s liberals and absolutists took the reins away from each other, re-establishing the Inquisition, the Inquisition was abolished for good by decree on the fifteenth of July 1834.

The underpinning principle of contemporary Church guarantees uncompromising freedom of belief as the State does basic human rights.

The teachings of the Inquisition’s grim experience should blaze the way for absolute respect of human dignity, freedom of conscience and concord among citizens.

José Antonio Escudero Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of History. Memberand of the Spanish Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation