Inquisition in Practice

So on November 1, 1478 Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull establishing an inquisition tribunal in Castile. What made this commission unique to Spain was that the appointment of inquisitors was left in the hands of the Kings.[1] King Ferdinand—the “architect and builder” behind the Inquisition[2]—had used the precedent of Granada church appointments to win the control over tribunal selections.[3] However there was a gap of time between the bull’s issue and the appointment of the first judges. This lull caused two things to occur, the first being an attempt of the Church to win over heretics by preaching and ordinances.[4] The second event was for many converso families to flee or begin to resist.[5]. In the early years the Inquisition was a mobile one, performing visitations to various towns all over Spain actively search for heretics.[6] However these visitations were mostly ineffective in addition to being disliked—even by the inquisitors themselves.[7] In 1481 the Ferdinand and Isabel issued orders that clearly stated the main purpose of the Inquisition, to find and try Judaizers.[8]

Then in 1483 the Inquisition became institutionalized by the creation of the “Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition.” This act—while in opposition to papal protests—unified all localized inquisitor tribunals under one authority (Tomàs de Torquemada) who was under the power of the Kings.[9] To illustrate this point observe the painting to the bottom. Torquemada is not only painted at the feet of the Virgin Mary but close by the side of King Ferdinand (bottom left corner), clearly emphasizing his political power and backing.

Madonna of the Catholic Kings

Fernando Gallego, Madonna of the Catholic Kings

Once formalized the Inquisition issued standardized methods for carrying out its mission. Despite its attempts to minimize abuse and corruption of its power, the trials of the Inquisition were often utilized for social revenge.[10] Tribunals relied upon witness testimony to created evidence against the accused. In an effort to protect those testifying, names were kept secret, thus allowing for personalized attacks to come from unknown sources.[11] Personal accounts speak to the frequent occurrence of false witness,[12] and inquisitor judges themselves spoke out about the presence of injustice and corruption.[13] Also present was the regulation of who could provide reliable testimonies, regulations that often favored the prosecution, as evidenced in the case of Marina Gonzalez in 1494.[14]

Still despite these problems the tribunals were able to limit false sentencing, mostly in part to the regulations put in places. For example, inquisitors were required to have specific training and a knowledgeable understanding of canon law and/or theology.[15] Before each arrest two theologians were required to study and evaluate each case file for validity. Once arrested the accused would be given a copy of this file along with a lawyer to better prepare a defense.[16] Even before trials would begin in towns conversos were given a period of grace, which allowed them 30 days to voluntarily confess. If one chose to confess in this time frame they were absolved with no serious penalty.[17]Another difficulty the early Inquisition faced was the general uncertainty about what constituted judaizing.[18] Often the most common qualifications included keeping kosher, having Jewish friends, working on the Christian Sabbath, and/or how often one went to confession.[19] However in 1500 papers were published to clarify this uncertainty.

Even the use of torture –despite being seen as superfluous[20]–was highly regulated. Confessions gained under the use of torture were required to be verified again without any force after a period of rest.[21] Courts took special care not to inflict too much harm on the accused while using torture, and it was specifically stated that the purpose of these trials was not to “torment” the accused.[22] Often the main purpose of the trials was to find out the names of other Judaizers, or of any unconfessed sins since the inquisitors would not have arrested the defendant without already determining their guilt.[23] If found unrepentant in their heresy, the now guilty party was “relaxed to the secular arm” for punishment and execution since the church had no authority to kill.[24] Yet if proof were unclear, compurgation would be called.  In this the accused had to produce a certain number of witnesses to testify. If all swore to the fact that the defendant was a “good Christian”, he or she was realized and acquitted.[25] It can certainly be argued that the Inquisition itself—as well as the state powers that backed it—were aware of the abuses happening to its functions. Yet it actively worked to minimize these occurrences by self-policing and diligent study. However what the Inquisition could not prevent was its own affect upon the culture of early modern Spain.


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[1] Homza, Religious Authority, xvii.

[2] Netanyahun, Origins, 1005.

[3] Elliott, Imperial Spain, 102.

[4] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, xvii.

[5] Peters, Inquisition, 85.

[6] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, xviii.

[7] Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 179.

[8] Netayahun, Origins, 1012.

[9] Peters, Inquisition, 85-86. The papal protest was from Sixtus IV who realized to late the immense power he had given the crown by allowing them to choose judges.

[10] Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 18.

[11] Ibid, 182.

[12] Mary Giles, ed., Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World (Baltimore: The John Hopkings University Press, 1999), 23-24.

[13] Peters, Spanish Catholicism, 33.

[14] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, 44.

[15] Ibid, xxxii.

[16] Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 194.

[17] Ibid, 174. There is a recorded case of 337 heretics self-confessing in Mallorca.

[18] Haliczer, “The Castilian Urban Patricate,” 43.

[19] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, 22. Giles also offers some qualifications on pg.24.

[20] Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 188.

[21] Ibid. However, the period of rest was often manipulated in to simply pausing the torture.

[22] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, 46. The inquisitors state, “…they did not hold her to torment her.”

[23] Giles, Women, 39-42. The inquisitors simply want more names, and not confessions.

[24] Peters, Inquisition, 94.

[25] Homza, The Spanish Inquisition, 46.

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