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The Spanish Inquisition: a personal view

James Wimberley

15 November 2008 rev. 1 December

These notes provide additional information, and in some cases a different interpretation, to the presentation by Chris Sharwood to the Nerja History Group on 7 November 2008.

  1. My biases: I am a practising but unorthodox Broad Church Anglican, My main inspiration is the Israeli historian Benjamin Netanyahu, of a famous Sephardic Jewish family. Whatever my biases may be, they are not in favour of the Papacy or the Roman Catholic Church. My limitations are those of any amateur essayist: my sources are limited and methods unsystematic. I make no pretence of value-free detachment, which would be an absurd abnegation of moral responsibility.

  2. From Chris' introduction: “This paper will look at the history of the efforts made by the Catholic Church to ensure that the members of that church stayed true to the faith.” (My italics.) There are two propositions here: the Inquisition was an agent of the Catholic Church; and that its aim was to extirpate heresy. These propositions express the standard view since at least Henry Lea: but neither proposition is in my opinion true for the Spanish Inquisition. They are however correct for the Languedoc Inquisition of the 12th and 13th centuries against the Cathars, the Roman Inquisition that persecuted Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and the papal Inquisition set up by Charles V in the Spanish Netherlands against Protestants. But Spain was different.

    Responsibility for the Inquisition

  3. The Spanish Inquisition was set up in 1480 by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. They had previously sought and obtained (in 1478) a bull from Pope Sixtus IV authorising the new institution. The Grand Inquisitors were at all times nominated by the Kings of Spain and only confirmed by the Popes. The friars, monks and canon lawyers who made up the staff of the Inquisition were appointed solely by the Grand Inquisitor. Neither Popes nor Spanish bishops had any say in the Inquisition's proceedings. Several Popes tried to restrain the monster they had helped set loose, to no avail. There was no appeal to Rome except for bishops: this saved the life of Archbishop Carranza of Toledo, the Primate of Spain, incarcerated from 1558 to 1576 (Pérez). We must therefore regard the Spanish Inquisition as a religious secret police of the Spanish monarchy, which should carry the lion's share of the blame for its activities.

  4. The Papacy carries a secondary responsibility as enabler. The inquisitors were clergy trained in a Catholic theology and canon law that justified their work. The Papacy should be blamed for sustaining an intellectual edifice of intolerance going back, as Chris pointed out, to Constantine. This was inherited by Orthodox, Catholic and early Protestant churches alike, but Catholicism alone developed specialized organizational structures and legal procedures for persecution of heresy. The Languedoc Inquisition, a papal creation that had survived in Aragon, provided a ready-made institutional model and procedures, helpfully laid out in a detailed handbook by Nicolas Eymeric in 1376. And 22 Popes weakly signed on the dotted line the nominations of the 51 Grand Inquisitors that 12 Kings of Spain stubbornly sent to them1.

  5. Once created, the Inquisition, like other secret police forces, became a powerful body within the state, pursuing its own survival and self-aggrandizement. Its support for the limpieza de sangre movement for instance arose from its own racist ideology, not royal policy. The conversos brought to heel, the Inquisition found new enemies, both real – Lutherans, homosexuals, bigamists – and imaginary – illuminists and humanists. Even under fairly enlightened 18th-century monarchs, the Spanish Inquisition was able to hold on. Its Portuguese counterpart was emasculated by the capable and ruthless Marquis of Pombal, exploiting the aftermath of the great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 (Green).

    Purpose of the Inquisition

  6. The stated original purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to combat a dangerous heresy among Spanish Catholics, large-scale “judaizing”. The allegation was that large numbers of “New Christians” or conversos2, descended from the majority of Spanish Jews forced to convert in the period 1391-1412, had reverted to their ancestral faith and were practising it in secret. However, there are good reasons for doubting this claim, using several strong independent lines of evidence. I list these in rising order of importance.

  7. The first is that converso spokesmen vigorously denied the charges throughout the 15th century. They would have, wouldn't they? But the spokesmen were some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, the uncle of the infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomás, and Alonso de Cartagena, bishop of Burgos. They were supported by Old Christian writers like Alonso de Oropesa, general of the Hieronymite religious order in Spain – and Oropesa was conventionally hostile to the Jews (Netanyahu).

  8. Second: it is striking that in the decades immediately following the mass conversions around 1400, when charges of judaizing would have been plausible, they were not in fact made. Other attacks on the conversos began almost immediately, concentrating on the privileged economic role that they had carried over from their forebears. (Meanwhile the surviving Jews, under a quarter of this once great community, were reduced to penury.) The Judaizing charge only emerged in 1449 during a rebellion in Toledo, accompanied by vicious anti-converso pogroms; and the accusations grew in intensity as they declined in plausibility.

  9. Third: though it burnt at least 2,000 conversos for this alleged heresy, the Inquisition was never able to produce heretical works of doctrine; nor heresiarchs; nor the Jewish proselytizers who might have encouraged it. The contrast with the Cathar heresy is striking: the records of the Languedoc Inquisition (Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou) provide clear evidence, some voluntary, of a well-organized anti-church and its elaborate dualist doctrine. The conversos' confessions of judaizing were extorted under torture and are worthless as evidence. At one point the Inquisition in Cordoba recruited recent Jewish converts to teach Jewish hymns and prayers in the prison to the suspects, to make their confessions more plausible (Green).

  10. Fourth - and decisively - contemporary Jewish rabbis in Spain and North Africa, who had every reason and opportunity to follow developments closely, were unanimous in dismissing the charges. Had the conversos really been secret Jews, the rabbis would surely have said something to that effect, and shown some sympathy. Instead they identified the Inquisition's victims as Christians falsely accused of judaizing; callously blamed them for bringing their fate on themselves by their ancestral apostasy; and treated the few converso refugees who sought admission to Judaism as gentile converts (Netanyahu). We can add here the common-sense observation that Judaism is a complicated religion. Reciting the Shema does not make one a Jew, as the shahada makes one a Muslim and baptism a Christian. Learning Judaism requires continuous and lengthy instruction from parents and rabbis, including the study of Hebrew, a difficult Semitic language with its own alphabet; its practice requires a community. Once the continuity is broken, there is no simple going back.

  11. Modern historians therefore concur that that the “judaizing heresy” was largely imaginary: fragments of Jewish practice, like avoiding pork, keeping the Sabbath and cooking with olive oil3, retained as a sign of cultural identity, were magnified into a great heretical conspiracy that simply did not exist. Netanyahu goes further, saying that the distinguishing characteristic of the Spanish, compared to other inquisitions, was that it was fraudulent, based on a mammoth deception.

  12. We must then ask what the real purpose and motive was of the Inquisition's creation. There are three possibilities.

  13. One: the Inquisition was based on a genuine belief in the fantastical heresy. The confessions extorted by torture fed both the flames of the quemaderos4 and also the fires of the persecutors' self-deceptive zeal. We cannot rule out this explanation as absurd a priori. History offers too numerous examples of genocidal persecutions based on total fantasy: the “blood libels” of the Middle Ages in which Jews were accused of ritual murders of Christian children and sorceries involving desecration of consecrated hosts; the witch craze of Northern Europe in the decades around 1600, in which tens of thousands of village women were charged with attending Black Sabbaths and copulating with the Devil; the Nazis' belief in a plague-like world conspiracy of Jews, aliens masquerading in human form; and the belief of the Khmer Rouge that their rural collectivisation was failing as a result of deliberate sabotage by peasants, for which confessions were extracted by assembly-line torture at Tuol Sleng. These beliefs were not simple distortions and exaggerations of a nugget of fact, like the nineteenth-century economic anti-semitism highlighting Jewish financiers, but total fabrications.

  14. However, such fantasies have generally been held by illiterate peasants, semi-literate agitators and urban lumpenproletariat. The Catholic Church, at its most intolerant, in every other case remained grounded in a realistic perception of its foes. The Spanish Inquisition is not the type but an outlier demanding an explanation.

  15. Torquemada and Ferdinand do not fit the delusion pattern at all: particularly Ferdinand, an educated, icily calculating and devious Renaissance prince admired by Machiavelli. From the outset, the monarchs were besieged with the justified complaints of the terrified conversos of the Inquisition's excesses and frauds; complaints they studied and ignored, like the remonstrations of the Popes. Can we really believe in Ferdinand as a credulous and stupid fanatic? Rejecting the delusion hypothesis, Netanyahu offers a two-part alternative, distinguishing between Ferdinand and the inquisitors.

  16. To explain the inquisitors, we need to backtrack. In the high Middle Ages, virulent religious anti-semitism was the norm all over Western Europe. Economic resentment in the fast-growing, insecure towns interacted with official Church preaching of the doctrine of Jewish deicide and unsanctioned, fantastical projections of the blood libel and sorcery. Pogroms and monarchs in need of popularity led to mass expulsions of Jews from England in 1290; from France in 1306 and 1394, and from many parts of Germany after the Black Death (which was widely blamed on them). Many Jews migrated to Poland-Lithuania. By 1400, the only large Jewish communities left in Western Europe were in Iberia. There anti-semitism took a new and unusual channel - because it had already triumphed elsewhere. The story does not provide reasons for others to look down on Spain.

  17. The forced conversions of 1391 and 1412 broke the back of the great Jewish communities of Spain : 400,000 converted by credible contemporary Jewish accounts, out of half a million or so. Now the Church, for all its anti-Jewish doctrine and preaching, and fudging of the invalidity of forced conversions, consistently refused to allow any religious distinctions to be drawn between Christians based on their ancestry or date of baptism. As we have seen, conversoswith their relatively high educational level – quickly reached very high office in the Church. However, the Jews had been hated not only for their patently false religion and well-known perfidy to Christ, but even more for their economic power in trade and public administration – especially in the very remunerative, highly visible, and detested office of tax farmer5. The conversos had continued to occupy exactly these unpopular economic niches, and clung to a cultural identity, refusing for instance to share in the Old Christians' anti-Judaism. They were still the objects of the same hatred, which had to seek new justifications.

  18. Netanyahu shows that the anti-converso Old Christians, starting in Toledo in 1449, developed a theory of racial anti-semitism and applied it to the group they hated. The conversos were really Jews because it was in their tainted blood. (The theory persisted for a very long time; tests of limpieza de sangrei.e. absence of Jewish ancestry – were applied well into the seventeenth century to applicants for many religious and lay offices and associations.) The theory was unorthodox, even heretical, so it could not become the official doctrine of any Catholic religious organization. But Netanyahu offers substantial evidence that it was the driving ideology of those who agitated for the Inquisition's establishment and flocked to its ranks. He even suggests the racism was genocidal; the agitators wanted the extermination or expulsion of the whole, half-million strong converso community. His evidence for this intent is slim; but then it would be: genocidal plans are not avowable, and even Hitler left no written order for the Holocaust. At all events, the Spanish monarchs had no intention of allowing the complete destruction of this valuable community.

  19. The motive of the inquisitors seems then to have been either pathological hatred of an imagined heresy, or pathological hatred of an imagined blood taint. I see no reason to think that individual psychopaths cannot hold two forms of paranoia in their minds at the same time; still less a pathological organization, which we know can mould normal people into behaviour that would in individuals be regarded as insane (Browning, Ordinary Men6). The Nazis, after all, contrived to hate both Jews and Slavs as different sorts of subhumans. The two fantasies reinforced each other perfectly: did not tainted Jewish blood predispose the conversos to heresy? And if proofs of heresy were weak, did it matter so much, since the suspects were in any case really evil Jews?

  20. The motive of Ferdinand of Aragon was neither of these, but realpolitik of the most extreme cynicism. Netanyahu's convincing account goes like this. At the outset of their reign, Ferdinand and Isabella's position was extremely fragile: they had to fight off two pretenders (Doña Juana and Alfonso of Portugal), not to mention rebellious nobles. They absolutely required the support of the urban élites; but these were embroiled in the bitter conflict between Old and New Christians. The latter had natural justice and Church doctrine on their side, but they were fewer, and more dispensable. The Catholic Monarchs came down on the side of the Old Christians. But they did not accept the agitators' goal of communal destruction. The instrument they created was designed to offer the Old Christians regular, and spectacular, sacrifices of converso scapegoats: enough to slake popular hatred, but not so many as to destroy a community that was essential to the monarchy, not least in providing capable officials. It would also bind the terrified conversos more closely to the monarchy, as long as they did not blame it directly for the persecution. That was the point of the papal bull: to provide a cloak of deniability. Ferdinand could, and did, claim with total hypocrisy that that he was merely obeying the commands of Mother Church as any good Christian monarch must. The careful deception was not only good enough in his own day, but has largely fooled posterity.

  21. We conclude that the pursuit of orthodoxy among Christians was at most only one strand in the original intent of the Inquisition, and very likely a secondary one. We should see it as primarily an anti-semitic creation: the fruit of a very strange form of anti-semitism directed at a group of Catholic Christians, but anti-semitism all the same.

  22. With time, the Inquisition evolved. Modern historians distinguish between two phases: the twenty-year anti-converso campaign of Torquemada under Ferdinand, a period of extremely intense persecution; and the long afterlife till the final abolition in 1834. In the second phase, the Inquisition sought out new enemies, first Moriscos, then Protestants, illuminists, humanists, homosexuals and so on. Even private prayer became the object of suspicion. Its activities came to fit more closely the conventional image of an arm of the Church enforcing a suffocatingly narrow Catholic orthodoxy over ever wider walks of life. It built up a huge army of “familiars”, unpaid informers who acquired immunity from the ordinary courts: 20,000 according to Pérez in the mid-17th century. This apparatus was larger than the Gestapo and anticipated the Stasi with its 300,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter. Spain became a society in which neighbours denounced neighbours for the suspiciously Moorish activity of washing, and bookshops had to keep lists of their few customers to be pored over by the piously grubby fingers of the familiars (Green).

    Effects of the Inquisition in Spain: memory

  23. A British observer is struck by the absence of memorials to the Inquisition's victims in Spain. A statue of Fray Luis de Léon, the great scholar imprisoned for four years in the 1570s (and, unusually, acquitted) stands in front of Salamanca University; but it doesn't emphasise the persecution, unlike the monument to Jan Hus in the Old Town Square in Prague. Where are the others?

  24. The contrast with England is striking. The Reformation conflicts of the sixteenth century led to the execution over about 75 years of similar numbers of both Protestants and Catholics:

    From these well-tended lists of 500 names or so, some names are quite familiar. English Catholics are likely to know at least those of Thomas More, Margaret Clitheroe, and Edmund Campion; Protestants, those of Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer7. Pretty well everybody has heard of the unsuccessful Catholic terrorist Guido Fawkes, and of the Bible translator William Tyndale, burnt as a Protestant in the Netherlands. The Spanish Inquisition very probably killed at least ten times as many, over a period of three centuries. Why the great forgetting?

  1. In England, both Catholic and Protestant communities survived, as beleaguered minority and fearful majority respectively. Each side enshrined its victims in a martyrology – Foxe's Book of Martyrs was a best-seller, installed in every cathedral, and with the Bible often the only printed book in a seventeenth-century English Protestant house. Catholic victims were beatified and canonised by the Vatican. A plaque has just been erected in Oxford to several Catholic martyrs, in an effort to counterbalance the grandiose Martyrs' Memorial (put up in 1842) to Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley. This long-running and not entirely healthy partisan game keeps memories of all the martyrs alive.

  2. In Spain, in contrast, the main victim group sought only to forget. The aim of the conversos all along had been to assimilate with the Old Christians. Eventually, and at an appalling price, they did. The limpieza de sangre movement ensured that any Jewish ancestry was concealed; still more an ancestor executed as a judaizing heretic. The Inquisition had made effective use of shame by requiring that the sanbenitos, the tabards embroidered with the flames of hell worn by condemned victims in the autos-da-fé, had to be hung in perpetuity in their parish churches. Similar reasons ensured the forgetting of those convicted for sodomy or bigamy. The other target groups, Lutherans, illuminists, in Goa even alleged Hinduizers, just disappeared.

    Effects of the Inquisition in Spain: stultification

  3. The Edwardian Protestant historian of the Inquisition, Henry Lea, opined that the principal result of the Spanish Inquisition was to stultify Spanish society and culture for several centuries. There were certainly other causes as well of the decline of Spain from its sixteenth-century pre-eminence. The cost of the endless European wars and the inflation brought about by American gold are often cited; but then France, England and most of all the rebellious Dutch Republic also faced both and still moved ahead. What is quite clear is that the centre of European intellectual life moved northwards from the Mediterranean to the North Sea in the two centuries following the founding of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions. The works of Copernicus were placed on the Index in 1632. By 1700, there was no longer a printing press in Spain with a Greek font (Green). The literature of Spain in the Golden Age flowed in restricted channels, religious, lyrical, dramatic and satirical – not philosophical, political or scientific. The writings of the Jesuit Francisco Suárez (d. 1617) on philosophy of law sparked no controversy in Spain; they were thought sufficiently important in England to be publicly burnt by James I for denying the “divine right of kings”, and influenced Grotius and Locke. Mould-breaking scientists enjoyed royal patronage in England: Harvey was appointed a physician to the court of James I, Francis Bacon was Lord Chancellor, and the dissolute Charles II sponsored the revolutionary Royal Society.

  4. Lea further suggested that the Inquisition made Spain singularly unfit to face the challenges of modernity:
    “Its method, in causing intellectual torpor and segregating the nation from all influences from abroad, only postponed the inevitable, while intensifying the disturbance when the change should come from medievalism to modernism. The nineteenth century bore, in an aggravated form, the brunt which should have fallen on the sixteenth. When the spirit of the Revolution broke in, it found a population sedulously trained to passive obedience to the State and submissiveness to the Church. It had been so long taught, by theocratic absolutism, that it must not think or reason for itself, that it had lost the power of reasoning on the great problems of life.” (Lea, IV.9.2)
    True, the birth-pangs of modernity have been violent in many countries; but in Europe, only Spain can point to three major civil wars and as many armed insurrections in the space of 120 years. The Civil War was perhaps less the great confrontation between twentieth-century ideologies seen by contemporaries, than the last gasp of the late mediaeval patterns of thought that created the pogroms of 1391.

  5. We must admit a paradox. For the great effects do not stem from the Inquisition's most striking activity, the persecution of the conversos. This caused short-term economic damage, but nobody seems to have claimed longer-term effects. It arose rather from its secondary and lesser activity against Protestants and humanists, and from its general repressive apparatus, bearing down on Spanish society over centuries. It was the multitude of small persecutions that counted for more than the fewer great ones.

    Effects of the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands

  1. The Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands was set up by Charles V in 1522 – only five years after Luther's 95 Theses. It was technically a papal inquisition distinct from its Spanish model, and was always directed against very real Protestant heresies – first Lutheran, then Anabaptist and Calvinist as well. The Calvinists in particular were quite ready, unlike the Spanish conversos, to fight back, for instance in a wave of iconoclastic riots in 1566 that culminated in the temporary seizure of power in Antwerp. In contrast to Spain, the Inquisition failed in the Netherlands. Protestant opposition grew, synergised with cultural, economic and political grievances against Spanish colonial rule, and in 1568 sparked off a full-grown insurrection.

  2. The Dutch war of independence lasted eighty years, ending officially only in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia; but in the latter part, it became a conventional conflict between two states. The religious conflict was solved by ethnic cleansing and exchange of populations. The Protestants, originally concentrated in the cities of Flanders and Brabant, ended up in Holland; and many, not all, of the northern Catholics fled to what is now Catholic Belgium. This geographical inversion explains the paucity of memorials to the victims where they died.

  3. The persecution in the Netherlands was even more violent and more chaotic than that of the conversos. The Netherlands Inquisition does not seem to have set up a comparably elaborate procedural charade to the Spanish. In the edict of 1550, reenacted by Philip II, heresy was widened to include the mere private discussion of the Bible, and any failure to denounce any such deviance. A modern historian (Israel) estimates the total number of executions in the Duke of Alva's six-year viceroyalty at 6,000. In a letter to Philip, Alva wrote of 800 executions planned in a single week. At one point in 1565 opposition to public executions led to a switch to drowning the condemned secretly in prison cells, a practice reminiscent of the cellar trials and gunshots of the NKVD (Motley).

  4. Motley even produces this:
    “On the 16th February, 1568, a sentence of the Holy Office condemned all the inhabitants of the Netherlands to death as heretics. From this universal
    doom only a few persons, especially named; were excepted. A proclamation of the King, dated ten days later, confirmed this decree of the inquisition, and ordered it to be carried into instant execution, without regard to age, sex, or condition.”
    It is unclear quite how seriously this genocidal outburst was intended; and perhaps it is better read as extreme psychological warfare, and a formal abandonment of legal process in the repression, than a real plan for a Final Solution. Either way, it is a horrific document.

  5. The nineteenth-century American historian John Lothrop Motley certainly shows a Protestant bias. His claim that the Dutch revolt was essentially a struggle for religious freedom has been qualified by twentieth-century historians like Pieter Geyl, who stressed the economic and political factors. Looking back after 9/11, we can perhaps see in their work a bias of the twentieth century against recognising the force of religion. Still, however we weight the causes, the religious conflict - and in particular the attempt to suppress Protestantism by extreme force - clearly played a major part.

  6. The revolt, and what Motley memorably called “the rise of the Dutch Republic”, was a momentous event. The ruinous cost of the war, and the Dutch seizure of the Portuguese trading empire in the Far East, accelerated the decline of Spain. Dutch successes encouraged other challengers like Elizabethan England and the France of Henri IV. The defeat of the Great Armada of 1588 was ensured by a 24-hour battle off the Flanders dunes at Gravelines, starting with Drake's night attack with fireships that led the Spanish ships to cut their anchor cables in panic. Why had the Armada chosen such a vulnerable anchorage? Because the Dutch rebels had blocked access to the safe estuary of the Scheldt and removed the marker buoys from the coastal shoals.

  7. Even more important was the invention of religious liberty. The first reformers had been no more tolerant than the Popes. Zwingli had the Anabaptist Felix Manz drowned in Zurich in 1527, and Calvin's Geneva reformers burnt Michael Servetus in 15538. Luther was more reluctant to use violence in the name of the Gospel, but during the radical Peasants' Revolt of 1525 he encouraged the princes to destroy the “faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers.” They all assumed, like Constantine, that a Christian state must have a uniform faith; Christian subjects must (literally) sing from the same hymn-book, or else the Church would consume itself in internecine doctrinal warfare and society collapse into anarchy. The practical difference with Catholic Europe was that Protestantism was divided and vulnerable, and dependent on the goodwill of pragmatic secular rulers, so theocratic persecutions were rarely feasible.

  8. Elizabeth's religious settlement of 1559 in England claimed to be tolerant as to personal belief, but was rigorously uniformitarian in practice. The distinction was untenable to many Catholics and Puritans, so the scheme was only a partial success. William the Silent, however, stood for a much deeper religious tolerance. This was a political necessity: a cautious Protestant himself, he led a fragile coalition of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics and could not afford conflict between them. But it also seems to have reflected his character and convictions. In a letter to his confidential agent, John Bazius, he condemned the persecution of Catholics:
    "Should we obtain power over any city or cities, let the communities of papists be as much
    respected and protected as possible. Let them be overcome, not by violence, but with gentle-mindedness and virtuous treatment" (Motley).

  9. William's revolutionary example and policy did not entirely guide the fledgling state he left. Its autonomous components privileged their official Calvinist religion9, and as in England Catholics were subjected to disabilities (though not treason trials). Even intra-Protestant intolerance did return once as part of a power struggle: in 1618 the followers of the Calvinist dissident Jacob Arminius were silenced or expelled from Holland for seven years. More typical was the failure of the Calvinists to agree on a single policy on the vexed question of organ music in churches (Schama). As a rule, the princes and merchant patricians that ran the complex oligarchy had no option but to maintain William's toleration. Schama:
    “The magistracy to whose charge the church itself had confided the tasks of government understood very well that any attempt to create a republic of the orthodox would not result in a unified country but would splinter it to pieces”.
    In 1656, the Sephardic philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community in Amsterdam for pantheistic views so advanced as to be anathema to Christians as well. But he was able to continue to live peacefully in Amsterdam and Leiden and earn his living grinding lenses for spectacles. Descartes, Locke and Charles II all found refuge in Holland when life was too dangerous elsewhere.

  10. The Dutch republic – formally the United Provinces of the Netherlands, a confederation without king or proper constitution – not only survived but flourished, spectacularly so. By the middle of the 17th century, it was by far the richest and most advanced society in Europe, an imperial power with a stock exchange, derivatives trading, insurance, mass literacy, Europe's best university, and child-care manuals anticipating Dr. Spock (Schama). How could this modernist shambles have challenged the Spanish hegemon and come out so clearly on top? Perhaps diversity of belief was not a ticket to chaos after all.

  11. The Dutch model offered both an example and a theoretical challenge, and its influence spread through both channels. Roger Williams, Puritan divine and pioneer theologian of religious toleration, emigrated to America in 1630 and later founded the liberal colony of Rhode Island. He had earlier given lessons in Dutch to John Milton. Milton was a learned and influential member of the liberal wing of English Puritanism under Cromwell, and surely aware of Dutch practice. I suspect it was Dutch political and economic rivalry with England that made it impolitic for him to cite the example in his great plea for freedom of thought and the press, Areopagitica.

  12. Religious toleration in England, incomplete as it was for Catholics, was cemented de facto by the 1688 revolution that, not coincidentally, brought a Dutch king to power. John Locke, the revolution's theorist, and former exile in Holland, was also hugely influential in the American colonies. So William the Silent's principles passed into the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon policy and the Enlightenment. And they were in turn a reaction to the excesses of the Netherlands Inquisition, which can therefore claim to have been the unwilling progenitor of the greatest of our fundamental liberties.

    The “black legend” and moral assessment

  13. From horror, tragedy and grandeur to intellectual farce: the allegation of a “black legend” designed, if you please, to besmirch the reputation of Spain by claiming the Spanish Inquisition was worse than it really was. The legend of a “black legend” only dates to 1914, a decade after Henry Lea's magisterial and scrupulous opus; but it has received undue notoriety, and some reinforcement from revisionist non-Spanish historians (Kamen and Peters).

  14. We will limit ourselves here to the Inquisition, ignoring wider claims about the behaviour of Spaniards in the New World. The key elements of exculpatory revisionism are:
    1. the Inquisition was not aimed at Protestants and Jews to any significant extent;
    2. the Inquisition's procedures were not characterized by sadism;
    3. the use of torture was regulated and no more frequent than in ordinary criminal investigations of the time;
    4. the numbers of victims have been exaggerated;
    5. and after all the Inquisition killed fewer victims than the witch craze in northern Europe.

  15. These points can be dealt with briefly. Point 1 is true but morally irrelevant. In what sense is the judicial murder of thousands of Catholics more tolerable than that of an equal number of Protestants or Jews? Point 2 is also true, but scarcely exculpatory. Sadism is greatly overrated as an explanation for organized evil. Sadists, that is men (almost always men) who derive sexual pleasure from the infliction of pain, gravitate to unaccountable secret police forces and volunteer to work in their cellars. But they are not ideal employees, as their relations to their subjects are human in a twisted way, and they too easily get out of control. An example is the inquisitor Lucero in Cordoba, who started attacking Old Christians and was eventually dismissed. Julius Streicher, the infamous gauleiter of Nuremberg and editor of the obscenely anti-semitic Nazi magazine Der Stürmer, was passed over for higher office when the Nazis came to power. The Final Solution was entrusted to soulless bureaucrats like Höss and Eichmann.

  16. Where torture is institutionalized, at Guantanamo, the Tower of London, or the cellars of the Inquisition, it is a means to a practical end: in the last case, the extraction of confessions of heresy. As to frequency, the claim appears to be false for the initial campaign against the conversos, where the crime was nonexistent. Even much later, “almost 85% of the moriscos examined by the Inqusisition in Valencia between 1580 and 1610 were tortured” (Green). Given the very large number of those arrested over the Inquisition's life, a modest proportion would still mean a large number of cases. Of those condemned to death, the proportion tortured into confession must have been very high. Indeed, it beggars belief that anyone would confess to a capital thought crime without duress apart from an enthusiast seeking martyrdom10. Such people have always been rare: much rarer than gullible pundits and historians prepared to credit information obtained by torture.

  17. It is true that torture was in a standard part of criminal procedure all over ancien régime Europe, except in England where Henry II's lawyers had created trial by jury, and suspects could be convicted by their neighbours without confession. But for ordinary crimes, the use of torture was self-limiting. One murder, one confession (true or false), one execution more or less. This applied even to state show trials: the musician Mark Smeaton was tortured in in England in 1536 to secure probably false evidence of adultery against Anne Boleyn, and four others were also executed without torture or confession, but that was the end of it. However when torture was used to expose imaginary conspiracies, whether by the Inquisition or the witchfinders of Germany, each confession implicated more innocent people: torture and false charges could spread like a cancer, metastasizing without limit.

  18. As for the number of victims, the true number will never be known since the Inqusition's central archives before 1560 were conveniently destroyed in a fire. The high estimate of 32,000 burnt, of which 8,900 under Torquemada, comes from the 18th-century Spanish historian Llorente, an actual official of the Inquisition in its dying days. More recent historians have lowered this figure. The contemporary chronicler Pulgar, a cautious royal official and converso, estimated 2,000 victims in Castile in the first ferocious eight years; the modern and non-Catholic historians Graetz and Peschel more or less agree. There were 52 burnt in 1485 in the tiny village and monastery of Guadalupe alone. Later campaigns were somewhat less sanguinary. Pérez estimates an overall total of under 10,000 for the metropolitan Inquisition. The majority, who “repented” their heresy, were garrotted before burning; perhaps a quarter were burnt alive. To this we should add the victims in the Spanish Empire in Mexico, Peru, Sicily and the Canaries. The Portuguese Inquisition, set up in 1536, was a distinct organization until 1580, after the worst was over, though it continued to persecute with curious intensity in Goa11. As we have seen, the Netherlands Inquisition was also a separate organization; though those condemned to death might be pardoned for finding these administrative niceties of limited interest.

  19. Lea's comment on the arithmetic is wise:
    “The material at hand as yet is evidently insufficient to justify even a guess at the ghastly total. Yet, after all, it is not a matter of as much moment, as seems to have been imagined, to determine how many human beings the Inquisition consigned to the stake, how many bones it exhumed, how many effigies it burnt, how many penitents it threw into prison or sent to the galleys, how many orphans its confiscations cast penniless on the world. The story is terrible enough without reducing it to figures. Its awful significance lies in the fact that men were found who conscientiously did this, to the utmost of their ability, in the name of the gospel of peace and of Him who came to teach the brotherhood of man.” (Lea, IV.9.2)

  20. The comparison with the witch craze, an entirely different thing, takes us even further away from relevance. In the abstract, the ranking of such dreadful events on a scale of horrors is surely idle. Was the Holocaust worse than the gulag? Such questions are usually asked in bad faith, in a attempt to trivialize one monstrosity of the pair. It is far better to study the nature of each to learn what we can and heed the specific warnings they send us. The witch craze (with a guesstimated 25,000 victims over half a century either side of 1600) was an outpouring of popular superstition, fed by preachers on the margins of the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant. Few members of the religious and civil élites believed in or encouraged it. The epicenters of the craze were south Germany and Scotland: countries of very weak government. In Spain and England, countries of strong government, it had negligible purchase. The Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, remained very largely sceptical. In England, the unavailability of torture except for state crimes created a firebreak that limited witchfinding to isolated outbreaks (Trevor-Roper). The lesson for our own times is the reminder of the possibility of lethal panics: whether about nonexistent rings of satanist paedophiles or tiny networks of Islamist terrorists.

  21. The Spanish Inquisition, an organization devoted to false judgement, cries out for us to do our best at a fair one. For my part, I choose to focus on three very particular features.

  22. The first is its anticipation of the modern police state, with pervasive surveillance, arbitrary repression, and ideological uniformity. Its nearest cousins in this sense were perhaps ancient Sparta and the China of the first Ch'in emperor Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, who buried Confucian scholars alive in the name of uniformity, abetted by the ferociously statist Legalist philosophy of his minister Li Ssu. There is surely no historical connection between them, nor with the modern police states of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and – in some ways the most similar – Walter Ulbricht's East Germany.

  23. The second striking feature of the Spanish Inquisition was its dedication to manufacturing show trials. The executions were the culmination of a process that violated every principle of natural justice. Some of the 22 criteria for a fair trial listed by a contemporary human rights organisation reflect recent changes in sensibility, but some have Latin names going back to the laws of Republican Rome, such as audi alteram partem, and reflect an ancient understanding of natural justice12. The Inquisition's trials, with no effective rights of the defence, complete secrecy, concealed charges and witnesses, indefinite pretrial detention, and arbitrary use of torture, violated contemporary standards of fairness as well as our own.

  24. Elsewhere persecutions aimed equally to kill and to impress the public with spectacular and horrifying executions. But Spain alone developed the auto-da-fé, an extraordinarily elaborate ceremony; nominally the public delivery of judgements already made in secret, psychologically the nearest thing ever seen in Europe to the human sacrifices of the Aztecs. In later times, the condemned were stored for years, even decades, until a proper auto could be arranged. The “handing over to the secular arm” was incidentally a charade of a distinction, since both judges and executioners were public officials. The auto-da-fé was not a trial in the sense of a public and contested weighing of evidence and determination of guilt or innocence: the show was, like Vyshinsky's, a ritual theatre of predetermined guilt and just punishment. Penitent prisoners were allowed to speak to confirm their abjuration; the impenitent were often gagged, as recommended by Eymeric, to prevent unseemly outbursts (Green, Pérez). The Spanish Inquisition was in sum a monster of illegality, the perpetrator of black Sabbaths of perverted justice.

  25. Christians must face the shameful fact that this barbarous institution was intended to defend their faith. It was indeed a blasphemy: a perpetration of evil deeds in the name of a loving God. Here the Spanish inquisition was not unique, and rejoins the sorry catalogue of Christian persecutions and religious wars, from the Crusades to the Inquisitions, the wars of religion and the witch craze. But even in this company, the deliberation, secrecy, disproportion and fraud of the Spanish Inquisition marks it out as particularly lacking in mitigating excuses.

  26. So I give the last word to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who in a passage of genius in The Brothers Karamazov imagines a confrontation between the aged Grand Inquisitor and Christ who returns to Seville at the height of the persecutions. Christ stays silent; but the Grand Inquisitor recognizes Him as a dangerous enemy:
    “But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us. And shall we be right or shall we be lying? They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: "Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves! ....
    What I say to Thee will come to pass, and our dominion will be built up. I repeat, tomorrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.'"


NB: these are only the works I have consulted. The historiography of the Inquisition is vast and I have scarcely dipped into Lea. I don't unfortunately have anything by Kamen or Geyl.

Spain and Portugal

T. Green, Inquisition: the Reign of Fear, 2007 (discursive rather than analytical, strong on Portugal and the colonies)

F. Lea, History of the Inquisition in Spain, four vols., 1905 (a classic, online)

B. Netanyahu, Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, 1995 (monumental, disorganized, but profound)

J. Pérez, The Spanish Inquisition: a history, 2004 (clear and concise modern summary, strong on organization)


J. L. Motley: The Rise of the Dutch Republic, 1855, online (one-sided but still fine)

S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 1987 (rewarding study of Dutch culture and society in the Golden Age)/

Various Wikipedia links in the online text.


1My calculations. List of Grand Inquisitors here – excluding the two joint inquisitors before Torquemada. List of Popes here; by the hazards of longevity, 15 Popes never had a nomination before them. List of Kings of Spain here (plus the Catholic Monarchs); the short-reigned Louis I (1724) never needed to submit a nomination.

2The popular term marrano – pig - was a deliberate insult, of the order of nigger or kike, and should be avoided.

3Olive oil only entered the general Spanish diet in the eighteenth century after the stigma had faded (Pérez)..

4The city of Seville for one had a special, purpose built platform for executions by burning (Green).

5A thought experiment: imagine if today all the planning offices in municipalities along the Costa were run by Swedes. How long would it take before Swedes in general were reviled here as corrupt and greedy?

6A study of the German butchers, bakers and clerks who made up an SS reserve battalion that committed atrocities on the Eastern Front in WWII.

7The questionably canonized Thomas More was responsible as Lord Chancellor for the burning of Richard Bayfield and five other Lutherans. Bishops Ridley and Latimer, who had cheered on the Henrician Reformation, burnt the Anabaptist Joan of Kent as bishops under Edward VI. Under Mary, they went to the stake themselves, pursued by among others by the Spanish inquisitor Bartolomé Carranza. Promoted to Archbishop of Toledo, Carranza fell foul of the Inquisition himself, and languished 17 years in its prisons almost to the end of his life. A neater karmic circle could hardly be invented. Martyrs do not have to be saints.

8Calvin in fact proposed decapitation instead of burning but was outvoted.

9I have been unable to confirm that this was always Calvinism. Presumably Lutherans were numerous in the eastern provinces.

10It is also possible for clever and sympathetic interrogators to obtain true confessions by slowly building bonds of empathy and dependence. The Inquisition did not promote such methods.

11The Jews of Portugal had gone through their wave of forced conversion as late as 1497, and far more retained some Jewish practice. But when a group escaped to Holland after 1580 and reconverted to real Judaism – they would not have been welcomed as Catholics – they had a hard time finding instruction in their former faith.

12The trial of Orestes in Aeschylus' Eumenides indicates even earlier Athenian practice: with public charges, a defence lawyer (Apollo!), independent judge and jury, it's pretty fair by any standards.