Thanks to pop culture, the Spanish Inquisition has infiltrated modern society, but even with the comedic reference that refers to the 350-year-long initiative, it is safe to say that the details of the Spanish Inquisition are not widely known among a contemporary audience. The truth is that the period of the Inquisition was a dark time, especially for the so-called “heretics” targeted by the Inquisition’s efforts.
In order to fully understand the impact of the Spanish Inquisition, it is essential to identify how it began and who championed the cause.
The eras preceding the Middle Ages saw many Christians endure persecution, but once the Catholic Church grew its authority throughout Europe, the dynamic shifted considerably. In order to maintain order and prominence, the Church took to persecuting heretics, which they defined as individuals who publicly decreed their interpretations of the Bible (which the Church considered to be inaccurate) and not only held fast to their beliefs, even after the Church attempted to correct them, but actively tried to convert others into abiding by their ideas.
The Spanish Inquisition is not the sole Inquisition instituted by the Church, but it is considered to be among the most influential and deadly. Launched in 1478 by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella and approved by Pope Sixtus IV, the Spanish Inquisition was the first Inquisition to be instituted by secular rulers . Having recently united two kingdoms, the Spanish rulers sought unity, power, and money. Through their religious Inquisition, the Spanish monarchy could establish religious unity, weaken political opponents, and profit off of the seized assets of accused heretics.
Religious diversity had become a cause for concern, not only among the ruling class but also among the people. The Spanish Inquisition offered a solution to these anxieties by enforcing the banishment or conversion of individuals who did not abide by the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church.
Who Were the Heretics?
The broad definition of heresy by the Catholic Church allowed for the persecution of anyone who disagreed with the Church’s teachings and authority. In particular, the Church targeted Muslim and Jewish individuals. , or individuals who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism to avoid anti-Semiitic persecution, were the subject of scrutiny, especially from Spanish nobility who believed they were responsible for widespread hardships including famine, drought, and plague. Many Spanish nobles and royalty also believed that continued to practice their original faith in secret, which prompted further fear and suspicion. In 1492, King Ferdinand II issued the Alhambra Decree which prompted Jewish individuals to leave the country or be killed by authorities . Those who chose to convert to Catholicism upon receiving this threat were often referred to as , or “pigs,” and were still targeted by the Inquisition.
Muslim Moors were also targeted by the Inquisition in a similar fashion. Banished in 1502, some Muslims converted to Catholicism in an effort to preserve their livelihoods and received the same treatment as Jewish converts, earning the name , meaning “Moorish,” and enduring continued persecution.
As the Inquisition persisted, Protestants and Lutherans also became targets, though the primary focus remained on Jewish and Muslim individuals.
Those who were accused of being heretics were brought to trial where they were forced to testify without legal assistance; a refusal to testify was automatically considered an admission of guilt. Those who admitted to heresy in an effort to escape torture or execution were usually required to name other heretics.
A Papal decree from the 12th century determined that torture could be used to obtain a valid confession, and the Spanish inquisitors took advantage of this ruling; in order for it to be considered viable, however, the accused would also have to confess while not being tortured. Inquisitors were generally more educated than the accused and could question them in confusing ways to prompt a confession, as well.
Torture and Punishment
The amount of torture used during the Spanish Inquisiton is widely debated, but the general consensus is that it was primarily used to extract confessions rather than as punishment. One notable form of torture was known as . With this form of torture, the accused would have their wrists tied above their heads or behind their backs and attached to a pulley. An Inquisitor would pull on the rope to raise the accused off the ground; in some cases, they added weights to worsen the strain or incorporated jerking motions to cause dislocation and pain. Another common torture method entailed the use of the rack, in which the accused would be tied by the wrists and ankles to wooden rollers at either end of a table; Inquisitors would turn the rollers with a handle, stretching the accused’s joints until the limbs were dislocated or, in extreme circumstances, torn off .
Upon receipt of a confession, the Inquisitors could take a few actions. The lightest sentence could entail the performance of penances ranging from wearing heavy crosses or embarking on religious pilgrimages. Other heretics could be subject to capital punishment with most of such individuals being burned at the stake.
If the Inquisitors could not get a confession, they might sentence the accused to life in prison. No matter the result of the Inquisition, those who were accused of being heretics endured harsh, unjust, and cruel punishments.
The Spanish Inquisition came to an end after Napoleon conquered the nation in 1808 and ordered the abolition of the Inquisition. Following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, King Ferdinand II attempted to revitalize the Inquisition but met with resistance from the French government. Finally, Spanish and French leadership made an agreement that entailed dismantling the Inquisition which concluded in 1834.
The Spanish Inquisition covered more than 300 years and resulted in anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 deaths. While it was not the sole Inquisition in the history of the Catholic Church, it is among the most notable and impactful. Many current religious leaders denounce the actions and motivations of former rulers in regards to the Inquisition; no one alive today can attest to the nature of the Spanish Inquisition, but the effects of ruthless persecution over several hundred years remains evident in religious and political perspectives today.