Peeling Away Lies: The True History of the Spanish Inquisition
Posted by Tony Listi on June 3, 2011
“…historians are now discovering that the common notion of the Spanish Inquisition as some horrible, fanatical, all-encompassing bloodthirsty monster could not be further from the truth. Their conclusions come from the first-time ever study of the actual cases taken from the archives of the Inquisition itself…. Studying the archives of the Inquisition demolished the previous image that all of us had.” (BBC documentary “The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition”)
“The reason why accurate information about the Inquisition fails to penetrate the popular mind is not such a mystery at all. Numerous people have a vested interest in keeping the traditional image alive…. Those who resent the Church’s claim to moral authority use as their most effective weapon the allegation of hypocrisy….” -James Hitchcock, Professor of History at St. Louis University
There are so many myths, lies, and half-truths surrounding the history of the Inquisition. In this post, I’m going to set aside the philosophical, moral, and prudential considerations surrounding the issue. Let’s focus on the historical facts first, shall we? Some historical accuracy and perspective should be enough to defuse much of the hatred and animosity aimed at the Catholic Church.
First, some general historical facts:
The Inquisition technically had jurisdiction only over those professing to be Christians (i.e. Catholics). It did not have jurisdiction over those who did not claim to be Christian like Jews and Muslims.
States and kingdoms of the time explicitly and officially endorsed and embraced the Christian faith as the foundation of their own authority and the peace of civil society. Thus they saw an attack on the unity and purity of the Christian faith as an attack on them, their authority, and the public peace. This was not a new or unique idea in the previous history of the relationship between religion and politics. Furthermore, even by some imperfect modern standards, in point of fact, these heretical sects were indeed in many cases violent and destructive of civil society.
The Inquisition was a response to statist encroachment into doctrinal territory and overzealousness of the State and mobs of people in executing heretics. In the early 13th century, the Inquisition was born most likely in response to popular mobs’ and the State’s aggressive prosecution and punishment of heretics, especially the Cathari, a sect that taught that sexual intercourse and marriage was evil and that suicide was good under certain circumstances. The Church likely saw these secular tribunals as an encroachment on its authority with regard to what is true doctrine and what is heresy. So it decided to create its own body of judges that would exercise doctrinal authority and judgment in the name of the pope.
The Inquisition was not an all-powerful institution with unlimited power and supreme authority. Rather, it was under the authority of the pope and diocesan bishops and competed with the State and the local aristocracy in many instances. It was often overshadowed in the city and powerless in the country.
This rest of this post is going to focus on the Spanish Inquisition.
My primary source of historical information is going to be a TV program that the BBC that aired in 1995 called The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition (see videos below). Why? Because this TV documentary presents the views of scholars who actually examined the original and detailed achival records of the cases that came before the Spanish Inquisition. These internal records were never intended for public viewing. The documentary draws primarily upon the work of Professors Henry Kamen and Stephen Haliczer. There is also a Wikipedia article devoted to the new historical findings.
You can watch the documentary yourself, starting with the first YouTube video below (of five videos):
The documentary is no more than an hour long and well worth the watch. For those who don’t want to watch it or don’t have the time to, I’m going to highlight some key facts that it brings to light.
The courts of the Spanish Inquisition were extremely fair, just, and lenient compared to secular counterparts at the time and were a model for future courts of justice:
Every case brought before the Inquisition had its own individual file, which was detailed and exhaustive.
- The Inquisition was governed by very strict manuals the laid out in detail about what inquisitors could and could not do. Inquisitors who broke the rules were removed.
The Inquisition really was a professional inquisition/inquiry into the facts of each individual case. University lawyers (not always priests) asked questions, and facts were ascertained, not presumed.
Unlike in many secular and Protestant contexts, the accused were not presumed to be guilty and sentenced without a hearing.
The accused were allowed the assistance of trained lawyers.
The accused could refuse to have his case heard by a judge that he suspected of prejudice.
The Inquisition would ask the accused to write a list of all his enemies, and any accusations or testimony from such persons was completely thrown out.
False accusations were severely punished.
- The Inquisition had many different levels of appeal.
- When the Inquisition came to a new area, a month’s “period of grace” was given, during which those who confessed and repented of their own accord were given a secret mild penance, never anything severe.
- The vast majority of cases did not end in death but in absolution, a warning, or religious penance.
- The ultimate sentence of burning was rare. Other types of sentences included mild reprimand, public demonstration of penance, barring from public office, banishment from the city, flogging, confiscation of goods, and incarceration (which was often merely house arrest like in the case of Galileo).
- People of the time preferred to have their cases heard by or transferred to the Inquisition from other courts. There are even instances in the historical record of criminals in secular courts or prisons intentionally blaspheming in order to get into the courts of the Inquisition.
The following video discusses this further:
Secondly, though torture was commonly used in all the courts of Europe at the time, the Spanish Inquisition used torture very infrequently and to elicit confessions, not punish:
- Out of 7,000 cases studied in Valencia, only 2% entailed the use of torture and for no more than 15 minutes. Less than 1% suffered torture more than once and none more than twice.
- Any confession made following or during torture had to be freely repeated the next day without torture or it was considered invalid.
- Thus Inquisitors were very skeptical of the effectiveness of torture in bringing heresy to light.
- During the same period of time, European nations prescribed various cruel punishments for various, numerous, and sometimes trivial crimes, including having one’s eyes gouged out and disemboweling. The Inquisitors never did such things. Inquisitorial torture chambers never existed.
Thirdly, during the 350 years of its existence, only between 3,000 and 5,000 people were sentenced to death. To put this in perspective:
- Henry VIII alone executed 72,000 Catholics according to Protestant historian Raphael Holisend.
- Elizabeth I executed more Catholics in a short period of time than those who were sentenced to death by the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions combined over the course of 300 years (Holisend).
- Fewer people died from heresy in Spain than in any other Western country (Protestants executed heretics during this time too.)
- During the same period of time, 150,000 “witches” were burnt throughout Europe, 100,000 in Protestant Germany and 30,000 in Protestant Great Britain. This isn’t even counting those in Protestant New England in America.
- The godless, “enlightened” secular humanist French Revolution killed more people in one day than the Spanish Inquisition during the entire 16th century.
- Godless, anti-Christian Nazism was responsible for about 12 million deaths.
- Godless, anti-Christian communism has been responsible for over 100 million deaths.
The following video discusses this further:
Fourthly, the Inquisition, the Church itself, executed no one but rather handed the convicted over to secular authorities whose statutes often demanded the death of the heretic. As mentioned before, secular authorities explicitly and officially endorsed and embraced the Christian faith as the foundation of their own authority and the peace of civil society
Fifthly, the Inquisition pronounced the witch hysteria that consumed Europe to be a delusion and prohibited anyone from being tried or burnt for witchcraft long before Protestants came to their senses on this issue.
Sixthly, most Spanish peasants, four fifths of whom lived in the Spanish countryside, likely never even saw an inquisitor their entire lives.
So where did all the lies and myths about the Inquisition come from then? Apparently they all started with a Protestant propagandist named Montanus who wrote a tract in 1567 responsible for the false association of the Inquisition with torture chambers that in reality never existed. Protestants were able to spread their lies about the Inquisition very quickly using their new weapon: the printing press. Historians for hundreds of years took this liar, Montanus, at his word.
The following video discusses this further: