Conservative Colloquium

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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:



6 Responses to “Peeling Away Lies: The True History of the Spanish Inquisition”

  1. m. stewart said

    Thank you so much Tony and Professor Hitchcock for telling us the truth.

    You have no idea how many other additional grotesque lies are being spread by atheists on various blog sites. Now we have the correct information to give to our friends.

    Thank you so much. The world needs to hear the truth.

  2. joseph said

    Nothing like continuing to preach the Catholic “truth”. I have some beach front property in Nevada I would like to sell all those who believe this crap.

    • Tony Listi said

      This post is about history, not Catholicism specifically. If you would like to have a discussion about historical facts or a specific Catholic doctrine, I’d be happy to oblige. I realize not everyone is actually interested in an actual discussion.

  3. guest said

    Further information on the dangerous Cathari / Albigensian sect:
    The Albigenses (aka Catharists) were a neo-Manichæan sect that lived in southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

    The main reasons the Catholic Church was concerned about this group of people is that the Albigenses (aka Catharists) lived lives clearly CONTRARY to the law of the land; CONTRARY to the teachings of Christ and CONTRARY to the precepts of basic human rights and threatened the very continuation of a civilised society, because of some of the destructive, immoral beliefs the Albigenses taught:
    * that a Sexual “free-for-all” was preferable to marriage;
    * that irresponsible abandonment of families by the “partner” or vice versa, is acceptable; thus leaving entire fatherless families to fend for themselves or starve to death;
    *that suicide is quite acceptable.

    NOTE: THESE are the types of tragedies that the Church has always warned come from such irresponsible uncivilized behaviour. Many families today again are living with this selfish, irresponsible co-habitation model, with the resulting disintegration of families and the tragedy of fatherless “leaderless” children with no father as role model to guide them; with no stability to which children have a basic right. These are the children who, in their despair, end up inflicting “self-harm” and suicide.

    Writer Hilaire Beloc explains how the Albigensians were in fact an enormous danger to civilisation :

    “Anyone who will read the details of the Albigensian story will be struck over and over again by the singularly modern attitude” of extreme selfishness.

    [During] “the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the west of Europe… the Papacy, the hierarchy and the whole body of Catholic doctrine … were the target of the Albigensian offensive.” … “The eleventh century, the years between 1000 and 1100, may be called the awakening of Europe. Our civilization had just passed through fearful trials. The West had been harried, and in some places Christendom almost extinguished:
    – by droves of pagan pirates from the North, the at-first unconverted and later only half-converted Scandinavians.
    – It had been shaken by Mongol raiders from the East, pagans riding in hordes against Europe from the Plains of North Asia.
    – And it had suffered the great Mohammedan attack upon the Mediterranean, which attack had succeeded in occupying nearly all Spain, had permanently subdued North Africa and Syria and threatened Asia Minor and Constantinople…
    “Jerusalem was captured in 1099“… “Europe had been under seige but had begun to beat off its enemies. [This was a battle of SELF-PRESERVATION].
    – The Northern pirates were beaten and tamed.
    – The newly-civilized Germans attacked the Mongols and saved the Upper Danube and a borderland to the east.
    – The Christian Slavs organized themselves farther east again.
    – There were the beginnings of the kingdom of Poland.
    – But the main battleground was Spain. There, during this eleventh century, the Mohammedan power was beaten back from one fluctuating border to another further south, until long before the eleventh century was over the great bulk of the Peninsula was recaptured for Christian rule.
    – With this material success there went, and was a cause as well as an effect, a strong awakening of the intelligence in philosophical disputation and in new speculations on physical science.
    – One of those periods had begun which appear from time to time in the story of our race, when there is, so to speak, “spring in the air.”
    – Philosophy grew vigorous, architecture enlarged, society began to be more organized and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to extend and codify their legal powers.

    – In the meantime:
    – “… the Cathari strengthened themselves … It was in the early part of this XIIth century that the thing began to get alarming, and already before the middle of the period the northern French were urging the Papacy to act.
    – “Pope Eugenius sent a Legate into southern France to see what could be done, and St. Bernard, the great orthodox orator of that vital period, preached against them. But NO force was used.
    – “ But as yet there was no official action against the “Albigensians” and they were still allowed to develop their strength rapidly for years in the hope that spiritual weapons would be enough to meet them.
    – The Papacy had always been hoping that there would be a peaceful solution.
    – In 1167 came a turning point. The Albigensians, now fully organized as a counter-movement … [with the addition] of the mass of the smaller lords in the south [who] favoured the movement, as many another heretical movement has been favoured since by the same class of men, because they saw A CHANCE of PRIVATE GAIN at the expense of others … [Even] the Count of Toulouse, the local monarch, in that year took sides with the heretics.
    – The great Pope, Innocent III, at last began to move. It was high time: indeed, it was almost too late. The Papacy had advised delay in a lingering hope of attaining spiritual peace by preaching and example: but the only result of the delay was that it allowed the evil to grow to dimensions in which it imperilled all our culture.” – Hilaire Beloc

    – All attempts by the Church to point out the DEFECTS of the Albigensians DESTRUCTIVE lifestyles and to instruct these people was met with derision and contempt.
    – The tragedies (of abandoned mothers, fatherless- leaderless-children and starvation) multiplied and it was decided that such “parents” had to be held to account for FAILING to look after their families.
    – Cardinal-Legate Peter made several personal attempts at trying to point out the dangers of such lifestyles in the face of more derision and contempt.
    – Church authority, after all persuasion had failed, and in the face of defiance, adopted a course of expulsion, which led at times to regrettable excess and issued a summons to use force against the Albigenses who were also continually plundering and devastating Albi, Toulouse, and the larger surrounding areas.

    – People who have swallowed atheist propaganda will say: “there was no excuse for such massacres of people because they lived by different teachings concerning Jesus Christ”

    Reply: The Catharists (aka Albigenses ) were NOT massacred. The Catharists lived lives clearly CONTRARY to the law of the land and CONTRARY to the precepts of basic human rights and certainy CONTRARY to the teachings of Christ and the Ten Commandments.

    Pope Innocent III was justified in saying that the Albigenses were “worse than the Saracens”; and still he counselled moderation

    What the Church was combating was a clearly evil ideology that led directly, not only to the ruin of families, ruinous disintegration of communities and the nation — but to the very extinction of the human race were the evil to continue.

    Therefore it was Christianity which in fact came to the rescue of thousands of “abandoned families” – to rescue these Albigenses families from a brutal miserable existence of such a selfish set-up.
    Resources – historical recording by Professors of History – who concur with Dr. Henry Kamen:
    Professor Thomas F. Madden, Department of History St Louis University Missouri
    Prof of History, Jonathan Riley-Smith,Cambridge University
    Dr. Rodney Stark

  4. guest said

    On Galileo – the FACTS:

    Today Galileo is still portrayed as the hero of science over religion. But what are the Facts?


    Galileo had DEMANDED that the Church adopt his scientific theories and insert them within theology – without an essential level of evidence (NOTE: this was ONLY possible much later in scientific history).
    Galileo’s problem? he had taught his prior views as absolute fact, rather than just hypothesis – and as his arguments were questioned by many of his fellow scientists, so the Church strongly advised Galileo to wait until further evidence became available.

    Ironically, following his retraction of this first work and theories (which proved erroneous), Galileo then went on to produce his best work (THIS work being praised by Einstein and Newton).

    To SUMMARISE: Galileo was PARTLY right and PARTLY wrong:

    FACT: The Galileo story is a far much more complicated story than that which some people (who have neglected to carry out any research) claim to “know”.
    FACT: Nowadays Galileo is portrayed as the hero of science over religion. However, what is “conveniently overlooked” is that most of his REAL enemies were FELLOW SCIENTISTS.

    FACT: In the end, Galileo retracted his heliocentric teachings, but it was NOT (as is commonly claimed by opponents of the Church) under torture NOR after a harsh imprisonment. Although this harsh practice was still carried on in the secular courts.
    FACT: As historian Giorgio de Santillana (who was not overly-fond of the Catholic Church), himself noted: “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Church authorities.” In actual fact, Galileo was offered every convenience possible to make his detention in his home bearable. So in fact Galileo was, in fact, treated quite well.

    FACT: Oddly, none of those who regard the Galileo controversy as one of black and white, good and evil, religious obscurantism and scientific ‘enlightenment’ ever considers the fact that Galileo’s most astonishing ACCOMPLISHMENT occurred when he was (supposedly) ‘imprisoned’ and correcting and reworking his opus in his home in comfort, including being given a “manservant”…
    FACT: As noted scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked: “the worst that happened to Galileo was that he suffered an “honorable detention” and a very mild reproof.” Even so, the Catholic Church today acknowledges that Galileo’s condemnation was wrong” (ie, that he should still have been allowed to freely publicly declare his beliefs and leave them to public scrutiny – even though it was to be some time before his beliefs came to be discredited anyway by other astronomers with improved instrumentation). These events were confirmed by Galileo’s friend Nicolini.

    FACT: The pope NEVER tried to make an ‘infallible ruling’ concerning Galileo’s views infallible – because NONE of the three conditions for “infallibility” were applicable; and Catholic theology has never claimed that a mere papal ratification of a tribunal decree is an exercise of infallibility. (This is a popular “straw-man argument” often used to deliberately MISrepresent the Catholic Church “as having infallibly defined a scientific theory that turned out to be false“.

    FACT: The strongest claim that can be made is that the Church of Galileo’s day issued a NON-infallible “ ‘disciplinary ruling’ (to exercise caution … and to delay publication till irrefutable evidence was available) concerning a scientist who was advocating a new (and still-unproved theory) and for Galileo to stop demanding that the Church change its understanding of Scripture to fit his own“ – that is, until Galileo was able to satisfactorily DEFEND his theory
    – AND it must be noted that this STILL happens today anyway – with any scientific papers published by any academics – in any reputable University.

    NOTE: The Church would have mistakenly embraced Galileo’s theories – which modern SCIENCE has since DISPROVED – had the Catholic Church rushed too quickly to endorse Galileo’s views without exercising caution.

    FACT: The Church was CORRECT in showing SUITABLE RESTRAINT AND CAUTION IN WAITING for ALL the facts to become available before unquestioningly rushing to accept “theories” which turned out to be only PARTLY correct.

    Unlike his first erroneous “Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems“,Galileo”s NEW work was praised by both Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. See:

    Galileo’s NEW work: the “Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences “ became the foundation for Newtonian physics.

    FACT: So Galileo’s most lasting and most important achievements actually occurred during the period AFTER he agreed to retract his first theory and to accept the Church’s castigation.

    So the Galileo story is a far much more complicated story than that which some people (who have never carried out any research) claim to “know”.
    Therefore “Those who would strip the story of its complexity in order to make it easier to attack the Catholic Church ultimately do Galileo himself a great disservice.”

  5. […] The above piece was taken from: Conservative Colloquium Peeling Away Lies: The True History of the Spanish Inquisition […]

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