Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Spanish Inquisition – the Torture of Accused Heretics

by Ethan Creamer

The Spanish Inquisition was established by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, with the reluctant approval of Pope Sixtus IV in the issuing of the Papal Bull Exigit sinceras devotionis affectus in 1478, which allowed an inquisitorial tribunal consisting of two or three priests over the age of 40. Following the 1491 Treaty of Granada, the Reconquista had eventually succeeded, whereby Spain was fully recaptured from North African Moors in 1492 and this had set the scene for further persecution of Muslim and Jewish minorities in Spain as they were a threat to religious uniformity – which was equal to a politically seditious threat in early modern Europe. The reformation, led by staunch Protestant figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, unsettled the religious homogeny of Europe, and the ‘Most Catholic Kings of Spain’ sought to ensure that their dominions remained loyal to Roman Catholicism in the face of the Protestant Reformation and more notably the remnants of the communities of Jewish and Muslim faith in Spain, and that all subjects of Spain were to profess true faith in Catholicism.

The overall aim of the Inquisition was to ensure that Heretics – those not wholly faithful to Orthodox Roman Catholicism - in Spain were routed out and tried. The following groups were the subject of repeated investigations by Spanish Inquisitors:
(a)    Conversos - Jews who had converted to Christianity from Judaism.
(b)   Moriscos – remaining North African Muslims (moors) largely living Southern Spain who had converted to Christianity.
N.B. Often forced to convert.
(c)    ‘Witches’ – those accused of practicing magic/folk magic/those not fitting into the norms of society/those accused of ‘conspiring with Satan’/those accused of making diabolical pacts/pagans/women accused of harbouring sexual appetites for demonic entities etc…..
(d)   Cathars – anti-Trinitarian Christians, who followed Sabellianism and were pacifists and even anti-capital punishment (all but unheard of in early modern Europe!)
(e)    ‘Blasphemers’
(f)     ‘Sodomites’
(g)    ‘Bigamists’
(h)   Lutherans – followers of the German Protestant reformer Martin Luther, rejected traditional Catholic views of transubstantiation in the Communion Rite. Starting under King Phillip II from 1558 onwards.
(i)     Intellectuals and Clerics interested in works of Erasmus – an influential reformer and a Humanist.
(j)      Freemasons
(k)   Alumbrados/Illuminists– practitioners of a mystical form of Christianity, who believed that the reception of the Holy Sacraments was useless.
If you were unlucky enough to be a member of one of these groups, perhaps falsely accused of heresy, or so much as aroused the suspicion of an Inquisitor you may well find yourself a victim of torture at the hands of the Inquisition to extract a confession - in fact even St Ignatius of Loyola (the Founder of the Jesuit Order in 1541) found himself questioned on numerous occasions being subject to questioning by the Inquisition.
Below is a roundup of ten of the most stomach-churning, gruesome and painful methods of torture used to extract confessions of Heresy by the Spanish Inquisition:

1.      The pulley: known as the strappado or the garrucha this was the first method of torture the Inquisition usually applied. Executioners would hoist the victim up to the ceiling using a rope with their hands tied securely behind their back. They were then suspended about six feet from the floor. In this position, heavy iron weights, usually amounting to about 45 kg, were attached to their feet. The executioners would then pull on the rope, then suddenly allowing it to slack causing the victim to fall.

2.      The rack: a favourite of the Inquisition. A rectangular frame, with a roller at one or both ends. The victim's ankles are fastened to one roller and the wrists are chained to the other handle and ratchet mechanism attached to the top roller are used to very gradually increase the tension on the chains, inducing excruciating pain, straining the ropes until the sufferer's joints were dislocated and eventually separated. Additionally, if muscle fibres are stretched excessively, they lose their ability to contract, rendering them ineffective.


3.      ‘The Pear of Anguish’ – quite possibly one of the most gruesome and painful methods. This device would be inserted into an appropriate orifice – those accused of Blasphemy the mouth, those accused of sodomy into the anus, and women accused of adultery, incest or of ‘sexual union with Satan or his familiars’ in the vagina. There was no set mode of use for generic Heretics, with freedom bestowed upon the Torturer. The instrument would then be progressively expanded, and I’m sure not much is left to the imagination………

4.      ‘The Turtle’ – the accused Heretic would be placed under a wooden board, and large stones placed on top, causing crushing pain and slow suffocation.

5.      ‘The Iron Boot’ affectionately known as bootikens – designed to crush the foot and legs. These were boots that went from the person's ankles to knees. Wedges were hammered up the length of the boot into the person's leg, breaking and crushing bones as it went.

6.      ‘The Breast Ripper’ or the ‘Spanish Spider’ the name of this device speaks for itself. Women condemned of heresy, blasphemy, adultery, and witchcraft often felt the wrath of this device as it violently tore a breast from their torso.

7.      The ‘Judas Cradle’ – another particularly painful and humiliating torture. The victim was stripped, hoisted and hung over this pointed pyramid with iron belts. Their legs were stretched out frontwards, or their ankles pulled down by weights. The tormentor would then drop the accused onto the pyramid penetrating both orifices. With their muscles contracted, they were usually unable to relax and fall asleep.

8.      The ‘Head crusher’ - a brutal torture device commonly used only by the Spanish Inquisition. The person’s chin was placed over a bottom bar and the head under an upper metal cap. The executioner then slowly turned the screw, gradually compressing the head between the bar and cap. Teeth and the would often break first, with the eyes slightly later – it was such an effective method as the pain could be extended for as long as the torturer wished, or as long as it took for a confession.

9.      ‘The Heretics fork’ – a metal rod with two prongs at both ends attached to a leather strap worn around the neck. The top fork was placed on the fleshy part under the chin, while the other end dug into the bone of the sternum, keeping the neck stretched and the head erect at all times. Ensuring optimal agony was simple. A person wearing the heretic’s fork was kept from lying down by either being hung from the ceiling or suspended in some manner that proved distressing. Those wearing the device were only able to murmur to their torturers; any movement of the jaw would force the sharp prongs to further penetrate their skin. It was effective for long use because victims usually died of sleep deprivation and fatigue.

10.  ‘Toca’ – Waterboarding. The victim’s face is covered with a cloth, and water is poured onto the cloth, so that they had the impression of drowning.

Torture was not used as punishment for Heresy, but rather was used to extract confession of the crime. One historian has estimated that over the course of its history the Spanish Inquisition tried a total of 341,021 people, of whom at least 10 percent (31,912) were executed. Bernardus Guidonis was the Author of Practica Inquisitionis (Practice of the Inquisition) and the Directorium Inquisitorum (Guideline for Inquisitors) and his work was completed by Nicolaus Eymerich, grand inquisitor of Aragon. These were the authoritative text-books for the use of inquisitors until the issue of the famous Inquisitor General Torquemada's instructions in 1483, which was an enlarged and revised Directorium. A Chapter of the Manual is headed "of the torture" and contains these small reflections:

"The torture is not an infallible method to obtain the truth; there are some men so pusillanimous that at the first twinge of pain they will confess crimes they never committed; others there are so valiant and robust that they bear the most cruel torments. Those who have once been placed upon the rack suffer it with great courage, because their limbs accommodate themselves to it with facility or resist with force; others with charms and spells render themselves insensible, and will die before they will confess anything."


  1. Who was the historian who gave the estimate for the number of executions?

  2. Juan Llorente - a late 18th/19thC Spanish historian and a secretary of sorts to the Inquisition estimates those exact figures. There is much historical debate on the figures which have ranged from 30,000 to 300,000.

  3. Professor Borromeo, a historian of Catholicism in Rome claims only 1.8% of 125,000 tried in Spain were executed. (after the International Symposium 'The Inquisition'," held in Rome in 1998).
    Figures for other inquisitions such as the Roman Inquisition which tried Galileo are not included.


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