Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Spanish Inquisition: Investigating the Myths

by Jack Ross

Since its founding in 1478 the Spanish Inquisition has been depicted as one of the most controversial topics in European religious history, and until recently it was widely believed that the Spanish Inquisition employed spies at every level in society, and acted barbarically towards ordinary Spaniards, with comparisons being made by historians to Stalin’s NKVD, or Hitler’s SS. The Spanish Inquisition has also been parodied in modern media in television programmes such as Monty Python’s ‘No one expects the Spanish Inquisition’ which despite adding a comic value to the Inquisition, continued to cement the idea of torture, brutality, and the sinister unexpectedness of the Spanish Inquisition, further reinforcing the horror surrounding the ‘Black Legend’.  


The atrocities that occurred in the Spanish Inquisition were also exploited in the propaganda utilised by the allies to discredit fascist Spain, and this is illustrated by the exaggerated reports of Franco’s oppression of his civilian population.  Franco was considered dangerous to European harmony, as Fascists were believed to be expansionist by nature, so the Inquisition was used as a means of alienating them from international politics, thus weakening their standing in the post-World War Two World. The Inquisition’s policies, such as censorship, were also used by the Spanish people as a convenient excuse for explaining why the Spanish Empire declined, again adding to the infamy surrounding the event. However, the historical viewpoint has recently changed in 1998 when the Vatican made all records regarding the Spanish Inquisition accessible to the public (post Franco), and as a result the revisionist view on the Spanish Inquisition is very different to the traditional historian view of the Black Legend, as the Inquisition is now seen as either an insignificance, or an amplification of the conservative views held by the majority of Spanish people.
One common myth surrounding the Spanish Inquisition is that it utilised familiars or spies from every level of society, who worked tirelessly in the largest of cities to the smallest hamlets, to rid Spain of heresy.  There is some truth in this belief, as the Inquisition did have twenty thousand familiars in its employ, however these familiars were all part time, and were often not a reliable source of information as they could only report on rumour, unless someone actually confessed to them which was rare.  The Inquisition was also not active in some areas of Spain, such as the Fuero Realms, where villagers would on average see an Inquisitor once every ten years, if ever.  This was primarily due to the small number of full-time of Inquisitors, who numbered approximately fifty, and there were never more than three inquisitors in an area at the same time.  The small number of Inquisitors also meant that in some more rural areas of Spain the Inquisition was seen as more of an irrelevance than a ruthless government body.  


On the other hand, the Inquisition did have a more humiliating side to it as shown by its public Auto-Da-Fé, which Philip attended in the early part of his reign.  The Auto-Da-Fé was designed to make a show of those condemned of major heresy, as a method to prevent further heresy in Spain, and those pronounced guilty had their crimes read out in front of audiences, which often numbered in the tens of thousands.  It is important to note however that all executions took place in private, which does add some humanity to the spectacle, as the Inquisitors believed that they were ‘saving’ the sinner’s soul, rather than punishing them for their crimes, hence why their death was not a public event.  Perhaps most notably during Philip’s reign, the number of people executed rarely reached double figures per year, as executions were reserved for people found guilty of committing major heresy, such as attempting to convert Catholics to Protestantism.

Another myth that surrounds the Spanish Inquisition is that it was only the Conversos, Moriscos and Letranos (Protestant) population of Spain that were targeted by the Inquisition.  This on the whole was true under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when the Inquisition was established in 1478, but under Philip the focus of the Inquisition changed with the aim of wiping out immorality in the form of bigamy, bestiality, sodomy, and blasphemy from the Catholic ranks, as well as educating the Spanish people so that they did not commit heresy.  Philip believed that those committing heresy in the Catholic Church should be targeted and corrected as they were undermining the purpose of religious bodies like the Inquisition, as the general consensus belief dictated that the Catholics should lead by example.  However, the majority of Catholic ‘sinners’ were never executed, instead they received minor punishments, such as the wearing of the ‘Sanbenito’, a yellow tunic covered in black crosses, for a period of time, as a method of marking ‘sinners’ out within their own communities.  After the ‘sinner’ had carried out their punishment, the Sanbenito was hung in the rafters of their local church, as a means of showing the clergy that the individual had repented, but also as a deterrent against sin.

The focus of the Inquisition was only able to evolve once the threat of the previous religious minorities had been the successfully suppressed to the point where they were no longer feared.  On the other hand if the Moriscos, or Conversos were genuine in their faith, and behaved as a devout Spanish Catholic did, the Inquisition would not have targeted them.  It was only the ‘deviants’ who still practiced beliefs, which the Spanish viewed as heretical, such as abstaining from eating pork, who were hunted down and punished.  Some Conversos also developed a culture, which continued under Philip II, where they embraced Catholics believing that they were better Catholics than the ‘old Catholics’, as they maintained that they were direct descendants of Jesus.  This was clearly illustrated when the Converso Bishop of Burgos, Alonso de Cartagena, recited the Hail Mary, saying with pride, "Holy Mary, Mother of God and my blood relative, pray for us sinners!".

Another common misconception is that the Spanish Inquisition was a brutal religious body that was unique to Spain.  This is not true, as the Italians implemented their own “Roman” Inquisition in 1542.  Other areas in Europe also established laws to deal with those deemed heretical.  England passed the Act of Uniformity in 1559 making worship in the Church of England compulsory, with those taking public office exposing themselves to the risk of execution it they failed to adhere to this Faith.   Germany created the Treaty of Augsburg (1555), which decreed that the population of each territory in Germany had to follow their ruler’s religion, and that those of a different affiliation, had to leave or conform.  In fact the Spanish Inquisition was arguably one of the more balanced religious bodies as it afforded people accused of heresy, a defence lawyer and the chance to deny the accusations, which the majority of its European counterparts did not offer, making it a fairer, and more just organisation.  The Spanish Inquisition also enforced moral laws that were around in Europe, for example homosexuality and bestiality was outlawed in many Early Modern European States, showing that particular Inquisition’s values were not unique to Spain.

It has been a common belief that the majority of Spanish people did not welcome, and thus despised the Spanish Inquisition.  However, the Spanish Inquisition was arguably an amplified reflection of beliefs that most indigenous Spanish people held.  This goes part of the way to explain why there was no major outcry, rebellion, or even civil war regarding the Inquisition; in fact it appears that the majority of people in Spain welcomed the Inquisition.  For example the Inquisition persecuted the Moorish and Jewish communities in Spain, which tied in with the conservative Spanish beliefs of ‘Limpieze de Sangre’, and ‘Reconquista’.  The Spanish Inquisition also targeted Catholics who committed minor heretical acts, which again would have pleased the majority of Spanish people at the time.  The Inquisition also contributed to the improvement of law, order and justice to Spain, as it was a new way of prosecuting people who committed certain crimes, evolving from the more common mob rule, which again would have appealed to the majority of the indigenous Spanish population.  As previously mentioned the Inquisition also allowed people to contest the accusations and have a defence committee of trained lawyers, which occasionally resulted in the release of those judged innocent due to the impartiality of the Inquisitors, which would not have been the case if their peers, whose motives may have been questionable, were trying them.

Torture is often referred to as a fundamental aspect of the Spanish Inquisition’s process of gathering knowledge, which is stereotypically viewed as an act of sadistic punishment.  However, torture was only used in a quarter of major heresy cases, and in 5% of minor heresy cases, and was seen not as a form of punishment, but as a means of eliciting the truth.  The main torture methods that the Inquisition included were, the rack ‘patro’, the pulley ‘garrucha’, and being forced to drink water ‘toza’.  All three of these methods were designed so that they did not inflict long-term damage, and practices such as mutilation were banned, in case the accused were found to be innocent.  The sense of justice is also reinforced by the aftermath of the torture, as if a confession was not repeated twenty-four hours later, without the catalyst of torture, it was disregarded.  Although there was no restriction on how frequently torture would be applied, or an age restriction, but it can be assumed it is highly unlikely that the Spanish Inquisition would have tortured large numbers of children as it appears to conflict with the re-education side of the Inquisition.

The Inquisition has also historically been the Spanish people’s scapegoat in regard to explaining the decline of the Spanish Empire, as it has been accused of censoring the populous and impeding Spanish innovation, thus putting the Spanish at a disadvantage in terms of science, and invention compared to other European nations, which arguably had a detrimental effect on their Empire.  Although this may have elements of truth, such as the Inquisition publishing the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’, or Index of Forbidden Books in 1559, which proscribed authors contributing to scientific advancement, such as Jean Buridan, whose work later went on to influence Copernicus.  Often an author’s complete works were not prohibited, instead only the aspects which conflicted with the Catholic beliefs that the majority held in Spain. On the other hand, while foreign authors were generally restricted, Spanish ‘arbitristas’ (journalists), were welcome to comment on any affair, even political repression or controversy, with no regulations being placed on them.  This cannot be said about other European countries, for example Elizabeth I of England had the hand of publisher John Stubbs removed after he published a pamphlet, titled, ‘The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf whereunto England is like to be swallowed by another French Marriage, if the Lord forbid not the banns, by letting her Majesty see the sin and punishment thereof’, which commented on her intention to marry Francois, the Duke of Anjou, arguably making Spain one of the more liberal countries in the sense of journalism, in the Early Modern Period.

While there are elements of truth in the myths that surround the Spanish Inquisition, on the whole they have been exaggerated throughout history to suit arguments, and religious, or political agendas, with most myths ultimately stemming from the Protestant printing press. The Spanish Inquisition in King Philip II’s reign relied more on its reputation, rather than its actions to maintain religious control in Spain, and executions were only carried out in extreme circumstances.  Overall the Spanish Inquisition could be rigorous if it had to be, which adds to the idea of the Black Legend, but the majority of the time the Inquisition focused more on the education of the populous, and the prevention of foreign religious influence in Spain.  The Inquisition also enjoyed the support of most Spaniards, and since there was no major uprising or outcry against the Inquisition, it can be assumed that the myths are over exaggerated, and now that the Vatican Archives have been made freely available to the public the myths surrounding the Inquisition can be thoroughly investigated. 

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