Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 27 - The Spanish Inquisition

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I. Introduction

By the end of the Fifteenth Century some nations of Europe, particularly France, England, and Spain, had developed a strong sense of national identity and unity. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Churches within them were becoming increasingly nationalized; that is, they were giving more of their allegiance to their respective national sovereigns and less of it to the Pope.

Spain had an especially difficult struggle to establish its national unity because it had been under the control of the Moslems since 711. By the Thirteenth Century the Moslems (Moors) had been confined to the Kingdom of Grenada. The rest of Spain was divided among four Catholic kingdoms, but the larger part of Spain was united by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469. This made for a strong Spanish monarchy, and in 1492 Grenada was taken from the Moors. As a result of the long struggle with the Moslems, Spanish nationalism and Catholicism were intimately interwoven. Catholic orthodoxy and patriotism were viewed by Spaniards as being essentially the same. Therefore, anyone who was not a staunch Catholic, be he a Jew, Moslem, heretic, Protestant, or sorcerer, was considered a threat to the state as well as the Church. This, in addition to the fact that Queen Isabella herself was a very zealous devotee of Catholicism, rendered Spain very intolerant of any religious views other than those of orthodox Catholicism.

II. The Procedure of the Inquisition

Established in 1480 under royal authority and with papal permission, the Inquisition cast one of the darkest shadows across the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Designed to rid the Church in Spain of false adherents, it fell most heavily upon Jews who had supposedly been converted but were secretly practicing the Jewish religion. Some rather unreliable tests were devised to detect secret Jews. The slightest deviation from strict Catholic practice, such as a refusal to eat pork or affirming that the Virgin herself and not her image effected cures, was regarded as acceptable evidence of guilt. The Inquisition acted on the presumption that the accused was guilty until he could establish his innocence. People were encouraged to inform on one another. Secrecy was a primary feature of inquisitorial procedure. After imprisonment the accused was deprived of all visitation by his friends. Papers bearing upon his case were kept from him. He was not even informed of the names of his accusers or those who gave testimony against him. The testimony of the most otherwise unworthy witnesses was considered acceptable - even that of Jews, heretics, and excommunicated persons. On the other hand, only those who were non-relatives and known as zealous for the orthodox Catholic faith could testify in behalf of the accused. Torture of the accused was permissible in order to extract confessions and information on accomplices and to provide a deterrent to others who might be inclined to heresy. Schaff describes two of these tortures:

The modes of torture most in use were the water ordeal and the garruche. In the water-cure, the victim, tightly bound, was stretched upon a rack or bed, and with the body in an inclined position, the head downward. The jaws were distended, a linen cloth was thrust down the victim's throat and water from a quart jar allowed to trickle through it into his inward parts. On occasion, seven or eight such jars were slowly emptied. The garrucha, otherwise known as the strappade, has already been described. In its application in Spain it was customary to attach weights to the feet and to suspend the body in such a manner that the toes alone touched the ground, and the Spanish rule required that the body be raised and lowered leisurely so as to increase the pain (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, pp. 548, 549).

Various penalties were laid upon those convicted. These included confiscation of goods and property, imprisonment, public scourging, the galleys, exile, and death. The accused received their sentence at a public ceremony known as auto de fe ("act of faith"). This was treated as a public holiday and might be used to commemorate the marriage of rulers or their recovery from sickness. On the assigned day the prisoners were led in a procession by priests and Inquisitorial officials to a public square. There a sermon was preached, an oath was taken of the people and rulers to support the Inquisition, and sentences were pronounced. Because Inquisitorial officials were forbidden to pass the death sentence, prisoners were turned over to the civil officers for punishment. Church officials even asked the civil officers to exercise mercy and spill no blood. However, this was an empty formality, for everyone knew the serious offenders were to be burned at the stake. Inquisitorial agents even attended the burnings and made records for the use of the Inquisition. It is estimated that in the years 1480-1524, 14,344 were burnt alive, 1,368 were burnt in effigy, and 195,937 condemned to other penalties or released as penitents. The Spanish Inquisition was not finally suppressed until 1834.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) What caused the Spanish Inquisition and what was its purpose?

(2) What were the outstanding abuses and errors of the Spanish Inquisition?

(3) Does the Spanish Inquisition reflect in any way upon the doctrine of papal infallibility? If so, how?

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