How the Inquisition Began


In his scholarly and thorough review of how different historians have handled the subject of the Inquisition Father Van Hove has given us a richly referenced article well suited for serious upper level papers.

Long did old-fashioned English Protestants and other anti-Catholics put their attention upon words such as “jesuitical,” “popish,” “jansenistic,” and “inquisitorial” in their polemics. But possibly the most odious, and the most successfully repromoted, is the idea of the hated Inquisition as the cruel tool of the Catholic Church to crush its enemies. By this means, especially for English-speakers, Catholic Spain was portrayed as the arch-enemy of all Protestantism. In the United States, whether it be the vulgarized Chick comics, or the sophisticated Ivy League intellectuals in 1960 who feared the Kennedy campaign, the Inquisition is generally assumed to be the Roman part of the triad denounced by clergyman Samuel Dickinson Burchard (1) in 1884 in the famed expression “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” American Know-Nothings and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs constantly reprinted, or even the purveyors of the post-1968 sexual revolution or abortion-on-demand today, bring up the ghost of the Inquisition to suit their diverse purposes. But what do they know of its history? Are they aware the Inquisition was never primarily an anti-Protestant body, and that Philip II of Spain never had a consistently anti-Protestant foreign policy? Is it clear that most countries had their own equivalent structure for judging heresy, with no need to import anything similar from Spain, whether the would-be importer were Catholic or Protestant? How many remember that anti-Spanish feeling ran high in Italy where the Spanish Inquisition was ridiculed — and where Italian Catholics scorned the idea of racial purity? “It is one of the features of inquisitorial history that its practitioners have consistently failed to compare the Spanish Inquisition to comparable courts elsewhere in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe.”(2)

Distinctions are still often not made between the Roman (and purely ecclesiastical) Inquisition, and the Spanish secular-ecclesiastical “dual” Inquisition whose famous administrator was the Dominican Tomás de Torquemada. His career as Grand Inquisitor (sole control was never his — he shared it with other “heads”) ended with his death in 1498, well before the advent of Luther and Calvin. Most often with no elucidating context, the Inquisition is assumed to be a weapon of the Catholic Church against all heretics, in whatever age, even though its somewhat mild ecclesiastical form was originally set up after 1232 to deal with the Cathars or Albigensians in late medieval France.(3) Or, it is seen as the sole reason for the downfall of Spain itself in later centuries.

But setting up a tribunal was nothing new, and the majority of dioceses had courts authorized by the bishops to judge a variety of cases and subjects according to canon law. Heresy was only one field of their inquiry; an “inquisition” was just a more particularized juridical entity akin to what we might call the office of “special prosecutor” today.(4) For the most part no other judicial system existed other than the ecclesiastical, and it took centuries for the European secular state to emerge with its own totally separate system of law enforcement and justice. As a matter of fact, many inquisitors were laymen trained in law, and denunciations were routinely made by ordinary citizens, not special spies. The gothic image of the “mad monks” whose espionage network extended everywhere goes against the abundant authentic documentation we have available.(5) The Inquisition was never as efficient as it would have liked to be, and as the decades wore on it became a sclerotic bureaucracy like any bureaucracy. It had always depended upon being itinerant, and when this ceased or was slowed down, even greater inefficiency ensued.

As to the severity of the Inquisition, the following is informative for the contemporary reader:


The proportionately small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal. Nothing, certainly, can efface the horror of the first twenty holocaust years. Nor can occasional outbursts of savagery, such as overtook the Chuetas in the late seventeenth century, be minimized. But it is clear that for most of its existence the Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability. The figures given above for punishments in Valencia and Galicia suggest an execution rate of well under 2 per cent of the accused. It has been estimated that in the nineteen tribunals analysed above, the execution rate over the period 1540-1700 was 1.83 per cent for relaxations in person and 1.65 per cent for relaxations in effigy. If this is anywhere near the truth, it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries less than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru — possibly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice. A comparison, indeed, of secular courts and the Inquisition can only be in favor of the latter as far as rigour is concerned. In 1573, for instance, the corregidor of Plascencia handed over to the Holy Office in Llerena a Morisco condemned by his jurisdiction to be hanged and quartered for allegedly smashing an image of the Virgin, but the Inquisition found the case unproven and set him free. It must be remembered, of course, that although the death rate was low it was also heavily weighted against people of Jewish and Moorish origin. The relative frequency of burnings in the earlier years disappeared in the eighteenth century, and in the twenty-nine years of the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV only four people were burnt.(6)

The Spanish institution of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, modelled after the original French,(7) was intended to have been a more temporally limited politico-national project to deal with the problem of the “conversos” (“New Christians”). Some of them were indeed only feigning Christianity, sometimes because they had never been taught much about it, or because they belonged to “underground” communities that were scattered around the peninsula. It was the case in pre-Counter Reformation Spain that many rural and mountainous areas of the country were only superficially Christianized anyway, and gross ignorance was the norm for clergy and people. The judaizers tended to live in the cities, though, as did the Jews generally. The “false Christians” stirred up a dissent which alarmed the upholders of civic order, when church and state in an integral society were legally and psychologically inseparable. The Inquisition just sharpened old ethnic tensions, and did not invent them. They had long existed, despite “convivencia.”(8)

Muslims and Jews did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition because they were not baptized. On the other hand:

All properly baptized persons, being ipso facto Christians and members of the Catholic Church, came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. Foreign heretics, therefore, appeared from time to time in autos held in Spain. The burning of Protestants at Seville in the mid-1500s shows a gradual increase in the number of foreigners seized, a natural phenomenon in an international seaport.(9)

The partly hidden issue was in effect racial, not doctrinal at all, because the Old Christian elite sometimes felt outdone by the New Christian elite. This whole topic was called limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). The notion of honor (more akin to what we might call “pride”) was also a cultural one, and honor went along with the lineage of being an Old Christian. Racialism grew, and Old Christians developed more and more anxiety about their own race. “Anti-semitism obviously existed, but the discriminatory statutes of limpieza did not begin to gather force until after the statute of Toledo in 1547.”(10) It became a question of national security. The dark side of this racialism only served to weaken Spain, and by the seventeenth century considerable opposition had grown to the cult of limpieza.

By the end of the fifteenth century, however, there were actually “new conversos” and “old conversos,” too, who further complicated this issue in Spanish society. Conversos were well-placed in Rome to lobby the papacy in their favor, and the practice on occasion worked out well for them. Popes regularly were in conflict with Spanish monarchs over these and other issues.

After the original crisis, more significantly, it just happened that the Inquisition outlived its purpose and lingered on.(11) Some have always insisted that at any time the Catholic Church could re-activate this institution which they allege rests on torture and the extraction of confessions by coercion, among other ugly features.(12) Honest students of history regard this assertion as mere propaganda. Note the following secular source. Reginald Trevor Davies, author of The Golden Century of Spain, writes the following in his article in volume 21 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica :


The Spanish church was wealthy and powerful because the people were intensely religious and because it was largely a national institution in which no foreigner might hold office and in which the crown was supreme (papal power having been reduced almost to the vanishing point). It was, consequently, a fact of serious political importance that during the anarchy of Henry IV’s reign (1454-1475) the Jews gained great power and influence. They might compel — sometimes by means of their usury — their debtors to renounce the Christian religion; and Marranos (baptized Jews) often preserved their old religious faith in secret. At the same time the power of the Moriscos (baptized Moors) had increased, and they were reviving ancient heresies such as the half-forgotten Manichaeism. The Catholic kings consequently consulted Pope Sixtus IV, who thereupon issued a bull (Nov. 1, 1478) authorizing them to choose two or three inquisitors notable for their virtue and learning, to whom he granted jurisdiction. The bull was put into force by a royal cedula (decree) issued in Medina del Campo (Sept. 17, 1480) ordering the establishment of the Holy Office in Castile.(13)

The original crisis was a real one. We can only regret that the “inquisitors notable for their virtue and learning” were not as often found to do the work as was originally intended by pope and king. If anything, inquisitors and their lesser employees (“familiars”) were more prone to pettiness, laziness, and greed, than to cruelty. Of these, greed was dominant.

Church historians have been slow to study seriously this matter of the Inquisition. “Church history generally lagged behind other kinds of historical research, and confessional feelings still ran sufficiently high as to make the history of inquisitions a difficult and disputed topic.”(14) Fortunately, all this has changed in our time, and three whose work is perhaps most helpful to us are not Catholics at all. Only one of them is a “church historian” properly speaking.

Let us next look at the remarks of Owen Chadwick, and then continue with a more detailed presentation of the work of Henry Kamen,(15) and Edward Peters,(16) both already cited. No one could accuse any of these respected academics, the first two of them British, of any denominational pro-Catholic bias. Yet they show the Inquisition in a different light from that of the exaggerated misrepresentations the Spanish themselves call The Black Legend (La Leyenda Negra).(17)

Chadwick simply says that no primary documentation on the Spanish Inquisition was concretely in hand until the time of Llorente early in the nineteenth century. Kamen goes beyond. After paying respects to Llorente, Fidel Fita who did original research in the 1890s, and Henry Charles Lea whose four-volume history was published between 1906 and 1908 and is still considered indispensable, he goes on to insist that even this type of research into the primary sources outside their proper context can be and is misleading, “rather as if one were to attempt a history of the police without knowing much about the society, the laws or the institutions within which the police work.”(18) Again he puts it nicely for us:


The discovery of the riches of inquisitorial documentation, and its exploitation first by Llorente and then by Henry Charles Lea, has helped to restore the balance of information but has also created new dangers. Scholars are in danger of studying the Inquisition in isolation from all the other dimensions of State and society, as though the tribunal were somehow a self-explanatory phenomenon: as a result old misconceptions are being reinforced and the Inquisition is once again being assumed to have played a central role in religion, politics, culture and the economy.(19)

Thus both the primary sources and an adequate interpretation of them are required if we are to get beyond The Black Legend. Peters, assuming all of the above, tries to help us understand how the myth of the Inquisition has been so successfully recycled and revived by various interest groups down through history and in our own time.

Llorente himself held high office in the Inquisition during his own day, and he was one of the few afrancesados or collaborators with the occupying French during the Napoleonic-era in Spain.(20) This is Chadwick’s summary of his career:

The most interesting of the afrancesados clergy was Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823). A canon of Calahorra, the French Revolution found him Secretary General of the Inquisition in Madrid, as a result of which the reforming grand inquisitor gave him important materials for a history of the Inquisition. In the events of 1808 he accepted King Joseph Bonaparte and entered Madrid in his train. As one of the few Spanish churchmen to be serviceable, he was now heaped with honours and responsible work, especially the dissolution of the monasteries and the administration of confiscated goods, as well as the custody of the archives of the Inquisition. He used the time to gather materials for his history. Naturally he must retreat with the French and spend ten years in exile until the Spanish government gave him a reprieve. In 1817-1818 he published at Paris in four volumes his Critical History of the Spanish Inquisition , which scandalized many Spaniards and finally gave the Spanish Inquisition the blasted reputation which it kept. The History was instantly put upon the Index of prohibited books. The account was not impartial history. But it was the only account hitherto by anyone who had access to authentic documents and therefore held the field as indispensable. In the perspective of Church history, and the reputation of Spanish Catholicism for bigotry and fanaticism, Llorente’s book was the most weighty single outcome of the little afrancesado movement among Churchmen.(21)

Very few Spanish clergy betrayed their country, so Llorente was the exception. But this is not what made him famous. It was his possession of the documentation on the Inquisition that earned him a reputation and thus made him important for us. He held the evidence. And his biased presentation held sway for lack of any countervailing influence.

British historian Henry Arthur Francis Kamen has no apparent reason to defend the record of the Spanish Inquisition. He got his M.A. (Oxon.) in 1965, the same year he published his Spanish Inquisition. He specializes in Spanish history. Twenty years later he published another updated study on the Inquisition in the early modern period called Inquisition and Society in Spain. (22)

Among the first things Kamen brings to our attention is that Llorente himself was astonished at the lack of any opposition to the Inquisition in Spain itself.(23) This fact from the documentation can be interpreted variously, of course — were people just too afraid to speak out? But two additional facts are also necessary to consider.

The first is that the civil variety of the Inquisition was a court alien to the older and more tolerant Spanish traditions and was introduced only in time of crisis. It was long unpopular in Aragon, for example, where local feudal freedoms from royal absolutism (“fueros”) resented its presence. Castilian inquisitors were also resented in Catalonia and elsewhere outside Castile, precisely because they were outsiders.(24) But people can put up with just about anything when threatened with a crisis situation, and so the “early” Inquisition was tolerated, as were “later” ones when special crises obtained.

Secondly, as noted above, it was supposed to be a temporary measure against judaizer-heretics who were then mainly the “converso” party of Jews (only later were ex-Muslims the object of the Inquisition) forced in 1391 and thereafter to be baptized or face exile or death.(25) After the breakdown of the spirit of “convivencia,” the Old Christians actually feared for their blood lines, and so after 1480 tolerated the Inquisition at times more for the sake of “ethnic cleansing” than religious orthodoxy.(26) All of this may be against our standards today, but it does have a precise understanding in Spanish social history. Here is what Kamen says of their tolerance:

What did Spaniards themselves think of the Inquisition? There can be no doubt that the people as a whole gave their ready support to its existence. The tribunal was, after all, not a despotic body imposed on them tyrannically, but a logical expression of the social prejudices prevalent in their midst. It was created to deal with a problem of heresy, and as long as the problem was deemed to exist people seemed to accept it. The Inquisition was probably no more loved or hated than the police are in our time: in a society where there was no other general policing body, people took their grievances to it and exploited it to pay off personal scores. By the same token, it was on the receiving end of frequent hostility and resentment; but at every moment the inquisitors were convinced that the people were with them, and with good reason.(27)

Was Spain a closed or an open society? Kamen goes on to say these astonishing things:

The image of Spain as a nation sunk in intellectual torpor and religious superstition, all of it due to the Inquisition, is one that Menendez Pelayo was right to controvert. Spain was in reality one of the freest nations in Europe, with active political institutions at all levels. Remarkably free discussion of political affairs was tolerated, and public controversy occurred on a scale paralleled in few other countries.(28)

Let us not forget, either, that the works of Galileo were never put on the Spanish Index of Forbidden Books!

Anti-semitism after 1480 in Spain was local, and the monarchy continued, at least for a while,(29) to be the traditional defender of the Jews, both those who remained Jews by religion and the “converso” communities. Kamen even points out that “converso” financing was partially responsible for outfitting the ships Columbus used to discover the New World.(30) Many rich or famous “conversos” were never troubled by the Inquisition. Others lived abroad to avoid it, such as Juan Luis Vives. The pattern is an uneven one. It was widely held that almost the whole of the nobility had Jewish blood. By the seventeenth century, the limpieza statutes had actually closed some government and academic posts to the nobility, but by reason of blood, opened them to common people!

An outdated Catholic publication (1931) states that the last victim of the Inquisition in Spain was a schoolmaster hanged in 1826. Some limpieza statutes lingered for a few more decades into the nineteenth century. We should note that the thoroughly enfeebled institution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is hardly comparable to the one functioning under Ferdinand and Isabella at the close of the fifteenth century.(31) “In rounded terms, it is likely that over three-quarters of all those who perished under the Inquisition in the three centuries of its existence, did so in the first twenty years.”(32) This synthetic summary is the reasoned fruit of Henry Kamen’s painstaking analysis:

The Inquisition was not the imposition of a sinister tyranny on an unwilling people. It was an institution brought into being by a particular socio-religious situation, impelled and inspired by a decisively Old Christian ideology, and controlled by men whose outlook reflected the mentality of the mass of Spaniards. The dissenters were a few intellectuals, and others whose blood alone was sufficient to put them outside the pale of the new society being erected on a basis of triumphant and militant conservatism.(33)

This new society is the “conflict society” referred to above, the one gradually replacing the older medieval “convivencia.” The Inquisition must be understood in the broader terms of Spanish social history and the development of its institutions. The lack of perspective of earlier English Protestant propagandists or even modern Jewish apologists is insufficient, for it often had less to do with religion taken for itself than with politics and fratricidal rivalries. The papacy tried at times, and sometimes failed, to mitigate the effect of the Spanish Inquisition.(34) Economics, too, played its part, especially when we recall that the inquisitors, forever in search of revenue, were usually paid out of their confiscations, not by a salary meted out by the crown from other sources or taxation.(35) Until the themes of the evolution of Spanish “conflict society,” “closed society,” and “conservative xenophobia society,” are explored fully, and the Inquisition is not excised from the whole to be looked at in distorted isolation — and Kamen insists the work has just begun — we will not have an adequate appreciation of the phenomenon of the Inquisition. The word “appreciation” is operative, because it is a departure from the stereotype of The Black Legend. This is no mere revisionism, either. What can increasingly be understood and appreciated by specialists of Spanish history must be popularized to prevent it from becoming one of those “best kept secrets” of Church history or even world history.

While Henry Kamen is the type of historian who “tells the story” so the record can be clarified, Edward Peters is more concerned with The Black Legend aspect of the Spanish Inquisition. One of the reasons for the legend is the secrecy of the Inquisition when it came to procedures:

Judicially, the courts of the Inquisition were no worse and no better than the secular courts of the day. Faults existing in the procedure of the Holy Office would be no less evident in the royal courts where reforms were instituted by the famous Cortes of Toledo in 1480. The distinguishing feature of the Inquisition — its absolute secrecy — was the one which made it more open to abuses than any public tribunal. This secrecy was not, it seems, originally a part of the inquisitorial framework, and early records refer to public trials and a public prison rather than a secret one. But by the beginning of the sixteenth century secrecy became the general rule and was enforced in all the business of the tribunal. Even the various Instructions of the Inquisition, although set down in print, were for restricted circulation only and not for the public eye. What this necessarily involved was general public ignorance of the methods and procedure of the Inquisition — an ignorance which in its earlier period helped the tribunal by creating reverential fear in the minds of evildoers, but which in its later period led to the rise of fear and hatred based on a highly imaginative idea of how the tribunal worked. The Inquisition was therefore largely to blame for the unfounded slanders cast upon it in the eighteenth century or before. The natural outcome of this enforced ignorance is shown by the debates of the Cortes of Cadiz in 1813, on the projected decree to abolish the Inquisition. If the defenders of the tribunal relied on the argument of a mystical and mythical unity given to Spain by the Inquisition, its detractors relied almost completely on legendary misapprehensions about the entire structure and function of the institution.(36)

We see from this that the Inquisition, in a later age, was its own worst enemy and that it opened itself to misunderstanding precisely on grounds of procedure which had been secret, often to protect the witnesses who had come forward. For example, a sufficient number of them had been assassinated to warrant their protection, so thought the tribunals.

Edward Peters employs terminology which is useful for us in making distinctions:

When I use the term inquisition (lower case), I address the function of institutions that were so called, as historical research has described them. When I use the term Inquisition (upper case) I always refer in shorthand to a particularly constituted, specific institution (such as the Spanish Inquisition or the Venetian Inquisition). When I use the term The Inquisition, I am referring in one form or another to an image, legend, or myth, usually in polemic. These decisions will not satisfy everyone, but they at least make an honest attempt to remove some of the dangerous presuppositions that often creep into even the most evenhanded attempts at historical neutrality.(37)

For our purposes here, Peters’ treatment of “an image, legend, or myth, usually in polemic” is what interests us.

The construction of The Inquisition , according to Peters, begins with the need of the Protestant Reformers to fill in the gap of Church history from the time of the early martyrs in the Roman empire up to their own time in the sixteenth century. What had happened during all those intervening centuries when the Roman Church held sway? Luther and others posited a “hidden church” that was indeed a continuity from the ancient Christians, especially the martyrs, through those persecuted by the medieval inquisitions, and up to the Protestant martyrs of his own day. The Inquisition was the instrument of their martyrdom. Later, the historian Flaccius Illyricus developed this further:

Protestant Church history and martyrology were first fully developed in the work of Matthias Flaccius Illyricus (1520-1575), the greatest Protestant historical scholar in the sixteenth century. In 1556 Flaccius published his Catalogue of Witness to the Truth, in which the “hidden” Church of Luther and the early Calvin took on visibility and specificity, turning the Catholic attack on its head by claiming medieval heretics, not as “heretics of old,” but precisely as continuing witnesses to the apostolicity and authenticity of the hidden church from the fourth century to the sixteenth.(38)

A new Protestant vision of Church history had emerged and became codified. The Cathars/Albigensians, Waldensians, Hussites, and others were reinterpreted in the light of the theory of the “hidden” church of the pure Word. And it was The Inquisition which persecuted the “hidden” church in every age, even, as noted above, potentially in our own.

Definite elements went into the construction of The Black Legend. The hatred of the pope, the anti-cult of St. Dominic, the Spanish king, and the inquisitorial tribunals all coalesced into a martyrological whole.

For both Catholics and Protestants the Revolt of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century provided a useful political rallying point for anti-Spanish feeling translated into the anti-Inquisitorial symbol. The Low Countries could see in the foreign emperor the source of their deprivation of liberty, and the literary supports especially in this region of much publication and traditionally free presses helped immensely.

Highly influential was the work of Antonio del Corro (writing under the pseudonym “Reginaldus Gonsalvius Montanus”) A Discovery and Plaine Declaration of Sundry Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain which appeared in Latin in Heidelberg in 1567. Within a year it was translated into Dutch, English, French, and German.(39) For reasons which varied, the audiences of those language regions enthusiastically welcomed the ideas of Montanus.

More than one major forgery also helped the legend’s growth:

Along with Les subtils moyens, Montanus, and the Augsburg Petition, several forged accounts of the Spanish Inquisition’s alleged machinations for the destruction of the Netherlands also circulated in the 1570s. Some of them, added to Adam Henricpetri’s history of the revolt of the Netherlands, were also translated into English in A Tragicall Historie of the Troubles and Civile Warres of the Lowe Countries in 1583. One forgery, composed shortly after 1570, purported to be a decree of the Spanish Inquisition dated 16 February, 1568 and confirmed by Philip II. . . . The determination of this decree as a forgery was not made until the beginning of the twentieth century, and the forgery survived unquestioned in the work of all major historians of the Dutch Revolt and of the history and character of the Inquisition.(40)

Finally, only one more document need be mentioned, and, according to Peters, it synthesized forty years of anti-Inquisition propaganda. It is the Apologie published by William of Orange. It completes the “portrait” of Montanus, and lays stress upon the Spanish Inquisition as the enemy of all political liberty, thus validating the Dutch Revolt. The Spanish king was merely the dupe of the Inquisition, and so legitimacy was not itself directly attacked in the political realm. Needless to say the Apologie, written by a French Huguenot, found wide audiences in France, England, and even Germany.(41)

There were other writings produced by this barrage of propaganda, but it is enough here to say that the materials printed between 1548 and 1581 themselves became the sources for the later historians, including Gerhard Brandt’s History. Peters adds:

Many people who found it difficult to agree with each other on many issues found it easy to agree upon The Inquisition. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, they had invented a new and potent idea of the western imagination.(42)

It was not until the time of Llorente that hard reliance upon the primary sources was assured, and then with his furious bias which earned the Spanish exile some notoriety. The mood of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution would hardly have produced someone whose goal was to rehabilitate the Inquisition! Undoubtedly fame was more important for him than the impartial truth, because contemporary scholars credit Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909) with far more fairness.(43) And as Chadwick also said above, Llorente himself interpreted those documents in a way that “gave the Spanish Inquisition the blasted reputation which it kept.” But this is not quite the case, as we have seen. The pre-existing mythology was reinforced by Llorente on a different basis, the evidence of the primary sources. Llorente did not invent the mythology, but he did his part to help it continue.

The Enlightenment made use of The Inquisition mostly to contrast it with its own program of reason and reform. The myth had long passed into art and literature, in many ways more impressive and moving than the polemical writings of the time of the Dutch Revolt and the Protestant historians. Even traditionalist writers in the nineteenth century such as Dostoyevski delved into the Black Legend by giving us a portrait of The Grand Inquisitor.

Catholics were not exempt from contact with the myth, either, and Peters refers to a “White Legend”:

If Paramo may be said to have created a Catholic “White Legend” of The Inquisition intended to offset the Protestant and anti-Spanish “Black Legends,” then certainly not all Catholic historians of the inquisitions participated in the White Legend. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other Catholic historians tended to align themselves with the methods of historians of other confessions, or of no confessions at all, although the Paramo strand remained obvious in the most conservative and ideological of Catholic historians through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. In Catholicism itself, myth survived along with the beginnings of history.(44)

And again:

From Acton’s day to our own, however, most Catholic and non-Catholic historians have tended to use identical historical methodology and to have ceased to approach the history of inquisitions from the perspective of Black or White legends. Although there have been several exceptions to this generalization on both sides of the confessional line, the historical achievements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have made a return to the myths, among professional historians of any creed at least, virtually impossible.(45)

With the publication of Henry Charles Lea’s A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages in 1887, “the golden age” of inquisition history was barely opened. We are now enjoying it more fully, and it is still in its early stages. Sources and methods have been improved, confessional bickering has been bypassed, and legends have been set aside. But in the popular imagination, the old myth lingers, in Europe as well as in America. Until the work of Chadwick, Kamen, Peters, Henningsen, and their associates is made more widely known, we will not be able to appreciate that ours is such a “golden age.”(46) As Albert Shannon hopes, the fruit of Inquisition studies should not remain the possession of the specialists.(47)



  1. Burchard (1812-1891) was speaking for a deputation of clergy calling upon James G. Blaine, the Republican Presidential candidate, New York. 
  2. Edward Peters. Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 87. 
  3. Before this papal inquisition, jurisdiction over heretics belonged exclusively to the bishops. A well known work using the papal registers which documents this newer system and interprets it according to the “Annales” School is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 a 1324 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975). An English translation was done by Barbara Bray, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (New York: George Braziller, 1978). Montaillou was the last village which actively supported the Cathar heresy. Furthermore: “. . . the Spanish Inquisition is one of the few early modern institutions about whose organization and procedure an enormous amount of documentation is available. In part the Inquisition, like any judicial court, needed paperwork in order to survive: the struggle to establish precedents and to keep written evidence of privileges forced officials to record everything.” See Henry Kamen, Inquisition and Society in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 169. The papal inquisition itself may be said to date from 1184 when Pope Lucius III issued the decretal Ad abolendam, which confirmed an agreement of 1177. See Peters, ibid., 47. The limited scope and non-universality of the inquisition can be summarized in these words: “Thus the Spanish Inquisition must be considered essentially as an incident in the history of Christianity in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Spain and understood in those terms. Erected in the late fifteenth century, it lasted for three hundred and fifty years, and its history is the history of an early modern European religious and judicial institution whose purpose was to preserve Spanish Catholicism by visibly and publicly reasserting the religious orthodoxy of Spanish society.” Ibid., 101-102. 
  4. For the legal history and the roots of inquisitio in Roman law, see Peters, ibid., 11-17. 
  5. Kamen, 142-143. See for example The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods, ed. Gustav Henningsen and John Tedeschi with Charles Amiel (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986). The enormous quantity of the material and the work to be done is evident. 
  6. Ibid., 189. “The best estimate is that around 3000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in comparable secular courts.” Peters, ibid., 87. 
  7. See Kamen, 24; 136-137. The medieval Inquisition was under the jurisdiction of the pope, while authorization for the new Spanish Inquisition was mediated through the pope to the king who therefore exercised his jurisdiction as he saw fit. In one place, Kamen affirms that the Inquisition’s authority was never defined, and that it was “dual,” both ecclesiastical and civil in Spain: “The truth is that the Inquisition itself always refused to define its own jurisdiction clearly, since that would have been to set clear limits to its power.” Ibid., 240. 
  8. In Spanish history this referred to the pluralistic and harmonious coexistence of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities in the Middle Ages. Gradually, Spain moved away from harmony to a “conflict society.” 
  9. Ibid., 216. If anything, the Inquisition was highly “legalistic” and it abided by the precise boundaries provided by church and civil law. 
  10. Ibid., 219. Kamen tells us that even after the Inquisition had ceased to exist there was a legacy of anti-semitism — “anti-semitism with neither Jews nor crypto-Jews” — in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. See ibid., 235-237. 
  11. In 1495 there were sixteen tribunals, but by 1507 only seven were left, so much had the judaizing threat decreased. The appearance of Protestantism outside Spain had stirred Charles V to be on guard lest it invade the Spanish peninsula. This gave the Inquisition a new target and a new focus — to root out Erasmianism, Lutheranism, and any other Protestant tendencies. The expulsion of the Mariscos, 1609-1614, was not the decision of the Inquisition. See ibid., 113. “. . . it may be more informative to divide the activity of the tribunal into five main phases: i) the period of intense anti-converso persecution after 1480; ii) the relatively quiet early sixteenth century; iii) the great period of activity against Protestants and Moriscos, 1560-1614; iv) the seventeenth century, when most of those tried were neither of Jewish nor of Moorish origin; v) the eighteenth century, when heresy was no longer a problem. Ibid., 184. Despite this, there were two other “waves” of anti-judaizing persecution, one in the mid-to-late seventeenth century (conversos of Portuguese origin) and one in the 1720s. Ibid., 219-237. Also see Peters, ibid., 88. 
  12. It may not console too many, but those condemned to the auto-de-fe (death by burning at the stake) could renounce their errors and receive a lighter sentence. It is also possible there were dissimulators who did what they had to do in order to live. Those who begged for mercy, and had their confession accepted, were pardoned with a light penance if it was the first offense (relapsed heretics were not pardoned easily). Ibid., 75. Also, an “edict of grace” was read in church in the early years, and it was followed by a “period of grace” of usually thirty or forty days. Those who turned in both themselves and their accomplices were pardoned. Self-denunciation under such benign terms was common. Ibid., 161-162. For prison conditions and the subject of torture, see ibid., 171-177, and Peters, ibid., 92-93. The Inquisition actually compares quite favorably with secular penal institutions in Spains and elsewhere in Europe. What about burnings? “The central features of the auto were the procession, the mass, the sermon at the mass and the reconciliation of sinners. It would be wrong to suppose, as is commonly done, that the burnings were the centrepiece. Burnings may have been a spectacular component of many autos but they were the least necessary part of the proceedings and scores of autos took place without a single faggot being set alight. The phrase auto-de-fe conjures up visions of flames and fanaticism in the mind of the average Protestant reader. A literal translation of the phrase would bring us nearer to the essential truth.” Ibid., 194. “The public sentencing of convicted heretics came to be known as the auto-de-fe, the ‘act of faith’.” Peters, ibid., 85. In other words, auto pageantry (remember how much Spaniards like bullfights!) was designed to instruct, impress, and inspire the crowds in the direction of religious orthodoxy. This was a form of popular education, in other words. 
  13. See , Encyclopaedia Britannica art. “Spain,” vol. 21 (London: William Benton, Publisher, 1960), 121-122. 
  14. See Peters, ibid., 287. 
  15. He advises to look beyond his own writing on the subject, too. Other works he recommends include Emil van der Vekene’s list of source material in Bibliotheca Bibliographica Historiae Sanctae Inquisitiationis (2 vols., Vaduz 1982-1983), and Angel Alcalá (ed.) Inquisición española y mentalidad inquisitorial (Barcelona, 1984). This work brings together all the proceedings of a symposium on the Spanish Inquisition held at Brooklyn College, New York, in 1983. Probably the most complete research tool came out after Kamen published, however. It is The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods, ed. Gustav Henningsen, etal. (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986). 
  16. His valuable Inquisition came out after Kamen had published. In his bibliographical essay Peters lists Kamen’s history just after the work of Henry Charles Lea. 
  17. “The juridical base of the Inquisition’s first auto-de-fe against Protestantism was the Tridentine decrees on justification of 1547. Philip himself was in the royal gallery at the great auto-de-fe at Valladolid on October 8, 1559, which meant that these decrees had been confirmed by fire. Whereas Charles had done what he could to obstruct the decrees, Philip would be one of their most vocal exponents. More than orthodoxy was now involved: the honor of the Inquisition was concerned as well as that of the Catholic King himself. Spain was now irrevocably committed to the Council of Trent. This is by no means to suggest that the grotesque portrait of Philip of the black legend has not been properly discredited. He enjoyed no particular monopoly on intolerance.” Donald Nugent, Ecumenism in the Age of the Reformation: The Coloquy of Poissy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 41. 
  18. Kamen, Preface viii. 
  19. Ibid., 259. Kamen concludes that the Inquisition was actually a marginal phenomenon in the evolution of Spain, and that it touched the lives of relatively few ordinary Spaniards. 
  20. Chadwick says: “At the time the Spanish resistance called them simply by the name Traitors. History gave them the name afrancesados, the Frenchified. . . .” See Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1981), 530. 
  21. Ibid., 530-531. See also Peters, ibid., 278-287. 
  22. See note 3 above. 
  23. Kamen, 44. 
  24. Ibid., 243. 
  25. Kamen says: “The deliberate stimulation of a feeling of crisis (aggravated by converso plots, by the murder of Arbues, by the episode of the La Guardia infant), and the universal response to the great twelve-year-long crusade against Granada pressurized public authorities to conform and stilled the protests of individuals. Because the Inquisition was a crisis instrument, it may be that Ferdinand never intended it to be permanent (no steps, for example, were taken to give it a regular income). This certainly was the feeling of the Toledo writer who commented in 1538 that ‘if the Catholic kings were still alive, they would have reformed it twenty years ago, given the change in conditions’. The unprecedented activities of the Holy Office were deemed to be acceptable only as an emergency measure, until the crisis had passed.” Ibid., 46. Possibly many of the converso heretics had never been properly catechized, and this explains the continued existence of judaizing practices. Some prominent Spaniards called for evangelization, not Inquisition. Ibid., 46-47. 
  26. We learn this about what the Inquisition really discovered: “In the early years of the Inquisition, considerable evidence came to light not simply of judaizing but also of messianism on one hand and irreligious scepticism on the other; many conversos, indeed, were ironically condemned for beliefs that orthodox Judaism would have regarded as heretical, such as denying the immortality of the soul. Dissent among the conversos did not, therefore, necessarily imply any drift towards Judaism. There was nothing remotely Jewish about the beliefs of the alumbrados: the root influence was Franciscan spirituality, the environment was the comfortable patronage afforded by Old Christian nobility.” Kamen, 67-68. 
  27. Ibid., 256. There is also evidence that some of the most sophisticated people of Spain condemned the Inquisition and its practices. See ibid., 47-49. 
  28. Ibid., 99. 
  29. Since the expulsion of the Jews and Moors was not the business of the Inquisition, we will not treat of it here. The monarchy did approve, but the circumstances are complex. 
  30. Columbus himself may have descended from “converso” stock. See ibid., 21. 
  31. See The Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary, entry “Inquisition, the Spanish,” second edition revised, ed. Donald Attwater (London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1951; first published 1931), 256. Kamen says the Inquisition was suppressed in 1820 (ibid., 235) and again finally suppressed in 1834 (ibid., 250). “From 1808 to 1834, the Inquisition had virtually ceased to function, its existence chiefly a symbol of Spanish resistance to any reform — whether externally imposed or internally directed — that seemed to stray too far from Spanish ideas. Its victims had long since disappeared, its powers of censorship had been greatly curtailed, and its use as a political device had long since ceased to be needed. It became in itself an auto-de-fe — a ritual institution whose existence had come to symbolize the civil Christian life of the Spanish people. Few had any notion of its history or any knowledge of its actual operation.” Peters, ibid., 104. 
  32. See Kamen, 42. And on the matter of terror: “Because the holocaust years of the late fifteenth century were by no means typical of the atmosphere during the remaining three centuries of inquisitorial history, any emphasis on the fear induced by the tribunal must take account of the fact that over long periods there was no fear in the sense of universal anxiety.” Ibid., 164. 
  33. Ibid., 61. 
  34. For example, “In 1546 the pope intervened and decreed that for a minimum period of ten years the Inquisition should not confiscate any property from the Moriscos.” Ibid., 105. 
  35. This is how the system worked: “There were certainly no financial problems in the first years. Because the Inquisition, despite its ecclesiastical appearance, was an exclusively royal tribunal, all revenue from confiscations and fines went directly to the crown, which in turn paid out for the salaries and expenses of the inquisitors; under the Catholic Kings, the Holy Office was totally subject to the crown for finance. As late as 1540 the Suprema reported that orders for salaries of inquisitors in the crown of Aragon were always signed by the king and not by the Inquisitor General. The crown, however, helped itself to so much inquisitorial income that very soon it had to find extra money for salaries, and Ferdinand therefore turned to the Church.” Ibid., 149. This led to an abuse that might have been predicted: “The dangers of this situation were certainly in the mind of the anonymous converso of Toledo who in 1538 directed a memorial to Charles V: ‘Your Majesty should above all provide that the expenses of the Holy Office do not come from the property of the condemned, because it is a repugnant thing if inquisitors cannot eat unless they burn.’ Unfortunately, this is exactly what the inquisitors of Llerena were forced to do.” Ibid., 150. 
  36. Ibid., 168-169. Even prisoners upon leaving were bound to secrecy: “On finally leaving the gaol they were obliged to take an oath not to reveal anything they had seen or experienced in the cells: small wonder if this absolute secrecy gave rise to the most blood-curdling legends about what went on inside.” Ibid., 173. 
  37. Peters, ibid., 7. 
  38. Ibid., 128. 
  39. Ibid., 133. 
  40. Ibid., 152. 
  41. Ibid., 153. 
  42. Ibid., 154. 
  43. Philip van Limborch’s History of the Inquisition of 1697 was also a pioneering work of care and fairness, beyond polemic, but he did not have access to the same primary sources as did Lea. See ibid., 275. For the opposite assessment of Lea’s fairness, and especially a criticism of his competence, see Albert C. Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (Collegeville: Michael Glazier/The Liturgical Press, 1991) esp. Appendix II, 152-156. 
  44. Ibid., 271-272. 
  45. Ibid., 273-274. 
  46. See ibid., 288. In the French-speaking world, the work of Henri Maisonneuve should also be mentioned. See Etudes sur les origines de l'inquisition (Paris, 1960), and "Le droit romain et la doctrine inquisitoriale," Etudes d'histoire du droit canonique, dediees a Gabriel Le Bras (Paris, 1965). 
  47. Shannon, ibid., Foreword, xii.


Van Hove, S.J., Fr. Brian. “Beyond the Myth of The Inquisition: Ours Is “The Golden Age”. Faith and Reason (Winter, 1992).

Reprinted with permission from Faith and Reason.

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