Questions Concerning the Spanish Inquisition

Author: Terry W. Specht


Terry W. Specht

The Spanish Inquisition must be seen against the historical situation that Christendom found itself in. Most forget that during this period the West was is danger of following the fate of Constantinople and falling under the sword of Islam. Indeed Protestant and Catholic princes joined forces against the threat and at one point the Turkish armies were at the gates of Vienna.

It was under this threat that the Pope authorized the Spanish Inquisition if it should be needed. Queen Isabella instituted it two years later. The specific threat that the Inquisition faced was the "conversos." Spain had been freed form Islamic control for only a few generations. Because no Jew or Muslim could hold a high position in the Christian kingdom many Jews and Muslims had converted to Christianity. Many of their descendents now held high positions both within the royal court and within the Church. (Isabella's confessor is one example.) Many of these conversions were matters of convenience and some continued to practice their original faith secretly. With good reason it was feared that these secret Muslims and Jews might betray the Spanish cities to the Turks. This situation also affected those who had sincerely converted since they were now publicly suspect.

The Church ran the court of the Inquisition since only the Church can determine whether someone is, or is not a Christian. Torture was sometimes used as it was in any court in Europe at the time. Many authorities cite that use of torture was infrequent and probably much less than in civil courts. Note that only Christians could be tried. Practicing Muslims and Jews were not under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The Church's main concern was to identify false Christians and if possible to offer them reconciliation with the Church. Those who agreed made a public profession of faith which came to be known as the "auto-de-fey" (act of faith). Only those who had been found guilty twice were turned over to the state (the Church could not condemn anyone to death). To be burned at the stake then a false Christian would have to be found guilty, made a profession of faith, and then be found guilty a second time.

These twice guilty were condemned to be burned at the stake. While this cannot be justified it hardly seems more barbaric that the drawing and quartering the English practiced up to the 18th century.

Numbers are hard to determine but a recent study of one city shows that during the Inquisition 5,000 people were questioned. Of these 945 were found guilty of which 105 received prison sentences. The remaining received penances such as pilgrimages or wearing a cross. None were burned. It is hard to say if these numbers reflect the general trend in Spain, but it certainly indicates that the barbarity of the process has been vastly over exaggerated.

It should also be noted that during Europe's period of witch hunting people suspected of witchcraft were probably much safer in Spain than in England. Many who found themselves the victims of rumors would turn themselves into the inquisition in the hope a receiving a verdict vindicating their innocence. Once such a verdict was received few would presume to make charges against the finding of the Inquisition.