It makes one think that all this great machinery for the punishment of a few poor beggars, is more a wish for display on the part of the inquisitors than a real zeal for religion.


Pre-industrial policing systems in Europe functioned under the immense disadvantage of having no common code defining what might be a crime, no guide as to punishments, no officials to make inquiries and maintain order and no body of archived information on which to draw. When it came to considering heresy as a crime, the problems were even graver. The Spanish Inquisition, however, was in the exceptional position of having its medieval predecessors in French Languedoc to guide it. Bernard Gui’s Liber sententiarum (Book of Sentences), covering over nine hundred judicial cases between 1308 and 1323, showed the range of punishments that might be imposed for heresy. Torquemada began, as we have seen, the practice of publishing Instructions about procedure. But how could information for the prosecution be obtained? The edicts of faith certainly invited the public to collaborate, but what if—as was usually the case—they did not? The bulk of information eventually came from informers, a type that has helped to perpetuate the ill reputation of the Inquisition.

The single most important feature of police systems, and of the Inquisition, was therefore the quality of information received. Was it reliable? Could it be used for prosecution? In its early decades when it targeted Jewish conversos, the Inquisition received a great deal of information, which went into its archives and which modern researchers—perhaps too naïvely—have accepted as reliable and have faithfully published in bulky volumes.1 Common sense suggests that, as with all verbal testimony given to the police, we should exercise great caution over accepting the validity of voluntary information. At least in the case of testimony concerning conversos of that early period, some historians therefore (as we have seen) discount the evidence as unreliable.2

The inquisitors faced the same problem. Guided only by their (often limited) judicial experience, their knowledge of human nature, and what they knew from local practice or had gleaned from the manuals of the medieval Inquisition, they had to make decisions that affected literally the lives and livelihood of the persons who came before them. Not surprisingly, massive injustices occurred, especially when the inquisitor might have an axe to grind, through personal or cultural prejudice. Well after the great period of converso prosecutions, when so-called heresy was not the main issue, the problems continued. Widespread ignorance and illiteracy among the population were among the obstacles, since witnesses were unable to identify evidence correctly. When one of the household servants of the late count duke of Olivares, influenced no doubt by an enemy of the same, testified to the inquisitors in 1646 that Olivares had persons read to him at bedtime from the Koran and from Martin Luther, could they dare to accept the evidence?3

In town and in country, information came from below. The positive aspect of pre-industrial community relations in Europe was the sense of welfare and belonging, but a negative aspect was the absence of privacy. Neighborhoods did not necessarily offer neighborliness. “People were constantly observed by their neighbors. Reputation shaped the attitudes of neighbor to neighbor.”4 Correct behavior was as a consequence never simply a personal option; it was a requirement imposed and judged by community norms, and regulated according to contexts of religion, gender or economy. Incorrect behavior, with the corresponding bad reputation, might provoke grave conflicts within the community, and was one of the factors that most served to bring people to the attention of the Inquisition. A woman with a reputation as a “witch,” for example, would be tolerated for many years by her village, but in a year of agrarian crisis she might find that her lack of status would work against her.

Information was often supplied in contexts where it was clear that informers were exploiting the Inquisition in order to serve their own private grievances. We may take as a guide the nature of denunciations in the early seventeenth century in Catalonia,5 where evidence was of two main types: against outsiders to the community, such as French immigrants; and against those who provoked tension within the community. The free-ranging commission of the inquisitors was an open invitation to people who wished to air grievances. In a typical case in Barcelona in 1607, a young wife quarreling with her husband, a silversmith, denounced both him and his mother to the Inquisition. A neighbor, a house painter, protested that “if she were a good wife she would not have accused herhusband and her mother-in-law before the Inquisition.” One of her friends retorted that “if the accusations were not true the Inquisition would punish the accuser.” To this the painter replied: “They do favors for everybody!”6 The wife promptly denounced him also. The inquisitors eventually fined him a small sum for doubting their impartiality, but had nothing more than a reprimand for the silversmith (even though he had threatened to kill his wife for denouncing his mother). They evidently did not wish to get involved. In another case, the inquisitors were faced with an incident in the village of La Guardia (Montserrat) when a woman refused to accept the kiss of peace at mass in the church and instead made a scene, “to the great scandal of the village,” which ended in her being denounced to the Inquisition for blasphemy.7 The inquisitors refused to take any action or be drawn into the quarrel, and limited themselves to examining the woman to see if she knew her basic prayers. Time and again, in case after case, private, family and community quarrels were the real motive in denunciations that masqueraded as religious. In these circumstances, the Inquisition was effectively being manipulated by private persons using it as a tool of communal or personal vengeance. As in the case of other criminal courts, “the public nature of this vengeance was a pious legal fiction that hid private affairs, private concerns and private vindictiveness, transforming the private world of recrimination and victimization into the public world of judgments and sanctions.”8

Even outright attacks on the Inquisition were not always what they seemed. In 1632, when a trader of St Pere Pescador (Girona) fired a gun at an employee of the Holy Office the inquisitors recognized that the whole affair arose out of circumstances that were not his fault: “the quarrel,” they concluded, “was born out of conflicts the two had had a long time ago.”9 For much of its career, after the initial decades of pressure against conversos, the Inquisition no longer went heresy hunting but intervened in circumstances affecting the moral and social conduct of Spaniards. It became the perfect instrument for settling scores. The scenario for “propositions” (see chapter 13), blasphemy and other loose statements was always the same: family quarrels, drunkenness, violent husbands, personal hatreds. Case histories on these themes in the archives run into the tens of thousands.

The systems of justice prevailing at that time in Europe relied overwhelmingly on the collaboration of the public. And it was the testimony of the public—of, that is, neighbors, fellow parishioners, relatives, personal enemies—that the accused most dreaded. As we have had occasion to see, enmity and vengeance inspired much of the evidence offered to the Inquisition in its early years. Fear of neighbors, rather than of the Inquisition, was on this premise the first—and constant—concern of those denounced. We have ample evidence of it in the flight of conversos from Andalucia and Catalonia during the 1490s. An example is Manuel Rodríguez, a converso from Andalucia who was described by neighbors in Soria (where he found himself in 1490) as being “pale and dead with fright.”10

The denunciation process was not peculiar to the inquisitorial regime. Since the days of the Roman Empire, it was a regular feature of the judicial system not only in Spain but in all European countries.11 The Catholic Church had developed its own system of law, in which the judicial denunciation was made not only for the reformation but also for the punishment of the guilty person. The inquiry or “inquisition” that followed was dedicated to eliciting factual evidence.

The prosecutors in all state tribunals relied heavily on informers, many of whom could claim the right to a proportion of the property of the accused. It was a practice that on occasion aroused protests in the Cortes. Juan de Mariana, already cited above, reported the consternation among Castilians when they found that “they were deprived of the liberty to hear and talk freely, since in all the cities, towns and villages there were persons to give information of what went on. This was considered by some the most wretched slavery and equal to death.”12 The use of informers, common enough at the time, was nowhere resorted to so callously as in the period of anti-Jewish hysteria, when within the community person was set against person on the accidental basis of blood origins. But denunciation, suspicion and hostility came of course from within the community itself. Sermons and public exhortations encouraged a moral obligation to denounce both oneself and others. We have seen that in 1485 the rabbis of Toledo were asked to tell Jews to report judaizers. The Jewish and converso communities were split apart by such pressures. A particularly striking example of how rock-solid resistance to persecution could suddenly crumble, leading to betrayal and terror, is supplied in the great Chueta tragedy in Mallorca in 1678 (see chapter 14).

Even where anti-Semitism was not the driving force, the possibility of denunciation and recrimination would have been “equal to death” for those caught up in it. Petty denunciations were the rule rather than the exception. The Inquisition became a useful weapon for paying off old scores. “In Castile fifteen hundred people have been burnt through false witness,”13 a villager asserted in the 1480s. When the Lutheran crisis burst upon Seville in 1560, a stream of people turned up every day at Triana castle, the offices of the Inquisition, to report what they claimed to know. We have this information from the lips of one of the informants, who subsequently admitted that he had fabricated accusations out of sheer malice.14

In 1530 Aldonça de Vargas in the Canary Islands was reported to the Inquisition for having smiled when she heard mention of the Virgin Mary. We can only imagine the motives of the person who denounced her. In 1635 Pedro Ginesta, a man over eighty years old and of French origin, was brought before the tribunal of Barcelona by an erstwhile comrade for having forgetfully eaten a meal of bacon and onions on a day of abstinence. “The said prisoner,” ran the indictment, “being of a nation infected with heresy [i.e., France], it is presumed [my emphasis] that he has on many other occasions eaten flesh on forbidden days, after the manner of the sect of Luther.”15 Denunciations based on suspicion, therefore, could lead to accusations based on conjecture. This was the quality of thousands of pieces of information fed to the tribunal by malicious people living in the same community.

Some denunciations, of course, had nothing to do with heresy, as in the case of Alonso de Jaén, who was prosecuted in 1530 for urinating against the walls of a church; or in that of Gonzalez Ruiz, who said to his opponent during a game of cards, “Even with God as your partner you won’t win this game.”16 Both cases were self-denunciations, undoubtedly motivated by the fear that if one did not confess one would be denounced. For people in this frame of mind the edicts offered a welcome opportunity to unburden oneself of fear rather than of guilt. Two husbands accused themselves in 1581 of having asserted in conversation with their wives that fornication was no sin. The wives were summoned and confirmed the confessions. One possible motive for the action taken by the husbands was fear that their wives would denounce them.17 Or they may simply have felt compunction to confess the offense. By contrast, no such need was felt by the graduate priest Juan Batanero, a doctor of the village of Alcazar de San Juan, who was said to have “affirmed that simple fornication is no sin, and that he has papers with the arguments for this opinion, which he cannot reveal for fear of the Inquisition, but after his death they can be published.”18 He was denounced by one of his hearers.

The fear generated by the tribunal, in short, usually had its origins in social disharmony. The records of the Inquisition are full of instances where neighbors denounced neighbors, friends denounced friends, and members of the same family denounced each other. In the judaizing cases at Granada in the 1590s, the inquisitors had reason to be grateful to María Alvarez, “who was the one who first revealed all that has been discovered about her mother and sisters and relatives.”19 Many of these cases would have arisen through sheer malice or hatred. Vengeful witnesses had everything on their side: their evidence was always hearsay, their identity was always kept secret and the costs of prosecution were borne not by them but by the tribunal.20

If the Holy Office welcomed denunciations, it often knew when to distinguish between the false and the true. In 1637 when Felipe Leonart, a needle maker of French origin living in Tarragona, was unanimously denounced by his wife, son and daughter-in-law for Lutheranism, the tribunal very quickly realized that the charges had been made out of malice, and suspended the trial after rejecting the accusations.21 The official record would have us believe that false witness was rare. In the tribunal of Toledo, there were apparently (according to Lea) only eight cases of perjury detected in the 1,172 trials that took place between 1575 and 1610.22 Anyone with the slightest experience of court testimony must reject the accuracy of this conclusion. The real level of perjury was obviously very much higher, but impossible to identify. Perjurers themselves were not treated with any severity commensurate with the ruin they brought upon their victims, though in some few cases they suffered burning, scourging or the galleys. More difficult to deal with were cases of pathological self-denouncers such as the French nun in a convent at Alcalá, Ursule de la Croix, who confessed to heresy and eating meat on Fridays. She was absolved, but confessed again to the offenses. The second time she was reconciled and given a light penance. When she decided to denounce herself for the third time in 1594, however, she was obligingly sent to the stake.23

In the Spanish Inquisition, witnesses were given more advantages than in any secular court of justice, because their names were concealed. This provoked strong opposition, clearly expressed in the several Cortes held under Charles V, particularly that of Valladolid in February 1518. But the influence of Cisneros prevailed against allowing the publication of witnesses’ names, and the practice remained unaltered. Concealment of names meant that when a charge was drawn up against a prisoner it had to be phrased in general terms, so that the accused could not identify witnesses and accusers. The practice continues in modern judicial systems.24 The necessity for concealment, Cisneros had argued, was justified by cases in which witnesses had been murdered in order to prevent them testifying. But, as a memorial from the city of Granada put it in 1526, the system of anonymity was an open invitation to perjury and malicious testimony.25 This objection might not have been valid but for the fact that all denunciations were taken seriously, and even if a man were later exonerated the harm brought on him by a slight and secret accusation could be immense. When, for example, Enrique Jorge Henriques, physician to the duke of Alba, died in 1622, secret witnesses claimed that his body had been buried according to Jewish rites. The consequence was that all Henriques’s family, relatives and household were thrown into prison and kept there for two years until their acquittal for lack of evidence.26

There were other cases, perhaps more significant and terrible, where fear of denunciation alone became the spur to confession and counter-denunciation. The “term of grace” in the 1480s had an important clause which set the seal on all this. To denounce oneself as a heretic was not enough to be able to benefit from the terms of the edict. It was also necessary to denounce all those accomplices who shared the error or had led one into it. It was surely not entirely exaggeration for a converso writer of Toledo to claim in 1538 that

preachers do not dare to preach, and those who preach do not dare to touch on contentious matters, for their lives and honor are in the mouths of two ignoramuses, and nobody in this life is without his policeman. . . . Bit by bit many rich people leave the country for foreign realms, in order not to live all their lives in fear and trembling every time an officer of the Inquisition enters their house; for continual fear is a worse death than a sudden demise.27

The travails of those of converso origin were, evidently, shared also by the Moriscos. The hatred of these for the Inquisition always included an element of fear. “Out of fear,” an inquisitor of Granada reported in 1568, some Moriscos who had previously refused to do so “very quickly learned” the Castilian language. “Out of fear,” some women “began to dress like Castilians.”28

In the first century of its existence the Inquisition went out to look for heretics rather than wait for them to be brought in. This was inevitable when tribunals were itinerant, but also continued when they were settled in fixed centers. The 1498 Instructionsstipulated that “the inquisitors go to all the towns that have not taken the oath of the general Inquisition.” In 1517 such visitations were supposed to be once every four months, and by 1581 were required once a year. The purpose was to maintain an inquisitorial presence, though in practice the visits were few and far between.

In line with the practice of carrying out their public activity with the greatest solemnity impossible, the inquisitors took care to develop formal rituals. Instructions issued to the inquisitors of the town of Llerena (Extremadura) in 1592 show how the process worked.29 When they began a visitation in a district they would first present their credentials to the local Church and secular authorities, then announce a Sunday or feast day when residents would have to go to high mass, together with their children and servants, to hear the “edict” read. At the end of the sermon or the creed, the inquisitor or his representative would hold a crucifix in front of the congregation and ask everybody to raise his right hand, cross himself and repeat after the inquisitor a solemn oath to support the Inquisition and its ministers. He would then proceed to read the edict.

In the early years the document was an “edict of grace,” modeled on those of the medieval Inquisition, which recited a list of heresies and invited those who wished to discharge their consciences to come forward and denounce themselves or others. If they came forward within the “period of grace”—usually thirty to forty days—they would be reconciled to the Church without suffering serious penalties. The benign terms encouraged self-denunciation. In Mallorca the first edict to be published brought in 337 conversos who denounced themselves. In Seville the edict filled the prisons to overflowing. The scale of voluntary denunciation in Toledo was impressive: the number of penitents in the city alone in 1486 was 2,400.30 After about 1500, edicts of grace against judaizers had served their purpose. They were replaced by “edicts of faith,” which omitted the period of grace and instead invited denunciation of those guilty of a detailed list of offenses. By contrast, when the drive against Moriscos was stepped up during the sixteenth century, edicts of grace were used once again to elicit information from them. In 1568 an edict of grace in Valencia encouraged 2,689 Moriscos to denounce themselves.31 In 1570 some of the Morisco vassals of the duke of Medinaceli voluntarily asked for an edict of grace so that they could, by their declarations, dissociate themselves from the more radical pro-Muslim attitudes of refugees from Granada.32 On this evidence, edicts of grace were for the inquisitors a means of obtaining information and for the cultural minorities a mechanism to regularize their position as painlessly as possible.

In the earlier period the heresies listed were principally Judaic or Islamic, but as time went on further offenses were added. Even so, the edict of faith during the sixteenth century had no regular format, and each tribunal used the text that best suited its purposes. The Suprema seems to have had no official version; not until around 1630 did it adopt an agreed text that was allowed into circulation. This was an extremely lengthy and impressive document giving details of every conceivable offense, from Jewish and Muslim heresies to the errors of Lutherans and alumbrados, and so on to popular superstitions, moral offenses and hostile attitudes to the Church and Inquisition. It must have taken an hour or more to read from the pulpit.33 But it is highly unlikely that the congregation listened to it, as one historian suggests, in “fear and terror.”34 Since virtually none of the offenses could normally be found in Catholic communities, nor would most of the hearers understand the terminology, it is more likely that congregations were simply puzzled or bored. This was certainly the reason why inquisitors in Catalonia stopped reading out edicts after the 1580s.35 The texts had little or no bearing on the daily life of Spaniards. Even when referring to judaizers, the edicts of the seventeenth century (below, chapter 14) curiously mentioned practices that no longer existed and had no relevance to the current religious situation.

Before an arrest took place, the evidence in the case was presented to a number of theologians who acted as consultants or assessors (calificadores) to determine whether the charges involved heresy. If they decided that there was sufficient proof, the prosecutor (fiscal) drew up a demand for the arrest of the accused, who was then taken into custody. Such at least were the rules. But in numerous cases (as happens also in all systems of justice today), arrest might precede the collection of evidence, so that the preliminary safeguards against wrongful arrest were dispensed with. As a result, prisoners might sit in inquisitorial jails without any firm charge being produced against them. This led the Cortes of Aragon in 1533 to protest against arrest for arbitrary reasons or on trifling charges. Zeal of officials and inquisitors alike often outran discretion. In the tribunal of Valladolid in 1699 several suspects (including a girl aged nine and a boy aged fourteen) had lain in prison for up to two years without any calificación having been made of the evidence against them.

Arrest was accompanied by immediate seizure of the goods held by the accused. An inventory was made of everything in the possession of the man or his family, and all this was held by officials of the Inquisition until the case had been decided. The inventories drawn up in this way are of great historical interest, since they allow us to see in minute detail exactly how the household of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century family was run. Every item in the house, including pots and pans, spoons, rags and old clothes, was carefully noted down in the presence of a notary. In some cases these items were valued at the time of the inventory—an important measure because of the frequent need to sell the items to pay for the upkeep of a prisoner or his dependants. If a prisoner’s case went unheard or undecided for years on end, the sequestration of his property involved real hardship for his dependants, deprived at one blow of their means of income and even of their own homes. For as long as the accused stayed in prison the costs of his upkeep were met out of his sequestrated property, which was as a rule sold piece by piece at public auction.

Initially no provision was made for relatives during sequestration and the government had to intervene to help. In July 1486 Ferdinand ordered the tribunal in Saragossa to support the needy children of an accused man, Juan Navarro, out of the latter’s property while the case was being heard. Others were not so lucky. There were instances of a rich prisoner’s children dying of hunger and of others begging in the streets. These problems were finally remedied in the Instructions of 1561, which allowed the support of dependants out of sequestrations. The concession, already in practice but not codified till the mid-sixteenth century, came too late to save two generations of conversos from destruction of their property. Even after 1561, accused persons sometimes found little security for their property against dishonest officials, or against arbitrary arrest and lengthy trials.

The arrested person was usually spirited away into the prisons of the Inquisition, there to await trial. Normally each tribunal had a section of its building set apart for the “secret prison” (“secret” meant no more then “private,” to distinguish it from “public” prisons), used particularly for the confinement of prisoners and not for temporary detainees awaiting trial. The Inquisition was usually fortunate in its choice of residences. In some of the largest cities of Spain it was allowed the use of fortified castles with ancient and reliable prison cells. The tribunal of Saragossa resided in the Aljafería, that of Seville in the Triana (in 1627 it moved to a site within the city) and that of Córdoba in the Alcázar.

In all these buildings the jails were in a fairly good condition. This may explain why the secret prisons of the Inquisition were generally considered less harsh and more humane than either the royal prisons or ordinary ecclesiastical jails. There is the case of a friar in Valladolid in 1629 who made some heretical statements simply in order to be transferred from the prison he was in to that of the Inquisition. On another occasion, in 1675, a priest confined in the episcopal prison pretended to be a judaizer in order to be transferred to the inquisitorial prison. In 1624, when the inquisitors of Barcelona had more prisoners than available cells, they refused to send the extra prisoners to the city prison, where “there are over four hundred prisoners who are starving to death and every day they remove three or four dead.”36 No better evidence could be cited for the superiority of inquisitorial jails than that of Córdoba in 1820, when the prison authorities complained about the miserable and unhealthy state of the city prison and asked that the municipality should transfer its prisoners to the prison of the Inquisition, which was “safe, clean and spacious. At present it has twenty-six cells, rooms which can hold two hundred prisoners at a time, a completely separate prison for women, and places for work.” On another occasion the authorities there reported that “the building of the Inquisition is separate from the rest of the city, isolated and exposed on all sides to the winds, spacious, supplied abundantly with water, with sewers well distributed and planned to serve the prisoners, and with the separation and ventilation necessary to good health. It would be a prison well suited to preserve the health of prisoners.”37

By contrast, the tribunal of Llerena was housed in a building it described in 1567 as “small, old, poor and shabby,” with fifty-two cells, certainly not enough for the 130 prisoners it had that year.38 The tribunal at Logroño in the sixteenth century had unhealthy premises that led directly, in times of epidemic, to the death of unfortunate prisoners. In the hot summer of 1584 over twenty prisoners died in their cells.39 A more personal description of an inquisitorial prison is given by a prisoner who left an account of the cells of the tribunal at Lisbon in 1802. The picture resembles any Spanish inquisitorial prison:

The jailer who for greater dignity has the name of Alcaide, addressed to me almost a little sermon, recommending me to behave in this respectable house with great propriety; stating also that I must not make any noise in my room, nor speak aloud, lest the other prisoners might happen to be in the neighboring cells and hear me, with other instructions of a similar kind. He then took me to my cell, a small room twelve feet by eight, with a door to the passage; in this door were two iron grates, far from each other, and occupying the thickness of the wall, which was three feet, and outside of these grates there was besides a wooden door; in the upper part of this was an aperture that let into the cell a borrowed light from the passage, which passage received its light from the windows fronting a narrow yard, but having opposite, at a very short distance, very high walls; in this small room were a kind of wood frame without feet, whereon lay a straw mattress, which was to be my bed; a small water-pot; and another utensil for various purposes, which was only emptied every eight days, when I went to mass in the prisoners’ private chapel. This was the only opportunity I had of taking fresh air during such a period, and they contrived several divisions in the chapel in such a manner that the prisoners could never see each other, or know how many were granted the favor of going to mass. The cell was arched above, and the floor was brick, the wall being formed of stone, and very thick. The place was consequently very cold in winter, and so damp that very frequently the grates were covered with drops of water like dew; and my clothes, during the winter, were in a state of perpetual moisture. Such was my abode for the period of nearly three years.40

The fact that the practice in its prisons could be humane should not be taken to mean that the Inquisition was benevolent. Efforts were made, however, to see that the jails were not dens of horror. Prisoners were fed regularly and adequately from their own purse on available food, particularly bread, meat and wine. In the cells in Madrid in 1676 prisoners were fed on bread, mutton, hake, sardines, soup, vegetables, lettuce, figs, oil, vinegar and wine.41 Since the prisoners complained about this diet, the real quality of the items may be doubted. One fortunate prisoner in Toledo in 1709 managed to order for himself in addition regular supplies of oil, vinegar, ice, eggs, chocolate and bacon.42 The expenses of all paupers were paid for by the tribunal itself: at Las Palmas the money spent on the pauper Catalina de Candelaria during her six-month stay in 1662 came to 5 ducats. One of those who could afford to pay, Isabel Perdomo, had to fund her seven-week stay in the same prison in 1674.43 Apart from food, prisoners in some tribunals were well cared for, this depending on their financial resources. Juan de Abel of Granada was granted in his cell the use of “a mattress, a quilt, two sheets, two pillows, a rug, a blanket” and other items.44 Even paupers were given slippers, shirts and similar items. Besides this, some comforts were allowed, such as the use of writing paper—a concession exploited to the full by Luis de León, who spent his four years in prison at Valladolid composing his devotional treatise The Names of Christ.

There was, of course, another side to the picture. Prisoners were normally cut off from all contact with the world outside, and even within the prison were secluded from each other if possible. Inadequate cells often made overcrowding inevitable. In Granada in the 1570s, a period coinciding with the anti-Morisco repression, there was an average of four persons in each cell.45 The figure, of course, seems quite humane when compared with the conditions faced by prisoners in many twenty-first-century prisons.46 On finally leaving the jail prisoners were obliged to take an oath not to reveal anything they had seen or experienced in the cells. Small wonder if this secrecy gave rise to the most bloodcurdling legends about what went on inside. A rule of the Spanish and the Roman Inquisitions was that detainees were denied all access to mass and the sacraments. One of the most notable sufferers in this respect was Carranza, whose trials must have been doubled by this heavy deprivation of spiritual comfort during his reclusion.

To balance the fortunate few who were treated reasonably there are records of the many who did not fare so well. John Hill, an English sailor captured in 1574 and imprisoned by the Las Palmas tribunal, complained of having to sleep on the floor with fleas, of lack of bread and water, and of being left all but naked.47 These were standard complaints that could have been made of any other prison, secular or ecclesiastical. Other ordeals would include having to wear chains (not frequent in the Inquisition), and being left interminably in unlit and unheated cells. In addition the Inquisition used two instruments to punish awkward prisoners: one was the mordaza, or gag, used to prevent prisoners talking or blaspheming; the other was the pie de amigo, an iron fork utilized to keep the head upright forcibly. In view of the deplorable state of many prisons in the modern world today, one may agree with Lea “that the secret prisons of the Inquisition were less intolerable places of abode than the episcopal and public jails. The general policy respecting them was more humane and enlightened than that of other jurisdictions, whether in Spain or elsewhere.”48

The severities of prison life led to a regular death rate which could be attributed not to torture (about which inquisitors were usually careful) but to disease and unhealthy conditions. As the inquisitor general Cardinal Adrian observed in 1517, the prisons were meant for temporary detention only and never for punishment. Prisoners were seldom condemned to rot in the cells. They were there—some for lengthy periods—as a preliminary to trial. Inquisitors might take care to avoid cruelty, brutality and harsh treatment, but that did not prevent tragedies. In 1699 a forty-year-old seamstress was confined in the cells at Valladolid on suspicion of judaizing. Confined with her were her four sons, aged thirteen to seventeen. Within six months the two youngest were taken to hospital, where they died.49 It was a consequence of the practice, all too common, of throwing entire families, children included, into the cells. Madness and suicide were also regular consequences of imprisonment.

Interrogations were usually conducted in the presence of a secretary, who noted down questions and answers, and a notary. Very many cases were obviously about trivial offenses, misdemeanors that involved the tribunal only because no other court was available. In these circumstances, the interrogation would not have the intensity accorded to cases of heresy. When it came to serious cases, however, we cannot discount the inquisitors drawing on the long experience of the medieval Inquisition, which produced in the writings of Bernard Gui and Nicolau Eimeric two excellent manuals explaining techniques on how to squeeze the truth out of suspects.50 Eimeric, for example, set out ten ways in which heretics seek to “hide their errors.” Among them are “redirecting the question,” “feigning illness,” “changing the subject” and “feigning stupidity.” The efficient inquisitor, in short, had a good amount of experience to back him up. In Languedoc, it has been argued, “many of the techniques relied on a strategy of isolation” of the accused.51 In addition, the inquisitor had at his disposal tricks in the technique of interrogation that, properly used, made it unnecessary to resort to severe measures. Only a very detailed analysis of the available documentation could reveal to us whether the inquisitors in Spain made use of such techniques. The fact is, as modern experience has shown, that intensive interrogation can get a person to confess to offenses he has not committed, even without formal torture. In the United States, there have been in the last thirty years more than forty cases documented in which individuals have confessed to crimes they did not commit.

If verbal trickery and psychological pressure failed to work, the permitted alternative was the use of torture, a practice inherited from the medieval Inquisition.52 The Instructions of 1561 laid down no rules for its use but urged that its application should be according to “the conscience and will of the appointed judges, following law, reason and good conscience. Inquisitors should take great care that the sentence of torture is justified and follows precedent.”53 Torture was universal in the European criminal process, and its use by the Spanish Inquisition was in no way exceptional.54 Often the accused was placed in conspectu tormentorum, so that merely the sight of the instruments of torture would provoke a confession.

Confessions gained under torture were never accepted as valid because they had obviously been obtained by pressure. It was therefore essential for the accused to ratify his confession the day after the ordeal. If he refused to do this, a legal subterfuge was invoked. As the rules forbade anyone to be tortured more than once, the end of every torture session was treated as a suspension only, and refusal to ratify the confession would be met with a threat to “continue” the torture. Besides being compelled to confess their own heresies, accused were often also tortured in caput alienum, that is, to confess knowledge of the crimes of others.

In statistical terms, it would be correct to say that torture was used infrequently. Though permitted by the Instructions of 1484, in the early years it seems to have been considered superfluous and was seldom used. Abundant testimony from edicts of grace and from witnesses was more than sufficient to keep the judicial process functioning. Out of over four hundred conversos tried by the Inquisition at Ciudad Real in 1483–85, only two are known to have been tortured.55 The incidence of torture in Valencia before 1530 was low. After the 1530s, however, things changed radically. It was now a question of rooting out underground and unconfessed Judaism. Torture was therefore more frequently applied. After 1530 in Valencia about a third of those qualifying were tortured.56 The key to its frequency is that its use was limited only to cases of heresy. This meant that minor offenses, which were the bulk of crimes tried by the Inquisition for a great part of its history, did not qualify for it. In the tribunal of Granada from 1573 to 1577, 18 out of 256 accused were tortured, just over 7 percent. In Seville from 1606 to 1612, 21 out of 184 were tortured, just over 11 percent.57 By the mid-eighteenth century torture had virtually fallen out of use in the tribunal, and finally in 1816 the pope forbade its use in any of the tribunals subject to the Holy See.

However, the apparent infrequency of torture has encouraged some writers to downplay its importance. This ignores its very real impact at select periods on the groups that most suffered from it. After the early sixteenth century, for example, it was applied rigorously in cases of suspected Protestantism and Judaism. In epochs when these offenses were rare, the need for torture declined. Lea estimates that in the Toledo tribunal between 1575 and 1610, only about a third of those accused of heretical offenses were in fact tortured.58 However, at a later period when the Inquisition thought it had discovered a recrudescence of heresy, there was no hesitation about resorting to severe measures as a way of obtaining information. In the late seventeenth century at least three-fourths of all those accused in Spain of judaizing—several hundreds of people—were tortured.59 In 1699 the inquisitors of Seville complained that they hardly had the time to carry out all the tortures required. Supporting evidence for the frequency of the punishment in this tribunal comes from the doctor who in 1702 claimed back payment for his presence at 434 sessions of torture.60

Torture—like other elements of the system of justice at that time, such as imprisonment—was employed exclusively to elicit information or a confession, and never used as a punishment. The scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers on the Inquisition have little basis in reality. Torturers used were normally the public executioners who worked for the secular courts. Those required to be present at the proceedings were the inquisitors themselves, a representative of the bishop and a secretary to record everything faithfully. Physicians were usually available in case of emergency. On the evidence available, at no time were the inquisitors so sophisticated as to resort to psychological methods or brainwashing.61 In the case of judaizers of the later seventeenth century, the special care in tracking down family networks and in encouraging relatives to denounce each other may with some reason be considered as exceptionally cruel; though it may also be explained as xenophobia, since those under suspicion were invariably of Portuguese origin.

The basic rule in torture was that the accused should suffer no danger to life or limb. By Church law, ecclesiastical tribunals could not kill nor could they shed blood. No distinctive tortures were used by the Inquisition (the gripping tale of punishment in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” was imaginative fiction). Those most often employed were in common use in other secular and ecclesiastical tribunals, and any complaints of novel tortures would certainly refer to rare exceptions. The three main ones were the garrucha, the toca and the potro. The garrucha, or pulley, involved being hung by the wrists from a pulley on the ceiling, with heavy weights attached to the feet. The accused was raised slowly and then suddenly allowed to fall with a jerk. The effect was to stretch and perhaps dislocate arms and legs. The toca, or water torture, was more complicated. The accused was tied down on a rack, his mouth was kept forcibly open and a toca, or linen cloth, was put down his throat to conduct water poured slowly from a jar. The severity of the torture varied with the number of jars of water used. The potro, which was the most common after the sixteenth century, involved being bound tightly on a rack by cords which were passed round the body and limbs and were controlled by the executioner, who tightened them by turns of the cords at the end. With each turn the cords bit into the body and traveled round the flesh. In all these tortures it was the rule to strip the accused first. Both men and women were divested of their clothes and left naked except for minimal garments.62

There seems to have been no age limit for victims, nor was there any limit on the torture. An accused would often be subjected to all three tortures before confessing. The less obdurate might need only one torture. While the Inquisition did not usually subject very old and very young people to torture, there are cases when tribunals apparently found this necessary. Women aged between seventy and ninety years are on record as having been put on the rack. In 1607 at Valencia a girl of thirteen was subjected to torture, but she seems to have been mildly treated since she overcame it without confessing. Allowances for age might be made. In 1579 the inquisitors of Llerena informed the Suprema that “all the clergy arrested for being alumbrados have been tortured and they haven’t confessed anything, though it must be said that since several of them are very old and also ill and infirm from their long confinement, it has not been possible to torture them with the required rigor.”63 Those who had to undergo the experience were often left in a sorry state. Many were left with limbs irreparably broken, sometimes with both health and reason diminished; others died under torture.64

It was standard practice, which the Inquisition took over from secular courts,65 to record all details of torture. A secretary noted every word and gesture during the proceedings, thus providing us with impressive if macabre evidence of the sufferings of the accused. Here are extracts from the official accounts of two tortures carried out in the sixteenth century. In the first is a woman accused in 1568 of not eating pork and of changing her linen on Saturdays.

She was ordered to be placed on the rack. She said: “Señores, why will you not tell me what I have to say? Señor, put me on the ground—have I not said that I did it all?” She was told to talk. She said: “I don’t remember—take me away—I did what the witnesses say.” She was told to tell in detail what the witnesses said. She said: “Señor, as I have told you, I do not know for certain. I have said that I did all that the witnesses say. Señores, release me, for I do not remember.” She was told to talk. She said: “Señores, it does not help me to say that I did it and I have admitted that what I have done has brought me to this suffering—Señor, you know the truth—Señores, for God’s sake have mercy on me. Oh Señor, take these things from my arms—Señor release me, they are killing me.” She was tied on the rack with the cords, she was admonished to tell the truth and the order given to tighten the ropes. She said: “Señor, do you not see how these people are killing me? I did it—for God’s sake let me go!”66

Foreign heretics were submitted to the same procedure. Here is the case of Jacob Petersen from Dunkirk, a sailor aged twenty who was examined by the tribunal of the Canaries in November 1597. He was stripped and bound and given three turns of the cord.

On being given these he said first, “Oh God!” and then, “There’s no mercy”: after the turns he was admonished, and he said, “I don’t know what to say, oh dear God!” Then three more turns of the cord were ordered to be given, and after two of them he said, “Oh God, oh God, there’s no mercy, oh God help me, help me!”67

After three more turns he confessed.

While these examples give us some insight into the agony of those who were tortured, it should be remembered that the procedure was often mild enough for very many to overcome it. Civil jurisdictions both in Spain and the rest of Europe made use of similar tortures, but often with a degree of cruelty and mutilation that shows up the Inquisition in a relatively favorable light. This together with the usually good level of prison conditions may invite us to conclude that the tribunal was not in principle dedicated to cruelty. In perspective, nevertheless, the efficiency of the Holy Office seems to have served as a model for governments and police systems down to our own day. Though experts in law commonly agree that torture was never a reliable method of getting at the truth, the grim reality is that the three forms of it used by the Inquisition in Spain “all remain in use today” in many countries, “as investigations by governments and human rights organizations attest.”68

Since the Inquisition usually arrested suspects only after the evidence against them seemed conclusive and had been approved by assessors, the accused could be presumed guilty from the start and would have to prove his own innocence. The main task of the Inquisition would be to obtain an admission of guilt and a penitential submission. If in the process of inquiry, however, it became clear that the evidence was false and the prisoner presumably innocent, he was immediately set free. In 1680 in the tribunal of Saragossa, Ana María Pérez, aged forty-five, was accused of various things by no fewer than twenty-nine residents of her village, among them the parish priest.69 The inquisitors had no difficulty deciding that it was a case of malicious victimization by residents, and set her free. Meanwhile, the horrified village learned that during her arrest the parish priest and his housekeeper mistress both died. It seemed the hand of God.

One of the peculiarities of inquisitorial procedure that brought hardship and suffering to many was the refusal to divulge reasons for arrest, so that prisoners went for days and months without knowing why they were in the cells of the tribunal. Instead of accusing the prisoner, the inquisitors approached him and gave three warnings, over a period of weeks, to search his conscience, confess the truth and trust to the mercy of the tribunal. The third warning was accompanied by the information that the prosecutor intended to present an accusation, and that it would be wisest to confess before the charges were laid. The effect of this enforced ignorance was to depress and break down a prisoner. If innocent, he remained bewildered about what to confess, or else confessed crimes the Inquisition was not accusing him of; if guilty, he was left to wonder how much of the truth the Inquisition really knew, and whether it was a trick to force him to confess.

When, after the three warnings, the prosecutor eventually read the articles of accusation, the accused was required to answer charges on the spot, with no time or advocate to help him consider his defense. Any reply made in these circumstances could hardly fail to be incriminating. Only after this was permission given to enlist legal help for the defense.

One important concession made by the Spanish but not by the medieval Inquisition was that the accused could have the services of an advocate. This was written into the Instructions of 1484 and generally upheld, though later modifications to the rule sometimes rendered the use of a lawyer farcical. In the earlier years the accused could choose their lawyers freely, but the growing caution of the Holy Office later confined the choice to special lawyers nominated by the tribunal, so that by the mid-sixteenth century the prisoners’ advocates, or abogados de los presos, were recognized as officials of the Inquisition, dependent upon and working with the inquisitors. This new class of lawyers was obviously distrusted by some prisoners, for in 1559 we have the case of a prisoner in Valencia telling his cell mate that

though the inquisitor might give him an advocate he would give him no one good but a fellow who would do only what the inquisitor wanted, and if by chance he asked for an advocate or solicitor not of the Inquisition, they would not serve, for if they went contrary to the inquisitor’s wishes he would get up some charge of false belief or want of respect and cast them into prison.70

This does not mean that many advocates did not do their duty conscientiously. But they were hindered by the restrictions of the tribunal and by the subtle and dangerous task of defending the prisoner while condemning his heresy. Some special cases exist where the accused were allowed counsel of their own choice: one such was Carranza, who chose among others the distinguished canonist Martín de Azpilcueta to defend him.

When a prisoner was finally accused he was given a copy of the evidence against him in order to help him prepare a defense. This publication of the evidence was by no means as helpful as it might seem. In the first place, as we have seen, the names of all witnesses were suppressed. Even more important, all evidence that might help to identify witnesses was also suppressed. This meant that the prisoner was often deprived of details of the complete case against him. In this way the inquisitors were free to use as evidence information that had not been communicated to the accused. While this helped to protect witnesses against identification and recrimination, it sometimes crippled the defense. On this question the practice of the Suprema was not at first decided, but Valdés’s Instructions of 1561 finally stipulated that any evidence liable to betray a witness could be omitted, and that only evidence contained in the publication was to be used in the case. This last regulation preserved the forms of justice.

The accused had several avenues of defense short of demonstrating the complete falsity of an accusation. He could call favorable witnesses, disable hostile ones by proving personal enmity or object to his judges, a process known as recusation. Several extenuating circumstances such as drunkenness, insanity, extreme youth and so on could also be pleaded. All these expedients were resorted to regularly, not always with equal success. In the great majority of trials before the Spanish Inquisition, defense consisted solely in the resort to witnesses, since this was the only way to get at the unknown sources of evidence.

The problem caused by anonymous witnesses was a serious one. We have the case of Diego de Uceda (see chapter 5 above), who was accused in 1528 of Lutheranism on the basis of a chance talk with a stranger on the road from Burgos to Córdoba. The suppression of all details of time and place in the published evidence led Uceda to imagine that the accusation arose from a talk some nights later at Guadarrama, and all his energies were spent vainly on proving that this latter conversation had been innocuous, while the real evidence against him went uncontradicted. Uceda decided to call witnesses in his favor: he had to wait six months before they could all be traced, and even then their depositions did not help to contradict the evidence. The resort to favorable witnesses was thus an unreliable and lengthy procedure.

Greater success could be had by disabling hostile witnesses. Felipe Leonart, whose case we have already noted, had no difficulty in 1637 in proving that accusations by his family had been made out of malice. Similarly, Gaspar Torralba of the village of Vayona, near Chinchón, gave in his defense in 1531 a list of 152 persons as his mortal enemies; most of the 35 witnesses against him happened to be on the list, and he was consequently let off lightly.71 Pedro Sánchez de Contreras was accused at Logroño of blasphemy in 1669, but because he happened to be a magistrate he had full material evidence on all his enemies, men whom he had prosecuted for various crimes. He therefore handed the tribunal an enormous dossier with the criminal records of all his potential accusers; the case was dropped.72

Recusation of judges called for considerable courage, and was therefore not resorted to except where the prisoner could prove their personal enmity. Carranza was one of the few who succeeded in having his judges changed for this reason, though in the event it was of little help to him. Attempts to escape trial by pleading insanity or a wide range of other extenuating circumstances (drunkenness, grief) were also often made. The Inquisition could go to great lengths to establish the truth, and some of its attitudes may even be described as enlightened (witchcraft, as we shall see, was treated as a form of insanity). Drunkenness was cited as an excuse in the case of Andrés González, aged twenty, when accused by the tribunal of Toledo in 1678 of blaspheming and swearing that “he cared not for God or the Virgin,” “he did not believe in God,” “he believed in Mohammed.” As the story of his life unfolded before the inquisitors, they heard of his mother, who had died when he was ten, and of his father, who had remarried with a woman who beat Andrés and forced him to leave home. He had wandered in search of work until he came to Toledo, where he married a girl and worked partly as an agricultural laborer, partly as a carpenter’s assistant. They were poor and lived in the house of his wife’s sister, where his hostile in-laws drove him to drink, which was when he was heard to swear; “and when I quarreled with my wife, her cousin and his wife, her sister and her sister’s husband, all used to turn on me and beat me till the blood came to my teeth.”73 The Inquisition sympathized, but banished him from the area for three years.

Popular literature on the Inquisition devotes considerable attention to the judicial process, but in reality there was no formal “trial,” in the sense of a single act carried out in a single room within a set period of time.74 The proceedings consisted instead of a series of audiences at which the prosecution and defense made their respective submissions; and a series of interrogations was carried out by the inquisitors in the presence of a notary. When both prosecution and defense had completed their duties, the case was held to be concluded, and the time arrived for sentence to be pronounced. For this it was necessary to form a consulta de fe, a body consisting of the inquisitors, one representative of the bishop, and officials qualified in theology or law, known as consultants (consultores). Together they voted on the case. In this way verdicts were seldom left to the arbitrary discretion of the inquisitors alone, but were monitored by legal experts from outside. In Barcelona, for example, regional practice required that nearly all verdicts be reached in the presence of the inquisitors together with judges from the royal court (the Audiencia) for civil and criminal matters, and from the bishop’s court for matters concerning clergy.75 In a typical case in 1539,76 involving a woman accused of judaizing, the judges were one inquisitor, two from the royal Audiencia, two abbots and a doctor of laws.

According to the Valdés Instructions of 1561, if the inquisitors and the episcopal representative agreed, their vote prevailed even against a majority of consulters; but if they disagreed, the case was to be referred to the Suprema. From the early seventeenth century, all judgments had to be approved by the Suprema in Madrid before implementation. By the eighteenth century, centralization under the Suprema meant that few if any important decisions were made by provincial tribunals, and consultas de fe ceased to exist because all sentences were passed by the Suprema alone.

Such was the basic procedure. But as in all courts, both then and now, it was of course open to abuse at every stage. The most important drawback from the prisoner’s point of view was the impossibility of adequate defense. His advocate’s role was limited to drawing up articles that were presented to the judges: beyond this no argument or cross-examination was allowed. It meant that in reality the inquisitors were both judge and jury, both prosecution and defense, and the prisoner’s fate depended almost entirely on the mood and character of the inquisitors and the other judges.

As a rule the tribunals tried to bring the case to a fairly rapid conclusion, since it could be costly keeping the accused in the cells. But a few had to resign themselves to interminably long proceedings that were not always the fault of the Inquisition. The classic case is that of Carranza, but others suffered no less. The inquisitors of Llerena in 1590, overwhelmed by successive denunciations of alumbrados, judaizers and Moriscos, reported the urgency of “attending to the trials of the prisoners in this Inquisition, of whom there are over sixty, and some of them have been in prison up to seven years and many up to four years, and every day they present complaints that their affairs are being delayed so long.” As if this were not enough, they were just receiving denunciations made by an aggrieved Morisco of Hornachos against the rest of the town, “and he is giving so much information that we believe he will take several years to finish.”77

Other examples of delays include the case of Gabriel Escobar, a cleric in minor orders, who was arrested by the tribunal of Toledo in 1607 on a charge of illuminism, and died in prison in 1622 before his trial had finished. A Mexican priest, Joseph Brunón de Vertiz, who was arrested in 1649, died in prison in 1656 before his trial had even begun; he was eventually tried posthumously, condemned and burnt in effigy only in 1659.78 These delays took a toll not only of the years and health of a prisoner but also of his sequestrated property, which was retained all this time to pay for any expenses incurred.

One is sometimes given an impression that the Inquisition was a major punishing body, its terrible power threatening great and small alike. Spain in reality was no different from the rest of pre-modern Europe. A complex network of jurisdictions—exercised by the crown, the nobles, the cities, the local communities and the Church—covered the landscape, with authority over specific crimes and with the right to mete out certain penalties, including the death penalty. The relevant crimes falling under these jurisdictions might include offenses of honor (such as insults and rape), violations of the peace (such as drunken behavior), violence (including killing), and theft of community or Church goods (for instance, robbing grain or stealing sacred objects).79 The Church’s right to look into heresy was, as we know, passed over to the Inquisition. Apart from this category, the Inquisition had powers in only a very small area of offenses, some of which (such as sex crimes and sorcery) often in any case fell under multiple jurisdictions.

The systems of justice in Europe were not necessarily directed towards punishment; settlement always had priority. Out-of-court negotiations between parties helped to keep the peace and also secure justice.80 In the same way, many of the first-level interventions of the Inquisition were intended to decide whether the matter should have come before the tribunal. Indeed, strictly speaking, the Inquisition was not there to punish at all; its role was primarily to inquire and only if necessary to discipline. The punishing was usually done through other authorities, at its most extreme by “relaxing” (a word that in time took on terrible overtones) persons to the secular arm of power. In any normal year, the number of people punished by the Inquisition was a minute fraction of those who passed before criminal courts. In the eighteenth century, the criminal justice court of the town of Madrid, the Sala de Alcaldes de Casa y Corte, dealt with approximately five hundred cases a year.81 Given its relative inactivity at that period, the Inquisition would have needed not a year but a complete century to attain the figure.

Analysis of the punishments decreed by tribunals should ideally be based on reliable data, but these do not exist. Nearly all the documentation on the early years of the Inquisition has disappeared, and for subsequent periods the records are often incomplete. Despite all the defects and gaps, as a whole the available papers of the Inquisition constitute the fullest prosecution records to survive from any European tribunal of early modern times. Working from them, we see that the activity of the tribunal can be divided into five main phases: (1) the period of intense anti-converso persecution after 1480, to about 1520; (2) the relatively quiet early sixteenth century; (3) the period of activity against Protestants and Moriscos, 1559–1614; (4) the seventeenth century, when most of those tried were neither of Jewish nor of Moorish origin; (5) the eighteenth century, when heresy was no longer a concern.

A generation ago, some researchers attempted to count up the “cases of faith” in the surviving records with a view to quantifying the impact of the Inquisition.82 The exercise helped us to get a global view of some aspects, by indicating, for example, the periods in which certain offenses and minorities were most persecuted, or by giving a general idea of the number of people sentenced. But historians quickly saw that the method was both deficient and unreliable. The margin of error in counting up cases was unacceptably high, sometimes between 50 and 100 percent wrong.83 Cases were added up as single items, without taking into account multiple offenses or the implication of more than one person. Offenses, moreover, were classified by the researchers according to the categories laid down by the Inquisition, which not only tended to mislead but also meant that important types of offenses did not appear at all in the analyses. In Catalonia, for example, a high proportion of cases, mostly in civil and criminal matters, was never entered in the official list of “cases of faith,” where the apparent totals “may often represent little more than half their activity.”84 Not surprisingly, one scholar concludes that the figures offered by the researchers “are not always reliable, and pose serious problems.” His own estimate of Inquisition cases—not necessarily more correct—suggests a total four times greater than theirs.85 The idea of counting cases may, it seems, be helpful within certain limits, but less helpful when used as a basis for an accurate assessment.

Above all, the surviving records reflect neither the number of offenses nor the scale of inquisitorial activity. Like statistics for crime, they are seldom complete or reliable. More properly, they reflect only the response of the Inquisition to some cases referred to it by members of the public or by interested parties. Very many offenses were neither detected nor reported nor acted upon; and the inquisitors were active in many areas not referred to in the index they used for cataloging papers.

A study of the tribunal of Toledo, summarized below in graph 1, shows us the offenses prosecuted over the centuries of highest activity.86

The outcome of a prosecution could take four main forms. Accused were acquitted (“absolved” or “suspended”), made to do penance (penitenciado), “reconciled” (reconciliado) or burnt (relajado, “relaxed” in person or in effigy). The three categories of punishment usually combined both spiritual and corporal penalties. In the tribunal of Valencia, an estimate for 3,075 trials in 1566–1609 have been analyzed as follows: 44.2 percent were made to do penance, 40.2 percent were reconciled, 2.5 percent absolved, 9 percent suspended, 2.1 percent burnt in effigy, 2.0 percent burnt in person.87 In Galicia between 1560 and 1700, of 2,203 cases, 18.5 percent were absolved, 62.7 percent made to do penance, 16.1 percent reconciled, 1.9 percent relaxed in effigy, 0.7 percent relaxed in person.88 In the Canary Islands, the number of cases from 1504 to 1820 totaled 2,263; of these, 11 persons were burnt in person and 107 in effigy.89


Graph 1. Prosecutions in the tribunal of Toledo, 1483–1700.

The number of acquittals, though few, was an improvement on the medieval tribunal, which as a rule never acquitted. In its first cases in 1483–85 in Ciudad Real, the inquisitors set free several accused, among them the converso cobbler Diego López, accused of judaizing: “we absolve him, declare him free and acquitted, and reaffirm his good reputation.”90 Outright acquittal, however, meant admitting an error, so it was also common to suspend cases, which was not necessarily a good thing, for it left one technically under suspicion and meant that the prosecution could at any time be renewed. There was only a limited chance of appeal. In cases that ended in a public auto de fe, this was because the accused were not informed of their sentence until they were in the actual procession during the auto; by then it was too late to appeal. The delay in delivering a verdict would naturally heighten the suspense, fear and despair felt by prisoners. But when a man was sentenced to be relaxed he was always informed of his fate the night before the ceremony to give him time in which to prepare his soul for confession and repentance. Later in the history of the tribunal this information was given as much as three days in advance. In private autos there was much more opportunity to appeal after the sentence had been read out. In such cases the appeal always went to the Suprema, appeals to Rome not being encouraged.

Doing penance was the least of the punishments imposed. Those who did penance had to “abjure” their offenses: de levi for a lesser offense, de vehementi for a graver one. The penitent swore to avoid his sin in the future, and if he swore de vehementi, any relapse made him liable to severe punishment on the next occasion.

Penitents were then condemned to physical penalties such as the sanbenito, fines, banishment or sometimes the galleys. “Reconciliation” was in theory the return of a sinner to the bosom of the Church after due spiritual penance had been performed. In practice it was the most severe punishment the Inquisition could inflict, short of relaxation. All the penalties were heavier: in addition to the sanbenito, accused persons could be condemned to flogging and to long spells in prison or the galleys. In most cases confiscation of goods occurred, so that even if a prisoner escaped with a prison sentence of a few months, he came out an orthodox Catholic indeed but facing a life of beggary. An additional rule, frequently enforced, was that anyone backsliding after reconciliation was to be treated as a relapsed heretic and sent to the stake.

The sanbenito, a corrupt form of the words saco bendito (sackcloth of repentance, a garment long in use in the Church),91 was a penitential garment used in the medieval Inquisition and taken over by the Spanish one.92 It was usually a yellow garment with one or two diagonal crosses imposed on it, and penitents were condemned to wear it as a mark of infamy for any period from a few months to life. Those who were to be relaxed at an auto de fe had to wear a black sanbenito on which were painted flames, demons and other decorative matter. Anyone condemned to wearing the ordinary sanbenito had to put it on whenever he went out of doors, a practice by no means popular in the first decades of the Inquisition. The order to wear a sanbenito for life should not be taken literally. It was invariably commuted to a much shorter period at the discretion of the inquisitor. The chief criticism leveled at the time against the garments was less over the shame they were meant to cast on their wearers than over the policy of perpetuating infamy by hanging them up in the local parish church as a permanent record.

The imprisonment decreed by the Inquisition could be either for a short term of months and years, or for life, the latter usually being classified as “perpetual and irremissible.” Prison sentences, then as now, were never literally observed. By the sixteenth century “perpetual” normally signified in practice a few months,93 and rarely involved more than three years, if the prisoner was repentant. A “lifetime” sentence was more commonly completed in ten years or less. Despite this the Inquisition continued to decree “perpetual” sentences, probably because in canon law it was the custom to condemn heretics to life imprisonment. Incongruous sentences such as “perpetual prison for one year” appear as a matter of course in inquisitorial decrees.

None of the sentences necessarily involved actual confinement in a prison. Though jails existed everywhere, they were employed temporarily until the fate of the accused person could be decided. The penitentiary system, in which the prison itself was the punishment, did not come into existence in Europe until the nineteenth century.94 By the Instructions of 1488 inquisitors could at their discretion confine a man to his own house or to some other institution such as a convent or hospital, with the result that very many “prisoners” served their sentences in moderate comfort. The main reason for this surprising concession is that the tribunals often lacked prison space when their cells were already full, and had to make do with alternatives. Important prisoners, such as the Admiral of Aragon or Archbishop Carranza, normally underwent house arrest rather than going to prison. The prison cells also often had an open regime. In some tribunals, the prisoners were free to come and go, providing they observed basic rules.95 A prisoner in Granada in 1565 was allowed to bring into his cell two mattresses, a bedspread, four sheets, two cushions and blankets, and a table.96 In 1655 a report on the tribunal of Granada observed that prisoners were allowed out at all hours of the day without restriction, they wandered through the city and its suburbs and amused themselves at friends’ houses, returning to their prison only at night; in this way they were given a comfortable lodging house for which they paid no rent.97

The galleys were a punishment unknown to the medieval Inquisition, and were devised for the new one by Ferdinand the Catholic, who thereby found a cheap source of labor without having to resort to open slavery. The punishment was perhaps the most indefensible of any operated by the Spanish Inquisition and, in the opinion of a recent scholar, the most dreaded.98 It began to be used more frequently from the mid-sixteenth century, to meet rising demand from the royal fleet. In the 1570s Spain maintained in the Mediterranean somewhere in the region of 150 galleys, an enormous force that demanded a good supply of rowers and confirmed galley service as an essential part of the country’s penal system.99 Offenses such as bigamy and sodomy were normally punished with the galleys, but occasionally those condemned for heresy were sent there as well. The convicted were seldom sentenced to any period over five years, in contrast to secular tribunals which then and later condemned prisoners to the galleys for life.100 The galleys constituted an economical form of punishment: tribunals were freed from the duty of maintaining penitents in their prisons, and the state was saved the need to hire rowers at some expense. After the Morisco uprising in Andalucia in 1569, the galleys became a frequent punishment for those taken prisoner.101 The tribunals of the crown of Aragon were those that imposed the sentence most frequently, usually on Moriscos and foreign Protestants; in the late sixteenth century they sent about fifty men a year to the galleys.102By the mid-eighteenth century the galley as a fighting vessel was obsolete; in consequence the Holy Office, like the state, ceased to use it as a sentence.

A more common form of physical punishment was flogging. The use of the lash as chastisement was very old in Christian tradition. As a criminal punishment, however, it was very severe, carrying with it the stigma of degradation and shame, and there were bitter protests against its use in the early period of the tribunal. In principle, it could be used only against those of low social status. In the Inquisition, the accused was usually condemned to be “whipped through the streets,” in which case (if male) he had to appear stripped to the waist, often mounted on an ass for greater shame, and was duly flogged through the streets with the specified number of strokes by the public executioner. During this journey, passersby and children would show their scorn by hurling stones at the accused. Women were flogged in the same way as men. Nor was there any limit on age, cases on record showing that girls in their teens and women of seventy or eighty were subjected to the same treatment. It was the general rule to prescribe no more than two hundred lashes for the accused, and sentences of one hundred lashes were very common.

A convicted person might be sentenced to different punishments simultaneously. At the Granada auto on 30 May 1672 Alonso Ribero was sentenced to four years’ banishment from the locality, six years in the galleys and a hundred strokes of the lash, for falsifying documents of the Inquisition; and Francisco de Alarcón to five years’ banishment, five years in the galleys, two hundred strokes of the lash and a money fine, for blasphemy.103 Other penalties in the canon need little explanation. Exile or banishment from the locality was a common sentence for bad influences. Confiscations were exacted whenever possible. Of the several unusual punishments which at one time or another made their appearance, it is worth noting the one dealt out in the Mexican Inquisition in December 1664 to a penitent who was smeared with honey, then covered with feathers and made to stand in the sun for four hours during an auto de fe.

The ultimate penalty was death, normally at the stake. The execution of heretics had not been common practice in the medieval Church, but from the middle of the thirteenth century the authorities in Western Europe, responding in particular to the spread of the Cathar heresy, began to sanction its regular use.104 The Spanish Inquisition cannot be accused of any innovation in this respect. It had been the practice, hallowed by the medieval tribunal, for Church courts to condemn a heretic and then hand him over, or “relax” him, to the secular authorities. These were obliged to carry out the sentence of blood which the Holy Office was forbidden by law to carry out. In all this there was no pretence that the Inquisition was not the body directly and fully responsible for the deaths that occurred.

The Holy Office has a venerable reputation as a juggernaut of death, based as it happens largely on fiction. We have suggested above (chapter 3) that taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1520, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy in that period by the Inquisition. Very few were executed in the next three centuries, and we can in all probability accept the estimate, made on the basis of available documentation, that a maximum of three thousand persons may have suffered death during the entire history of the tribunal. Figures for executions do not of course tell the whole story of cruelty and oppression, since the negative impact of the Holy Office extended far beyond the question of burnings.

But the figures should also be set into a wider context. Because scholars have never attempted to study systematically the prosecution of crime in pre-industrial Spain, nor the extent to which other tribunals punished overlapping offenses (such as sodomy or witchcraft), it is impossible to say whether the Inquisition stood out for its severity. There is every possibility that in normal periods—excluding, that is, the late fifteenth century—fewer people were punished or executed by the Holy Office than in other criminal jurisdictions in the peninsula. When we compare figures for Europe, moreover, it is obvious that other nations were as capable of cruelty as the Spaniards. Limiting ourselves only to cases of heresy, from 1520 to about 1560 (a period when religious repression outside Spain had by no means reached its peak) possibly three thousand persons were executed by the state courts in Western Europe.105 The Inquisition played only a small part in this. By the 1560s, indeed, Spain was one of the countries with the lowest level of executions for religious reasons.

Two classes of people alone qualified for the stake—unrepentant heretics and relapsed heretics. The latter consisted of those who, after being pardoned a first time, had repeated the offense and were judged to have relapsed into heresy. Those who were sentenced to be “relaxed” did not always die at the stake. They were normally given the choice between repenting before the auto de fe reached its climax, in which case they were “mercifully” strangled when the flames were lit; or remaining unrepentant, in which case they were roasted alive. The vast majority of those who were “relaxed” were in fact burnt in effigy only, either because they had died or because they had saved themselves by flight. In the early years of the Inquisition the large number of condemned burnt in effigy is a guide to the volume of refugees escaping from the tribunal. As we have already seen (chapter 3), in the first two years of the tribunal at Ciudad Real, 52 accused were burnt alive but 220 were condemned to death in their absence.

The proportionately small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal. Nothing, certainly, can efface the cost in lives of the terrible first twenty or so 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 monster of death either in intention or in capability. The figures given above for punishments in Valencia suggest an execution rate of well under 2 percent of the accused, and in Galicia and the Canary Islands less than 1 percent. It has been estimated that in nineteen of the tribunals, over the period 1540–1700, about 1.8 percent of the condemned were executed (i.e., relaxed in person).106 If this is anywhere near the truth, it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe.

A comparison, indeed, of Spanish secular courts with the Inquisition can only be in favor of the latter. In 1573, for instance, the corregidor of Plasencia 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.107 On a more continent-wide scale, one could compare death rates of the Inquisition with those of other tribunals, as we have done above for the mid-sixteenth century, but contexts are so different that no meaningful comparison is possible. It must be remembered, of course, that the apparently low overall death rate masks a very high rate in the first half century of the Inquisition, and a consistently high rate affecting people of Jewish and Muslim origin. The executions probably made no impact on the population as a whole, but were a significant burden on conversos.

Condemnation usually meant that the accused had to appear in an auto de fe. This ceremony was held either in private (auto particular) in a church, or in public (auto público or auto general): it is the latter that has become notorious as the auto de fe, during which penalties decreed by the Inquisition were publicly announced. The gory reputation of the tribunal has always derived from what it is presumed to have done during this ceremony, which we shall look at again in the chapter that follows.

We can see the way the auto de fe evolved simply by comparing one in the 1480s with another two hundred years later. There is available a contemporary account of the first auto de fe held at Toledo, on Sunday, 12 February 1486, during which seven hundred judaizers were reconciled to the Church. At this early epoch ceremonial and ritual were notably absent. The inquisitors had no intention of putting on a show for the public, and were occupied solely with the task of reconciling large numbers of heretics quickly and efficiently.

All the reconciled went in procession, to the number of 750 persons, including both men and women. They went in procession from the church of St. Peter Martyr in the following way. The men were all together in a group, bareheaded and unshod, and since it was extremely cold they were told to wear soles under their feet which were otherwise bare; in their hands were unlit candles. The women were together in a group, their heads uncovered and their faces bare, unshod like the men and with candles. Among all these were many prominent men in high office. With the bitter cold and the dishonor and disgrace they suffered from the great number of spectators (since a great many people from outlying districts had come to see them), they went along howling loudly and weeping and tearing out their hair, no doubt more for the dishonor they were suffering than for any offense they had committed against God. Thus they went in tribulation through the streets along which the Corpus Christi procession goes, until they came to the cathedral. At the door of the church were two chaplains who made the sign of the cross on each one’s forehead, saying. “Receive the sign of the cross, which you denied and lost through being deceived.” Then they went into the church until they arrived at a scaffolding erected by the new gate, and on it were the father inquisitors. Nearby was another scaffolding on which stood an altar at which they said mass and delivered a sermon. After this a notary stood up and began to call each one by name, saying, “Is X here?” The penitent raised his candle and said, “Yes.” There in public they read all the things in which he had judaized. The same was done for the women. When this was over they were publicly allotted penance and ordered to go in procession for six Fridays, disciplining their body with scourges of hemp-cord, barebacked, unshod and bareheaded; and they were to fast for those six Fridays. It was also ordered that all the days of their life they were to hold no public office such as mayor, bailiff, town councilor, or judge, or be public notaries or messengers, and that those who held these offices were to lose them. And that they were not to become moneychangers, shopkeepers, or grocers or hold any official post whatever. And they were not to wear silk or scarlet or colored cloths or gold or silver or pearls or coral or any jewels. Nor could they stand as witnesses. And they were ordered that if they relapsed, that is if they fell to the same error again, and resorted to any of the aforementioned things, they would be condemned to the fire. And when all this was over they went away at two o’clock in the afternoon.108

Two o’clock is around the time of the midday meal in the south of Spain. The inquisitors had therefore managed to get through 750 prisoners in one morning. This is a far cry from the dilatory pace, pomp and ritual of the post-1559 ceremonial autos, which went on well into the night and sometimes were continued the following day, as happened at Logroño in 1610. The speed at Toledo in 1486 was probably a record, for after the 750 accused in February the tribunal managed to deal with 900 reconciliations on 2 April, 750 on 11 June, and 900 on 10 December, not to speak of two other autos on 16 and 17 August, when 27 people were burnt.

The sophisticated public autos put on after the mid-sixteenth century were substantially different. Typically, the scene would be set in the biggest square or public place available. The elaborate and impressive staging of the proceedings made for heavy expense, and because of this public autos were not very frequent. The auto held at Logroño on 18 October 1570 cost a total of 20 ducats, most of which was spent not on the auto but on the feast of celebration held after it. The expenditure was criticized by the Suprema, and the cost of an auto held the subsequent year on 27 December was cut down to one-fifth.109 These costs may be compared with those of a larger tribunal, Seville, which in 1600 calculated that each of its autos cost over 300 ducats.110 Costs did not cease to rise in Seville: the auto there on 30 January 1624 cost nearly four times as much, and one on 29 March 1648 eight times as much.111 Even these levels were surpassed by the tribunal of Córdoba, which spent 5,700 ducats on its auto of 3 May 1655.112

In the later period of the Inquisition, holding an auto depended entirely on the discretion of individual tribunals and (since the proceedings were essentially a show) the availability of detainees. When necessary, prisoners were brought from the very ends of the peninsula: for the great 1680 auto in Madrid condemned were brought from Galicia and Andalucia. When enough prisoners had accumulated to make the holding of an event worthwhile, a date was fixed and the inquisitors informed the city and cathedral authorities. One calendar month before the auto a procession consisting of familiars and notaries of the Inquisition would march through the streets of the town proclaiming the date of the ceremony. In the intervening month, all the preparations would have to be made. Orders went out to carpenters and masons to prepare the scaffolding for the occasion, and furniture and decorations we made ready. The evening before the auto a special procession took place, known as the procession of the Green Cross, during which familiars and others carried the cross of the Holy Office to the site of the ceremony. All that night prayers and preparations would be made, then early next morning mass was celebrated, breakfast was given to all who were to appear in the auto (including the condemned) and a procession began, which led directly to the square where the auto would be held.

The grandiose ceremony held on 30 June 1680 in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid in the presence of the king and his court was in striking contrast to the simplicity and efficiency of autos in the first years of the Inquisition.113 Among the distinguished persons attending was the French ambassador the marquis de Villars, who left an account of his impressions. The scene was captured on behalf of the Inquisition by the Italian artist Francesco Rizzi in an enormous canvas that now hangs in the Prado art gallery.114 A short version of the official narrative of the auto (the original text was written by a familiar of the Holy Office, José del Olmo) was published in London in 1748 and goes as follows:

A Scaffold, fifty Feet in Length, was erected in the Square, which was raised to the same Height with the Balcony made for the King to sit in. At the End, and along the whole Breadth of the Scaffold, at the Right of the King’s Balcony, an Amphitheatre was raised, to which they ascend by twenty-five or thirty Steps; and this was appointed for the Council of the Inquisition, and the other Councils of Spain. Above these Steps and under a Canopy, the Grand Inquisitor’s Rostrum was placed so that he was raised much higher than the King’s Balcony. At the Left of the Scaffold and Balcony, a second Amphitheatre was erected of the same Extent with the former, for the Criminals to stand in.

A month after Proclamation had been made of the Act of Faith, the Ceremony opened with a Procession, [This procession took place on the eve, 29 June, one of the great feast days of the Church] which proceeded from St Mary’s Church in the following order. The March was preceded by an Hundred Coal Merchants, all arm’d with Pikes and Muskets; these People furnishing the Wood with which the Criminals are burnt. They were followed by Dominicans, before whom a white Cross was carried. Then came the Duke of Medina-Celi, carrying the Standard of the Inquisition. Afterwards was brought forwards a green Cross covered with black Crepe; which was followed by several Grandees and other Persons of Quality, who were Familiars of the Inquisition. The March was clos’d by Fifty Guards belonging to the Inquisition, clothed with black and white Garments and commanded by the Marquis of Povar, hereditary Protector of the Inquisition. The procession having marched in this Order before the Palace, proceeded afterwards to the Square, where the Standard and the Green Cross were placed on the Scaffold, where none but the Dominicans stayed, the rest being retired. These Friars spent Part of the Night in singing of Psalms, and several Masses were celebrated on the Altar from Daybreak to Six in the Morning. An Hour after, the King and Queen of Spain, the Queen-Mother, and all the Ladies of Quality, appeared in the Balconies.

At Eight O’clock the Procession began, in like Manner as the Day before, with the Company of Coal Merchants, who placed themselves on the Left of the King’s Balcony, his Guards standing on his Right (the rest of the Balconies and Scaffolds being fill’d by the Embassadors, the Nobility and Gentry). Afterwards came thirty Men, carrying Images made in Pasteboard, as big as Life. Some of these represented those who were dead in Prison, whose Bones were also brought in Trunks, with Flames painted round them: and the rest of the Figures represented those who having escaped the Hands of the Inquisition were outlawed. These Figures were placed at one End of the Amphitheatre.

After these there came twelve Men and Women, with Ropes about their Necks and Torches in their Hands, with Pasteboard Caps three Feet high, on which their Crimes were written, or represented, in different Manners. These were followed by fifty others having Torches also in their Hands and cloathed with a yellow Sanbenito or Great Coat without Sleeves, with a large St. Andrew’s Cross, of a red Color, before and behind. These were Criminals who (this being the first Time of their prisonment) had repented of their Crimes; these are usually condemned either to some Years’ Imprisonment or to wear the Sanbenito, which is looked upon to be the greatest Disgrace that can happen to a Family. Each of the Criminals were led by two Familiars of the Inquisition. Next came twenty more Criminals, of both Sexes, who had relapsed thrice into their former Errors and were condemn’d to the Flames. Those who had given some Tokens of Repentance were to be strangled before they were burnt; but for the rest, for having persisted obstinately in their Errors, were to be burnt alive. These wore Linen Sanbenitos, having Devils and Flames painted on them, and Caps after the same Manner: Five or six among them who were more obstinate than the rest were gagged to prevent their uttering any blasphemous Tenets. Such as were condemned to die were surrounded, besides the two Familiars, with four or five Monks, who were preparing them for Death as they went along.

These Criminals passed, in the Order above mentioned, under the King’s Balcony; and after having walked round the scaffold were placed in the Amphitheatre that stood on the left, and each of them surrounded with the Familiars and Monks who attended them. Some of the Grandees, who were Familiars, seated themselves on two Benches which had been prepared for them at the lowest Part of the other Amphitheatre. The Officers of all the other Councils, and several other Persons of Distinction, both Secular and Regular, all of them on Horseback, with great Solemnity arrived afterwards and placed themselves on the Amphitheatre towards the Right hand, on both Sides the Rostrum in which the Grand Inquisitor was to seat himself. He himself came last of all, in a purple Habit, accompanied by the President of the Council of Castile, when, being seated in his Place, the President withdrew.

They then began to celebrate Mass. . . .

About Twelve O’clock they began to read the Sentence of the condemned Criminals. That of the Criminals who died in Prison, or were outlawed, was first read. Their Figures in Pasteboard were carried up into a little Scaffold and put into small Cages made for that Purpose. They then went on to read the Sentences to each Criminal, who thereupon were put into the said Cages one by one in order for all Men to know them. The whole Ceremony lasted till Nine at Night: and when they had finished the Celebration of the Mass the King withdrew and the Criminals who had been condemn’d to be burnt were delivered over to the Secular Arm, and being mounted upon Asses were carried through the Gate called Foncaral, and at Midnight near this Place were all executed.115

In the auto de fe eleven people abjured their errors and fifty-six were reconciled, two of them in effigy because they had died in prison. There were fifty-three relaxations, of which nineteen were in person. The procedure at the auto represents the fully developed practice of the Inquisition.

The burning of accused was not a part of the principal ceremony and took place instead at a subsidiary one, normally outside the city, where the pomp of the main procession was absent. The central features of the auto were the procession, the mass, the sermon at the mass and the reconciliation of sinners. It would be mistaken to suppose, as is commonly done, that the burnings were the centerpiece. They may have been a spectacular component of many autos but were the least necessary part of the proceedings, and scores took place without a single faggot being set alight. In the 1680 auto, as the narrative states, the burnings took place at midnight. We cannot doubt that there were people who wished to watch. No researcher, unfortunately, has discovered exactly who, or how many, stayed up late in order to witness what happened. Certainly the court and dignitaries did not do so. The secondary status allotted to heresy executions is in interesting contrast to normal criminal executions in Europe, where both dignitaries and public had a part to play in an act of theatre that was meant to point out a lesson to other would-be evildoers.116

The burning of a judaizer is described in detail in a contemporary narrative by an inquisitor of the auto held at Logroño on 24 August 1719. We enter the picture at the stage where the accused is already on the stake and a lighted torch is passed before his face to warn him of what awaits him if he does not repent. Around the judaizer are numbers of religious who

pressed the accused with greater anxiety and zeal to convert himself. With perfect serenity he said, “I will convert myself to the faith of Jesus Christ,” words which he had not been heard to utter until then. This overjoyed all the religious who began to embrace him with tenderness and gave infinite thanks to God for having opened to them a door for his conversion. . . . And as he was making his confession of faith a learned religious of the Franciscan Order asked him, “In what law do you die?” He turned and looked him in the eye and said, “Father, I have already told you that I die in the faith of Jesus Christ.” This caused great pleasure and joy among all, and the Franciscan, who was kneeling down, arose and embraced the accused. All the others did the same with great satisfaction, giving thanks for the infinite goodness of God. . . . At this moment the accused saw the executioner, who had put his head out from behind the stake and asked him, “Why did you call me a dog before?” The executioner replied, “Because you denied the faith of Jesus Christ: but now that you have confessed, we are brothers, and if I have offended you by what I said, I beg your pardon on my knees.” The accused forgave him gladly, and the two embraced. . . . And desirous that the soul which had given so many signs of conversion should not be lost, I went round casually behind the stake to where the executioner was, and gave him the order to strangle him immediately because it was very important not to delay. This he did with great expedition.

When it was certain that he was dead, the executioner was ordered to set fire at the four corners of the pyre to the brushwood and charcoal that had been piled up. He did this at once, and it began to burn on all sides, the flames rising swiftly up the platform and burning the wood and clothing. When the cords binding the accused had been burnt off he fell through the open trap door into the pyre and his whole body was reduced to ashes.117

The ashes were scattered through the fields or on the river, and with this the heretic, whose conversion had brought him no temporal benefit, passed out of existence—though not out of memory, for a sanbenito bearing his name would as a rule have been placed in the local church after his death. There was no age limit for those condemned to the stake: women in their eighties and boys in their teens were treated in the same way as any other heretics.


Figure 1. The Virgin of the Catholic Monarchs, attributed to Fernando Gallego (1468–1507). Kneeling behind Ferdinand is Torquemada, first inquisitor general of Spain. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images.


Figure 2. A victim of the Spanish Inquisition, wearing the sanbenito habit of the penitent. Line engraving from “Historia Inquisitionis,” by Philipp van Limborch, 1692. The Granger Collection, New York.


Figure 3. A victim of the Spanish Inquisition, wearing the sanbenito habit of the heretic. Line engraving from “Historia Inquisitionis,” by Philipp van Limborch, 1692. The Granger Collection, New York.


Figure 4. A seventeenth-century Dutch engraving of the procession of an auto de fe. Line engraving from “Historia Inquisitionis,” by Philipp van Limborch, 1692. The Granger Collection, New York.


Figure 5. St. Dominic Presiding at an Auto de Fe, by Pedro Berruguete (c. 1490). The images are meant to emphasize the special role of the Dominican order (and its thirteenth-century founder) in the activity of the Inquisition.
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.


Figure 6. Mercy and justice on the banner of the Inquisition.
The Granger Collection, New York.


Figure 7. A contemporary Dutch print depicting what the Valladolid auto de fe of May 1559 was imagined to have been like. © Trustees of the British Museum.


Figure 8. An eighteenth-century print, by Bernard Picart, depicting an imagined scene of the burning of heretics in Lisbon after an auto de fe.
The Granger Collection, New York.


Figure 9. The great auto de fe of 1680, held in the Plaza Mayor at Madrid before King Charles II. Detail from the contemporary canvas by Francesco Rizzi.
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.


Figure 10. A masterpiece of satire: Goya’s Auto de fe.
Album/Art Resource, NY.

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