We have gone into lands where no inquisitor has ever been.


When presenting itself before the public, the Inquisition wished to be seen above all as a deterrent. The coming of its officials to a town was therefore, in principle, designed to cause fear. In his introduction to the fourteenth-century Manual of Eimeric, written as a guide for the medieval Inquisition, the Spanish theologian Francisco Peña commented in 1578: “we must remember that the main purpose of the trial and execution is not to save the soul of the accused but to achieve the public good and put fear into others [ut alii terreantur].”1 The public activity of the Holy Office was thus based on a premise, common to all policing systems at all times, that fear is the most useful deterrent.

In reality, as police officials everywhere can recognize, that is usually wishful thinking. The presence, and therefore the impact, of the Inquisition could be daunting, but it does not follow that it imposed fear and uniformity throughout Spain. The fear set in train by the early Inquisition undoubtedly existed for those it targeted, but it is relevant to ask who else had reason to be afraid. The tribunal itself, of course, never ceased to proclaim its successes. At an auto de fe in Barcelona in 1602, the inquisitors reported with considerable satisfaction: “our procession caused terror in the people.”2 It was a pious lie, for thanks to the almost total lack of prosecutions the inquisitors at that date had not been able to mount a public auto in Barcelona for over a quarter of a century, and at few moments of their history had the authorities or the people in Catalonia ever been afraid of the Holy Office. And what was true for Spaniards in Catalonia was arguably also true for many others in the rest of Spain.

The societies in which we live today are permeated with public and covert forces of vigilance, but the population is not necessarily terrorized. In the same way, in many Christian communities throughout Spain where internal discord was low and public solidarity high, fear of the Inquisition was virtually absent. Catalonia was an outstanding example of a community that held the Inquisition in contempt and despised its methods. In 1560 the inquisitors in Barcelona complained that the city authorities never came to autos de fe, and that in Catalonia as a whole the people, “vaunting themselves as good Christians, all claim that the Inquisition is superfluous here and does nothing nor is there anything for it to do.” This, we may recall, was precisely at the period when the discovery of Protestants had raised widespread alarm in Castile. In Catalonia, by contrast, there was no concern on the part of the authorities. “All the people of this land,” the inquisitors reported in 1627, “both clergy and laymen, have always shown little sympathy for the Holy Office.”3 A typical attitude was that of the parish priest of Taús (Urgell) who asserted in 1632 that “he didn’t recognize the Inquisition and didn’t give a fig for it.”4 Significantly, the Inquisition was unable to take any action against him, not indeed was it ever able to impose its authority on the people of that diocese.

There may have been many other regions of Spain where a similar absence of fear prevailed. Because the information available to inquisitors came not from their own investigations but almost exclusively from members of the public, it was in effect the public that dictated the forms of inquisitorial justice. The judges were able to assert their own interpretations and prejudices, but the most substantive part of the matter, the evidence, was produced by witnesses. In a very real sense, the Inquisition was set in motion by ordinary people.5 And where they refused to cooperate the tribunal was impotent and incapable of inspiring fear. Time after time, villages and communities simply refused to break the bonds of neighborliness, such as they were, by spilling information to outside authorities.6

Foreign travelers and diplomats visiting Spain nevertheless had their own opinions about matters, and were at their most confident when reporting on the immense sway that they felt the Holy Office exercised over the people. In 1563 the Venetian ambassador Tiepolo said that everyone shuddered at its name, as it had total authority over the property, life, honor and even the souls of men. “The king,” he wrote, “favors it, the better to keep the people under control.”7 It was not the first time that Venetian diplomats confused fact with fiction, and Tiepolo’s report would have been most gratifying to the Inquisition itself had it been true. Ironically, the inquisitors had their work cut out trying to make sure that they could maintain a position of preeminence. They were a small group of officials, with no permanent income and no guaranteed privileges, liable always to come into conflict with other officials of Church and state, and often unemployed in periods of tranquility. Despite this, they managed to survive, thanks to their persistence in trying to project their image and cultivate the structure of their power.

What could they do to affirm their position? In the first and crucial generation of existence, they operated in limited areas of the country and never ceased to encounter opposition (chapters 4 and 8). City and Church officials blocked their way at almost every turn. No sooner did they establish themselves in the former Islamic territory of Granada than they were at loggerheads with the authorities as well as the archbishop. The effort to maintain their public status over and against the other authorities in Church and state was, it would seem, not very successful. We may well ask, then, at what stage the tribunal is supposed to have imposed a regime of fear on the population (over and above the persecution it directed against the converso minority). By the 1530s the persecution of former Jews and Muslims was almost a distant memory, autos de fe were few and far between, and new movements of spiritual revival were penetrating the country.

It may well have been this tranquility and lack of fear that worried Inquisitor General Fernando de Valdés when he took over the Inquisition in 1547. With a long and distinguished career behind him, serving in the highest offices of state, he had already been a member of the Suprema for over twenty years.8 His most striking contribution was the invention of the new auto de fe, which attempted to identify the Inquisition with fear and power. He also helped to draw up the new 1561 Instructions, which set out for the first time the basic judicial procedure to be followed by the tribunal.9 Thanks in part to him, the tribunal began to receive a regular income not based on confiscations.

It would be no exaggeration to consider Valdés the second founder of the Inquisition. His position at the head of the tribunal coincides with all its best-known activities, against heretics and heretical books and even against great personalities of state such as Carranza. His star had been waning in government circles after the death of Charles V, and the discovery of “heretics” enabled him to recover the initiative. Valdés was particularly forceful in his letters from Spain to Philip II in Brussels. He was aware that reports unfavorable to him had managed to reach Philip, sent (he said) by “some people whose intentions will one day be exposed.” Concerned to ensure his own political survival, he painted an alarming picture of Lutherans active in Seville, Valladolid and Salamanca, Jews active in Murcia, and Moriscos in the throes of discontent. The only remedy, he said, was to put the Inquisition in charge.10 In effect, reading his letters one can see that he wished the whole of Castile to be handed over to the Inquisition, as an emergency measure. The absent Philip had no other machinery available to handle the situation, and agreed with him about the need for quick action. In long and confident letters to the king in Brussels, Valdés described the efficiency with which the Holy Office was acting and the impressive number of people it had arrested and punished.11

One of the problems Valdés no doubt had in mind was the low profile of the Inquisition in the mid-sixteenth century. Many modern accounts lump together indiscriminately all its activities over three centuries and offer a portrait that takes no account of changes in its role, while the truth is that before Valdés the tribunal in the decades after it had dealt with conversos had barely begun to achieve the fame it later enjoyed. In some cities, such as Seville and Saragossa, it was lodged in key buildings, but otherwise had little public presence. There was an astonishing absence of visible imagery for it. The arms of the tribunal—a cross of faith intertwined with an olive branch of mercy—were engraved on the public façade of all the buildings controlled by the tribunal, and can still be seen today in the medieval centers of some cities. Apart from the symbol, however, Spaniards seem to have had no visual images of the presence of the Holy Office. Like other peoples of the Mediterranean, they lived much of their life outdoors, where their festivities and processions were concentrated in every month of the year. But the Inquisition was not there in the streets, nor—apart from sanbenitos hung in a few parishes—in the churches, nor in social activity of any sort.

For over one hundred years after it was founded, the Inquisition had no confraternity to bind together its employees and give them a social identity. Not until 1603 did the Suprema get around to founding a confraternity for its familiars, dedicated to St. Peter Martyr (who happened to be an Italian inquisitor murdered in 1254!). A confraternity had among its privileges that of being able to organize street processions, so that at last the tribunal could have a social presence alongside other Church groups. The Spanish Inquisition’s own martyr, Pedro Arbués, was not beatified by the papacy until 1662, or nearly two hundred years after his death; and he was, curiously enough, not canonized as a saint until half a century after the demise of the Inquisition itself. Meanwhile, the inquisitors had to struggle for other privileges and rights, and the “public theatre” that some have professed to see in their work was both rare and limited.

The contempt with which inquisitors could be treated may be seen from what happened in Barcelona in 1561, a few months before Inquisitor General Valdés issued his new Instructions. The city authorities, the consellers, were at high mass on Passion Sunday in the church of Santa Maria del Mar when they were informed that a crisis had arisen in the cathedral. The two inquisitors of Barcelona had attempted to read out an “edict of faith” and to do so had placed their chairs before the high altar, each chair with a carpet before it. The bishop whose cathedral it was immediately protested, saying that only royalty could use the privilege of sitting before the high altar. Messages went to and fro between the bishop, the consellers and the inquisitors. A messenger reported to the consellers:

After the message had been delivered the father inquisitors said in their Castilian tongue: “Who are you?” The messengers and I replied: “We are messengers of the city.” Then the inquisitors retorted: “Tell the consellers that we represent His Holiness the pope and are in the service of God and His Holiness and of His Majesty, and here we stay!” Then the messengers replied: “The place of the inquisitors is in the choir of the church seated next to the bishop, and they cannot sit at the high altar.” Then the said inquisitors retorted with great vehemence and a certain degree of anger: “Get out! Get out!”

Eventually the consellers came from Santa Maria del Mar and crowded into the back of the cathedral, where they were joined by the viceroy himself. When the inquisitors refused to heed appeals from the viceroy, he angrily ordered his officers to remove the chairs by force. The stubborn inquisitors, deprived of their seats, remained standing impassively until the end of the mass.12 It was one of many such incidents that occurred in different parts of Spain through the centuries, and evidently calls in doubt the fear that Spaniards are supposed to have had of the Holy Office.

It also raises the intriguing question of why the tribunal did not attempt to communicate its image in order to win support. The question is perhaps most relevant to the mid-sixteenth century, when for the first time the auto de fe became visually imposing. Yet there is virtually no historical record of it in Spanish art. Various explanations could be suggested. It may be that the public auto was never accepted as an event of which to be proud, since its ingredients were punishment and shame. There was a similar public rejection, throughout Spanish history, of the shame involved in sanbenitos. The antagonism to the tribunal of both municipal and Church authorities also made it impossible for the Inquisition to display its images in any public place controlled by those bodies. A painting glorifying the Inquisition would therefore have to be kept discreetly either in a building of the tribunal (such as the offices of the Suprema in Madrid), or in a monastery run by the religious order most identified with it, namely, the Dominicans. Where are these images now? Not all the buildings of the Holy Office were destroyed by popular violence, nor was all its public property wiped out, so we may conclude that the absence of visual art is due to the simple fact that it did not exist. Throughout the great era of inquisitorial activity, not a single significant artist seems to have wished to dedicate a canvas to its triumphs. The Inquisition itself did nothing to dissuade artists: after all, the whole point of the auto and its processions was to put on a public display.

By contrast, Europeans who wished to criticize Spanish policy were prolific in turning out images of the Inquisition. Indeed, we owe to them rather than to Spaniards the origins of the idea that the tribunal was an instrument of terror. During the high tide of the Dutch Revolt, artists in northern Europe began to produce prints that have established for all time the picture we still have of the public ceremonial of the Inquisition. It was certainly because of Dutch interest, and the predominance of Dutch and German printers in the European market, that the first known images emerged from northern engravers. Due to the fact that their purpose was usually anti-Spanish propaganda, the prints do not give a wholly reliable image of what they purport to show. They were also few in number. Only in the seventeenth century was the first convincing publication of images made, in the magnificent volume A History of the Inquisition published by Philipp van Limborch in Amsterdam in 1692, still the most often consulted source. Limborch was a leading Dutch intellectual and proponent of religious toleration. His work, written as an appendix to his edition of the medieval inquisitor Bernard Gui, included several engravings that came to be widely reproduced. In the eighteenth century, a yet more exhaustive collection of engravings became available with the appearance of Bernard Picart’s monumental seven-volume Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, published in Amsterdam by Jean Frédéric Bernard between 1723 and 1743.13 Among its 3,000 pages of text and 250 pages of engraved images, the immense work included numerous prints about the Inquisition, with illustrations of an auto in Madrid and a ceremonial procession of the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa. Goa, indeed, became the setting for many foreign prints that were reproduced and attributed erroneously to the Spanish Inquisition. From that century onwards, representations by European artists additionally took the form of satire.14 Virtually all subsequent images of the Inquisition were satirical or simply fictitious (among the latter we may include pictorial representations of torture, common from the eighteenth century onwards). Incredible as it may seem, in the age of the printing press not a single authentic Spanish image of the Holy Office saw the light of day. In the battle of images, the Inquisition was a clear loser.

The argument that has been developed in these pages is that the Inquisition had no intrinsic power of its own with which to terrify the people. It was the people themselves who collaborated with the process of inquiry, and the inquisitors used the methods they had learnt through the years—group therapy, public confession, selective interrogation, ceremonies and processions—to exploit the situation. Those methods may very plausibly be seen as a sort of technology of power, which is the approach adopted by a fine study of the medieval Inquisition in Languedoc.15 The Languedoc inquisitors, however, were working in a different environment, that of the often closely-knit Cathar community, which they tried to undermine from within. In Spain the inquisitors sometimes had the luck to penetrate closed groups—whether of conversos or witches or male-factors—but more usually had to deal with scattered segments of the general population and therefore undermined nobody, neither the notoriously unchristian Morisco communities nor the Basque areas infected by witch fears. The Languedoc inquisitors also used, to a degree unknown in Spain, the practice of rounding up and imprisoning large numbers of suspects.16 Since the social context was fundamentally different in Languedoc and in Spain, it is unhelpful to try to compare their Inquisitions.

The tribunal found it particularly difficult to obtain the collaboration of the people. Visitations—the theme that has brought us to look at the denunciation process—were invariably hated by the inquisitors.17 Each visitation involved having to travel long periods through difficult countryside and sometimes through territory in private jurisdiction where the authorities were actively hostile. The inquisitors also had to carry with them a large number of copies of the edict of faith for distribution, as well as “all the files, books and registers of witnesses touching that district,” and lists of anyone who might have been punished in the churches of the area, in case the sanbenitos needed to be renewed.

Perhaps the only consolation was that the inquisitor, accompanied by a secretary and a constable (alguacil), was undertaking real pastoral work. In his visitation of 1553 the inquisitor of Llerena went to twenty-five towns, and in that of 1554 to twenty-two: the former journey lasted six months and the latter four. In Galicia in 1569 and 1570 the visitations lasted eight months, but by the 1580s it was possible to cut the period down to three. In Toledo in 1541 and 1542 the period was ten months, but by the late century had been reduced to four. Journeys had to be made in good weather and not in harvest time: the months chosen were therefore normally between February and July.

The many months spent traveling show that visitations were a vital part of the inquisitorial presence, and could take up almost half the time of an inquisitor. Moreover, in visitation years the majority of those punished might be out in the villages rather than in the tribunal’s place of residence, so that few actual trials would take place. Between 1552 and 1559 the tribunal of Llerena sentenced an average of 122 persons a year on visitations, and managed to get about 800 ducats a year in fines. Against these gains were to be set the disadvantages that the offenses punished were mostly petty; the money raised was never sufficient even to cover salaries; conflicts might arise between the inquisitor who stayed behind and the one who went visiting; and business would pile up during absences (in 1590 the Llerena inquisitors refused pointedly to undertake a visitation, even though directed to do so by the Suprema, because of the urgent cases pending in the tribunal).18 Not surprisingly, by the early seventeenth century visitations were practiced in few of the tribunals, save for special areas such as the realm of Granada, where it was felt that vigilance over the Morisco population was needed.

In any case, visitations palpably failed to impose fear of the Inquisition on the Spanish people. The sheer impossibility of one inquisitor being able with any degree of frequency to visit the vast areas involved meant that in practice visits were restricted to larger centers of population from which fines might more easily be raised. Add to this the infrequency of visitations after the early sixteenth century, together with the fixing of tribunals in the cities, and we get a picture of a rural Spain that was largely out of touch with the Inquisition. “This valley,” a correspondent wrote in 1562 from the Vall d’Arán in the Catalan Pyrenees, “does not know the Holy Inquisition.”19 The Galician countryside and villages, we are told, almost never saw the Holy Office.20

This gulf between the Inquisition and much of rural Spain was, moreover, even greater than appears at first sight. Faced by the temerarious appearance in their midst of an outsider demanding to know their private sins and public errors, the rural communities responded with their own wall of silence.21 Was the inquisitor of Barcelona in 1581, Dr. Caldas, simply being naïve when reporting after his visitation that he was surprised at how few denunciations there were?22 It had been ten years since the last visitation to the archdiocese of Tarragona. Yet after four months visiting twenty-three towns (including very large ones such as Igualada, Cervera, Tarragona and Vilafranca), Dr. Caldas obtained no more than fifty-three petty denunciations.

The very nature of the denunciations in these and other Catalan towns leads irresistibly to the conclusion, not that villagers used the Inquisition to play off scores against each other, but that many rural communities solidly rejected the interference of the Inquisition. Five denunciations to Dr. Caldas were against familiars; one involved alleged bestiality “twelve years ago”; one was against a man for saying “ten years ago” that simple fornication was no sin; one involved a woman having said thirty years before (she was now dead) that there was no heaven and hell. In town after town, in this and other visitations, there was silence.

It is possible (though not likely) that the Catalans were different. Five months of a visitation in 1590 produced exactly five cases: a monk who expressed himself badly in a sermon, a priest who admitted sodomizing a woman, a man for disrespect at mass, two shepherds for bestiality.23 Year after year in the 1580s the Barcelona tribunal kept apologizing to the Suprema for the tiny number of prosecutions: “it is not negligence on our part that there are no more cases” (1586), “we have made every effort, so that it is not negligence that there are no more cases” (1588).24 The inquisitors reported in 1623 that edicts of faith were now seldom read in Catalonia.

They produce few denunciations, and this year we were almost resolved not to publish the edict in this city, because for the last four years not a single person has come to the tribunal in response to the edicts. And in 1621 we visited the regions of Girona and Perpignan, and even though it was ten years since the last visitation and both are large towns, there were only four or five denunciations, two of them trifling; and if we read the edicts every year the only fruit would be that people would lose their fear of and respect for the censures.25

In some communities the number of cases could be high. There were undoubtedly parts of Spain where old scores were paid off when the inquisitors came to call. The high figure of 240 denunciations in the diocese of Burgos in 1541 may possibly have reflected tensions between sections of the population.26 But in compact and stable communities, where there were few or no minority groups to victimize, the Inquisition was pushed aside as an irrelevance. In Morisco areas the people were willing to denounce themselves under the terms of edicts of grace, but when edicts of faith were proclaimed their community solidarity made them mute.

This perspective of the activities of the inquisitors inevitably modifies some long-held theories about the impact of their work. In his classic history, Henry C. Lea summed up his informed opinion of the tribunal: “The real importance of the Inquisition is not so much in the awful solemnities of the autos de fe, as in the silent influence exercised by its incessant and secret labors among the mass of the people.”27 The picture we have seen, which could with further research explore the length and breadth of the country, is of a complete absence of any “incessant labors” among the people, and an absence therefore of any power to influence their behavior and culture.

Secrecy was not, it seems, originally a part of the inquisitorial framework, and early records refer to public trials and a public prison rather than a private (“secret”) one. But by the beginning of the sixteenth century “secrecy” became the general rule and was enforced in all the business of the tribunal. It was an application of a principle—confidentiality—that in time became a fundamental practice of all policing systems. The various Instructions of the Inquisition, although set down in print, were for restricted circulation only and not for the public eye. One consequence of confidentiality was that the public was left in ignorance of the methods and procedure of the Inquisition. In its earlier period this helped the tribunal by creating reverential fear in the minds of wrongdoers, but later on led to the rise of hostility based on a highly imaginative idea of how the tribunal worked. Modern police systems, aware of the need to defuse hostility, tend to cover up their methods and to release only carefully controlled information. The Inquisition did not release any information at all, and logically had to suffer the brunt of slanders from its enemies. The natural outcome of this ignorance could be seen during the debates in the Cortes of Cadiz in 1813, on the projected decree to abolish the Inquisition. If the defenders of the tribunal relied on the argument of a mystical and mythical unity given to Spain by the tribunal, its detractors relied almost completely on legendary misapprehensions about the entire structure and function of the institution (seechapter 15 below).

The outside world may have been kept uninformed, but internally the flow of information was almost impeccable. The administrative and secretarial apparatus of the tribunal took care to set down on paper even the most trifling business. Thanks to this, the Spanish Inquisition is one of the few early modern institutions about whose procedure an enormous amount of documentation is available. Like any judicial court, it needed paperwork in order to survive: the struggle to establish precedents and to keep written evidence of privileges forced officials to record everything, including disagreements among themselves about policy options. Fortunately, a good part of this documentation has survived, making it the first European security organization that we can study adequately through its own records.

Those records, however, are no more nor less trustworthy than the context within which they were drawn up. Like bureaucrats of any era, the inquisitors were anxious to emphasize their successes, of which the most striking demonstration—one that has remained embedded in the standard image we have of the tribunal—was the auto de fe.

The ceremony of an auto de fe has a literature all to itself.28 Among the Spaniards it began its career as a religious act of penitence and justice, and ended it as a public festivity rather like bullfighting or fireworks. To foreigners it always remained a thing of impressive horror and fear. Their journals and letters written while on tour in Spain reveal both amazement and disgust at a practice that was unknown in the rest of Europe. We have the direct testimony of two of Philip II’s aides. One of them, the Netherlander Jean de Vandenesse, was present at the great auto de fe of Valladolid in October 1559. He went afterwards out of curiosity to see the executions and was shocked. Twelve accused, among them four nuns, were burnt at the stake; two were burnt alive. “It was distressing to see,” he limited himself to commenting.29 A generation later, the Fleming Jean Lhermite, who attended an auto in the company of Philip II at Toledo in February 1591, went after the auto to see the executions and described the proceedings as “a very sad spectacle, distressing to see.”30 It was no doubt unpleasant to see clergy presiding over the killing of condemned persons, but the public execution of criminals in other countries was not very different from an auto de fe, and more frequently outdid the auto in savagery. Indeed, few countries had so savage a record of executions as that from which Vandenesse and Lhermite hailed.

Foreigners were also, like the French ambassador the marquis of Villars, who attended the Madrid auto de fe of 1680, puzzled by the contrast between the often irreligious behavior of Spaniards in their daily life and the intensity of the auto ceremonial. Were Spaniards both irreligious and at the same time profoundly religious? And was the auto a typical expression of Spanish mentality, as bullfights were later assumed to be? Did Spaniards revel in blood?

The way we consider an auto de fe has all too often been dictated by the Inquisition itself, because historians have always consulted the large number of printed accounts it issued after its ceremonies, and relied for visual authenticity on just one famous image, the massive canvas devoted to the auto of 1680. Printed accounts are rare for the sixteenth century and became common only from the seventeenth. Texts as well as engravings were conveniently supplied by the tribunal, which used them to draw attention to itself as the main player in the drama and wished readers to admire its power. In the painting of 1680 we are invited to marvel at the great persons, including royalty, nobility and senior clergy, who preside over the session and awe us by their presence. We are also asked to learn from the humiliation of the condemned persons who parade before us in their costumes and meekly submit to their punishment. All the information is supplied exclusively by the Inquisition. May we not suspect that the story is somehow being manipulated in order to influence us?

The reality, it turns out, is that public autos had only a tiny role in the overall drama of the Inquisition. Uncommon in the early sixteenth century, after the Protestant scare of the mid-century they became infrequent again, virtually once-in-a-lifetime events except in areas where there were periodic outbreaks of persecution. Smaller tribunals, particularly those without conversos and Moriscos in their district, could seldom afford to have them. This was regrettable, as an inquisitor of Barcelona commented in 1560, because “I certainly think autos necessary in order to induce fear both among foreigners who come here, and among the people of this country.”31 By the early seventeenth century public autos were rare in Barcelona. “This Inquisition,” the inquisitors explained to the Suprema, “is unique in Spain in that it does not celebrate autos with the same pomp and decency as in other Inquisitions, and this Inquisition is very poor, so that what used to be done in public autos is now more conveniently done in some church.”32Nevertheless, there were tribunals that held autos de fe more frequently because of particular local circumstances. We find, for example, the tribunal of Granada holding fifteen autos between 1549 and 1593 (one every three years), that of Murcia holding ten between 1557 and 1568 (one a year), and that of Córdoba holding seven between 1693 and 1702 (one every eighteen months): it was formerly Islamic territory, where the higher profile of Moriscos provoked more persecution. For the most part these autos were not public, but small sessions conducted inside a church.

Apart from its purpose of punishing heretics, the ceremony of the public auto was an attempt by the Inquisition to assert its presence in the context where most Spaniards conduct their social life: in the streets. The streets were the traditional setting for all the celebrations, ceremonies and entertainments of the people. When public festivities such as Carnival took place, people from both town and country would throng in and entertain themselves around the setting of the central spectacle. Spaniards enjoy a holiday. Virtually all social celebrations were under the control of the community and the town authorities, with the collaboration of the Church. The Inquisition, which could not always count on the cooperation of these bodies, attempted to add its ceremony to the many others that already filled the festive year.

Far from being a reflection of the religious inclinations of Spaniards, the public auto in the sixteenth century was the premeditated imposition of a ritual that had no roots whatever in the community. People came to see it precisely because it was a colorful ceremony that did not form part of their normal faith, religion and everyday existence. It was, above all, a novelty: in the first seventy years of the tribunal the auto was a drab event that had little appeal to the public. There were no lengthy ceremonials presided over by clergy in solemn robes assisted by officials and nobility wearing garments of office. Instead, there was little more than a simple religious rite, directed by a handful of clergy, to determine the penalties for arrested heretics. The ceremony was not necessarily even held on a holiday (as it was later), clear proof that only a marginal role was assigned to participation by the public. In Barcelona, the first recorded auto de fe of this type took place in mid-December 1487, when a small column of fifty accused persons was escorted out of the Dominican convent near the port and up the street to the Plaça del Rei, outside the offices of the Inquisition, where a small ceremony of “reconciliation” took place. It was a cold morning, and it is doubtful whether the procession attracted much curiosity.

The auto had a long evolution and by no means played the central role it is often credited with having. Though the inquisitors certainly wished otherwise, it would seem that even on a holiday (with which public autos were subsequently planned to coincide) the people were not necessarily interested in the religious ceremonies of the Holy Office. The problem was not new; it existed also for other religious festivities. In the course of the sixteenth century the Church authorities made enormous—and, from some of the evidence available, often fruitless—efforts to gain control of holidays such as Carnival, Easter and Midsummer’s Eve. A century later, in Holy Week of 1650, the bishop of Barcelona denounced “many persons who with little fear of God and little care for the sovereign mysteries not only ignore them but even, with no respect and great contempt, bring benches, chairs, gifts, snacks, meals and other refreshments, thereby introducing profanity and scandal into the temple of God. And in the churches and streets they scoff and sneer at the priests and the devotions, when they should with tears and profound sorrow be weeping.”33 This does not sound much like a pious Catholic country.

The same risk of popular indifference was run by the inquisitors, who in the mid-sixteenth century attempted new ways of gaining attention, such as holding street processions before the great day. Perhaps the most convincing evidence of apathy is the fact that Spanish artists (as we have seen) took no notice of autos de fe. An event that is supposed to have had so great an impact on people would surely have left us with some visual record. There is none. The only image available for the format of an auto in its early years is a wholly imaginary composite painting done at the end of the fifteenth century by Pedro Berruguete, showing St. Dominic presiding over a session of the medieval French tribunal. Nor, apart from incidental mentions, is there any attention given to the subject by writers of the time.34 The scarcity of images is especially lamentable, because we may suspect that a successful public auto de fe could have had all the ingredients of a carnival. Not until two hundred years after the foundation of the tribunal do we find an attempt to capture the auto in art. A diligent researcher has uncovered details of a contract made in 1660 by the Inquisition of Seville to have a grand painting done of the auto de fe held in the city that spring, “in order that it be on record for all time.”35 It may be that other, similar paintings were commissioned by tribunals, but we have no record of them (apart from the famous canvas of the 1680 auto). It raises the possibility that no adequate effort was made, in either the preceding or the subsequent centuries, to project an image of inquisitorial power.

In the mid-sixteenth century, at last, fundamental changes occurred. During the previous generation, autos de fe were so infrequent that they all but disappeared in the greater part of Spain. The discovery of Protestant heretics in 1558, and the willingness of the crown to assist in their punishment, encouraged Inquisitor General Valdés to draw up a set of rules for the staging of a flamboyant new style of public ceremony that would reaffirm the power of the Inquisition and reinforce its presence, not simply by asserting a presence in the streets but even more by insisting on the collaboration of those in authority. A new, ceremonial auto de fe was deliberately invented by him and his associates as a way of imposing the power and presence of the Inquisition. They may even have based themselves on the Berruguete painting, a true case of life imitating art. The inquisitor general’s status had been waning in government circles, and he was anxious to recover the initiative.

The first of the new-style “public” (also known as “general”) autos was held in the presence of the court in Valladolid in May 1559. Philip returned in time to be able to preside over another in the city in October. The ceremony attracted much attention, for it had almost fallen into disuse in Spain. It was practiced frequently up to the 1520s, during the great persecution of conversos by the Inquisition, but in the following generation few autos were held. The king himself had never seen one.36 The two Valladolid displays were intentionally impressive.

The ceremony of 8 October was staged by the Inquisition in the main city square of Valladolid, with the assisting public crowding around the sides. The proceedings began at six a.m., when a formal sermon was preached. Then the king, baring his sword before the inquisitors, took an oath to uphold the authority of the Holy Office. The central spectacle was a procession of penitents whose sentences were read out by the officiating inquisitors. This occupied the most time: those who repented were publicly accepted back into the bosom of the Church, while the unrepentant were condemned to the relevant punishments. Solemn mass brought the proceedings to a close. The whole ceremony lasted some twelve hours, and we are informed (by the Inquisition) that there were several thousand spectators. Through its combination of faith, punishment and spectacle, the auto was deliberately devised as a piece of theatre that would both impress and deter.

The rules were enshrined for the first time in the inquisitorial Instructions of 156137 and subsequently elaborated upon. It was decided that autos be held on feast days, so as to ensure maximum public participation. All the leading officials and elite were expected to assist. As it turned out, very often they refused to come because of inevitable conflicts over precedence. At the first and therefore most symbolic of all the new-style autos, that of May 1559 in Valladolid, the judges of the royal court of Chancillería refused to attend, even though royalty was present, because they were not given due precedence. To prevent such things happening in future, the inquisitors insisted from the 1590s onwards that public authorities must be present. In practice, at most autos, whether public or private, few or no officials attended,38 bishops preferred not to get involved, and local quarrels often kept the local nobility away.39 The rules for arranging autos laid special emphasis on the promotion of the Inquisition’s own status, a fact that immediately led to conflicts with officials of both Church and state who, at the opening of the proceedings, were asked to take oaths of loyalty to the Inquisition. The inquisitors also feared—as happened quite often—that they would be upstaged at their own ceremony by officials of other jurisdictions claiming precedence, and were careful about whom they invited.

The presence of the king, for example, was exceptional. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that the auto was made use of by the crown to assert its superior position and strengthen its power through ceremonial theatre.40 That may have occurred within a certain context in the New World,41 but was completely untrue of Spain. In the peninsula, kings had no worries about asserting their power and did not make a habit of assisting at autos, which in any case were few and far between and very quickly went out of fashion. Ferdinand and Isabella never went to any autos, nor did Charles V who, however, could not refuse turning up at the one held in his honor in the city of Valencia in 1528 to celebrate his one and only visit there.

The case of Philip II reveals something about the politics of autos. He attended three of them in Spain in his lifetime, or one every twenty-four years (hardly the zeal of a fanatic), and at none of them did he witness any executions.42 The only king of his dynasty to really travel throughout the peninsula, it was inevitable that he should be induced to attend an auto at some point during his travels. The autos he attended were specially arranged by the Inquisition so that the king could not refuse to come to them, the event being in effect exploited not by the crown but by the Inquisition, in order to emphasize its authority. The 1559 auto of Valladolid was specially laid on by Inquisitor General Valdés to boost his standing; that of 1564 in Barcelona was, as mentioned below, an attempt by the tribunal of that city to assert its standing against the city authorities of Barcelona. Philip attended an auto of the Portuguese Inquisition in Lisbon in 1582 as a gesture of support to the Church of Portugal, a realm he had just occupied militarily. His last attendance at an auto was in 1591; prior to that, he had not been at one in Spain in nearly thirty years. Writing in 1591 to his daughter Catalina, duchess of Savoy, he noted: “Your sister will give you an account of an auto de fe of the Inquisition that we saw yesterday, you have never seen one.”43 It is a telling detail: a Spanish princess eighteen years old, daughter of an alleged fanatic, who had never in her lifetime witnessed an auto!

In Catalonia the regional authorities, and even the king’s own viceroy, habitually boycotted all autos. “Neither the viceroy nor the consellers tend to come to the auto,” the inquisitors of Barcelona reported in 1560; though, one of them added a few years later, “the viceroy says that he would do so if His Majesty orders him to.”44 Philip II never gave the order, and took no interest in asserting the royal presence at such events. His presence at the auto in Barcelona on 5 March 1564 was a lucky break for the desperate inquisitors, who at last got the opportunity to put on a right royal ceremony. Philip II was staying for a month in the city exclusively in order to welcome his bishops returning from the Council of Trent, and could not avoid the occasion, which this time counted on the cooperation of the city with the Inquisition. Subsequent kings turned up to an auto once during their reign. Philip III made an appearance at one in Madrid on 6 March 1600; and Philip IV, exceptionally, asked for one to be held in 1632 as a gesture of thanks for his wife’s recovery from ill health. The last great public auto of the Habsburg dynasty was that of 1680. It also represents probably the most extreme form of the mythology of power that the Holy Office wished to present.

We may be guided with confidence by a notable who was present: the French ambassador, the marquis de Villars. He sat through part of the proceedings and later commented cynically in his memoirs: “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.”45 It was certainly a period for display, when the crumbling Spanish monarchy, desperate to proclaim its successes to the world, arranged for triumphant murals to be painted in the Escorial to celebrate the victory of Lepanto one hundred years before. In the same vein, the decaying Inquisition persecuted conversos while at the same time conniving in their rise to the highest offices of state.46 The grandiose oil painting of the auto by Rizzi was yet another display calculated to impress, but also to deceive viewers into assuming typical an event that was wholly exceptional.

At the very period that the incidence of heresy was trailing off, the public ceremonial of the Inquisition became even more elaborate, a true art form of the Baroque. What is more, the tribunal in this later period took great care to distribute information sheets after the holding of an auto, so as to assert its achievements. The event might certainly draw an audience, as in Valladolid in 1559, when the new king’s return to Spain (after an absence abroad of five years!) was the star attraction. The problem is that there is no reliable information on how many people came because of the auto, and we cannot place too much trust in the printed statements issued by the inquisitors. All modern accounts ask us to believe that the Holy Office had an amazing power to draw crowds. “The main streets were crammed,” one historian informs us, “with people dressed in their Sunday best, and resounded to the singing of choirs.” “The people massed along the route.”47 The only difficulty is that, apart from the testimony of the inquisitors themselves, no contemporary text or illustration supports this picture.

To set the matter in perspective, we must ask ourselves: whom did the people come to see? And where did they come from? Discounting the possibility that they came to see the inquisitors, we can understand that there was curiosity to see the people arrested by them. Over and above any other motive, however, people came to see the great ones of state. The pioneering autos in Valladolid in 1559 must have drawn visitors from far and wide, especially since the new king was making his first public appearance. Many spent the night prior to the autos sitting in the square to make sure they had a good place for the next day’s ceremony (public habits have changed not a whit over the centuries).48 People whose windows overlooked the square rented out available space. The impression given by documents is that those who lined the streets at such functions were normally those who lived in the city rather than outsiders, and they came to see what was happening rather than to show their religious zeal. Within the comparable context of public executions, a historian comments that “the crowds watching executions in pre-industrial Europe were mainly composed of city-dwellers.”49 Many, of course, thronged in from outlying districts if a festivity coincided with the day when an auto was to be held. But can we believe the Inquisition official who tells us proudly that the auto of 1610 at Logroño attracted some thirty thousand people from France, Aragon, Navarre, the Basque country and Castile?50 The town had a population of only around four thousand, making it highly unlikely that it had the resources to receive the stated number of visitors; it was an event, moreover, that went on for two days. The season was November, already cold up in the mountains and hardly the time for camping out in the streets.

After the 1560s the deliberate coincidence of autos with holidays, together with their novelty and striking ritual, certainly drew in (as was the intention) crowds of sightseers. The event also attracted attention in Europe, where the first engravings of the ceremony, done by Dutch and German artists, appeared in the same decade. The best-known Dutch engraving, which purports to be of a Valladolid auto of 1559, is, foreseeably, a wholly imaginary composition, depicting neither the town square nor the presence of any public other than well-heeled nobles. As it happens, the new ceremonial auto had a relatively short life span. In Castile it had its heyday during the years of repression of Protestants, from 1559 to the 1570s.51 In those same years, it was exported to the other tribunals of the monarchy. The first ceremonial auto to be held in Barcelona was staged in the public square of the Born in 1564, to celebrate a visit by Philip II.52 The Catalans gave permission for it to be held, though they were not happy about it; the inquisitors for their part made desperate efforts to round up sufficient accused to put on a good show. The first great auto to be held at Logroño was in 1570. The first at Palermo (Sicily) was in 1573, when “for the first time” (a contemporary reports) a special procession was held. After the 1570s, it appears, ceremonial public autos were rare in Castile.53

Accounts sponsored by the Inquisition suggest, nonetheless, that some of the autos had a good audience up to the last years of the seventeenth century. Lea accepts their testimony and mentions “the population pouring in from all the surrounding district, camping out in the fields, in the vast crowds described with so much pride in the relations of the great autos.”54 The sources for his information, quite frankly, cannot be trusted. Some locations chosen, such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Born market in Barcelona, were natural theatre spaces where it was possible to erect temporary scaffolding for the public. Every documented case, however, suggests that the main attraction for visitors were the personalities attending rather than the religious ceremony.

In every print issued by European engravers, attention is focused on the great personages present and the public is wholly invisible. In Limborch’s volume on the Inquisition, only a handful of people, mostly children, watch the long, winding procession of accused and friars. Not a single Spanish print exists to show us any active participation by the public. If there were many people about in the streets, they were sightseers and visitors who came because of the relevant feast day, or to see the processions, but not necessarily because of the auto. Feast days were the occasion, throughout Spain, of massive social gatherings, and of considerable migration from the countryside to the urban center where celebrations were held. This might happen up to thirty or forty times a year, according to region,55 and because of it the inquisitors after 1560 were most anxious that their ceremony should coincide with feasts in order to have a public.

In practice, religion was not always the driving force of festivities (any more than it is today in the famous street processions of Holy Week). The complaint by the bishop of Barcelona in 1650, quoted above, shows people preferring to entertain themselves rather than sit through endless rituals. And autos were undeniably tedious! Common sense suggests that if a ceremony began at about seven a.m. in the open air on a cold November morning, commenced with a long sermon, and then continued for another ten hours with interminable reading of the sentences of just eleven accused persons,56 as happened in the auto at Logroño in 1610, any members of the public who came out of curiosity would have vanished long before the end.

It is logical to conclude that the relevant attraction was most likely the feast day or the presence of royalty, not the auto. Existing prints give some indication of a public presence only when the theme was the street procession put on by the inquisitors, and even then the presence of sightseers was limited.57 In a rare example of a Spanish painting representing an auto, that of Seville on 13 April 1660, the public is unequivocally represented, but in a manner confirming their “absolute indifference” to the proceedings of the auto. No public presence is depicted in the auto itself. Soldiers, ladies, gentlemen, beggars, salesmen are all there in the streets adjacent to the proceedings, but carry on their activities without “the slightest indication of piety, concern or preoccupation before the drama unfolding only a few meters away.”58

In short, the public auto as an instrument of religiosity and fear seems to have been a fantasy created by the Inquisition’s own propaganda and subsequently by those who, for one reason or another, exaggerated its impact. The tribunal made efforts to print and distribute information about it, especially in the period—the eighteenth century—when they had all but disappeared.59 The auto subsequently entered the world of creative fiction, where it flourished with great success. In his Candide (1759) Voltaire had a brilliant satirical comment on one held in Portugal:

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

The auto was singled out in Gothic novels because of the flames in which scores of tender virgins perished. Perhaps the high point of this fictional drama was arrived at in Verdi’s great opera of 1867, Don Carlo, in which the auto de fe is presented as “a grandiose spectacle that demonstrated the somber horrors of absolutist Spain.”60 In those same years, Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov was also evoking an image of blood with the Grand Inquisitor burning “almost a hundred” victims in one day, “in the presence of the king and the whole population of Seville.”

The real-life public auto, in contrast to these fictions, was a religious spectacle with an active life of little more than a decade. It was marginal to the religious and cultural life of Spaniards, who may have gone to the ceremony because it coincided with a feast day, but its rarity after around 1580 was notable. A diarist from Barcelona, Jeroni Pujades, had to wait until he was thirty-four before he managed to see his first public auto in 1602, and then had to wait another twenty-five years to see his next.61 Seville, famous for being the first center of inquisitorial activity and scene of frequent autos during the sixteenth century, held only four public autos during the seventeenth, an average of one every twenty-five years.62 In some cities, of course, autos were frequent because the accused had to be brought out of prison to have their sentences decided, but the ceremony in such cases was private and correspondingly less imposing. The most impressive auto of all was held towards the end of the lifespan of the Habsburg dynasty, in 1680, and stood out by the mere fact of its rarity.

By the eighteenth century the lack of accused and the rising cost of public ceremonies meant that public autos gradually fell into disuse. The new Bourbon king, Philip V, was the first Spanish monarch to refuse to attend one, in 1701, on the firm direction of his tutor, the marquis of Louville.63 Twenty years later, he seems to have attended one held in Madrid on the second Sunday of May 1721, when one man and one woman were burnt alive, and sixteen others were also sentenced.64 By the second half of the century only private autos were in use by the Inquisition.

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