. . . a wild monster, of such strange form and horrible mien that all Europe trembles at the mere mention of its name.


From its very inception, the Inquisition in Spain provoked a war of words.1 Its opponents through the ages contributed to building up a powerful image about its intentions and malign achievements. Their propaganda was so successful that even today it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. The first common misconception, found among northern Europeans, was to consider the tribunal a peculiarity of the Mediterranean: “insupportable to free peoples, such as the French, Flemish and Germans, it is suited to Spaniards, Italians and other southerners.”2 The facts that Germans and French were the first in medieval times to have the tribunal, and that the Flemish and English were no less brutal in persecuting heresy, were somehow forgotten. An enduring and persistent misreading of what Spain’s Holy Office was and did helped to fix in the mind an image of a nation infected by exotic ghosts that were peculiarly its own.

When the printing press first began to form public opinion, in the sixteenth century, the most diligent victims of the Inquisition happened to be supporters of the Reformation, and they set about convincing Europe that Spain’s intentions were not limited to Jews and Muslims but were now directed against Christian truth and liberty. For the first time, in the 1560s images of the dreaded (and, we have seen above, newly elaborated) auto de fe were reproduced as proof of the terrible fate awaiting the enemies of Spain. Protestant pens depicted the struggle as one for freedom from a tyrannical faith. Wherever Catholicism triumphed, they claimed, not only religious but civil liberty was extinguished. The Reformation was seen as bringing about the liberation of the human spirit from the fetters of darkness and superstition. Propaganda along these lines proved to be strikingly effective in the context of the political conflicts of the period, and there were always refugees from persecution to lend substance to the story.

Surprisingly, an early major source of anti-Inquisition propaganda happened to be Catholic in origin. With the outstanding exception of the Holy Roman Empire, every significant Catholic state in Europe, including France, was at some time hostile to Spain. From 1494 onwards, Spanish troops intervened in Italy to check the expansion of French influence, and they remained there. Ferdinand the Catholic had been king of Sicily; he now also took over the kingdom of Naples. Under Charles V, Spaniards in addition took over the duchy of Milan and established their power firmly in the Italian peninsula, where many states, including the papacy, quickly came to view them as oppressors. The sixteenth-century humanist Sepúlveda, who lived in Italy for a while, commented that “the Italians are hostile to the Spaniards because of the many ills they have suffered at their hands. It is for this reason that Italians always want to attack the Spanish soldiers in Italy.”3 The artist Rubens saw from his personal experience that in the seventeenth century “the Italians have little affection for Spain.”4 For most thinking Italians, the Spaniards were “barbarians.”5

The unfavorable image of Spain extended also to the Inquisition.6 The most successful revolts against the tribunal occurred in the Italian territories of the Spanish crown. There were risings in 1511 and 1526 in Sicily, caused partly by popular hatred of the familiars. Ferdinand the Catholic attempted to introduce the Spanish tribunal into Naples, which already had its own episcopal Inquisition, but effective protests blocked his bid. In 1547 and 1564 there were further risings in the region because of rumors that the Spanish tribunal was going to be established.

Despite reassurances from Philip II, Italians continued to cultivate their own vision of Spanish policy. When Italian diplomats, whether from independent states (such as Venice) or from the papacy, came to visit the peninsula, they saw little to praise. The reports they sent home described a poor and backward nation dominated by a tyrannical Inquisition. Francesco Guicciardini, Florentine ambassador to Ferdinand the Catholic, stated that Spaniards were “very religious in externals and outward show, but not so in fact.”7In 1525 the Venetian ambassador Contarini claimed that everyone trembled before the Holy Office. In 1557 ambassador Badoero spoke of the terror caused by its procedures. In 1565 ambassador Soranzo reported that its authority transcended that of the king. In the crown of Aragon, he reported, “the king makes every attempt to destroy the many privileges they have, and knowing that there is no easier or more certain way of doing it than through the Inquisition, never ceases to augment its authority.”8 Italians felt that Spanish hypocrisy in religion, together with the existence of the Inquisition, proved that the tribunal was created not for religious purity but simply to rob the Jews. Similar views were held by the prelates of the Holy See whenever they intervened in favor of the conversos. Moreover, the anti-Semitism of the Spanish authorities was scorned in Italy, where the Jewish community led a comparatively tranquil existence. The Spanish ambassador at Rome reported in 1652: “In Spain it is held in great horror to be descended from a heretic or a Jew, but here they laugh at these matters, and at us, because we concern ourselves with them.”9

The political struggle against Spain in Western Europe, led by the Dutch and English, who opportunely possessed the most active printing presses, focused attention on an alleged threat to liberty from the Inquisition. In France the Protestants feared that Henry III, in concert with Philip of Spain, planned to establish a new Inquisition. In the Netherlands, William of Orange and the count of Egmont were so disturbed that they asked Cardinal Granvelle in 1561 to deny the report. Philip II assured Granvelle unequivocally that the Spanish model of Inquisition was unsuitable for export to the Netherlands or Italy.10 Even in England, where he had exercised some influence as husband of Mary Tudor, no steps were ever taken to introduce the tribunal. Indeed, during that period Philip attempted to restrain the Marian persecution of heretics.11 The truth was that most European countries already had their own machinery for dealing with heretics and had no need for outside help.

At this point a new voice was added to the weapons of propaganda directed against Spanish intentions. Even as the duke of Alba in 1566 was leading his troops towards the Netherlands through the forested valleys of the Rhineland, two Spanish Protestants were running off the presses in nearby Heidelberg the first edition of a book that would became a powerful weapon against Spanish imperialism in Europe. The Sanctae Inquisitionis hispanicae artes (Secrets of the Holy Spanish Inquisition), published in Heidelberg in 1567, states (as we have seen in chapter 5 above) that its author was Reginaldus Gonzalvus Montanus, but it seems in reality to have been written jointly by two Spanish Protestant exiles, Casiodoro de Reina and Antonio del Corro.12 They supplied, for perhaps the first time, a full description of the functioning of the tribunal and its persecution of Protestants. At the date it was published there was almost no negative image of Spain in Europe, and the repression undertaken by Alba in the Netherlands had not yet come to pass.

Indeed, rather than Spain it was the Netherlands where the Inquisition, in the words of Philip II himself, was “more merciless than the one here.” At the very time that magistrates in Antwerp were objecting to the possibility of a Spanish tribunal, they themselves were executing heretics. The Antwerp courts between 1557 and 1562 executed 103 dissidents.13 More heretics died in this one northern city in five years than in the whole of Spain in the entire sixteenth century. Overall, in the Habsburg Netherlands at least 1,300 persons were executed for heresy between 1523 and 1566.14 Rumors of Spain’s intentions—as early as 1546 there were pamphlets in the Netherlands suggesting that the emperor Charles V was intending to introduce the Spanish Inquisition there15—reflected genuine fears but in substance were a legend to discredit Spain and support resistance. William of Orange in his famous Apology of 1581, written in reply to a decree outlawing him, turned the issue into a brilliant exercise in anti-Spanish propaganda. The execution of heretics, he claimed, was a natural occupation for bloodthirsty Spaniards: “the brightness of the fires wherein they have tormented so many poor Christians, was never delightful or pleasant to mine eyes, as it hath rejoyc’d the sight of the Duke of Alba and the Spaniards.” “I will no more wonder,” he added, “at that which all the world believeth: to wit, that the greatest part of the Spaniards, and especially those that count themselves noblemen, are of the blood of the Moors and Jews.”16

Rumors of Spain’s alleged intentions continued all the same to be a useful weapon to discredit Spain and encourage resistance to the military intervention. The author’s firsthand knowledge in the Artes gave authority to his account,17 which was issued between 1568 and 1570 in two editions in English, one in French, three in Dutch, four in German and one in Hungarian.18 From that time, Protestant Europe was taught to recognize its most deadly enemy in the terrible Inquisition of Spain. As time went on, the anti-Inquisition saga grew, thanks to the efforts of zealous Protestants to keep alive the cause for which their martyrs suffered. In England, which had just suffered the persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary, John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs (1563) warned his contemporaries: “This dreadful engine of tyranny may at any time be introduced into a country where the Catholics have the ascendancy; and hence how careful ought we to be, who are not cursed with such an arbitrary court, to prevent its introduction.”19

The attacks multiplied, with an increasing fixation on Spain as the source of oppression. The preparation of the Spanish Armada of 1588 encouraged the English government to launch a war of words against Philip II.20 It financed leaflets, among them the successful A Fig for the Spaniard (1591). English sailors who had spent time in the cells of the Inquisition were given help with publishing their stories.21 Antonio Pérez, resident at this time in England, contributed to the campaign by his authorship of the leafletA Treatise Paraenetical (1598). At the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century propagandists in northern Europe also took part in the same campaign.

The stories and propaganda took on a life of their own, giving rise to purely fictional accounts that aimed simply to entertain their public with descriptions of humans fiendishly tortured and virgins ruthlessly violated. The campaigns in early nineteenth-century Spain during the Napoleonic wars were a fertile source of horrors claimed to have been discovered in the cellars of the now-abolished Inquisition. In one account, published as an appendix to an edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the writer described how the French troops of liberation broke into the secret cells of the tribunal in Madrid, where

they found the instruments of torture, of every kind which the ingenuity of men or devils could invent. The first instrument was a machine by which the victim was confined and then, beginning with the fingers, all the joints in the hands, arms and body were broken and drawn one after another, until the sufferer died. The second [was the water torture]. The third was an infernal machine, laid horizontally, on which the victim was bound: the machine then being placed between two scores of knives so fixed that by turning the machine with a crank the flesh of the sufferer was all torn from his limbs into small pieces. The fourth surpassed the others in fiendish ingenuity. Its exterior was a large doll, richly dressed and having the appearance of a beautiful woman with her arms extended ready to embrace her victim. A semicircle was drawn around her, and the person who passed over this fatal mark touched a spring which caused the diabolical engine to open, its arms immediately clasped him, and a thousand knives cut him in as many pieces.22

Learned scholars were not exempt from the tradition. One of the best examples, a narrative of Spain’s activity in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, could be found in the American John Motley’s brilliant and still authoritative The Rise of the Dutch Republic, first published in London in 1855, which presented a wholly fictitious description of the Inquisition:

It taught the savages of India and America to shudder at the name of Christianity. The fear of its introduction froze the earlier heretics of Italy, France and Germany into orthodoxy. It was a court owning allegiance to no temporal authority, superior to all other tribunals. It was a bench of monks without appeal, having its familiars in every house, diving into the secrets of every fireside, judging and executing its horrible decrees without responsibility. It condemned not deeds but thoughts. It affected to descend into individual conscience, and to punish the crimes which it pretended to discover.

Its process was reduced to a horrible simplicity. It arrested on suspicion, tortured till confession, and then punished by fire. Two witnesses, and those to separate facts, were sufficient to consign the victim to a loathsome dungeon. Here he was sparingly supplied with food, forbidden to speak, or even to sing—to which pastime it could hardly be thought he would feel much inclination—and then left to himself till famine and misery should break his spirit. The accuser might be his son, father, or the wife of his bosom, for all were enjoined, under the death penalty, to inform the inquisitors of every suspicious word which might fall from their nearest relatives. The indictment being thus supported, the prisoner was tried by torture. The torture took place at midnight, in a gloomy dungeon, dimly lighted by torches. The victim—whether man, matron, or tender virgin—was stripped naked and stretched upon the wooden bench. Water, weights, fires, pulleys, screws—all the apparatus by which the sinews could be strained without cracking, the bones bruised without breaking, and the body racked exquisitely without giving up its ghost—was now put into operation. The executioner, enveloped in a black robe from head to foot, with his eyes glaring at his victim through holes cut in the hood which muffled his face, practiced successively all the forms of torture which the devilish ingenuity of the monk had invented. The imagination sickens when striving to keep pace with these dreadful realities.23

The anti-Spanish attitudes are sometimes referred to as a “Black Legend,” but no such notion existed in the sixteenth century or even later. The term was invented in 1914 by a Castilian nationalist writer, Julián Juderías, who felt that Protestant foreigners and progressive Spaniards had systematically been defaming his country; in defense, he sought a label to pin on their attitudes.24 Persistent employment of the label for ideological ends in order to rebut any criticism of Spain’s imperial record has made it both unsuitable to use and inaccurate. In any case many of Spain’s actions, as with imperial powers today, were all too real and no “legend.” Montano’s famous book attacking the Inquisition, for example, was in good measure a factually accurate account. In the same way, accounts of military atrocities committed by Spain in the Netherlands and Italy were usually based on fact. At all times, imperial nations tend to suffer—justly or unjustly—in the arena of public opinion, and Spain was no exception, becoming the first victim of a long tradition of polemic that picked on the Inquisition as the most salient point of attack. Visual images made a particularly powerful contribution, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ranging from informative prints about autos de fe to fictitious and salacious images of young virgins tortured and ravished. Until the period of the Cortes of Cadiz, all such images were produced exclusively outside the peninsula and are consequently marginal to our narrative here.25

During the nineteenth century we encounter the final and historically the most enduring “legend,” one created not by foreigners but by Spaniards themselves. When the British fleet under Nelson defeated the French and Spanish naval forces at Trafalgar in 1805, one of the mortal victims on the Spanish side was the naval commander Dionisio Alcalá Galiano. His infant son Antonio ended up as a leading Liberal politician, opponent of absolutism, and eventually (after eleven years as a political refugee, seven of them in London) prime minister of his country. In 1828 when in exile in London he was appointed to the first teaching post in Spanish language ever established in England, at University College. He devoted his inaugural lecture to attacking the Spanish Inquisition, which he accused of having repressed liberty of thought and crushed all intellectual initiative. No history, he said, had been written in Spain since the middle of the seventeenth century, when thanks to the Inquisition his country had entered into “absolute mental darkness.”26 For Spaniards it was to be a period when the Liberal myth of the Inquisition was first systematically presented to them, but the tone of Alcalá Galiano’s message would not have surprised his Protestant audience. Already, the English-speaking world had played some part in preparing the downfall of the Holy Office.

In 1788, the year preceding the French Revolution, a priest from the Canary Islands, Antonio José Ruiz de Padrón, found himself in the city of Philadelphia. His ship from Spain, originally bound for Cuba, had been diverted by a storm to the safety of that port. During his brief stay he made contact with other clergy, who told him of conversations they were having at the house of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a man of unfixed religious opinions, as well as being a Freemason, and Padrón found himself drawn into the active discussions. His English was fragmentary, but he also managed to take part in subsequent talks over religion at the house of George Washington. During the conversations he was driven to admit that the Holy Office was an iniquitous body that deserved abolition. Washington pressed him to speak his mind more openly, so Padrón repeated his opinion the following Sunday from the pulpit of the local Catholic church in Philadelphia.27 His sermon was in Spanish but did not fall wholly on deaf ears for, as he informed the Cortes of Cadiz two decades later:

There were present all the Spaniards of the frigates of war Hero and Loreto besides the crews of eight or ten vessels from Florida which were at the moment in port. As the result of a petition from the congregation my sermon was translated into English and on the octave practically the same things were said by Father Beeston, one of the two curates of the parish. The gathering of all who came to hear this sermon was so great that I myself had barely chance to occupy a narrow place in the sanctuary which I owed to the sincere friendship of the priests of the church. The Protestant ministers wished without doubt to undeceive themselves as to the sincerity with which a Spaniard would dare to talk on the Inquisition. They certainly obtained their wish. My sermon was the first ever preached in our language in that part of the country.28

When he returned to Spain, he was determined to work further for the abolition of the Inquisition. He managed to get elected as a deputy for the Canaries to the Cortes of Cadiz in 1812, and took a leading part in the debates the following year, with an impassioned speech attacking the tribunal, which he declared to be unnecessary to the Church, inimical to the state and contrary to the spirit of the gospel. His speech, delivered in January 1813, was decisive in winning votes for abolition. In the same period that Padrón began his campaign in the Cortes, in the city of London a Liberal exile, the Catalan writer Antonio Puigblanch, published a virulent attack on the celebrated tribunal.

Puigblanch, born in the seaport of Mataró, went to Madrid to complete his studies, and obtained a chair at the University of Alcalá. His remarkable scholarship was matched only by his profound concern for reform in Church and state. Caught up in the politics of the Cortes that opened at Cadiz in 1810, in the following year he published his influential The Inquisition Unmasked (La Inquisición sin máscara).29 The preface stated his purpose clearly: “My intention is to destroy the Inquisition from its foundations.” Without the advantage of access to the documents of the Holy Office, Puigblanch made use of a broad range of published sources to demonstrate that the existence and the methods of the Inquisition (that is, its trial procedure, its rigor, its secrecy, its use of torture, its control of censorship) were against the rules of the Church and of civil society. His substantial volume of some five hundred pages, amply backed up by hundreds of footnotes and quotations in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French, had an undeniable impact on readers. Political events dictated that he become an exile in England, to which he fled in 1815 and where in 1816 he published an English translation of the book. Apart from a brief return to Spain, he made England his permanent home.

Puigblanch’s work was the first serious Spanish attack on the Inquisition since the sixteenth-century book by González Montano. It still makes for interesting reading, though its value is somewhat limited because it habitually chooses to employ invective rather than solid evidence. Puigblanch wrote, for example: “As befitted a tribunal created in the centuries of darkness, the laws on which it was founded are a stack of ravings of a sick mind. Perfidious in its words and villainous in its acts, it only felt itself happy when it had victims to condemn.”30 At one point, he accuses the tribunal of blighting all “science” in Spain, but the only scientist he identifies is the Italian Galileo. Uninformed invective continued to be the main weapon employed by most opponents of the Inquisition in those years.

The Liberal campaign took concrete form in the period associated with the Cortes of Cadiz. The “patriots” who took part in the debates over abolishing the Inquisition knew virtually nothing about the subject but were not put off by that. Some may have been guided by Puigblanch, but the most concrete source of information available was Juan Antonio Llorente. Llorente, from Aragon, was a priest who worked with the Inquisition in Logroño and in 1789 became one of its secretaries in Madrid. In 1809, when the French king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, abolished the Inquisition, he asked Llorente to prepare a history of the tribunal. With all the archives of the Holy Office at his disposal, Llorente managed to publish in Madrid in 1812 his Annals of the Inquisition of Spain, in two volumes, and the Historical Memoir on National Opinion in Spain about the Tribunal of the Inquisition. The latter served as the main source of information for the deputies in the Cortes of Cadiz when they carried out their own abolition of the tribunal.31 When the pro-French officials of Joseph were forced to leave the country with the king, Llorente accompanied them, and published in French in Paris his great work in four volumes, A Critical History of the Spanish Inquisition (1817–18).

It is difficult to exaggerate the scale of Llorente’s achievement. With a rare impartiality (not found, for example, in Puigblanch), and a deep commitment to the seriousness of the task he had undertaken, Llorente attempted to put together from his rich harvest of papers a solid account of what the mysterious tribunal had been busy doing. Subsequently both his personal character and historical accuracy were assailed, primarily by his own countrymen, but this was the normal fate of all historical research that dared to overturn old prejudices. There were inevitably weaknesses in a work so vast that it would normally have taken several years and several scholars to produce, but Llorente’s Annals and History were the first fully documented accounts of the Inquisition to have seen the light of day in over three hundred years. They opened up and exposed to public view hitherto darkened corners of Spain’s history, and for those who doubted his account the author published not only details of his sources but also pièces justificatives to confound criticism. The History became a best seller in French, selling four thousand copies within less than a year, with plans for translation into German, English and Italian; but it also provoked opposition in conservative circles and led to him being expelled back to Spain, where he died of poor health shortly after his arrival.32

For a very long time, Llorente’s account dominated the field; and even today his work is recognized as a classic.33 In the process, he and his contemporaries also laid some foundations of the myth that still dominates popular thinking. The preface to an abridged English translation of his work, published in London in 1827, has the following conclusion on the impact of the Inquisition: “The horrid conduct of this Holy Office weakened the power and diminished the population of Spain, by arresting the progress of arts, sciences, industry and commerce, and by compelling multitudes of families to abandon the kingdom; by instigating the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors; and by immolating on its flaming piles more than three hundred thousand victims.”34

Historians today would find Llorente’s conclusion bizarre. We know that the Holy Office had no impact on population growth, played no perceptible role for or against industry and science and executed little more than 1 percent of the number of victims stated by Llorente. However, Liberals were anxious to identify those responsible for the travails of their country, and who could be more convenient to blame than the Inquisition?

The Liberal myth was given added force by the famous Caprichos of the painter Francisco de Goya. As a solid, believing Catholic and official court artist, Goya had no reason to fall foul of the Church. However, his friends tended to be ministers who had little sympathy with the Inquisition and its political role. In the 1790s from time to time he included in his work satirical references to the Holy Office and the clergy. Among his Caprichos, for example, two (nos. 23 and 24) are explicitly critical of the Inquisition. Goya’s appointment as chief painter to the king gave him protection against malicious critics, but when some of the Caprichos were denounced to the Inquisition he decided to avoid further fuss by donating the whole series to the king. There was no doubt about his opinions. Liberals were influential in the session of the Cortes that met in 1812 at Cadiz, where they led the parliamentary debate over abolishing the Inquisition. Goya’s contribution to the proceedings was to paint a powerful satirical work (usually dated to between 1812 and 1819) depicting the tribunal.

The painting, together with various etchings on the same subject, represents an exceptional moment because it is the only occasion that any Spanish painter in four hundred years took enough interest to dedicate a substantial work of art to the theme. Unfortunately, both art and artist have become victims of an urge to produce romantic history. The artist has been depicted—in studies, novels and even in films—as target of a tribunal that was in fact all but dead and could not have represented any threat to him. And his painting Auto de Fe of the Inquisition,35 truly an imaginative and savage expression of anticlerical rage, has been constantly and on no evidence whatever invoked as evidence of how Spaniards perceived the Holy Office. The work, a satirical collage of an imaginary event, depicting several wholly unrelated elements, portrays no auto de fe that could ever have taken place. Goya wished to attack, and did so with his unique genius; but in the end his paintings were creative fantasy rather than historical testimony.36

The sum total of the Liberal contribution to the image of the Inquisition was to strengthen even further the idea that the tribunal had been an enemy of the human race. We can judge of the opinion widely held among educated and progressive Spaniards through the presentation given by José Amador de los Ríos in his pioneering Historical Studies on the Jews (1848). Amador declared that under Philip II the tribunal:

extended its terrible rule more and more. Till then it had punished dangerous tendencies, and persecuted crimes of sacrilege and belief with the greatest severity and determination. Through its triumph, the Inquisition aspired to rule consciences, it wished to hold the key to human understanding, launched its anathemas against those who would not bow their neck to its projects, and welcomed into its prisons all who dared doubt the legitimacy of its law. So it was that, in a century of achievement for the name of Spaniard, when the Castilian flag flew from one end of Europe to another, while the arts and letters were cultivated by geniuses who rivaled the glories of Italy, there was hardly a single man of learning who was not thrust into the prisons of the Holy Office, victim of the envy and spite of the inquisitors.37

In the period that Amador de los Ríos was writing, scholars began to reassess the relation between Jews and the Inquisition. This development seems to have first taken place in England in the 1830s. Historians and novelists, conscious of the movements for emancipation of Catholics and Jews in England, began to use fifteenth-century Spain as a paradigm for the birth of a nation based on racial and religious homogeneity.38 They were influenced by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, notably his Ivanhoe, which had a Jewess as its heroine. American works such as Washington Irving’s imaginative Conquest of Granada (1829), and Prescott’s masterly History of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837) were also influential. The public, which had hitherto thought of the Inquisition only in terms of the persecution of Protestants, was able through such publications to appreciate the key role of the Jews in Spain.

The new awareness of the Jewish role gave rise to a number of important studies, both in Spain (the publications of Amador de los Ríos) and outside it (the pioneering researches of Yitzhak Baer). The terrible reality that most of the mortal victims of the Spanish Inquisition were of Jewish origin left an ineffaceable image of the tribunal in the mind of the Jewish people and its historians. Descendants of those who survived the great diaspora of 1492 considered the Inquisition to be their own special historical nightmare. Samuel Usque, Portuguese author of Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel (1553), painted a terrifying picture of the Inquisition as a monster that “rises in the air on a thousand wings . . . wherever it passes its shadow spreads a pall of gloom over the brightest sun . . . the green grass which it treads or the luxuriant tree on which it alights, dries, decays and withers . . . it desolates the countryside until it is like the Syrian deserts and sands.”39

This vision created a powerful tradition about the Inquisition that rooted itself in the perception of those who felt that they were better equipped than anyone to understand how it operated. The pioneering researches of Yitzhak Baer paved the way to yet more voluminous studies that discovered in the Inquisition a way of interpreting the place of Jews in the modern world. In developing their ideas, some of these writers often discarded historical evidence and invented a palpably untrue image of the Inquisition. A respected Jewish scholar maintained that the Inquisition “maintained its hold on the Iberian population through its terrorist methods, the dependence of royal power on its support, and the apparent absence of any alternative to combat heresy,” and that “practically no one was safe from its grasp.”40 Others projected the image of a whole people driven into exile (“the entire Jewish population left Spain . . . some 200,000”), and a Spain reduced to slavery (“under the iron grip of an institution that was feared and abhorred”).41 These wholly erroneous presentations were obviously deeply influenced by a generation that had suffered the experience of twentieth-century Nazi Germany.

Writers managed, however, to snatch hope out of the ashes. The Inquisition came to be seen by some scholars as, ironically, an impulse to enlightenment. One writes: “The story of the conversos . . . concerns the attempt of the oppressed to break the silence imposed on them by the persecuting society, and transmit the perspective of the persecuted to future generations.”42 A figure like Spinoza was seen as the paradigm of intellectuality breaking with the medieval past. Thanks to this, Jews could be seen as the precursors of modernity.43 It was a novel and stimulating interpretation, but the emphasis on the role of Jews also had an unhelpful aspect. It helped to skew perspectives of the Inquisition, which came to be viewed and interpreted by many almost exclusively within the context of the sufferings of Jews, when the tribunal also in fact had a much broader significance for the sociology of the Spanish people and of the Christian religion.

Among non-Jewish historians the perception of the Inquisition was complex, and they tended, like Voltaire, to pay more attention to cultural aspects such as the question of human freedom. Llorente was one of the sources used by the American historian W. H. Prescott for his three-volume unfinished study of the reign of Philip II (1855). In this work Prescott found himself fascinated by the Inquisition, which he depicted as “the malignant influence of an eye that never slumbered, an unseen arm ever raised to strike.”44Prescott’s striking vision of the Inquisition may have contributed in part to the powerful image of the Grand Inquisitor created by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who read Prescott in Russian in 1858)45 in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. The vision of Spain in English-speaking countries was not, however, wholly negative, thanks to the Oriental exoticism conveyed by Washington Irving’s writings, and by the work of painters such as John S. Sargent, who paid a visit to Spain and did a canvas of the Alhambra (1879).

In the 1870s another American scholar, Henry Charles Lea, began collecting material for a proposed history of the Inquisition in Spain. His work, published in four volumes in 1906 (but not consulted by Spanish scholars until some eighty years later), remains still the definitive history of the tribunal. Though Lea had strong prejudices that he expressed uncompromisingly, his work once and for all rescued the tribunal from the make-believe world of invented history, and placed it firmly in the arena of documented fact. He retained, nevertheless, a deep pessimism about the political and moral future of the country he believed to have been paralyzed by the Inquisition.

It was that country where, in effect, opinions about the role of the Inquisition remained most at variance and most deeply rooted. Nineteenth-century Liberals like Alcalá Galiano were ready to attribute every failure in Spanish history to the Inquisition. All the economic problems of the country were blamed on the Holy Office.46 Subsequently, other writers took up the theme. The persecution of conversos and the expulsion of the Jews led, they claimed, to the impoverishment and decay of Spain and the destruction of its middle class. Religious persecution led to the decay of trade and a collapse of Spanish power and wealth. Censorship led to intellectual isolation, the obliteration of learning and the crushing of science and humanism. These views, which can still be encountered in Spain’s press and centers of higher learning, provoked from Menéndez y Pelayo in 1876 a biting satire on those who identified the tribunal with all the ills of Spain: “Why was there no industry in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why are we Spaniards lazy? Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bullfights in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why do Spaniards take a siesta? Because of the Inquisition.”47

In nineteenth-century Spain there were conservatives and Catholics who, while not partisans of the tribunal, rejected the uninformed criticisms directed against it. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, the towering intellectual figure of his day in Spain, was perhaps the only competent defender the Inquisition ever had. In his works, which we have cited above (chapter 6), he brushed aside the labor of Llorente as “lacking in erudition, puerile in criticism, insipid in style, without vigor or charm,” and dismissed the History of the Inquisition as “a pile of calumnies, dry and sterile, malicious, indigestible, vague and incoherent.”48 However, he did not have a closed mind, and also helped to promote research on the subject. From 1887 he was in correspondence with Henry Charles Lea, who was then preparing his studies on the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions, and helped obtain for him transcripts of documents from the Spanish archives.49 Maturity and courtesy mellowed the older man, and helped to make his views take their place in the arena of civilized scholarship. The conservative tendency he represented, however, also continued to produce writings of a less scholarly nature. With very rare exceptions, such as the fundamental and pioneering studies by the Jesuit scholar Fidel Fita, Spanish clergy who wrote about the Inquisition up to the 1970s allowed their ideological views to influence their research.

Myths about the Inquisition became both long lasting and deep rooted among Spaniards, because they were essential to the maintenance of political ideology both of left and right. Partisan approaches coinciding with Liberal and conservative views of the past continued to survive with surprising vigor well into contemporary Spain. Both views maintained that vital aspects of Spanish culture could not be understood or explained without bringing into play the responsibility, for evil and for good, of the Inquisition. The nature and impact of the fifteenth-century tribunal consequently came to be seen as a key to the way Spain developed four hundred years later. Whenever it became necessary to explain a particularly contentious issue, there was nothing easier than to raise the cry of “Inquisition!” in the same way that one might cry out “Fire!” Since the Inquisition was perceived as a reactionary body, any attempt to modify its image in respect of the harm it was alleged to have done to the Jews, to liberty and to culture was likewise considered reactionary.

As more serious research began to be published on the theme, the legend of the bloody Inquisition began to disappear among scholars, but continued to survive among those who, since the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century,50 made their living from it: writers of popular fiction. Perhaps the most successful (and close to fictional) work ever published on the Spanish Inquisition were the three volumes published in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the British writer Eleanor Hibbert, writing under the pseudonym Jean Plaidy.51 Other popular writers continued in the same vein. Thanks to their labors, the subject has unfailingly excited the interest of the public. The malignant Inquisition also continued to feature as a convenient tailor’s dummy on which to hang venerable myths.52 Spain was particularly vulnerable to this process.53 For a long time, little or no research was done in Spain on the circumstances that presumably provoked the incredible disaster said to have overtaken the country during the lifetime of the Holy Office. Instead, writers offered the public a virtually fictional account of its role. In 1927 an author of a new History of Spain, Mario Méndez Bejarano,54 offered his readers a verdict plucked right out of the air:

An inconceivable passivity, an incomprehension bordering on brain damage and reinforced by apathy, paralyzed all healthy action. The seventeenth century lacked any scientific or literary substance, drawing its learning and its soul only from the preceding century. Religious intolerance stifled all free thought. . . . Fear of error led to a fall into ignorance, Spanish thinkers had to learn to print their books outside the country, and there hardly remained any man of merit who did not in greater or lesser degree suffer persecution from the hateful tribunal of the Inquisition.

From these incredible lines it can be seen that many Spaniards, on the eve of a long Civil War (1936–39) in which hundreds of thousands would lose their lives, were still relying for their ideas and their hopes for the future on a vision of the past that had been totally distorted by ideology and a complete lack of serious historical research.

The distortions of political ideology were matched by the distortions in folk memory. Since the people, as we have seen, had very little active contact with the Inquisition, they preserved in their minds a fictional record of what it must have been like in the experience of the past. For some elderly Galician peasants, who narrated their thoughts to a researcher half a century ago,55 the Inquisition perceived by their forefathers was still a living and frightening memory. The inquisitors (they claimed to remember) came in the night in carriages specially fitted with rubber wheels that would make no noise; they listened at doors and windows to hear what people were saying; they took away beautiful girls; their favorite torture—on this there was absolute unanimity among those interviewed—was to sit their victim down and drip boiling oil on his head until he died. The persistence of this bizarre and completely fantastic image among peasants in a region almost never visited by inquisitors was, one may argue, evidence of the enormous gap that had opened up between the tribunal and the society it purported to defend.

Contact with the outside world was one of the most potent causes of growing disillusion with the Inquisition. Spaniards came to realize that coercion was not inevitable in religion, and that other nations seemed to exist happily without it. We have the opinion of a pharmacist arrested by the Inquisition at Laguna (Tenerife) in 1707. He is reported to have said “that one could live in France because they do not have the poverty and subjection that today exists in Spain and Portugal, since in France they do not try to find out nor do they make a point of knowing who everyone is and what religion he has and professes. And so he who lives properly and is of good character may become what he wishes.”56

A generation later, in 1741, another native of the Canaries, the marquis de la Villa de San Andrés, echoed precisely the same sentiments when he praised Paris, where life was free and unrestricted “and no one asks where you are going or questions who you are, nor at Easter does the priest ask if you have been to confession.”57 This was the spirit that threatened to splinter the defenses of a traditionalist society. It was, in one way, an urge to freedom, but in another way it was a demand for justice. The fate of the Jews and Muslims continued to be on the conscience of intelligent statesmen. When the government minister José Carvajal began to interest himself in the attacks directed a century and a half previously by Salucio against the statutes of limpieza, his main preoccupation was “the cruel impiety with which they have treated those who were outside the Catholic religion, barring all human doors of entry against them.”58 This was in 1751. A similar approach was adopted by the statesman of the Spanish Enlightenment, Jovellanos, in 1798. For him the primary reason for criticizing the Inquisition was the fate of the conversos:

From this arose the infamy that covered descendants of these conversos, who were reputed infamous by public opinion. The laws upheld this and approved the statutes of limpieza de sangre, which kept out so many innocent people not only from posts of honor and trust but also from entering churches, colleges, convents and even unions and trade guilds. From this came the perpetuation of hatred not only against the Inquisition but against religion itself.59

Jovellanos’s comments did not refer to his own time, when discrimination could have had very little impact, but on the situation he deemed to have existed two hundred years before. He argued that the injustices committed against a section of society by the Inquisition now needed to be remedied. The tribunal had lost all theoretical justification for its existence, since the modern threat to religion came no longer from Jews and Moriscos and heretics but from unbelievers. Against these the tribunal would be of little avail, since the inquisitors were ignorant and incapable. The time had come to get rid of such a superfluous body, right the injustices of history and restore to the bishops their old powers over heresy.

Despite their progressive stance, Jovellanos and his Catholic colleagues in the government and the nobility were not radical revolutionaries. Their desire for reform and for changes in society was limited by the concern for stability. The Catholic liberals who opposed the Inquisition were unwilling to look too far. Jovellanos wrote to his friend, the Scotsman Alexander Jardine: “You approve of the spirit of rebellion; I do not. I disapprove of it openly and am far from believing that it carries the seal of merit.”60 Because of this the attitude of Catholics as such towards the Inquisition ceased to be of great consequence, and was lost among the waves of turbulence created by those whose hatred of the Holy Office was only part of their distrust of organized religion.

Because the Inquisition was a conflictive institution its history has always been polemical. The rule of secrecy, unfortunately, gagged the mouths of its own spokesmen and aided those of its detractors, so that for its entire career the propaganda war was won effortlessly by its enemies. The discovery of the riches of inquisitorial documentation has helped to restore the balance of information but also created new dangers. Ease of access to the archives has often encouraged us to rely exclusively on the Inquisition for information, as though prosecution records were a uniquely trustworthy source. In consequence, an enormous amount of data has been produced, but much of it can fail to convince because it does not look beyond the documents. The result is that slow progress has been made towards understanding the social or ideological conditions in which the Holy Office operated.

Undue concentration on the actions and role of the Holy Office, while ignoring the immense range of factors that made up its social context in the peninsula and in Europe, now appears to be the biggest single obstacle to understanding the phenomenon. Attention to the Baroque display of the public auto de fe, an event that might happen once a generation, while ignoring the significance of the feasts and processions of town communities and the Church; or attention to the minute and trivial nature of day-to-day prosecutions, while turning a blind eye to the substantial number of similar offenses in secular and Church jurisdictions; are typical of the way in which research may lose its way. Fixing our gaze too closely and exclusively on the Holy Office, some of us may be tempted to imagine it as “an ecclesiastical power that shaped religious debate, reasserted Catholic doctrine, structured relations between Church and state, diffused a value system and defined boundaries of behavior and thought among the population.”61 Every part of such an assessment would, nevertheless, be open to question. Few working scholars would apply such ambitious attributes even to the GPU in early Soviet Russia or the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, and by the same token there is no basis for applying them to the tiny handful of clergy who constituted the Inquisition in Spain.

Once the facile use of the Inquisition as an explanation for all the good or ill has been removed, the challenge to explain the evolution of Spain becomes sharper. The decay in the universities, for example, clearly owed little to the Inquisition. Theology fell into a rigid Thomist and scholastic mold. “If they prove to me that my faith is founded on St. Thomas,” exclaimed the writer El Brocense, “I’ll shit on it and find another!” But by the seventeenth century, and with no push from the inquisitors, St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle were the unshakeable pillars of philosophy in Spain. Population decline played a part in the declining intake of Castilian universities, where matriculations reached their peak in around 1620 and declined continually into the eighteenth century. No new universities were founded in Castile between 1620 and the early nineteenth century. As in all periods of economic recession, preference went to “useful” rather than speculative studies and the lack of prospects in certain subjects effectively doomed them. By 1648 it was proposed at Salamanca to suppress the chairs of Greek, Hebrew, mathematics and other subjects: Greek and Hebrew had not been taught since the 1550s. For none of this can the Inquisition be blamed. In area after area of Spanish culture it is increasingly obvious that factors were at work which it would be grotesque to try to attribute to the Inquisition.

Aware that it was unreasonable to castigate the tribunal for all Spain’s failures, the Liberal writer Juan Valera in 1876 asked whether it was not something in Spain’s own character that was culpable. He identified the cause as religious fanaticism: “a fever of pride, a delirium of vanity. . . . We thought we were the new people of God, and confused religion with patriotic egoism. . . . Hence our divorce and isolation from the rest of Europe.”62 Subsequent writers likewise looked at the problem in global terms. Claudio Sánchez Albornoz saw the seeds of future conflict in the massive rejection by Spain of its Jewish and Arabic culture: “we had no religious wars in the sixteenth century, but we have had them in the twentieth.”63 The contradictions within Spain that had apparently been reconciled by the imposition of religious uniformity were to break out again. For the conservative Ramón Menéndez Pidal the reconciliation had never taken place, and there always existed a struggle—often mute, never suppressed—between Two Spains.64 The interplay between African and European Spain, isolationist and international Spain, liberal and reactionary Spain, caused the tensions that explained the strife in Spanish history. The Two Spains followed “the fated destiny of the two sons of Oedipus, who would not consent to reign together and mortally wounded each other.” Menéndez Pidal looked forward to an age when reconciliation would eventually occur, and reintegration would lead to unity of purpose in a tolerant society.

The Inquisition was, we have seen, not peculiar to Iberia: it was at its most efficient in medieval France but was also active in Germany and in post-Reformation Italy and the Netherlands. Subsequently the Portuguese took it to India and the Spaniards planted it in the New World. Its outlook and methods were determined by the context in each of these regions, but its motives—to protect and purify—were of course common to any human society of that time and ours. The Catholic historian Lord Acton once commented that all these inquisitions were “an appalling edifice of intolerance, tyranny and cruelty.” With good reason, critics of persecution applied the term “inquisition” to the procedure used by those who wished to silence opposition. Erroneous ideas, they contended, should not be countered with blood and fire. The position was maintained in Castile by Isabella the Catholic’s converso secretary Hernando de Pulgar, and in Europe by Erasmus, Luther and the German radical Balthasar Hubmaier. The last of these held that “the inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all,” because they ignored the teaching of Christ.65

The Reformation in its turn soon adopted the methods of the Inquisition, as we have seen from the case of Servet. Former liberals such as Luther became illiberal. A yet more striking case than that of Servet occurred when the normally liberal city of Basel in 1559, the very year that Spaniards in Valladolid were also executing heretics, exhumed the cadaver of a little-known heretic and burned it publicly at the stake before an audience of dignitaries. The famous physician Felix Platter was a witness: “The crowd was enormous. I saw the execution in the company of Sebastian Castellio.”66

Inquisitorial practices continued to flourish in the centuries that followed, and not only in Spain. In states throughout Europe, dissenters were executed, families were driven into exile, minorities were persecuted and books were prohibited. But it was Spain that came to be seen and presented as the most active oppressor of liberty. When John Milton in seventeenth-century England wrote his Areopagitica in defense of freedom of the press, he took Spain as the symbol of tyranny, and criticized his own government for wishing to “execute the Inquisition over us,” through “this Spanish policy of licensing books.” It became easy for later commentators to single out the Spanish tribunal in the way that Dostoyevsky did so brilliantly in The Brothers Karamazov.67 With time, other nations such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia would also be demonized in the historical literature, but somehow they never managed to displace Spain’s notorious tribunal from its pedestal of very special infamy. One of its most recent historians offers the opinion that “armed with terror, espionage and propaganda, the Inquisition proceeded to capture Spain’s opinion and control it flawlessly for three centuries and more. The notions it instilled in the Spanish public spread abroad and were accepted in Europe. It attempted genocide, it perpetrated a terrible crime against humanity, against religion and against the Church.”68

Spain’s Inquisition bears a manifest responsibility for its role and its acts, but no institution can ever be evaluated in isolation from the context and society that brought it into existence. Even when all explanations have been offered, the questions remain. How could a society as apparently tolerant as Castile, in which the three great faiths of the West had coexisted for centuries and into which the medieval Inquisition had never penetrated, change its ideology in the fifteenth century, against the instincts of many great men in both Church and state?69 How could a clergy and population that had never lusted for blood except in war (Queen Isabella thought even bullfighting too gory), gaze placidly upon the burning alive of scores of their fellow Spaniards for an offense—prevarication in religion—that had never hitherto been a crime? How could the Spanish people—the first Europeans to broaden their vision by traveling the oceans and opening up the New World—accept without serious opposition the mental restrictions proposed by the Inquisition? The preceding pages have tried to offer the elements of an answer, but it is in the nature of the inquisitorial phenomenon that no answer can match the complexity of the questions.

Even today in the twenty-first century other nations have had and continue to have their Inquisitions: the human condition is subject to frailties that are not limited to any one people or faith and that regularly reverse the gains made in previous generations by “progress.” All countries possess the rudiments of control: “a set of disciplinary procedures, targeting specified groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, justified by a vision of the one true path, backed by institutional power.”70 Over and beyond these visible instruments, however, the essential component of an Inquisition was and is the compliance and cooperation of ordinary people. Control and coercion, in the name of religion or race or Homeland Security, continue to be practiced by public authority and accepted with incredible passivity by the population. There is little reason not to share the view of the great historian of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea: “how little religion and civilization have accomplished in elevating us above primitive savagery and how easily we slide back to it.”71

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