Swimming the Tiber 33: Nobody Expects It

Like last week’s post on the Crusades, I’m going to run down this history on this a bit and then point out why it can’t really be used to bludgeon the Catholic Church as much as people would like.

The Medieval Inquisition

In the 12th to 15th centuries, Church and State worked hand in hand. There was not even a semblance of separating them; the State was appointed by God, and the Catholic Church was the official faith of the day. Therefore, rebellion against the Church was rebellion against the State–if it offended God, then it offended the king, and if it offended the king, then it was treason. (This oversimplification makes it easier to lay out the background for those of us who live in tolerant modern societies with civil liberties unions and foundations that want freedom from religion.)

So, given that heresy was a crime against the State, whenever it came up, most civil law courts were quick to condemn (assuming the mobs let the accused reach trial at all). The Catholic Church, ever concerned with the souls of her children, formed the Medieval Inquisition to inquire and make sure that anyone accused of heresy was actually guilty. (The Church was, after all, the center of science, logic, law, and faith in the day; were laypeople fully qualified to determine whether someone was a heretic? Even if they could make that determination, would they show the restraint and mercy that the Church should apply?) So the original Inquisition, the one run by the Church, focused on making a real evaluation of guilt using strong legal standards set forth by Rome (especially in dealing with the Cathars and Albigensians).

But the 14th and 15th centuries saw the fracturing of power from Rome. Notable pre-Protestant protestants John Wycliffe and Jan Hus laid the intellectual groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Monarchs, once devoted enough to Rome to become saints (St. Louis IX, king of France, died in 1270, and St. Ferdinand III, king of Castile, died in 1252), soon determined that they should manage their own kingdoms themselves, rather than being subject to the far-off pope. Spain was just as susceptible to this self-interest, but it had another societal struggle helping it along.


Spain had been conquered by the Muslim empire in the 8th century. War was common. To keep the peace, religious tolerance was more common in Spain than elsewhere (England and France both exiled their Jewish populations around the turn of the 14th century). But the rising anti-Semitism of the time wormed its way into Spain as well, leading a mob to force the local Jews to be baptized or die. Many of these Jews chose baptism and, even though forcing someone to be baptized under threat of death makes the baptism invalid, many of these chose to remain Catholic even after King John I of Aragon allowed them to return to their own religion.

These converts, called conversos, spread and began a wave of Jewish conversion to Catholicism. But these conversos were still Jewish culturally and chose to live that way. Many of them spoke of being better than other Catholics (because they were part of the Church but were also blood relatives of Christ). The Old Christian aristocrats and middle-class of Spain resented this as a slight against them, and the local Jews resented it because the conversos were abandoning their faith. Eventually, conspiracy theories abounded that conversos were secretly still practicing Jews and that their goal was to infiltrate the aristocracy, the kingdom, and the Catholic Church in order to tear them down from the inside.

The Spanish Inquisition

King Ferdinand II of Aragon (who was also, by marriage, Ferdinand V of Castile) decided it was time to look into these allegations, which became more numerous by the day. He got permission from Pope Sixtus IV to start a Spain-controlled inquisition, which was to have two priests involved as inquisitors. No sooner had Ferdinand appointed priests to the position than they were inundated with claims of heresy. Conversos were being accused left and right across the board; the allegations flew so fast that Ferdinand eventually became convinced that there must be some merit to the conspiracy theory–never mind that most of the accusations were for financial gain or personal vitriol. (Sound familiar?)

As things got out of hand, Pope Sixtus IV wrote a letter (in 1482, just four years after approving the measure) to his bishops in Spain condemning the Spanish Inquisition and encouraging them to be directly involved from that point forward. King Ferdinand replied that he would handle things himself, and if the pope had indeed suggested otherwise, he must have been under the influence of the conversos.

For the remaining 251 years of its history, the Spanish Inquisition was entirely Spanish and not the least bit Catholic. (Indeed, Sixtus’ successor wrote two letters to Ferdinand asking for more leniency without success.)

But what about the millions?
During its entire existence, records (though incomplete) suggest that around 150,000 people were investigated by the Spanish Inquisition, of which 3,000-5,000 were executed for obstinate heresy. Not millions.

But what about the torture?
Prisons are prisons, but the so-called dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition were so pleasant that there is some evidence of criminals blaspheming purposefully in order to be transferred to them. Torture was a tool of law enforcement of the time, and the Spanish Inquisition used it as well, though some evidence suggests they used it both less frequently and with less intensity than their civil counterparts.

No doubt the Spanish Inquisition was imperfect, and no doubt it both tortured and executed people who did nothing to deserve it. But for the most part, it was a political entity with political goals, not religious ones. It rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. Even as it reformed and improved under later Spanish kings, the image of cruel inquisitors remained–especially once German Protestants got a printing press, which enabled them to (yes, print Bibles, but also) print propaganda about a dark and cruel Spain, propaganda that–though thoroughly disproved among historians–persists in the popular mindset even today.

And, because some of you have been waiting for this since you read the title of this post…

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