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The Spanish Inquisition gained much of its notoriety from its ethnic character: the royal authorities set it up in 1478 primarily to root out false conversions among the forcibly converted populations of conquered Spanish territories. The Christian Reconquista of Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) ended in 1492 with Castile's defeat of the relatively tolerant Muslim state Granada and the resulting forcible conversions. Many in the target populations only pretended to convert, and the aristocracy and clergy responded by charging the Spanish Inquisition to deal with the diversity that had contributed to the Spanish mestizaje, or mixture of races and cultures. Transported to the New-World colonies of Spain and to the Philippines, the Spanish Inquisition dealt with even greater and thus more threatening diversity. "For the love of God, any kind of torture or murder was not merely acceptable, it was a moral act."
The Spanish Inquisition gave Spain a head start over other countries that would end up predominantly Roman Catholic when the Reformation came around, giving Spaniards an established theocratic-bureaucratic apparatus with which to repress Protestantism.
The real Spanish Inquisition
Contrary to the image of the Spanish Inquisition as an all-powerful tyrannical organization composed of sadistic religious zealots answerable only to itself, it was in fact a bureaucratic organization composed of university lawyers who often saw it only as a stepping stone to better things that had to deal with other powerful groups in the capital city, and lacked manpower in the countryside, which greatly limited its power.
The Inquisition, unable to impose capital punishment, often had to resort to the euphemism "relaxed to the secular arm," to describe burning heretics at the stake. The ecclesiastical courts had no authority to put a man to death.
That is not to say that the Spanish Inquisition was entirely (or even largely) benevolent. Its first project of rooting out false conversos (Jews that had converted to Christianity) quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in the very Pope who had signed the Bull bringing it into existence on November 1, 1478 complaining of the excess and abuse in a April 18, 1482 letter, and the appointment of Tomás de Torquemada to Inquisitor General in 1483 made things worse.
However, 1500 saw a new Inquisitor General, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (Ximénes de Cisneros), who began to reform the Spanish Inquisition. "After the reforms, the Spanish Inquisition had very few critics. Staffed by well-educated legal professionals, it was one of the most efficient and compassionate judicial bodies in Europe. No major court in Europe executed fewer people than the Spanish Inquisition."
After getting themselves practically devastated in the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, the Protestants turned to the only other weapon they had — the printing press and its power of propaganda. The Spanish monarchy did not understand this new weapon, even considering it beneath them… with disastrous results.
In 1567, the Protestant propaganda machine put out A Discovery and plain Declaration of the Sundry Subtill practices of the Holy Inquisition Of Spain under the pseudonym Montanns, which collected all their previous work into one work and claimed to be by a victim of the Spanish Inquisition. As a result, it became the go-to work on the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
Contrary to Montanns's claim, torture was used infrequently — in around 3% of all cases, and most of that lasted only 15 minutes. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition used torture less than the secular tribunals of the time and its prisoners were treated far better as well. This on occasion resulted in people blaspheming to get into the Spanish Inquisition court and out of the secular ones!
Ironically, the Spanish Inquisition worked to stop the second thing most connected with it: the burning of witches. It came in the aftermath of the first and only witchcraft trial in 1610. The Suprema (the ruling counsel) was so displeased with the result that they appointed the one Inquisitor who had disagreed with his colleagues, Alonso de Salazar Frías, as head of the investigation of the matter. Salazar's 1613 report spared no one in his criticism regarding the procedure of the tribunal, not even himself. Salazar's detailed examination of witchcraft claims and procedure for verification became the go-to book for all future handling of witchcraft claims by the Spanish Inquisition. In a bit of further irony, all witch burnings after this were the result of Inquisitors not following the rules or being unable to stop the locals. The Roman Inquisition made Salazar's procedures part of its handling of witchcraft.
In terms of people killed by the Spanish Inquisition over the 350 years of its existence, the high estimate is 5,000 people, with 2,000 of them in the 1483-1500 period. Even as its power faded with that of Spain, the propaganda myth continued to grow as the myth itself became an example of other supposed and real abuses of power.
Spanish Inquisition in popular culture
The "Spanish Inquisition" sketch is one of the more famous creations of the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus. Over the course of the episode it is in, at various times, people being grilled over some issue declaim "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!" What then ensues in each case is fine Pythonian hilarity.
The Spanish Inquisition was also featured in a rousing musical number, complete with synchronized swimming, in the Mel Brooks movie History of the World, Part 1.
- Less Wrong - Guardians of the Truth - The difference between how the Inquisition plays with the "truth" and science plays with the "truth."
- Fortunately for Judaism, it seems there are a great number of marranos (descendants of persecuted Spanish Jews) trying to reclaim their Jewish heritage.
- Earl Shorris. 2004. The Life and Times of Mexico. New York: Norton. p. 46.
- (1994) "Myth of the Spanish Inquisition" BBC/A&E
- Madden, Thomas F. "The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition" Catholic Education Resource Center
- Phillips, Perrott (1978) Out of this world : the illustrated library of the bizarre and extraordinary Volume 23 Phoebus Publishing company pg 10-11
- Henningsen, Gustav (1980) The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609–1619), Nevada