Inquisition in Spain

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella aim to rid their kingdoms of heretics.

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The Catholic Church establishes the Inquisition; Ferinand and Isabella invite it to Spain

As early as the thirteenth century, the church itself had established an Inquisition to deal with Christian schismatics. These were Albigensians, ­Waldensians, and Pasagians, most of them in southern France. Finding precedent in Roman law, the church's investigative machinery during those years was administered by individual diocesan bishoprics. Domini­can and Franciscan monks acted as the principal inquisitors. If the opera­tion was ill‑coordinated, the threat of heresy was not particularly serious then.

But now, in fifteenth‑century Castile and Aragon, suspected heretics no longer were isolated Christian apostates or Christian deviants but large masses of former Jews, individuals in the tens of thousands who appeared to be clinging suspiciously to their ancestral traditions. Popular sentiment no longer would tolerate the anomaly, and the question therefore arose of the appropriate means to correct it. An Inquisition based on the practice of intermittent diocesan inquiries seemed incapable of rooting out this vast Jewish netherworld. Equally unfeasible was an Inquisition centrally directed from Rome; Fernando and Isabel were not prepared to forfeit royal control.

To resolve the issues of both the structure and the authority of the Inquisition, the Catholic Monarchs thereupon entered into protracted negotiations with the Vatican. Finally, in 1478, they reached an agreement with Pope Sixtus IV. To begin with, an Inquisition would be limited initially to the diocese of Seville, embracing much of Castilian Andalusia. Here a large and still affluent converso population lived directly adjacent to the Moorish kingdom of Granada. Indeed, it was fear of this lingering Moslem enclave that induced Pope Sixtus to accept the Spanish Inquisi­tion's new and unique status. Its personnel, although clerics every one, would be answerable not to Rome but to royal, secular authority. Thus, the first inquisitors were two Dominican friars, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martin; but it was the Crown of Castile that confirmed their appointment, as it would those of all other inquisitors.

The rationale for the new enterprise was the need to root out heretics who "daily return to the superstitious and perfidious sect of the Jews. . ... Not only have they persisted in their blind and obstinate heresy, but their children and descendants do likewise." To achieve this goal of doctrinal cleansing, the Inquisition in the years after 1478 gradually devel­oped a set of procedures. It allowed a brief state of "grace" for backsliding Christians‑-that is, former Jews--to turn themselves in. By the same token, all others who possessed knowledge of secret judaizers were obliged to transmit their information forthwith, on pain of excommunication.

Once the identity of the accused individuals was established, they would be seized, thrust into inquisitional dungeons, interrogated (occasionally under torture), and sentenced to a variety punishments, ranging from terms of penitential service to imprisonment or to “relaxation,” that is, death. Thus, even in its earliest phase, between 1479 and 1481, in a ferocious reign of terror, nearly four hundred individuals were burned at the stake for heresy in the city of Seville alone. Throughout Castilian Andalusia, some two thousand persons were burned alive, seventeen thousand others were “reconciled,” that is, spared the death penalty but subjected to such punishments as imprisonment, confiscation of property, and debarment from all employment, public and private, Their wives and children faced destitution.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.