The Inquisition II

The Inquisition expanded its horrible reach

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Although the Inquisition technically targeted heretics, not Jews, inquisitors came to believe that Jews were also a problem, in that they were preventing the smooth assimilation of the conversos.  In 1492, subsequent to the period Sachar discusses below, Ferdinand and Isabella were to expel the Jews from Spain because they were a corrupting influence on New Christians. The Jews left, but the Inquisition stayed and spread. In fact the Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536, and by point of law extended to all of Spain and Portugal’s colonies in the New World.

The following article outlines the expansion of the Inquisition in Spain and the reactions of the converso community there. It is reprinted with permission from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Inquisition Creeps Outwards from Andalusia

Once it had proved its efficacy in Andalusia, the Inquisition was extended step-by-step into the towns of central Castile, including Toledo and Ciudad Real. No one was safe from the frenzy of denunciations. Protected by anonymity, informers often implicated alleged marranos (the Spanish world for secret judaizers; literally, pigs) to satisfy private grievances. An army of inquisitional spies remained on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Those conversos who actually observed Judaism in private had not yet become adept at maintaining secrecy. A single careless remark could endanger an entire extended family. In Aragon, too, during these same years, King Fernando gradually was introducing his own Inquisition, adopting precisely the methods developed in Castile.

The Price Was High, the Spoils Great

From a purely administrative viewpoint, the Inquisition was a formida­ble achievement. It represented the first all‑Spanish institution on the peninsula at a time when state authority itself still was officially divided between Castile and Aragon. The Suprema, or inquisitional Supreme Council, became one of only five royal councils attached to the combined thrones, and its operation permitted the Catholic Monarchs additional leverage in their drive toward centralization and absolutism. But at what a price!

For long intervals, the economies of such major commercial centers as Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Valencia were gravely disrupted. The number of executed victims mounted so rapidly that in several of the larger cities allocation had to be made for a quemadero, or special burning site. No one was immune to the horror. By 1490, the competitive delir­ium of arrests and trials approached the threshold of the previous century's indiscriminate mass violence. In the eighteen years of Torque­mada's ministry alone, over two thousand conversos were burned, nearly three thousand condemned and burned in "effigy" (normally a posthu­mous sentence), and thirty‑seven thousand "reconciled" to the church by dint of various terms of imprisonment and penance. The thousands of orphans left behind cannot be estimated.

Neither can the vast sums confiscated from the victims' estates. Indeed a defendant's funds and businesses were sequestered from the moment he was imprisoned, well before actually facing trial, and these "preliminary” incarcerations often stretched on for years. Confiscated, too, was the ­property of individuals who had died years earlier but had been convicted posthumously. Their descendants instantly were stripped of their legacies, creditors denied access to debt payments, savings expropriated, families left impoverished. All funds escheated to the Crown.

Financial greed thus soon became a major factor in the inquisitional crusade. The Catholic Monarchs had negotiated a threefold division of spoils among the royal ­treasury, the Holy Office, and the inquisitional clerics engaged in each trial. These last therefore possessed a vested interest in broadening the scale of arrests, convictions, and confiscations.

Class Partly Determined Converso Reactions

As for the New Christians, their own reactions to the terror varied. The more affluent and educated among them generally had main­tained nominal links with the Jewish religion even before baptism. They had not found it difficult to apostatize for reasons of financial expediency, and if they were seized afterward by the Inquisition, many were quite prepared to degrade themselves, even to invent details that incriminated others, to save their lives and fortunes. There were instances of husbands, wives, and parents testifying against one another, although usually under torture. Other conversos simply fled the country with their families.

It was the converso lower‑middle classes that sustained the warmest communal links with their identified Jewish kinsmen. Many were mar­ranos or near‑marranos. Confronted now by the Inquisition, not a few of these secret judaizers were consumed by paroxysms of belated martyr­dom. "I rejoice," declared one converso prisoner in Torrelaguna to his fellow defendants, "for as soon as the measure of our torments and oppression is full, the Messiah, whom we all await, will speedily appear. Happy the person who will see him!"

There were instances of converso resistance as well. In 1480, with the establishment of the first inquisitional tribunal in Seville, a handful of New Christians met secretly at the home of a wealthy merchant, Diego de Susan. Among the group were the governor of Triana, the royal financial agent of Castile, even several church dignitaries. Together they made plans for an armed attack on the "interlopers."

At the last moment, however, the plot was shattered by Don Diego's daughter. A famed beauty, "La Susana" had a Christian lover, and inadvertently divulged the plot to him. He promptly informed the authorities. Don Diego and his accomplices then were seized, tried, convicted, and executed. As an "accessory,” La Susana herself was condemned to life in convent.

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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.