Tuesday, 04 June 2019 13:28

The Spanish Inquisition

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The Spanish Inquisition

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.


Editor’s Note: Francis P. DeStefano is one of our subscribers — and we hope he continues to send us essays. We do encourage our subscribers to submit essays for publication, because we know we have an exceptionally well-educated and patriotic subscribership.


The Spanish Inquisition has become a code word for human cruelty and injustice. During his term even President Obama equated the Inquisition with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS Moslem fanatics in devastated Iraq.

Some years ago I pored through Benzion Netanyahu’s massive study of the Spanish Inquisition. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it is because he was the father of Bibi Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Although Benzion Netanyahu took a leading role in the founding of the State of Israel, he will perhaps be best remembered as a great scholar. His field of study was the Spanish Inquisition and his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, revolutionized the study of the subject.

Few people understand that the Inquisition in Spain was not directed against Jews in Spain but against Christians. The Inquisition had no authority to persecute or even investigate the Jewish population. It was specifically chartered to deal with popular charges leveled against Christians of Jewish ancestry and their families who had converted to Christianity. These converts were known as “conversos,” and there were elements in all levels of Spanish society who suspected that the conversos were not sincere Christians, even if their families had converted more than a century before.

Periodically charges were made that the conversos had only converted to gain political or financial advantage. Indeed, they were often suspected of adhering to their Jewish beliefs and practices in secret, and even working to undermine Christian society. Some regarded them as a kind of “fifth column” in the struggle against the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.

It is true that many of the conversos had prospered during the century before the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Some had risen to high places in the administrations of the various Kings of Castile. Aristocratic grandees who regarded themselves as pure-blooded Christians without any trace of Judaism in their veins were often jealous and contemptuous of these conversos in high places. Among the lower classes it didn’t help the reputation of the conversos that some of them had become tax collectors for the Royal government.

Netanyahu’s 1,000 plus pages demonstrated that the charges leveled against the conversos were false. He marshaled an enormous amount of evidence to show that the conversos were almost always sincere, even dedicated, converts to Christianity. Like many converts, before and after, these converts from Judaism to Christianity in medieval Spain could even be more zealous or committed than the cradle Catholics of the time.

Descendants of conversos often become theologians and clergymen. Some bishops and abbots of famed monasteries could trace their origins to converso forebears. Even Torquemada, the first head of the Inquisition in Castile and a favorite of Queen Isabella, had converso roots.

Nevertheless, in times of political turmoil, military defeat, or economic hardship the conversos were often blamed. Sometimes the charges erupted into mob violence and riots. It was to deal with these charges and riots in very difficult times, that Ferdinand and Isabella sought permission from the Pope to set up an Inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile.

The young Isabella had inherited the throne under the most dangerous of circumstances. Castilian grandees or warlords disputed her right and authority. The King of Portugal put up a rival claimant to the throne and launched an invasion of Castile. Once these threats were somewhat subdued, she had to turn her attention to the constant border menace of the Moslem Kingdom of Granada in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Islam was a real threat. In 1480 an Islamic naval expedition had landed on the Adriatic coast of Italy and destroyed the city of Otranto. The invaders tortured and killed 12,000 of the 22,000 inhabitants of the city. Every priest was murdered and the Archbishop of Otranto was sawed in two. Those who were not killed were forced to convert or taken into slavery. In Spain there was constant border fighting and raids with Moslem Granada.

It was a time of great peril from both within and without and fear led to the inevitable outcry of charges against the conversos. Isabella established an Inquisition in Spain to deal with the charges directed against the conversos and to unite her country in the war effort. One modern historian has called the Spanish Inquisition “a disciplinary body called into existence to meet a national emergency.”

The word “inquisition” has the same root as the word “inquiry.” The inquisitors were to look into the charges, call witnesses, and take testimony. In its origins the Inquisition resembles the way in which President Obama ordered his Justice department to examine the causes of local unrest and riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. An outside body is called in hopefully to fairly and impartially examine the charges and counter-charges in an emotionally charged situation.

The fact that the great, great majority of the conversos accused before the tribunal of the Inquisition were released is a testimony to Netanyahu’s thesis that they were innocent, sincere Christians, and that the charges leveled against them were baseless. Since the publication of Netanyahu’s book, historians have had to alter their perspective on the Inquisition, its methods, and its results.

In many ways the Inquisition represented an enormous improvement in methods of justice prevailing throughout the European and Moslem worlds at the time.  The proceedings of the Inquisition were carried out in public and not in secrecy. Its prisons were only temporary detention centers with conditions much better than in local jails. There were no pits with giant swinging razor-sharp pendulums. Torture was rarely used, in contrast to the methods almost universally used in other European and Moslem countries. Even when torture was applied, there was little danger to life and limb.

Studies of the Spanish Inquisition that followed upon the publication of Netanyahu’s masterpiece have shown that the “scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers . . . have little basis in reality,” and that the inquisitors “had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.” Indeed, as one historian noted: “The proportionally small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal.”

Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition has become synonymous with barbaric cruelty and injustice. In the wars of religion that followed upon the Protestant Reformation, a “Black Legend” arose primarily in Protestant England, which found itself involved in a life and death struggle with Catholic Spain. The Black Legend has gained mythical status and is still used as a weapon to batter Spain and the Catholic Church. It was one of the factors behind the hatred engendered in modern history by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In one of history’s interesting footnotes, the bitterness and hatred engendered by the Spanish Civil War did not prevent Spain under Generalissimo Franco from standing almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The Franco government maintained neutrality throughout the war, and insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied countries. The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship and sanctuary to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Benzion Netanyahu’s masterpiece is now recognized by scholars like Joseph Perez and Henry Kamen who have followed his lead. Nevertheless, their findings will probably never eradicate the myths still propagated today. Politicians and ideologues will still continue to grind their axes, as will popular TV shows like Monty Python. Who will ever forget the three red-robed cardinals breaking into someone’s living room shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”?     *

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