History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Spanish Inquisition

The story of Castile and Aragon as separate kingdoms is drawing to an end. The closing days in Castile were stormy. The weak but well disposed Henry IV gave opportunity for uprisings in general and attacks on Maranos in particular. Alfonso de Spina, a Franciscan monk, added his virulent and slanderous pen to the "good cause." So, although the king had a Jewish physician and tax farmer, the reactionaries bullied him into signing new anti-Jewish statutes. An uprising against him and the placing of his brother Alphonso on the throne in 1465, gave pretext for a "blood accusation" and massacre. Without such pretext a Jewish slaughter occurred near Valladolid in 1470. A Marano girl's splashing some water on an image of the Virgin was amply sufficient reason for yet another anti-Jewish outbreak in Cordova in 1472, which spread to many towns. Though all such attacks on Maranos and such edicts against Jews were distinctly against the interests of the State.

Union of Aragon and Castile.

Yet the Jews used their means and the Maranos their influence, which was still considerable, to bring about the marriage between the new Queen of Castile, Isabella, and the new King of Aragon, Ferdinand, against much State opposition. Their money suitably equipped the impoverished king to appear suitably before Isabella, and he was the guest in Toledo of Abraham Senior, who escorted him into the royal presence. For the Jews had every reason to expect well from the royal pair. Ferdinand's father, Juan II, had been their friend and a Jewish physician had restored his eyesight. So they "put their trust in princes," and looked for betterment of conditions.

In 1474 the two kingdoms, Aragon and Castile, were united—comprising nearly all Spain. It became now an absolute monarchy. "In union there is strength." Alas, here it was the union of avarice with fanaticism. How fatal this united kingdom was to be to the destiny of Spanish Israel! It introduced the Inquisition in Spain. This was the beginning of the end.

Origin of the Inquisition.

It is hard for a Jew to write temperately of that institution known as the Inquisition, yet we must endeavor to recount it in a historic spirit. How was it that men and women, much like ourselves, came to call good what we call evil, to give religious sanction to what we call crime, and in the name of God should have perpetrated deeds so ungodly? First, we must discipline our imagination to depict an era in which bigotry was almost a virtue, liberality almost a vice, and religious freedom treated as a menace to society.

What was then the logic of the Inquisition, at its best, when fostered by mistaken but sincere men—omitting its consideration as a policy for political and material ends, which it later became? It was based first on the theory of an infallible Church, which in the opinion of its priests, possessed the whole truth with regard to God, the soul and the future. From this it follows that all other religions were in error to the extent that they deviated from the theology of Christianity. False beliefs, it was supposed, doomed the individual to perdition. Hence the obligation felt to eradicate wrong doctrine. But this theory or duty at once made the priests the most dangerous of tyrants, and the people the most abject of slaves. We shall see later how this ecclesiastical power in the hands of unscrupulous men put in their hands the machinery for indulging their worst passions.

The Inquisition is earlier than its name. Already in the time of Constantine of the fourth century, the Church was given power to deal with paganism and to eradicate it. When we reach the twelfth century paganism was no longer extant in Christian lands. It had died cut or had been wipei out. But there were differences of opinion between Christian and Christian on theological niceties. Those who conformed to the prevailing phase of Christianity were called orthodox, the divergent minorities were called heretics. Creeds were drawn up by Church Councils, less to teach the faith to the people than to test their orthodoxy. Heretics, though believing in the fundamental doctrines of the Church, were given short shrift. The persecution and massacre of the Albigenses have already been related.

In Troyes, France, about the year 1280 seventy-three Jews were tried by an ecclesiastical court and burnt at the stake. In the twelfth century distinct investigators or inquisitors were appointed to scrutinize the fidelity of the people to the prevailing Church. New institutes and institutions were now coming into vogue that were slowly and surely giving the Church further reaching dominance over the masses. Auricular confession was introduced by the Pope, thereby granting to the priests the perilous opportunity of extorting the secrets of the individual and his family.

Special organizations of men known as Friars, more fanatic than the clergy, were now forming, whose function it was to travel through different lands to aid the bishops in ferreting out those who harbored heretic views. St. Dominic had founded the famous order of Dominican Friars, who made it their special duty to organize tribunals for heresy trials. In the year 1229, at the Council of Toulouse, this Dominican Inquisition was organized, taking from the feudal barons and even from the local priests the power of dealing with "infidelity" among the members of their flock. So that date might be taken as the year of the institution of the Inquisition proper. A complete detective system was planned by it. At times unscrupulous means were used to surround the defense with a criminal charge; and since the wealth of the accused went to the tribunal it was always in its interest to convict. The institution soon spread through France, touched Germany and entered Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition.

It was not till it reached Spain that it was invested with full power and went into active operation. In Spain it was reorganized as the "New Inquisition"; then its real terrors began. A few scattered Jews had suffered death at its hands in other lands, but it was in Spain that it began to write a further bloody chapter in Jewish annals.

The Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth century was a necessary sequel of the fanaticism of the fourteenth. It was against the Maranos, created by the forced baptisms of 1391, rather than against backsliding Christians that it was directed. For while a few had become wholly Christian, having lost the traditions of their Jewish ancestry, in very many families the Jewish religion was faithfully transmitted and kept alive by instruction from avowed Jews—in some cases intensified by the strained situation. The Maranos held high positions among the nobility, in the army and even in the Church, forming about a third of the community. Yet it was an open secret that they washed off the baptismal water from their children's heads; so they were regarded as the most stubborn heretics the Church ever encountered.

The only right way to solve the situation was to have permitted them to renounce the creed that had been forced upon them. This was denied; even their further emigration was now prevented. The Dominicans preferred a new form of compulsion—the Inquisition. King Henry IV had already been asked to grant the introduciton of this "Holy Offtce" into Spain. He had refused. But now that Ferdinand and Isabella were on the throne, the Dominican friar, De Ojeda, found a willing response to his scheme.

Ferdinand seized the idea with avidity, for this avaricious man saw in it the means of filling his empty coffers from the confiscated estates of condemned Maranos. So this Pharoah, who "knew not Joseph," in ingratitude and cruelty, now proposed to reward the people who had aided his royal suit with their wealth and influence, by despoiling and slaying them. He was in desperate financial straits and was imposing unwelcome taxes to maintain his State. Here was a convenient remedy presented by the friars.

To the credit of Isabella be it said it was purely in the interest of her faith that she approved the introduction of the Inquisition in her dominions. So although the complacent bribe-taking Pope Sixtus IV issued the necessary bull for its inauguration, it was Isabella who succeeded in delaying its introduction for two years, hoping at first that milder measures might be adopted for putting down heresy. She is an excellent instance of many a mediaeval lady whom the confessional had reduced to spiritual slavery. Already in her childhood, a bigoted and masterful priest had exacted from her the vow that when she should come into her kindom she would begin a war of extermination against heretics.

So, as the king's greed could no longer be restrained, in the year 1480, in spite of energetic opposition both of Christians and Maranos, and in spite of the expenditure of great wealth to counteract or further delay it, the dreadful machinery was set in motion. Three Inquisitors were appointed to judge and condemn heretics and to confiscate their property. With malignant craft they planned its modus operandi. Some of the following regulations were instituted at once; others mark later stages in the growth of its mechanism.

A special watch was placed over the Maranos to see whether they observed any rite of what the Church was pleased to style "the dead law of Moses." If they were seen to bless a child without making the sign of the cross, or to eat meat on a Church fast day, or to read a psalm without closing it with the Gloria (acknowledgment of the Trinity), or if they called their children by Jewish names—they were immediately brought before the dreadful tribunal. The individual under suspicion was pounced upon without preparation. He might be sitting quietly with his family when, after knocking on the door, bailiffs would stalk in and with the words, "in the name of the holy Inquisition," arrest him. Guilty or innocent, the victim was incarcerated in a dungeon at the pleasure of the tribunal. The prison walls were perforated with unseen holes through which his every action could be watched. Even then he was not informed of the exact charge against him or of the accusing witness. He was told to confess his own particular heresy; if not, whether guilty or innocent, he was put to the torture.

The imprisonment itself in underground chambers with insufficient food was itself a species of torture. But the actual tortures—performed in subterranean caverns, so that the victim's cries could not be heard—consisted of twisting the thumbs in screws, driving wedges against their bodies, or putting on their feet special shoes to inflict agony. Sometimes the unbearable suffering drove the victim insane; it always reduced him to a hysterical condition in which he was ready to confess whatever was desired. Only after the confession was the accused informed of the exact charge against him. If he had any defence he could take a lawyer of their choosing. When investigators were appointed they hardly dared report in favor of the prisoner for fear of being suspected themselves.

Where a period of grace was allowed for voluntary confession, complete pardon was bestowed only if the confession included the betrayal of other persons, so that the very confessions were cruelties. Friends were encouraged to betray friends, with the assurance that the name of the informer would never be divulged to the victim. Every individual was per se a possible informer against his neighbor. Here was offered awful temptation for private malice or revenge. Even children were encouraged to inform against their parents.

The First Auto-Da-Fe.

Such terribly complete procedure brought at once a rich haul—fifteen thousand unfortunates were crowded into the prisons. The first tribunal was set up in Seville. On February 6th, 1481, the first auto-da-fe took place; this phrase meaning "act of faith," was applied also to the elaborate procession to the execution and its accompanying ceremonial. Here at the quaemedero, place of burning, six Maranos were burned alive and their wealth, of course, confiscated. But the numbers rapidly grew. In the first year, though the Inquisition was confined to southern Spain, 2,300 were burnt in Seville and Cadiz. Ever so many Maranos saved themselves by flight.

Each auto-da-fe was a gruesome spectacle. A bell tolled in the early morning to summon the populace to the place of execution—or shall we say of sacrifice—and to see the great procession arrive. First came the Benedictine monks, bearing the flag of the Inquisition; next followed the penitents, their lives spared, but shorn of their property. After these followed the condemned, barefooted, clothed in the "san benito," a garment suggestively painted with red flames and fiery devils, with pasteboard hats similarly decorated. Each carried a green candle in the hand. Next the effigies of escaped victims, whose property was to be confiscated even though in the hands of heirs faithful to the church. At the rear of the procession were brought black coffins containing the bones of those adjudged heretics after their deaths, the property of whose heirs was likewise seized. Thus none escaped this relentless institution which followed up its victims with ignominy even beyond the grave.

An officer now struck each prisoner a blow on the breast indicating that they were given over to the "secular arm"—i.e., the State, This was done to keep up the fiction that the Church itself never shed blood. The prisoners were then fettered. If they confessed at this last moment they were strangled before burning; the "unrepentant" were burnt alive.

The debauched public came to enjoy the sight of their fellowmen done to death. Grotesquely treated as a holy pageant, the auto-da-fe usually took place on Sunday. It often lasted from early morn till late at night if the supply of victims was sufficiently plentiful. Sometimes there were so many that they could not supply separate stakes for each, but had to build a series of pens which could be ignited the more easily. So Titus in the year 69 had not sufficient crosses to crucify his Jewish prisoners.

The executions and confiscations that were really murders and robberies were not permitted to go on without protest. Even Pope Sixtus, who cared only for revenue, was induced to issue a reprimand to prevent a scandal. He refused Ferdinand the permission to set up the tribunal in other Spanish provinces. But the refusal was withdrawn on the plea of gold, and in 1482 the Inquisition was introduced in Aragon and in Sicily, which was allied with it. Its terrors also penetrated to the adjacent islands, Barcelona and Majorca. When the mercenary aim was so patent as even to awaken Christian indignation, Sixtus again mildly advised restriction to save appearances. But every favorable bull, for which he was richly paid, was always ultimately withdrawn on receiving a larger compensation from the Inquisition side.


In 1483 Thomas de Torquemada, a Dominican monk, was appointed Inquisitor General. Practically all Spain now came under his cruel control. During his fifteen years' regime the Inquisition reached its climax in the completeness of its incriminating devices. He quelled all opposition. The slaying of an Inquisitor in Saragossa (Aragon) gave revengeful opportunity for the slaughter of two hundred souls and the holding of two auto-da-fes monthly in that city for twenty years. In Toledo, Torquemada dared to bid the rabbis pronounce a cherem (excommunication) against the Jews who refused to inform the authorities of the secret lapse of Maranos, i.e., to hand over their own brethren in blood and faith to their enemies for destruction! In the year 1486 nearly twenty-five hundred were burnt in Toledo alone, and nigh a thousand subjected to humiliating penance.

The tribunal revealed varied types of character. Some saving themselves by confession were readmitted to the Church. Others voluntarily went to the stake, glad to become martyrs for their religion. The butcheries were kept going at a merry pace—in Catalonia, in spite of strong opposition; in Barcelona and Majorca two hundred were burned in 1487.

During Torquemada's fifteen years in office he condemned over 8,000 souls to be burnt alive. During the regime of his successor, the Dominican Deza, and Lucero, his assistant, two men of infamous repute, 1,600 victims were sacrificed at this blazing Tophet. During all this carnage the monarchs sat serene. For the imprisonments and burnings now conducted on a wholesale scale brought in splendid revenues.

No wonder that Ferdinand's successors continued it and the Philips of the sixteenth century, and that Charles V should have prevented Pope Leo X from issuing a bull restricting the powers of the "Holy Office." So this blighting institution was destined to continue till the early part of the nineteenth century. Its three century regime is dyed deep with the blood of thirty-two thousand souls.


The Inquisition:—Dr. Henry C. Lea writes, in his Inquisition in the Middle Ages:

"It is not too much to say that for the infinite wrongs, committed on the Jews during the Middle Ages, and for the prejudices that are even yet rife in many quarters, the Church is mainly, if not wholly, responsible. It is true that occasionally she lifted her voice in mild remonstrance when some massacre occurred more atrocious than usual, but these massacres were the direct outcome of the hatred and contempt which she so zealously inculcated, and she never took steps by punishment to prevent their repetition."

Read "The Inquisition in Judaism," a sermon addressed to Jewish martyrs on the occasion of an auto-da-fe, and a reply by Carlos Vero, translated by Moses Mocatta. London: Wertheimer, 1845.

One voice alone was raised in defense of the victims of the Inquisition, that of Hernando del Pulgar. His moderate rebuke brought on him a charge of heresy. Hence all further defenders were silenced.

Theme for Discussion:—Did the Inquisition aid or injure the cause of Christianity?