Spanish inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition: The Truth behind the Dark Legend (Part I)

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The Spanish Inquisition was not only a controversial organization, but also little understood by the general public. It was an institution that is haunted by a dark legend and, as you know, legends often times have some truth and some falsehood to them. In this case the falsity begins with its origin, which is neither medieval nor Spanish, as is commonly believed.

The Origins of the First Inquisition

Death at the stake was used as a method of execution since the Roman Empire. With the progressive Christianization of Europe it was a forged mentality that heresy, a serious attack on faith, was equivalent to the crime of treason. In terms of heresy, it was considered treason against divine majesty. 

The first inquisition, called the Episcopal Inquisition, came about through the papal bull  Ad abolendam , from the late twelfth century, and was spread by Pope Lucius III as a tool to combat the Albigensian heresy present at the time in southern France. Fifty years later Pope Gregory IX created the Pontific Inquisition with the Bull Excommunicamus.

Thus the ideas for Inquisition were already established in several European Christian kingdoms during the Middle Ages. As for the Iberian Peninsula, the Inquisition was only present at the time in the Corona de Aragon/Crown of Aragon.

Shield of the Spanish Inquisition

Shield of the Spanish Inquisition. The sword symbolizes the treatment of heretics and the olive branch of reconciliation with the repentant. Surrounding the shield are the words "Exurge domine et judica causam taum. Psalm 73." A Latin phrase meaning: Arise, O God, to defend your cause, Psalm 73. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The “Soft” Repression in Spain

In Spain, the witch hunt could actually be called a small hunt, as the “witch mania” in Spain was less intense than in the rest of Europe, although it took place for a longer period. The Spanish Inquisition came about from the widespread witch hunts that developed in Europe in the late fifteenth century, following the Bull Summis desiderantis afectibus  by Innocent VIII (1484) and, especially, following the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum , by Kraemer and Sprenger (1486), which bluntly stated: “Haeresis est maxima opera maleficarum non credere” (the worst heresy is to not to believe in witches). A prominent case that came about from these publications was that of Logroño, and the famous witches of Zugarramurdi .

In other parts of Europe the story was different. In southwest Germany, for example, from 1560 to 1670 AD 3,229 ‘witches’ were executed according to data from  Delumeu; in Scotland, there were 4,400 killed from 1590-1680, and in Lorena, over 2,000 were executed from 1576 to 1606. But in Spain the punishment was often less severe, and abjuration of levi was more common, in which the accused was warned, reprimanded, fined, banished for a while (no more than 8 years), and often publicly flogged. 

In fact, during the Spanish Inquisition from its beginning in 1478 until its abolition in 1834 (almost 400 years of existence), a total of 130,000 people were judged, of which less than 2% (less than 2,600) were sentenced to death. For a long time the numbers of accused and those condemned to the stake were confused, and absolutely absurd and erroneous execution figures were presented, stating that there were more than 100,000 people executed.

The acquittal rate was large since the tendencies at the time were to believe that the alleged witches had drunk wine and were sick of torpor. Even when the accused had confessed to witchcraft and a pact with the devil, the Inquisition warned:

"to not proceed in these cases only if they are said to be witches and supposedly have committed the crimes, only to continue if the accused have been seen to commit the crimes, because often times what they say they have seen and done happens in their dreams, and to judge what they saw and did as true without having seen the accused in the act will result in inflaming the persecution of persons who are not guilty .”

The coven, painting by Francisco de Goya, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid

The coven, painting by Francisco de Goya, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, 1797-1798. ( Public Domain )

No clear data on the conviction of witchcraft has been kept for all of Spain, except for information in Catalonia and Valencia. In these two places, a clear structure divided into five different phases of witch hunting is observed:

  • The first, (1560-1600), very low figures recorded, with five-year averages showing less than 8 people.
  • The second is the height of the  witch mania  in the 1600s, with a total of 60 accused witches in Catalonia and 12 in Valencia.
  • The third stage covers the long period between 1610 and 1660, with an average rate of about 15 victims every five years in Catalonia and 12 every five years in Valencia. This highlights how the Court of Valencia was dedicated from 1610-20 with the problem of the Moors and the subsequent expulsion of Muslims after the Reconquista/Re-conquest.
  • The fourth stage covers the decade between 1660 and 1670, when there was a new intensification in witch accusations: no less than 53 in Catalonia in the five-year period from 1665-1670.
  • The last and final stage involves the return to the figure of less than 20 trials per five years.

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