The Spanish Inquisition: The Truth Behind the Black Legend (Part II)
One of the most controversial organizations in history, the Spanish Inquisition has been poorly understood by the general public. This period of religious persecution, which took place between 1478 and 1834, has historically been shrouded in myth and misconceptions. For despite popular belief, this organization was neither medieval nor exclusively Spanish in nature.
Embarking of the Moriscos at Valencia, by Pere Oromig. (Public domain)
The Treatment of the Moors During the Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition was a dark chapter in history that saw the persecution not only of Jewish converts, but also of the Moriscos, a term used for baptized Moors. These Moorish converts from Islam were concentrated mainly in the kingdoms of Granada, Valencia and Aragon, and were suspected of secretly maintaining their old faith, despite having accepted baptism.
However, the policy against the Moorish community was different than that enacted against the Jews. The Moors, who made up a large portion of the nobility in both Valencia and Aragon, posed a formidable challenge to the Spanish Inquisition as pursuing them would have meant going against the economic interests of the ruling classes. Meanwhile, in Granada, the Spanish Inquisition was wary of sparking a rebellion at a time when the Turks dominated the Mediterranean.
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Tensions reached a boiling point during the reign of Philip II in the mid-16th century, causing the previously peaceful Christianization of the Moors to turn violent with the brutal suppression of the Alpujarras rebellion. Executions and deportations of Moors skyrocketed, with Moors becoming the primary target of persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, as documented by renowned historian Henry Kamen.
“From the 1570s, in Aragon and Valencia the Moors formed the bulk of the persecutions of the Inquisition,” explained Kamen. “In the court of Granada itself, the Moors represented 82% of the accused between 1560 and 1571.”
The expulsion of the Moors by Gabriel Puig Roda. (Joanbanjo / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Expulsion of the Moors from Spain
On April 9, 1609, Philip III issued a decisive decree expelling all Moriscos that sent shockwaves throughout the kingdom. This bold decision was executed in stages between 1609 to 1613, starting with the Moors in the Kingdom of Valencia, before spreading to Andalusia, Extremadura, Castile, Aragon and Murcia. All in all, about 300,000 Moors were forced to leave their homes, with Valencia and Aragon losing a third and a sixth of their populations, respectively.
The reasons behind this historic decision were numerous and complex, but the root cause was clear. Despite over 50 years of forced conversions to Christianity, the Moorish community still refused to integrate with the rest of the population. The Alpujarras rebellion only fueled suspicions, and thanks to a recession caused by a drop in resources coming from the Americas, the Christian population grew resentful of the wealthy Moors.
Fictitious image of a supposed inquisitorial torture chamber during the Spanish Inquisition. The 18th century engravings of Bernard Picart were part of the black legend created around stories about the Spanish Inquisition. (Public domain)
The Spread of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition
In the late 16th century, Spanish political exiles such as Gonzalez Montano and the infamous Antonio Perez, former secretary of Philip II, fueled the flames of the Black Legend. The European media lapped up the sensational anti-Spanish propaganda. Spanish scholar Henry Kamen has attributed the spread of this slander to Spain’s bitter maritime rivalry with Britain and France, and the desire of Netherlands and northern Italy to end Spanish political dominance.
In the 18th century, the haunting engravings of French artist Bernard Picart depicted inquisitorial torture and caused outrage throughout Europe, though they only showed a fraction of the terror taking place on the Iberian Peninsula.
The torture methods used by the Spanish Inquisition were beyond brutal, designed to inflict intense physical pain on the accused in order to extract confessions. Although the confession spared the accused from capital punishment in the case of heresy, the Inquisition remains a dark chapter in Spanish history.
Torture and Punishment During the Spanish Inquisition
The Spanish Inquisition was notorious for its brutal methods of torture, which included the pulley, the cloth and the rack. The pulley was a torture method whereby accused victims were hung from the ceiling by their wrists and weighed down by weights on their ankles. This would cause intense pain, or even dislocation, as they were suddenly raised and dropped.
Also known as water torture, the cloth involved tying the victim to an inclined ladder with their head lower than their feet and forcing them to swallow water poured from a jug. This provided the impression of drowning. This could be repeated with up to eight buckets of water. Meanwhile, the rack was a brutal method of torture, whereby the victim’s wrists and ankles were bound and twisted tighter and tighter using a lever.
In actual fact, the Spanish Inquisition used torture less often than other contemporary European courts. Spanish scholars, such as Henry Charles Lea and Henry Kamen, have used clear statistical data to confirm that torture was only used in 1% or 2% of cases during the toughest times of the Spanish Inquisition up until 1530 and only in the busiest courts.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century perpetuated the Spanish "Black Legend," with Juan Antonio Llorente, a former secretary of the Holy Office in Madrid, becoming one of its most prominent disseminators. With his work, "Critical History of the Spanish Inquisition," Llorente shed light on some important elements, albeit alongside statistical inaccuracies.
The infamous Black Legend of the Inquisition has long been associated with instances of torture and abuse, as well as the court's enrichment through the confiscation of those accused. While it's true that assets were seized to cover the expenses of arrest and trial, scholars Ramón Carande and Fernand Braudel asserted that the Holy Office never operated as a business. They have acknowledged instances of abuse against Jewish converts between 1480 and 1725.
Portrait by Antonio Ponz of former secretary of Philip II, Antonio Perez, who helped spread the Black Legend about the Spanish Inquisition in England and France. (Public domain)
Fact and Fiction Within Spanish Inquisition Statistics
The Spanish Inquisition is shrouded in misconceptions about the number of fatalities it caused. However, it's important to note that execution for heresy was not the only form of punishment during the Inquisition. Imprisonment, fines and other penalties were also common, not to mention the long-lasting stigma faced by the families of the accused. This is why the concept of "purity of blood,” or not having Jewish or Moorish heritage, was so highly valued in Spain during the 17th century.
The first statistics in relation to the victims of the Spanish Inquisition came from Pulgar, Palencia and Bernáldez, who claimed that between 1481 and 1488 there were about 2,000 people executed in Andalusia - mostly Jews baptized who renounced their new faith. These figures have since been refuted. Later in the 19th century, J. A. Llorente's assertion that 9.2% of those accused of witchcraft were executed during the Spanish Inquisition was also proven false.
“The Inquisition Tribunal” of the Spanish Inquisition as depicted by Francisco de Goya. (Public domain)
In 1986, experts Contreras and Henningsen published the results of a study on 50,000 inquisitorial cases from 1540 to 1700 - a time of significant influence for the Spanish Inquisition. They concluded that only 1.9% of defendants were sentenced to death by the stake. Meanwhile, Escandell claimed that from 1478 to 1834 (the re-founding and eventual abolition of the Inquisition), only 1.2% of the accused were sentenced to death by the courts.
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While many historians agree that the Spanish Inquisition was one of the darkest periods in Spanish history, lasting from the late 15th century to the early 19th century, it's also important to note that the methods used were not uniquely cruel or intolerant for their era.
They were, in fact, comparable to those used by courts in other European countries such as Germany, Italy, Portugal, England or France. Neither was the Inquisition cannot be blamed for Spain's perceived "cultural backwardness" during the 16th to 17th centuries. Indeed, many scholars have actually called this period the Golden Age of Spanish culture.
Top image: Martyr of Fanaticism by José de Brito depicts a young woman being tortured during the Spanish Inquisition. Source: Public domain
This article was first published in Spanish at Ancient Origins en Español and has been translated with permission.
By Mariló TA
Bennassar, B. 1981. Inquisición española: poder político y control social. Barcelona: Editorial Crítica.
Cuervo, J. No date. “Santa Inquisición” in monografías. Available at: http://www.monografias.com/trabajos12/stainqui/stainqui.shtml
Escudero, J. A. No date “La Inquisición española” in valleNajerilla.com. Available at: http://www.vallenajerilla.com/berceo/florilegio/inquisicion/inquisicion.htm
Kamen, H. 1965. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.