Human Lives Human Rights: The Spanish Inquisition was founded in the fifteenth century, at the request of the Spanish rulers Isabella and Ferdinand. Between 1478 and 1482, Pope Sixtus IV issued a series of bulls in favor of royal power, which gave the monarchs the authority to operate the Inquisition as a state institution, largely independent of Torquemada the pope. An important aspect of this authority was that the Spanish monarchs were given the right to choose the inquisitors.
After the Reconquista (the conquest of the Muslim regions in Spain), the newly emerging Spanish national state had no place for anyone other than the Christians. Even in the Spanish colonies, the Spanish Inquisition was shaped into an instrument of rule. The first targeted group were the forcibly converted Jews, and later also the forcibly converted Muslims, that were suspected to have secretly continued to practice their faith. From the sixteenth century onwards, Protestants (Spain had been at war with England and the Low Countries, two important Protestant countries) and anyone who did not conform to the Christian morality could also be prosecuted. The Spanish Inquisition was only definitively and permanently abolished in 1834.
In the past, the Spanish Inquisition has been the object of the so-called Black Legend. As a result, the number of victims has often been exaggerated. In recent decades, historians have come to a different, less dramatic evaluation of the number of victims: according to Bartolomé Bennassar, a renowned scholar on this topic, fewer than 45.000 cases were handled by the Spanish Inquisition between 1540 and 1700 (its peak period). In 826 cases the death penalty was pronounced.
The Roman Inquisition
During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s fight against Protestantism, in de sixteenth century, Pope Paul III established the Roman Inquisition. It was essentially limited to the Papal States. The inquisitors were now mostly cardinals. Besides the Protestants, the Roman Inquisition also prosecuted several well-known scientists, such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei. In Italy, the Roman Inquisition was abolished in 1859. Only one ministry of the Roman Curia, the Congregatio Sancti Officii, remained as the supervisory authority of the Roman Catholic faith and was only dissolved in 1965.
The Witch Hunts
Depiction of Witches in Medieval ManuscriptIn contrast, the mass witch hunts that had been happening since the fifteenth century in Europe, as well as in the ‘New World’, were never under the competence of the Church’s Inquisition. Nevertheless, the Church had paved the way both through their inquisition process as well as through the discipline of demonology. The idea that dissenters were in fact adherents of the devil had already been a part of the concept of the heretic. In the figure of the witch, however, association with the devil became the defining feature. Furthermore, one of the most influential handbooks for the witch hunts was written by the Dominican friar Henricus Institoris. It is true, that in the later phase of the Medieval Papal Inquisition, a few women had been put on trial for witchcraft, but the main focus here had always been on finding out theologically heretical views. And most often, these lawsuits ended with the imposition of penances, not the death penalty.
However, as the secular authorities took on more and more powers from the ecclesiastical authorities in the course of the sixteenth century in Europe, the charges of harmful magic were now being transferred to the secular courts. In cases of suspected witchcraft, after all, the issue was not only that the accused’s salvation (as well as that of society as a whole) was at stake, but also that concrete crimes had taken place, such as child murder or rendering livestock infertile. The less educated the judges were, the more terrible the legal excesses became. The witch trials were also carried out according to the inquisition procedure, but now the usual rules and restrictions were no longer observed. For instance, during the witch hunts torture was applied without restriction in order to be able to gain mass accusations of third parties. Both Protestants and Catholics supported the witch hunts: With the adoption of important principles of (Catholic) canon law, the Protestants had also appropriated the inquisitorial elements.
So, while the institutional aspect of the Inquisition was strongly dependent on the historical context, the procedural principles can be seen as the overarching elements in the term ‘inquisition’. Even if the process was perverted by the witch trials, especially in the early modern period, the two key principles established by the Church in the thirteenth century (researching material truth and being able to proceed ex officio) remain milestones on the way to modern procedural law.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II apologized for the abuses of the Inquisition. However, he did not apologize for the existence of the institution itself, only for the errors and misdeeds of individual members of the Church, including the inquisitors. All in all, it has become clear that the Inquisition has a complicated history and leaves a controversial legacy for the Catholic Church to confront going forward.