In 1976, a Spanish historian reminded his readers that the Inquisition had been the very first branch of Spanish history to be “colonized” by foreigners, as far back as the sixteenth century. This tradition continued when, one year later, a Danish ethnographer-turned-historian inaugurated the current revolution in Spanish Inquisition historiography with the publication of an article on this institution’s “data bank” between 1550 and 1700. Done in collaboration with a young Spanish historian, Jaime Contreras, Gustav Henningsen’s work offered the first results of an ambitious project begun in 1972 to tabulate and analyze the entire caseloads of all twenty-one branches of the Spanish Inquisition during its peak activities. After five years, they had collected data on almost fifty thousand trials between 1540 and 1700, thanks to an auditing procedure of the Holy Office’s governing board, the Suprema, which demanded (and got) annual reports on cases judged in each tribunal. These relaciones de causas, preserved among the Inquisition’s papers in Madrid’s Archivo Historico Nacional, provided information which has produced the most important breakthrough in this field since the work of Henry Charles Lea reached its final form three-quarters of a century ago.

Global statistics, even incomplete (two tribunals were omitted in the 1977 article) demonstrated some significant and surprising conclusions about the Inquisition’s operations. In the first place, emphasized Henningsen, it was not particularly bloodthirsty – at least not between 1540 and 1700. Among these fifty thousand causas, covering virtually every Spanish auto-da-fe at which the most important prisoners were sentenced, he and Contreras counted only 775 people actually put to death in person (1.6%), and only 700 more (1.4%) sentenced to death in effigy, either because they had fled or else had died unrepentant in prison. An average of five executions per year over a century and a half, from a vast system with more than twenty branches covering most of early modern Europe’s largest empire, amounts to remarkably few victims, even with prison deaths included.

Secondly, Henningsen and Contreras employed a rudimentary classification of nine principal categories of accusation (Judaizers, Moriscos, “Lutherans,” proposiciones against the faith, solicitation of penitents by priests, bigamy, superstition, opposition to the Inquisition, and “miscellaneous”) in order to demonstrate that only a minority of Holy Office business was devoted to pursuit of the major heresies – Judaism, Islam, Protestantism – which supposedly constituted its raison d’etre. The single largest category, comprising close to 30% of the overall total, consisted of “heretical propositions” falling well short of formal heresy. Most defendants therefore were not conversos, moriscos, or foreigners who comprised the bulk of defendants charged with formal heresy, but rather ordinary Spaniards, “old Christians,” charged with an interesting array of lesser offenses. This typology of accusations reinforces and helps explain the comparative mildness of Inqusitorial sentences between 1540 and 1700; even so, most defendants charged with major heresy were not executed either.

E. William Monter, “The New Social History and the Spanish Inquisition” (1984)


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