The series of massacres began at Toledo in the summer of 1467. The canons of the Cathedral had sold to certain Jews the privilege of taxing the bread of the nearby town of Maqueda. An influential Christian ordered the Jews beaten out of town – a move highly popular with the already overtaxed and harassed people. In retaliation the Conversos organized, and one of their leaders, Fernando de la Torre, a hot-headed man of wealth, was foolish enough to boast that he had 4,000 fighting men well armed, six times as many as the Old Christians had; and on July 21 he led his army against the Cathedral, while the Christians were assembled at Mass. The armed Conversos burst in, crying “Kill them! This is no church, but only a congregation of vile men.” The Christian men drew swords, and defended themselves in a gory fray before the high altar. Reinforcements appeared from the nearby towns, mode a counter-offensive in the luxurious section where the Conversos lived, hanged Fernando de la Torre, and then butchered New Christians indiscriminately…

The fact was, that during these bloody years, [Queen Isabel] came to the conclusion that no ordinary expedient could restore civil peace and tranquility in Spain. For the sake of the Conversos themselves, if for no other reason, it was necessary to substitute some form of workable judicial procedure for the crude administrations of mob “justice”. The existing civil courts could not accomplish this, precisely because so many of the judges and lawyers were Conversos. As for the Church courts, the same was true; many priests, and even bishops, were of Jewish descent, and the orthodoxy of some was so suspect that nothing was to be looked for in that direction. Isabel was led inevitably, not only by pressure of public opinion, but by logic itself, to reach for the only weapon within her grasp – an Inquisition like that of the Middle Ages, in which the judges would be Dominican monks, carefully chosen and beyond the reach of intimidation or bribery.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)


Fernando and Isabel, armed though they were with the tremendous authorities and responsibilities conferred by this Bull, did not hasten to brandish it over the heads of the Conversos, and to light the vast and lonely horizons of Castile with bonfires; as they would have done, had they been the bigots they have been accused of being. On the contrary, they decided to consider the matter further, and put the document away for nearly two years. They were influenced in this by the counsels of Cardinal Mendoza, who reminded them that if many of the Conversos were ignorant of the truths of the Catholic Faith, it might be because they had not been taught them by those whose business it was to do so. The Cardinal prepared a catechism for all the parishes of his own diocese.

The results, after several months, were discouraging…Toward the end of the second year of futile catechizing, all Christendom was thrown into a panic by the ruthless victories of the Grand Turk, Mohammed II, who, angered by his failure to storm Rhodes, sent his fleet westward, ravaged the coast of Apulia, and on August 11, 1480, took the city of Otrano in the Kingdom of Naples. Nearly half the civil population of 22,000 were butchered in cold blood, while the Archbishop and all the priests were slaughtered after the most brutal tortures.

The reaction in Spain when the news of these outrages arrived, sometime in September, probably had something to do with the decision of King Fernando and Queen Isabel to put into effect, without further delay, the powers granted to them by Sixtus. On the twenty-sixth, at Medina del Campo, they published a decree making the Inquisition effective, and appointing as members of the first tribunal in Castile, Cardinal Mendoza, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, and two other Dominicans, Fray Miguel Morillo and Fray Juan de San Martin.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

Under the Denunciatio, the accuser denounced another without offering to prove his case. This method, too, had been found unsatisfactory in general for heresy trials, and with the development of the monastic Inquisition, had gradually yielded to the Inquisitio, which experience had found most effective. The Inquisitor, unlike the judge under Roman Law, was seeking not to punish the offense, primarily, but to heal and reconcile the offender. As a priest, he was not interested in the prosecution of crime – that was the state’s business. What he desired was the spiritual health of the offender, and this involved his reconciliation with the Church of God, and soem sort of penance to test his sincerity and help him gain the strength to persevere in his reformation. For this reason the earlier Inquisition was not very hospitable to lawyers and advocates as counsel for the accused.

There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about this; it has been made the ground of a strong indictment of the Inquisition, as unwilling to give the accused the fair chance that he is allowed in modern criminal practice. But the Inquisitor did not have this juridical point of view. He was a specialist in the science of the things of God, the doctor of souls, as Bernard Gui said, whose aim was not to punish but to heal and save. If the heretic fell into the hands of the state, he was burned without getting a second chance. The Inquisition saved him from this fate, if he would adjure and be reconciled, and there is no doubt that large numbers of heretics escaped the faggots and the stake because patient Inquisitors induced them to abjure, or frightened them into it. For all this the best method seemed to be the Inquisitio.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

Another important safeguard was the custom of submitting the evidence, when it was all assembled, to a very large jury, not chosen at random as our juries are, but picked from among the most respected and learned men in the community – periti et boni viri. This was the practice from the time of Gregory IX on…The number was to be decided by the Inquisitor, but seems never to have been less than twenty; in one jury at Pamiers, in 1329, there were thirty-five, of whom nine were lawyers. These “experts” considered the evidence for several days, and then advised the Inquisitor what they thought the sentence should be. He was not bound to follow their recommendations, but in practice usually did so. The jury did not know the names of the accused. This probably led to some injustice, as Vacandard points out; on the other hand, it probably saved some unpopular prisoners from the effects of prejudice or personal animosity. At any rate, the consultation of good and expert men, with all its faults and merits, was the beginning of our modern jury system.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

Names of the witnesses against him were withheld from the prisoner; but this had been found necessary under the circumstances. The Cathari assassinated many persons who denounced them, in the time of Gregory IX; and the Inquisitors decided that they could not count on the cooperation of the public unless they protected the denouncer by rigid secrecy. To offset this disadvantage for the accused, they permitted him to make a list of his enemies, and the testimony of any among them was rejected. A false denunciation, furthermore, was punished with the utmost rigor. The examinations were conducted with the greatest secrecy, to protect the reputations of the accused persons, in case they might be innocent.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

There were two other types of heresy against which [Bernard Gui] warned his fellow inquisitors. One of these he called “the perfidy of the Jews”. Now, in fairness to the Holy Office, it must be noticed that never, in its entire history, did it proceed against the Jews, either on racial grounds as Jews, or on religious grounds as members of the synagogue. Far from attacking the Law of Moses, it defended that revelation against certain sects of heretics, as an essential part of Catholic truth. Over the Jew as Jew it claimed no jurisdiction. It was a Christian tribunal, which concerned itself with Jews only when they were Christians, or when they went out of their way to commit offenses against Christians, either by deriding Christian beliefs or ceremonies, or by persuading Christian to give up the Faith.

That the Jews, scattered throughout Christendom, carried on a continuous and effective propaganda which, while it persisted, was bound to make impossible the complete Christianizing of society, is freely admitted by Jewish scholars, as I have taken note elsewhere.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

Of torture Bernard [Gui] had very little to say. In only one of his 930 cases is it certain that he used it. He probably employed the method in vogue throughout Languedoc: starvation. A few days without food generally made a prisoner more willing to talk…Through all the centuries when the Catholic Church was creating a better civilization in Europe, torture had not been used in the secular courts. It had gone out of fashion during what are called the Dark Ages, and it had come back into fashion with the Renaissance, more specifically with the revival of Roman Law throughout the West during the twelfth century, at the very period when the Popes – particularly Innocent III, Honorius III and Gregory IX – were doing their best to put an end to the trial by ordeal. The courts of Frederic II used torture to extract confessions as a matter of course, when the judges had reason to believe the prisoner was concealing the truth…

Now, although Gregory IX had committed the Church to a cooperation with the state in the prosecution of heresy, and encouraged the secular magistrates to inflict the death penalty on the unrepentant, he apparently took it for granted, as most churchmen did for several years, that the Inquisitors were to act only as specialists in theology, and not in any sense as police officials. Canon law had previously condemned confessions extorted by pain, and it was generally felt that clergymen should have nothing to do with torture. As time went on and the secret enemy remained unvanquished, nay, boldly took the lives of Inquisitors here and there, those engaged in the perilous business felt more and more that they were locked in a desperate warfare with implacable and resourceful cohorts of the power of darkness; and as in all wars, they tended to become more ruthless as to the means. It was not until 1252, however, that Pope Innocent IV, in his bull Ad Extirpanda, opened the door for the introduction of torture in the Inquisitorial courts, by demanding that heretics be treated as ordinary criminals. To be sure, the Pope did not use the word “torture,” as several translations have made him appear to do so. What he actually said was, “Moreover, the podesta or ruler is required to compel all heretics whom he has arrested (short of injury to limb or danger of death) to confess their errors plainly, and to accuse other heretics whom they know, and their property, and followers and shelterers and defenders, as thieves and robbers of temporal goods are forced to accuse their accomplices and to tell what crimes they have committed; for these are truly robbers and homicides of souls, and thieves of the Sacraments of God, and of the Christian Faith”.

There is nothing here about the rack and the strappado, and strict confinement and deprivation of food were the only methods used in Languedoc more than half a century later. In other places the permission of Innocent was certainly understood as carte blanche for the Inquisitors to obtain information by the customary tortures, which, however, were applied by secular officials. This latter restriction made for delay and inefficiency, and presently the Inquisitors were complaining against the canon law which forbade clerics, under penalty of irregularity, even to be present in the torture chamber. In 1260 Alexander IV permitted them to grant one another dispensations from the irregularity so incurred. This permission, confirmed by Urban IV in 1262, was plainly a consent to evade the canon law, and therefore must be considered one of the abuses of the Inquisition. It was still understood, however, that torture was to be used only when the Inquisitor was convinced that the prisoner was concealing the truth, and when all other means of obtaining a confession had failed. The prisoner was then shown the instruments of torture and urged to confess. If he still refused, he was given a slight vexatio, which was gradually made more severe if necessary.

Obviously there were abuses of this dangerous privilege, and in 1311 Pope Clement V, who made many reforms in the Holy Office (insisting, for example, on cleared and more humane prisons instead of the dark holes in which prisoners were sometimes kept), decreed that no Inquisitor could ever use torture without first obtaining the permission of the bishop of the diocese. This was a tremendous limitation in favor of mercy.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

One thing is made clear by this controversy: the tremendous intellectual breadth of the Catholic Church. She did not approve of hunting dissenters, as the modern liberal imagines, merely for the pleasure of persecuting them. She distinguished between those who were not in good faith, and those who were; and although the latter, especially if eccentric in any way, were sometimes in danger from the overzealous or fanatical inspection, they usually had nothing to fear, and were allowed to write and to talk as they pleased – as indeed [Ramon] Lull was during a long life. The Inquisition did not suppress the intellectual energy of the Middle Ages; on the contrary, it stimulated it, while it kept it sane.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

In this form the entire initiative was taken by the Inquisitor, who was both prosecutor and judge. His first task was to examine the accused and the witnesses. For this purpose Eymeric developed a technique as elaborate and painstaking as anything in the history of jurisprudence. He provided a form for every conceivable emergency. He even suggested the questions that the Inquisitor should ask each witness concerning the accused…

If the witness replied that the remarks were made in jest or in anger, the Inquisitor must not be too gullible, but must investigate further to make sure, “for almost all modern heretics excuse themselves in this way”. Let him find the truth, so far as possible, and then proceed. If the accused really was angry or joking, he was not to be prosecuted for heresy…

It was the general policy of the Inquisition not to convict a man for a slip of the tongue, but to warn him gravely to avoid it in the future. Likewise heretical statements were not to be taken seriously if they came from a person who was drunk, talking in his sleep, senile with age, or too young to know the significance of his remarks.

To avoid any possibility or suspicion of fraud, all witnesses had to be examined in the presence of a notary, preferably some public official of importance, two religious or at least reputable persons, and the Judge.

The next step was the examination of the accused. He was put under oath and asked many set questions about himself, his parents, and so on. He was not to be arrested until he confessed, or until the Inquisitor had strong reasons, from the testimony of at least two witnesses…for believing him probably guilty. To commit him to prison, however, the Inquisitor must first obtain the consent of the Bishop.

It was the understanding of all the great jurisconsults of the Inquisition that the Inquisitor, in all his examinations, should deal with people “humanely, remembering that he himself is a man, who could commit similar offenses, if he were not borne up by the grace of the omnipotent God, and that he should deal with the culprit according to his quality and dignity” (Directorium Inquisitorum).

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)

There, for seventeen years, Friar Bernard [Gui] directed the hunt for heretics, and their reconciliation of punishment. During the whole period he tried 930 cases, an average of about 54 a year, or slightly more than one a week. This conveys an impression of ceaseless activity that is perhaps far from accurate. He presided at only 18 sermones generales during the whole period. This suggests that he dealt with his heretics in batches, about once a year on the average…

[Of the 930 sentences he passed,] [t]he 42 whom he found to be obstinate and incurable heretics, with no hope of reformation, he turned over to the secular officials for the usual penalty. These constitute about eight percent, by the highest possible reckoning, of the total number of the condemned…Of the forty-two burned at the stake, seventeen were condemned at one sermon generalis on April 5, 1310; this suggests that the Inquisition had discovered some unusually large and dangerous conspiracy, and had dealt rigorously with it. Bernard failed in eight of every hundred cases that he prosecuted – for the Inquisitor deemed it a failure when he could not win a man back to a sane Christian life, and had to turn him over to the State. The general average for the Medieval Inquisition may have been higher. It has been estimated that ten out of every hundred convictions ended at the stake.

William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)