The Supreme Congregation in Rome watched over the provincial tribunals, enforced the observance of what was for the times an essentially moderate code of law, and maintained uniformity of practice. While moral justice was impossible, given the presupposition of the Church that it had the right, even the duty, to prosecute those who differed in their religious beliefs, legal justice in terms of the jurisprudence of early modern Europe was indeed dispensed by the Roman Inquisition.

In trials conducted under its jurisdiction loose allegations were not permitted and accusers made their depositions under oath. To forestall charges stemming from personal animosities, since the names of prosecution witnesses were concealed, defendants were asked in advance to provide the names of individuals whom they considered their enemies. The records of the trial proceedings were provided to prisoners and to their lawyers in writing (with the names of the deponents deleted) and an appropriate interval, varying from several days to a few weeks, allowed for the preparation of counter arguments and the summoning of friendly witnesses. Judicial torture, which was carefully circumscribed, might be applied only after the defense had made its case and where the indicia, the evidence, was compelling. No properly conducted inquisitorial trial commenced with the rigoroso examine. The local bishop or his vicar, duly constituted members of a provincial inquisitorial court, had to concur in the decision and be present during the questioning.

Particularly in witchcraft proceedings, these and many other safeguards were in effect. Physicians were consulted to establish the corpus delicti, specifically to determine whether an illness or death might have had a natural cause before jumping to the assumption that a maleficium had been perpetrated. The search for the Devil’s mark was unknown in the inquisitorial process, and the failure on the part of the accused to evince emotion or shed tears during the interrogation was considered of scant significance. Alleged participants at Sabbats were not allowed to implicate their accomplices, and the testimony of witnesses who suffered from poor reputations could not lead to the torture of the defendant. In serious cases, sentences pronounced by provincial tribunals were scrutinized by the Congregation of the Inquisition in Rome and implausible confessions which contradicted the defendant’s testimony during the trial were deemed invalid. No witch was ever sent to the stake as a first offender if she showed the signs of repentance. Even in the extreme case of witches convicted of having caused a fatal injury, it was only Gregory XV, in 1623, in opposition to the prevailing tradition, who attempted to have the death sentence invoked. Relatively few encounters with the Inquisition ended at the stake. This was a fate reserved for the relapsed, the impenitent, and those convicted of attempting to overturn a few central doctrines of the Church. But even in these cases lesser forms of punishment often prevailed.

I suggest further that many aspects of modern criminal law were already in place in rudimentary form or were being introduced in the tribunals of the Roman Inquisition in the sixteenth century. The arraigned had the benefit of a defense attorney, including “public defenders” appointed by the court for the indigent, at a time when this figure did not exist in English law and was being relegated to a secondary role in civil French and imperial codes; confessions obtained extrajudicially were invalid; appeals could be and regularly were made to a higher court, namely the Supreme Congregation in Rome itself; first offenders were dealt with infinitely more leniently than recidivists. Imprisonment as a punishment, rather than merely for the purpose of custody during the trial, was introduced by the Inquisition, a consequence of the canonical prohibition against shedding blood, long before it was adopted by civil authorities at the close of the sixteenth century. Before that time, when pronouncing final judgment, secular courts could only choose from among several extreme alternatives. A sentence to life imprisonment (carcere perpetuo) by the Holy Office meant, as it does today, parole after a few years, generally three, subject to good behavior; but commutations after even briefer periods are frequently encountered. And house arrest, joined to work release programs and community service, was a common form of penal practice pursued by the Inquisition in its day. Although abuses occurred at the level of the provincial courts, where the local officials were often overworked, undertrained, and even, occasionally, poorly motivated and unsuited for the task at hand, Rome intervened time and again to enforce acceptable procedure and punish negligent and ignorant judges. The flagrant abuses which beset even the supreme tribunal when Cardinal Carafa, the future Paul IV, was its dominant member, and during his reign as pope, 1555-1559, present a notable aberration in the history of the institution.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Like Valencian and Toledan records, the materials in Mexico’s national archives contain many more trials than ever got reported in the annual relaciones. Mexico also boasts an extremely thick series of denunciations, almost five times as numerous as its preserved trials. But the investigator, Solange Alberro, seems more interested in her mentor’s version of histoire serielle than in comparing Mexican with Iberian patterns; thus her recent statistical monograph does not provide information which can be directly contrasted with the  Henningsen-Contreras tables.

Nevertheless, it is clear that fewer than 15% of Mexico’s 2,400 preserved trials after 1570 concerned Judaizers or other heretics, while about half were for minor doctrinal errors, nearly 20% for sexual offences (bigamy or priestly solicitation) and roughly 10% were for illicit magic. Mexico seems very dissimilar from an otherwise contemporaneous and comparably-sized tribunal like Galicia: for one thing, Mexico was a multi-racial society where Africans and mulattos formed a sizable share of seventeenth-century defendants; for another, it was a poorly-indoctrinated colony where close to half of the seventeenth-century defendants were clerics accused of both sexual and doctrinal sins (clerics, by comparison, formed about 12% of Galician defendants)

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

Galicia was an inquisitorial backwater, “commonly held to be the most insignificant in all of Spain,” as an experienced Inquisitor explained why he felt “dishonored” to be transferred there in 1620. Its heretics were foreigners: about half of its 213 “Lutherans” were British and only two were Spaniards, while its Judaizers were Portugese and even its few moriscos came from abroad. Riddled with corruption and cronyism, with venality and family connections crucial to its appointments, cutting suspicious deals with the Portugese conversos who comprised its “big game,” the Holy Office of Santiago seems more despicable than horrifying to its critics; but perhaps it was merely participating in the general malaise of seventeenth-century Spanish insitituions, which extended to other types of law courts as well.

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

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)

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)

The same faith [of the High Middle Ages] was the common heritage of high and low alike, on the banks of the Danube, Rhine, or Rhone, or Thames…Christianity was included in the very definition of their citizenship…By heresy, they sinned against the citizenship in which all shared. The strength of this feeling goes a long way to explain that the first violence done against the heretics, the first lynchings, were the work not of the rulers, ecclesiastic or temporal, but of the common people – a spontaneous outburst against what outraged their deepest instincts. It was a symptom of the close interlocking of Church and State, whatever other factors were involved.

Maurice Bevenot, S.J. “The Inquisition and its Antecedents,” The Heythrop Journal (1966)

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)