The stake, incarceration, and the triremes are those dramatic forms of penal procedure which are generally associated with inquisitorial practice. But a survey of the thousands of surviving sentences suggests that in actual fact milder forms of punishment prevailed. Most frequently encountered are public humiliation in the form of abjurations read on the cathedral steps on Sundays and feast days before the throngs of churchgoers, and salutary penances, fines or service for the benefit of charitable establishments, and a seemingly endless cycle of prayers and devotions to be performed over many months or years. […]

Despite popular notions to the contrary only a small percentage of cases concluded with capital punishment. The penalty of death by burning at the stake was reserved for three principal categories of offenders: the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church; the relapsed, those who had suffered a previous sentence for formal heresy; and individuals convicted of attempting to overturn such central doctrines of the Church as the Virgin Birth and the full divinity of Christ… if this is still not a pleasant picture, it is also not the unfettered violence which we may have been led to assume. To the very end every attempt was made to persuade impenitent heretics to reflect, to admit to the errors of their acts and teachings and seek reconciliation with the Church. From Giordano Bruno to the most modest prisoner in a provincial cell, it was the policy of the holy office to assail the condemned with the expectations of “learned, religious and pious” men hoping to extract a last-minute conversion.

In conclusion, although capricious arbitrary decisions, misuse of authority, and wanton abuse of human rights occurred, they were not an integral part of inquisitorial procedure, nor tolerated by the Holy Office. […]

It is impossible to condone coercion, the stake, and the other horrors perpetrated in the name of religion during the Reformation era. They were employed not only by the Inquisition but by virtually all other judicial bodies in Europe. In the 16th century they were an unquestioned part of legal proceedings. But I believe that future research will show that they were used less frequently, with greater moderation, and with a higher regard for human rights and life in the tribunals of the holy office than elsewhere. Skepticism and incredulity in regards to witchcraft invaded Roman legal circles between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries at a time when the land north of the Pyrenees and the Alps remained in the grip of witch-hunting mania. It was a modest step toward sanity, and a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark tunnel.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)


Could not inquisitors have attempted to suppress or distort information so that their activity would remain hidden from contemporaries and posterity alike? On the contrary, it was strict Holy Office practice to preserve detailed records of all its proceedings from the first summons to the final sentencing. The insistence on the meticulous recording of every word ordered during the trial was intended to discourage the inclination to ask leading questions which would suggest to the accused how they should reply. A permanent member of every inquisitorial court was the notary, who took down in writing every question and every answer, including the exclamations of pain emitted by the victims of torture. Inquisitors did not feel that they had anything to hide. By bringing renegade Christians to punishment-but above all to reconciliation with the Church, they were redeeming offenses committed against God and saving souls for eternal life. […]

This is not to say that inquisitorial worked in public; far from it. Each official took a solemn vow of secrecy, conducted interrogations in strict privacy, and jealously guarded the records of trial proceedings. There were several reasons for this. Witnesses for the prosecution remained anonymous, since they had to be protected from possible retaliation by the family and friends of the accused, not an unknown occurrence. Moreover, once a defendant to name his accomplices, the holy office might have to move swiftly to bring them into custody. Its effectiveness would have been seriously impaired if word of their incrimination leaked out to them before they could be apprehended. And, finally, a reason which may seem unexpected, the reputation of the accused had to be protected.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Magic, as we have seen, was by far the single largest heretical category handled by the inquisitions of Italy after the first waves of Protestantism had abated. But it was certainly not the only type of offense. Other significant categories showed considerable variation from place to place. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, for example, where the prosecution of Judaizers continued at a high rate down to 1700, the Italian tribunals were much less preoccupied with this offense. […]

In the Spanish system, the single largest category of offenses, accounting for about 28 percent of its total activity, was the loosely defined cluster of doctrinal errors which had been labeled as proposiciones hereticas (including heretical blasphemy and many other crimes, such as the belief that sexual intercourse between married individuals was not sinful).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

My eyes immediately fell on the word tobacco, a subject not obviously connected with the previous long discussion on the duties of an inquisitor. Our author was attempting to answer what to us may seem to be a preposterous question, but which, as I later discovered, was of some urgency in the seventeenth century, namely whether it was sinful for priests to consume tobacco in a church or its immediate confines in whatever form: “. . . that is either solid, or chewed in small pieces, or taken as a powder through the mouth or nose, or inhaled as smoke by means of tubelets…” This was the first of many questions raised by Neri dealing with the permissibility of the use of tobacco, questions prompted principally by Urban VIII’s prohibition, “Cum Ecclesiae,” dated 30 January 1642, directed against the wholesale consumption of tobacco in churches under the jurisdiction of the archbishopric of Seville. This was an abuse which had been apparently committed even during the performance of divine services by parishioners of both sexes blowing out acrid fumes to every corner of the holy edifices, while priests themselves performed their liturgical duties before the altar in vestments befouled by tobacco juice and spittle. […]

It was the inordinate, immoderate consumption of tobacco before the Mass, especially when indulged in by a priest who was inexperienced in its use, that Neri found reprehensible and incompatible with the reverence due to the holy sacrament. And he paints an unedifying picture of a priest who has been indulging to excess, jittery, sneezing, expectorating, and blowing his nose, tears streaming from his eyes, staggering in a semi-stupor to the altar.

How can we place Neri’s chapter twenty-six, his disquisition on tobacco, in some sort of historical context? Clearly, it should be seen as part of the program of the Counter-Reformation church to introduce a heightened decorum into religious services. The fact appears to be that the consumption of tobacco by clergy and laity alike during the celebration of the Mass had become widespread on both sides of the Atlantic from the late sixteenth century on. A series of provincial synods in Mexico and Peru beginning in the mid-1570s forbade the use of tobacco by priests about to celebrate Mass or by the faithful who were intent on receiving the holy sacrament. But these prohibitions seem to have served little…

But the nuisance had reached the seat of Catholicism itself. Eight years after Urban VIII’s action against Seville, his successor, Innocent X, had to issue a similar sweeping prohibition for St. Peter’s, to preserve unsullied from the expectorating of the faithful the beautiful new marble floors with which the church had been adorned. While a series of papal and episcopal pronouncements for the rest of the century attempted to suppress the clerical consumption of tobacco during or immediately preceding divine services, theologians debated, as we have seen, what one authority described as “one of the most celebrated questions of our day,” whether the use of tobacco before divine services constituted abrogation of ecclesiastical fasting and voided participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

John Tedeschi, “Literary Piracy in Seventeenth-Century Florence: Giovanni Battista Neri’s “De iudice S. inquisitionis opusculum”. Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1987), pp. 107-118

The subjects of this essay are the judicial and penal systems of the Roman Inquisition, the institution which was established on ancient foundations in mid-sixteenth century Italy as a response to the Protestant challenge in that country. It is not to be confused with the medieval Inquisition which came into being early in the thirteenth century (and of which it was a continuation), or with the Spanish tribunal founded in 1478, which had a separate history. […]

With the Bull Licet ab Initio, July 1542, the pope was not creating a brand new institution ex nihilo, for inquisitors had, of course, operated in the Middle Ages. Like other sixteenth-century monarchs, he reshaped a previously existing governmental function as part of a program to centralize authority. The defense of the face was placed in the hands of a commission of cardinals invested with sweeping authority in the pursuit of heresy – the future Congregation of the Inquisition – whose assignment included the appointment of provincial inquisitors (always members of the Dominican and Franciscan orders), and the coordination and to supervision of their efforts. Previously this had been a responsibility of the generals and provincials of the two orders, who, however, continued to serve as channels through which recommendations to fill empty positions reached the Congregation, sometimes through appeals to the cardinal protector of the orders. The authority vested in inquisitors was to be understood as emanating directly from the pope. […]

The uprooting of heresy, previously vested in both bishops and inquisitors, now became principally the burden of the inquisitorial courts. Problems which had been caused by overlapping spheres of activity were greatly reduced, if not totally eliminated, with the bishop retaining responsibility to proceed against heretics in localities without inquisitorial court. The inquisitorial tribunals gained precedence over all other tribunals, lay and ecclesiastical alike.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)


It has been so often stated that Maya science was lost largely because of the extermination or driving out of the native priests after the Spanish conquest that it is of special interest to note in the documents of the 1562 proceedings that a large number of these priests were still living and secretly practicing their profession. Only once are local priests named as taking part in human sacrifices at the pueblo of Sotuta, but we find three assisting priests from Yaxcaba and Tixcacaltuya also taking part. At Kanchunup six priests are named, at Mopila five, Yaxaca four, Tibolon four, Usil two, and at Sahcaba only one. All but two at Mopila had Christian names and had evidently been baptized; and one of the Usil priests, Juan Pech, had learned his profession while acting as schoolmaster, an office which he still held.

Pressure by the missionaries no doubt diminished the number of neophytes as time went on; but it now seems probable that the disappearance of Maya religious and scientific lore was very gradual and Maya astronomy in course of time gave way to European astrology, of which we find much in later Books of Chilam Balam. From the 1562 inquiry we learn that the local schoolmasters were frequently present at human sacrifices and reports made by the encomenderos to the king in 1579 still accuse these men of being great idolaters and even keeping idols in the schoolhouse. There can be little doubt that this class continued to carry on the old traditions for a long time and were the men who compiled the so-called Books of Chilam Balam and kept them in circulation.

Religious syncretism was obviously developing in Yucatin as early as 1562 when sacrificial victims were also crucified in the European manner.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico,” The Americas, vol. 50.3 (1994)

In the Oaxaca area problems of idolatry and sacrifice continued to occupy the friars as the 1560s began. When the Dominicans punished Indians severely word reached Madrid. Philip II in October 1560 ordered the Audiencia to intervene in the proceedings. What we have known of the famous Teticpac autos de fe relied upon the chronicler Francisco de Burgoa who wrote in the seventeenth century. Two official letters in February 1560 from Archbishop Monttifar and his vicar general have sketchy details, but the archbishop’s bland description was designed to protect his Dominican compatriots from censure for their excesses.

Recent archival investigations have uncovered the Audiencia’s probe and will be summarized here. Indians from both Soli and Teticpac had complained to the Audiencia. Indians from Soli had been severely whipped and shorn of their hair for having offended the Dominicans. It seems that Indian alguaciles (sheriffs) had not furnished the proper food and lodgings to the friars and their retinue of retainers when they came to Solhi, district of Teticpac, as well as in Villa de las Zapotecas. The Indian officers were publicly whipped, shorn, and had their authority temporarily withdrawn by Fray Martin, lately vicar in Ocotlin. […] These scandalous occurrences, along with acelebrated series of Franciscan prosecutions of the Maya in Yucatin, began to condition attitudes at the Council of the Indies toward mendicant authority over Indian transgressions as well as the viability of episcopal Inquisitions in sixteenth-century Mexico.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico,” The Americas, vol. 50.3 (1994)

The execution of Don Carlos aroused a storm of protest among the officialdom in Spain. Zumfirraga was reprimanded for his harsh action. There can be no doubt that the Don Carlos case gave real impetus to the movement for exemption of the Indian from the jurisdiction of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. After the Zumirraga period – he was removed as apostolic inquisitor in 1543 but continued on as bishop and ecclesiastical judge ordinary until 1548 – inquisitors and bishops proceeded mildly against Indian relapses into paganism. Most of the important prosecutions of Indians took place in Oaxaca and Yucatan from the 1540s through the 1560s.

Even though the new Tribunal of the Holy Office created in 1571 was prohibited from prosecuting Indians, the Inquisition continued to investigate paganism and to compile dossiers on Indian heresy. Occasionally it initiated trials, only to suspend them or remand Indian culprits over to the provisor’s office. The Holy Office demanded its prerogatives in prosecuting all manner of mestizos as the “baroque social structure” developed along with a baroque religion. These trials are of supreme importance to the ethnohistorian who is interested in fusion of cultures from the late sixteenth century onward.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico,” The Americas, vol. 50.3 (1994)

Inquisition procesos reveal fascinating data on the use of idolatry, sorcery, and sacrifice within a political context of native resistance to Spanish power. In general, the Indians attempted to manipulate inquisitional procedures by denouncing Spanish-appointed caciques of idolatry in order to deprive them of office. There are also denunciations for idolatry and human sacrifice by Indians who wanted to attack their own political enemies hoping to replace them in the new political hierarchy. The procesos also illuminate subversive activities of Indian sorcerers, curers, witches, and seers who tried to perpetuate the old beliefs. Of particular concern to the Mexican Inquisition were groups of native priests and sorcerers who openly defied the “spiritual conquest” by establishing schools or apprenticeships among the young. The teachers made a frontal attack on Catholicism and Spanish Catholic culture. They ridiculed the new religion and urged a return to native religious practices. These men, branded as “dogmatizers” by the inquisitors, were considered especially dangerous by the missionary clergy.

Thus the native priesthood preached a counter-culture and a counter-religion and took the lead in performing sorceries and sacrifices. They supported the ancient practices of concubinage and bigamy as a symbol of resistance to the new religion.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico,” The Americas, vol. 50.3 (1994)

The Holy Office of the Inquisition in colonial Mexico had as its purpose the defense of Spanish religion and Spanish-Catholic culture against individuals who held heretical views and people who showed lack of respect for religious principles. Inquisition trials of Indians suggest that a prime concern of the Mexican Church in the sixteenth century was recurrent idolatry and religious syncretism. During the remainder of the colonial period and until 1818, the Holy Office of the Inquisition continued to investigate Indian transgressions against orthodoxy as well as provide the modern researcher with unique documentation for the study of mixture of religious beliefs. The “procesos de indios” and other subsidiary documentation from Inquisition archives present crucial data for the ethnologist and ethnohistorian, preserving a view of native religion at the time of Spanish contact, eyewitness accounts of post-conquest idolatry and sacrifice, burial rites, native dances and ceremonies as well as data on genealogy, social organization, political intrigues, and cultural dislocation as the Iberian and Mesoamerican civilizations collided. As “culture shock” continued to reverberate across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Inquisition manuscripts reveal the extent of Indian resistance or accommodation to Spanish Catholic culture […]

The question of the jurisdiction of the Holy Office of the Inquisition over the native populations in New Spain and the rest of the empire has been one of controversy and confusion since the earliest days of the conquest. The perplexing problem of enforcing orthodoxy among the recently converted Indians was linked with the debate over whether or not the Indian was a rational human being who had the capacity to comprehend the Roman Catholic faith. The rationality controversy, and the position of the Indian vis-a-vis the Holy Office of the Inquisition, was not resolved articulately, and, after the first decades of the spiritual conquest, the question took on added importance as the Mexican clergy discovered recurrent idolatry and religious syncretism among their flocks.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico,” The Americas, vol. 50.3 (1994)