What can be said about the relative severity or leniency of inquisitorial justice? What was the outcome in the thousands of trials recorded in the appendices to this essay? Despite popular notion’s to the contrary, only a very small percentage of cases concluded with capital punishment. Canon law prescribed that only the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church, those who had suffered previous convictions for formal heresy, or those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes were liable to the death penalty.

The available figures on the numbers of those handed over by the Inquisition to the secular arm suggest that the executed were relatively few. Only four of the first thousand defendants who appeared before the tribunal of Aquileia-Concordia (1551-1647) were put to death. A tentative calculation for Venice has counted 14 executions between 1553 and 1588, plus 4 deaths occurring in prison and 4 extraditions to deaths in Rome between 1555 and 1593. Only 12 executions for heresy have been counted for Malon during the second half of the 16th century (but on the basis of incomplete documentation), and only one, in 1567, for the religious heresy in Modena; and of the more than two hundred sentences (several involving more than one defendant) contained in the Trinity College manuscripts mentioned above, for parts of the years 1580-1582, only four called for condemnations to the stake.

In his studies of the Friuli witchcraft trials, Carlo Ginzburg encountered neither the use of torture in the proceedings nor a single execution; in fact, only rarely was a case brought to a conclusion. The names of 97 victims of the Holy Office in the city of Rome for the period 1542-1761 have been extracted from the records of the archconfraternity, whose function it was to accompany the condemned to their deaths. As for Spanish inquisitorial courts, they executed approximately 820 people between roughly 1540 and 1700, out of a total of more than 44,000 cases, for a rate of 1.9 percent.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

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The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, where as the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. The nature of what was considered “heresy” in each system reflects these original concerns. In northern and central Italy, “Lutheranism “overwhelmingly dominated the first generation of inquisitorial activity, lasting until the 1580s. The venetian records offer a truly remarkable example: over its first 35 years (1547-1582) this holy office tried more than 700 “Lutherans” among its first 1,200 cases- plus 36 Anabaptists, 68 cases of “heresy in general,” 20 of eating meat during Lent, and almost 90 concerned with possession or reading of prohibited books. Approximately 80 percent of these early cases, therefore, concern protestant or crypto-protestant behavior. In the Venetian Terrafirma, Aquileia-Concordia showed a similar concentration on such offenses during its first 38 years (1557-1595); of its initial 380 cases, 200 or four suspected product to Paris sees and 74 for consuming meat during Lent (A possible indication of northern influences at work). In this rural area of low literacy there were only 12 cases of prohibited books. Again, over 75 percent of these cases may have involved Protestant sympathies. […]

In the Spanish portions of southern Italy our statistics suggest a different meaning in the holy office’s concern with heretics. Although a sizable share of the earliest preserved cases from Naples maybe classified as heresy trials, if you deal with protestants; in fact, through 1620 accused Mohammedans outnumbered reputed protestants by more than five to one. The diligent Spanish inquisitors uncovered large numbers of Protestants, but here too these were numerically swamped by the followers of Islam. Before 1560, the Sicilian Holy office tried more than 50 Protestants (more than any other tribunal in the Spanish system) and only eleven Moslems; but between 1560 and 1615, they judged nearly four Moslems for every protestant (471 and 138 respectively).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Despite the common underpinning of both Spanish and Italian tribunals in common law, there were serious doctrinal and judicial discrepancies between them, in addition to the well-known organizational differences.

In Spanish practice, sequestration of property occurred at the moment of arrest, followed by confiscation in the event of conviction; in Italy property of defendants usually survived even the admission of guilt in the case of penitent heretics, with the exception of funds exacted to sustain them in prison during the trial. In Spanish law, consultors attached to the courts saw trial proceedings in their entirety, including the names of the prosecution witnesses, before delivering their opinions; these names were withheld in the Italian tribunals. Under the Spanish, the confession of a minor was null and void without the presence of a special defense official, the curatore, but this figure seems to have been absent from Italian practice. In Italian usage a defense attorney was mandatory, if requested, even to an offender who had admitted his crime, but was withheld in such a case in Spanish courts. The Inquisition in the Roman system regularly prosecuted polygamy, viewing this as a heresy against the sacrament of matrimony. Spanish inquisitors, on the other hand, questioned their jurisdiction over bigamists, tending to conceive the offense as carnally motivated, rather than heretical. They felt, consequently, that it fell to the authority of the secular courts.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

In 1610, however, during the famous trial against the witches of Zugarramurdi, the Inquisition Council deviated from its normal practice by confirming the death sentences of six witches found guilty of the crime of witchcraft. It seems that the inquisitors of Logrono, which in the meantime had become the seat of the Inquisition for Navarra and the Basque-speaking provinces, had let themselves be influenced by the French judges who were involved in a large-scale witch-hunt on the other side of the Pyrenees. The Spanish inquisitors had even received letters from the French judge, Pierre de Lancre, who did not for a moment doubt the reality of witchcraft (Lancre 1613, 143f; compare Henningsen 1980, 250f).

Not long afterwards, however, the Council realised that the burnings of 1610 had been a serious mistake, and returned to its old policy mentioned above. After the sad affair of Logrono, therefore, no witch was burned by the Spanish Inquisition, in Spain, or in the Spanish dependencies in Italy and the New World. This did not mean, however, that a stop had been put to witchcraft and sorcery trials; on the contrary, their numbers had increased although the death penalty had been abandoned. Thus, during the ninety years from 1610 to 1700, I estimate that the Spanish Inquisition held more than five thousand witch trials.

Gustav Henningsen, “The Witches’ Flying and the Spanish Inquisitors, or How to Explain (Away) the Impossible [1],” (2009)

Witchcraft has always been controversial to the western mind because it involves human individuals engaged in impossible activities, such as flying, shape-shifting, and making oneself invisible. The mediaeval Church condemned belief in witchcraft, considering it to be pagan superstition. “Who is there,” asks the Canon Episcopi, “that is not led out of himself in dreams and nocturnal visions, and sees much when sleeping, which he has never seen when awake?” The famous code continues with the question: “Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit, happen in the body” (quoted in Kors and Peters 1972, 29-31).

For reasons that are still not very clear, the Church changed its mind and came to accept witchcraft as a diabolic reality. The change occurred in the decades around 1400 and paved the way for the prosecution in the courts of people regarded as witches. This was the beginning of the European witch persecution, which, in some regions, was to last until the end of the eighteenth century. There were, however, sectors of the intellectual elite that remained sceptical towards the existence of witchcraft, and one of these sectors was the Inquisition. […]

In 1526, the Council of the Spanish Inquisition issued a set of instructions for cases of alleged witchcraft. It contained so many reservations, however, that during the remainder of the sixteenth century nobody was executed for the crime of witchcraft, except in a few cases where the situation had gone out of the Council’s control.

Gustav Henningsen, “The Witches’ Flying and the Spanish Inquisitors, or How to Explain (Away) the Impossible [1],” (2009)

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)

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)

From its foundation until 1530, the Valencian Holy Office tried about 2,350 people; over 90% of them were Judaizers, and over 750 of them were put to death. From 1530 to 1609, this tribunal put at least 4,250 defendants on trial: over two-thirds of them were Moriscos and few of them were executed in person (two dozen Moriscos, two Judaizers, four “Lutherans” and a half-dozen sodomites).

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