Spain was unique among European nations. It had been invaded by the Muslim Moors in 711, and most of Iberia (the peninsula comprising Spain and Portugal) was under their control by 750. Christians and Jews then lived in Islamic Iberia as the second-class citizens known as dhimmis, a situation that became far worse in 1172 when fundamentalist Muslims known as Almohads largely took control and gave the dhimmis a choice between conversion and death, causing many of them to emigrate. By this time, however, the Christian effort to reclaim their lands, the reconquista, had been progressing, and it was mostly complete by the late medieval period. This didn’t mean Spain was united, however. Muslims still controlled Granada in the 15th century, and the Christians themselves were divided politically.

This began to change with the marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in October 1469. Being part of a marriage that initiated the unification of their two regions, the monarchs were no doubt intensely focused on eliminating division. Thus did they not only plan to complete the reconquista by retaking Granada, but they also resolved to eliminate internal religious division as well, believing it an impediment to political unity. This is where the conversos – Jews who had converted to Christianity – enter the picture. Suspicious that they were “Judaizing” (practicing Judaism secretly), the monarchs instituted the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. And the rest is history – albeit often the twisted variety.

In other words, unlike earlier Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t a response to unjust adjudication of heresy accusations by secular authorities, but was animated by religious suspicion. Kamen claims that one reason for this was the conversos’ failure to assimilate, a phenomenon which he says Spain’s Muslim community exhibited as well. I would add that if you had been occupied wholly or in part by Muslims for 781 years, it’s entirely possible you might be just a tad paranoid about alien religious influence on your soil. And these feelings no doubt only intensified, as the Spanish government expelled the nation’s remaining Jews (not the conversos) in 1492 and its last Muslims in 1609. Again, however, while this might have been motivated by the same spirit that created the Spanish Inquisition, it was not the work of the tribunal.

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

As Henry Kamen said when appearing in the MSI [The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition BBC documentary], “We find that comparing the Inquisition, merely in Spain with other tribunals, that the Inquisition used torture less than other tribunals. And if you compare the Inquisition with tribunals in other countries, we find that the Inquisition has a [very clean] record with respect to torture.”

The MSI elaborated:

“The Inquisition used none of these [torture] methods [prevalent among secular authorities]. They had a rulebook … which specified what could and could not be done; those breaking the rules were sacked. So the Inquisition did not, as alleged, roast their victims’ feet, or brick them up [encase them in a wall] to languish for all eternity, or smash their joints with hammers, or flail them on wheels. They never used the iron maiden…. The inquisitors didn’t ravish their female victims…. In fact, the inquisitorial torture chamber of popular myth never existed, even though this image [of a torture chamber presented in the documentary] was reprinted hundreds of times. And it was not only the use of torture that was falsified; stories were also fabricated about the gruesome conditions in which prisoners were kept.”

Kamen expanded on this last point, saying:

“Ironically, the Inquisition had probably the best jails in Spain…. Let me take a quotation from the inquisitors in Barcelona in the middle of the 16th century, when they were asked to report on the state of their prisons and they said, “Our prisons are full.” But then they complained to their bosses in Madrid, “We don’t know where to send the leftover prisoners we have; we cannot send them to the city jails because the city jails are overcrowded, and there they are dying at the rate of 20 a week.””

In fact, so superior were Inquisition jails that there were “instances of prisoners in secular criminal courts blaspheming in order to get into the Inquisition prison to escape the maltreatment they received in the secular prison,” said another MSI-featured expert, Northern Illinois University history professor Stephen Haliczer.

Inquisition jurisprudence was superior as well. Just consider how the Roman Inquisition, established in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V, started to bring modernity to the Middle Ages. As scholar John Tedeschi points out in The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy, the Roman Inquisition gave the accused a right to counsel and would even provide him an attorney, and a notarized copy of the charges would be available so that a defense could be formulated in advance. Secular courts at the time offered none of these rights and protections. In fact, so ahead of its time was the Roman Inquisition that, Tedeschi writes, “It may not be an exaggeration to claim … that in several respects the Holy Office was a pioneer in judicial reform.”

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

But what of torture? It’s true that inquisitors would occasionally resort to it to extract information. But before providing specifics, perspective is again necessary. As the BBC (hardly a font of Christian piety or conservative ideological purity) stated in its 1994 documentary The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition (MSI), “During the same [Inquisition] time period in the rest of Europe, hideous physical cruelty was commonplace. In England you could be executed for damaging shrubs in public gardens. If you returned to Germany from banishment, you could have your eyes gouged out. In France, you could be disemboweled for sheep stealing.” In fact, even Enlightenment giant Thomas Jefferson, much later in history, prescribed draconian measures. As he wrote in A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments, “Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.”

Despite this, it was perhaps in the Inquisitions that torture was used least. As Henry Kamen said when appearing in the MSI, “We find that comparing the Inquisition, merely in Spain with other tribunals, that the Inquisition used torture less than other tribunals. And if you compare the Inquisition with tribunals in other countries, we find that the Inquisition has a [very clean] record with respect to torture.”

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

The startling fact – the Big Truth hidden by the Big Lie – is that Inquisitions were initially instituted as works of mercy designed to stop unjust punishments and executions. As Madden explains, while secular powers viewed heretics as “traitors to God and the king” who “deserved death,” to the church they were simply “lost sheep who had strayed from the flock.” As such, the pope and bishops had an obligation to be good shepherds and provide them with the opportunity to avoid severe punishment and continued community ostracism. It should be emphasized again here that heresy was a capital offense only under the state, not the church. The church’s goal was to seek the truth behind accusations. This is why the institutions developed for that purpose wore a label with the root “inquire,” which means “to ask”; and why, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, inquisitor is a Latin word meaning ‘”searcher, examiner,’ in law, ‘an investigator, collector of evidence.'”

This isn’t what you generally learn in schools, hear from the media, or see portrayed on television, but the proof is in the pudding. The aforementioned Dublin Review made this case already 163 years ago, and Henry Kamen of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona, Spain, did so even more thoroughly in his groundbreaking 1965 book The Spanish Inquisition. And with the investigation of Spanish Inquisition files in the 1990s and the opening of Vatican records in 1998, eyes have been opened further. Note here that, unlike lords who might sentence an accused heretic to death and then eat dinner, inquisitors kept meticulous files; in fact, every single case handled by the Spanish Inquisition in its 350 year history has its own file on record. And what do those open eyes see? An 800-page study of the Vatican files compiled in 1998 by 60 historians and other experts from around the world concluded that when compared to secular courts of its day, the Inquisition was positively benign. Contrary to myth, most accused heretics were not executed, but, rather, were acquitted or had their sentences suspended. And most of those found guilty were allowed to do penance and integrate themselves back into society. As Italian history professor and the editor of the study, Agostino Borromeo, explained, writes the Catholic News Agency:

“For a long time, judgments were confused with death sentences, and it was said that 100,000 were executed [during the Spanish Inquisition] – a figure completely unreal. Although some were sentenced to prison or to the galleys, most were given spiritual sentences: pilgrimages, penances, prayers, etc.” Asked about the punishment used by Inquisitions in other countries, Borromeo said that “between 1551 and 1647, it [sic] Italian court of Aquileia condemned only 0.5% of accused to death. On the other hand, the Portuguese Inquisition between 1450 and 1629 condemned to death 5.7% of its 13,255 cases.”

Borromeo added that the total number of cases in the entire history of the Inquisition which resulted in death sentences is around 2%. The notorious Spanish Inquisition, by the way, comes in at just about the average: 1.8 percent.


Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

The first myth that should be addressed is the notion that Inquisitions were a purely Catholic phenomenon. In point of fact, there were Protestant Inquisitions after the Reformation, and both Luther and Calvin maintained that the state had a right to protect society by ridding it of false religion. Nor were such efforts a solely Christian, medieval, or European phenomenon…

The first clue as to the truth here may be found in a discrepancy between claims against the Inquisitions and the timing of the latter’s inception. After all, we’re told that the Catholic Church was bent on persecuting heretics, yet it took her until 1184 – more than 1,000 years after her birth – to institute the first Inquisition (which was in southern France). And it wasn’t as if heretics were previously in short supply. In the fifth century, for instance, Arian Christian Vandals began conquering Roman and Catholic North Africa, persecuting Catholics in the process and sometimes giving them the choice of conversion or death (church father Augustine of Hippo died during the Vandal siege of his city in 430). And even when Roman Emperor Justinian reconquered North Africa in 534, the church saw no need for an Inquisition to root out closet Arians. So what happened 600 years later? Did heretics become such a problem that the church felt compelled to act?

In point of fact, heretics were already taking it on the chin – from the state. Heresy was generally a capital offense under secular law…In other words, heresy was somewhat analogous to treason. And who judged traitors? The government did. And this is precisely what happened to those accused of heresy in medieval times: They would be brought before the local lord for judgment. You can imagine the problems this presented. Not only might nobles be reluctant to devote the time necessary to assess a case fairly, but they had little if any theological training and were often arbitrary, capricious, and heavy-handed; they were hardly suited to judge whether a person really was a heretic or some hapless soul accused by enemies seeking revenge. The result was that many innocent people were tortured and killed.

So the church didn’t have to worry about heretics, as the secular authorities were already suppressing them with vigor. But the church was worried about heretics – about their being treated unfairly.

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

The Inquisition, used by atheists to revile Christians, was not a Catholic killing machine, but a fairly successful attempt to save lives from secular “justice.”…

Like “McCarthyism,” “inquisition” has become a term that epitomizes intolerance, tyranny, and the squelching of free expression. Moreover, stories of Inquisition barbarity date back much further than the Crusade myth, whose seeds weren’t sown till the 19th century. For instance, a man writing under the pseudonym Reginalds Gonzalvus Montanus described the Spanish Inquisition thus in his 1567 document A Discovery and Plain Declaration of Sundry and Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain: “A court without allegiance to any earthly authority, a bench of monks without appeal. There is nothing else in the world to go beyond them in their most devilish examples of tyranny. Indeed, they do so far exceed all barbarousness, a man cannot more aptly liken them than to that they most closely resemble and from whence they proceed: their sire, Satan himself.” Now, this certainly is a thorough condemnation, but is it perhaps a bit too thorough? Does it seem a bit too infused with a fervor that could lend itself to fiction making? And given that subsequent Inquisition histories were strongly influenced by Montanus’ claims, that its imagery has colored all Inquisitions – and that the narrative now aligns perfectly with our militant-secular spirit of the age – we perhaps should wonder if it is more agreed-upon myth than matter of fact.

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

Given the true nature of the Inquisitions, what explains the Montanus myths? Well, note here that when the Spanish Inquisition was first instituted, the rest of Europe congratulated Spain for finally becoming Christian; as the MSI [The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition BBC documentary] put it, “A new age of Christian unity was said to be dawning.” But this lasted for only about 30 years, until that great fissure in Christianity: the Reformation.

Obviously, emotions were running high on both sides after the Reformation in 1517, and the fur was flying. This not only took the form of armed conflict, such as the Battle of Muhlberg in 1547, but also a war of words. And with the Guttenberg printing press having been invented in 1448, it could be waged like never before. Knowing this, Montanus – widely believed to be Spanish Protestant Antonio del Coito – and others used the technology to wage what was perhaps the first truly modern propaganda campaign, spreading a big lie through the first big media.

Yet there were geo-political motivations as well. Not only had the Battle of Mühlberg pitted Spanish Imperial forces against northern European ones, but English-Spanish conflict in the 1580s was running high, causing King Philip II of Spain to plan an invasion of England and leading to the defeat of his armada in 1588. All these conflicts and events – religious and national – occurring at roughly the same time, amounted to a perfect storm of anti-Spanish sentiment in northern European countries. The result was, among other things, the embrace of the Montanus-disgorged “Black Legend,” as the myth of the Spanish Inquisition came to be known. And via guilt by association, it came to tarnish other Inquisitions as well.

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)

 As Johns Hopkins history professor Richard L. Kagan complained in a New York Times review of Kamen’s book. Kamen said little about how inquisitors “were not faceless bureaucrats but law graduates with varying interests and career aims” and about the “ploys, like bribes and pleas of insanity” used by defendants. All right, fair enough. But what are we to say about these failings? How is it much different from our legal system today?

And that really is the point. If all critics can respond with is that the Inquisitions were guilty of faults that ever plague man, I can rest my case. Of course, there is still the matter of torture, whose even occasional use we find abhorrent. Yet not only were the inquisitors quite civilized for their time in that area, whatever they did, they didn’t employ euphemisms such as “coercive interrogation.” It also bears mention that the very cultural relativists who would whitewash human-sacrificing Aztecs as noble savages demonstrate no such charity in their very absolutist attitude toward that age’s Europeans, whom they convict under our “values,” forgetting, to again quote Thomas Madden, that the “Middle Ages were, well, medieval.” But even this misses the mark, as it implies a perhaps unjustified sense of superiority. Note that medieval Christians would no doubt be aghast at our age’s rampant abortion, sexual promiscuity, denial of sin, lack of piety, and communist killing fields, not to mention our hate-speech laws – enforced by “inquisitions” called Human Rights Tribunals – used to punish today’s “heretics.” And, if they could consider our trespasses, perhaps the best we might hope for is that a few of them would shake their heads and say that modernity is, well, modernistic.

Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)