Chapter Three


. . . if the prisoner should die or be injured or suffer heavy bleeding or have a limb mutilated during the torture, this will be their fault and responsibility and not ours, because they have refused to tell the truth.

Cordoba 1506

IN 1506 CORDOBA was in the clutches of Inquisitor Diego Rodríguez Lucero. Inquisitor Lucero was known as ‘el tenebrero’ – the bringer of darkness.1 His mode of procedure was summed up by one complaint made about him to the Suprema:

Lucero wanted to make love to the wife of Julian Trigueros, and he took her because they resisted; her husband, who was an Old Christian, went to demand justice from [King Ferdinand] and [Ferdinand] confirmed the justice of his cause and sent [Trigueros] to the archbishop of Seville [Diego Deza, the inquisitor-general], who sent him back to Lucero. [Trigueros] arrived at Cordoba one Wednesday to continue with his case and he was burnt on the Saturday of the following week. Lucero kept his wife as his mistress. [And in another case] as the daughter of Diego Celemín was exceptionally beautiful, her parents and her husband did not want to give her to him, and so Lucero had the three of them burnt and now has a child by her, and he has kept her for a long time in the alcazar as a mistress.2

The city’s noble families complained. They wrote to the court that Lucero and his minions had invented a terrific lie against many of the most distinguished Christians of the city and the surrounding area. Innocents had been accused of being heretics; prisoners had been forced to give evidence against them. It was not just the nobility who suffered; accusations were levelled at monks and nuns, and at ordinary folk. And what was more all this false and misleading evidence was secured through torture.3

In 1507 Cordoba’s authorities went further. They wrote to King Ferdinand, noting how the devil had a habit of putting rotten apples among the good. With the Inquisition, where the ‘work was most saintly . . . demons dressed in flesh have appeared’.4 The inquisitor, they said, secured as many witnesses as he felt like from those in his jail. He forced their acquiescence through torture and threats, and withheld rations from those who refused to cooperate. Of his 500 prisoners, claimed the authorities, 150 had resisted the threats: they had been burnt and paraded past Cordoba’s great mosque-turned-cathedral with gags in their mouths so that they could not tell the truth of what had happened before being burnt.

The Reverend Inquisitor Lucero was evidently a hawk rather than a dove. His motto was, ‘Give me a Jew and I’ll give you him burnt’.5 A former schoolteacher in the desert region of Almería, he had been installed as inquisitor in Granada in 1500, which he had described as ‘Judea la Pequenna’ – Little Jewry – declaring that the city gates should be shut and all its heretical inhabitants burnt. During his time there approximately eighty people died at the Inquisition’s hands in Granada.6 Lucero had been appointed to Cordoba in 1502 to ‘improve’ things, with the tribunal at a low ebb following the corruption of Inquisitor Pedro de Guiral, accused in 1499 of taking bribes from the families of defendants.7

The first serious historian of the Inquisition, Llorente, who had access to records that have since been lost, said that 2,592 people died in Andalusia during these years, with another 829 burnt in effigy and 32,952 reconciled.*1 It was not for nothing that Lucero was known as the bringer of darkness.

ONE OF THE MOST dubious trials led by Lucero in these years was that of the converso Juan de Córdoba Membreque. Membreque had been arrested in 1502 and accused by his slave Mina8 from the Gold Coast of leading a synagogue which met on Mondays and Thursdays, of keeping all the Jewish fasts and of wearing the appropriate clothing for each of the Jewish holy days. Membreque’s sermons to the assembled converso faithful were said to include promises that they would all be taken to a promised land where they would find great riches. On the way they would cross a river of milk and another of water, and when they bathed in this they would all return to the age of twenty-five. The prophet Elias would come to lead them forth, and when he came the land would shake and the sun and moon would die and the heavens would open, the sea would run red with blood, the trees would dry out and a great storm of stones would rain down on the earth. Dressed entirely in white the conversos would depart, and all Christians would convert to Judaism and join them.

What was curious about Membreque’s trial was that at a time when the merest hint of Jewishness in a Spaniard could lead to their being burnt to death, there were ninety-three witnesses to his heretical activities who all came forward to give exactly the same story about his ‘secret’ synagogue and sermons. Either Membreque was the least secretive person in the world, or he had had some kind of death wish – or there was more (or rather, less) to the evidence of his ninety-three accusers than met the inquisitor’s eye. Membreque even proved at his trial that he had been hundreds of miles from Cordoba at the time the ‘offences’ had been committed. But it didn’t matter; he was found guilty and ‘relaxed’ to the secular arm, burning at the stake in 1504.9

Travesties like this revealed just how open to abuse the Inquisition’s powers of arrest and interrogation really were. The murmuring in Cordoba swelled. The Bishop of Catania in Sicily sent an official to inquire into the complaints, and some of the witnesses confessed to giving false evidence. Lucero and his officials had asked them leading questions, they said, and when they refused to testify they had been tortured and subjected to terrifying threats. These prisoners, many of them just children, were then forced to learn the prayers of the Jews by heart. They were taught the prayers by Jewish converts to Christianity to ‘prove’ that they had been subverted by those they accused. The prisoners said that they had been so terrified by the threats of torture that they had done nothing else in jail except learn these prayers.10

Thus the jails that were supposed to safeguard the Catholic faith echoed to the sound of Hebrew. Cordoba’s winding streets, touched by the ghosts of their Islamic past, buzzed with the scandal. When Lucero and his officials realized that they had been reported to their superiors, they hurried through a new auto, burning most of those whom they had previously tortured into testifying to the heresies of others.11

The inquisitorial investigation into Lucero, when it finally commenced following the Cordoban authorities’ complaints, came too late. Although higher authorities were now plainly aware of the way in which torture had been used to secure false information, and of how this information had led to the incineration of numerous innocents, they did nothing to suppress its use by the Inquisition. Torture was, after all, an age-old weapon of the state, and not one it wished to relinquish.

THOUGH THE WELL- DOCUMENTED excesses of inquisitors such as Lucero gave the central inquisitorial council, the Suprema, strong evidence of the miscarriages of justice that could result from torture, in the first 150 years of the Inquisition there was never any question of it being deemed incompatible with civilized society, or even plain counter-productive. In medieval Castile and Portugal torture was in daily use by criminal courts so its employment by the Spanish and then Portuguese Inquisitions was not remarkable. Torture was integral to Iberian judicial systems, and even the horror of an auto has to be placed in the context of the punishments of the time; those sentenced to death by the English judicial system in the 16th century could be disembowelled and castrated whilst still alive before being beheaded.12

All this has made some authors argue that the evils of torture under the Inquisition have been exaggerated. As well as the fact that torture was simply a feature of the time, it has been said that the Inquisition was ‘slow to use torture’, that the civil courts were much worse than inquisitorial ones in its application, and even that torture was rarely used after around 1500.13 It is indeed true that inquisitors could show leniency towards those they were torturing; during the inquisitorial trials of Valencian moriscos in 1597 several were spared being ‘put to the question’ because of their age or infirmity.14 And of course one must be aware of the curious phenomenon of condemning this aspect of the past through the present’s more civilized values. Yet the fact is that inquisitorial torture – as the evidence from Valencia also shows – carried on far beyond 1500, and it was more severe than in the civil courts.

Thus in 1596 in Valencia half of all the moriscos who confessed were tortured or threatened with torture.15 In Toledo in 1590 one morisco, the cobbler Alonso de Salas, died in the torture chamber.16 Almost 85 per cent of moriscos examined by the Inquisition in Valencia were tortured between 1580 and 1610, and almost 79 per cent of those in Zaragoza.17 The threat of torture often led to confessions; as in Ciudad Real in 1483,*2 it also often led to suicides,18 and one morisco declared that ‘with torture the inquisitors had made him say what they wanted . . . and that he had more fear before them than in front of all the devils of hell and that God in Heaven did not have as much power as they did’.19

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was not, moreover, just the moriscos who suffered. Over in Portugal, in Évora, a quarter of all those accused of sodomy were tortured, including a twelve-year-old boy who was raped by his brother-in-law and then tried for his ‘crime’ and tortured into a confession.20 Torture was simply an aspect of the judicial process and not one which many people found abhorrent. On the contrary, it was seen as a useful way of getting to the ‘truth’.

Nevertheless, contemporaries often did think that the Inquisition’s use of torture was worse than that of the secular courts, as the Lucero case and the protests from Cordoba show. The chronicler Hernando de Pulgar, secretary to the Reyes Católicos, noted thattorture by the Inquisition was thought particularly cruel.21 Counsellor to the Inquisition, the theologian and bishop of Zamora Diego de Simancas (died 1564), argued that inquisitors should be more inclined to use torture than other judges as the crime of heresy was hidden and difficult to prove.22 In 1578 Francisco Peña*3 noted that torture was frequently used straight away by inquisitors without awaiting other proofs, even though it had traditionally been used differently;23 others noted that whereas in the old medieval Inquisition two pieces of evidence were needed before proceeding to torture, in Spain ‘torture was entirely arbitrary, the judges being able to order it whenever they want to’.24

Moreover, it was not just the philosophy and use of torture that was different in the Inquisition. Whereas a civil judge was punished if he tortured someone until they lost a limb or died, this was not the case with inquisitors;25 this may explain why civil judges sometimes chose not to apply the harshest penalties to the accused.26 Torture was indeed used earlier in inquisitorial trials than in civil trials,27 and there were more forms of torture open to inquisitors;28 it was, in every way, an essential weapon of the inquisitorial armoury at least into the early part of the 17th century.

When used according to the Inquisition’s rules – and not arbitrarily in the manner of Lucero – torture was inflicted on victims in precise circumstances. When the evidence was strong but not decisive, and it was suspected that a confession was not complete, prisoners were given the chance of ‘purging’ the evidence. Torture was thus often used against those who had already confessed their own guilt but were suspected of withholding the names of accomplices. Once one name was extracted, this was evidence that others might be lurking, and so the torture could go on, and on.

There were two main instruments of torture – pulleys and water – with many variations. For the pulleys, the prisoner’s hands were tied behind their back. Hoisted from the floor, they were kept suspended at the inquisitors’ pleasure like slaughtered rabbits hung up to dry. Occasionally they were let fall a short distance. If the ‘right’ answers were not forthcoming, weights were sometimes attached to make the joint pain more intense and the abrasions of the cords chafing at mangled wrists even more severe. The use of water was more common. The prisoner was placed on a potro, a trestle table, with the head lower than the feet, the throat and forehead held fast by a metal strap. The limbs were tied to the potro with ropes which bit into the flesh while others were twisted around them like tourniquets. The mouth was then forced open and water poured down the prisoner’s throat. Unable to breathe because of the water in their throats and with their bellies horribly bloated, their victims gasped for life as the inquisitors patiently admonished them to tell the ‘truth’.

With time, methods of torture evolved. By the early 17th century a refinement had been added to the potro known as the trampa, in which the prisoner’s legs swung through a gap in the table to which they had been tied down; another wooden bar with a hard edge was placed below the gap, and the legs were dragged through this tiny opening with a rope fastened to the toes and the ankle. Each time the rope was given a turn about the ankle and pulled tight, the prisoner was dragged further through the gap. Five turns were thought to be severe, but in Latin America seven or even eight turns were not unknown and some moriscos were subjected to ten or more.29

Pablo García, secretary of the Suprema in Madrid, wrote detailed instructions in 1591 as to how inquisitors were to proceed when torturing someone. The prisoner, García wrote, should receive a warning, advising them that they were suspected of not having told the whole truth and that the evidence of their case had been shown to learned people with clear consciences who felt that they should be tortured. Torture, it was believed, would lead to their confession.

García then instructed that the inquisitors should recite the following prayer before the torment began:

Christi Nomine Invocato:

Having paid attention to the evidence and merits of this case, we have grounds to suspect the prisoner, and so have found that we must condemn them to be put to the interrogation of torture, in which we order that the prisoner should spend as much time as we see fit, so that they should tell us the truth about the accusations made against them. And in addition we declare that if the prisoner should die or be injured or suffer heavy bleeding or have a limb mutilated during the torture, this will be their fault and responsibility and not ours, because they have refused to tell the truth.

Having thereby cleansed their consciences, the inquisitors would order the prisoner to be taken to the torture chamber. There they would be arraigned in the instrument of torture by the torturer, who would be disguised by a mask which showed only their eyes. Light was usually provided with lanterns, and the inquisitors sat in their chairs and prepared to interrogate. Again the prisoner was urged to tell the truth, and, said García, the inquisitors should remind them that they did not want to see such suffering, even though it was usually ‘necessary’ to proceed.

García ordered the inquisitors to pay particular attention to ensure that everything was recorded with scrupulous accuracy: ‘how the prisoner was stripped naked, and how his arms were tied and how the ropes were tied around him, and how he was ordered to be placed in the potro with his legs, head and arms tied, and how it was ordered that the garrottes should be put onto him and how they were tightened, stating whether to the leg, muscle, spine or arms, etcetera, and what was said to him at each of these stages . . . so that everything which happens will be written down without exception’.30

This attention to detail was in the eyes of the inquisitors an exercise in transparency before God, yet it also reveals an unmentionable truth: the minutiae of torture were to be written down with such lurid precision because the officials and perpetrators were themselves compelled by it. This was surely one of the reasons why the authorities sought to ensure that every aspect of each process of torture should be recorded. In a religion where the iconography of torture was apparent on a daily basis through images of the cross, fascination with pain could be exorcised through turning the iconography into reality.

It is disturbing to think how rapidly such horrendous proceedings became a part of ‘civilized’ society. One thinks back to the great auto of 1649 in Mexico City and the chronicler Bocanegra’s eulogy of the peaceful proceedings of Inquisitor Mañozca.*4Bocanegra saw such goings-on as normal; after over 150 years of these events, they had come to seem so. Indeed, inquisitorial torture had long been a routine occurrence in Mexico. When Francisca de Carvajal, the niece of Álvaro de Leão of Mogadouro,*5 was ordered to the torture chamber in 1589, she cried out, ‘Kill me! Garrotte me as soon as you can. But don’t strip me naked, don’t affront me’. Then her wit got the better of her fear, and she added, ‘I’m an honest woman and widow, I can’t put up with this in the world, and not in a place where there is so much saintliness!’ The inquisitors of course ignored her, stripping her so that Carvajal tried to cover up her breasts. ‘Everything is wicked! Everything is wicked!’ she wailed. ‘This horror must count as remission for my sins.’31

Inquisitors were trained to be impervious to such appeals and in spite of Bocanegra’s views were clearly not men of peace. In torturing their prisoners to further their ideals and vanquish their perceived enemies, they revealed their own lack of humanity. The use of torture to secure the fantasy of a desired end became a mirror which society could hold up to itself, in order to grasp the extent of its growing disease.

The Canary Islands 1587

IN THE MID-ATLANTIC dust mountains reared out of the ocean to reveal a very different world to Europe. In the late 16th century the wild slopes of Tenerife’s volcano offered a lookout across the Atlantic. Below the mountain in the sky and its desert slopes the soil allowed fields of wheat, vines and sugar to grow. The sugar plantations were worked by Berber and Wolof slaves brought from the Sahara and Senegal, hacking at the canes with their machetes, piling up the stalks ready to be processed and then shipped back to Spain.

The Spanish had conquered the islands from the indigenous Guanche population between 1478 and 1496, with Tenerife the last to fall. By 1500 the Spanish way of life was established, if hardly decorous, in the Canaries. Prostitution was everywhere, and first Gran Canaria and then Tenerife decided to run brothels as public services, with the profits going back to the community.32 The atmosphere suited some; the chronicler Abreu Galindo recounted the story of Juan Camacho, who died on Lanzarote in 1591, reputedly at the age of 146. ‘I knew him and talked with him many times,’ wrote Galindo. ‘Even though so old he was not hunchbacked, but walked upright, and two years before he died he married a young woman of twenty and had a child with her.’33

By this time the Inquisition had long been established in the Canaries. Founded in 1504, as with the other Spanish tribunals its initial focus had been the conversos, and there had been eight relajados in 1526.34 By the time of Camacho’s dotage, however, a new enemy had appeared on the horizon, and the foreign threat was no longer provided by apostate Judaizers but by English Protestants. In 1587 matters came to a head, and several of them were thrown into the Inquisition’s jail on the island of La Palma.

Devout Catholics on the Canaries well knew the damage that Lutherans had done to their faith. As one witness to the trial of the Englishmen put it when asked if he knew what Lutherans were, ‘being a Lutheran involves not hearing Mass and stealing’;35 or, as an inquisitor put it to Hugh Wingfield, from Rotherham, when interrogating him in October 1592, ‘the church in England is not a church but the devil’s synagogue’.36 And, it was true, the Catholics of the islands had been subjected to sore provocation by one of the prisoners, John Smith from Bristol, who had said that ‘it would be better if the friars married rather than going with one woman today and then another tomorrow’.37

Smith had been arrested by the Inquisition together with John Gold, Michael James and John Ware. The men claimed to have been on a fishing expedition off the African coast when their ship had been captured by French pirates and they had been set adrift in a skiff. They had made for the Canaries and, on nearing Fuerteventura, had been attacked again by the French and dumped on the island with nothing but the clothes on their backs.38

Gold also came from Bristol, while James came from Cornwall and Ware from Swanage. Their arrests came as the tensions between Phillip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England were about to reach their height, just a year before the Armada was dispatched. The inquisitors clearly smelt blood, so although Ware confessed that he had stopped eating meat during Lent not because he thought it was holy but because he had been ordered to by the Queen, he was sentenced to torture. He had not told the whole truth, and needed to purge his evidence.39

Ware was clearly someone whose Protestant faith did not extend as far as the potro. Once in the torture chamber, with his arms tied and the torturer looming, he began to talk. In fact, he admitted, it was the justice and compassion of the Holy Office which had encouraged him to return to being a proper Christian; only after being thrown into prison by the Inquisition had he seen the light and returned to the Holy Mother Church! He begged forgiveness, and admitted that he had not told the truth because the devil had tricked him. The inquisitors decided not to torture him, but instead sentenced him to be a galley slave – which was often tantamount to a death sentence. Ware managed to escape and his effigy was burnt in an auto on 1 May 1591.40

Ware’s reaction to the threat of torture was not uncommon. Faced with the almost unimaginable physical pain which the inquisitors could inflict, many people invented their evidence. Faced with the remarkable coincidence that people under torture suddenly started to confess and denounce others,41 inquisitors did not conclude that their victims were frequently terrified into lying and providing useless and/or misleading evidence. On the contrary, they were seen as people who until now had hidden the truth – a somewhat elastic concept that bore an uncanny relationship to the predilections of the interrogator.

The dogma of torture was therefore simple and irrefutable: the inquisitors knew what the truth was, and they would carry on until it was revealed. So even though inquisitors were repeatedly confronted with evidence that torture had precisely the opposite effect of its aim, promoting lies and not truth, they ignored this. Belatedly, in 1774 the Portuguese Inquisition’s final code of practice (regimento) would recognize that ‘torture is a most cruel manner of investigating crimes, entirely foreign to the pious and merciful sentiments of the Mother Church, the surest way of punishing a weak innocent and saving a stubborn malefactor, and for extorting lies from both of them’.42

For much of the period prior to this realization, those who pointed out the evils or shortcomings of torture were themselves accused of heresy. Thus in Portugal in 1605 Alejandre de Abrinhosa was denounced by Francisco Rodrigues, a prior, for claiming that almost all those taken by the Inquisition in Lisbon were innocent, and that ‘of 150 prisoners only five were not Christians’. Abrinhosa had himself been a prisoner of the tribunal, and said that it was well known that proof of heresy was secured by torture. Even very young girls were tortured, and Abrinhosa said that he had been jailed near the torture chamber and had heard ‘the cruelty with which the torture was given and the confessions and cries of those being tortured and the scandalous mockery which the priests and inquisitors directed at their victims’. Those being tortured simply denounced anyone who came to mind, he said, ‘just to be free of the torture and so that they would not be tortured again’. One prisoner had asked another who Muhammad was, just so that she could confess to believing in him, having heard that this was a standard accusation of the torturers.43

This sort of revelation was of course far from welcome. But what really angered Prior Rodrigues about Abrinhosa’s views was perhaps something else. When Rodrigues said to Abrinhosa that the priest Francisco Pereira had told him, with what one can surmise was a straight face, how much rectitude, justice, legitimacy and charity was involved in the process of torture, Abrinhosa had replied, ‘That priest!’ wishing to libel him and imply that the ministers of the Holy Office proceeded with passion and hatred.44

Few perhaps could afford to acknowledge the psychological drives which impelled the torturers to inflict pain on others in their search to spread peace. Such realities did not belong within the grand beneficent project in which the empires of Portugal and Spain were said to be engaged. They were too close to the bone.

The real effects of the inquisitors’ procedures is apparent in many trials. In Cartagena, Colombia, Antonio Rodrigues Ferrerín was put in the potro in 1635, and ‘the rope was tied and as the first turn of the rope was made around his leg he fainted and gave off acold sweat and said nothing more, and even when the rope was tightened he did not complain or answer and the torture had to be suspended’.45 In 1639 in Lima, Peru, Juan de Azevedo came sobbing to the inquisitors during the trial of Manuel Bautista Pérez to admit that ‘he did not have the courage or strength to withstand the torture and so he had told a lot of lies in the torture chamber . . . and if he was returned to the torture chamber he would tell more lies because of his weakness and despair’.46

The cases of victims such as Azevedo and Ferrerín show that the actions of the inquisitors went far beyond the sphere of spirituality into the realm of collective fear. Indeed, while the ‘evidence’ collected by the inquisitors through torture was deeply flawed, this mattered far less to the authorities than the development of such fear. Even in the second half of the 17th century, when the use of torture by the Inquisition declined considerably, this was not the public perception; by then, as we shall see, an attitude of fearful deference had successfully been implanted.

Fear is of course a wonderful tool for consolidating the power of an increasingly authoritarian state. Successfully embedded, this fear can always be invoked, in the name of the war of good against evil, against targets that pose an economic or political challenge.

AS THE INQUISITION would discover, inventing enemies was the easy part; it was resolving the problems which arose afterwards that proved impossible. People who had been loyal Catholics became enemies of the Church after their incarceration in inquisitorial cells, as Isabel Lopes, a prisoner of the Inquisition of Évora, made clear in 1594: ‘My husband and I are innocent,’ she told the priest Manoel Luis. ‘We never were Jews but we confessed that we were under torture and the threat of death . . . some people come into these cells as Christians and when they leave they are Jews, and all because of the lies and torture which the inquisitors have subjected them to.’47

The Inquisition was securing the exact opposite of its intention: instead of reconciling apostates to the Church, it was turning loyal Catholics into apostates. And if anything was likely to transform loyal citizens of a state into rebels who sought the destabilization of its government, it was the legal process of the persecuting institution. For here was a system of justice in which truth came a poor third to prejudice and power.

This legal process had first been set out by the Aragonese inquisitor Nicolás de Eymeric in the 14th century. In his handbook for inquisitors Eymeric had noted how inquisitorial judges were privileged ‘as they are not obliged to follow the judicial order, and so the omission of a legal formality does not render the procedure illegitimate’.48 In other words, the procedure was at the whim of the inquisitor.

The handbook continued in the same vein. The evidence of those convicted of heresy was only accepted if they accused someone, not if they testified in their favour, since ‘when a heretic declares in favour of the accused, it can be supposed that he does it out of hatred for the Church . . . but this presumption disappears when the same heretic declares against the accused’.49 Relatives, servants, children and spouses were only accepted if they denounced the accused, not if they spoke in their favour.50 The general attitude towards the prisoner was summed up by Eymeric’s view that death in the torture chamber was a form of spiteful sorcery designed to frustrate the inquisitor: ‘not even torture is a safe way of getting at the truth . . . there are some who, through their sorcery, will become almost insensible and would die rather than confess’.51

Although these astonishing guidelines was modified somewhat by the Instrucciones decreed by Tomás de Torquemada in 1484 as a code of practice for the Spanish Inquisition, they were key in the shaping of his ordinances.52 To begin with, prisoners of the Inquisition were not actually told what the evidence was against them, nor who had accused them. Instead, at their first hearing they would be asked who their parents and grandparents were, and then whether they had any personal enemies who might have denounced them maliciously. This was often an especially harrowing part of a trial, with the defendant desperate to cast doubt on the evidence of anyone who might have accused them, and reeling off lists of names of people who were said to be their ‘deadly enemies’. Many of these people were probably not enemies at all, but family members, friends or acquaintances who the prisoner suspected of being in the same situation as them.

So, at his trial in Cartagena in 1637, Luis Fernández Suarez accused ten people of being his personal enemies, only for witnesses to come forward soon afterwards to say that until his arrest Fernandez Suarez had been business partners with many of them.53Arrested at the same time, Luis Gómez Barreto claimed to have several enemies; with one he had disputed over a shipment of slaves to Panama in 1627, and to another he had had problems repaying a debt.54 Later, in the torture chamber and with the ropes twisting around them in the potro, prisoners would cry out that this or that person was the enemy of their uncle or father-in-law;55 that another person owed them a great sum and wanted to see them ruined.

It was the anonymity of accusers which fomented such an atmosphere of suspicion. As we have already seen, the Aragonese saw the new judicial practice of the Inquisition as excessive, and not knowing the identity of witnesses in particular troubled them.*6Indeed as late as 1521 the Aragonese were still demanding the publication of names of witnesses, even though such demands had been routinely ignored.56 As the historian Juan de Mariana put it in his history of Spain, written in 1592, ‘In the beginning [the Inquisition] appeared very onerous to the [Spaniards]. What amazed them above all was that the children paid for the sins of the parents, and that the accused did not know and were not told who had accused them, that the accuser was not confronted with the prisoner and that there was never publication of the witnesses. All of this was to the contrary of what had formerly been done in the other courts’.57

Again, one is struck by how inquisitorial excesses did not seem normal and were not acceptable by the standards of the times, at first. The judicial practice of the new Inquisition was initially seen as a gross violation of ordinary legal proceedings. However, defenders such as Mariana argued that society had to change according to the demands of the time.58 Once people believed themselves to be surrounded by enemies, they would acquiesce in the use of extraordinary methods of interrogation.

The anonymity of witnesses was of course carte blanche for the venting of jealousy and vendettas. It also meant that the Inquisition could not be held to account for the justice of its actions. Unsurprisingly, the principle of secrecy was jealously guarded, and those who violated it were severely punished. In Murcia in 1563 Gregorio Ardid was sentenced to be a galley slave for six years and given 100 lashes for breaking the secrecy of the Inquisition, and Cristóbal de Arnedo was given 200 lashes and sent to the galleys for eight years for the same offence.59 Yet at the same time officials of the Inquisition were quite capable of acting with supreme hypocrisy by letting it be known when a certain person was about to be arrested, if it suited them.60 They were keen for others to be troubled by scruples. They tested victims, and were prepared to torture them, to ensure that they reacted appropriately. Yet such rules did not design for them their own moral canvass in life.

THE MOST PERNICIOUS effect of this code of secrecy on society was, as Mariana noted, the cultivation of wariness and dissimulation.61 The practice encouraged general suspicion of society and the invention of stories in an attempt to avoid torture.

At the first hearing, on top of being asked whether they had any personal enemies, the prisoner would also be asked if they knew or suspected why they had been called to the tribunal, and if they had done anything which might be against the tenets of the Church. If they replied that they had no idea why they were there, they would be dispatched to the cells, with the implication that they had better think harder.

Trials then entered a period of cat and mouse. The inquisitors tried to tease out the truth as they already knew it to be; the accused tried to confess as little as possible (if guilty) or loudly to protest their innocence. After the early years in Spain when cases were dispatched summarily, this period of the trial often dragged on for years. One prisoner in Peru, Manuel Henriques, spent twenty-nine years in Lima’s jails before being burnt at the stake in 1664.62 Defendants lay festering in the cells, called for questioning at the whim of their tormentors to be told that the inquisitors had ‘evidence from reliable people’ that they were concealing the truth.

If the secrecy of proceedings was guaranteed to foster mutual distrust and injustice, then the lawyers chosen for the task of the prisoner’s defence were little better. After the first fifty years of the tribunal in Spain, during which time defendants were able to choosetheir lawyers,63 defence counsel were chosen at the discretion of the inquisitors from a panel which they appointed. These hand-picked advocates were to make no suggestions to their client except to confess; the lawyer’s sole duty was to abandon someone considered a pertinaz or stubborn heretic – that is, someone who would not confess – and admonish a Christian to tell the truth. Prisoners were expected to pay for the privilege of counsel out of their own pockets, unless they were too poor to be able to do so.64

To be fair to the lawyers, their advice was the best option for the accused. Those who confessed fully and professed sincere repentance, denouncing all their ‘accomplices’ as a sign of contrition, were reconciled to the Church. Although they were forced to wear asanbenito as a public sign of their humiliation, their goods were most often confiscated by the Inquisition and the names of their descendants permanently tarnished by their public shame, at least they did not have the fear that they might be ‘relaxed’.*7

With all the cards stacked against the prisoners, inquisitorial jails could be fractious places. Although conditions varied and in some places were lax enough for prisoners to wander the streets by day or be allowed to serve out their terms at home,65 things were often more severe. As late as the 1770s suicides were such a serious problem in Portugal and Goa that the codes of practice for the Inquisition in both places had chapters dedicated to those who killed themselves in jail.66 The famous Jesuit preacher from Brazil António Vieira described the inquisitorial cells of the mid-17th century in sombre terms: ‘There are usually four or five men, and sometimes more, in the cells . . . each one is given a pitcher of water to last eight days (if it runs out before then, they have to be patient) and a bedpan, as well as a container for defecation which is also emptied every eight days . . . the cells are usually full of rats, and the stench is such that it is a mercy for the prisoners to leave the cells alive.’67

Often, the atmosphere boiled over. One night in 1631 Jorge Rebello, a prisoner in Lisbon, was challenged by a warder for making too much noise with his cellmates. Rebello shouted back that ‘the prisoners were much more honourable than the warders’, and when the warder told him to shut up if he did not want to be gagged, Jorge Rebello took out a knife and started brandishing it violently, saying that ‘he swore by the Holy Sacrament that any son of a bitch who wanted to come into the cell would first have to nail him down if he did not want to be killed’. The warder went to fetch some guards, but when they broke into the cell and tried to take the knife Rebello sank his teeth into one of the guard’s hands and left permanent marks there.68

Reading records of inquisitorial trials, it becomes clear that, far more than the burnings at the stake (which became more a punctuation than a regular feature of trials), it was the relentless injustice of the system that created fear among prisoners. Those arrested were not only destroyed economically, physically and psychologically, they were forced to subsidize their own humiliation. William Collins from Oxford had to pay the muleteer who brought him as a prisoner to the Inquisition in Mexico City in 1572, where he would eventually be convicted as a Lutheran and sentenced to ten years in the galleys.69 Meanwhile, it was those who were sentenced to be lashed that had to pay the person who lacerated them, not the Inquisition.70

It was therefore not for nothing that, having himself been through this judicial system in Goa, the Frenchman Charles Dellon noted at the end of the 17th century that ‘the judges [of the Inquisition] execute a system of jurisprudence unknown to other tribunals’.71The legal system was such that mere suspicion could be enough to satisfy the authorities of a person’s guilt, as was graphically revealed when the ‘threat’ of the Freemasons appeared in Spain in the 18th century. In 1751 Francisco Rávago, the confessor of Ferdinand VI, urged the king to take action, since ‘in matters of this gravity, suspicion alone – and one which is not at all implausible – is enough to prevent the damage, without awaiting certainty or evidence’.72

Such stagnant and paranoid thinking was in many ways a reprise of what Eymeric had said in the 14th century: ‘If an accusation appears stripped of all appearance of truth, the inquisitor should not strike it from his book because of this; for what is not uncovered at one moment, may well be uncovered at another’.73

MADRID’S Archive Histórico National is an elegant building adorned with marble stairways which conceal a cool, shaded courtyard where researchers can rest from their labours. Documents are conveyed to a large, rectangular room, where historians pore over the gently disintegrating ledgers of Spanish and Latin American history. Sunlight flows in from outside, occasionally illuminating the records of torture and mutilation. Here in the present, the past is relived.

One summer’s day I read the trial of Manuel Álvarez Prieto, a converso accused of Judaizing and imprisoned in Cartagena in 1636. Álvarez Prieto first confessed to his crime, and then retracted his confession, saying he had been mad when he made it. He was taken to the potro, where he spent three hours and withstood seven turns of the rope without confessing. At this point the torturers suspended his agony and Álvarez Prieto was noted to be in a perilous state of health: both his arms were broken and so mangled that the surgeon said that he was in peril of his life.

Álvarez Prieto died two days later. The inquisitors declared that this was his fault. Having asked for water in his cell he had spat it out over his wounds and made them worse. He had wanted to die. The inquisitors declared him guilty as charged and ordered that his bones be burnt, his goods confiscated and the names of his descendants besmirched forever.74

This pleasant room, filled with humane and pleasant people reading about inhumane and terrible events, took on a different light as I read of the inquisitors’ refusal to accept responsibility in this case of death by torture. For in pondering inquisitorial justice, one returns so often to the question of torture. This declined in use from the middle of the 17th century onward but was still not unheard of in 1700.75 Yet for all torture’s long inquisitorial history, records are mute when it comes to the torturers themselves. What did the inquisitors think as their victims writhed in the potro? How did they feel at the prospect of scarring people for life in the name of God?

Clearly, in Álvarez Prieto’s case, the inquisitors had given such questions little thought. Yet one would like to imagine that occasionally some of them might have questioned their own motives and asked why they were so compelled by the suffering of others. The documents are mute on this subject. In the archive the pain is studied in silence, and the silence is returned. One comes to suspect that it was only because inquisitors were certain of the absolute justice of their cause that they were able to torture their prisoners with such a pitiless sense of purpose.

Mexico City 1594–1596

IN NOVEMBER1594 evidence began to be received by the Inquisition in Mexico City of the crypto-Judaizing activites of Luis’s de Carvajal el mozo – Luis the Younger. Arrested and imprisoned for the second time by the Inquisition, he had already been reconciled for Judaizing in 1589 and had done four years’ penance in a monastery.

Soon the evidence began to build up from both within and outside the jail. One of the key witnesses was Luis’s cellmate Luis Diaz, who had told him that he wanted to convert to Judaism. Diaz was in fact an inquisitorial spy, and the evidence he secured was confirmed by the notary and secretary of the Mexican tribunal. These functionaries of justice had crept through the jail’s secret passageways by candlelight to a hidden door to the cell. There they had written down everything they heard exchanged between Carvajal and Diaz.

The prisoner remained oblivious to such machinations, believing himself to be protected by his God. Discovering that his sister Leonor was also in the jail, on 13 May 1595 Luis asked his jailer to send her some fruit from him. At first he sent a melon. When the jailer looked inside the melon he found an avocado stone wrapped up in a piece of purple cloth; Luis was using the fruit as an elaborate postal service – he had carved the words ‘the patience of Job’ into the stone. The next day he asked the jailer to give Leonor a banana. Again, he had taken out the fruit and replaced it with an avocado stone on which he had written a message to his sister. These messages, filled with references to Jewish prophets, were the final pieces of evidence. The inquisitors allowed them to pass for some days, until on 17 May Luis sent a bowl of fruit containing another telltale banana whose fruit had been taken out. This time he had sewn up the skin so that no one should be able to tell what he had done.76

Such stories of ingenuity are not as rare as might be thought. At the final hearing of his trial in Lima in 1638 Francisco Maldonado da Silva – who had been arrested in Concepción, Chile eleven years before – produced two books each more than one hundred pages long. Da Silva had cobbled together the books from scraps of paper which he had managed to accumulate, and written down his thoughts in an ink made from charcoal. He wrote using pens which he had cut out of eggshells with a knife made from a nail. It was an extraordinary feat, and Da Silva said that the books were a full discharge of his conscience. The inquisitors sentenced him to be relaxed the following year.77

Luis’s case was not so dissimilar. With the evidence mounting up, on Monday, 6 February 1596, the inquisitors voted to torture him. Hearing the sentence, the prisoner protested. He had already admitted that his mother had Judaized. ‘She is the thing that he loved most in the world, and he would much more easily have denounced anyone else he knew of than her. And so if there is evidence against him that he has information on other people who he has not mentioned these witnesses do not deserve to be believed.’ After all, as Luis pointed out, such witnesses ‘do not know the way in which the reverend inquisitors desire that people should not tell lies, [so they] say more than they ought to because they are afraid that they will be tortured’.

Perhaps sensing the barbs of irony, the inquisitors proceeded with the torture. The process began on the Wednesday at 9.30 in the morning. Luis said:

‘God give me strength to burst rather than tell a lie.’

And with this he was ordered to enter the torture chamber and he went in with the torturer who was ordered to strip him. And standing naked in the flesh . . . he was again urged to take steps so that the torture did not proceed. And he said: That he had told the truth and that God would not desire him to bear witness against anyone. At this, his arms were tied loosely and he was urged to tell the truth. And he replied: seeing that he was in this state, he wanted to tell the truth.

Luis was taken out of the potro and proceeded to denounce his entire family and their Judaic activities, in particular his mother Francisca and his sisters Isabel, Leonor and Mariana. However, even this confession did not satisfy the inquisitors.

And urged to tell the truth, he said: that he had nothing more to say. And with that he was ordered back into the potro and entered with the torturer, and was urged to tell the truth. He was given one turn of the rope and he said: ‘Ay! Oh Lord, forgive me Lord, let this be a payment for my abominations’. Urged to tell the truth, he was given a second turn of the rope, and he gave a huge shout: ‘Ay! Ay! Ay!’ And he said: that it was true that his little sister Anica kept the law that God gave to Moses, and that he had told the truth, and that the inquisitors should not revenge themselves on him. And he said all this crying, and was then urged to tell the truth, and was given a third turn of the rope, and he shouted again: ‘God, Lord of Israel, I am being forced to lie, Lord the one God take pity on me! Woe is me! How sad to have to lie’. And then he said that he had already told the truth and he filled the air with his complaints.78

Twisted in the potro, Luis proceeded to incriminate more people, some of them distant relatives and passing acquaintances. This victim of the torture chamber was the great-nephew of Alvaro de Leão from Mogadouro, tried by the Inquisition in Évora almost fifty years before. He proceeded to denounce Álvaro de Leão’s three brothers, Duarte, Francisco and Jorge, all great-uncles of his whom he had never met and who had been instrumental in his travelling to Mexico in the first place.

Some of the accusations probably were accurate; some probably were not. Given the inquisitorial justice system, it is difficult to be sure of anything except the reality of suspicion. For inquisitorial procedure used mallets to crack acorns. Its practitioners were actors in a system of jurisprudence which prosecuted the innocent as well as the guilty and fomented a hatred of the system itself. Such a code excelled at securing convictions but also undermined the society which it had supposedly been designed to defend.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!