The causes of the ruin of those people are: ignorance both in faith and in customs; not having anyone to teach them, since the parish priests are like the rest; not having the Inquisition.


From the sixteenth century onwards, visitors agreed that the culture of Spain’s people was irremediably Catholic. As evidence they cited the endless religious processions, the ubiquity of clergy, exaggerated number of saints’ days and holidays, universal attendance at mass, the piety of public personages, and the autos de fe of the notorious Inquisition.1 There seemed to be almost no deviation from the path of traditional Christianity. By the end of the sixteenth century, Spaniards found to their relief that despite possible threats from the Muslim and Jewish presence and the rise of the Reformation in Europe, they had been saved from the ravages of heresy, unlike England, which had suffered upheavals, and France, which had endured a destructive civil war. Church writers congratulated themselves on living in perhaps the only Christian country in Europe.

To what did they owe this good fortune? The answer they offered was invariably the same: the Inquisition! The king himself, Philip II, declared in 1569: “Had there been no Inquisition there would have been many more heretics in Spain.”2 A contemporary, Fray Felipe de Meneses, thought that had the Holy Office not been active with its “smoke from the sacred fire,” the country might now be in the hands of heretics.3 At the same time, however, religious leaders were none too confident about the state of the people entrusted to their care. An inquisitor suggested in 1572 that Galicia, on the Atlantic coast of Spain, should have its own Inquisition:

If any part of these realms needs an Inquisition it is Galicia, which lacks the religion that there is in Old Castile, has no priests or lettered persons or impressive churches or people who are used to going to mass and hearing sermons. . . . They are superstitious and the benefices so poor that as a result there are not enough clergy.4

The Inquisition was duly introduced shortly after. “If the Holy Office had not come to this realm,” a Galician priest wrote later, “some of these people would have been like those in England,” namely, lost in ignorance and heresy. The comments underscore the often forgotten role of the Holy Office, not as a punisher of heretics but as an educator of the Christian people.

The apparently “Christian” culture of the people of Spain between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries left much to be desired, since both clergy and people were equally ignorant of basic essentials. “Religion” ended up (as in other parts of Europe) as an extension of social discourse rather than a system of faith; it was, in other words, what you did rather than what you believed. Religion was the center of village activity, of community feeling, and of armed conflict. Rather than being only a list of beliefs and practices laid down by the Church, it was very much more, the sum of inherited attitudes and rituals relating both to the invisible and to the visible world.5 All sections of society, both in town and country, participated in the rituals, which on one hand determined leisure and work activity, and on the other hand assigned to people their roles and status within the community.

There was no essential contradiction between Spaniards being “Christian” yet at the same time having no real knowledge of Christianity. The clergy themselves were massively ignorant of the doctrines of the Church. Over much of Spain Christianity was still only a veneer.6 The religion of the people remained backward, despite gestures of reform by Cisneros and other prelates. It was still a period of vague theology, irregular religious practice, nonresidence of both bishops and clergy, and widespread ignorance of the faith among both priests and parishioners. Over vast areas of Spain—the sierras of Andalucia, the mountains of Galicia and Cantabria, the Pyrenees of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia—the people combined formal religion and folk superstition in their everyday attempt to survive against the onslaught of climate and mortality. The standard religious unit was the rural parish, coinciding normally with the limits of the village. Over four-fifths of Spain’s population lived in this environment, beyond the reach of the big towns, to which villagers went only on market days to sell their produce. As religious reformers and inquisitors quickly found out, the rural parishes were close-knit communities with their own special type of religion and their own saints. They were also hostile to any attempt by outsiders—whether clergy or inquisitors or townspeople—to intrude into their way of life. “The nerve centre of everyday religion—the local community—was capable of maintaining its own identity while at the same time absorbing and adapting or rejecting what was offered by the reforms.”7

The community basis of popular religion explains not only attitudes to the Inquisition—which we shall touch on below—but also some seemingly non-Christian characteristics, such as the prevalence of anticlericalism. As in other Christian countries, very many Spaniards disliked their clergy.8 Some did so because of the obligation to support the Church through tithes, others because of the sexual activity of priests among their women, others quite simply because they hated both religion and clergy. Sacrilege in the form of physical attacks on clergy, churches and clerical property could be found at any time, notably in periods of civil disorder and banditry, when theft of silver and money from churches was also common.9

Anticlerical sentiments could be punished by the Inquisition if they seemed to call in doubt sacred aspects of the Church, but as a rule they only merited a reprimand. Among the accused we find Lorenzo Sánchez, notary of the Inquisition itself, saying in 1669 that “tithes are ours, and the clergy are our servants, which is why we pay them tithes.” Active hostility to religion fell into the category of sacrilege, as in the case in 1665 of Francesc Dalmau, a farmer of Tarragona, who was accused of going into the pulpit fifteen minutes before mass began and preaching ridiculous and absurd things until the priest appeared; it was also said that he habitually left mass for the duration of the sermon and that he ridiculed Holy Week ceremonies.10

Clergy recognized that the people were lax in their observance of religion, and woefully ignorant about their faith. In Vizcaya in 1539 an inquisitor reported that “I found men aged ninety years who did not know the Hail Mary or how to make the sign of the cross.”11 In the town of Bilbao, stated another in 1547, “the parish priests and vicars who live there report that one in twelve of the souls there never goes to confession.”12 In the north of Aragon, reported another colleague in 1549, there were many villages “that have never had sight of nor contact with Church or Inquisition.”13

The Holy Office was far from being the only institution interested in the religious life of Spaniards. Already by the late fifteenth century there had been three major channels through which changes were being introduced into peninsular religion: the reforms of religious orders, instanced on one hand by the remarkable growth of the Jeronimite order and on the other by imposition of the reformist Observance on the mendicant orders; the interest of humanist bishops in reforming the lives of their clergy and people, as shown by the synodal decrees of the see of Toledo under Alonso Carrillo and Cisneros;14 and the new literature of spirituality exemplified in García de Cisneros’s Exercises in the Spiritual Life (1500). As elsewhere in Catholic Europe, humanist reformers were well aware that theirs was an elite movement that would take time to filter down into the life of the people. Efforts were, however, being made by the orders. From 1518 the Dominicans were active in the remote countryside of Asturias. The principal impulse to popular missions came from the growth of the Jesuits in the 1540s. At the same time, several reforming bishops tried to introduce changes into their dioceses. It was an uphill task. In Barcelona, Francisco Borja, at the time duke of Gandía and viceroy of Catalonia, worked hand in hand with reforming bishops but commented on “the little that has been achieved, both in the time of Queen Isabella and in our own.”15

From the early sixteenth century a patient effort of evangelization was made. In America in 1524 a group of Franciscan missionaries, numbering twelve in deliberate imitation of the early apostles, set out to convert Mexico. In 1525 the Admiral of Castile, Fadrique Enríquez, drew up a plan to recruit twelve apostles to convert his estates at Medina de Rioseco to Christianity.16 The problem in both cases was perceived as being the same: there were “Indies” of unbelief no less in Spain than in the New World. From the 1540s at least, the Church authorities became concerned not only with the problem of converting the Moriscos but also with that of bringing the un-Christianized parts of the country back into the fold. In Santiago in 1543 the diocesan visitor reported that “parishioners suffer greatly from the ignorance of their curates and rectors”; in Navarre in 1544 ignorant clergy “cause great harm to the consciences of these poor people.” Many rural parishes lacked clergy, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque country, where ignorance of the language made it difficult for priests to communicate with their flock. The immense confusion of jurisdictions presented a major obstacle: churches, monasteries, orders, secular lords, bishops, towns, the Inquisition—all disputed each other’s authority.

The piecemeal efforts to reform religion in the early part of the century were given a unity of purpose by the coming of the Counter-Reformation and the issue in 1564 of the decrees of the Council of Trent.17 Concerned to keep religious change under his control, the king in 1565 ordered the holding of Church councils in the principal sees of the monarchy. Subsequent proposals for reform involved the collaboration of the Inquisition. It was only at this late period—nearly a century after its foundation—that the Holy Office joined the effort to oversee the general religious practice of the people, and even then its contribution was small.18 The journeys made to villages by inquisitors were an attempt to remind people that the Holy Office existed, and were a tiny component of a very much broader program in which all sectors of the Church took part.

The inquisitors were not the only clergy to show their faces. Over the same period many bishops and clergy were also carrying out visitations of their dioceses and religious houses. The tasks did not necessarily overlap. Bishops were primarily concerned with getting good clergy and decent churches; the Inquisition was concerned with getting orthodox worshippers. Jesuits also entered the country in these years and made Spain into a mission field. “This land,” a canon of Oviedo wrote in 1568 to the superior of the Jesuits, Francisco Borja, “is in extreme need of good laborers, such as we trust are those in the Society of Jesus.” Another wrote in the same year to Borja: “There are no Indies where you will suffer greater dangers and miseries, or which could more need to hear the word of God, than these Asturias.”19 The mission field soon encompassed all of Spain. The Jesuit Pedro de León, who worked all over Andalucia and Extremadura, wrote that “since I began in the year 1582, and up to now in 1615, there has not been a single year in which I have not been on some mission, and on two or three in some years.” The need was stressed by an earlier Jesuit, reporting on the inhabitants of villages near Huelva: “many live in caves, without priests or sacraments; so ignorant that some cannot make the sign of the cross; in their dress and way of life very like Indians.”

By venturing into the mission field, the Inquisition began to take cognizance of some offenses that had formerly been poorly policed. The prosecution figures for Toledo (chapter 10) indicate beyond doubt that whereas in the first phase of its history the tribunal had been concerned almost exclusively with conversos, in the next century its attention was focused primarily on the remaining 99 percent of the population. Nearly two-thirds of those interrogated by the Holy Office in this later period were ordinary Catholic Spaniards, unconnected with formal heresy or with the minority cultures. The new policy of directing attention to Old Christians cannot be viewed cynically as a desperate move to find sources of revenue, since the prosecuted were invariably humble and poor, and the tribunal’s financial position was in any case better after the mid-sixteenth century.

Heresy was no longer the target. Its almost entire absence in much of Spain during the peak years of religious conflict in Europe can be illustrated by the diagrams of the activity of the Inquisition among Catalans shown in graphs 2a20 and 2b. The Catalans represented just over half of the cases dealt with by the Inquisition in those years. Yet allegations of heresy were never made against them. Instead, heresy accusations were limited to the French and others of non-Catalan origin, as shown in the diagram.

By its collaboration with the campaigns of bishops, clergy and religious orders among the native population, the Inquisition contributed actively to promoting the religious reforms favored by the Counter-Reformation in Spain. But its role was always auxiliary, and seldom decisive; it helped other Church and civil courts to inquire into certain offenses, but seldom claimed exclusive jurisdiction over those offenses. As a result, it is doubtful whether its contribution was as significant or successful as that of other branches of the Church. We have already seen that the attempt to make a direct impact through visitations was not fruitful. Because (as we have seen in chapter 9) prosecutions in the Inquisition came through pressure from below,21 the tribunal was in a peculiarly strong position to affect and mold popular culture, and the volume of prosecutions in some areas may suggest that it was carrying out its task successfully. The Holy Office, however, suffered from at least one major disadvantage: it was always an alien body. Bishops, through their parish priests, were directly linked to the roots of community feeling, and were able to carry out a considerable program of religious change based on persuasion. The Inquisition, by contrast, was exclusively a punishing body. It was operated, moreover, by outsiders (usually unable to speak the local language), and though feared was never loved. As a result, its successes were always flawed.


Graph 2. Tribunal of Barcelona, showing 1,735 cases tried over the years 1578–1635.
Graph A. (top) The offenses of 1,000 Catalans.
Graph B. (bottom) The 1,735 cases by national category.

The entry of the tribunal into the area of disciplining the Catholic laity can be dated with some precision. From the mid-sixteenth century reformist clergy in Spain, inspired in part by the Jesuits, became concerned about the low levels of moral and spiritual life. A few tribunals, led by that of Toledo, showed that they were willing to take action against non-Christian conduct. From the 1560s, prosecutions multiplied, not so much for actions as for purely verbal offenses. The inquisitors themselves classified these as “propositions” (that is, “statements”). Ordinary people who in casual conversation, or in moments of anger or stress, expressed sentiments that offended their neighbors, were likely to find themselves denounced to the Inquisition and correspondingly disciplined. A broad range of themes might be involved. Statements about clergy and the Church, about aspects of belief and about sexuality, were among the most common. In particular, persistent blasphemy and affirmations about “simple fornication” were treated seriously. The offense arose less with the words than with the intention behind them and the implicit danger to faith and morals.

We should be clear about the place of verbal offenses in traditional culture. In a pre-literate age, where only a minority could read or write, all important social affirmations—such as personal pledges or court testimony—were made orally. “Whole aspects of social life,” it has been pointed out for medieval Europe, “were only very imperfectly covered by texts, and often not at all. . . . The majority of courts contented themselves with purely oral decisions.”22 A man’s spoken word was his bond. Judicial evidence consisted of what some people said about others. By the same token, negative declarations—insults, slander—were usually verbal. Verbal statements directed against one’s neighbors and against God or religion were treated with severity (as they still can be today in many societies) by both state and Church authorities, for they disturbed the peace of the community. All legal tribunals of the day, and not only the Holy Office, therefore paid attention to the consequences of the spoken word. The inquisitors never went out looking for “statements,” since their job was not the wholly impossible one of regulating what Spaniards said. Nor were they trying to impose a form of social control, and they did not intrude into the personal conduct of people. In practice, it was always members of the public who, out of malice or (not infrequently) out of zeal, took the trouble to report offensive words. In short, “statements” were denounced from below; only then might there be prosecution from above.

Some historians suggest that a word spoken out of turn in Golden Age Spain could entail terrible consequences. “Anyone who risked his own opinion or expressed a discordant one was on the edge of an abyss.”23 The available evidence (and common sense) offers scant support for this view, which not only ignores the reality of everyday life in rural Spain but also quite implausibly presents pre-industrial society as a veritable police state. Neither Spain nor any other European community of that time accords with this idea, and the only recent scholar who offers us the possibility of “fear” on this scale does not include elements of everyday speech in his survey.24

Was vigilance of statements significant in any way? The statistics speak for themselves. Nearly one-third of the one thousand Catalans disciplined by the Inquisition between 1578 and 1635 were taken to task for what they had said rather than for anything they did.25 In other words, just over three hundred persons were questioned by the Inquisition over “statements,” a derisive average of five persons a year in a population of half a million. None of them suffered any entry into the abyss. All were discharged. Catalans (in common with other Spaniards) continued, both before and after that period, to express their opinions and disagreements without concern. If they entertained fear, it would have been because of neighbors and personal enemies who took advantage of an inquisitorial visit to denounce harsh words uttered decades before but that had continued to rankle in the mind.

“Propositions” were never a crime,26 but merely a label for verbal “statements” that required correction. As such, each statement was relevant because it might touch on a significant aspect of Christian life and belief. For the most part, however, statements were identified not because the Inquisition looked for them, but because they were carried to the inquisitors in the wake of personal quarrels and community conflicts. In the tribunal of Logroño in the early eighteenth century, for example, all denunciation of verbal statements was made by people well known to the accused, invariably the parish priest, neighbors, religious from the same monastery, or members of the family.27 The tribunal was called in as a social arbiter, to keep the peace or to resolve disputes. It was a valuable function that more normally was performed by parish priests, but which in special cases might call for the intervention of the inquisitors.

A simple case, one among thousands, may be cited.28 In April 1673 the two rival parishes of Sta Quitería and Sta María of the town of Alcazar de San Juan (Toledo) went out in procession to the fields to pray for rain, bearing with them the local statue of Our Lady of the Conception. One of the men in the procession, Francisco Millán, of the parish of Sta María, called out, “those in Sta Quitería think the Virgin is going to bring rain, but it will rain testicles [literally, “cuernos,” horns], I swear by Christ!” Those of Sta Quitería immediately referred the insult to the Inquisition, which happened to be conveniently nearby. Millán, with four children and married to a local girl, had spent much of his life working on the Mediterranean coast and had been a soldier for two years and even served in a monastery for one year. He was obviously a restless spirit with enemies in the community, and the inquisitors made it their first responsibility to protect the peace between the parishes. He was accordingly recommended by them to leave the district for four years. What appears at first sight the disciplining of a “statement” was in reality an attempt to keep the peace of the community.

The Inquisition joined other Church authorities in demanding more respect for the sacred.29 Blasphemy, or disrespect to sacred things, was at the time a public offense against God and punishable by both state and Church. In time, the tribunal gave the term a very broad definition, provoking protests by the Cortes of both Castile and Aragon. The Cortes of Madrid in 1534 asked specifically that cases of blasphemy be reserved to the secular courts alone. The Holy Office continued, however, to intervene in the offense, punishing bad language according to the gravity of the context. Blasphemous oaths during a game of dice, sexual advances to a girl during a religious procession, refusal to abstain from meat on Fridays, obscene references to the Virgin, willful failure to go to mass: these were typical of the thousands of cases disciplined by the Inquisition.30

The offenses of the clergy also came in for scrutiny. As we have seen (chapter 11), their sexual conduct was part of the folklore of the countryside. The Inquisition was particularly interested in the problem of solicitation during confession. The Church had always encouraged the faithful to confess their sins to a priest in order to receive absolution, but in the early sixteenth century the evidence indicates that in Spain and also in the rest of Europe the most that Catholics might do was to fulfill the formal obligation of confessing once a year. Church leaders during the Counter-Reformation emphasized that believers should go to communion more often, and as a corollary should also confess their sins more regularly. The problem was that in Spain there was a widespread reluctance to confess personal sins to a priest who, as likely as not, was known for his sexual adventures with parishioners. The confession box as we know it today did not come into use in the Church until the late sixteenth century, before which there was no physical barrier between a confessor and a penitent, so that occasions for physical contact could easily arise.31 The frequent scandals caused Fernando de Valdés in 1561 to obtain authority from Pius IV for the Inquisition to exercise control over cases of solicitation, which were interpreted as heresy because they misused the sacrament of penance.

The sexual aspect of solicitation features in Inquisition documentation and has attracted the attention of scholars.32 Though accused confessors were invariably guilty, as not only individual but also village testimony could confirm, there were inevitably cases where the person confessing might be judged to have had a share of the blame. Inevitably also, as has happened with the experience of the Church today, accused clergy were given the benefit of the doubt, and seldom served out the sentences passed on them by the Inquisition and other Church authorities. The most frequent punishment ordered for guilty persons was suspension from office. The Inquisition papers documenting sexual acts in the confessional by priests with women, men and boys offer hundreds of anecdotes as well as insights into parish life of the time. Among curious cases of solicitation was that denounced by an elderly beata in Guissona (Catalonia) in 1581, against an itinerant Franciscan who “told her she must accept the penance he imposed, which startled her; the friar said he had to give her a slap on her buttocks and he made her raise her skirts and gave her a pat on the buttocks and said to her, ‘Margarita, next time show some shame,’ and then he absolved her.”33 In Valencia the parish priest of Beniganim was accused in 1608 of having solicited twenty-nine women, most of them unmarried, “with lascivious and amorous invitations to perform filthy and immoral acts.”34

The anecdotes form only one aspect of the relevance of the sacrament of confession during the Counter-Reformation. The relation between male and female in the confessional also had positive spiritual overtones. Many confessors, impressed by the piety of their female penitents (among them nuns), were the first to encourage others to imitate the piety they had encountered, and sometimes wrote biographies of the women.35 The archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, who invented the new confessional box, had clear ideas—soon picked up by Spanish clergy—about how the penitent should also be instructed about Christian duties and frequenting the sacraments. Confession therefore took on a vital role in the evolution of religious discipline and education.36 The rites of penance also played a significant part in community activities.37 Though there were occasions when the Inquisition tried to make a more direct use of the confessional, for example, by ordering penitents to denounce statements made to them38 or things done to them during confession, in practice the local church and community were the only arbiters of what went on in confession. As a result, solicitation was one of the offenses against which the Holy Office never managed to make any headway.

The attempt to discipline words and actions was time-consuming, and formed the principal activity of inquisitors during their visitations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The problem was particularly grave in rural areas. In Galicia in 1585, for example, the inquisitors admitted that doubts about the presence of Christ in the sacrament were widespread, but “more out of ignorance than malice,” and that questioning of the virginity of Mary was “through sheer thick-headedness rather than out of a wish to offend.” They had the case of the man in a tavern who, when a priest present claimed to be able to change bread into the body of Christ, exclaimed in unbelief, “Go on! God’s in heaven and not in that host which you eat at mass!”39 In Granada in 1595, a shepherd from the village of Alhama claimed not to believe in confession and said to his friends: “What sort of confession is it that you make to a priest who is as much of a sinner as I? Perfect confession is made only to God.” The inquisitors concluded that “he seemed very rustic and ignorant and with little or no capacity of understanding,” and sent him to a monastery to be educated.40

Rather than making its sentences lighter because of the low degree of religious understanding in rural areas, the Inquisition seems to have increased its punishments in order to achieve greater disciplinary effect. Thus every type of expression—whether mumbled by a drunkard in a tavern or preached by an ignorant priest from the pulpit—considered offensive, blasphemous, irreverent or heretical, was—if denounced—carefully examined by the Holy Office. It was at the ludicrous level of verbal offenses rather than heretical acts that the Inquisition came most into contact with the ordinary people of Spain for the greater part of its history.

For those who were arrested instead of being simply made to do penitence during a visitation, there was normally a close examination in the basic elements of belief.41 The accused were asked to recite in Castilian the Our Father, Hail Mary, Credo, Salve Regina and the Ten Commandments, as well as other statements of belief. Very many failed to show knowledge of anything more than the first two. The list of articles seems to have come into use in the 1540s, and provides useful evidence of attempts to instruct ordinary Spaniards in the faith. However, there is no valid evidence that the attempts met with any success.42 In default of statistical proof we have to fall back on simple impressions. Evidence for the late seventeenth century from the Toledo Inquisition, where most of those who were denounced lived in townships, suggests that levels of religious knowledge were fairly good. Scores of accused from the lower classes and even some from rural areas enjoyed a basic knowledge of the prayers of the Church, and all were able to recite the Our Father and Hail Mary, but very little more. An example was Inés López, an illiterate fifty-year-old hospital nurse who in 1664 “crossed herself and recited the Our Father and Hail Mary well in Castilian, but did not know the Creed, the Salve, the Confiteor, the laws of God and of the Church, the articles of faith or the sacraments; the inquisitor warned her and ordered her to learn them, for she has an obligation to do so as a Christian.”43

There is no evidence of any improvement across time in elementary religious knowledge, and for that to have happened the quality of general education in the parishes—a subject of which we know nothing—would need to have improved. In parts of Spain that did not enjoy the density of clergy and schools to be found in Madrid and Toledo, ignorance was still the order of the day. The Church set up schools, made sermons obligatory and enforced recitation of prayers at mass. There were of course many things it could not do, and never achieved, nor could the Inquisition, which was not a teaching institution, make any contribution. The ordinary people continued to be ignorant of basic dogmas and articles of faith, as we know from the existence all over Spain of doubts over essentials of faith such as the doctrine of purgatory. Nor, as bishops complained time and again, could the country clergy, almost as ignorant as their parishioners, remedy the situation.

Even in its negative disciplinary role, however, the Inquisition made some contribution to the evolution of Spanish religion. It attempted to impose on Spaniards a new respect for the sacred, notably in art, in public devotions and in sermons. This can be seen in the other side of the tribunal’s disciplining activity: its attempt to control the clergy. Clergy were encouraged to put their churches in order. Diocesan synods at Granada in 1573 and Pamplona in 1591 were among those which ordered the removal and burial of unseemly church images. The Inquisition, likewise, attempted where it could to censor religious imagery.44 In Seville in the early seventeenth century it recruited the artist Francisco Pacheco to comment on the suitability of public imagery. The attempt to regulate art was usually futile; there was no obvious way to influence taste.45 As in other matters, the Inquisition had to put up with denunciations from ignorant people. In 1583 a Franciscan friar from Cervera denounced a painting he said he had seen in a church in Barcelona. It represented John the Baptist as eighty years old and St. Elizabeth as twenty years old. This, he said, was incorrect and therefore heretical; and “I suspect that the man who painted it was Dutch.”46

Public devotions were generally under the supervision of the bishops, but here too the Inquisition had a role. It helped to repress devotional excesses, such as credulity about visions of the Virgin.47 The celebration of pilgrimages and of fiestas such as Corpus Christi was regulated by the episcopate. But written works, such as the text of autos sacramentales (plays performed for the feast of Corpus), normally had to be approved by the Inquisition, creating occasional conflicts with writers. On the other hand, the tribunal steadfastly refused to be drawn into the debate over whether theatres were immoral and should be banned. It is well known that substantial Counter-Reformation opinion, especially among the Jesuits, was in favor of shutting theatres; and indeed they were shut periodically from 1597 onwards. But theatres were normally under the control of the council of Castile, not of the Holy Office, and the only way the latter could express an opinion was when plays were printed. Even then it kept clear of the theatre, and the major dramatists of the Golden Age were untouched. No play by Lope de Vega, for example, was interfered with until 1801. When the Inquisition did tread into the field, by requiring expurgations (in the 1707 Index) in the Jesuit Camargo’s Discourse on the Theatre(1689), it explained that the ban was “until changes are made; but the Holy Office does not by prohibiting this book intend to comment on or condemn either of the opinions on the desirability or undesirability of seeing, reading, writing or performing plays.”48

A highly significant area of activity was sermons. No form of propaganda in the Counter-Reformation was more widely used than the spoken word, in view of the high levels of illiteracy. Correspondingly, in no other form of communication did the Inquisition interfere more frequently. Sermons were to the public of those days what television is to modern times: the most direct form of control over opinion. The impact of the Holy Office on sermons—among famous sermons denounced to it were those by Carranza and Fray Francisco Ortiz—was perhaps even more decisive than its impact on printed literature. Bishops normally welcomed intervention by the inquisitors, for they themselves had little or no machinery with which to control some of the absurdities preached from the pulpits of their clergy.

Occasionally, inquisitorial intervention took on political tones. The tribunal of Llerena in 1606 prosecuted Diego Díaz, priest of Torre de Don Miguel, for preaching (in Portuguese) that God had not died for Castilians:49 and the tribunal of Barcelona in 1666 prosecuted a priest of Reus for having declared that “he would prefer to be in hell beside a Frenchman than in heaven beside a Castilian.”50 More normally, the problem lay in preachers who got carried away by their own eloquence or who were shaky in their theology, such as the Cistercian friar of Toledo who in 1683 put the glories of Mary above those of the Sacrament, or the priest in Tuy (Galicia) who on Holy Thursday told his flock that in the Sacrament they were celebrating only the semblance of God, whose real presence was above in heaven.51

The cases remind us that the Holy Office was still meant to be on guard against heresy, and assessors of the tribunal were called upon from time to time to decide whether statements and religious devotions had to be disciplined. Suspect spiritual practices were those that most attracted attention, as with the alumbrados and even Ignatius Loyola in the sixteenth century. In Toledo in 1677 the tribunal had to rebuke some devout young nobles who formed a group dedicated to the belief that the body of the Virgin was contained together with that of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.52 At the end of the seventeenth century the influence of the semi-mystical trend known as Quietism—already known in France—was felt in Spain. In September 1685 a priest in Saragossa denounced to the Inquisition a work that had been published ten years previously, the Spiritual Guide, by an Aragonese priest resident in Rome, Miguel de Molinos. From that moment the tribunal was on the watch for Quietists, but only a handful of cases turned up, usually among clergy, and they were always dealt with leniently.53 The history of Molinos was tied up with spiritual issues that surfaced well outside the ambit of Spanish experience.

We have seen that a good part of the Inquisition’s zeal for religion can be described as little more than distrust of foreigners, such as travelers, sailors and merchants. This was ironic, since Spain’s imperial expansion took thousands of Spaniards abroad and brought them into touch with the rest of the world on a scale unprecedented in their history. The imperial experience did nothing to change the xenophobic outlook commonly found in Spain and reflected in the attitude of the inquisitors, who from 1558 used the Lutheran scare as a disincentive against contact with outsiders. A common accusation leveled against many arrested foreigners was that they had been to a tierra de herejes, which in inquisitorial parlance meant any country not under Spanish control.

All properly baptized persons, being ipso facto Christians and members of the Church, were deemed to come under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. Foreign heretics, if baptized, therefore appeared from time to time in autos. The burning of Protestants at Seville in the mid-1500s shows a gradual increase in the number of foreigners seized, a natural phenomenon in an international seaport. When Philip II returned to Spain from Flanders in 1559 he brought with him a large number of Flemings, some of whom happened later to fall foul of the Holy Office. Of those appearing in the Seville auto of April 1562, twenty-one were foreigners—nearly all Frenchmen. At the auto of 19 April 1564 six Flemings were relaxed in person, and two other foreigners abjured de vehementi. At the one on 13 May 1565 four foreigners were relaxed in effigy, seven reconciled and three abjured de vehementi. One Scottish Protestant was relaxed at the Toledo auto of 9 June 1591, and another, master of the ship Mary of Grace, at the auto of 19 June 1594.

The harvest reaped by the Inquisition was by now greater from foreign than from native Protestants. In Barcelona from 1552 to 1578, the only relaxations of Protestants were of fifty-one French people. Santiago in the same period punished over forty foreign Protestants. These figures were typical of the rest of Spain. The details given by Schäfer show that up to 1600 the cases of alleged Lutheranism cited before the tribunals of the peninsula totaled 1,995, of which 1,640 cases concerned foreigners.54 Merchants from countries hostile to Spain ran the risk of having their crews arrested, their ships seized and their cargoes confiscated. Of the two Englishmen relaxed at the great Seville auto of 12 December 1560, one, Nicholas Burton, was a ship’s master whose cargo was appropriated by the authorities.55

Foreign visitors who publicly showed disrespect to acts of Spanish religion (refusing to take off one’s hat, for example, if the Sacrament passed in the street) were liable to arrest by the Inquisition. This happened so frequently that nations trading to Spain made it their primary concern to secure guarantees for their traders before they would proceed any farther with commercial negotiations. England, being a market for Spanish materials, secured easier terms than might have been expected. In 1576 the Alba-Cobham agreement settled the position of the Inquisition vis-à-vis English sailors. The tribunal was allowed to act against sailors only on the basis of what they did after arriving in a Spanish port. Any confiscation was to be confined to the goods of the accused alone, and was not to include the ship and cargo, since these did not usually belong to him. Despite the outbreak of hostilities between England and Spain over the Dutch question, the agreement of 1576 continued to hold good for at least two decades after.56 When peace eventually came under James I, the agreement was incorporated into the treaty of 1604.

In general, since the late sixteenth century the authorities in Spain’s principal ports had turned a blind eye to the trading activities of foreign Protestants, mainly English, Dutch and Germans. The peace treaties with England in 1604 and with the Dutch in 1609 merely accepted the situation. Some French merchants continued to fall foul of the tribunal.57 In broad terms, however, the resolution of the council of State in 1612, accepted by the Inquisition, was that English, French, Dutch and Bearnese Protestant merchants not be molested, “provided they cause no public disturbance.”58 Commercial realities imposed the need for toleration.

England secured a renewal of these guarantees after the war of 1624–30, in article 19 of the peace treaty of 1630, which promised security to English sailors “so long as they gave no scandal to others.” The proviso was not to the liking of the government of Oliver Cromwell, which took power in mid-century. In 1653 he proposed to Spain a treaty of alliance which would have given Englishmen virtual immunity from the Inquisition. The relevant articles would have allowed English subjects to hold religious services openly, to use Bibles freely, to be immune from confiscation of property and to have some Spanish soil set apart for the burial of English dead. So great was his prestige that the Spanish council of State was quite ready to concede the articles,59 but the proposal was rejected because of the firm opposition of the Suprema, which refused to allow any compromise.

Foreign Protestants did not normally appear in autos de fe at the end of the seventeenth century, but the pressure on them continued, especially in the ports. Catalonia, for example, experienced the presence of foreigners in the form of sailors in the ports, soldiers in foreign regiments of the Spanish army and French immigration across the Pyrenees. The Barcelona tribunal had regular numbers of “spontaneous” self-denunciations from foreigners wishing to become Catholics. In the 1670s and 1680s there were about a dozen cases a year, often outnumbering prosecutions of native Spaniards. In the record year 1676 no fewer than sixty-four foreigners came before the Inquisition there, renounced the heresies they had professed and asked to be baptized.60 There were still unfortunate cases—such as the twenty-three-year-old Englishman who was arrested for public misbehavior in Barcelona in 1689 and died in the cells of Inquisition—but in general the Holy Office was both lenient and tolerant. It is significant that after the long War of the Spanish Succession from 1705 to 1714, when thousands of heretical (Huguenot, English and German) troops had been captured by Spanish forces on Spanish territory, not a single fire was lit by the Inquisition to burn out any heresy that might have entered the country.

The fate of foreigners who fell into the hands of the Holy Office may best be examined in the well-documented history of the tribunal in the Canary Islands. The Canaries were a regular port of call for Englishmen, not only for direct trade (in wines) but also because they were a convenient halt before the long voyage across the Atlantic to Spanish America and the South Seas. Between 1586 and 1596 in particular, English traders and sailors were subjected to irregular persecution by the Spanish authorities, then at war with England. An auto de fe held at Las Palmas on 22 July 1587 included for the first time fourteen English seamen, one of whom—George Gaspar of London—was relaxed in person, the only Englishman ever to suffer death in this tribunal. The next public auto, on 1 May 1591, included the burning of the effigies of four English seamen, two of whom had been reconciled in the previous auto. The auto de fe of 21 December 1597, apparently the last in which Englishmen appeared,61 included eleven English sailors. This is not, of course, the total number of Englishmen who were captured by the Inquisition. The lists show that from 1574 to 1624 at least forty-four Englishmen were detained in the cells of the Canaries Inquisition. Many saved their skins by “spontaneous” conversion. During the seventeenth century at least 89 foreigners became Catholics in this way, and in the eighteenth century 214 did, of whom the English were a majority.62

The English sailors were particularly vulnerable to the Inquisition because many of them were old enough to have been baptized in the true faith under Queen Mary, and young enough to have conformed without difficulty to the Elizabethan settlement. They were consequently apostates and heretics, ideal material for the tribunal. The long history of tolerance to traders, however, influenced the tribunal to take a more realistic attitude towards foreigners. When war broke out again in 1624 between England and Spain, the resident English were left unmolested, thanks to the inquisitors in the Canaries. Commercial reasons were the main motive behind the anxiety of the authorities not to persecute foreigners unnecessarily. The moderate attitude seems to have encouraged the traders, for by 1654 the number of Dutch and English residents in Tenerife alone was put at fifteen hundred.63

This happy state of affairs was almost immediately shattered by Cromwell’s clumsy aggression against Hispaniola in 1655. The Spanish authorities undertook reprisals against the community of English merchants in the peninsula, who, forewarned of the Hispaniola expedition, got out of the country before the blow fell. Officials charged with carrying out the reprisals arrived too late. In Tenerife the confiscations “in this island, in Canary, and in La Palma are of small consideration.” In the port of Santa María “there was one Englishman, no more.” In Cadiz only the English Catholics remained. In San Lucar “they were so forewarned that nothing considerable remains,” and “the majority of them and the richest have sold everything and left with the English fleet.”64They eventually came back, as they always did. By that time Protestant merchants had little to fear from the wrath of the Inquisition, which had grown to respect the existence of bona fide trading communities where religion counted far less than the annual profit. To this extent the Holy Office was moving out of an intolerant age into a more liberal one.

If we were to consider these activities out of their context, the Holy Office would appear to have intervened in nearly all the main aspects of religious life. This impression can lead to mistaken conclusions. Some writers have assumed that the Inquisition was an effective weapon of social control, keeping the population in its place and maintaining the social and religious norms of the Counter-Reformation. Others consider that the inquisitors succeeded in imposing on the popular culture of the masses an elite culture that was both rigid and orthodox. There is no plausible evidence to support either of these contentions, which are the stuff of scholarly discourse but vanish into insubstantial air when looked at closely. Social control was always possible when attempted within specific limits and by an effective authority, but implausible when looked for in the parameters within which the inquisitors operated,65 namely, the three or four state units constituting peninsular Hispanic territory,66 over a time span of more than three centuries.

In their daily lives Spaniards, like others in Europe, had to deal with many authorities set over them. They contended with secular lords, royal officials, Church personnel, religious communities and urban officials. The Holy Office also was one of these authorities. But except at times when the inquisitor came round on his visitation, the people had little contact with him and could not possibly have been influenced by him. The presence of a local familiar or comisario did not affect the situation; their job was to help the inquisitor if he came, not to act as links in an information network.

The likely degree of contact, in a world where (unlike our own today) control depended on contact, is in effect an excellent guide to whether the Inquisition managed to have any impact on the ordinary people of Spain. The evidence from the tribunal of Catalonia is beyond question.67 No proper visitations were made here by the inquisitors during the early sixteenth century. In the second half of the century sixteen visitations in all were made, but they were always partial visits done in rotation, and limited to the major towns. These towns might be visited once every ten years. The people out in the countryside, by contrast, were lucky if they managed to see an inquisitor in their entire lives. There were large areas of the principality that had no contact with the Inquisition throughout its three centuries of history. The one thousand Catalans prosecuted by the Inquisition in the years 1578–1635 came overwhelmingly from the two main cities, Barcelona and Perpignan.68 Even in Castile, the evidence for the Inquisition of Toledo is identical. The activity of the tribunal, in short, was restricted to the principal city (where its influence was in any case notoriously small). Out in the countryside it had neither activity nor influence. In any of the three areas that historians have studied with respect to visitations (see above, chapter 10)—Catalonia, Toledo and Galicia—the degree of social control was negligible.69

After generations of living with the Holy Office the people accepted it, because it had almost no contact with their daily lives. Apart from politically motivated regional protests in Aragon and Catalonia, no demands for its abolition were made before the age of Enlightenment. In the few centers where it existed, the Inquisition might even be positively welcomed, for it offered a disciplinary presence not often found in the society of that time. People with grudges or complaints, particularly within families and within communities, could take their problems to the tribunal and ask for a solution. In our world, complainants go to the police; in Spain, they went to the Inquisition. “You watch out,” an angry housewife in Saragossa screamed at her innkeeper husband (in 1486), “or I’ll accuse you to the inquisitor of being a bad Christian!”70 A wife of forty in Manresa (Catalonia, 1665) was periodically beaten by her husband, who also refused to give her money for housekeeping; the climax came when he went to the inquisitors, showed them a statue of Christ with its head and legs broken, and accused her of doing it. They dismissed the case. A mother in the village of La Bisbal (Catalonia, 1677) had a row with her twenty-year-old son and encouraged friends to denounce him to the Inquisition.71 A court of this type, ideal for domestic quarrels, could conceivably be welcomed by some Spaniards even in the twentieth century.72 Acceptance was probably greater in the cities, where the numerous clergy gave it active support in their sermons and where the tribunal from time to time put on autos de fe to reaffirm its role. But even in the unexplored countryside it could sometimes have a positive role to play. The documents record very many cases of village conflict and tension that in the last resort looked for a solution to one or other of the disciplinary tribunals in the nearby city.

It would be unrealistic to assume that a sporadically active body such as the Holy Office had any lasting impact on the religion of the people, and two hundred years after its foundation the Spaniards could be as irreligious as ever. In a scene that could have come from a film by the anticlerical film director Luis Buñuel, we have the story in 1676 of Manuel Sánchez, police officer of the town of Pastrana, who went out for a country picnic one August day with his friends the town butcher and tailor, their wives and other friends. After lunch they came to a chapel one league outside the town, where Sánchez and his two friends dressed up in the church vestments and celebrated a mockery of the mass, “laughing and joking while the women there laughed at them.” After saying mass the three left the altar, “laughing a great deal, and threw the vestments down on the cases with utter contempt.”73 When the case came up for attention by the Inquisition two years later, the three principals were directed to leave the town for a year, though the likelihood is that they ignored the order, since they themselves were the men of substance in the town and the Holy Office had no jurisdiction there.

Hostility to the tribunal at a popular level was commonplace. Very broadly, there were three main reasons for it. First, the Inquisition was a policing body, and therefore (like the police today) resented by ample sectors of the population. Its disciplinary duties were modest, but excited the hostility of those who by definition did not like police intrusion. In moments of anger, such people could not refrain from cursing the Holy Office. Where possible, the Inquisition tried to protect its reputation against them. The archives contain hundreds of statements expressing rage or contempt, ample material with which to prove the hostility of the Spanish people. “I don’t give a damn for God or for the Inquisition!” “I care as much for the Inquisition as for the tail of my dog!” “What Inquisition? I know of none!” “I could take on the whole Inquisition!” “The Inquisition exists only to rob people!” The multitude of oaths in the documents, however, no more prove hostility than the absence of such in the late eighteenth century proves support. Enmity to the tribunal was common, but most oaths were uttered out of habit or when drunk or in moments of anger or stress. The brawling and the swearing demonstrate a lack of respect, but otherwise prove little more than that Spaniards have never inertly accepted the political or religious systems imposed on them.

The second reason for hostility was when jurisdictions clashed. No other tribunal in all Spanish history provoked so much friction with every other authority in both Church and state. The conflicts were particularly intense in the realms of the crown of Aragon. In Catalonia the inquisitors complained more than once, and apparently with good reason, that the Catalans wanted to get rid of them. But, despite all the fury, its opponents never once questioned the religious rationale of the Holy Office.

In ancien régime Spain, no popular movements attacked the Inquisition and no rioters laid a finger on its property. The exceptions, to be found principally in the eastern provinces of Spain, are notable. In 1591 the tribunal of Saragossa intervened rashly (as we have seen) in the Antonio Pérez affair and was directly attacked by the angry mob. In 1619 in Valencia the inquisitors had to take refuge when rioters protested against decrees prohibiting the cult of a popular local saint, Jeroni Simó.74 In 1628 the inquisitors of Barcelona reported in desperation to the Suprema: “the people of this land are insolent, rebellious and totally opposed to the Inquisition, and make particular efforts to do everything they can against it, and the nobility and other persons do the same in every way possible.”75 In the revolutionary Barcelona of 1640 the mob, informed that Castilian soldiers were lodged in the Inquisition, burst into the building, smashed down the doors, threatened the inquisitors and took away documentation. An inquisitor reported:

They tried to break into several other parts of the palace in order to find the hideout where they said the Castilians were. They leveled insults at us, among them that it would be fitting to hang the inquisitors by their feet and flog them till they confessed. On Christmas Day they came back and continued the riot. They went through all the files and took away a large quantity of papers.76

Not only in Catalonia but in all the peripheral realms of the peninsula, including Valencia, Navarre, the Basque country and Galicia, the tribunal never ceased to be regarded as a foreign institution because of its identification with Castilian hegemony.

The third reason for hostility was the evidently alien character of the tribunal. The inquisitors were Castilians, unable to speak the languages or dialects of the rural communities into which they intruded. They were city men, unwelcome in the quite different environment of country villages. Their visits, we have seen, were very rare indeed. In contrast to the welcome they usually gave to wandering preachers, villages were seldom pleased to see an inquisitor. In sixteenth-century Galicia, a parish priest begged his congregation to be deaf and dumb when the inquisitors visited. “Let us be very careful tomorrow,” he said, “when the inquisitor comes here. For the love of God, don’t go telling things about each other or meddle in things touching the Holy Office.”77 In seventeenth-century Catalonia the parish priest of Aiguaviva publicly rebuked the comisarios of the Inquisition when they came to check the baptismal records in order to carry out a proof of limpieza. “He told them not to write lies, and that it would not be the first time they had done so, by falsifying signatures and other things.”78

As we have seen, the effective contact of the tribunal with the people was at all times, outside the big towns, marginal. In sixteenth-century Mexico, “95 percent of the population never had any contact with the Inquisition.”79 A similar situation can be found in much of Spain. In Catalonia, “in over ninety percent of the towns, during more than three centuries of existence, the Holy Office never once intruded.”80 We have seen already that the rarity of visits through the countryside by inquisitors in effect cut off much of Spain from contact with the Inquisition. In Galicia the tribunal was almost unknown, functioning in the diocese of Ourense “for a total of only 16 months during the entire seventeenth century.”81 In the heartland of Castile, by contrast, communications were better and contact more effective. But even in the tribunal of Toledo townspeople denounced to the inquisitors outnumbered peasants by five to one,82 testimony to the difficulties of contact with the much larger rural population. Though the Inquisition was singularly effective in its initial campaign against alleged judaizers in Andalucia in the 1480s, therefore, there is good reason to conclude that it failed when it turned to matters that were not directly questions of heresy, and it never attempted at any time to impose social control over the people of Spain.

Though not always active, it remained in the background, its personnel eager to demonstrate that it had a real role to play. Outside of the notable periods of heresy hunting, the cases that came its way were trivial, and had little to do with enforcing the faith. If the inquisitors were lucky, they might pick up a vagrant.83 One such came their way in 1661 in the little village of Méntrida, southwest of Madrid, and we may focus on it as an ordinary case of contact between a Spaniard and the Holy Office in the high tide of empire. Domingo de Chaves was born in Galicia in the last years of King Philip II, and at the age of nine left home to work until he was thirteen as a farm laborer in Castile, moving on to serve in the kitchen of a noble household. At the age of twenty he enlisted in a regiment that went to Flanders, where he served fourteen years, and was captured by English pirates. A prisoner in London for a month, he was ransomed and returned to Flanders in time to take part in the disastrous battle of Rocroi (1643). He was a prisoner in France for a year, and then made his way to Spain, where he took part in campaigns in Catalonia and in Portugal. After a Spanish defeat in Portugal (1659), he returned to Castile and wandered round, looking for employment and begging for his living.

Now aged sixty-five, he was begging in the street in Méntrida when the parish priest approached him and advised him either to find work or suffer his lot with patience, reminding him at the same time that Christ had died for him. “He may have died for you,” Domingo retorted, “but not for me.” Puzzled by the reply, the priest questioned him further. “I am from England,” Domingo explained, “and am not a Christian!” “If you are not a Christian,” the priest responded, “why do you publicly carry a rosary in your hand?” “Only to deceive you so that you and others give me alms!” was Domingo’s cheerful reply. The town mayor was standing behind the priest. When he heard Domingo’s outrageous words he ordered him to be thrown into the town prison. Because heresy seemed to be involved, the prisoner was transferred later to the cells of the Inquisition in the city of Toledo.

Domingo’s full and fascinating life story, covering his wanderings throughout Spain and all over Western Europe, was subsequently narrated to the inquisitors and the secretary, who copied it all down. His words had been typical for a man of his background, illiterate (he had never been to school) but basically a Christian (he knew the Our Father and the Hail Mary), and the inquisitors could hardly ask for more. It was the condition of the majority of all Spaniards. After listening to his life history, they dismissed his case without even a reprimand. The Inquisition still had a role to play when its attention was drawn to cases like that of Domingo, but the religion of the people was not in its power to oversee or control, and Spaniards were already beginning to treat the tribunal as an irrelevance.

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