We are today so uncertain and diverse in our opinions as to the origin and destiny of the world and man that we have ceased, in most countries, to punish people for differing from us in their religious beliefs. Our present intolerance is rather for those who question our economic or political principles, and we explain our frightened dogmatism on the ground that any doubt thrown upon these cherished assumptions endangers our national solidarity and survival. Until the middle of the seventeenth century Christians, Jews, and Moslems were more acutely concerned with religion than we are today; their theologies were their most prized and confident possessions; and they looked upon those who rejected these creeds as attacking the foundations of social order and the very significance of human life. Each group was hardened by certainty into intolerance, and branded the others as infidels.

The Inquisition developed most readily among persons whose religious tenets had been least affected by education and travel, and whose reason was most subject to custom and imagination. Nearly all medieval Christians, through childhood schooling and surroundings, believed that the Bible had been dictated in every word by God, and that the Son of God had directly established the Christian Church. It seemed to follow, from these premises, that God wished all nations to be Christian, and that the practice of non-Christian—certainly of anti-Christian—religions must be a crass insult to the Deity. Moreover, since any substantial heresy must merit eternal punishment, its prosecutors could believe (and many seem to have sincerely believed) that in snuffing out a heretic they were saving his potential converts, and perhaps himself, from everlasting hell.

Probably Isabella, who lived in the very odor of theologians, shared these views. Ferdinand, being a hardened man of the world, may have doubted some of them; but he was apparently convinced that uniformity of religious belief would make Spain easier to rule, and stronger to strike its enemies. At his request and Isabella’s, Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull (November 1, 1478) authorizing them to appoint six priests, holding degrees in theology and canon law, as an inquisitorial board to investigate and punish heresy. The remarkable feature of this bull was its empowerment of the Spanish sovereigns to nominate the inquisitorial personnel, who in earlier forms of the Inquisition had been chosen by the provincial heads of the Dominican or Franciscan orders. Here for three generations, as in Protestant Germany and England in the next century, religion became subject to the state. Technically, however, the inquisitors were only nominated by the sovereigns, and were then appointed by the pope; the authority of the inquisitors derived from this papal sanction; the institution remained ecclesiastical, an organ of the Church, which was an organ of the state. The government was to pay the expenses, and receive the net income, of the Inquisition. The sovereigns kept detailed watch over its operations, and appeal could be made to them from its decisions. Of all Ferdinand’s instruments of rule, this became his favorite. His motives were not primarily financial; he profited from the confiscated property of the condemned, but he refused tempting bribes from rich victims to overrule the inquisitors. The aim was to unify Spain.

The inquisitors were authorized to employ ecclesiastical and secular aides as investigators and executive officers. After 1483 the entire organization was put under a governmental agency, the Concejo de la Suprema y General Inquisicion, usually termed the Suprema. The jurisdiction of the Inquisition extended to all Christians in Spain; it did not touch unconverted Jews or Moors; its terrors were directed at converts suspected of relapsing into Judaism or Mohammedanism, and at Christians charged with heresy; till 1492 the unchristened Jew was safer than the baptized. Priests, monks, and friars claimed exemption from the Inquisition, but their claim was denied; the Jesuits resisted its jurisdiction for half a century, but they too were overcome. The only limit to the power of the Suprema was the authority of the sovereigns; and in later centuries even this was ignored. The Inquisition demanded, and usually received, co-operation from all secular officials.

The Inquisition made its own laws and procedural code. Before setting up its tribunal in a town, it issued to the people, through the parish pulpits, an “Edict of Faith” requiring all who knew of any heresy to reveal it to the inquisitors. Everyone was encouraged to be a delator, to inform against his neighbors, his friends, his relatives. (In the sixteenth century, however, the accusation of near relatives was not allowed.) Informants were promised full secrecy and protection; a solemn anathema—i.e., excommunication and curse—was laid upon all who knew and concealed a heretic. If a baptized Jew still harbored hopes of a Messiah to come; if he kept the dietary laws of the Mosaic code; if he observed the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest, or changed his linen for that day; if he celebrated in any way any Jewish holy day; if he circumcised any of his children, or gave any of them a Hebrew name, or blessed them without making the sign of the cross; if he prayed with motions of the head, or repeated a Biblical psalm without adding a Gloria; if he turned his face to the wall when dying: these and the like were described by the inquisitors as signs of secret heresy, to be reported at once to the tribunal.28 Within a “Term of Grace” any person who felt guilty of heresy might come and confess it; he would be fined or assigned a penance, but would be forgiven, on condition that he should reveal any knowledge he might have of other heretics.

The inquisitors seem to have sifted with care the evidence collected by informers and investigators. When the tribunal was unanimously convinced of a person’s guilt it issued a warrant for his arrest. The accused was kept incommunicado; no one but agents of the Inquisition was allowed to speak with him; no relative might visit him. Usually he was chained.29 He was required to bring his own bed and clothing, and to pay all the expenses of his incarceration and sustenance. If he did not offer sufficient cash for this purpose, enough of his property was sold at auction to meet the costs. The remainder of his goods was sequestrated by Inquisition officers lest it be hidden or disposed of to escape confiscation. In most cases some of it was sold to maintain such of the victim’s family as could not work.

When the arrested person was brought to trial the tribunal, having already judged him guilty, laid upon him the burden of proving his innocence. The trial was secret and private, and the defendant had to swear never to reveal any facts about it in case he should be released. No witnesses were adduced against him, none was named to him; the inquisitors excused this procedure as necessary to protect their informants. The accused was not at first told what charges had been brought against him; he was merely invited to confess his own derelictions from orthodox belief and worship, and to betray all persons whom he suspected of heresy. If his confession satisfied the tribunal, he might receive any punishment short of death. If he refused to confess he was permitted to choose advocates to defend him; meanwhile he was kept in solitary confinement. In many instances he was tortured to elicit a confession. Usually the case was allowed to drag on for months, and the solitary confinement in chains often sufficed to secure any confession desired.

Torture was applied only after a majority of the tribunal had voted for it on the ground that guilt had been made probable, though not certain, by the evidence. Often the torture so decreed was postponed in the hope that dread of it would induce confession. The inquisitors appear to have sincerely believed that torture was a favor to a defendant already accounted guilty, since it might earn him, by confession, a slighter penalty than otherwise; even if he should, after confession, be condemned to death, he could enjoy priestly absolution to save him from hell. However, confession of guilt was not enough, torture might also be applied to compel a confessing defendant to name his associates in heresy or crime. Contradictory witnesses might be tortured to find out which was telling the truth; slaves might be tortured to bring out testimony against their masters. No limits of age could save the victims; girls of thirteen and women of eighty were subjected to the rack; but the rules of the Spanish Inquisition usually forbade the torture of nursing women, or persons with weak hearts, or those accused of minor heresies, such as sharing the widespread opinion that fornication was only a venial sin. Torture was to be kept short of permanently maiming the victim, and was to be stopped whenever the attendant physician so ordered. It was to be administered only in the presence of the inquisitors in charge of the case, and a notary, a recording secretary, and a representative of the local bishop. Methods varied with time and place. The victim might have his hands tied behind his back and be suspended by them; he might be bound into immobility and then have water trickle down his throat till he nearly choked; he might have cords tied around his arms and legs and tightened till they cut through the flesh to the bone. We are told that the tortures used by the Spanish Inquisition were milder than those employed by the earlier papal Inquisition, or by the secular courts of the age.30 The main torture was prolonged imprisonment.

The Inquisition tribunal was not only prosecutor, judge, and jury; it also issued decrees on faith and morals, and established a gradation of penalties. In many cases it was merciful, excusing part of the punishment because of the penitent’s age, ignorance, poverty, intoxication, or generally good reputation. The mildest penalty was a reprimand. More grievous was compulsion to make a public abjuration of heresy—which left even the innocent branded to the end of his days. Usually the convicted penitent was required to attend Mass regularly, wearing the “sanbenito”—a garment marked with a flaming cross. He might be paraded through the streets stripped to the waist and bearing the insignia of his offense. He and his descendants might be barred from public office forever. He might be banished from his city, rarely from Spain. He might be scourged with one or two hundred lashes to “the limit of safety”; this was applied to women as well as men. He might be imprisoned, or condemned to the galleys—which Ferdinand recommended as more useful to the state. He might pay a substantial fine, or have his property confiscated. In several instances dead men were accused of heresy, were tried post-mortem, and were condemned to confiscation, in which case the heirs forfeited his bequests. Informers against dead heretics were offered 30 to 50 per cent of the proceeds. Families fearful of such retroactive judgments sometimes paid “compositions” to the inquisitors as insurance against confiscation of their legacies. Wealth became a peril to its owner, a temptation to informers, inquisitors, and the government. As money flowed into the coffers of the Inquisition its officials became less zealous to preserve the orthodox faith than to acquire gold, and corruption flourished piously.31

The ultimate punishment was burning at the stake. This was reserved for persons who, judged guilty of serious heresy, failed to confess before judgment was pronounced, and for those who, having confessed in time, and having been “reconciled” or forgiven, had relapsed into heresy. The Inquisition itself professed that it never killed, but merely surrendered the condemned person to the secular authorities; however, it knew that the criminal law made burning at the stake mandatory in all convictions for major and impenitent heresy. The official presence of ecclesiastics at the auto-da-fé frankly revealed the responsibility of the Church. The “act of faith” was not merely the burning, it was the whole impressive and terrible ceremony of sentence and execution. Its purpose was not only to terrify potential offenders, but to edify the people as with a foretaste of the Last Judgment.

At first the procedure was simple: those condemned to death were marched to the public plaza, they were bound in tiers on a pyre, the inquisitors sat in state on a platform facing it, a last appeal for confessions was made, the sentences were read, the fires were lit, the agony was consummated. But as burnings became more frequent and suffered some loss in their psychological power, the ceremony was made more complex and awesome, and was staged with all the care and cost of a major theatrical performance. When possible it was timed to celebrate the accession, marriage, or visit of a Spanish king, queen, or prince. Municipal and state officials, Inquisition personnel, local priests and monks, were invited—in effect required—to attend. On the eve of the execution these dignitaries joined in a somber procession through the main streets of the city to deposit the green cross of the Inquisition upon the altar of the cathedral or principal church. A final effort was made to secure confessions from the condemned; many then yielded, and had their sentences commuted to imprisonment for a term or for life. On the following morning the prisoners were led through dense crowds to a city square: impostors, blasphemers, bigamists, heretics, relapsed converts; in later days, Protestants; sometimes the procession included effigies of absent condemnees, or boxes carrying the bones of persons condemned after death. In the square, on one or several elevated stages, sat the inquisitors, the secular and monastic clergy, and the officials of town and state; now and then the King himself presided. A sermon was preached, after which all present were commanded to recite an oath of obedience to the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and a pledge to denounce and prosecute heresy in all its forms and everywhere Then, one by one, the prisoners were led before the tribunal, and their sentences were read. We must not imagine any brave defiances; probably, at this stage, every prisoner was near to spiritual exhaustion and physical collapse. Even now he might save his life by confession; in that case the Inquisition usually contented itself with scourging him, confiscating his goods, and imprisoning him for life. If the confession was withheld till after sentence had been pronounced, the prisoner earned the mercy of being strangled before being burned; and as such last-minute confessions were frequent, burning alive was relatively rare. Those who were judged guilty of major heresy, but denied it to the end, were (till 1725) refused the last sacraments of the Church, and were, by the intention of the Inquisition, abandoned to everlasting hell. The “reconciled” were now taken back to prison; the impenitent were “relaxed” to the secular arm, with a pious caution that no blood should be shed. These were led out from the city between throngs that had gathered from leagues around for this holiday spectacle. Arrived at the place prepared for execution, the confessed were strangled, then burned; the recalcitrant were burned alive. The fires were fed till nothing remained of the dead but ashes, which were scattered over fields and streams. The priests and spectators returned to their altars and their homes, convinced that a propitiatory offering had been made to a God insulted by heresy. Human sacrifice had been restored.

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