How the Spanish Inquisition Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Like I do every Thursday when we have this podcast, I drink my morning coffee out of my Thomas Jefferson mug so I can find a way to bring something about Thomas Jefferson into whatever we are talking about. And one of the principles that our country was founded on was the separation of church and state. And Jefferson was a strong advocate of that. And I think today, issues arise every now and then where the line between church and state is a little bit blurred. I guess a couple of years ago, one of the debates was prayer and schools. Should there be prayer in public schools? And that was a church and state issue. I think for the most part people would agree that the separation is a good thing, or a mediocre thing, depending on which side of the debate you fall. But if we look back at medieval Europe, we see strong proof that separating church and state is an excellent idea. Because when it's not and the church is corrupt and controls the state, things go to hell.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And especially, the Spanish Inquisition - which I can't believe you connected Thomas Jefferson to, but you did it.

Candace Gibson: It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it is.

Candace Gibson: Or should I say seven?

Jane McGrath: It's often grouped together with the crusades, I think - just dark periods in the church's history in particular. And that, too, is like a combination of the political state and religion. And people say that horrible atrocities came about because these were too close and because there were abuses. Because the political state was taking liberties and using religion against the people.

Candace Gibson: I think you're right, Jane. I think there are a lot of similarities between the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. And one of the main reasons is that the church was using the argument that God was on its side. And who are the monarchs to buck the church when the church is essentially a direct agent of God.

Jane McGrath: And also in connection to the crusades, I think it often gets oversimplified in history class for a lot of reasons. But when you take a close look at it, not all of the actors who were involved had the bad motives that are associated. And it's interesting to take a look back at the myth surrounding the Inquisition and compare that to the reality that happened.

Candace Gibson: That's true. And if you want to boil the Inquisition down to a basic point, it was a movement about purging. And that may be a rather harsh word. We can certainly think of a lot of other historical movements that were about purging or cleansing a population of a certain type of people. And it wasn't necessarily that the Spanish Inquisition was after one particular opposing religion. They went after Jews, Muslim wars, Protestants, and Lutherans specifically. They were after anyone who would upset the status quo.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it's interesting to see the original purpose of the Inquisition - it was only to question Catholics themselves and not any other religion. The idea is you don't want heresy inside your own religion. The Catholic Church was looking at as a bad apple spoils the whole bunch, but then it started getting involved because all of these other religions were being persecuted in Spain at the time. And so they were basically more or less forced to convert. And then all of these problems came in with the Inquisition.

Candace Gibson: Right. Because when you have people converting to a religion on the basis of fear, and especially fear of death or being extradited, you have to assume they're not converting with a sincere faith in your god. They're doing it so they're not killed and they're not expelled from you country. But before we go any further, let's give you all a framework here. So we're talking about Spain, specifically around the 11th-19th centuries. It also might help if we defined heretic in terms of the Spanish Inquisition. And a heretic essentially was someone who was declaring beliefs that went against the Catholic Church in public. So I guess you could be a heretic in your own home, but if you weren't in a public forum or public place talking about it -

Jane McGrath: Where you could prove it.

Candace Gibson: Right. Then you could be a private heretic. So public declaration of beliefs. Secondly, you had to have been approached by a member of the church who had tried to educate you on the fallacy of your beliefs, and you would'

ve had to have made a stand that you would not renounce your beliefsJane McGrath: And we should also put this into context, that it's called the Spanish Inquisition because there was actually more inquisitions than the Spanish one. There was one in Portugal. There was a Roman Inquisition, which was famous - you probably heard of how Galileo was persecuted for his ideas of the earth revolving around the sun.

Candace Gibson: Blasphemous.

Jane McGrath: Exactly. And that happened - it had to do with the Roman Inquisition. And so if you think of the Spanish Inquisition in relation to everything else, it's seen as the most intense inquisition.

Candace Gibson: It is, because they were after these heretics who also - and there's two more points we should touch on - who were trying to spread their beliefs to other people. And lastly, who were possessed of their own free will and not of the devil - and I guess, for me, when I think of heretics and purging heresy from a confined group of people, the thing that comes to mind is the Salem Witch Trials. But in that instance we know that those girls were possessed either by the devil, or maybe even a type of -

Jane McGrath: Supposedly.

Candace Gibson: - moldy grain, who knows? But in Spain at this time, it was much more about preserving the authority of the church and of the monarch, and also it was a little bit mercenary, too. Because the bright side for the financial aspect of the inquisition was that when someone was accused of heresy, all of his belongings were confiscated.

Jane McGrath: Right. That muddles the motivations of the people who are accusing.

Candace Gibson: Again. Like a flashback to the crusades. Monetary measures.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And it's interesting. There were all of these motivations involved, the religious trying to purge out heretics. Political - the monarchs at the time were Ferdinand and Isabella, and they were staunch Catholics. And they used the Inquisition partly to unify control of the country and secure their power there. And like you said, the financial motivations - and this all mixed in very well with what was going on at the time, which is a growing sentiment of anti-Semitism. So once these Jews were being persecuted in Spain, and some were forced to convert, it was very easy for the people to start accusing Jews of not being true Catholics.

Candace Gibson: Definitely. And in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella were up to other things, too, as you'll recall. They sent Columbus on his merry way that same year as well. But he issued the Alhambra Decree. And that ordered all the Jews out of Spain. And we talked about earlier how some would convert to Catholicism so that they could stay. But they were not welcomed by other members of the Catholic Church. And we should also give you guys and idea of how these inquisitions were carried out. And Pope Gregory XI began this grass roots movement of the Inquisition back in 1231, which was a long time before the Alhambra Decree. But it started with the establishment of these tribunals. And he picked theologians from the Dominican order who were very educated, well versed in the Bible - they knew it backwards and forwards. So he a long time ago set up the precedent of these tribunals of very religious people, very smart people, would be able to interrogate and ask questions and trick and fool people into confessing.

Jane McGrath: Because these Dominicans were so well versed in detailed obscure theology, they could easily ask a question - like if it was a Dominican who was really going after someone with bad motivations, they could as a very obscure question and be like, "Well, what would you say about this?" And if they happen to give the wrong answer, the Dominicans could say, "Well, that's not technically true."

Candace Gibson: Right. Or the question itself, whether it was about Bible knowledge the Jews might not have had, or the Moors or someone else - the question itself could be so obtuse, no one in their right mind could answer it. And that was the upper hand. So we know the type of people who are conducting the inquisitions. We know who's under the inquisition, who's being inquired after. And we also know that it was a constantly evolving process. We see the Jews being persecuted in the 15th century. And we see when Spain conquers Granada, it's doing the same thing to the Moors. And then in the 16th century, they're going after the Protestants. So it's this continuing cycle of, "Who can we bring into this fold next?"

Jane McGrat h: And I think it's interesting about the Jews in particular, because anti-Semitism started way back in the 14th century, and a lot of it stemmed from the Bubonic Plague. Jews were often blamed for this. I've heard the theory that Jews kept more cats, so their cats would kill rats which carried the fleas that carried the plague. So it seemed to many people that less Jews were dying of the plague, so people blamed the Jews for causing it. So this fed a lot of anti-Semitism. And then by about 1348 - and then again, in 1391 - there were violent attacks and massacres - they're called pogroms - against Jews in Spain.

Candace Gibson: And the difficult thing about being brought to one of these tribunals if you were a Jew, a Moor, or a Lutheran is that you had to testify on your behalf. If you did not testify, it was automatically assumed that you were guilty of heresy. And the scary thing was that you could be brought before a tribunal and not told what the charge was. And also, you didn't know how else was going to be testifying against you. And you didn't have a lawyer or anyone else to help you in your case. And the same people who were conducting the Inquisition were also the ones who issued the punishment. So it was a very corrupt matter and a very corrupt state of affairs.

Jane McGrath: And another important term to remember when you're talking about the Inquisition in history is auto de fe - these were famous ceremonial sentencing of heretics. And it was an elaborate and spectacular procession and a mass, and then you give an oath of obedience to the inquisition. And then there was a sermon, and at the end they read the sentences to give to the heretics. And although they didn't actually punish them and carry out the sentences at the ceremony, a lot of people later associated them altogether.

Candace Gibson: A lot of people associate the Inquisition with torture. And I think that certainly is one of the lasting legacies of the Spanish Inquisition - that rapid fire questioning and then the torture that accompanied it. But you should know and be clear on the fact that torture didn't become a part of the Inquisition until around 1252. That was when Pope Anderson V issued the bull that permitted torture to extract confession from the supposed heretics.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And I was reading historian Helen Rawlings, and she was arguing that, although the Inquisition was associated with torture and the death penalty, they almost exclusively implemented these things in the first two decades of the Inquisition. And she compares this to other countries in Europe at the time, like in England and around Germany, where they were burning heretics for a much longer time, up until the 1600s.

Candace Gibson: And we know from the secret Vatican records that were released 100 years after all the Inquisition activities had ended, we know that there was actually a very small percentage of heretics who died. And I think that Pope John Paul II made this clear in 1998. He gave a speech to talk about reparations and working past all of this, and understanding the proper lasting legacy of the Catholic church. And I think he pointed out that out of 40,000 accused heretics, maybe 0.1 were actually killed.

Jane McGrath: I've heard that stat. And it's interesting. All of these historians are coming out in the 20th century, if you look at the timeline of this, and they're starting to question the myths surrounding the Inquisition and the propaganda, basically. And historians are saying that a lot of this is exaggerated, the torture and everything that happened with the Inquisition, because partly of the Protestant Revolution - anti Catholicism propaganda - and political enemies of Spain. Anti-Spain sentiment would exaggerate this as well. If you just consider it in context compared to other things that were going on, it's interesting to see the myth that is central of the Spanish Inquisition, that it was the worst thing happening and nothing that horrible has happened anywhere else. When really, it's not that simple.

Candace Gibson: And I think that the main purpose, we mustn't forget, is that the members of the Inquisition wanted a confession from the supposed heretics so they could bring them back into the church community. They didn't want anyone to have wandered off the path, as it were. Yeah, it was because they were a threat to the status quo of authority, but also they were believers and they really did believe that -

Jane McGrath: This would save their soul.

Candace Gibson: - this would save their soul. Exactly. So, yes, it may have been about money. Yes, it may have been about power, but it was also about looking out for one's fellow man.

Jane McGrath: And some contemporary opinions of the time, some were totally for it saying it will save their souls and they needed to take these harsh actions, but some others are more sympathetic. And even from a logical standpoint, they saw how counterproductive it was to be so harsh and persecute people like Jews. That would drive them to exile, which would basically put them in a position of never being exposed to Catholicism. They would never be converted. So there were different opinions at the time, too, that were more sensible.

Candace Gibson: So those heretics who did stay and did confess, whether they actually were heretics or they were confessing because they had been tortured or questioned to the po int of confessing, they were given penances. And some of them were as simple as - well, maybe not simple is the right word to use. But they were given penances of wearing heavy crosses around their necks, or they were made to go on pilgrimages. And others were forced to stay in prison, but I think that the legacy of torture that endures in regards to the Spanish Inquisition is because the torture - and pardon my glee in saying this - it was so amazing and creatively constructed. I know that's a crazy thing to say, but you look at some of these -

Jane McGrath: You have a crazy look in your eyes.

Candace Gibson: I know. I just glow thinking about it. But you look at some of these devices that they used, like the rack and thumbscrews and burning coals on people's bodies, this is the stuff that horror movies and bodice-ripping historical dramas are made of. This is what people want to remember about history, I think.

Jane McGrath: That's true. It's more dramatic.

Candace Gibson: It is. It's simpler to reduce the Spanish Inquisition down to a person being stretched across a rack and their joints being pulled in opposite directions to the point where their ligaments snap and their bones come out of their sockets.

Jane McGrath: Right.

Candace Gibson: I'm just saying, it is one way to think about the Spanish Inquisition. But it should not be the only way. So whether my bloodthirstiness has intrigued you for more details, or you want to know more about the Catholic church and the Reformation, medieval England, or Ferdinand and Isabella and Columbus, be sure to check out And if you have any questions for Jane and me, please email us at

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