By Luke Lancaster
Did the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church torture and kill 68 million non-Catholics over the centuries? Many believe so. Careful research, however, shows that this is not the case. Rather, those who hated the Catholic Church created myths like these to smear the reputation of the Faith. Anti-Catholic Protestants, Anti-Catholic Enlightenment figures, etc. all made up exaggerated numbers during the 16th century. The Spanish Inquisition was not even operated by the Church. Rather, it was operated by the royal government on baptized Catholics and was more about politics and national security. During this secular operation, a significantly smaller number of people died than the crazy number listed above. There were abuses and anti-semitic desires, but the point of this article is to show that the claim that millions died is 100% mythology.
In the 15th century, a situation arose quite unlike the first Inquisition in the Middle Ages for the Albigensian heresy. Within Spain, multiple religions lived together: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Some Muslims and Jews had converted to Christianity, and they were called the “conversos.” Some of those conversos appeared to have been false, though, for they had continued doing their previous religious practices. A big question was whether their conversion was authentic. Rumors spread, saying that the conversos were not authentic, but that they were secret Muslims or Jews. This would have caused a tense environment, for Muslim armies existed in the surrounding region of Spain. It was thought that the conversos were really spies that were conspiring with Spain’s enemies to take over the land. These rumors did not have much substance, though. Nevertheless, to investigate the matter more thoroughly, the secular authorities requested permission from the Pope to perform an Inquisition. Although national security was a question, the Spanish crown did not only want to investigate whether there were baptized Christians secretly still Jewish and Islamic living in Spain. They also wanted to consolidate their strength and power in the south of Spain, for that area was not under the crown. So, a lot of this was generated by politics.
How the Inquisition Operated
The Inquisitor general, Tomas Torquemada, oversaw a council of 6 members as appointed by the Spanish king. Underneath them, individual tribunals operated within certain cities. The Inquisitors were to enter a town and preach at Mass about their presence. They only had authority over the baptized Christians, that is why they preached at Mass. They had nothing to do with practicing Muslims and practicing Jews. It was an internal, not an external affair. A grace period of 30-40 days was given by the Inquisitors for those who repented of holding a heretical teaching, and they were given a light penance. After this period, the tribunal was open to accusations. Those accused would receive a court hearing.
During the court hearings, only solid evidence was accepted. The accused heretic could describe what people despised them - that way the Inquisition would not listen to such biased testimony. The accused heretic could provide his or her own witnesses, and not only that, but disable opposing witnesses. The accused could also have an advocate, which was similar to a lawyer. During the trial, if it was clear that the person had committed heresy, then the person could provide extenuating circumstances. He or she could plead being young, not understanding the faith, etc. If the person confessed and repented, then penance would be given, and it was over. This happened for most cases. Some of the penances could be having to wear a yellow garment with a diagonal cross on it, paying a monetary fine, being banished from the region, being sent to prison (which was most of the time just house arrest, placement in a hospital, or placement in a monastery), and flogging.
If the person appeared to have been a heretic, but would not confess it, then torture could be utilized. It was used in about 2% of the cases. The torture could be applied only one time and only for 15 minutes. Whereas popular myth tells us that torture was applied all the time and for terribly long periods of time, history shows that it was not as horrible as it might seem. The whole torture event was carefully documented, and doctors were present. It was not for punishment, but to elicit a confession. The entire torture procedure was performed by the secular government, unlike the typical Google image of a cleric performing the torture.
After the tribunal finished their legal decision, the accused person would be processed into the central square of the city where the sentence would be announced. If the person was guilty, then he would be handed over to the state, and the state would administer capital punishment. Abuses and irregularities in the handling of cases prompted Pope Sixtus IV to intervene. He attempted to correct the abuses with a letter, but King Fernando simply got upset, sent the letter back, and ignored him. Pope Innocent VII complained about the abuses as well. Does that mean that Spain killed millions of people, then? Well, here are some statistics by reputable historians.
Henry Kamen, a member of the Royal Historical Society, said, “Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition” (The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, p. 60). He continues, “[I]t is clear that for most of its existence that Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability…it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe (p. 203).
Professor of Medieval History at UPenn, Edward Peters, says, “The best estimate is that around 3000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than in comparable secular courts” (Inquisition, p. 87).
As seen, these credible history professors do not believe that the Inquisition killed millions of people. There were abuses, certainly, and those should not have ever occurred. The point of this article, though, is that millions were not killed. See also the BBC’s documentary in 1994 on the Myths of the Spanish Inquisition on YouTube.