Tremendous shame and indignation

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The following essay is taken the works of Jean Dumont, a professor of history at the Sorbonne in Paris. It is one of several essays in his book L’Eglise au Risque de l’Histoire - the Church at Risk from History. It is, in my opinion, the best work on this complex subject available. The translation for which I am responsible was approved by the author. I have tried without success to get it published in this country. Because of its importance, I have taken the liberty of placing it on my web page.


The Spanish Inquisition is a subject of passionate polemic born of national, confessional, and then ideological confrontation. History - the only trustworthy witness - has not been given the freedom to speak. So much is this the case that a response to this true witness is and has always been forbidden.The basis of Father Lallemand’s contention has been forgotten However, as modern day specialists have shown, there is no doubt but that in a number of spheres (in dealing with sorcerers, blasphemers, writers, etc.) the Spanish Inquisition showed itself much more moderate and understanding than the civil justices (parliaments, provosts, bailiffs) which usurped the powers of the Inquisition in other countries.  


Misinformed by the anti-inquisitorial attitudes promulgated successively and in a cumulative manner by the Protestants, the "philosophers," the revolutionaries, the  anticlericals and the liberals, Catholics themselves feel an insuperable shame and indignation whenever they hear the words "Spanish inquisition" mentioned. This is particularly true of French Catholics who have been subjected to additional anti-Spanish polemic, carried on since the sixteenth century by "politicized" Catholics allied with Protestant Huguenots against the League, and then by the pamphleteers who engaged Cardinal Richelieu in his struggle against the Spanish hegemony. All this is further reinforced, even in our own times, by the official "secular" education.

This "black legend," as Pierre Chaunu has justly brought out, was only "a cynical tool of psychological warfare" up to the time of the Renaissance and the classical period. Yet it is the foundation on which all the usual presentations of the Spanish Inquisition are based.


What is worse is the inappropriate and totally unacceptable effort of Catholics, who in their desire to exculpate the Church, place the principal responsibility for this [seeming] abomination on the Spanish throne. Thus for example, at the start of the 19th Century, Joseph de Maistre in his Letters to a Russian gentleman on the Spanish Inquisition claimed that "everything attributed to this tribunal that was harsh or odious, especially the death penalty, should be charged against the government...While on the other hand, clemency was a characteristic of the Church."

The affirmation is both inexact and offensive. The Spanish Inquisition was clearly, as we shall see, both in its actions and its methods, much more an ecclesiastical than a governmental institution. The faithful should not seek to win the respect of anyone by passing the blame onto others.

How is it that Catholics do not see that imputing what they consider to be the evils of the Inquisition exclusively to the Spanish monarchs is an indefensible naivete; a naivete which leads their adversaries to laugh at them, for quite the opposite is the case. The Spanish monarchs only established the Inquisition by implementing the Papal Bull Exigit sincerae devotioinis of 1478. And in 1496, after sixteen years of intense inquisitorial activity, independent since 1494 from all possibility of appealing to Rome, these Monarchs, namely Isabelle and Ferdinand, by the Papal Bull Si convenit promulgated in the consistory of December 2, 1496. were given the official and unprecedented title of "Catholic Kings" which has always been retained by them. And this was after Pope Sixtus IV in 1482 for Castile (Bull Apostolicae Sedis), and in 1483 for Aragon (brief Supplicari Nobis completed in 1486) had personally named the famous Tomas de Torquemada as Inquisitor and then as Inquisitor-general.


And how is it that Catholics, especially those who claim to be historians, have not drawn attention to the fact that the masters of modern historiography who by the nature of things should be the antagonistic to the Spanish Inquisition, currently venture to disseminate highly balanced judgments on the Spanish Inquisition? Thus Fernand Braudel, a professor at the College of France, makes note of "the relatively small number of victims" of the Holy Office. In like manner, the Israeli specialist Leon Poliakov develops the same observation in more than ten pages of his History of Anti-Semitism.  Again, Marcel Bataillon, also a professor at the College of France, notes that "The Spanish Inquisition is characterized less by its cruelty than by the power of the apparatus [...] at its command."  Similarly the Enciclopedia judaica castellana (The Spanish Jewish Encyclopedia) states that "The Spanish Inquisition was, for its time, much less inhumane than she is described as being. She was animated by idealism."  Thus, the Lutheran authority Ernst Schafer, like the Israeli specialist Haim Beinar, tells us that a careful study of the inquisitorial process reveals that the inquisitors were far from acting as arbitrarily as is so often claimed. Returning once again to Braudel, we find he contradicts the claim that the Spanish Inquisition was unpopular, and states that it democratically incarnated "the most profound desire of the masses." All this is confirmed and elaborated on by Spanish-Jewish professor Americo Castro at Princeton who in addition does a great deal to destroy the accusation of anti-Jewish racism so often laid at the door of the Inquisition. "The Church State [The Inquisition] was [in Spain] a quasi revolutionary conquest realized by the masses who considered themselves wronged, and by the Conversos (Jewish converts) or their descendants, who were anxiously seeking to forget their origins."


How is it that Catholics do not realize that in condemning the Spanish Inquisition in absolute terms, they also condemn the Papacy and the Catholic Kings, along with all those who actively participated in this enterprise, individuals who are the true glory of Catholicism (another fact which has escaped their attention)? Many of the Inquisitors, starting with the Inquisitor-generals Torquemada and Deza, belonged to the Dominican Order, the same Dominican order which was at the same time the champion, even going to extremes, along with Vitoria and Las Casas, of the rights of man. Another Inquisitor-general was Jimenez de Cisneros, the well known reformer and promoter of humanism, who belonged to the Franciscan order. Again, they included Jesuits such as the great historian, political theoretician and economist Juan de Mariana. Beyond this there was a long line of equally well known bishops such as Alonso Manrique, the reformer and friend of Erasmus, and Bernardo de Sandoval, the patron of Cervantes, known for his inexhaustible charity.  The Inquisition also produced two great Catholic play-writers, Lope de Vega, an "intimate" of the Holy Office, and the "Inquisitorial poet" Calderon of Barca, the only Catholic who can be considered an equal to Shakespeare, etc.

The time has come to dispel the lies and present a honest picture of the Spanish Inquisition; to provide the true history which has been suppressed for so long by the passions of polemic. As will become obvious, this portrait will be provided because of the opportunity that we have had to study the subject in depth, and above all by the large number of documents and books of the period that we have collected or discovered. These documents quietly destroy the  view which has been so systematically deformed. By means of them we will shed light on the aggregated silence of history.


The first characteristic of an authentic portrayal: the Inquisition was not a Spanish , or to be more precise, a Castilian tradition. During the Middle Ages, when the Inquisition was imposed throughout France, the Castilians were ignorant of its existence. They knew nothing about the pyres of the Albigensians or of the Templers - not even about that of St. Joan of Arc. Tolerance and the ability to live together with others were so well established in Castile - which was not the less Christian for all that - that the epitaph of the Saint King Ferdinand (cousin of the French Saint Louis) in the Cathedral of Seville was drawn up in four languages,  Latin, Castilian, Arabic and Hebrew.  The prejudicial belief in "Spanish fanaticism" flies in the face of well established historic patterns and facts up to the time that the Inquisition was established in Castile. So much is this the case that in a letter addressed by the Spanish Franciscans to their Jeromite compatriots asking for the establishment of the Inquisition in Castile, dated August 10, 1461, one reads: "It is unnecessary to establish an inquisition in the kingdom against the heretics such as was done in France and in so many other Christian realms and provinces.

Moreover, in mediaeval Spain, there was no racism on the part of the Christians against their very numerous Jewish compatriots which constituted perhaps as much as 10% of the population. "During the Middle Ages," Americo Castro notes, "many illustrious Christian families mixed their blood with the families of Jews for financial reasons or because of the beauty of the Jewish woman; before the 15th century no one was scandalized by this." As a result, there was no racism of a biological nature. Nor was there any racism based on religion. There was in fact a continuous dialogue between the Christians and the Jews. Such is exemplified by the debate in Tortosa (1414) where the Christian argument triumphed and where thirty out of 40 rabbis that participated were converted of their own free will to Christianity, followed shortly thereafter by thousands of their co-religionists.

The product of this double rapprochement - both biological and religious - was the highly significant Spanish converso, that is to say Christians with Jewish blood who were soon to wield a power highly disproportionate to their number. The conversos tended to monopolize finance, the collection of taxes, medicine, municipal government, the courts, the Church (innumerable bishops were conversos), the police (Santa Hermandad) and the Orders of Chivalry. By means of intermarriage, they penetrated the nobility. This was to such a degree true that the future King, Ferdinand the Catholic, was born of Jewish blood, his mother being one Henriquez. In a similar manner the intelligentsia, ministers, secretaries, and chroniclers of the Catholic Kings were born of Jewish blood; men such as Diego de Valera, Hernando de Talavera, Hernando del Pulgar, Miguel Perez de Almazan (the first secretary of State who was placed in charge of Inquisitorial affairs). It is hardly necessary to point out that in no other Christian country did such a situation prevail; certainly not in France from which the Jews had been completely and definitely expelled in 1394 (they had been expelled from England in 1290).


In the face of such prevailing conditions in Spain, why was the Inquisition required; how could it have been established; and why was it primarily directed against the conversos of Jewish origin? Only because there was a deterioration in the ability of these groups to live together starting at the end of the XIVth century and progressively increasing to a critical point during the second half of the XVth century.

Because of the increase in converso power, the older established Christians everywhere felt themselves increasingly threatened, both with regard to their property and their identity. At first they reacted in a disorganized manner, but then in an increasingly systemic way, against Jews who fostered the increasing influence and domination of their brother conversos. In 1391 there was a bloody slaughter of Jews throughout much of Spain. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of conversos because many Jews sought safety in baptism - though now it was under constraint, or at least indirectly so. During the following half century the incessant preaching of Saint Vincent Ferrar, who was certainly not anti-Semitic, resulted in another wave of conversions, often of inadequately catechized Spanish Jews. As a result, while the numbers increased, the conversos phenomena became more and more mixed. This was particularly true in the religious domain where certain Jewish customs were introduced into the heart of Spanish Christianity. They were seen as Judaizing.

Beyond this, as the converso historians themselves  noted, as this heterogeneous group of converts became more and more powerful, they displayed an arrogance towards the older established Christians and even oppressed them. Thus the converso Alonso de Palencia in writing to his brothers in Cordova stated: "extraordinarily enriched by special trades, they have become increasingly proud and display an insolent arrogance, seeking to gain control of public offices, after which by bribery and against all the rules, they get themselves admitted to the chivalrous orders where they seek to form cliques (bandos)." These cliques succeeded in forming a band of "three hundred well armed cavaliers" in Cordova. Secure in their impunity, the conversos of this city "became so audacious as to have no fear of celebrating Jewish ceremonies whenever they wished." Another converso chronicler, Diego de Valera, future principal counselor of the Catholic Kings confirmed that "the new Christians oppress the old established ones in all sorts of ways."


A violent reaction soon occurred. The older established Christians revolted savagely against the conversos. In 1449 they regained control of Toledo after a bitter struggle with the converso bandos who had been in power there as they had been in Cordova. And the victorious rebels promulgated the "statutes regarding the purity of blood lines" which only allowed the old established Christians access to positions of public authority. The same year, 1449, Cuidad-Real "liberated" itself along the same lines.

When in 1467 the conversos tried to regain their powers, the two cities initiated an orgy of killing and destruction. In 1468 the blood bath spread from Vieille-Castile to Sepulveda; and in 1473 to Andalusia. The fight against the conversos of Cordova, heavily armed as we have said, lasted for two whole days. When the old established Christians won, it was in the midst of immense destruction and many deaths. They then proceeded to regain control throughout the region and the routed conversos were killed by the peasants in the fields. A generalized bloody pogrom spread throughout the vast territory of Almodovar del Campo south of la Mancha, to Cabra in the direction of Malaga. Soon Jaen was "liberated" in the same way that Cordova had been.

The following year, 1474, Vielle-Castile was involved in a new blood bath. Segovia, after a bitter struggle, was also won over by the old established Christians. But this time - most importantly - the blood bath occurred directly before the eyes of the Catholic Kings. When they entered the city the battle had just terminated. "There were still marks of fresh blood in the streets and on the walls of the houses. The city reeked from the number of slaughtered, the rotting carcasses and the destruction." That very day the Catholic Kings came to a clear decision.


From this moment, in the face of the imprudent actions of their blood brothers and the brutality of the reactions of the older established Christians, the more prominent conversos, sincerely attached to their new faith, promulgated a detailed denunciation of the "judaising danger." They further called for an institutional vigilance that was not arbitrary but regulated, which little by little took on the shape and character of an Inquisition. For example, from the very start of the insurrection in Toledo, the Diaz de Toledo, the recorder of the court of royal justice, while fully respecting the rights of his converso brothers, declared: "If there is any new Christian convert who conducts himself badly, he should be punished and chastised severely. And I will be the first one to bring the wood to burn him, and to light the fire. I will go further and state that if he is of Jewish lineage, he should be more severely and more cruelly punished, because he should know what is involved better than others in so far as he has a knowledge of the Law and the Prophets." As one knows, the Law and the Prophets were quite rigorous with regard to prescriptions and punishments”.

The aged Rabbi Solomon Halevi who became bishop of Brugos under the name of Pablo de Santa Maria, wrote a Dialogus contra Judaeos. Similarly, the ancient Rabbi Jehoshua Ha-Lorqui, who in religion took the name of Jeronimo de Santa Fe (Jerome of the Holy Faith) wrote an anti-Jewish pamphlet entitled Hebraeomastix. And the Aragonais converso Pedro de la Caballeria, wrote his Zelus Christi contra Judaeos. Finally, and with more violence than the others, a Franciscan converso, Alonso de Espina, wrote in his Fortalitium fidei (1459): "I believe that if there was a real Inquisition in these days, a great many would be thrown into the fire, which would include all those who were found to be Judaizers."

Thus as Henry Kamen noted: "It is a fact that the principle anti -Jewish polemicists were the ex-Jews." And that the fearful term "Inquisition" was used by them in the precise sense that is attached to this word.


Now, as we have seen, the Catholic Kings - Ferdinand was of converso blood - who were surrounded by conversos such as their chief of state Hernando de Talavera took a position similar to that of the relator Diaz de Toledo.

Now what happened is that the kings rapidly found for the conversos, their only possible alternative in the face of the bloody repression initiated by the old established Christians. As the Israeli historian Cecil Roth noted: "In comparison to the killing of the Jews that occured in 1391, there was a great difference. At that time those who had been attacked could save themselves by accepting baptism. Now they no longer had this alternative."

The only solution was a new baptism dispensed and attested to by an authority which the old established Christians would not dare to contradict. In face of the general massacres which progressively spread from one place to another in the provinces of the kingdom of Castile, the rigor of the "new baptism" took its justification or its pretext, or at least its strength, from the fact that it could not be disputed. For none of the old established Christians would dare to inveigh against a Tribunal of the faith founded by a Pope and established by the full force of the royal power. Once the organization was in place, its power and its strictness practically and morally defused the obsession of the old Christians. All the conversos "qualified" by the Tribunal of the faith, were protected by being certified as Christians and Spaniards with full legal rights.  Repression was replaced by a process of assimilation. This response sacrificed a small number of trees but saved as it were the forest. In order to achieve a good result, the Catholic Kings knew they could count on the sincere conversos: they placed the Tribunal of the faith in their hands. Such are the facts. During these years 1475, the Catholic Kings requested the Pope for the authority to create an Inquisition which would also be royal, and which would curb the Judaizing conversos. In doing so they were repeating a similar demand made in 1461 by their predecessor Henri IV of Castile - a fact most are unaware of. Pope Sixtus IV acceded to this demand with his Bull Exigit sincerae devotionis of Novermber 1, 1478.

Then the Pope, following the recommendation of the Kings, named as Inquisitor-general, as we have already pointed out, the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada, who the royal chronicler and converso Hernando del Pulgar tells us was a relative of Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, and who like him was "of Jewish lineage and a convert to our holy Catholic faith." Perez de Almazan, converso Secretary of State and the person responsible for the Inquisition, backed up this guarantee of a good result which was carried on by the successor of Torquemada, Diego Deza, another Dominican and yet another converso, as was proclaimed urbi et orbi in the first years of the Sixteenth century.

The Spanish Inquisition was created to cure a dangerous illness which suddenly and unexpectedly occurred during a national process of tolerance and Christianization. Daughter of these forces, she assured the definite success of the process in so far as it could be saved, namely Christianization. In Spanish eyes, the result of this good though risky effort, does not deserve the contempt of other nations such as France and England, nations which refused to take the same risks and which from the start rejected and expelled their Jewish communities.


The Spanish Inquisition having been established in this spirit, two events rapidly occurred, two events about which current historians keeps silence, sometimes deliberately.

The first is the fact that, before giving the Inquisition permission to freely function, the Spanish monarchs suppressed the pontifical Bull of 1478 for a period of two years while they made a great effort to pacify the situation by means of persuasion. It was only in 1480, in the face of the "obstinacy of the Judaizers" that they appointed the first inquisitors in Seville.

During this period a campaign appealing to what Hernando del Pulgar describes as "sweet reasons and tender admonitions" was developed in Seville and throughout South-Western Spain. It was initiated with a pastoral letter - a veritable catechism for the conversos - by the Archbishop Gonzalez de Mendoza, who also published a special catechism especially meant for the Jews. A greater effort at evangelization was undertaken, including visits to homes and the placing of bulletin-boards in each parish on which the pastoral-catechism of the Archbishop was posted. It is the converso Pulgar himself who tells us in his chronicle that: "The religious to whom this mission was entrusted, initially worked to convert the Judaizers by sweet admonitions, then by harsh reprimands. But this was only minimally successful. In their obstinacy, the Judaizers gave proof of their blindness and stupidity and of such a passionate ignorance that they denied they were Judaizers and hid their errors, and then secretly returned to these errors and practices in order to preserve their Jewish rites."

One searches in vain in the recently published Inquisition espagnole of the Toulouse professor Bartolome Bennassar and his five co-authors for any mention of these pacific efforts during the period prior to the initiation of Inquisitorial activities. As for the Histoire de l'Inquisition espagnole written by the British professor Henry Kamen, and which appeared in a French translation some thirteen years ago, it doesn't hesitate to proclaim just the opposite: One reads in  it that "no other measure was taken during the two following years [after 1478]. Pulgar[...] denounced any recourse to coercion at a time when no attempt at evangelization was even outlined."

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