Can anyone summarize the Spanish Inquisition?

The Assassin's Creed movie trailer was just released and will feature some Spanish history. I would appreciate some background on the Spanish Inquisition and your thoughts on it. Thanks.

1 Answer

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I love that a computer game has you asking about the historical background! Take your inspirations to learn from anywhere you can!

Ok - on to the Spanish Inquisition.

First off, the Spanish Inquisition was one of several different inquisitions that were happening, had happened, and were going to happen. So let's first talk about the big scope of "inquisition".

"Inquisition" was the word used for any action taken by the Judicial System of the Catholic Church. While often associated with rooting out heretics, it did punish other violators of canon law (the laws made by the Catholic Church).

There are some religions where different thoughts and ideas can be welcomed and embraced and if there is a large enough following, actually made to be part of the religion (ex. Hinduism). There are others which are quite closed to new thought, where the ruling power decides what is to be believed and how worship is to be done - and Catholicism during this time period was one of them (as an example, England swung back and forth between Catholic services and Church of England services depending on who was king/queen. And the exact teachings taught would depend on who it was who was in charge at the time - so the Church of England teachings under King Henry VIII might have been different than what they were under Queen Elizabeth I).

The Inquisitions were undertaken to cleanse the Catholic Church of heresy, that is to say, to find and get rid of groups that believed differently than Church Doctrine. Some of the first targets of this cleansing were Cathars and Waldensians in southern 12th century France, and by 1229 the Inquisition was made a permanent institution of the Catholic Church (in fact, it is still in existence today under the name Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

The Spanish Inquisition was started in 1480 by the king and queen of Spain at the time, King Ferdinand II of Aragorn and Queen Isabella I of Castile. The Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions in that it was run by the monarchs of Spain and not by the Catholic Church. However, the goal was the same - to find and root out heresy.

What precipitated the Spanish Inquisition was a couple of factors: the retaking of Spain from Islamic rule (called Reconquista), and a growing intolerance of Jews in particular but heresy overall.

As Christian forces retook the Iberian peninsula (starting in 710), a sort of uneasy truce existed between followers of Christianity and those of Judaism and Islam, with Jews and Muslims being considered second class citizens. As events such as the Crusades and other events where Christianity saw itself as purifying the world of other religions in distant lands, it also focused more and more on purifying itself of followers of other religions in their own lands. England and France expelled their Jewish citizens in 1290 and 1306 respectively, and in 1391 the persecution of Jews began in earnest in Spain.

The retaking of the peninsula finished in 1492 and immediately after, the Jews were forcibly expelled and the Moors were forced to convert or also be expelled. The two monarchs then proceeded to make Catholicism mandatory (early 1500s).

Throughout this period of persecution and expulsion, one simple expedient was to simply convert to the Christian religion - or to claim conversion - and continue practicing their preferred religion. There were also forced, mass conversions of people. It was the role of the Spanish Inquisition to make sure that those who said they were Christian really were.

At first, there were no trials or even proof needed - if a neighbour claimed you were a Jew, there was a good chance you'd be locked up in jail. The Pope fought with the monarchs of Spain to try to get a systematic approach set (he was more moderate than the Spanish monarchy) and did eventually get them to accede to a court-like process. Tomas de Torquemada was named Inquisitor General.

Torquemada quickly established procedures for the Inquisition. A new court would be announced with a thirty-day grace period for confessions and the gathering of accusations by neighbors. Evidence that was used to identify a crypto-Jew (someone claiming to be a Christian but in reality practicing Judaism) included the absence of chimney smoke on Saturdays (a sign the family might secretly be honouring the Sabbath) or the buying of many vegetables before Passover or the purchase of meat from a converted butcher. The court employed physical torture to extract confessions. Crypto-Jews were allowed to confess and do penance, although those who relapsed were burned at the stake.

The Pope also tried to allow appeals to Rome to help curb abuses by Spanish authorities, but the Spanish monarchs decreed that if you did appeal to Rome without Royal ascent, your property was forfeit, as was your life (property forfeiture and death sentence).

It wasn't until the mid 1700's that the Inquisition began to slow down - people began clamouring for Enlightenment ideas (those of liberty, tolerance, and constitutional government). Different rulers in Spain banned it or brought it back and in 1826, a school teacher was the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition.

As an aside, the law that expelled Jews from Spain wasn't officially rescinded until 1968.