Ruthless Oppressors? Unraveling the Myth About the Spanish Inquisition
By Drek Ortiz
The Osprey Journal of Ideas and Inquiry (2006)
Abstract: From its inception to the present, critics of the Spanish Inquisition has characterized the institution as omnipotent and oppressive and highlighted its role in the expulsion, forced conversion, and execution of supposed heretics. The latter perception is misleading. Revisionist historians by the 1960s dismissed the latter portrayal and offered a more objective description of the institution. A careful analysis of Inquisition records and secondary literature reveals that the Spanish Inquisition was less powerful and more benign than previously characterized.
Introduction: Opponents of the Spanish Inquisition have dominated the narrative of its past. All told, these critics left the impression of a terrible institution that loomed over the Spanish Empire. According to one of these critics, so powerful and oppressive was the Inquisition that:
…it taught the savages of India and America to shudder at the name of Christianity…, and that the fear of its introduction froze the earlier heretics of Italy, France, and Germany into orthodoxy… It arrested on suspicion, tortured till confession, and then punished by fire. Two witnesses… were sufficient to consign the victim to a loathsome dungeon. Here he was sparingly supplied with food, forbidden to speak… and left to himself till famine and misery should break his spirit… [If he confess to heresy,] whether innocent or not, he might then assume the sacred shirt, and escape with the confiscation of all his property. If he persists to avow his innocence, Inquisitors brought him to the torture chamber deep within the ground so no one could hear him wail. The victim, whether man, matron, or tender virgin—was stripped naked and stretched upon the wooden bench. Water, weights, fires, pulleys, screws— all the apparatus by which the sinews could be strained without cracking, the bones bruised without breaking, and the body racked exquisitely without giving up its ghost—was now put into operation. The executioner, enveloped in a black robe from head to foot, with his eyes glaring at his victim through holes cut in the hood, practiced successively all the forms of torture which the devilish ingenuity of the monk had invented.