The Spanish Inquisition against the excesses of Calvinism

Fernando Díaz Villanueva

Throughout the last century, the Spanish Inquisition has been thoroughly investigated. When historians got down to it they found that it was not a particularly complicated matter. Everything was in the archives waiting to be scrutinized by them. The Spanish inquisition was so bureaucratic and formalistic that its scribes wrote down absolutely everything, including the smallest details.

From these studies it is extracted that, throughout the 344 years of existence of the Holy Office, a maximum of three thousand people were executed, most of them concentrated during its first half century of history. From the middle of the 16th century, when the Judaizers disappeared, death sentences were isolated: 1,340 between 1540 and 1700 out of a total of 44,674 cases tried, that is, 3%.

The procedures used by the Spanish Inquisition, were extremely regulated for the time and unique in Europe

It does not come as a surprise such a low percentage when we realize that the procedure used by the Spanish Inquisition was extremely regulated, upholding a strict governance process which was ahead of the times and unique in Europe. So much so that those condemned to the garrote or the stake could avoid the penalty if they repented. The repentance did not have to be sincere, it was enough to declare it and have it in writing. The so-called relapses, that is, those who refused to retract passed to the gallows.

We might think that, as is clear from the documentation of the time, the inquisition did not kill much but that in return it indulged in an orgy of sadistic torture. This is also not true. According to the experts’ work, torture was used exceptionally. The inquisitors used the so-called “torment” in only 2% of cases during three and a half centuries.

But 2% of unspeakable suffering, mutilated bodies, and amputated limbs is still a lot. The torture was well established in the internal regulations. They could not torture to death; it was always done with a doctor in front of them and the sessions could not last more than fifteen minutes. The inquisitorial procedure manual was so exhaustive that it expressly prohibited the use of torture on children and pregnant women. An inquisitor could, of course, go overboard, but he knew that if he persisted in those practices it would have to deal with his superiors.

In medieval and modern Europe torture was done with relish and without a consequences for the torturer.

There was no other court in all of Europe that, in the 16th or 17th centuries, fussed so much over every tiny detail. In medieval and modern Europe torture was done with relish and without any control or regulation for the torturer. And we all are familiar with the varied torture material that is kept in museums as a demonstration.

Contrary to the worldwide spread filmography, The Spanish Inquisition did not employ any of the most famous instruments of torture such as the Iron Lady, a German invention that was first used in the early 16th century in Nuremberg to execute a currency counterfeiter. If the South Germans administered the creepy Iron Lady to a mere forger, what wouldn’t they do to a heretic?

Calvin’s theocracy

Torturing and executing people for religious reasons was the norm in Europe at that time. It may seem like something typical of barbarians, and it certainly is, but our ancestors thought that way and that way they behaved. The past is what it is, not what we would like it to be.

There was no enlightened and tolerant Protestantism opposing an uneducated and fanatical Catholicism as the legend later spread

In this respect, there were no differences between Catholics and Protestants. They both pursued their respective heretics with equal determination. There is nothing resembling an enlightened and tolerant Protestantism in the face of an uneducated and fanatic Catholicism as later was spread by the golden legend of the Reformation. In some places like Calvin’s Geneva, the reformers even established a theocracy not far from the one pursued by Islamic fundamentalists today.

Calvin created a Consistory with full powers to repress heresy and monitor the strict observance of the new law imposed by the Reformation. Games, dancing, theater, oaths, and songs that were not religious in theme were prohibited. It was mandatory to attend services and learn the Calvinist catechism. You couldn’t pray in Latin, you couldn’t get drunk and, of course, questioning doctrines such as predestination would unquestionably fast-forwards those to summary proceedings.

The penalties administered by Calvin’s Consistory would have made the bravest member of the Council of the Supreme Inquisition turn pale. James Gruet, for example, was viciously tortured for a whole month on the rack for saying that Calvino’s texts were nonsense. After that, they nailed his feet to a stake and beheaded him, by pulling his head off the rest of his body.

The Comparet brothers were dismembered and their remains dumped along the driveway into the city. Their sin had been to publicly complain about the excess of foreigners who flocked to Geneva at Calvin’s call, who claimed to be building the city of God on earth.

Unlike Calvin and his council, the Supreme of the Spanish Inquisition never had the capacity to shape society at will or to change the laws. Quite the contrary, it was the Spanish Crown that made intensive use of this institution as auxiliary police with the advantage that it was present in all its kingdoms, including those of the Indies.

There is no comparison with the genocides of the 20th century

However, three thousand deaths in 340 years is still something not to underestimate. Today something similar would be intolerable. But it is also a reality that the inquisition was not abolished yesterday, but two centuries ago. In the Treblinka camp alone, the Germans murdered some 800,000 people in little more than a year between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1943. We could continue with either of the Operation Reinhard camps or with the Auschwitz camp, in which more than a million innocents were exterminated just over seventy years ago over a much shorter period of time.

In the last century, there have been premeditated genocides in Germany, Ukraine, Armenia, the Balkans, Rwanda, People’s China, Kurdistan, and Cambodia. All of a political nature and some very recent.

The Spanish Inquisition was officially abolished in 1820 but ordered its last execution in 1781, a year before the last witch in Western Europe was beheaded in the Protestant canton of Glarus in Switzerland. Witches would continue to be executed in Eastern Europe for a few more years.

The cruelty of Protestants and Catholics towards witches in 16th and 17th century Europe is worthy of study, but curiously it never aroused as much interest as the Spanish Inquisition of the same period.

Between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century, more than 50,000 witches, most of them in Germany, were executed in great trials such as Trier in 1581, Fulda in 1603, or Bamberg in 1626. But the Germans were not the only ones. The witches were persecuted in a systematic and organized way in England, Scotland, Sweden, France, Switzerland, and, of course, in the English colonies of North America such as Massachusetts, where a witch hunt was unleashed in the last decade of the 18th century, the famous Salem trials. in which twenty women were sentenced to death between 1692 and 1693.

British colonial judges in Massachusetts spared no imagination in administering the sentences. Giles Corey, an 81-year-old woman accused of witchcraft, was executed by a sentence known as “comb forte et dure”, consisting of knocking down the prisoner and laying heavy stone slabs on her chest until she died from asphyxiation. It took Corey two days to die, after which her assets were seized by the English crown.

The Spanish Inquisition condemned 59 witch women to the stake in three and a half centuries

And in Spain? Were witches persecuted in Spain? Yes, of course, but without much enthusiasm. The Inquisition condemned 59 female witches to the stake in three and a half centuries. Given that in all this time 125,000 causes passed through the Supreme Court, the incidence of witchcraft is purely anecdotal: only 0.05% of those convicted by the inquisition were witches.

The reason why the inquisitors put so few witches through the pyre lies in the same inquisitorial procedure and in all the guarantees that it entailed for the defendant. Let’s look at an example: in 1525, as a result of an episode of witchcraft in the towns and villages of the Navarrese Pyrenees, the Inquisitor General Alonso Manrique summoned a board of theologians and jurists to deliberate before rushing in and unleashing terror in those remote valleys. The experts concluded that if a murder by diabolical inspiration could be proven, the investigation belonged to the royal jurisdiction, not the ecclesiastical one.

The Spanish inquisitors understood that witchcraft in certain areas was due more to the ignorance of the people than to the presence of the evil one

All the Church could do was preach and lead the people out of “the error in which these witches have been and how they have been deceived by the devil”. They also agreed to “give them some sermons in their language”, that is, in the Basque spoken in the mountains. The inquisitors, usually educated people who had gone through university, understood that witchcraft in certain mountainous areas was due more to the ignorance of the people than to the fact that the evil one was messing around.

These illustrative details of the inquisition are inexplicably unknown and instead, the simple but false version, supported by centuries of ill-intended propaganda, is usually sold, as a gang of psychopaths that handled all the affairs of the kingdom at their pleasure and, above all, that its raison d’être – religious persecution – was a Spanish peculiarity while tolerance prevailed in the rest of Europe. None of this is true, but there is no plant that takes root deeper than a good story full of lies eloquently told.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Díaz Villanueva, F. (2018) ‘La Inquisición española frente a los excesos del Calvinismo’, Disidentia, Madrid, 12 March. Available at: https://disidentia.com/la-inquisicion-espanola-frente-a-la-teocracia-de-calvino/ (Accessed: 8 February 2021).

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One Comment

  1. Steven Guiney October 14, 2021 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    Muy interesante.

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