An auto da fe was the public ceremony at which those condemned by the Spanish Inquisition were sentenced. Auto da fe means “act of faith.” The faith doing the acting was Roman Catholicism. Those on the receiving end of the action in the early decades of the Inquisition were mainly New Christians, specifically Jews who had converted but who were believed to be practicing Judaism in secret. As part of the deal, Jews who had not converted were booted out of Spain.
The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1480 for one reason alone: to stop former Jews (conversos or New Christians) from relapsing into Judaism. In 1480, there were hundreds of thousands of conversos in Spain along with hundreds of thousands of Jews. Jewish conversion was sparked by discriminatory laws and waves of violence against Jews. Christian religious zeal intensified as the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Muslim Moors neared completion. Violence against Jews–the most notable being the massacres of Jews following accusations that they were responsible for the plague–were routine. Meanwhile, laws confined Jews to ghettos, barred them from numerous professions ranging from doctor to tailor, and required them to sew an identifying badge to their clothing. The conversos rose to social and economic prominence, becoming a magnet for the anti-Semitism they thought they had left behind, especially as tales spread that the conversos were only nominal Christians who practiced Judaism in secret, as in fact some did. To assure assimilation and the eradication of Judaism, Ferdinand and Isabella–yes, them again–with the blessing of the Pope revived the Inquisition and made it an organ of the state. Thousands of conversos died at the hands of the Inquisition, painfully burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, was responsible for this ordeal. He upped the ante in 1492, persuading Ferdinand and Isabella to expel all Jews from Spain unless they converted. Torquemada theorized that the presence of a Jewish community presented too big a temptation for relapse by the conversos. Not coincidentally, the Jews were expelled the very same year that Ferdinand and Isabella recruited Columbus and completed the Reconquest, vanquishing the last Muslim stronghold in Spain in-Granada. Spain expelled the Jews on four months’ notice. The exiles were forbidden to take gold and silver, had to sell their possessions at fire sale prices, and were left with heavily discounted bills of exchange. However, for decades following the expulsion, crypto-Jews, known as Marranos, practiced Judaism secretly and periodically fed the fires of the Inquisition. Burnings and expulsion were not enough for the Inquisition. The Inquisition tripled down on its persecution of Jews by introducing pure blood laws that subjected conversos to legal disabilities, injecting a dangerous racial component that would resurface in future persecutions throughout Europe.
As the number of relapsed conversos dwindled (with the exception of a new influx of a Portuguese group in the late sixteenth century), the Spanish Inquisition searched for new victims and new reasons to justify its existence. It turned upon crypto-Muslims known as Moriscos, whom it punished far less severely than it had conversos. When Spain got around to expelling its Muslims in 1609, it allowed them to leave on terms far more generous than it had its Jews, permitting them to take with them all the possessions they could carry. The Inquisition also persecuted Protestants and other dissenters and non-conformists, blasphemers, witches, bigamists (not a trivial problem when divorce was forbidden), and gays. It also issued an Index of forbidden books and held periodic book-burnings.
Unlike the medieval inquisitions or the inquisitions of other countries, the Spanish Inquisition was an arm of the state, and it operated on terms that anticipated the totalitarian states of the twentieth-century.
If the Inquisition’s goal was to create a unified religion via thought control, its modus operandi was to extract confessions and recantations. When inquisitors visited villages and cities they first read an edict of faith that listed all manner of heresies and misbehavior. The inquisitors gave 30-40 days of grace for people to either denounce themselves or their neighbors with the lure of receiving lighter punishment. In the case of heresy, the punishment was death, but recanting meant hanging instead of burning. Even the dead could not escape punishment. The remains of deceased heretics were exhumed and burned. The possessions of heretics were confiscated.
Those denounced who did not avail themselves of the grace period were incarcerated in secret prisons, forbidden from receiving visitors. The charges were kept secret from the detainee along with the identities of the accusers. Some of the detainee’s possessions was confiscated to pay for his upkeep while he awaited trial. While the Inquisition recognized that confessions procured by physical force were less reliable and forbade torture that resulted in bloodshed or mutilation, it was not above using force. Prisoners were tied to racks, which was then gradually tightened. Or they were tied by their wrists to pulleys and weighed down by weights attached to their feet. They underwent water torture. Torturers tied prisoners to sloping ladders with their heads tilted downward. The torturers forced as much as eight liters of water down the prisoners’ throats.
The trial itself was set up to induce confession. To start with, the accused had no rights. He was presumed guilty. As noted, charges against him were kept secret and so were the identities of witnesses. At the beginning of the trial, the tribunal invited the accused to explain why he had been arrested and to confess. This invitation was repeated three times. Only after the accused refused these three invitations did he learn the charges against him. The defendant was assigned a lawyer, but the lawyer’s purpose was not to defend him but to convince him to confess. The defendant had two means of defense. He could reject witnesses. At the start of trial, the accused was asked to name persons who might bear him enmity, which obviously led to the tribunal receiving testimony from many biased witnesses since the defendant did not know who his accusers were. He could also call his own witnesses to attest to his probity and to rebut the charges. Acquittals were rare not just because of the presumption of guilt but because the Inquisition could not be seen as having erred. Rather than acquit, it would adjoin proceedings with a warning. Put in American legal terms, the Inquisition relied upon self-incrimination and even coerced confession ( protected by Fifth Amendment); the accused had no right to know the charges against him (Sixth Amendment) ; he had no right to know the identities of his accusers much less confront them (Sixth Amendment); the accused had no right to counsel (Sixth Amendment); the trials were not public and open (Sixth Amendment); and at least some of the punishments were cruel and unusual beginning with burning at the stake down to public whippings (Eighth Amendment). This evil occurred to punish conduct that for the most part would have been sheltered in the United States a few centuries later under the First Amendment protection of free speech and worship.
Punishments varied based upon severity of the offense, whether the accused had recanted, and whether the offense was a second one. They included acts of penitence (pilgrimage, retirement to a monastery for a prescribed period, fasts, and prayer), fines, exile, imprisonment, public flogging, service in the galleys, or death. Except in cases of heresy, nobles and clergy were more likely to be sentenced to prison or to be assessed financial penalties rather than physical punishment or forced labor.
Once condemned, the victims remained imprisoned until the auto da fe. Sentences had to be read and abjurations had to be performed publicly to instill fear in the population. The prisoners walked in a procession to the auto da fe. The condemned appeared before the public wearing sambenitos (tunics) of different designs and colors to signify their offenses. Those condemned to death wore red caps and black sambenitos adorned with dragons, snakes, or demons, symbolizing the Hell to which they would be consigned. Those who were to be reconciled–reintegrated into the church–wore yellow sambenitos with upside down flames, indicating that they had been spared burning at the stake. Reconciled had to wear their yellow sambenitos at all times until the period of reconciliation concluded. Those condemned to death at the stake who recanted at the last minute were hung and then burned at the stake. Condemned who had fled or died in prison were burned in effigy. After the abjurations in which those permitted reconciliation publicly forswore further misconduct, those sentenced to flogging or death were turned over to secular authorities for execution of the punishments.
The Spanish Inquisition continued until 1830, with an interruption during the Napoleonic era. Historians debate the numbers condemned and killed by the Inquisition. They also debate whether the elimination of population diversity and ongoing censorship caused Spain’s centuries of economic stagnation and lack of scientific achievement.
In 2015, Spain acknowledged that the expulsion was wrong and offered Jews of Spanish heritage a path to citizenship. Previously, in 2000, John Paul II had apologized for the Inquisition. Let’s hope no second chances.
For more: Joseph Perez, The Spanish Inquisition (2002).