The Spanish Inquisition has frequently been used to portray the Catholic Church as hypocritical and malevolent. However, recent scholarship proves that it wasn’t as bloody or as brutal as the Church’s detractors contend. The BBC documentary, The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, refutes the false narratives surrounding this Tribunal. Below is a partial transcript of the program:
"Four centuries of condemnation have made the Spanish Inquisition a byword for cruelty, terror and tyranny. But this image is false. A distortion disseminated 400 years ago and accepted ever since. Now, a new generation of historians is looking at the inquisition afresh. Every one of the cases that came before the Spanish Inquisition during its 350-year history had its own file. These files, gathered together from sources such as this library in Salamanca, are being properly studied for the first time. (Prof. Henry Kamen speaking) 'I think our views of the inquisition have been changed largely by the opening up of the archives of the inquisition. They had everything on tape, as it were, hidden away in their archives. And we can go there, calculate, put it all on computer, and arrive at very firm statistics about its activity. And so all of this has opened wide the debate about the inquisition; and has also demolished totally the previous image which all of us had.'
The files are detailed and exhaustive. The inquisition kept its activities secret from the outside world, but its clerks wrote down every detail, in the confidence that their records were for the eyes of the inquisition only. The huge task of sifting this material, previously scattered throughout Spain daunted earlier generations. Systematic analysis is only just beginning, but already, a very different version of the Spanish Inquisition can be brought to light.
The Spain that gave birth to the Inquisition in the 15th century was barren and isolated, on the fringe of Europe. Half of its land unproductive, half barely sustaining a meager living. A monotonous burning plan. No easy routes, no natural center, no one leader. Spaniards could only dream of Hispania, the country that had been united during the days of the Roman conquest. All that was to change.
On the morning of October 18th, 1469, Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon, and Isabella heiress of Castile, were married. Their wedding ended centuries of rivalry between the two Spanish kingdoms, and would unite the country. Spain, for so long merely a name on the map, had become a historical fact. The itinerant royal court often convened in the city of Ávila, here at the monastery of Santo Tomás its facade triumphantly incorporating an ‘H’ for the reunified Hispania. But for Ferdinand and Isabella there could be no political unity without religious unity. Pressure was exerted on Spain’s large Jewish population to convert. Many did. But traditional Christians were suspicious that these Conversos were practicing their former religion in secret.
Synagogues such as this one in Toledo came under scrutiny. In 1480, a new body was appointed to investigate. Entitled the Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, it is better known to us as the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition’s task was to discover heresy, deviation from the true Faith. Conversos accused of continued Jewish worship could be burnt at the stake.
The Inquisition had begun, but the myth had yet to be created. For while these years between 1480 and 1510 were by far the most active in the entire history of the Inquisition, the rest of Europe did not hurry to condemn it. (Prof. Jamie Contreras speaking.) 'We have precise reports from Italian and French ambassadors who wrote to Catholic Kings congratulating them because at last Spain had become Christian.' The truth is that the Inquisition was applauded for its persecution of Spain’s converted Jews.'"
The Black Legend is Born
In 1517, the Protestant Reformation split the Church in two. For the first time in human history, Protestants fought a deliberate propaganda war against their enemies; accusing them of unspeakable acts, and setting the stage for centuries of anti-Catholic scholarship. The fraudulent accounts of Montanus about the torture methods used by the Inquisitors and the deplorable conditions in which prisoners lived, were especially damaging.
Starting at 9:01:
"The Church’s champion, defender of the faith, was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. As leader of the Habsburg dynasty, he also commanded the most powerful armies in Europe. But Charles was more than just a Habsburg. As Ferdinand’s grandson, he acceded to the throne of Spain putting that country at the forefront of defending the Faith. At the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, his enemies were virtually annihilated. Routed on the battlefield the reformers attacked elsewhere…
Protestants used the newly invented printing press to wage a propaganda campaign against the Church and the Spain's Habsburgs. Here is an example of the type of bitter invective they employed:
'This scum of barbarians, this mongrel generation Spain is and ever hath been the sink the puddle and fifthly heap of the most loathsome infected and slavish people that ever lived. Their more than tigress cruelty, their lustful and inhumane deflowering of their matrons, wives and daughters, their matchless and sodomitical ravishings of young boys which these demi-barbarian Spaniards have committed.'
Within a year of the Battle of Mühlberg, a stream of anti-Spanish invective began to pour off the printing presses of the Reformation. But the polemic needed a focus. It found one in the body expressly designed to uphold the Catholic faith -- the Inquisition. A myth was in the making.
All the different acquisitions came together in this document: A Discovery and plain Declaration of Sundry and Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain, printed in 1567. Within the year, it was translated into English, French, Dutch and German. Its author, masquerading as a Protestant victim of the Inquisition, wrote under the pseudonym Montanus.
By identifying with the victim, Montanus brought the supposed horrors of the Spanish Inquisition vividly alive. It is his work which introduced to the world an image of the Inquisition which has persisted ever since." (The "Black Legend" originated as an anti-Spanish propaganda campaign disseminated through the printing press. The Inquisition and the Catholic Church were its primary targets.)