The Spanish Inquisition: an institution of terror?

Posted on March 1, 2010 by


Inquisition torture chamber from Mémoires historiques pour servir à l'histoire des Inquisitions by Louis-Ellies Dupries

The words Spanish Inquisition immediately evoke images of poor prisoners being chained and tortured in dark dungeons. This impression stems partly from movies that depict the Inquisition as a ruthless institution that caused unnecessary bloodshed. The dark representation of the Inquisition however has a long history, since its establishment in 1478 by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, it has been viewed as a ruthless institution. Together with the behaviour of the Spanish conquistadores, the Spanish Inquisition is part of the ‘leyenda negra’ or the Black Legend in which Spain and its inhabitants were portrayed as intolerant, fanatic and cruel. This vision was especially popular between 1450 and 1700.

There is still a lot of debate going on about the true nature of the Spanish Inquisition and whether it really was an institution of terror as is usually assumed. A lot of historians have studied the subject in depth and have shown that this image does not correspond with historical evidence. One of the most influential authors is Bartolomé Bennassar who wrote the book The Spanish Inquisition, fifteenth – eighteenth century. He argues that the Spanish Inquisition ruled because it terrified people but that this feeling of fear was not induced by the reasons that are usually assumed.

Over the years several theories have been put forward as to why it was such a fearsome institution. The most popular one, the fact that the Spanish Inquisition used torture, is not correct. The methods of the Inquisition were not at all exceptional when compared with those used by the civil courts at that time. Moreover, torture was strictly regulated; it could only be used when all other methods proved fruitless. For example, the use of torture had to be in accordance with the charges. It was not applicable in cases of blasphemy, bigamy, adultery and sorcery. It was mostly used for people charged with heresy such as Jews, Muslims, Lutherans and Illuminati members. Furthermore, during some periods, torture was more the exception than the rule.

Another misconception is that the punishments of the Inquisition were always exceedingly cruel or strict. The death penalty for example was only used on conversos. These were Jews that conversed to Catholicism after the Jewish religion was banned in the Spanish kingdom in 1492. After 1530, the death penalty was only applied in less than three percent of the convictions, which was less than in the civil jurisdiction.

A more justified reason for the fearsome reputation of the institution was the secrecy around the trials. The accused were not told anything after they were arrested. They did not know of what or by whom they were accused. All contact with their families or other prisoners was prohibited. This secrecy generated a considerable feeling of suspicion in the populace. The fact that the chance of being declared innocent was very small only contributed to these suspicions. After 1570 only 20 % of the accused were released with light convictions, but even these punishments harmed the reputations of citizens. They were for example forced to do public penance by taking part in a procession, asking for public forgiveness for their sins or by being whipped. Some of the convicted had to wear a yellow tunic with a red cross in public called a sanbenito.

Another consequence of the conviction could be the exclusion of the convicted from certain social functions and certain economic activities. Furthermore, the family of the convicted also had to share in the shame. The threat of poverty was therefore very realistic. Exile for example, a common punishment, could have severe economic consequences, especially for someone whose professional activity was linked to the city. Confiscations and taxes were other common punishments that could threaten the financial wellbeing of the accused.

To conclude, it was thus mainly the secrecy, the shame and the threat of poverty connected to the trials of the Inquisition that created fear and not the torture or harsh punishments inflicted by the institution.


Bennassar, B., L’Inquisition espagnole, XVe-XIXe siècle, Hachette Litterature, Paris, 1979.

Posted in: History, Politics