Ugly History: The Spanish Inquisition – Kayla Wolf

It’s 1481. In the city of Seville, devout Catholics are turning themselves
in to the authorities. They’re confessing to heresy— failure to
follow the beliefs of the Catholic Church. But why? The Spanish Inquisition
has arrived in Seville. The Inquisition began in 1478,
when Pope Sixtus IV issued a decree authorizing the Catholic monarchs,
Ferdinand and Isabella, to root out heresy
in the Spanish kingdoms— a confederacy of semi-independent kingdoms in the area that would become
the modern country of Spain.

Though the order came from the church,
the monarchs had requested it. When the Inquisition began,
the Spanish kingdoms were diverse both ethnically and religiously, with Jews, Muslims, and Christians living
in the same regions. The Inquisition quickly turned
its attention to ridding the region of people who were not
part of the Catholic Church. It would last more than 350 years. On the ground, groups called tribunals ran
the Inquisition in each region. Roles on a tribunal could include an arresting constable,
a prosecuting attorney, inquisitors to question the accused,
and a scribe.

A “Grand Inquisitor,” a member of the
clergy selected by the king and queen, almost always led a tribunal. The Inquisition marked its arrival in each
new place with an “Edict of Grace.” Typically lasting 40 days, the Edict of Grace promised mercy
to those who confess to heresy. After that, the inquisitors persecuted
suspected heretics on the basis of anonymous accusations. So the confessors in Seville probably
didn’t see themselves as actual heretics— instead, they were hedging their bets
by reporting themselves when the consequences were low, rather than risking
imprisonment or torture if someone else accused them later on. They were right to worry: once the authorities arrested someone,
accusations were often vague, so the accused didn’t know the reasons
for their arrest or the identity of their accuser. Victims were imprisoned
for months or even years.

Once arrested,
their property was confiscated, often leaving their families
on the street. Under these conditions, victims confessed
to the most mundane forms of heresy— like hanging linen to dry on a Saturday. The Inquisition targeted different subsets
of the population over time. In 1492, at the brutal Grand Inquisitor
Tomás de Torquemada’s urging, the monarchs issued a decree giving
Spanish Jews four months to either convert to Christianity
or leave the kingdom. Thousands were expelled
and those who stayed risked persecution. Converts to Christianity,
known as conversos, weren’t even safe, because authorities suspected
them of practicing Judaism in secret.

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