Movie connoisseurs will remember the iconic scene from Monty Python’s Flying Circus where a young man is suddenly accosted by a group of inquisitors ,who then proceeded to torture their victims with pillows and comfy chairs. The scenes albeit hilarious, were eerily reminiscent of the dark days of Spanish Inquisition which were neither funny nor comfortable, but were ruthless, intolerant and bloody. The rack, the iron maiden and bonfire which are firmly ingrained in Christian culture became the familiar icons of that era. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are much two maligned chapters in the history of Catholic Church.


The Medieval Inquisition……

The Spanish Inquisition which began in 15th century was preceded by a period of Medieval Inquisition which played an important role in its genesis. Medieval times were starkly different from the modern ones. Religion was at the core of everybody’s existence. Science, philosophy, literature-everything was dictated by religion and the Church. It was man’s only valid identity and his only recourse to salvation. Consequently heresy was supposed to be something that threatened to rip apart everything that men believed in. It was believed that heretics polluted those living in close proximity, thereby endangering an entire community’s path to salvation. Such religiously bigoted views were not confined to Medieval Europe only, but were shared by numerous cultures across the world. The notion of religious secularity and tolerance came into prominence much later.

Consequently every Christian fervently believed that God would punish an entire community if heresy is allowed to take root. For the Christian rulers who deemed kingship as bestowed by God, heresy posed a direct challenge to their royal authority. So both the monarchy and the commoners had ample reasons to wipe out heresy –something which they did with gusto.

Many ascribe to a long held notion that Inquisition was used by a power hungry Church to oppress the European people. However, the actual reality is quite different. Medieval Inquisition in many parts of Europe brought peace and stability and despite what many may believe Church actually did not practice burning of heretics. In 1184 Pope Lucius III commanded various European Bishops to inspect whether the accused heretics were guilty or not. They were asked to “inquire” thereby giving birth to Inquisition.  Instead of relying on secular courts, mob rule or the monarch Church took the matter into their own hands and subsequently saved thousands of lives. From the Church’s perspective the heretics were reckoned to have gone astray from the path of righteousness and so the onus was on the ecclesiastical order to bring them back into the fold.

Rise Of Monarchy and Spread Of Anti-Semitism-

However the power of the monarchy rose dramatically in the late Middle Ages and superseded the power of the Church. Secular rulers wanting to preserve the religious health of their kingdoms were in favour of a more radical form of Inquisition. They blamed the Church for being too lenient on the heretics and wrested the control of the Inquisition from the Papacy. The monarch argued they were a better judge of how to tackle heresy in their respective kingdoms, than the faraway Pope.

Such  political dynamics would  eventually give shape to the Spanish Inquisition. But there were other crucial factors also. Spain, in many ways was different from the other European countries because of its diverse and religiously tolerant society, where for a long time Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and prospered side by side. The Iberian peninsula was a hotbed of warfare throughout the Middle Ages as a result there was a constant redrawing of the borders between Christian and Muslim Kingdoms. So it was in every ruler’s best interest to practice religious tolerance, something which was a rarity in Medieval Europe. However, this peaceful coexistence could not endure for long. It was inevitable that the wave of anti Semetic sentiments that engulfed entire Europe would vitiate the harmony in Spain. The wealth and prosperity of the Jews became the cause of everyone’s ire.  Especially for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who were doggedly determined to end the economic and spiritual dominance of the Jews.

The Jews practiced their own religion, followed their own penal code, while maintaining peace and harmony with the Christians. Because of their manifold skills, especially in trade and commerce, Jews became extremely prosperous. Their growing prosperity and opulence greatly concerned the monarchs, who wanted desperately to stymie their growth. These factors gave birth to the Spanish Inquisition in 1480.

The Holy Office Of Inquisition…

It was Queen Isabella’s trusted advisor, Alonso de Ojeda who suggested the idea of an inquisition. Sensing the Queen’s ardent wish to purify the country, Ojeda advocated drastic measures to stem the spread of Judaism in the country. He said Judaism threatened to corrupt the entire Christian society and even the Jewish converts were responsible for defiling the sacraments of the Church by their purported and token acceptance of Christianity. So these Judaists should be thoroughly examined for proselytizing  to the Christian communities. The Queen readily gave her approval and the Holy Office of Inquisition was formed in 1478.

Tomas De Torquemeda, an affluent monk was appointed as the Grand Inquisitor who was given the task of wiping out all forms of heresy from Spain. The Grand Inquisitor took to his job with ruthless vigour and over a course of time thousands of Jews got either excommunicated or killed. The Inquisition persisted long after the Jews were officially expelled from Spain in 1492. The Holy Office Of Inquisition only got abolished in 1834.