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Notes from Limmud 2004

The Spanish Inquisition: Fact and Fiction

Renee Melammed

It was not Church policy to force conversion to Christianity, but to talk you into it. Indeed, once the Inquisition took off there were mass conversions from the grass roots following pogroms and riots - One third of Jewish communities converted in 1381. Thousands of Jews did die for kiddush hashem (Sanctification of G-d's Name), but tens of thousands chose to convert, possibly thinking this was a temporary madness. There had, beforehand, been forced conversions where the converts had been allowed to return to their religion, because you weren't supposed to force people to convert. But no country had as many Jewish converts as Spain. Why was this so?

All these converts radically altered society: instead of Jews, Muslims and Christians, you now had Muslims, Catholics and a new group that nobody knew what to do with. Spaniard did not think converting like that made them sincere... but there were so many, they couldn't simply lead them revert as in other cases. There were also cases where, say, a merchant away on business would come back to discover his family was Catholics, and he still Jewish. This was very destructive to the Jewish community. But the Church now said forced conversions were valid and these were fully fledged members of Spanish society.

Now, Jews in Spain had more rights than in any other European country: there were no guilds [with restrictive membership rules]. Previously, being Jewish resulted in checks and balances. Now, the converted Jews could go to university, become priests, and so forth, and the Spanish were afraid. And if they wanted to continue practising their Judaism, they were continuing to live in the Jewish quarters. To these conversos there were added other groups too. For example the Spaniard pulled out all the rabbis in Aragon and told their communities they had converted, and kept them for five years. Many Jews got demoralised and converted as a result; these converts were not forced in any way.

People reacted in different ways to converting. Some decided to remain secret Jews, some decided to assimilate, some wavered to and fro. But Spanish society could not deal with this; 1445/6 saw, in Toledo, the first riots against conversos - ethnic antisemitism, against descendants of Jews. These conversos were tax farmers - people who collected the tax and could keep whatever was left over once they had raised the amount they had promised to (and in some cases already given to) the king.

The term "new Christian" was devised. And the city of Toledo (not the Church, because this is anathema to the Church) came up with purity of blood laws, forbidding the new Christians from first one thing then another. The new Christians were viewed as being worse than the old Christians. The Church objected, but weakly. Suspicion grew. By the sixteenth century the purity of blood laws had spread Spain. People needed certificates to prove their blood line (though they could be bought from corrupt officials, for enough money). The Papal Inquisition was with Christian heretics. The Inquisition in Spain, however, was concerned with Judaisers.

In 1469 when Ferdinand king of Aragon married Isabella queen of Castile, they conceived of an inquisition as a great idea to unite their two kingdoms - the first institution of a united Spain. They got a Bull from the Pope to get an inquisition with a small I: a temporary inquisition to be set up. Such things existed in other countries.

In 1478 Spain received permission from the Pope; in 1480 they started appointing inquisitors. 1481 saw the first trials, in Seville. These were very severe, intended to set an example. Over five hundred Judaisers were burned at the stake in seven years. Many of them were "reconciled" to the Church. There was at this stage an attempt to assassinate the Inquisitor, but the plot was found out. They then set up Inquisitions in other cities, and Torquemada was appointed as the leader of the central body that was set up.

Now, the purpose of the Inquisition was to reconcile people to the Church and save their souls. The Inquisition had no power over Jews if they were not baptised - but there only were any Jews in Spain, during the Inquisition's time, from 1481-1492. The Inquisition was penitentiary, not punitive. And as a court there were strict rules about what it could do.

There were handbooks available for the Inquisitors so they could learn about Judaism and Judaising, so they knew what to look out for. There was xenaphobia mixing with having finished the [paragraph left incomplete]

A tribunal of the Inquisition consisted of two Inquisitors, a constable and a fiscal prosecutor. They start by giving sermons about blasphemy and telling people to come to church, and they would describe these heretics and how to identify them. Then there would be a grace period, when anyone who wanted to confess anything could do so. This included both sides, including conversos who would be nervous and could confess and be reconciled to the Church - but would be told if they ever were found doing anything ever again there would be no leniency the second time.

The Inquisitors would look at the evidence and say: there's only one witness, we need two (they preferred more), or: this is a very important person and six people have reported him, let's go after him. The Spaniards openly defied the Pope when the Pope tried to get them to extend the grace period (because they would confess any prevent the case ever coming to trial!)

The first thing the Inquisitors would do was arrest suspects and sequester their possessions, inventorying them and holding onto them for the duration of the trial. At the end of the trial they would take away the worth of the suspect's income for the period they had been Judaising. The defendant had to pay for their upkeep whilst in jail - and for defence lawyers if they wanted. The Inquisition tried people in absentia (they would be burned in effigy if found guilty); for posthumous trials they would burn the accused's bones.

The trial would begin with the list of charges. These would include, lower down on the list, stuff that the Church wasn't happy with. At the end the defndant would be asked if they had anything to say. Some people would confess and be reconciled to the Church at this time. And some people would get up and defend themselves. But most people didn't confess at this stage.

Then the trial would be presented with the witness accounts - without names. How could you prepare a defence if you didn't know who were the prosecuting witnesses? (The Pope objected to this too, so the Spaniards said they kept them anonymous to protect them.) The defence lawyers came up with the idea of character witnesses, abonos. In early years, there would be lists of up to one hundred names. It was better to have an Old Christian as a character witness than a New. But there was one major flaw with this: if you were not really a crypto-Jew, you can have however many character witnesses you want but none of that actually counteracts being a crypto-Jew.

On the other hand, there was a process, that only existed in Spain, called tachas - an attempt to discredit the prosecution witnesses: The defendants would list all the people with whom they might have had a falling out, and who might be out to get them. In one case there were three hundred people named, out of a town of four hundred!

The prosecutors would put a mark consisting of a square divided in four against the name of any witnesses named in the tacha list. Then they considered the reason they were on the tacha lists. For example, "X was my husband's mistress and she came into my shop and flaunted the jewels my husband gave her." Or consider servants: there could be fighting between masters and serviants when firing them. There were lots of testimonies from servants. The Pope tried to outlaw this, and again the Spanish ignored him.

But then you needed two witnesses to each event in the tacha list (events being the sort of thing as listed saying, "wait until the Inquisition comes, we'll get you!"). If there were two witnesses to an event naming the prosecution witness, that witness was then eliminated from the trial. And if all the prosecuting witnesses were eliminated, the case was closed. This did not mean innocence, though: there could be another trial. However, Dr Melammed hasn't seen any evidence for this happening.

Then followed the Consulto da fé, in which the prosecution lawyers discussed the evidence. This was where torture could be mooted. In most cases it was not the Church that suggested this, but the lay people on the tribunal. Either water torture (flooding the lungs) or the rope torture. But torture was only used in twenty percent of cases. In mediaeval England much worse things were done (but were kept quiet inside the jails). In most cases people would stay shtum during torture and would be let off.

Should somebody be found guilty, if it wasn't a bad crime, or they were very young, they would be let off, with penalties varying from a few hail Marys to fines, to jail sentences, to life imprisonment (an innovation), to exile. Now the Church had no right to pronounce a death sentence. But it could hand over the accused to the secular arm, which could then execute them. At the last moment the defendant would be given the opportunity to confess - at which point they would be hanged before being burned.

The auto da fé itself: amongst other things the body would be hung up in Church so everyone knew which family was guilty.

The Inquisitors prided themselves on their secrecy. The witnesses were threatened not to divulge their testimony. This was secret and only opened in the case of a request for evidence from another city.

This Inquisition changed and its severity chanced. The Sevilian Inquisition in 1481 was very severe. The same practices might result in very different sentences; it depended on lots of things: the judges, the time available, etc. They had a field day with the messianic movement.

There were two main periods in which the Inquisition dealt with Judaisers. To 1551 90% of defendants were brought in for Judaising. By 1550-1630 the Inquisition had been so efficient that they did not have a lot of work left, but they didn't want to shut the shop, so they moveed over to Aragon and persecuted Moriscos (crypto-Muslims), Pietists, Lutherans (there were not many of those in Spain) and suspected witches, and, from the 1540s, introduced censorship, to make sure there were no bad beliefs amonst the Catholics. In this period a thousand defendants were burned at the stake, but only 20% of defendants were Judaisers.

The the third period, 1630-1730, ninety-five percent of defendants were Judaisers but only two hundred and fifty were burned. (Ths outside world was very critical by now; things had changed.) So where did these Judaisers come from?

In 1492, many Jews had gone to Portugal, but when the Portuguese king wanted to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, [?Isabella] said he would not marry her with any Jews in the country. He couldn't kick them out, so instead he converted the lot. He promised there would be no Inquisition in Portugal, but in the end he gave in to Isabella's demands and instituted one. In 1580 when Spain and Portugal united things were rosier in Spain, so many Spanish Jewish exiles moved back therel; it was these people who were targeted by the second round of prosecutions of Judaisers in Spain.

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