Thursday, 21 November 2013


TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN. Tales from the records of the Spanish Inquisition

In the popular imagination the Spanish Inquisition is associated with heretics being burned at the stake. But the statistics show that executions were infrequent. Here are some figures:

  • Some 26,000 people were tried in Aragon between 1540 and 1700 – 2 percent were executed (the judicial term for this was “being relaxed”, meaning handed over to the secular government for execution).
  • In Toledo, 1422 people were tried between 1575 and 1610 -- 15 were “relaxed”. Others were scourged, imprisoned, had their property confiscated, served on galleys, or were exiled. 179 were acquitted or had their case dismissed. The majority of those found guilty was formally reconciled with the church and had to walk in an auto-da-fe.

What is an auto-da-fe? A public ritual, in which heretics had to demonstrate that they were penitent. They took part in a procession, wearing sackcloth (sanbenito) and carrying candles or crosses. Their sentences were read out aloud, and they fell on their knees to give thanks to God (or just thanks for having escaped the clutches of the Inquisition?)

Witches and Jews were not the only ones dragged before the tribunals. The Fugger Newsletter (a forerunner of today’s newspaper) lists the 38 people who walked in an auto-da-fe in Seville, 3 May 1579. There were Jews, Moors, nuns, Lutherans, escaped slaves, and fornicators.  One was burned at the stake. The others were reconciled with the church.
Here are examples of the sentences handed down:
  • Juan de Color, a black slave, 35 years old, “reviled the name of Our Dear Lady” and denied her miracles: 2 years imprisonment.
  • Juan Corineo, a Moor, said: “Our Dear Lady did not conceive as a virgin”: 100 strokes of the rod.
  • Francisco Gonzales married twice: 100 strokes of the rod and three years on a galley.
  • Francisco Berocano “said that it was no sin if a woman tgoes to a man and they copulate.” No punishment since he “disavowed his words as frivolous.”
  • Orbrian, a native of Flanders, 30 years old, burned paintings of Jesus, endorsed the teachings of Luther, and “showed great stubbornness”: goods confiscated, burned at the stake.

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