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The Spanish Inquisition Revisited

Commenting on the inability of human societies to predict forthcoming calamities, the Los Angeles Times recently ran a comment piece headed ‘No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition – or Donald Trump’. There have been some dire predictions about the baleful impact that the new President might have not only in the US, but across the world. So, while we wait to see how his presidency might evolve, I thought I’d investigate the parallel suggested by the article and see what insights the early history of the Spanish Inquisition might offer to our current situation. The case of Diego Rodríguez Lucero, an infamous Spanish Inquisitor who ran away with his mission and took it to barbarous extremes, provides some food for thought for our own times.

Lucero took over as Inquisitor in Cordoba in 1499 but it was not until after Queen Isabel of Castile’s death in 1504 that he embarked on a McCarthy-style mission to eradicate not ‘Reds under beds’, but Jews under pews. Since Isabel and her husband Fernando of Aragón signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, there had officially been no Jews living in Spain, but the cities in Andalusia and in the north contained sizeable populations of people of Jewish origin – some recent converts to Christianity, some from families which had converted over a century previously. The descendants of many of these earlier converts had risen to occupy plum positions in the church and town hierarchies, or in the service of noble masters, and there was an underlying resentment towards them and a continuing sense of their ‘otherness’ which spilled over into violence. Fernando and Isabel’s Spanish Inquisition was created in 1478 to root out false converts, but Lucero’s attack on people of Jewish origin was more widespread and more vicious than anything that the institution had overseen before. On 22 December 1504, he had 107 people burnt at the stake as heretics in Cordoba. A learned cleric known as the Maestro de Toro witnessed this auto de fe and was horrified to hear several of the dying victims cry out to Jesus and the Virgin and call for notaries to record that they had died as Christians. In Granada, the famously pious and gentle Archbishop Hernando de Talavera was targeted as a renegade Jew, along with all his family. In 1506 there were more than 400 people detained by Lucero in Cordoba’s Alcázar, whose families loudly protested their innocence, and there were tales of torture, sexual violence, and accusations which were financially-motivated.

How did Lucero get away with such extreme behaviour, which transgressed the Inquisition’s own rules and regulations, and indeed, the legal and moral codes governing civilised behaviour in his society? How was he able to present his conduct as acceptable? These questions seem to have more than an echo of relevance today. Firstly, to justify his hard line, Lucero created a narrative. He claimed that the whole country was about to be swamped by Jews returning to their old religion. Marauding bands of ‘prophetesses’ were sweeping through the countryside ‘judaising’ and that the houses of many notable figures were being used as ‘synagogues’. This created a climate of fear and King Fernando eagerly gave him the go-ahead for a crackdown. Lucero was no respecter of truth. Where there was no evidence, he had no problem in inventing it. Prisoners who were later released told tales of child detainees being taught Jewish prayers in order to incriminate their elders, and confessions extorted through torture, rape, and humiliating treatment such as being interrogated naked. Lucero had to resort to gagging and beating victims dying at the stake in order to prevent them crying out about the treatment they had suffered. It was thought that one of the reasons he ordered such large-scale burnings was to conceal evidence of the extremes he had gone to. But large-scale autos de fe energised the populace, stoked the climate of fear and fed the demand for more. If there were so many heretics, so the line went, then very harsh measures were needed to stamp out the menace. Like many institutions today which harbour unsavoury characters, the Inquisition closed ranks and protected him, fearing for its reputation if it admitted that its own rules of conduct had been broken. Lucero’s actions were also popular among certain sections of the community. People enjoyed seeing ‘evil’ punished. One local cleric commented that ‘people want there to be a lot of heretics, to see them arrested and burnt’. In addition, Lucero made sure that there were plenty of beneficiaries from his actions: key figures were bribed or rewarded with property and positions confiscated from his victims. The king’s secretary was one of these beneficiaries and prevented appeals on behalf of those accused from reaching the monarch, who rejected their approaches as ‘bribery’. Lucero exploited a political power vacuum in the aftermath of Isabel I’s death (Fernando was technically only King of Aragón), and a local crisis over poor harvests and outbreaks of plague. He was applauded by hard-liners for appearing to provide strong political solutions in the face of a breakdown of law and order. For Fernando, he provided a symbol of his continuing power and control in Castile.

‘For moving his tongue in another way’ – Goya’s take on the Spanish Inquisition

But Lucero did not enjoy his impunity for long. A broad coalition of nobility, townspeople and clergy gathered evidence of his misdeeds and made their case to the Queen, the Pope, to foreign governments and archbishops. They succeeded in forcing the resignation of the Chief Inquisitor. His replacement, Archbishop Cisneros, had Lucero removed as Inquisitor and set up a board of enquiry to examine the evidence against him. The trial documents form the basis of what we know about him today. In this first concerted action against the Inquisition, the campaigners against Lucero edged towards a concept of human rights which would soon find an echo in Bartolomé de las Casas’ defence of indigenous people in the New World, and be articulated further in Spain’s comunero rebellion of 1520. But although they were successful in removing one of its most notorious figures, the Inquisition continued to hold Spanish society in its grip for another 300 years. It seems that by that time people had, indeed, come to expect it.

Teresa Tinsley, PhD Student


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