The Inquisition II

The Inquisition expanded its horrible reach

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Although the Inquisition technically targeted heretics, not Jews, inquisitors came to believe that Jews were also a problem, in that they were preventing the smooth assimilation of the conversos.  In 1492, subsequent to the period Sachar discusses below, Ferdinand and Isabella were to expel the Jews from Spain because they were a corrupting influence on New Christians. The Jews left, but the Inquisition stayed and spread. In fact the Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536, and by point of law extended to all of Spain and Portugal’s colonies in the New World.

The following article outlines the expansion of the Inquisition in Spain and the reactions of the converso community there. It is reprinted with permission from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

The Inquisition Creeps Outwards from Andalusia

Once it had proved its efficacy in Andalusia, the Inquisition was extended step-by-step into the towns of central Castile, including Toledo and Ciudad Real. No one was safe from the frenzy of denunciations. Protected by anonymity, informers often implicated alleged marranos (the Spanish world for secret judaizers; literally, pigs) to satisfy private grievances. An army of inquisitional spies remained on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Those conversos who actually observed Judaism in private had not yet become adept at maintaining secrecy. A single careless remark could endanger an entire extended family. In Aragon, too, during these same years, King Fernando gradually was introducing his own Inquisition, adopting precisely the methods developed in Castile.

The Price Was High, the Spoils Great

From a purely administrative viewpoint, the Inquisition was a formida­ble achievement. It represented the first all‑Spanish institution on the peninsula at a time when state authority itself still was officially divided between Castile and Aragon. The Suprema, or inquisitional Supreme Council, became one of only five royal councils attached to the combined thrones, and its operation permitted the Catholic Monarchs additional leverage in their drive toward centralization and absolutism. But at what a price!

For long intervals, the economies of such major commercial centers as Barcelona, Zaragoza, and Valencia were gravely disrupted. The number of executed victims mounted so rapidly that in several of the larger cities allocation had to be made for a quemadero, or special burning site. No one was immune to the horror. By 1490, the competitive delir­ium of arrests and trials approached the threshold of the previous century's indiscriminate mass violence. In the eighteen years of Torque­mada's ministry alone, over two thousand conversos were burned, nearly three thousand condemned and burned in "effigy" (normally a posthu­mous sentence), and thirty‑seven thousand "reconciled" to the church by dint of various terms of imprisonment and penance. The thousands of orphans left behind cannot be estimated.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.