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The Man of Faith (Part 3)

Posted Aug 29 2010 8:32am

The actual torture methods tended to be the same used in other parts of Europe. Along with the notorious rack, Inquisitors also used the strappado (suspension from a hoist), as well as water torture.  Due to provisions for double-jeopardy (no suspect could be tortured twice for the same accusation), the Inquisitors were careful to stretch the torture sessions over as many days as needed to extract the confession with only brief rest breaks in between to prevent the accused from dying.  At the beginning of each new session, the accused was presented with the various instruments of torture and told that a simple confession was all that was needed Strappado[1] to avoid further agony.  Again, the Inquisitors were not bound by whatever promises they made to the accused during the torture sessions although the confession could be used against them in the subsequent trial.   It wasn't just the accused who were at risk for torture either.  Witnesses who recanted their testimony or who were inconsistent in their stories often faced the question as well.

Under Torquemada's rule, tribunals were eventually established across eight Castilian cities by 1492 and the rules by which heretics could be tried and convicted were firmly established.  To be fair, most convicted heretics never faced the flame, only a small minority of the tens of thousands who went on trial were actually "surrendered to the secular arm" (since priests were forbidden to shed blood, it was the secular authorities who were actually in charge of the executions).  Although Pope Innocent VIII (Sixtus had died in 1484) attempted to curb the Spanish Inquisition by establishing the right for convicted heretics to appeal to the Papal courts, Ferdinand and Isabella passed laws making it a capital offense to appeal a Tribunal decision without royal consent.

Along with the Inquisition, laws affecting Jews became much more severe.  All Jews were required to wear badges with a distinctive red circle on their shoulders, given strict curfews, and banned from specific professions such as physician, apothecary or innkeeper. Torquemada had an almost pathological hatred for the Jews of Spain since he considered them to be a constant threat to Christians due to their "hatred of Christianity".  Despite the protection offered by the Catholic hierarchy in Rome, Torquemada's spies were quick to pass word of Jews who failed to obey the strict laws laid down on them.  Anti-Jewish riots were common, spurred on by stories of Jews engaging in various acts of sacrilege.  This included a notorious killing of a Christian boy in 1490, supposedly as part of a Jewish ritual murder (stories of blood libel were common enough during that era).  A cult sprang up around the "Holy Child of La Guardia" (as the dead boy was called) and the supposed killers confessed to the crime quickly enough once the Inquisitors torturers got through with them.  Torquemada and his fellow Inquisitors used cases such as this one to persuade Isabella to pass the Edict of Expulsion in 1492. 

Whatever Torquemada hoped to accomplish with the expulsion of countless hard-working Jews from Spain, the resulting economic blow to Spain's economy was profound.  The loss of thousands of merchants, scholars, artisans, and manufacturers likely damaged Spain's economy for generations.  Despite the mass confiscation of Jewish and converso property (and the resulting benefit to Spain's treasury), the long-term economic consequences are immeasurable.  Although the Muslim inhabitants obtained a promise from the Crown that the new territory of Granada would be immune from the Inquisition for forty years after the annexation, Torquemada arranged for his Inquisitors to establish a watch on those Muslims and Jews who had supposedly fled to Granada for protection.  By 1505, the Inquisition was openly active in Granada as well.

The expulsion of the Jews was Torquemada's crowning achievement.  By the time of his death in 1498, Tomas de Torquemada was the most feared and hated man in all of Spain.  He often required an extensive retinue of bodyguards to prevent assassination while traveling.   He also took precautions whenever he ate to prevent poisoning.  And it wasn't just the victims of the Inquisition who despised him.  His reputation for intolerance and willingness to override the supposedly independent civil courts earned him numerous powerful enemies.  His distrust of anyone of Jewish descent led him to attempt to prosecute the grandfather of one of his enemies, a powerful bishop.  Since this would have removed his enemy from formal office, the bishop naturally protested to Pope Alexander VI for protection.  This was a serious setback for Torquemada although he managed to remove another of his enemies by prosecuting his deceased father. 

Eventually, the pontiff had enough of the complaints against Torquemada but replacing him outright was impossible without antagonizing his powerful protectors.  Instead, the pope resorted to an interesting bit of subterfuge.  In a letter to Torquemada, Pope Alexander VI expressed concern about the Grand Inquisitor's failing health and appointed two archbishops to act as his assistants to "lighten the labour of his declining years".  These "assistants" were given full powers by the Pontiff that were equal to Torquemada's own.  The Inquisition still went on though and Torquemada made certain that his final instructions would guide Inquisitors long after his death,  And it did.  Despite his retirement to a monastery in Avila and being crippled by gout, Tomas de Torquemada still directed the Inquisition with full fanaticism.  Dying peacefully on September 16, 1498 and without a single regret over his brutal reign, Torquemada was laid to rest in the monastery chapel with only a simple inscription to mark his tomb.

Not formally abolished in Spain until 1834, the Spanish Inquisition would eventually claim thousands of lives (as many as 2000 people were believed to have been executed in the first decade of the Inquisition alone).  The total death toll will likely never be known.   With the Protestant Reformation flourishing in other countries, the Inquisition also played a dominant role in censorship of books across Spain. While Indexes of banned books were common enough, the Spanish Inquisitors rooted out an enormous number of books (including non-Latin translations of the Bible).  Since this often included most of the great works of Spanish literature, Spanish authors often faced the Inquisition themselves.  Book burnings became commonplace with more than sixteen thousand books being burned in a single auto da fe near the end of the 15th century.    It's hardly surprising that scientific and cultural advancement came to a virtual stop in Spain long after Torquemada's death.

The name of Tomas de Torquemada still provokes hatred for his legacy of brutal repression.  In 1832, anti-religious protesters ransacked the Avila monastery where Torquemada was buried.  Along with smashing many of the marbles and other monuments, Torquemada's bones were stolen and later burnt to ashes.  Perhaps a fitting end for the body of the man who had condemned so many others to the fires as well as a graphic reminder of the terrible consequences of giving absolute power to fanatics.

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