The Inquisition

Christopher Fletcher


Introduction

From movies to metal bands to Monty Python (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”), the Holy Office of the Inquisition has retained a powerful place in popular imagination. For many, this image is of a shadowy, malevolent force of repression and violence, one of the most notorious legacies of premodern European society. Without question, the Inquisition exacted a terrible toll: from the 15th to the 19th centuries, tens of thousands of people – many of them Jews – were executed after being condemned by the Inquisition, and hundreds of thousands more were prosecuted, imprisoned, and impoverished.

However, the story behind the Inquisition – its origins, its methods, and its impacts – is more complex than its popular legend. Originally established in the 13th century to combat heretical groups in France and Germany, the Inquisition only became a sophisticated, global operation in the early modern period. Starting with the Spanish Inquisition’s increasing prosecution of converted Jews in 1478, the Inquisition was tasked with managing the Roman Church’s response to a rapidly changing world.

Not surprisingly, the Inquisition was not the same everywhere. The three official offices of the Inquisition – in Spain, Portugal, and Rome – were established at different times for different purposes, and to varying degrees of success. The legend of the Inquisition has obscured how these national Inquisitions did their work, why they took the actions that they did, and how their enemies in Protestant lands helped ensure their lasting legacy.

The documents and images below provide a broad overview of the Inquisition, both its reality and its legend. Together, they will help explain how the paragon of premodern intolerance was, in many ways, accidentally shaped by larger cultural forces – religious change, the development of print culture, and the creation of a global society – that helped transform the medieval world into the modern one.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents:

  • How is the Inquisition defining “heresy” in these documents? How, if at all, does the definition of this term change over time?

  • What was the intended audience for each of the documents produced below? What clues in the documents themselves help you answer this question?

  • What factors beyond religion (politics, economics, social issues, etc.) could help explain why the early modern Inquisitions took the actions they did?

The Inquisition Expands

The Inquisition gained a greater degree of urgency in the early 16th century, when Martin Luther led the most powerful challenge to the Roman Church’s spiritual authority in a millennium. Luther advocated for a different approach to salvation – through faith, the reading of Scripture, and the end of Rome’s authority over church practice and belief – that found widespread approval and support. His chief weapon in this effort was the printing press, which, he realized, was able to bring his ideas to a large audience quickly. Luther launched a carefully coordinated mass media campaign against the Roman church, producing a range of printed works using every possible method of reaching out to the general public. Many of these works were written in German, which brought his ideas to a much larger audience. The important pamphlet Address to the German Nobility, for example, was designed to recruit the German princes to Luther’s spiritual cause. Many of these works also used images to attack his Catholic opponents, such as this striking woodcut of an enthroned pope being swallowed by the mouth of hell in his pamphlet, Against the Papacy in Rome Founded by the Devil.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why do you think Luther wrote so many of his works in German? How might this have helped him achieve his spiritual goals? Why do you think the Roman Church would see that as a problem?

  2. What do you see on the pages of Address to the German Nobility that gives a sense of how this pamphlet was read? What clues do the annotations offer about whether the owner agreed or disagreed with Luther?

  3. What message is Luther sending with this image? Why would Luther want images like this to be an important part of his publication style?

Address to the German Nobility

Martin Luther. 1520.

Image of Address to the German Nobility

This pamphlet was written to counteract the papacy’s recent condemnation of Luther as a heretic. In it, Luther implored German nobles to defy the authority of the pope and reform the Church on their own.

Translation of underlined text: “Therefore, let us awake, dear Germans, and fear God more than man, lest we suffer the same fate of all the poor souls who are so lamentably lost through the shameless, devilish rule of the Romanists. The devil grows stronger every day, if such a thing were possible, if such a hellish regime could grow any worse – a thing I can neither conceive nor believe.”

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Address to the German Nobility
Creator Martin Luther
Publication Date 1520
Language German
Call Number Case C 64 .533
Location Special Collections

Against the Papacy in Rome Founded by the Devil

Martin Luther. 1545.

Image of Against the Papacy in Rome Founded by the Devil

This pamphlet appeared one year before Luther’s death, and represented his final great polemical attack on the Roman Church. By now, Luther’s argument retained its focus on the inherently demonic nature of the papacy.

Metadata Details
Item Type Pamphlet
Title Against the Papacy in Rome Founded by the Devil
Creator Martin Luther
Publication Date 1545
Language German
Call Number Case C 7582 .528
Location Special Collections

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The Inquisition and Print

When Catholics finally mobilized a concerted effort against spread of Protestantism in the mid-16th century, the newly-constituted Roman Inquisition played a leading role. Inquisitors were convinced that controlling the printing industry was essential to their work. Throughout Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries, they prosecuted not only authors of Protestant books, pamphlets, and broadsides, but also anyone who printed, sold, and owned them. Catholic authorities circulated lists of officially banned authors and books so that printers and the general public would be aware of them. These lists were later subsumed in 1559 by the first Index of Prohibited Books, an official catalog of dangerous literature that also included guidelines for pre-publication censorship and the regulation of the printing industry. In addition to Protestant authors like Luther, the Index targeted books that were only partially problematic, clarifying which portions should be avoided. The owner of this copy of Erasmus’s popular Adages took this advice to heart, and dutifully crossed and cut out the “erroneous” material in the book. By the 17th century, authors in Catholic lands had to consult inquisitorial officials to produce “safe” books. Galileo Galilei even took this route, working for years to produce a version of his infamous book comparing the Copernican and Ptolemaic solar systems that would pass muster with the Inquisition.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What lessons did the Inquisition learn from Luther’s success? How does a book like the Index reflect those lessons?

  2. Why would the Inquisition ban parts of books? What might this say about how inquisitors felt about academics and intellectual culture more generally?

  3. How does the image on the title page of Galileo’s famous book contribute to his attempt to appease the Inquisition?

Index of Prohibited books

Circa 1568.

Image of Index of Prohibited books

The 1559 Index was replaced by the revised Tridentine Index, which appeared in 1564, after the Council of Trent. This copy, published in Belgium, was one of many new editions of this index published in 1568.

Image of Index of Prohibited books

When it came to Protestant authors, the Index was more direct. As this entry shows, any work written by (or even bearing the name of) Martin Luther was forbidden.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Index of Prohibited books
Publication Date Circa 1568
Language Latin
Call Number Case BX830 1545 .A2 1568
Location Special Collections

Censored Adages

Desiderius Erasmus. 1542.

Image of Censored Adages

The Adages contained proverbs from classical authors alongside discussions and witty essays. The note in the margin translates to “all the way to the end,” indicating how much of this section needed to be excised.

Image of Censored Adages

The owner of this book cut out three pages from this section rather than crossing them out. Their remains can still be seen deep in the book’s gutter binding.

Image of Censored Adages

The owner of this book cut out three pages from this section rather than crossing them out. Their remains can still be seen deep in the book’s gutter binding.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Censored Adages
Creator Desiderius Erasmus
Publication Date 1542
Language Latin
Call Number Case 6A 209
Location Special Collections

Dialogue of Galileo Galilei…on the Two Greatest World Systems

Galileo Galilei. 1632.

Image of Dialogue of Galileo Galilei…on the Two Greatest World Systems

Despite six years of negotiations, Galileo could not keep his overzealous support for the Copernican system out of the final version of the Dialogue. It was banned in July 1632; a mere two months after it first arrived in Rome.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Dialogue of Galileo Galilei…on the Two Greatest World Systems
Creator Galileo Galilei
Publication Date 1632
Language Italian
Call Number VAULT Case 4A 876
Location Special Collections

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The Inquisitorial Process

There was nothing haphazard about the Inquisition. Wherever it operated, the office of the Inquisition was among the most sophisticated and orderly institutions in the early modern world. Inquisitors pursued their work according to certain procedures that circulated in print and in manuscript, and were frequently updated as the offices and the problems they encountered developed. The need to stay current might explain the production of this manuscript copy of Instructions that Inquisitors Must Follow. At every point, trials and examinations of alleged heretics were formal legal proceedings with carefully-defined vocabulary. The passage from the printed inquisitor’s manual below, for instance, lays out the precise understanding of the key term “heresy.” In Spain and Portugal (but not in Rome), the inquisitorial process for those condemned for heresy ended in an auto de fe (act of faith), an elaborate public ceremony designed to celebrate orthodox faith while simultaneously shaming and punishing those who violated it. All condemned heretics (even those who confessed and reconciled with the church) were dressed in humiliating costumes and marched through a city to a public square, where they would be sentenced and, if necessary, executed after a public service. The image here, taken from an illustrated history of the Inquisition, depicts the accused sitting on a special stage while a preacher condemns them. Inquisitors encouraged the orthodox public to attend these events by holding them on feast days (when no one worked) in the public center of the city, and by offering spiritual benefits to those who attended.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why would church officials want inquisitors to follow strict guidelines?

  2. What did the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions hope to achieve by holding public ceremonies like autos de fe? What kind of message did they send to the audience?

Instructions that Inquisitors Must Follow

Circa 1510.

Image of Instructions that Inquisitors Must Follow

At least two scribes copied out this portion of an inquisitor’s manual, possibly in 1510, which includes rules about inquisitors’ qualifications, prison sentences, the sentencing of minors, and how to publish edicts announcing decisions.

Metadata Details
Item Type Manuscript
Title Instructions that Inquisitors Must Follow
Publication Date Circa 1510
Language Spanish
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 5212
Location Special Collections

Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae

Comensis Bernardus. Circa 1596.

Image of Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae

This important manual was first published in Milan in 1566, and presented all of the important terms inquisitors used in alphabetical order. The edition shown here also featured a witch-hunting treatise by the same author.

Image of Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae

This important manual was first published in Milan in 1566, and presented all of the important terms inquisitors used in alphabetical order. The edition shown here also featured a witch-hunting treatise by the same author.

Image of Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae

This important manual was first published in Milan in 1566, and presented all of the important terms inquisitors used in alphabetical order. The edition shown here also featured a witch-hunting treatise by the same author.

Image of Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae

This important manual was first published in Milan in 1566, and presented all of the important terms inquisitors used in alphabetical order. The edition shown here also featured a witch-hunting treatise by the same author.

Metadata Details
Title Lucerna Inquisitorum Haereticae
Creator Comensis Bernardus
Publication Date Circa 1596
Language Latin
Call Number Case D 49 .095
Location Special Collections

Historia Inquisitionis

Philippus van Limborch. No Date.

Image of Historia Inquisitionis

The Inquisitorial victims shown in this image were dressed in special costumes denoting their status. The individuals in the top row had refused to confess and would be burned at the very end of the ceremony.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Historia Inquisitionis
Creator Philippus van Limborch
Publication Date No Date
Language Latin
Call Number Case folio D 49 .502
Location Special Collections

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The Global Inquisition

As the Catholic Church spread to the Americas, Africa, and Asia through conquest and colonization, the Inquisition went with it. Inquisitorial offices and tribunals were quickly set up from Brazil and Mexico to India and the Philippines in order to “protect” new converts from Jews, Protestants, and those who still practiced indigenous religions. This was no easy task; inquisitors in the colonies had to navigate a more diverse religious environment than in Europe, a tricky process described in Gabriel Dellon’s account of the Portuguese inquisition in India. To overcome these challenges, the international branches generally followed the same procedures as their European counterparts, including controlling the printing industry. Inquisitors in Mexico had the authority to review and approve books for publication; four inquisitors reviewed (and approved) this petition to print an astronomical almanac for the year 1656. These officials also censored books brought over to the colonies from Europe, a fate that befell this prayer book in 1571.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Based on Dellon’s account, what strategies did the Inquisition adopt to deal with the religious diversity in southern India?

  2. Dellon is convinced that the Inquisition’s approach at Goa was harmful to the overall goal of spreading Christianity. Why?

  3. Why would the Inquisition have been concerned about almanacs?

  4. Why do you think the Inquisition censored this prayer book in the way that you see here?

Inquisition at Goa

Gabriel Dellon. 1688.

Image of Inquisition at Goa

This account was written by Gabriel Dellon, a French physician who was arrested by the Inquisition in 1673 and imprisoned at Goa for 2 years. The first edition of this work appeared in 1685, and was very popular in Protestant markets, especially England.

Image of Inquisition at Goa

This account was written by Gabriel Dellon, a French physician who was arrested by the Inquisition in 1673 and imprisoned at Goa for 2 years. The first edition of this work appeared in 1685, and was very popular in Protestant markets, especially England.

Image of Inquisition at Goa

This account was written by Gabriel Dellon, a French physician who was arrested by the Inquisition in 1673 and imprisoned at Goa for 2 years. The first edition of this work appeared in 1685, and was very popular in Protestant markets, especially England.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Inquisition at Goa
Creator Gabriel Dellon
Publication Date 1688
Language French
Call Number Greenlee 4522 .D35 1688a
Location Special Collections

Petition

Gabriel López de Bonilla. 1655.

Image of Petition

The petition to print this almanac was submitted by Gabriel López de Bonilla, a Mexican astronomer and mathematics professor. Here he makes the case that the proposed work would be “useful and necessary” for agriculture, medicine, and navigation.

Metadata Details
Item Type Ephemera
Title Petition
Creator Gabriel López de Bonilla
Publication Date 1655
Language Spanish
Call Number VAULT box Ayer MS 1833
Location Special Collections

Prayerbook

Catholic Church. 1515.

Image of Prayerbook

This illustrated prayer book was first printed in Paris in 1515. It was censored in a variety of ways beyond the colored bands shown here, including covering text with pastedowns and cutting out pages.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Prayerbook
Creator Catholic Church
Publication Date 1515
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Wing ZP 539 .K4665
Location Special Collections

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The Legend of the Inquisition

Ironically, the lasting cultural power of the Inquisition today is in large part due to Protestants, especially those living in the Netherlands and England, two Protestant powers fearful of Spanish expansion. The Inquisition was a key aspect of a massive propaganda campaign by the English and Dutch to prove the inherent corruption and wickedness of their Catholic rivals. William of Orange, an important early leader of the Dutch war for independence from Spain in the late 16th century, cited the threat of an Inquisition – which he called “the greatest crime that can be in Spaine” – coming to France and the Low Countries as the factor that drove him to rebellion. Narrative accounts of individuals who were imprisoned or tortured by the Inquisition were a particularly useful genre for perpetrating horror stories (true as well as false) about the Inquisition. These texts were often best-sellers in Protestant lands, especially England, where interest in texts like this was especially high. A typical English perspective on the Spanish Inquisition was offered by the traveler William Lithgow, who claimed to have been unjustly arrested, tortured, and nearly burned by the Inquisition while traveling in Spain.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does William describe the Inquisition in his address? Why might he have chosen to describe it this way?

  2. Based on the other Inquisitorial documents in this collection, how accurate do you think Lithgow’s account of his treatment was?

Apology of William of Orange

Hubert Languet. 1581.

Image of Apology of William of Orange

William of Orange was declared an outlaw in 1580 by King Philip II of Spain. William provided this official response and justification of his rebellion before the other Protestant Dutch leaders in December.

Image of Apology of William of Orange

William originally gave his “Apology” in French, but translations in German, English, and Dutch were published the following February, and sent to political leaders throughout Europe.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Apology of William of Orange
Creator Hubert Languet
Publication Date 1581
Call Number Case E 5 .W67142
Location Special Collections

The totall discourse of the rare aduentures…

William Lithgow. 1632.

Image of The totall discourse of the rare aduentures…

Lithgow’s work was strongly anti-Catholic, and he had a tendency to elaborate his travel tales. This account was published in 1623, a period of great anti-Spanish sentiment in England.

Image of The totall discourse of the rare aduentures…

Lithgow’s work was strongly anti-Catholic, and he had a tendency to elaborate his travel tales. This account was published in 1623, a period of great anti-Spanish sentiment in England.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The totall discourse of the rare aduentures…
Creator William Lithgow
Publication Date 1632
Call Number Case G 131 .5148
Location Special Collections

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Selected Sources

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historial Revision. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lea, Henry Charles. A History of the Inquisition in Spain. 4 vols. New York, 1906-1908.

Greenleaf, Richard. The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century. Albuquerque, 1969.

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