What was the Reconquista
We humans have a very long history of believing one thing, and going to ridiculous lengths to get everybody else to also believe this one thing; in fact, this has been happening since the beginning of time. One of history’s most extreme versions of this is the Reconquista and, by proxy, the Spanish Inquisition.
So what was the Reconquista? And how did the Spanish Inquisition develop from it? Let’s piece it all together so we can understand how history that is centuries old affects how Spaniards live and act even to this day.
What was the Reconquista?
When the Moors traveled up from Africa and took over Spain in 711, they took the crumbling infrastructure of the Catholic Visigoths and made it new. This is why it was so easy for the Moors to shift the culture from Catholic to Muslim – there was no one major culture or community; everything was falling apart.
Therefore, the Moors ran right through Spain, conquering almost the entire country in about four years. Their territory stopped in Asturias, a little sliver of Northern Spain, that maintained their Catholicism throughout the Golden Age of Islam. So, for hundreds and hundreds of years, most of Spain was Muslim while a tiny little part of Spain stayed Catholic. The Reconquista lasted about 800 years (800. Years. I can’t even comprehend the concept of 800 years!), during which the Catholic population spent pushing the Muslims out of the map of Spain.
The Reconquista timeline
The reason this period of wartime took 800 years wasn’t because the Moors were that hard to defeat; it was because, well, politics. Most of that time, the Catholics weren’t actually trying that hard to reconquer the country, because they were busy making sure their own regions were stable.
As the Reconquista continued, Spain’s regions ebbed and flowed, as new monarchs came and went, the stability of their people grew and fell…it was a whole lot of sustaining. As time went on, and these smaller regions found their place (eventually as the two major regions, Castile and Aragon), the Catholics chased the Muslims out little by little.
The Catholics had taken about half of Spain back from the Moors. The Moors were still thriving in their own region, though. This is only about 300 years into the Golden Age of Islam. A decade later, the Catholics had taken two-thirds of Spain from the Moors.
Granada was hidden by mountain ranges and high walls, so the Moors’ city center thrived for another 200 years. For two whole centuries, all of Spain was united under Catholic rule except for itty bitty Granada, where Muslims could live in peace. It wasn’t until Spain’s most important marriage occurred, 200 years later, that Granada finally collapsed.
In 1469, Spain saw their most historically important marriage: King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. When these two Monarchs were married, so were their regions, combining the two Catholic regions of Spain into one, which then overpowered the one small region of Muslim Spain: the city of Granada.
So, with the power of marriage, the couple, known as “the Catholic Monarchs”, embarked on the Granada War starting in 1482. This war lasted 10 years, until, finally, Granada surrendered, and all of Spain was united under Catholic rule.
Towards the end of the Reconquista, Spain began the Spanish Inquisition; there’s about a 20 year overlap, but the two periods of history cover several hundreds of years each. And, of course, the Spanish Inquisition is (unfortunately) so interesting that it kind of overruns the Reconquista. However, the Inquisition was essentially a continuation (albeit a dramatic one) of the Reconquista.
The Inquisition didn’t start in Spain; in the beginning, it was a more general “western European” thing. The Inquisitions began with the Catholic Church starting in France. The purpose of these Inquisitions were to defeat heresy; it’s an important note that this definition of heresy comes from the Latin word for “choice” – you were only to be punished if you made the choice to sin.
This is an important distinction, the fact that these Europe-wide Inquisitions were meant to only affect those who made the conscious choice to sin. It defined the culture of these Inquisitions: religious officials would travel to different cities, proclaiming that its citizens had a grace period to admit they were heretics. If you admitted to heresy during this time period, usually lasting a few weeks, you wouldn’t be punished so long as you converted to Catholicism.
Rules of Europe’s Inquisitions
To understand the extremity of the Spanish Inquisition, let’s talk a bit about how it was supposed to happen. First, as we already said, you had a grace period to admit your sins without any consequence. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
When you were claimed as a heretic
After this grace period, there was a process before you were condemned for heresy. First, two people needed to claim you were a heretic; unfortunately, nobody told you if you had been named once. When you were named twice, you were just taken. Which, you know, is kind of terrifying.
When there were two claims made against you, you were taken for the purpose of getting you to confess your sins. If you didn’t confess when they asked, you would be tortured until you told the truth. Whether or not they would actually get you to tell the truth, or you would just make something up to make it stop, nobody can really say.
After you confessed your sins
After your torture and your confessions, you were let go. As long as you weren’t caught sinning again, you would theoretically get to live in (mostly) peace. The only caveat was that you would bear a giant yellow cross on your clothes so everybody would know that you were a heretic. It’s not the best way to live, but, honestly, it could be much worse!
Like if you were found to be sinning again. If that happened, you were burned. At the stake. For hours. Burning at the stake was a torturous death that didn’t happen quickly. If you were lucky or had friends or family in power, you would be burned over wet wood, so you would die of asphyxiation much quicker.
The Inquisitions didn’t just affect living Europeans, either. If you were found to be a heretic after death, it would follow your family tree. Your grave would be pillaged, your remains would be added to a bonfire, and your property taken, which could leave your surviving family in a tough spot; even if your family followed the “right” faith, they could still be punished for your sins after your death.
The Spanish Inquisition
Now, all that seemed…pretty awful. And that’s not to say it wasn’t. However, it was pretty bland compared to the Spanish Inquisition, and that’s why most people don’t realize the Spanish didn’t come up with the Inquisition all on
The main difference was who was in control. All the other Inquisitions were led by the Pope. The Pope called all the shots, hired all the enforcers, made all the rules, etc. The Pope’s intention was to unify Europe under one religion, just for the purpose of unity.
The Spanish Inquisition was not led by the Pope, but by the Monarchs. When King Ferdinand of Aragon successfully conquered all of Spain, he liked the idea of both controlling the country, and being rich, which came from having a strong connection to the church. Therefore, the King wrote to the Pope, explaining how much Spain needed an Inquisition, and stuck himself in the driver’s seat. Here’s why.
What made the Spanish Inquisition different
After the Reconquista, it was the King and Queen’s #1 priority to make sure everybody was Catholic. They had given Jews and Muslims two options: either leave your faith, or leave the country. No exceptions.
Many Muslims and Jews left the country to keep their faith. However, lots of them stayed in Spain for fear that this persecution will follow them wherever they go (considering their faiths have historically been persecuted every which way), and converted to Catholicism. And, even though they were following the rules, there was still ample opportunity for newly converted Catholics (or conversos) to leave Catholics a little paranoid.
For example, Jews that had never before been allowed positions in politics were all of a sudden Catholics and, therefore, able to be politicians. They had power now. Which (maybe) would have been fine, but after generations of Judaism, you can’t just stomp out someone’s culture; “real” Catholics saw Conversos practicing Jewish traditions, and assumed they were still secretly Jewish, and thus a threat to the “right” religion.
King Ferdinand, responding to this fear, starts eyeing the church and the power he can get by connecting to it. He calls up the Pope and told him how scared he was that these Conversos were just faking it, and planning to take over Christianity’s presence in Spain. With this, the Pope buckles under pressure, and hands over the reigns of the Spanish Inquisition to the King – he even lets the King choose the guy whose job it is to keep the Pope informed.
How the Spanish Inquisition worked
Like the “normal” European Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition was based on a tattle-tale system: if two people reported you’ve been acting suspiciously non-Christian, you’re held for questioning. And by questioning I mean torture.
You could be tortured for mumbling a prayer that might not be Catholic, eating meat on the wrong day of the week (have you ever wondered why bars and restaurants and Spain hang meat from the ceilings?)…you could really just piss off the wrong guy, and that guy says “I think maybe they might not be really Catholic”.
The kicker about being held for questioning is that you’re not told anything; you don’t know who accused you, and you don’t know for what. So, if you honest-to-the-Christian-God didn’t sin, you had better come up with something.
The only way to get out of all this was to name other heretics. You can imagine, under physical torture, how easy it would be to name literally anybody, no matter if they had actually sinned or not. By that token, the Spanish Inquisition tortured and murdered likely countless innocent people.
Those who wouldn’t confess or were found to be heretics after confessing the first time were burned at the stake at regular shows. Auto de fes, or “acts of faith”, were big, public demonstrations of long, slow, painful deaths. These were heretics getting what they deserved, so don’t you dare sin! At the highlight of the Spanish Inquisition’s popularity, auto de fes could involve up to 100 people burning at the stake at a time.
The Converso trap
Not to say that anything about torturing people because they maybe did something that might be considered practicing a different faith isn’t awful, but what was even more awful was the literal trap the Jews were in.
Unlike the “normal” Inquisitions, where you could be innocent as long as you admitted you came from a different faith, the Spanish Inquisition offered no room for error. Jews that converted to Catholicism but then fled from the Inquisition were guilty. If they admitted their heresy, they were guilty. If they were even suspected by anybody, they were guilty.
The rules were pretty arbitrary, and completely out of control. You could be accused for weeks or months, never told what you were accused of doing, and then tortured until you admitted to something.
Conversos didn’t like this (obviously), so in 1485 (less than 10 years into the Inquisition), a group of them snuck up to the Inquisitor and murdered him cold. While the rest of the country had had some sympathy (though clearly not enough) for the Conversos, this murder cast them in a bad light, making the discrimination against Jews all the worse.
Making a Catholic country
Fortunately, the Edict of Expulsion was passed in 1492, offering Jews another chance to either leave the country or be converted to Catholicism. But, really, it’s just history repeating itself, masked as “I promise I’ll stop torturing you if you just admit you’re sinning.”
This then extends to unconverted Muslims in 1499, who get the term Mariscos. They begin to get the same treatment as the Jews…until the government decides they’re beyond converting, and are officially expelled from Spain permanently. At this point, Spain is theoretically completely Catholic.
So, for hundreds of years, Muslims aren’t allowed in the country, and Jews are forced to convert to Catholicism. It’s no mystery that after all this, Spain still identifies as a Catholic country, though it’s significantly less common for modern-day Spaniards to actively practice the religion. You just don’t shed hundreds of years’ worth of persecution that easily!
Torture of the Spanish Inquisition
When we think of torture, we think of sadistic, apathetic people who just want to destroy you. What’s interesting is that that’s not how the torture of the Spanish Inquisition was. There was a rule book, and there is no actual historical evidence to suggest the rules were broken. That isn’t to say these rules weren’t broken out of ignorance, but historians honestly believe these tortures were pretty by-the-book.
Now, there were a few basic rules that covered any sort of torture whatsoever:
- Torture was only used to elicit a confession
- Those who were old, sick, mentally ill, physically ill, or children were never tortured
- No blood was to be lost; if the victim bled, the torture would stop
- Torture could not last for more than 15 minutes at a time
- Torture could only be administered 3 times
- The accused could not be driven mad, hurt, injured, or unduly distressed
- Statements could not be recorded until 24 hours after torture, away from the torture chamber
Spanish Inquisition torture devices
You can visit museums (unaffiliated with the Spanish government, who has left no trace of this time period out of pure shame) that hold torture devices of the Spanish Inquisition. There are a couple Spanish Inquisition torture devices, however, that were more commonly used than others.
Likely the most common was referred to as “the strappado”, which was also used a lot in Inquisitions around Europe. The victim’s hands would be tied behind their back, and the victim would then be pulled up by their wrists, dislocating their shoulders and causing significant pain and very loud cracks.
Another one, “the wrap” also dislocated the victim’s joints by connecting their hands and feet to opposing sides and pulling. This could result in tearing their limbs off, but, as we know, there were rules against that.
Finally: “toca”. This one was essentially waterboarding. The victim’s mouth was forced open, and a strip of cloth was forced into their throat. Then, a slow, steady stream of water was dripped on the cloth, forcing the victim to both gag and feel like they were drowning.
Throughout these tortures, heretics were notably naked except for a cloth covering their genitals. The torturers were also celibate, which means that these people were not only not allowed to have sex, but were also hired to stare at naked men and women all day. Knowing human sexuality as we do now, that seems kind of unrealistic, so who knows what the history books don’t say?
These weren’t the worst of the tortures, either. The worst torture you could be assigned was slavery: when King Ferdinand needed bodies on his ships, he took guilty heretics and stuck them on his ship for their labor.
After all was said and done, and the heretics who weren’t stuck on a ship were absolved of their sins, they were let go…wearing a big fat cross on their clothes for as long as they were instructed. This sign of heresy opened you to all sorts of abuse from your neighbors: you were sneered at, stones were thrown at you, etc. Even death was no escape – your robes were pinned up at your church to forever remind your neighbors that your family were heretics.
The Spanish Inquisition grows
As with any kind of mass exodus of people from a country, there’s always the problem of “where are these people going?”. Being that it’s right next door, many Jews who chose not to convert immigrated to Portugal….where they were met with more discrimination. They couldn’t (and still can’t, to this day) catch a break!
With the sheer number of Spanish Jews crossing the border into Portugal, it didn’t take long for them to completely outnumber the actual Portuguese population. Can you guess what the Catholic Portuguese did when they were all of a sudden completely overrun by Spanish Jews? Yup, they had their own Inquisition.
The wealthy conversos who had escaped to Portugal did everything in their power to plead with the Pope to keep the Inquisition out. They just wanted to live in peace, and tried to pay off the Church to allow them that freedom. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Portuguese auto de fes were so deadly, many conversos opted to go back to Spain, the lesser of two evils.
Keep in mind, this is all happening around the discovery of the Americas, which provided Conversos with an opportunity to get far, far away from this horrible trail of death. They emigrated to the newly found Americas, and the Inquisition followed them to Mexico City; in 1528, two Spanish Conversos were burned in an auto de fe.
And if you think they were done there, you’d be wrong. The Spanish priests who came to the Americas decided that Native Americans should be Christian too, then quickly decided the Native Americans were without hope against heresy. There was just no stopping it.
The Spanish Inquisition declines
In 1517, a German professor by the name of Martin Luther publicized a document that starts the downfall of the Spanish Inquisition. This document, “The 95 Theses”, was a list of questions for debate which threatened both the Roman Church and the Inquisition. This then snowballed into a religious revolution called the Reformation, a time period that resulted in what we know today as Protestantism.
Protestantism soon spread throughout Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, which, obviously, enraged the Pope. When Catholic Spain eventually came face to face with Protestantism through trade networks, the people were arrested. Some of these Protestants were very powerful, very highly placed in politics, and this whole thing terrified the Church.
So what does the Pope do? What any rational, responsible leader would do: he allows the Spanish holy office to execute the Protestants. This is a huge deal – it’s the only example ever of the death penalty being used on first-time offenders. This isn’t just big strong men, either – some of the executed were priests, nuns, and even children. Spain works to literally burn Protestantism out of existence with, you guessed it, auto de fes.
While Inquisitors keep an eye out for these new kinds of heretics coming in from abroad (think tradesmen and merchants, who just happen to land on Spanish soil), Protestant victims get a hold of a new invention called the printing press. With this new technology, books and pamphlets sharing stories of torture and death from the Spanish Inquisition are shared all around Europe. Talk about scandal!
On top of that, an Italian priest up and leaves the Church to convert to Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church is falling apart right before his eyes, so the Pope decides he needs to start his own Roman Inquisition. Cause, you know, it had been working so well thus far!
The Roman Inquisition
The Roman Inquisition is the last big hoorah of all of this nonsense. What’s interesting is how it was handled; while the Pope allows Protestants arriving in Spain to be killed basically on sight, the Roman Inquisition was…actually civil.
Before our modern day judicial system, Roman heretics were given a say in their fate. They could retain an attorney, friendly witnesses, and were even provided a public attorney if they couldn’t get one on their own. The Roman Inquisition listened to their prisoners. They seemed to actually care whether or not they were burning actual heretics.
Eventually, of course, all of this had to end. As Europe modernized, the Inquisitions were left in the past. In the 18th century, the King of Spain refused to attend auto de fes. Jewish and Muslim mobs destroy the evidence condemning their family lines, and nobody seemed to be all that upset about it. The world was moving forward, and the whole Inquisition thing was barbaric.
How the world sees the Inquisition today
Like most anything, there are different perspectives on the Spanish Inquisition. At the time, the people (read: Christians) felt it was necessary. It was accepted. It was a great way to get “them” out of the country. Because of this, some modern day historians don’t think the Inquisition needs to be painted in such an awful light. If the people (read again: Christians) thought it wasn’t so bad, why should we?
What do I think? I’m on the other side, the side of historians that don’t think the Inquisition should be whitewashed, just like the Holocaust shouldn’t be minimized. I don’t think almost a thousand years’ worth of indiscriminate torture and terror should be swept under the rug just because some 16th century Christians thought what they were doing was necessary.
Especially considering that the concept of the Inquisition is not unique. This is not the only time throughout history where a certain group of people were persecuted because they thought, felt, or believed differently than they were “supposed” to, and it’s not the last. To this day, humanity has this awful habit of trying to force the “right” thought onto literally everybody in the world, and people will continue to die because of it.