It is a curious thing considering how often it is brought up in conversation and Internet debate by lay atheists, but in “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins conspicuously neglects to detail what he describes as the “horrors” of the Spanish Inquisition. Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett both avoid discussing it altogether. Only reason’s clown, Sam Harris, is sufficiently foolish to swallow the old, black legend, hook, line and sinker, as he attempts to portray the collective inquisitions as one of the two “darkest episodes in the history of faith.”
On June 9, 721 ad., Duke Odo of Aquitaine defeated Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani before the walls of the besieged city of Toulouse. This battle, followed by the victories of King Pelayo of Asturias and Charles Martel at the battles of Covadonga and Tours, brought to an end a century of remarkably successful Islamic expansion. Over the next 760 years, the Umayyads’ conquests on the Spanish peninsula were gradually rolled back by a succession of Christian kings, a long process disturbed by the usual shifting of alliances as well as varying degrees of ambition and military competence on both sides of the religious divide. The “Reconquista” was completed with the fall of Muslim Granada in 1492 to the Castilian forces of King Ferdinand.
The Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1481, cannot be understood without recognizing the significance of this epic 771-year struggle between Christians and Muslims over the Spanish peninsula. What took the great Berber Gen. Tariq ibn Zayid only eight years to conquer on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate required almost 100 times as long to regain, and neither King Ferdinand II of Aragon nor his wife, Queen Isabella of Castile, was inclined to risk any possibility of having to repeat the grand endeavor. Isabella, in particular, was concerned about reports of conversos, purported Christians who had pretended to convert from Judaism but were still practicing their former religion. This was troubling, as it was reasonable to assume that those who were lying about their religious conversion were also lying about their loyalty to the united crowns and it was widely feared that Jews were again encouraging Muslim leaders to attempt the recapture of al-Andalus, as they had its original capture eight centuries before. (“It remains a fact that the Jews, either directly or through their coreligionists in Africa, encouraged the Mohammedans to conquer Spain.” The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). Vol XI, 485.)
An investigation was commissioned, and the reports were verified, at which point the Spanish monarchs asked Pope Sixtus IV to create a branch of the Roman Inquisition that would report to the Spanish crown. The pope initially refused, but when Ferdinand threatened to leave Rome to its own devices should the Turks attack, he reluctantly acceded and issued “Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus” on Nov. 1, 1478, a papal bull establishing an inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile. One tends to get the impression that Ferdinand was less than deeply concerned about the potential converso threat and may have even been acting primarily to mollify his wife, as he promptly made use of this hard-won new authority to do absolutely nothing for the next two years. Then, on Sept. 27, 1480, the first two inquisitors, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martín, were named, the first tribunal was created, and by Feb. 6, 1481, six false Christians had been accused, tried, convicted and burned in the Spanish Inquisition’s first auto da fé.
What happened in between November 1478 and September 1480 to inspire this sudden burst of action? While historians such as Henry Kamen pronounce themselves baffled as to what could have provoked the Spanish crown, the most likely impetus was that on July 28, three months before Ferdinand’s decision to appoint the two inquisitors, a Turkish fleet led by Gedik Ahmed Pasha attacked the Aragonese city of Otranto. Otranto fell on Aug. 11, and more than half of the city’s 20,000 people were slaughtered during the sack of the city. The archbishop was killed in the cathedral, and the garrison commander was killed by being sawed in half, alive, as was a bishop named Stephen Pendinelli. But the most infamous event was when the captured men of Otranto were given the choice to convert to Islam or die; 800 of them held to their Christian faith and were beheaded en masse at a place now known as the Hill of the Martyrs. The Turkish fleet then went on to attack the cities of Vieste, Lecce, Taranto and Brindisi and destroyed the great library at the Monastero di San Nicholas di Casole before returning to Ottoman territory in November.
It is one of the great ironies of history that three times more people died in the forgotten event that almost surely inspired the Spanish Inquisition than died in the famous flames of the inquisition itself. Despite its reputation as one of the most vicious and lethal institutions in human history, the Spanish Inquisition was one of the most humane and decent of its time, and one could even argue the most reasonable, considering the circumstances.
- The Spanish Inquisition did not attempt to convert anyone to Christianity.
- The inquisitors were not slobbering psychotics as portrayed by Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe.
- Torture was rarely used, and only when there was substantial evidence to indicate that the accused was lying.
- The main reason there was a Spanish Inquisition in the first place is that, unlike in other European kingdoms, Ferdinand and Isabella encouraged Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity instead of simply expelling them all.
In light of its nightmarish reputation, it will surely surprise those who believe that millions of people died in the Spanish Inquisition to learn that throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, less than three people per year were sentenced to death by the Inquisition throughout the Spanish Empire, which ranged from Spain to Sicily and Peru. Secular historians given access to the Vatican’s archives in 1998 discovered that of the 44,674 individuals tried between 1540 and 1700, only 804 were recorded as being relictus culiae saeculari. The 763-page report indicates that only 1 percent of the 125,000 trials recorded over the entire inquisition ultimately resulted in execution by the secular authority, which means that throughout its infamous 345-year history, the dread Spanish Inquisition was less than one-fourteenth as deadly on an annual basis as children’s bicycles.
If the Spanish Inquisition was, as historian Henry Charles Lea once described it, theocratic absolutism at its worst, one can only conclude that this is an astonishingly positive testimony on behalf of theocratic absolutism. It is testimony to the strange vagaries of history that it should be the Spanish Inquisition that remains notorious today, even though the 6,832 members of the Catholic clergy murdered in the Spanish Republican Red Terror of 1936 is more than twice the number of the victims of 345 years of inquisition.
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