The Secret of the Inquisition

The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain

by B. Netanyahu
Random House, 1,384 pp., $50.00

No institution in Western history has so fearful a reputation as the Spanish Inquisition. In the sixteenth century a Jewish writer referred to it as a “wild monster of such terrible mien that all of Europe trembles at the mere mention of its name.” Every nation opposed it during the period of its greatest influence. But it was the Jews who had most reason to hate it.

This fact is, in itself, odd. By Church law, the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptized Christians, not over those of another religion such as Jews and Muslims. There had been an Inquisition in Europe in the later Middle Ages but it did not touch the Jews. Instead, it dedicated itself to sorting out heretics like the Albigensians. Readers of Le Roy Ladurie’s brilliant book Montaillou will have met the inquisitors of the heretical sect of Cathars.

The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1480, was somewhat different. It devoted itself from the beginning to getting rid of Spaniards of Jewish origin, the conversos, sometimes also called Marranos. More than 95 percent of the thousands it disciplined and executed in the first twenty years of its existence were conversos.

The reason given by the Inquisition and its supporters for their bloody campaign was that the conversos were engaged in “judaizing,” i.e., practicing the Jewish religion secretly while pretending to be sincere Catholics. The confessions the inquisitors extracted from those it arrested seem to leave no room for doubt. In the hundreds of files of documents which have survived from those days, the accused time and again (and usually without torture) admit that they have secretly kept the Jewish fasts, recited Jewish prayers and blessings, abstained from work on the sabbath, and observed other traditional Jewish customs.

Impressed by the sufferings of the conversos, by the nakedly anti-Semitic attitude of the inquisitors, by the thousands of depositions and confessions made by Spaniards from all social classes, historians have never doubted that the conversos were secret Jews or that the objective of the Inquisition was to suppress the Jews. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, about a dozen years after the founding of the Inquisition, would seem decisive evidence for this argument. Most of the conversos had been forced into Christianity during the previous century, following widespread anti-Jewish riots in 1391. It would seem likely they secretly had tried to keep up their Judaic culture and beliefs. The anti-Semitic ideology of the Holy Office of the Inquisition could never be in doubt. The motives of the Inquisitors seemed all too familiar for those who, like the great Jewish scholar of the Inquisition, Yitzhak Baer, came from Central Europe and had seen similar persecution there in the early twentieth century. The conversos were secret Jews. The Inquisition was the great exterminator.

This view has dominated Western scholarship, not only in the writings of Baer, but in the monumental history of the Inquisition written by the American scholar Henry Charles Lea. The great student of Iberian civilization, Américo Castro, drew on it in putting forward his argument for the continuing influence of Jewish culture in Spain’s history during the centuries following the expulsion.1 It is still the prevailing orthodoxy among historians of Spain. We can find it in the pages of popular studies on the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, such as the recent book by the Canadian journalist Erna Paris. 2

Benzion Netanyahu’s long book, The Origins of the Inquisition, is an attempt to destroy this orthodoxy forever. A distinguished scholar and a professor emeritus at Cornell University, Netanyahu presented some of his arguments as long ago as 1966 in his study The Marranos of Spain According to Contemporary Hebrew Sources, which was reissued in 1973. He has also produced many other deeply learned works. In this work on the Inquisition, he discreetly hides the learned apparatus at the end of the volume, and writes in plain English, giving no quotations in Hebrew, Latin, or Spanish, the three main languages of his historical sources.

Netanyahu’s approach sets him apart immediately from virtually all other scholars. In a thousand-page book on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, he does not directly cite a single inquisitorial document. Unlike Henry Charles Lea and Baer, who based their works in large measure on such documents, Netanyahu rejects them as unreliable. The Inquisition, he argues, wanted to make a case against the converso and it fabricated evidence in order to do so. Its papers are, by their nature, biased. To get at the truth, we need to look at other contemporary sources.

It may seem astonishing that this book is not about the Inquisition itself. At no point does the author talk in detail about its nature, functions, or history. The drama, conflicts, and miseries of the Holy Office, the organization set up to carry out the Inquisition—these are almost totally absent from his pages. Netanyahu, as the title of the book states, is in fact concerned not about the evolution of the Inquisition, but about its origins.

His exposition is devoted instead to two major themes. He deals, first, with the complicated social struggles in fifteenth-century Spain that created the historical situation in which the Holy Office was set up. This is an absorbing story, well told, though readers unfamiliar with the subject may occasionally get lost in the intricacies of late medieval politics. Secondly, he analyzes in detail and at length the controversies of the period in which the participants debated the beliefs, status, and culture of the conversos. The central actors in his story are the conversos, or, as he usually calls them, the Marranos. We follow their history from the massacres of the year 1391, when many Jews turned Christian, to the civil conflicts between conversos and other Christians in Toledo and other Castilian cities in the 1440s. The main argument Netanyahu presents can be summarized, in simplified form, as follows.

By the latter part of the fifteenth century, the conversos of Spain—numbering, at my own rough estimate, perhaps 100,000 people—had become sincere Christians, quite distinct from the approximately 80,000 Jews who identified themselves as such. They had chosen, voluntarily or not, to convert during the years of persecution at the end of the fourteenth century. Three generations later they were fully fledged, genuine Christians, many of them occupying high political posts in the cities and in the royal governments of Aragon and Castile. Their conversion to Christianity was often called into question by political opponents. But leading controversialists, including a cardinal in Rome and the leader of a great religious order in Castile, defended the genuineness of their beliefs.

Most convincingly of all, many Jewish rabbis, mainly in North Africa, who were consulted on the question of how Jews should treat conversos, ruled firmly that they were real Christians and in no way secret Jews. The rabbis could not possibly have taken this view if they and other Jews suspected that the conversos were their brethren. Right down to the time of the Inquisition, eminent converso Christians, including prominent members of the administration of Ferdinand and Isabella, strongly asserted the Christianity of their people. There were occasional cases of judaizing, but the mass of conversos in Spain were Christians. (Indeed, after the conversos were persecuted under the Inquisition, the Jewish writings of the time, Netanyahu comments, contain “cold-blooded assertions that the Marranos got their due, an open manifestation of glee over their ‘fall.’ “)

These conclusions, which are central to Netanyahu’s entire argument, seem to me wholly convincing. By coincidence, they are also the conclusions of another recently published study on the subject, by Professor Norman Roth of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.3 If we accept them as correct, however, they raise a central question. Why, if there was no problem resulting from the judaizing of conversos, was the Inquisition created? If there were in fact no heretics, why invent a court to bring them to trial?

Netanyahu writes that three main factors led to the creation of the dreaded tribunal. First, by their exceptional success in public life the conversos provoked widespread enmity. Jews were non-Christians and therefore disqualified from holding public office, even though they had sometimes held other posts such as tax officials and estate administrators. Conversos, by contrast, were eligible for all public positions and honors. During the fifteenth century, conversos and their descendants rose to high office as administrators, judges, and bishops. Many entered the nobility. In some cities their success provoked continuous rivalry, particularly in Toledo in the 1440s. Their enemies everywhere struggled to eliminate them by accusing them of being secret Jews. A new tribunal was required to deal with those who were accused.

Second, the clashes during the fifteenth century between Old (non-Jewish) Christians and New (converso) Christians, as the two categories were called, gave rise to conflicts over identity. In those conflicts, Netanyahu argues, we can see the birth of racism. Conversos could not be denounced by their enemies as Christians, for that was of course no crime; they were therefore denounced as “Jews.” In many cities attempts were made to exclude them from office, and the notion of “blood purity” (limpieza de sangre, in Spanish) was conceived as a doctrine to be used against them; the only pure blood, so the theory went, was Christian. Jewish blood, and by extension converso blood, was impure. In city after city, statutes were proposed which disqualified people of “impure” blood from entering universities, religious orders, and city councils.

The most important of these statutes was adopted by the city council of Toledo in 1449, and in subsequent decades other institutions promulgated similar laws. Historians have frequently referred to the existence at this time of a “Marrano problem,” by which they mean the alleged tendency of conversos to secretly practice Judaism. Netanyahu disagrees. For him what was in question was “the struggle of the Old Christians to reduce the status of the New.” The statutes prescribing blood purity were an important weapon in this struggle. Drawing on his studies of converso practices and writings, Netanyahu adds a very important piece of information to help us understand one aspect of the racism of the time. He points out that many of the Marranos, long after their conversion, continued to look on themselves as a “nation,” separate from Jews as well as Old Christians. “The Marranos,” he writes,

were viewed as a distinct nationality which, in more ways than one, was related to the Jews. Indeed, not only did their enemies so regard them, but also their friends among the Old Christians; and, what is more, they were so regarded by the Marranos themselves. The latter, who insisted that religiously they were Christians and had nothing to do with Judaism and its followers, could not help admitting their actual belonging to a separate entity, which they clearly defined.

This, obviously, created a special identity which marked them out from others and fostered racism.

Third, the crown, in the person of King Ferdinand “the Catholic,” decided to fortify its weak political position by allying itself with anti-converso forces. Neither the king nor Queen Isabella was anti-Semitic. They had been friendly toward individual conversos and Jews and they would continue to be so. But their political strategy turned them against conversos generally. Traditionally, Jewish historians have identified Isabella as the malign influence. Netanyahu, by contrast, sees Ferdinand as the dominant partner, and he is unsparing in his characterization of him. Ferdinand is, for him, the real founder of the Inquisition. He did not establish the Holy Office for any religious reason; nor, as some have claimed, was it primarily his intention to prey on the accumulated wealth of the conversos. Robbery was only the incidental consequence of his anti-converso policy, not its main purpose. Ferdinand’s motive was straightforward Realpolitik, an attempt to form an advantageous alliance.

These arguments are set out magisterially by Netanyahu in a smoothly linked narrative that combines scholarly evidence, careful reasoning, and passionate rhetoric. A reader with some knowledge of the history of the Inquisition might well ask: What of the thousands of cases which document the judaizing activities of the conversos? Do they not demonstrate that the inquisitors were responding to what they saw as a religious problem?

The archives of the Holy Office are among the richest sources of information available anywhere to historians. Carefully preserved by the inquisitorial bureaucracy, they offer minute detail not only on court cases but also on the private lives and practices of thousands of ordinary men and women who appeared before the judges. The papers of the Roman Inquisition are still not available for examination. But those of the Spanish Inquisition, housed in the national archive in Madrid, have for some time been available to researchers. Henry Charles Lea and all other subsequent historians of the Holy Office have relied on them. So, too, have many Jewish historians. All of them have given full credence to the trial documents, but for differing reasons. The Jewish scholars, led by Baer, accepted the evidence of the documents because they demonstrated that the conversos were indeed heretics, and therefore at heart belonged to Israel. Ironically, then, these historians accepted that there was some justification for the Inquisition.

But who in his right mind, Netanyahu would ask, could accept as reliable, without separate corroborating evidence, the documents used by a secret police organization as evidence for prosecution? And who could accept such papers as justifying the existence of that police? Yet this, in his view, is what scholars of the Inquisition have done. Not surprisingly, some other historians have had doubts about the truth of the Inquisition documents. Netanyahu rejects them as unreliable, but he does not claim that they are complete inventions. Virtually all the documents refer, he points out, to judaizing after the formation of the Holy Office. Before that date, he writes (and here the facts certainly support him), there is no reliable evidence of a judaizing movement on a scale to warrant the creation of a special judicial tribunal.

Marrano leaders and Jewish leaders said again and again that the New Christians were indeed Christians. “If this was the state of Judaism among the Marranos,” writes Netanyahu, “the claim that the Inquisition was established to suppress a widespread crypto-Jewish movement in their midst must be regarded as untrue.” Of course, he says, evidence of judaizing was produced after the Inquisition was established. But this was because many of the despairing, persecuted, New Christians reverted in their misery to the old faith. It was not the judaizing of the Marranos that produced the Inquisition, but the Inquisition that produced the judaizing of the Marranos.

Up to this point Netanyahu’s argument makes sense. If it is generally accepted by historians, it must point Inquisition studies in a new direction and revolutionize our approach to the study of Spanish Jewry. The reasons he puts forward for the founding of the Inquisition must, however, be approached with considerable care. Spain’s history in the fifteenth century has not been extensively studied, and the documentation is sparse. Netanyahu’s three central arguments are entirely plausible but also raise difficulties that invite debate.

As has been said, his first, socio-economic explanation emphasizes the political power of the Marranos. It is true that there was an intense rivalry for influence between New and Old Christians during the fifteenth century, and Netanyahu gives ample and convincing evidence of it. But one may also observe that the rivalry seems to have occurred during the periods when the throne had lost control of events, particularly during the strife-racked reign of Juan II of Castile and the succession crisis after the death of Henry IV in 1474. It also occurred only within a group of cities in the south of the peninsula, in Toledo, Seville, and Cordoba, for example. There was no corresponding rivalry in times of tranquillity. And there was very little tension in the larger cities in the north of the peninsula—Saragossa, Barcelona, or Avila—where many New Christians also held political office.

In other words, throughout more than half of Spain, it is difficult to identify any rising pressure against the Marranos. This was true even of regions where conversos became tax collectors, members of the most hated profession in Spain. There were certainly many conflicts and crises in the relations between New and Old Christians; but it is not so easy to identify any worsening situation starting from around the middle of the century, or any logical reason why it should have resulted in an Inquisition. The socio-economic explanation, in short, appears to be entirely valid for southern Castile and Andalusia. It is very likely not valid for the rest of Castile or indeed much of the rest of Spain. A careful reading of Netanyahu’s pages shows that virtually all his examples of tension between the New and Old Christians come from Toledo and Andalusia.

As for Netanyahu’s second main point, that a racist doctrine based on “purity of blood” was used to persecute the conversos, he shows brilliantly how this insidious theory began to have a part in Spanish public life. But, once again, we do not have much evidence that the doctrine really fomented, or was fomented by, anti-Semitism. During most of the fifteenth century, very few towns and institutions in Spain—possibly no more than a dozen—adopted statutes of blood purity. Moreover, the attempt to exclude people of Semitic origin from public office was a complete failure, above all in Toledo, the city which made itself notorious for trying to enforce such exclusion. For some years afterward there were very few attempts to pursue such a policy. Only after the founding of the Inquisition did the trend to discriminate against conversos on grounds of blood purity become pronounced. This might lead us to a conclusion rather different from Netanyahu’s. We might say that to a considerable extent the Inquisition created anti-Semitism, rather than that anti-Semitism created the Inquisition. The evidence, in fact, points in both directions.

Most debatable of all is Netanyahu’s view of the motives of King Ferdinand. There is not much evidence to back up the thesis that Ferdinand’s greed for power made him “assume the unofficial sponsorship of the anti-Marrano party.” The thesis may be true but it is not proven. In 1507—1508 the great lords who led rebellions against Ferdinand in Andalusia were Old Christians. By contrast, Jaime Destorrent, the official who helped him rout his opponents in Catalonia in 1490, was an opponent of the Inquisition and of converso origin. In 1507 Ferdinand publicly defended the conversos, stating that “we have always had conversos in our service, like any other people, without distinction of persons, and they have served us well.” This does not sound like the talk of a man determined to destroy the Marranos. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the king passed several laws prohibiting discrimination against those who had converted. The evidence against the view that Ferdinand was anti-Marrano is, in short, quite substantial.

These observations do not refute any of Netanyahu’s arguments, nor are they meant to. What they suggest is that we must examine his case carefully before accepting it. His main argument that conversos were genuine Christians who were falsely accused seems extremely well founded. But there are many other points of detail in his book that stand or fall on the availability of evidence; and in some cases the evidence is not there. Take the old theory that the Inquisition was invented to rob the Marranos. Netanyahu at first rejects this view, but he then suggests that Ferdinand “decided to make every possible use of [the Inquisition] as a financial resource.” There is nothing implausible about the idea. Many people at the time, including Queen Isabella’s own secretary, Hernando del Pulgar, suspected that the inquisitors singled out rich people for punishment. The problem is that in our present state of knowledge we simply do not have a clear picture of who materially benefited from the Inquisition. Documents from the period have not survived. Recent scholarly studies suggest that the king did not receive very much from confiscated property.4

Netanyahu has a vast knowledge on Spanish history but some important matters are left out of his account. It is surprising, for example, that through out the book he presents Judaism and Christianity as the main component of Spain’s religious culture. Few readers would suspect that Islam was the largest faith in the peninsula, not Judaism. Surely attitudes toward Muslims would have had some relevance to the evolution of cultural attitudes among Spain’s peoples.

As has been said, moreover, he sometimes extends to the whole of Spain a generalization that may be valid for only a small part of it. Since he devotes so much attention to the anti-Semitic movement in Toledo in the 1440s, it is worth emphasizing that the events in Toledo were exceptional rather than typical of the entire country. The factional struggles and the anti-Semitic attitudes deserve the close attention he gives them, but they were absent in large parts of Spain particularly the northern provinces Netanyahu also allows himself some sweeping judgments, such as a reference to the “genocidal impulse” of Philip II of Spain. This is clearly an emotional reaction rather than a considered historical opinion.

The book contains appendices that are fascinating historical accounts in themselves. In one of them Netanyahu turns detective and suggests that the murder in Aragon in 1485 of the inquisitor Pedro Arbués, an act which opened the way to establishing the Holy Office in that region, was committed by agents of the Inquisition itself. It is an ingenious theory. In an other appendix he draws interesting parallels between the nature of anti-Semitism in Spain and in Germany.

Netanyahu has written an immensely impressive book. It has some weak points, but it is based throughout on profound scholarship, and there is enough controversial material in it to launch many intense debates. Clearly his book is far more than a conventional historical exposition. Netanyahu is also trying to deal with basic tendencies that have deeply affected Western civilization, particularly the mechanisms by which a people who wanted to be part of a society could be excluded from it as conspiratorial and impure. Although he restrains himself from mentioning the Holocaust until the closing pages, its shadow is there from the very beginning of his story. Netanyahu has used the case history of Spain to understand and explain anti-Semitism, viewed not simply as a local Spanish aberration in the fifteenth century but as a precursor of other developments in later times. In this sense, he is quite right to point to the Spanish Inquisition as “a force that affected the course of world history.”

  1. 1

    See for example his The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History, translated by Willard F. King and Selma Margaretten (University of California Press, 1971, reprint 1985).

  2. 2

    Erna Paris, The End of Days: The Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (Prometheus Books, 1995).

  3. 3

    Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

  4. 4

    Tarsicio de Azcona, author of the standard life of Isabel la Católica (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1964), points out (p. 422) that the royal treasury received “sums, but not fabulous sums, of money” front confiscations. He righthly discounts the figure of the crown receiving ten million ducats (which Netanyahu cites as a fact, p. 1022) as untrue.