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…

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