The Inquisitions of the Jews-Spanish and Portuguese

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Initially a tribunal would open at a location and an edict of grace would be published calling upon those who are conscious of heresy to confess. After a period of grace, the tribunal officers could make accusations. Those accused of heresy were sentenced at an auto de fe, otherwise known as an Act of Faith. A clergyman would sit at the proceedings and deliver the punishments. Punishments included confinement to dungeons, physical abuse and torture. Those who reconciled with the church were still punished and many had their property confiscated, as well as banishment from public life. Those who would not confess to heresy were burned at the stake without strangulation. Those who did confess to heresy were strangled first. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, public attendance at auto de fe reached as high as the attendance at bullfights.[1]

In the beginning, the Inquisition dealt only with Christian heretics and did not interfere with the affairs of Jews. However, disputes about Maimonides’ books (which addressed the synthesis of Judaism and other cultures) provided a pretext for harassing Jews and, in 1242, the Inquisition condemned the Talmud and burned thousands of volumes. In 1288, the first mass burning of Jews on the stake took place in France.[2]

In 1481 the Inquisition started in Spain and ultimately surpassed the medieval Inquisition, in both scope and intensity. Conversos (Secret Jews) and New Christians were targeted because of their close relations to the Jewish community, many of whom were Jews in all but their name.[3] Fear of Jewish influence led Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to write a petition to the Pope asking permission to start an Inquisition in Spain. In 1483 A.D. Tomas de Torquemada became the inquisitor-general for most of Spain, and he set up tribunals in many cities. Also heading the Inquisition in Spain were two Dominican monks, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martin.

First, they arrested Conversos and notable figures in Seville where more than seven hundred Conversos were burned at the stake while five thousand repented. Tribunals were also opened in Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. An Inquisition Tribunal was set up in Ciudad Real, where one hundred Conversos were condemned, then moved to Toledo in 1485 A. D. Between 1486-1492 A.D., twenty five auto de fes were held in Toledo, four hundred sixty seven people were burned at the stake and others were imprisoned. The Inquisition finally made its way to Barcelona, where it was resisted at first because of the important place of Spanish Conversos in the economy and society.

More than thirteen thousand Conversos were put on trial during the first twelve years of the Spanish Inquisition. Hoping to eliminate ties between the Jewish community and Conversos, the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492. Christopher Columbus’s diary provides us with the following quote.

In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.[4]

The expulsion that Columbus refers to was so cataclysmic an event that ever since, the date 1492 has been almost as important in Jewish history as in American history. On July 30th of that year, the entire Jewish community, some two hundred thousand people, were expelled from Spain. This would begin the Jewish exodus to America where they would experience true religious freedom. Some even think that Christopher Columbus had Jewish ancestry. Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety. In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds. Therefore Jews were knifed to death by scoundrels hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.

The Jews’ expulsion had been the pet project of the Spanish Inquisition, headed by Father Tomas de Torquemada. Torquemada believed that as long as the Jews remained in Spain, they would influence the tens of thousands of recent Jewish converts to Christianity to continue practicing Judaism. Ferdinand and Isabella rejected Torquemada’s demand that the Jews be expelled until January 1492, when the Spanish Army defeated Muslim forces in Granada, thereby restoring the whole of Spain to Christian rule. With their most important project, the country’s unification accomplished, the king and queen concluded that the “Jews were expendable.” On March 30, they issued the expulsion decree, the order to take effect in precisely four months. The short time span was a great boon to the rest of Spain, as the Jews were forced to liquidate their homes and businesses at distressed low prices. Throughout those frantic months, Dominican priests actively encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity telling them that they would gain salvation both in this world and the next.

The most fortunate of the expelled Jews succeeded in escaping to Turkey. Among the most unfortunate refugees were those who fled to neighboring Portugal. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal concluded an agreement to marry Isabella, the daughter of Spain’s monarchs. As a condition of the marriage, the Spanish royal family insisted that Portugal expel her Jews. King Manuel agreed, although he was reluctant to lose his affluent and accomplished Jewish community.

In the end, only eight Portuguese Jews were actually expelled; tens of thousands of others were forcibly converted to Christianity on pain of death. The chief rabbi, Simon Maimi, was one of those who refused to convert. He was kept buried in earth up to his neck for seven days until he died.

The Spanish Jews who ended up in Turkey, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere throughout Europe and the Arab world, were known as Sephardim — Sefarad being the Hebrew name for Spain. After the expulsion, the Sephardim imposed an informal ban forbidding Jews from ever again living in Spain. Specifically because their earlier sojourn in that country had been so happy, the Jews regarded the expulsion as a terrible betrayal, and have bitterly remembered it ever since. Of the dozens of expulsions directed against Jews throughout their history, the one from Spain remains the most infamous.

The Portuguese phase of the Inquisition began around 1531, when Pope Leo X extended the Inquisition to Portugal because thousands of Jews came to Portugal after the 1492 expulsion. A Spanish style Inquisition was constituted and tribunals were set up in Lisbon and other cities. The Inquisitions continued until the late 18th century.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Inquisition abated, due to the spread of enlightened ideas and lack of resources. The last auto de fe in Portugal took place on October 27, 1765. Not until 1808, during the brief reign of Joseph Bonaparte, was the inquisition abolished in Spain. An estimated 31,912 heretics were burned at the stake, 17,659 were burned in effigy 291,450 made reconciliations in the Spanish Inquisition. In Portugal, about forty thousand cases were tried, although only eighteen hundred were burned, the rest made penance.


Daniel E. Woodhead Ph.D.

[1] Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People-From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present. New York: Schocken Books, 1992, 120.

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica [CD-ROM].  Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1997, Inquisition.

[3] Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People-From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present. New York: Schocken Books, 1992, 114.

[4] Kings College London. , Early Modern Spain. (accessed 10 July

2008) available at https://World; Internet, n.p.