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Why the Spanish Inquisition?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

John Edwards
University of Birmingham


It seems quite extraordinary that an important European country should apparently have wished to go down in history as the originator of calculated cruelty and violence against members of its civil population. Yet the writers of the famous sketches in Monty Python’s Flying Circus were far from being the first to introduce ‘the Spanish Inquisition’ as a cliché to represent arbitrary and yet calculated tyranny. By the late sixteenth century, Christian Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, had already formed the image of Spain which has become known as the ‘Black Legend’. Just as many Spaniards distrusted Italy, because Jews lived freely there, and France because Protestants were in a similar condition in that country, so Italian opposition to the forces of Ferdinand the Catholic and his successors, together with the ultimately successful Dutch rebels, created, with the help of growing knowledge of Spain’s atrocities against the inhabitants of the New World, a counter-myth, in which the Spaniards themselves appeared as heardess oppressors, but also, ironically, as crypto-Jews (marranos). Erasmus wrote that France was ‘the most spotless and most flourishing part of Christendom’, since it was ‘not infected with heretics, with Bohemian schismatics, with Jews, with half-Jewish marranos’, the last term clearly referring to Spain. Not surprisingly, there is also a Jewish story of what happened in Spain before, during, and after 1492, which may best be summed up, in general outline, in the words, written in 1877, of Frederic David Mocatta’s study of Iberian Jews and the Inquisition.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1992

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