The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition, was a judicial body established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It operated in Spanish territory until 1834 and for four centuries dedicated considerable efforts and resources to persecute those whose religious and cultural practices differed from Catholic ones. Very briefly, the need to reunify Spain required a common legislative, judiciary framework that would keep culture and practices limited to the Catholic way.
Initially, the strong presence of Muslim and Jewish people in the country was considered a threat to political stability. The Inquisition sought to provide a structure that would continuously monitor social life and punish those which deviated from the Catholic standard, also a way to ensure people’s subjugation to the Crown. Later on, the Inquisition took an active role during the 16th century in suppressing the rise of Protestantism – spreading through the East and North of Europe - in Spain.
Over time, the Inquisition gained a reputation for its lack of tolerance to alterity, its use of coercion and violence to impose homogeneity and its institutionalization as a power mechanism of social control. Some minority groups such as the Roma were affected by the passing of laws designed to assimilate them, something we have briefly discussed in another article. The ways in which the Roma population, in particular Roma women, interacted with some of the practices that were condemned by the Inquisition, reveals interesting social insights. One of these practices was witchcraft.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were sentenced to death under crimes of witchcraft, out of which 80% were women. This process became known as ‘The witch-hunt.’ Germany, France and Switzerland saw the most violent persecutions. While witchcraft, sorcery and divinatory practices had been widespread in previous centuries, the influence of Thomas Aquinas throughout the 13th century pioneered the establishment of a close connection between these practices and the presence of Satanic forces in the world. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII’s papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus formally recognized witchcraft as a threat to Christian civilization.
The Protestant movement also embraced this approach and joined in the witch-hunt race, eager to prove more efficient in fighting evil forces than their Catholic counterparts. In a recent publication, Leeson and Russ (2017) link religious competition for converts with witch-hunt presence and incorporate an economic explanation for it. In order to retain followers, both Catholics and Protestants used the witch-hunts to ‘’advertise their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.'' Germany became a prominent example, where the Counter-Reform period that saw fierce competition beetween both Christian schools also shows the highest presence of witch-hunting activity.
An alternative account of the witch-hunt is that proposed by Silvia Federici. In the transitional period from feudalism to mercantile capitalism, the witch-hunt ''weakened the resistance of the European peasantry to the assault launched against it by the gentry and the state, at a time when the peasant community was already disintegrating under the combined impact of land privatization, increased taxation, and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life.'' Through her work, Federici re-assesses the role of primitive accumulation in early capitalism, the separation of production from reproduction and the sexual division of labour as key aspects of the witch-hunting process. These undertakings implied considerable social degradation for women and were rooted in extreme, widespread violence.
Regardless of what particular theory we subscribe regarding the origin and purpose of the witch-hunt, what seems clear is that its brutality had a profound effect in the collective European imagination. Given its reputation, it might seem intuitive to connect this brutality to that of the Spanish Inquisition. However, in reality the extent of the witch-hunt in Spain was far more limited than in other locations. A sector of the Inquisition in fact remained unconvinced of the connection between witchcraft practices and evil forces. Pro-rationalist ideas opposed to a more traditional theological framework inside the Inquisition soon began to question the validity of interrogations and the evidence presented for cases of witchcraft. In fact, the Inquisition very rarely used the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ during court procedures, often referring to ‘sorcerer’, ‘trickster’ and ‘superstitious practices’ instead.
This also gives weight to the theory that those locations where religious competition was not strong (Spain, Portugal, Ireland) and were dominated by one particular group (Catholicism) also experienced considerably lower presence of witch-hunting practices.