The Catholic Inquisition, Methods Of Torture And Victims

By Dr. Mike Magee | 1 June 2006
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The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. (Credit: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain)

The inquisitors, with great humanity, always showed the man or woman the instruments of torture first. These were usually a scourge for flogging, a rack for pulling the limbs until the joints cracked, a strappado and a brasier of burning coals to be applied to bare feet. The strappado was an arrangement by which the victim was suspended, with their hands tied behind their back, by the wrists from the ceiling, and jerked downward if they refused to admit the charge. As a further inducement heavy weights would be tied to their feet. Strong men died from it.

Burning to Death

Burning at the stake was not considered torture but a judicial death. Fire and heat were used to torture people. They would be clamped in stocks, their feet and lower legs greased, then a fire would be built under them to fry them. Heated boots and frying people in pans were also used.

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
John 15:6

And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.
Leviticus 20:14

And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.
Leviticus 21:9

The first Christian emperor, taking his cue from Leviticus not the New Testament, started the long standing Christian fashion for burning people. A slave had had intercourse with a free woman. Constantine ordered him to be burnt alive. Many people in Christendom were subsequently burnt alive, even in Britain (See box).

A case in point is that of John Hooper, Lord Bishop of Gloucester, a Somerset man educated at Cleeve. Hooper was a Zwinglian Protestant, of such a puritanical inclination that he would not swear the vows of the bishop because he had to swear “by the saints”. The boy king, Edward VI (1547-1553), struck out the offending words personally. He also refused to wear the vestments but eventually was persuaded that they did not matter except on ceremonial occasions.

So, a bishop he became, but Catholicism was not yet dead in Britain and Mary I (1553-1558) who was married to Philip II (1556-1598) of Spain came to the throne when her brother Edward died young. Mary was a staunch Catholic, and though there was no Holy Office in the kingdom, she immediately revived the rescinded laws on heresy and had senior clerics like Cranmer and Hooper arrested under them. Both these were burnt alive. Hooper died in 1555 before 7000 spectators and his horrible death is paraphrased here from a description by Henry Moore in a Protestant martyrology of 1809.

The portly bishop who was in his fifties, stripped to the waist and was affixed to the stake by a single iron band, refusing the two others. The hoop was too short and he had to draw in his stomach to allow the band to be fixed. His paunch hung over the top of it. He had a pound of gunpowder in a bladder in his groin and a pound similarly also under each arm. The man laying the reeds for the pyre asked forgiveness and the bishop told him there was no need. It was his duty and God forgave him. The man then continued to throw up the reeds in a pile about the Lord Bishop. Hooper caught bundles of the reeds and put them too under each arm.

The command to light the pyre came but it burned poorly, many of the reeds being green. The day was also cold (it was February) and a brisk wind was blowing the flames flat rather than allowing them to rise. Drier tinder was brought and a fiercer fire built causing the gunpowder to flash. Hooper remained alive. In pain, he now prayed in a loud voice: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. He continued to repeat these words, the last he ever spoke. Even when his face had completely blackened, and his tongue had swollen so that he could no longer be heard, his lips could be seen moving until they were shrunk to the gums. He began to knock his breast with his hands, but one of his forearms soon fell off, leaving him pummelling his chest with the other. Fat, water and blood oozed from his finger ends and splashed about with his movements.

More tinder had to be brought as the fire died down. Hooper was losing his strength and he thrust his hand into the iron hoop around his waist. Now the whole of the lower part of his body was burnt away, and then his guts burst out of his paunch, falling over the hoop, and shortly after he keeled over the hoop and fell into the embers, raising a horrified yell from the crowd. It took almost an hour for the bishop to die on the pyre.

The Pulley

The torture of the pulley was called the first torture of the Inquisition. The victim was stripped and his hands tied behind his back. A strong rope was fastened to his wrists and passed over a pulley in the ceiling. The torturers pulled on the rope until the victim was raised from the ground, his arms twisting back above his head, causing immense pain and dislocation. He was suspended about six feet from the floor and occasionally the rope was momentarily released to jerk the suspended figure causing more pain and dislocation if it had not happened already. If no confession was forthcoming, about 100 lbs of weights were added to the victim’s legs and the victim allowed to drop from near the ceiling, again the fall being held to jerk the prisoner. The torture was repeated until the victim confessed or fell unconscious. Arms were invariably disjointed, but doctors would set them back in place so that the torture could be “continued” on another occasion.

(Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr / Public Domain)

The rack

It was a wooden structure about three feet from the ground and about eight feet long, looking like a ladder placed on a table or box. This was because there were cross pieces upon which the victim would lay. At each end of the ladder were rollers to which the victim’s wrists and ankles were tied. If the victim did not respond to the Quaestio then the executioners inserted long wooden poles into holes in the rollers and with a lot of leverage turned them to tension the victim’s bonds. The minimum effect was to have wrists and ankles torn by the cords, but refusal to confess led to dislocation of the joints and even to having limbs torn off.

John Coustos in Lisbon was racked several times in different ways by the inquisition in 1743, accused of Freemasonry. His shoulders were dislocated more than once and were set back in place by surgeons. Although tortured several times and between times allowed to recover, he would not confess and was eventually sentenced to four years in the galleys and banishment. Thus he lived to tell his tale.

Jane Bohorquia, a woman of noble family from Sevilla, made the mistake merely of talking to a friend about Protestantism. Even though she was pregnant, she was imprisoned until the child was born, then was immediately racked until the cords cut through her flesh to the bones of her wrist, and she began to vomit blood. In a week she was dead. The Inquisition posted a notice that she was found dead in prison with no mention of her torture. The notice added that the Inquisition had found she was innocent and no further action would be taken against her. Her confiscated possessions were returned to her heirs.

Plainly the torturers were sadists, but so too were the inquisitors. Human beings were no different then from us now, and they had the same imagination. Those of them who took the chance to free young women to force them to be sex slaves in their own private seraglios (see box) certainly did not lack the imagination to see ahead a little private pleasure. It is absurd to think these people were not aware of the pain they were inflicting.

VICTIMS

When Napoleon’s general, De Legal, took Aragon, he opened the doors of the Holy Office and released 400 prisoners. The soldiers were astonished to find that sixty of them were beautiful women, the seraglio of the three principle officers of the Inquisition. One of them later married one of the French officers and told her story in detail…

At the age of fifteen on a visit she was introduced to one of the inquisitors who took a fancy to her. That same night her house was raided by the Inquisition. Her father was terrified and when he realised it was his daughter they wanted, he readily surrendered her. She was taken off expecting to die, but found herself ushered into an opulent apartment. A maid offered her sweets and cinnamon tea poured from a silver teapot. Asked when she was to die, the maid seemed astonished she should think it, saying she would live like a princess, except that she would not be free to leave the apartment. The maid had been assigned to her and begged her to be kind.

The inquisitor, Don Francisco, sent her elegant clothes and presents. Then she had endearing letters and finally an invitation to dinner, which the maid urged her to accept. Over dinner, the inquisitor told her she had been accused and found guilty of religious infelicities for which the punishment was burning alive in a “dry pan with a gradual fire”, but he had managed to stay the sentence out of regard for her family and pity for her. She could escape death, however!

The maid urged her to agree and took her to see the torture chamber. Within it was an oven lit by a fire, with a large brass pan on it, with a cover and a lock. There was also a large wheel set with razors, and a pit full of poisonous animals. The maid explained that heretics were put naked into the pan and the lid locked. The torturer lit a small fire in the oven, then gradually fed it until it gre bigger and bigger, thus cooking the victim alive. The wheel was to cut into pieces anyone who spoke against the Holy Office of the Inquisition or the pope. The pit was for general disrespect for holy images and the people of the Church. The maid urged her to do as the inquisitor desired or she would be cooked in the pan.

Needless to say, as soon as she was invited, she jumped into bed with the priest, and preserved her life. After a few days living like a queen, she was taken to the cells and met the rest of the seraglio, the oldest of whom was 24. Now she was fed plain food, and learned the stories of the others. The girls were colour coded for the three inquisitors, and dined in the hall from time to time when the priest selected them for the night. When any of them got pregnant, they were cared for by the maids until the child was born, then they never saw it again. Each year about five or six of the girls disappeared, presumed murdered, but the numbers stayed roughly the same because others were admitted. All the girls could do was pray to the Christian God whose agents on earth were causing their misery!

Most trials resulted in a guilty verdict, and the church handed the condemned over to the secular authorities for punishment. Each Sunday morning a solemn ceremony closed the weekly work of the inquisitors. They gathered the culprits, the clergy, and the people in some great church or public square, and read out the sentences. The unrepentant were then handed over to the secular authorities with a recommendation to mercy—and a stern assurance, from the pope, that unless those men and women were burned at the stake within five days the magistrate or prince would be excommunicated and the city or kingdom laid under the appalling blight of an interdict. Then the Dominican or Franciscan agents of the pope washed their hands.

Burning at the stake was thought to be the fitting punishment for unrecanted heresy, through analogy with the Roman law on treason, but burning of heretics was not common in the Middle Ages. The punishments were usually penance, fines and imprisonment. A verdict of guilty also meant the confiscation of property by the civil ruler, who might turn over part of it to the church. This practice led to graft, blackmail, and simony and also created suspicion of some of the inquests. Fines and confiscation seem hardly compatible but the inquisitors invented a class of heretics called “defenders”, whose heresy might consist only of a single thoughtless word overheard or spoken. These could be fined for their carelessness.

How many victims were handed over to the civil power cannot be stated with even approximate accuracy. Revisionists like to cite the figures for Pamiers and Toulouse, centers of the Albigenses, and so hotbeds of heresy and therefore centers of the Inquisition. No doubt it was for the neurotic clergy of orthodox Christianity, but these same gentle and loving Christians had already launched a crusade against the Cathars 70 years before these figures were collected. Myriads of Cathars had been slaughtered. So, at Pamiers, from 1318 to 1324, out of twenty-four persons convicted, five, and at Toulouse, from 1308 to 1323, out of nine hundred and thirty, only forty-two, were delivered to the civil power. The claim is that these figures show that the Inquisition was an improvement in justice on what went before, the papal induced Albigensian crusades—merely excuses for uncontrolled bloodshed and robbery of an industrious and civilized people. Joseph Blötzer actually cites the earlier lawless period for comparison. In 1249, Count Raymond VII (1222-1249) of Toulouse caused eighty confessed heretics to be burned in his presence without permitting them to recant. Just a few years earlier, the soldiers instructed by the Inquisition had seized the Cathar citadel at Monségur and cruelly murdered 200 Cathars in one day.

Once the Roman Law touching the crimen laesae majestatis, the law under which Jesus had been crucified, had been made to cover the case of heresy, the same law would be used to claim the property of condemned people. Only those sentenced to perpetual confinement or the stake were subject to it, but since they were in no position to complain, the real victims were their dependents, who were legally innocent. Confiscation was also decreed against already dead people, and there is a relatively high number of such judgments. Of the six hundred and thirty-six cases that came before the inquisitor Bernard Gui, eighty-eight pertained to dead people.

The ultimate decision was usually pronounced with solemn ceremonial at the auto-da-fé. The “sermo generalis” was a discourse which began early in the morning. Then followed the swearing in of the secular officials, who had to vow obedience to the inquisitor in all things pertaining to the suppression of heresy. Then the decrees of mercy—commutations, mitigations, and remission of previously imposed penalties—and finally the offences of the guilty were enumerated, and the perpetrators of them turned over to the civil power and punished. Minor punishments were first and the most severe, burning alive was last.

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 2 – Tears of Spain

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 3 – War on Ideas

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 4 – End of Inquisition

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