Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition…in Peru

Today, two things typically come to mind when someone brings up the Spanish Inquisition: a humorous and light-hearted Monty Python sketch or horrible images of barbaric torture devices. But the Inquisition was much more than silly men jumping through doorways in red robes or prisoners being tied to the dreaded rack. The Spanish Inquisition was actually one of the world’s most elaborate bureaucracies and crucial to running one of the largest empires in history.

Established by the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1473, the Spanish Inquisition was one of many begun in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. Because it was a religious campaign launched by the heads of state, the Spanish Inquisition blurred the lines between judicial, legal, and ecclesiastical authority. But unlike the Roman Inquisition or previous Medieval ones, the Spanish Inquisition lasted for three centuries and held sway over millions of people living in a massive transatlantic empire.

The Inquisition’s stated goal was to root out and punish individuals who continued to practice non-Catholic religions within the empire’s boundaries. But over time the institution shifted its focus away from strictly religious matters. Slowly the Inquisition permeated Spanish society so much to the point that “the Inquisition and its defense of Catholic orthodoxy remained essential for the survival of Spain and its worldwide empire.” By broadening the definition of heresy, the Inquisition expanded their influence into civil crimes and made the organization an integral part of maintaining order within Spain’s global holdings. [1]

Despite possessing so much power, the Inquisition’s authority never played out the same way in Spain’s American colonies as it did in the homeland. The colonial cities of Mexico City, Lima, and Cartagena were the homes of Inquisition tribunals, but they were also mixtures of cultures and peoples. Much of how the Inquisition functioned in the New World seemed to focus on gender and sexuality. While trials for formal heresy took up 42% of crimes in Spain from 1571 to 1700, they constituted merely 27.5% of trials in New Spain. In comparison, sexual crimes made up 5.6% of trials in Spain while comprising 24.1% of all trials from the period in New Spain. Furthermore, the crime of bigamy constituted over 18% of all cases in New Spain from the period. [2]

“The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition,” ICV No 42233.

The cosmopolitan New World cities made it imperative for the Inquisition to establish itself as something of a societal enforcer. Often times, the Inquisition found itself investigating people who were underrepresented in their contemporary world and sought means to advance themselves such as women. This is why some historians have said that, in the Inquisition’s eyes, “heresy wore a gendered face.” [3]

For many in the Old World of Europe, the New World of the Americas promised not only the possibility of riches, but the chance to simply begin anew and pursue a better life. But the trial of María de Sotomayor highlights the reluctance of tribunals to grant any leniency to those who committed crimes of morality no matter the circumstance.

In 1538 María was accused of marrying a man named Gaspar de Hurtado in Mexico while still being married to Juan de Castro in Spain. María plead innocence, stating that upon arriving in “Mexico, she was told that [Castro] had died and for this reason she had married again with the said Hurtado.” When other testimonies stating that Castro was actually alive, the tribunal gave María both religious and secular punishments. She was forced to strip naked from the waist up and paraded before a congregation, gave up half of her property, and was placed on the next ship to Spain. [4]

But that wasn’t the end of María’s story because she was brought back before the tribunal two years later! It turns out she had escaped the ship and fled to Peru instead. Evidently, she was determined to do whatever she could to escape Spain, as she feared her abusive first husband. But in the eyes of the Inquisition, the safety of the Spanish citizens–particularly women–was secondary in comparison to crimes like bigamy. Instead offering protection, the Inquisition threatened her with three-hundred lashes, excommunication, and release to the secular arm (execution) if she did not comply. [5]

Living within a culture of inequality, many women turned to means outside of the secular realm in order to gain control over particular aspects of their lives–including spiritualism and sorcery. While most saw sorcery as dangerous to Spanish society, most witchcraft was used for somewhat trivial matters like finding lost objects, love spells, or small vengeance on unruly husband.

Since so many of these crimes were minor, the Inquisition largely ignored cases of sorcery or witchcraft and the massive bureaucratic process filtered out most of them. Still, many living in the Spanish Empire believed witchcraft was a legitimate threat and cases did arise–particularly against women of color. [6]

Between 1570 and 1572, the Mexican tribunal had had two women appear before them and testify against María de Bárcena, accusing her of practicing sorcery. The first woman, Juana Pérez, stated that she complained to Bárcena about her abusive husband at her home. Bárcena allegedly told Pérez, “you should kill your husband and I know how to do it… I have certain powders and roots and with one of them if you place it under your husband’s pillow where he sleeps it will cause him to quickly die!” [7]

Pérez quickly refused the offer, but another woman shared a similar story regarding Bárcena. According to the testimony of Teresa Gutiérrez, after complaining that her husband was straying, Bárcena offered to seek the assistance of a Moorish slave who could cast a spell “so that [her] husband will never again in his life love or desire another woman.” After a few more testimonies, the Inquisition could no longer ignore the allegations against Bárcena. They sentenced her to public humiliation, a prison sentence of three years, and a hefty fine. [8]

“Left, a man convicted of heresy in the Spanish Inquisition; right, a nun that escaped being burned at the stake by recanting.” Engraving by B. Picart, 1722. ICV No 42220.

Although the women who appeared before the tribunal claimed to have refused Bárcena’s offer, it is clear that there were other women who had made use of her unique services. Just like María de Sotomayor, women were willing to go through great lengths in order to escape an abusive husband or other precarious situations and without legal means of accomplishing their goals, they were often forced to utilize other resources.

Instances like these show how the Inquisition ordered its hierarchy of crimes and sins. Women were often constrained by the rules of matrimony and any attempt to deviate from the rigid laws laid out by the Inquisition could result in harsh punishment. In a society that sought to keep the status quo–particularly in issues of gender–symbolism played a key role.

The Spanish Inquisition dealt with many of the same issues law enforcement orders face today. Attempting to corral rule breakers, correct them to fit societal norms, and enforce punishments fitting the gravity of the crime. Yet one also sees the same struggles in the attempt of underrepresented peoples to gain agency through working the system and bureaucracy to their favor. To that end, while the crimes of witchcraft, blasphemy, and heresy may seem strange to the modern viewer, the discrimination of what crimes apply to what type of person still apply.

While the true organization may not have resembled the brutal, bloodthirsty beast depicted in the black legend, it was still monumental for those who fell under its gaze. For the woman trying to escape an abusive husband or the supposed witch seeking to help fellow women, it was a last hope through which they might express agency in their patriarchal world. In the end the Inquisition was just as much a follower of societal and cultural norms as the director it desired to be.

Although it survived for centuries and its legend lingers in the darkest shadows of modern memory, the Inquisition’s power gradually waned and its prosecutors became more lenient. The Inquisition’s unique position as a religious organization under crown authority and not that of the papacy provided advantages to the Spanish crown, but it also tied the Inquisition to the fate of the monarchy. As the empire fell into disarray and the colonies gained their freedom, the tribunals were shut down and the authority of the inquisitors no longer loomed ominously over the public.

  1. John F. Chuchiak, The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536-1820, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
  2. Ibid., 7, 219.
  3. Irene Silverblatt, Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004), 26.
  4. Inquisition Trial against María de Sotomayor, for the Crime of Polygamy. Mexico City, 1538-1540, 223.
  5. Ibid., 226.
  6. Chuchiak, The Inquisition in New Spain, 293.
  7. Denunciation against María de Bárcena, the Wife of Medina the Tailor, for Suspected Sorcery and Sexual Magic. Mexico City, 1570-1572, 302.
  8. Ibid., 303.

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