From comedic Monty Python sketches to academic scholarship, different people have produced highly diverging portrayals of the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes inquisitors appear bumbling and paranoid, while other depictions show them as vicious sadists. Nearly all of them focus on the Inquisition in Europe. Few go into detail about the Spanish Inquisition’s impact on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The Holy Office was not a solely European institution.
The most notable incarnation of the Inquisition in the Americas was the Mexican Inquisition. Yet the Inquisition in the New World took on different targets from those of its Spanish parent. From sorcery and witchcraft to sexual activities and local drugs, the Inquisition in colonial Mexico cast a wide net in its efforts to impose Catholic orthodoxy and stamp out any heretical doctrines.
The Purpose of the Inquisition in Spain and Mexico
Fundamentally speaking, the Spanish Inquisition originated as an institution for the promotion of religious conformity. It was not solely a Church effort, either. The formation of the Spanish Inquisition was a collaborative effort between Spain’s monarchy and the Catholic Church in Rome. However, as we will see, the Spanish Crown was the dominant player in this agreement.
In late 1478, Pope Sixtus IV agreed to the demands of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to form an inquisition in Spanish territories. After much wrestling over jurisdiction and scope, the monarchy came out on top. Inquisitors would be directly appointed by the Crown and were given the task of upholding religious cohesion in Spanish domains.
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The final decades of the fifteenth century in Spain were characterized by religious, political, and military upheaval. Spanish Catholics sought to destroy the power of local Muslim rulers; Ferdinand and Isabella finally succeeded at this in 1492. With the end of this so-called Reconquista, the Spanish monarchy redirected their efforts to imposing Roman Catholic supremacy in their lands. This meant cracking down on any remaining religious minorities, most notably Jews.
Spain was no stranger to anti-Jewish violence. During the fifteenth century, the Spanish Church made a concerted effort to convert the country’s Jewish population to Christianity. However, these new Catholic converts (called conversos in Spanish) were still regarded by some with skepticism. Were they true Christians, or were some of them actually practicing Judaism behind closed doors? In the spring of 1492, a suspicious Ferdinand and Isabella issued an edict of expulsion, known today as the Alhambra Decree. All Jews in Spain had two options: convert to Christianity or leave the country.
It is not surprising, then, that the early years of the Spanish Inquisition in Europe involved dealing with allegations of secret Judaism. Over time, the tribunal’s scope expanded to cover other offenses against both the secular and religious authorities, such as certain printed books and crimes like polygamy. In Mexico, however, the Inquisition would find itself occupied with new targets unlike those in continental Europe. Some, such as polygamy, would be the same, but others were specific to the Mesoamerican context.
Target: Secret Jews
As the Alhambra Decree made clear, practicing Jews were no longer welcome in Spanish territories. This extended to Spain’s overseas holdings as well. Prohibited from settling in Spanish colonies, Jews could only hope to resettle in another European kingdom if they wanted to keep their religion. Given the anti-Jewish climate of Europe at the time, nothing was guaranteed.
Yet unsurprisingly, conversos did make their way across the Atlantic to Spanish-controlled Mexico. So did many from Portugal, which had evicted its own Jewish communities in 1497. And as they had been the Inquisition’s earliest target in Europe, the same was true of suspected Jews in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
One fascinating case involving a converso was the trial of Luis de Carvajal. The patriarch of a prominent family, Carvajal served as royal governor of the northern province of Nuevo León after 1580. As governor, Carvajal made many enemies. One of these men, a local viceroy, discovered Carvajal’s Jewish origins. The viceroy even claimed that some of Carvajal’s family members covertly upheld Jewish observances. Carvajal himself did not practice Judaism, but some of his relatives did.
The slave trading business may not have sunk Carvajal, but allegations of secret Judaism would. He died in 1591 in the Inquisition’s jail in Mexico City. The remaining members of his immediate family were burned at the stake for heresy in 1596. Carvajal’s nephew, also named Luis, actually was a practicing Jew and kept manuscripts detailing his life. The memoirs were stolen from Mexico’s National Archives in 1932 but were fortunately recovered in 2017.
The story of the Carvajal family may have been exceptional, but the Inquisition in early colonial Mexico did take accusations of Judaism very seriously. Secret Jews resettling in New Spain did so at their own peril.
(Non)-Target: Indigenous Peoples
As a branch of the Catholic Church, the Mexican Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Catholics. Europeans and Africans (free or enslaved) alike were considered under its authority. However, the tribunal could not try another major group of people in colonial Mexico — indigenous peoples.
According to a 1569 edict, the Inquisition in New Spain could not legally touch Native Mesoamericans who had not converted to Catholicism. The King of Spain feared a local backlash against not only the Inquisition but against Spanish colonial rule itself. Since Mesoamerican peoples had successfully appealed for freedom from enslavement after 1542, the Spanish Crown did not want to risk further potential conflict.
That being said, indigenous peoples and their religious practices were not off-limits to local priests, especially during Mexico’s early colonial period. Catholic missionaries actively sought to obliterate all traces of what they saw as indigenous idolatry. Native books and religious sites were destroyed, and many Native Mesoamericans were forced to convert to Christianity. As time went on, however, Africans replaced indigenous Mexicans as enslaved laborers in New Spain.
Target: Sexual Offenses
Sexual relations in both colonial Mexico and Europe were not merely between romantic partners; they were also the domain of the Catholic Church. Biblical teachings and the Church hierarchy defined what constituted morally acceptable sexual conduct. Anything outside of monogamous, opposite-sex unions was viewed as sinful and deserving of punishment in both the afterlife and our earthly existence.
Inevitably, the Inquisition went after people accused of violating Biblical sexual morality. In Mexico, prosecutions of these offenses typically focused on unfaithful husbands. Women could be charged with infidelity as well, however. The Mexican Inquisition’s campaign against sexual infractions began during the earliest years of the colonial period and continued on through to its conclusion.
Target: Sorcery and Witchcraft
Sorcery and witchcraft were among the earliest offenses the Inquisition faced in Mexico. In Spain, some Church authorities had expressed skepticism regarding the concept of witchcraft. To many Spanish theologians, the issue of heresy among former Jews and Muslims was a more pressing matter than accusations of dark magic. Witch crazes still broke out at times in Spain, but they never reached the numbers that consumed other European countries. This line of thinking largely survived in colonial Mexico, but it was also transformed by the differing cultural environment of the New World.
Mexican witchcraft and sorcery blended aspects of Native, Spanish, and African divination rituals. Like in Spain, conceptions of witchcraft were inextricably tied with sexuality and gender. Lovers might use spells or consult diviners to win back the affections of their distant partners. Some might even perform magic to limit the powers of abusive spouses. Unsurprisingly, most of those accused by the Mexican Inquisition of witchcraft were women. Women of all ethnic identities under the Inquisition’s authority were accused of dabbling in the dark arts. In the patriarchal society of colonial Mexico, sorcery could represent an outlet for female agency.
Target: Food and Drugs
The Inquisition was among the first bodies in Mexican history to crack down on drugs. In this case, inquisitors found themselves dealing with a phenomenon unlike anything they had encountered in Europe — the religious use of hallucinogenic plants. The issue demonstrates another adaptation by the Inquisition to its New World context.
Indigenous peoples in Mexico had long used local substances for divination purposes. The altered mental state experienced by users was seen as a connection with the supernatural. By the the seventeenth century, the multicultural environment of colonial Mexico meant that non-Natives had started to adopt the spiritual usage of peyote and other drugs. Since the Inquisition could not go after non-Catholic indigenous Mexicans, its prosecutions would largely cover European and African users.
The Inquisition’s campaign against hallucinogens intensified around the start of the eighteenth century. The case of a mixed-race woman named María illustrates this point. In Texcoco in January 1704, inquisitors brought María in for questioning after they had found her carrying the herb pipiltzintzintli. She seems to have been a folk healer, as her bag also held other herbs and a human umbilical cord. After much witness testimony, the Inquisition kept María detained. Her ultimate fate is unclear.
The Mexican Inquisition’s Tactics: Torture, Penance, and Death
Let’s quickly return to the Monty Python skits mentioned at the beginning of this article. Those comedic sketches lampooned the Inquisition’s reputation for torture and cruel treatment of prisoners. In doing so, Monty Python harkened back to an old stereotype about the Spanish Inquisition — that the Holy Office was a particularly intolerant and violent organization. By extension, the Spanish state could also be blamed for an outsized number of atrocities in global history.
More recent scholarship has demonstrated this “Black Legend” to be propaganda created by Spain’s rivals, Britain and the Netherlands. As historians such as Edward Peters have shown, the Inquisition was no more brutal than the secular authorities of the time. In fact, they may have been even less sadistic. Historian John F. Chuchiak attests that Mexican inquisitors had rules in place regulating the application of torture during interrogations. However, the fact remains that inquisitors did authorize torture on occasions to get prisoners to confess to their alleged sins.
The most flamboyant of the Inquisition’s tactics in both Mexico and Europe was the auto de fé. The inquisitors coordinated this spectacle with secular leaders. Featuring a procession of convicts who had to declare their loyalty to the Catholic Church, this was the Inquisition’s only public display of force. Most autos de fé were held on Sundays, and the grandest procession was held in Mexico City.
After the chosen cleric delivered his sermon and the introductory Mass had been performed, the inquisitors would read out the convicts’ offenses and sentences. One final Mass followed. Most of those brought before the Inquisition publicly repented. If someone refused to repent and had been sentenced to death, the secular authorities took over. From that point, the most unrepentant convicts could be burned at the stake. This punishment seems to have been most commonly applied to those who practiced Judaism in secret.
The Inquisition in Colonial Mexico: A Final Assessment
While it may not have been as murderous as was once thought, the Inquisition in colonial Mexico was still a formidable institution. Its purpose was twofold — to maintain Roman Catholic orthodoxy and to buttress Spanish colonial rule in North America. Yet despite being a branch of the Spanish Inquisition, the Mexican Inquisition was not quite the same as its parent.
Like their European counterparts, inquisitors in Mexico contended with secret Judaism and what they saw as sexual impropriety. Unlike in Spain, however, the Mexican Inquisition placed much more emphasis on combating witchcraft and local cultural practices. These differences in targets set the Inquisition in Mexico apart from its Spanish progenitor and make it worthy of study in its own right.
Chuchiak IV, John F., ed. The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536-1820: A Documentary History. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.