In an interview with the ABC news network, U.S. President Donald Trump recently defended the use of waterboarding, stating the view that it “absolutely works” and indicating his wish to see the practise of this torture by U.S. intelligence services legalised. Critics were quick to point to the use of waterboarding by the notorious Spanish Inquisition in the medieval and early modern period. A study of the use of torture by the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, however, offers far more evidence of why it is counterproductive.

From the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century, inquisitorial tribunals in Spain and Portugal persecuted a wide range of people whose heretical religious beliefs were deemed to represent an existential threat to the Church and State. The legal procedures of the Inquisition, carefully detailed in books of rules and regulations, allowed inquisitors to use torture when they suspected that a stubborn prisoner was withholding evidence. As an ecclesiastical tribunal, the inquisitors were theoretically forbidden from shedding blood and had to resort to supposedly ‘bloodless’ forms of torture that included waterboarding and the rack. 1

The archives of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions contain many distressing transcripts of torture sessions, in which inquisitorial scribes dutifully recorded even the screams of agony of the prisoners. Despite the ‘bloodless’ nature of the tortures used, and the obligatory presence of a doctor, who could interrupt the torture if it went too far, prisoners were traumatized, maimed and some even died.

The inquisitors assumed guilt (before interrogations prisoners were officially warned that the inquisitors did not arrest people without evidence), used leading questions and often believed in the reality of the conspiracies threatening the Church and State (such as an alleged Jewish conspiracy). The prisoners knew what the inquisitors wanted to hear: unambiguous confessions of guilt and denunciations of other alleged heretics including friends, neighbours and kin. Sooner or later, many of those tortured just wanted the ordeal to stop and desperately pandered to their tormentors’ desires. The inquisitors wanted evidence of heretical conspiracies and got it through torture.

The inquisitors themselves were nevertheless perfectly aware that prisoners could give false evidence under torture and prisoners were supposed to ratify or retract their testimony after the torture session had ended. Yet most torture sessions were only suspended until the prisoner’s ratification of the testimony, and a failure to ratify testimony would lead to further torture. The use of torture by the inquisitors was accordingly characterized by a vicious circular logic: Torture was flawed but necessary as it yielded the desired ‘results’. 2

This awareness of the problems underpinning judicial evidence extracted through torture led to considerable moral equivocation. The inquisitors took every available step to cast responsibility and blame for the torture upon the prisoner. In both Spain and Portugal, prisoners about to be tortured were officially read a legal formula informing them that the inquisitors washed their hands of any guilt and would not bear upon their consciences any permanent injury that the prisoner sustained, or even his or her accidental death.

The use of torture by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions generated ‘evidence’ used to convict thousands of men and woman, some of whom were handed over to the secular authorities to be burned as relapsed heretics, sometimes on the basis of absurd allegations. Between 1628 and 1632, for instance, conversos (the descendants of converted Jews) arrested in Madrid were tortured into confessing that they had whipped a statue of the crucified Christ, which had miraculously spoken to them to admonish them for their actions. The inquisitors never found any trace of the miraculous crucifix and relied on the testimony obtained under torture to convict the prisoners. One hapless woman tortured in 1632 was so eager to avoid pain that she begged the inquisitors: “if your lordships want me to say that I did this I will, but I did not do it [in reality]”. 3

Torture also resulted in numerous scandals. In 1507, the papacy had to intervene after confessions obtained under torture by a zealous inquisitor led to the arrest of the Archbishop of Granada, a man with no known Jewish ancestry and one of the leading and most respected churchmen in Spain. Likewise, a series of trials of conversos in Alicante and Valencia in 1539-1540 for the supposed crime of sacrilege collapsed when over forty defendants retracted the confessions they made after torture. 4

An eighteenth-century Portuguese nobleman and critic of the Inquisition noted that “the procedure of the Inquisition, instead of extirpating Judaism, propagates it” and that the Inquisition had effectively become a “factory” that turned genuine Christians into Jews. Today, historians question the validity of much of the evidence in the case of alleged crypto-Jews and other supposed heretics. 5

A study of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions flatly contradicts the simplistic notion that “torture always works”. Any testimony obtained under torture is highly unreliable, often false or invented to please the torturer(s) and stop the torture. Torturers and apologists of torture like Donald Trump will nonetheless always insist that torture works because it gives them the information that they want to hear – regardless of whether it’s true or not.

Francois Soyer is Associate Professor in Late Medieval and Early Modern History in Southampton. You can find him on Twitter at @FJSoyer

Image: Facsimile of a woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium, Antwerp, 1556 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: a Historical Revision (London, 2014), p. 240.
  2. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: a Historical Revision (London, 2014), pp. 239-242.
  3. See Juan Ignacio Pulido Serrano, Injurias a Cristo: Religión, política y antijudaísmo en el siglo XVII (Alcalá de Henares, 2002), quote from page 150.
  4. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: a Historical Revision (London, 2014), pp. 79-82; William Monter, Frontiers of Heresy. The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily (Cambridge, 1990), p. 128.
  5. António José Saraiva, The Marrano Factory. The Portuguese Inquisition and its New Christians 1536-1765, ed. and tr. H. P. Salomon and I. S. D. Sassoon (Leiden 2001), especially p. v.
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Francois Soyer

The author Francois Soyer


  1. One of the things that makes me proud of English law is that when the church inquisitors arrived in England to sort out the Templars in 1308 (? on hols & don’t have books) they could convict almost nobody as torture wasn’t available & juries wouldn’t perform. They then asked if King Edward II would remand them to Pontoise in France, where torture was and had been used. He refused, perhaps the only good thing he ever did. Thank you Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Template, for this.

    1. A good point but it is worth remembering that the use of coercion to extract confessions and obtain evidence also existed in England. By way of illustration, Matthew Hopkins, witch finder general, used starvation diets, tethering of limbs and sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims in Essex between 1644 and 1647.

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