Torture Techniques of the Spanish Inquisition
The other day, as I was surfing through pictures of medieval torture devices (don't ask), I kept noticing that many such tools were invented by, or at least used in, the Spanish Inquisition. Soon I found myself jumping from one site to another learning more and more about this joint venture between the ultra-conservative government of 15th Century Spain and many of the higher-ups and rank-and-file Christian warriors within the Roman Catholic Church at the time. I found it fascinating, gruesome, and most upsetting, still relevant to the world today.
The Spanish Inquisition began in the late 1470s when Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted to do away with many of their political adversaries. These opponents were called the conversos, former Jews and Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity but had nevertheless managed to rise through the Spanish political and business ranks.
Threatened by their growing power, the King and Queen concocted a plan to purge these competitors from their positions in government and business. Because the couple knew that they didn't have any secular basis for taking on the conversos, who were by most accounts law-abiding and peaceful citizens, they decided to enlist the aid of the Cathoilc Church to lend some religious credibility to their planned attack.
To that end, the royal couple tooks steps to create an Inquisition, the purpose of which would be to identify false converts (fake conversos) within the Spanish Empire.
Initially, the Pope rejected the request. But after the King and Queen threatened to withdraw Spain's troops from defending the Vatican and leaving Christianity undefended against the growing threat of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the Pope caved and issued the Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, through which the Inquisition was established in the Kingdom.
Although the papal bull stated that the Inquisition was to be a religious institution, it gave the King and Queen exclusive rights to name the inquisitors. As a result, the King and Queen were, by 1480, running what was essentially a secular witch hunt (pardon the mixed metaphor) aimed at purging the Kingdom of political enemies, and did so with the blessing and the full assistance of the Church and its priests.
One can see why three hundred years later, the founding fathers of the United States decided it was time to erect a wall between church and state. And when you see what happens next, you'll be glad that you were born in America in the 20th Century, and never had to endure the type of shit that so often occurs when the Church joint ventures with the State to whack political dissidents and religious competitors.
The first official act of the Inquisition seems to have taken place on February 6, 1481, when six conversos were burned alive in public. Their public conflagration was accompanied by a full sermon given by a Catholic priest. This public mass murder, however, was just the beginning.
Torture In the Spanish Inquisition
The ostensible goal of the Inquisition, you'll recall, was the discovery of false converts. In other words, the Inquisition was trying to find out which of the people whom they had forced under penalty of death to convert to Christianity weren't really Christians.
To achieve this end, the Inquisitors employed several means of torture to aid their victims in confessing their hidden allegiance to the Pentateuch or the Koran. One of the most popular techniques was something called called tortura del agua (water torture), which consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had the impression of drowning. (The current American term for this torture technique is "waterboarding," and it is being employed against alleged enemy combatants at the direction of the President and the Department of Justice.)
But this form of psycho-physical torture was tame compared to the more painful methods employed by Spanish torturers as priests stood by and urged the alleged sinner to confess.
These included the following.
1. The Strappado
Strappado is a form of torture in which a victim is suspended in the air by a rope attached to his hands which have been tied behind his back.
There are at least three variants of this torture. In the first, the victim has his arms tied behind his back; a large rope is then tied to his wrists and passed over a beam or a hook on the roof. The torturer pulls on this rope until the victim is hanging from his arms. Since the hands are tied behind the back, this action causes extreme pain and possible dislocation of the arms. The full weight of the subject's body is then supported by the extended and internally-rotated shoulder sockets. While the technique shows no external injuries, it caused long-term nerve, ligament, or tendon damage.
The second variation is similar to the first, but with a series of drops from a suspended height. In addition to the damage caused by the suspension, the repeated drops caused major stress to the extended arms, leading to broken shoulders.
In the third variant, the victim's hands are tied to the front. The victim is also hung from the hands, but his ankles are tied and a heavy weight is attached to them. This will cause pain and possible damage not only to the arms, but also to the legs and hips. This variant was known as squassation.
2. The Rack
The rack consists of an oblong rectangular, wooden frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one, or both, ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied. The victim's feet are fastened to one roller, and the wrists are chained to the other.
As the interrogation progresses, a handle and ratchet attached to the top roller are used to increase tension on the chains, which induces excruciating pain as the victim's joints slowly dislocate. Once muscle fibers had been stretched past a certain point they lose their ability to contract, the victims who were released had ineffective muscles as well as problems arising from dislocation.
Because of its mechanically precise, graded operation, the rack was well-suited for hard interrogation, and led to many "confessions."
One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments or bones. Eventually, if the application of the rack is continued, the victim's limbs were ripped right off.
3. The Judas Chair
This method is particularly brutal. Just reading about the Judas Chair is enough to make one clench. So if you have a weak tummy (or other soft, vulnerable body parts), I suggest that you skip past it.
The Judas Chair was a pyramid-shaped seat (see right). The person being asked to confess his sins against Christ was placed on top of it, with the point inserted into the anus or vagina. Then, as the questioning advanced, the Inquisitor very slowly lowered the defendant further and further onto the point by overhead ropes.
Some theories suggest that the intended effect was to stretch the orifice over a long period of time, or to slowly impale. The victim was usually naked, adding to the humiliation already endured.
Many Other Forms of Torture
There were many other forms of torture used during the Inquisition. These included the Boot (a wooden framed shoe that was placed on the foot of a witness and was tightened slowly and methodically to crush the bones of the feet and the lower leg), the Thumbscrew (which slowly and methodically crushed the fingers of the alleged non-believers), the Whip and the Breast Ripper.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of the torture process was that after the victim recanted his alleged sins, he was then punished for them. The Inquisition was just the trial to extract a confession. The ensuing punishment ranged from forfeiture of all assets to the Crown and the Cross to, you guessed it, death by torture.
One must keep in mind that the Spanish Government could not have carried out the Inquisition without the active assistance of the Church. This type of mass trial by ordeal, bloody torture, and confiscation of the assets of the accused probably could not have taken place for merely secular reasons.
By including the Church as an arm of the government, however, the King and Queen were able to eliminate their political opponents without very much resistance from the Spanish people, who were told that the Inquisition was something aimed to get everyone to believe the one great truth of Christianity. It was a way to root out evil bogeyman and either kill them or, at the very least, force them to confess their alleged sins against Christ and repent.
All tolled, Spanish Inquisitors tortured or killed as many as 150,000 people people between the years of 1480 and 1530. Most of the victims were Jewish or Muslim. Then, as Protestantism began to rise, the Church turned its ire towards those followers of Martin Luther, a group who claimed to be true Christians but according to the Church, were heretics. Persecution of Protestants continued on for another 150 years.
Torquemada: The Grand Inquisitor
Remember the Inquisition
There is a lesson to be learned here. Well, there are many lessons. One is that a sharp pyramid shoved up the ass can convince a person to admit anything. Another is that when stretched beyond capacity, connective tissue will tear, rip, pop and eventually kill its owner.
But the most important lesson here, perhaps, is the dangers that can be created by a government who uses religion and religious institutions to justify its politically motivated persecution of those who may challenge the government's power. Because if you kill simply in the name of government, you are going to face a lot of resistance. But if you kill in the name of God, it gets much, much easier for the people to accept. Especially for those who belong to the dominant religion.
Watch out. Keep religion and government apart.