Scholars Examine the Little-known Portuguese Inquisition of the Jews (first of Three Parts)
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Scholars Examine the Little-known Portuguese Inquisition of the Jews (first of Three Parts)

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Scholars from 15 countries were among the more than 700 participants in the First International Congress on the Inquisition held at the University of Sao Paulo here May 20-23. Sponsored by the university and the Portuguese and Brazilian Societies for Eighteenth Century Studies, the academic conference marked the 450th anniversary of the establishment in Portugal of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Sao Paulo was the site for the second half of this congress, which first met in Lisbon in February, coordinated there by Prof. Maria Helena Carvalho dos Santos.

History Prof. Anita Novinsky, Sao Paulo conference coordinator, said the sessions “filled a void in which even the history books are silent. Never after this will the history of Portugal or Brazil be written without a chapter on the Inquisition.

“This powerful institution during more than three centuries interfered in all aspects of life. The Inquisition looked for heretics in the kingdoms and the colonies, and persecuted, tortured, and punished men and women of all social classes and ages who believed, thought or acted differently from the moral and religious patterns imposed by the Church. Through this congress, we tried to show that all totalitarianism can only lead to the deterioration and degradation of human society.”


Prof. Francisco Marques-Villanueva of Harvard University described the Inquisition as a modern phenomenon. While the 13th century Medieval Inquisition was clerical, the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions were connected with the coming of the modern state, he said. “Almost no one knows inquisitors were appointed directly by the crown,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Rome had only nominal control. In simple terms, we can say the Inquisition acted as political police, often functioning as a politicized tribunal. The Medieval Inquisition was controlled by the bishops’ authority, but the Inquisition under the Catholic kings was a state apparatus.”

Marques-Villanueva explained that the Catholic kings were preoccupied with the questions of religious dissidents, almost exclusively with converted Jews. “I think there was a profound consciousness on the part of the kings regarding converted Jews,” he said. “It was convenient for the kings to have a police instrument to control this new class, through an institution that practically reduced them to hostages.”

In Spain from 1391 until 1492, Jews were converted to Catholicism by means of duress, conviction, or to avoid expulsion. In 1492, all Jews were expelled from Spain and only converts remained. By contrast, in 1497 the entire Jewish community of Portugal was forced to convert. These new Christians were a distinct class, and were still considered by Catholic contemporaries as Jews centuries after their ancestors had converted. The pejorative “Marrano,” which was applied to new Christians secretly practicing Judaism, comes from the Spanish word for swine.

When Portugal was annexed to Spain in 1580, the influx of Portuguese New Christians led to heightening of the Inquisition in Spain. The term “Portuguese” became almost synonymous with “Jew.” “The Catholic kings thought the New Christians were a social group with modern bourgeois tendencies, culturally and politically disturbing the medieval society,” Marques-Villanueva said.

Regarding the cruelty of the Inquisition, Marques-Villanueva said he believes it was more mental than physical. “We have to remember that most graphic representations of Inquisition tortures are false, part of the black legend of the Inquisition,” he said. “Worse than the physical aspect was the moral one — manipulation to destroy the defendant psychologically.”

“The fear of the Inquisition by risk groups such as converted Jews was terrible,” Marques-Villanueva added. “Generations and generations lived with the greatest insecurity, fearing the fall of family fortune and social prestige. The best manipulation of the Inquisition was that of honor and dishonor.”


Marques-Villanueva described the auto da fe, the public focal point of the Inquisition, as “a great moving force of collective manipulation — a theatricalization that influenced the masses.” The scenarios were carefully planned, he said. “It was theatrics and spectacle that polarized the life of a whole city. Everyone was present from the king to the most humble.” Those accused of heresy, witchcraft or other “crimes” either confessed or were tortured and murdered.

“The number of victims is not firm and the number is not what is impressive,” Marques-Villanueva said. “What is most impressive is the capacity to manipulate. It was one of the most perfect products of the Baroque era.” Eighty percent of the victims of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions were converted Jews, he said.

Marques-Villanueva, who lived through the “intellectually stifling” years of Franco’s Spain, said the “inquisitorial spirit” of the Franco regime gave him special sensitivity to the era of the Inquisition. Novinsky, too, compared the climate of the Inquisition to modern events. “Neofascists are trying to rehabilitate the Inquisition phenomenon,” she said. “And the memory of the pain is the only thing which can prevent new generations from being used by Nazi fascists.”

Next: The Impact Historically of the Portuguese Inquisition

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