Introduction to inquisition policies and proceedings documents

The Inquisitions at work

Medieval and early modern inquisitions were major forces within their host societies not only locally but also regionally and even internationally, with an impact that often went well beyond strict enforcement of church discipline through trial and punishment. The very fact of an inquisitorial tribunal’s existence as a looming institutional presence, whether sporadically in some early times and rural places or more continuously in early modern urban centers, could not fail to affect the behaviors and mentalities of entire populations even in the absence of actual prosecutions. But inquisitions were also mundane corporate entities, struggling like all such bodies to efficiently make and execute policy while staying more or less within a budget. As they evolved, too, inquisitions developed significant financial roles within local economies as well as political influence at courts both secular and ecclesiastical. From any number of historical perspectives it is therefore well worth examining the various sorts of administrative documents produced by and around these complex organizations—from the day-to-day running of a tribunal’s affairs as evidenced by public edicts and financial records, to the shifting nature and concerns of the inquisitorial project itself as reflected in high-level policy statements and internal communications.

As a general rule, inquisitors took pains to ensure broad awareness of their disciplinary mandate through the issuance of formal public announcements. In medieval times sermons were given to proclaim the arrival of an inquisitorial visitation, to explicate the types of offences being investigated, and to offer those in attendance a limited “period of grace” in which to voluntarily come forward and confess their own (and their neighbors’) crimes.1 Early modern tribunals maintained this practice, though in time grace periods were often abandoned; “edicts of grace” [INQ 556] were gradually replaced by increasingly lengthy “edicts of faith” that focused instead on an exhaustive listing of sinful behaviors.2 By the seventeenth century inquisitors had begun to convey such messages with the help of more or less standardized printed texts which could be nailed to a church door after their initial proclamation [INQ 288, INQ 389].3 Edicts of faith were in principle to be read (and then posted) on an annual basis at Lent, accompanied in some cases by the 1569 bull Si de protegendis, which warned of dire consequences awaiting all those who dared oppose the inquisitors [INQ 207, INQ 208, INQ 214].4

Other edicts would follow these initial notices, intended to alert specific audiences of significant new inquisitorial directives requiring action on their part. Thus, Mexican priests were informed in 1620 of inquisitors’ claims to jurisdiction over certain offences which might come to light in the confessional [INQ 217]; a later edict notified their parishioners that unauthorized private religious devotion had recently come under inquisitorial scrutiny [INQ 242]. Opposition to the Jesuits and other religious orders, manifested in polemical attacks, was regularly denounced in papal and inquisitorial memoranda [INQ 222, INQ 264, INQ 276]. Such circulars were essentially addenda to the fuller lists of offences contained in the edicts of faith. Inquisitors themselves, too, sometimes required admonitions to comply with directives issued by the Suprema in the form of manuscript or printed cartas acordadas [INQ 220].5 And in a further effort to ensure compliance, monastic houses were repeatedly commanded to ensure that all papal bulls relating to the inquisition were read out on an annual basis [INQ 326, INQ 226, INQ 228, INQ 229]. For those who heeded such edicts, behaved appropriately, and went through the proper channels, the inquisition could become a source not only of warnings and punishments but also of spiritual rewards—including certificates of indulgence issued by the inquisitor general himself [INQ 224].

Financial documents

Whether conducting full-fledged heresy trials or merely issuing warning edicts and indulgences, inquisitions incurred expenses and required sources of income. The question of inquisitorial finance has long interested scholars, and the extensive haciend records at the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid have been subjected to preliminary surveys though much work still remains to be done.6 It is now generally agreed that while confiscations of prisoners’ goods and estates may have brought important revenues (particularly in the early days of the Spanish tribunals, and in special cases such as mass arrests of New Christian merchants in the seventeenth century), inquisitions were rarely profitable money making ventures.7 Day to day expenses could be met thanks to income from church benefices set aside for the purpose, so inquisitors had to be knowledgeable about the state of ecclesiastical resources in the regions to which they were assigned [INQ 5]. As time went on, revenues from seizures, royal grants or other sources were also regularly invested in real estate as a means of producing censo income.8 Yet spiraling personnel costs and extravagant auto de fe ceremonies ensured that many tribunals were perpetually short of cash or in debt.

It was thus essential, whenever possible, that monies be well managed. The few financial documents in the Notre Dame Inquisition Collection hint at some aspects of this management, which is much more fully documented in larger archival collections: these include property transactions and inventories of seized property [INQ 4, INQ 237]. A scattering of rare documents from the Peruvian inquisition provides especially interesting glimpses of day to day expenses in a New World tribunal: food, medicine, and even tobacco all had to be purchased and provided to prisoners on a regular basis [INQ 570, INQ 575, INQ 579]. While prisoners were generally expected to fund their own expenses [INQ 572], there were always cases of indigence. Furthermore, in some instances prisoners would eventually be released and appeal for partial or full return of their confiscated property [INQ 574].

It must also be borne in mind that inquisitors and their staffs were not only agents of a persecutory spiritual tribunal, but also were likely to be knowledgeable and well-connected members of the local elites among whom they resided. As such, they were sometimes drawn into legal and financial conflicts that might have little to do with the business of inquisition per se [INQ 17, INQ 568]. In relatively underdeveloped settings such as colonial Peru, inquisitors’ familiarity with legal and religious affairs may have made their intervention all the more desirable for clerical or university colleagues dealing with complex financial issues such as the execution of a will or a bankruptcy [INQ 573, INQ 580].

Policy documents

Over time, inquisitorial policies evolved and changed to deal with changing circumstances. In some cases this involved purely internal reflections on best practice, but change was also often prompted by pressure from outside forces such as the papacy or secular rulers. From the earliest decades of the Spanish inquisition’s establishment in the eastern regions of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, for example, fierce debates raged over the extent to which inquisitorial privileges and practices could be made to accommodate local privileges or fueros dating back to medieval times [INQ 206].9 The Spanish monarchy played a major role in these disputes, and thereafter royal support for (and therefore potential control over) the inquisition was to prove an important consideration throughout its history [INQ 10].10

Spanish kings might issue orders commanding that greater inquisitorial attention be paid to certain crimes [INQ 233], and they could also alter tax exemptions and other privileges which facilitated the tribunals’ day to day functioning [INQ 322, INQ 340]. Similar advisories calling for alteration of inquisitorial practice were issued from the Papal Curia [INQ 15]; these could be dead letters but as long as they were endorsed by the inquisitors themselves they were duly implemented [INQ 324, INQ 332, INQ 358, INQ 392]. In Portugal too, kings did not hesitate to make agreements limiting inquisitorial prosecution of some valued subjects when it suited them, only to cancel those same agreements when circumstances changed [INQ 241].11 Royal intervention would become especially marked after the accession of the Bourbon dynasty in 1700, and indeed Philip V did not hesitate to use his Spanish inquisitors as allies in the suppression of pro-Habsburg Catalan resistance movements, which included many priests [INQ 286, INQ 294, INQ 297].12

Not all policies were imposed by powerful external forces. The theological and legal merits of whether or not to enforce limpieza de sangre statutes, for example, were considered at length even by relatively low-level inquisition officials [INQ 232].13 Inquisitors similarly took both theoretical and practical points into consideration when determining the desirability of allowing local clergy in jubilee years to grant absolutions for crimes that normally fell under inquisitorial jurisdiction; this decision was communicated in a series of eighteenth-century edicts [INQ 345, INQ 356, INQ 366, INQ 388]. Nevertheless, royal control remained significant to the very end, and inquisitors could at times be treated for all intents and purposes as civil servants subject entirely to royal commands [INQ 38, INQ 396, INQ 398]. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, it was the king who determined the inquisition’s repressive attitude toward Jews [INQ 394]. Conversely, policies and procedures originally worked out by inquisitorial courts would in some instances continue to echo within the civil service and related organizations long after inquisition tribunals themselves had been abolished [INQ 28].

Internal communications, diplomacy and espionage

And, like all working organizations, inquisitions generated a great deal of internal communication which was not intended for the public eye. Vast quantities of relaciones de causa and other official correspondence were regularly filed by local tribunals and their vistators and sent on to a central overseeing body (in Spain the Suprema); today these form the basis of most scholarship on inquisitorial trials.14 Initiatives such as the proposed establishment of a new tribunal office in the South American colony of Buenos Aires generated further exchanges of information, in this case (1636) between the existing hierarchies of Lima and Madrid [INQ 571]. More ephemeral updates and consultations were also shared among inquisition comisarios and other personnel facing practical difficulties in the course of their work [INQ 267, INQ 120]. Such materials have the potential to reveal the inner functioning of inquisitions in practically every region, period, and variety of situation.

This holds true even for communications that were entirely unconcerned with the prosecution of heresy trials. As representatives of a powerful Church establishment with privileged access to royal court circles, inquisitors could play a major role in diplomacy and international affairs; information gathering (and even spying) was therefore a necessity. The Spanish Holy Office maintained agents at the Papal Curia throughout the early modern period [INQ 7].15 It was thus only natural for a pope to call upon an inquisitor general for assistance in effecting a rapprochement between James I of England and the Spanish Crown in 1623 [INQ 221]. When Rome found itself pitted against a pro-Bourbon Suprema during the War of the Spanish Succession, a new flurry of dispatches was generated to keep cardinals such as Vincenzo Grimani, otherwise better known for his patronage of musicians such as G. F. Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti, up-to-date with developments in the peninsula [INQ 583, INQ 584, INQ 21, INQ 22, INQ 23, INQ 24]. Nor did political tensions or religious differences prevent inquisitor general Guidice from communicating with British diplomats in the same period; a man in his position needed to stay well informed at the center of political affairs.16 These sorts of documents have the potential to reveal further untold dimensions of the special roles played by inquisitions and their officers within European and world history.

The closure of the inquisitions

A final type of policy debate was unleashed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as different jurisdictions began to abolish the various inquisitions (see Polemics and histories). In Spain, first Napoleon and then the Cortes of Cádiz moved to close the tribunals; the latter vigorously insisted on its right to act in this matter and denounced efforts by the Papal Nuncio to prevent it [INQ 407, INQ 410]. In 1813 the command was thus formally issued to remove inquisitorial records and memorabilia (such as the hated sanbenitos) from local churches and monasteries [INQ 408, INQ 409]. Yet the same Cortes did not countenance giving free reign to all forms of belief and unbelief, and orders were given for the continuance of punishments for heresy even in the absence of a formal inquisition structure [INQ 411]. Competing edicts continued to fly with the short-lived re-establishment of a Spanish inquisition by king Ferdinand VII in 1814 [INQ 413], and to some extent one could describe its final decades as a long drawn-out process of death by paperwork.

Inquisition documents relating to policy, procedures and other types of administrative functioning thus constitute a vast and extremely varied set of sources for further research. It is also however this very vastness and variety which make them so challenging to use; each type of document must be comprehended on its own terms, and placed within an organizational as well as a historical context, which is extremely difficult if not impossible to fully reconstruct. For this reason many scholars have avoided fully exploring the potential of documents whose immediate relevance to major topics in inquisition studies (lives of the accused, types of trial process and torture, censorship, etc.) is not always evident. Yet, while in some ways tangential to the fulfillment of inquisitors’ overall goals of combatting heresy, these documents demonstrate the many important ways in which such ideological struggles took place amid other more mundane distractions and concerns. From the tedium of daily business to the chessboard moves of high politics, they thus represent the some of the most crucial—though also the most challenging—of avenues through which to study inquisition history in all its nuance and complexity.

Robin Vose

Appendix: Inventory of policies and proceedings sources at Notre Dame

The Inquisition Collection at the University of Notre Dame contains dozens of items that can be used to study the actual day to day organizational structures and functioning of inquisitorial tribunals. Similar documentation can be found in a variety of library collections, but the bulk of inquisitorial administrative documents remain in archives such as the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid.

Executive documents:

INQ 207. Translation of papal bull Si de protegendis, Rome 1569(?).

INQ 208. Translation of papal bull Si de protegendis, Mexico 1569.

INQ 214. Translation of papal bull Si de protegendis, Logroño 1609.

INQ 556. Edict of grace announced at Logroño 1611.

INQ 217. Edict notifying local confessors of inquisitorial jurisdiction, Mexico 1620.

INQ 220. Carta acordada forbidding inquisitors from publicly disparaging individual lineage (limpieza) claims, Madrid 1622.

INQ 222. Edict confirming papal support for the Jesuit Order and condemning anti-Jesuit claims, Seville 1625.

INQ 224. Indulgence certificate issued by inquisitor-general Sotomayor, Madrid 1632.

INQ 326. Edict ordering annual reading of papal bulls relating to inquisition in all monasteries, Madrid 1633.

INQ 226. Edict ordering annual reading of papal bulls relating to inquisition in all monasteries, Madrid 1634.

INQ 228. Edict ordering annual reading of papal bulls relating to inquisition in all monasteries, Madrid 1635.

INQ 229. Edict ordering annual reading of papal bulls relating to inquisition in all monasteries, Madrid 1635.

INQ 242. Edict condemning illicit private religious gatherings and other devotional acts, Mexico 1659.

INQ 264. Edict condemning attacks on religious orders (first issued 1634), Madrid 1688.

INQ 276. Edict condemning attacks on religious orders (first issued 1634), Madrid 1696.

INQ 288. Edict of faith announced at Valencia 1700.

INQ 389. Edict of faith announced at Cádiz 1776, with anathema, abjuration and absolution formulae.

Financial documents:

INQ 4. Property transfer involving inquisition prison, 1513.

INQ 5. Inventory of clerical benefices and properties, Seville 1559.

INQ 568. Petition for inquisitors’ intervention in a financial dispute, Peru 1598.

INQ 570. Tobacco and food expenses for inquisitorial prison, Peru 1622.

INQ 572. Assignment of confiscated property to cover imprisonment expenses, Peru 1637.

INQ 237. Demand for information relating to confiscated estates, Mexico 1642.

INQ 573. Inquisition orders for payment by executors of a will, Peru 1656.

INQ 574. Consideration of petition regarding compensation for confiscated books, Peru 1662.

INQ 575. Medical expenses for inquisitorial prison, Peru 1678.

INQ 17. Letter of thanks to inquisitor for assistance in a legal dispute, Madrid 1682.

INQ 579. Food expenses for inquisitorial prison, Peru 1755.

INQ 580. Inquisition order for funds transfer from a bankruptcy case to university in Lima, Peru 1780.

INQ 567. Fragment of a royal financial document, Peru 1811.

Policy documents:

INQ 206. Royal notice of 1568 concerning limits of inquisitorial jurisdiction in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia, as determined at the 1564 corts of Monzón.

INQ 10. Collection of Spanish inquisition policy documents communicated to the king, ca. 1625.

INQ 232. Brief by an inquisition notary in favor of limpieza statute, Granada 1638.

INQ 233. Royal order for inquisitorial and other prosecutions of illicit oaths, Madrid 1639.

INQ 241. Cancellation of agreement between Portuguese crown and merchants convicted of judaizing, Lisbon 1657.

INQ 15. Papal decree revising inquisitorial jurisdiction over religious orders, Rome 1660.

INQ 286. Edict denouncing pro-Habsburg clergy, Seville 1706(?).

INQ 294. Edict denouncing pro-Habsburg clergy, Madrid 1706.

INQ 297. Edict denouncing pro-Habsburg clergy, Zaragoza 1707.

INQ 322. Royal decree on various exemptions and policies, including some touching on inquisition, Madrid 1728.

INQ 324. Endorsement of papal decree revising inquisitorial jurisdiction over religious orders (first issued 1660), Madrid 1732.

INQ 332. Endorsement of papal edict condemning freemasonry, Madrid 1738.

INQ 340. Royal decree on various exemptions and policies, including some touching on inquisition, Alcalá 1743.

INQ 345. Edict on absolution by non-inquisition clergy in jubilee years, Seville 1746.

INQ 356. Edict on absolution by non-inquisition clergy in jubilee years, Madrid 1751.

INQ 358. Endorsement of earlier papal bulls against heresy, Valencia 1757.

INQ 366. Edict on absolution by non-inquisition clergy in jubilee years, Valencia 1759.

INQ 388. Edict on absolution by non-inquisition clergy in jubilee years, Seville 1776.

INQ 391. Royal decrees on inquisitorial jurisdiction, Alcalá 1783.

INQ 392. Endorsement of papal authorization for almsgivers to consume meat during Lent, Mexico 1793.

INQ 38. Collection of legal, administrative and inquisitorial documents, Mexico 18th century.

INQ 394. Royal decree on inquisition treatment of Jews, Madrid 1802.

INQ 396. Royal policy on inquisitorial jurisdiction, Madrid 1804.

INQ 398. Royal policy on inquisitorial jurisdiction, Madrid 1806.

INQ 28. Copy of an 1815 royal document on eligibility criteria for membership in military orders, including limpieza and family history free of inquisitorial prosecutions, Havana 1859.

Internal communications:

INQ 7. Dispatches from Spanish inquisition agents in Rome, 1596-1610.

INQ 221. Letter from Pope Gregory XV to Inquisitor General Pacheco concerning Anglo-Spanish diplomatic relations, Rome 1623.

INQ 571. Suprema correspondence with Lima tribunal concerning possible establishment of new inquisition at Buenos Aires, 1636.

INQ 267. Letter to inquisition comisario containing updates on a case in Elche, 1689.

INQ 120. Letter to inquisition comisario containing updates on cases in Elche, 1690.

INQ 583. Notes on pro-Bourbon inquisition involvement in War of the Spanish Succession, Rome 1707(?).

INQ 584. Notes on pro-Bourbon inquisition involvement in War of the Spanish Succession, Rome 1707(?).

INQ 21. Copy of report to Rome on pro-Bourbon inquisition involvement in War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona 1707(?).

INQ 22. Translation of report to Rome on pro-Bourbon inquisition involvement in War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona 1707(?).

INQ 23. Notes on pro-Bourbon inquisition involvement in War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona 1707(?).

INQ 24. Copy of an inquisition decree enjoining allegiance to Philip V (part of a larger internal report), Barcelona 1707(?).

Documents relating to abolition:

INQ 408. Cortes order to remove inquisition records from churches and monasteries, Cádiz 1813.

INQ 409. Cortes order to remove inquisition records from churches and monasteries, Cádiz 1813.

INQ 411. Cortes policy on maintenance of punishments for heresy despite having abolished the inquisition, Cádiz 1813.

INQ 410. Collection of documents relating to the abolition of the Spanish inquisition, ca. 1813.

INQ 407. Condemnation of papal nuncio for interference in efforts to abolish the inquisition, Cádiz 1813.

INQ 413. Royal proclamation restoring the Spanish inquisition, Mallorca 1814.


1 Henry Charles Lea, A history of the inquisition of the middle ages (1887; repr. New York 1955), vol. 1, pp. 371-372. The grace period typically varied from about 15 to 40 days.

2 Inquisitorial edicts (including the revival of edicts of grace ca. 1610 for Basque witches, and a reproduction of a 1663 Catalan edict of faith) are discussed at length in Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: a global history, 1478-1834 (1995; tr. Jean Birrell, Cambridge 2009), pp. 174-210. One major aspect of their content is still more closely studied in Charles Amiel, “Crypto-Judaïsme et Inquisition. La ‘matière juive’ dans les édits de la foi des Inquisitions ibériques” in Revue de l’histoire des Religions 210:2 (1993), pp. 145-188. On edicts relating specifically to book censorship, see Censorship

3 Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (New Haven 1997), pp. 174-175 points out that edicts of grace also enjoyed a brief revival in the context of Valencian anti-morisco investigations of the later sixteenth century, and that the Spanish edicts of faith only became standardized around 1630. A sample text of the latter is printed in J. Jiménez Montserín, Introducción a la Inquisición española (Madrid 1980), pp. 503-535.

4 Readings of Si de protegendis became mandatory in Spain from 1637 but it was clearly used to reinforce inquisitorial authority long before that date; Bethencourt, Inquisition p. 180.

5 On cartas acordadas, see also Inquisitorial manuals.

6 Pioneering work was done by Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (1906; repr. London 1922), vol. 2, pp. 315-456. More recently, see José Martínez Millán, La Hacienda de la Inquisición (1478-1700) (Madrid 1984) and ibid., “Structures of Inquisitorial Finance” in Ángel Alcalá (ed.), The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial Mind (Highland Lakes 1987), pp. 159-176.

7 Stephen Haliczer describes the disappointing results of an early eighteenth-century crackdown on New Christian tobacco barons in Inquisition and Society in the Kingdom of Valencia 1478-1834 (Berkeley 1990), pp. 232-234. For more successful prosecutions of wealthy converso merchants in Mexico see Stanley Hordes, “The Inquisition as Economic and Political Agent: The Campaign of the Mexican Holy Office against the Crypto-Jews in the mid-Seventeenth Century” in The Americas 39:1 (1982), pp. 23-38.

8 Censos, essentially a system of annual rental payments, were a major feature of the Iberian financial system throughout the early modern period and regularly relied upon by religious establishments. For a detailed study of their use in colonial Peru, see Kathryn Burns, Colonial Habits (Durham 1999).

9 Kamen, Spanish Inquisition p. 147.

10 The issue of jurisdiction is examined in great detail by Lea, History of the Inquisition of Spain vol. 1, pp. 427-526.

11 The 1649 suspension of proceedings against alleged Portuguese judaizers, on condition that they invest in Brazilian trade, is noted in Bethencourt, Inquisition p. 371; for further information on this venture see David Smith, “Old Christian Merchants and the Foundation of the Brazil Company, 1649” in The Hispanic American Historical Review 54:2 (1974), pp. 233-259.

12 Lea, History of the Inquisition of Spain vol. 4, pp. 275-276.

13 On the inquisition’s limpieza policies, see also Familiars and officials.

14 On the well-known relaciones de causa, see Trials and sentencing.

15 E.g. London, British Library, MS Add. 28703L for original letters from Spanish ambassadors at Rome to inquisitor general Espinosa, dated 1566-1572. Several other volumes in the same library contain similar materials.

16 See London, British Library, MSS Egerton 2170-2175 (original correspondence of George Bubb, Envoy Extraordinary in Spain 1714-1718).

To cite this essay:

Vose, Robin. “Introduction to inquisition policies and proceedings documents.” Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Notre Dame, 2010. <>