Introduction to inquisition trial transcripts and records

Trial transcripts

Among the most fascinating and disquieting episodes in inquisition history are the tens of thousands of trials in which accused individuals or reos faced questioning, sometimes torture, and ultimately sentencing (when found guilty) at the hands of inquisitorial functionaries.1 Such exercises in the judgment of heretical behavior were after all the inquisitors’ raison d’être, and their notorious policies of secrecy combined with equally notorious outcomes to inspire fear and fantasy from medieval times right up to the present day. Defendants ranged from the extremely high profile to complete unknowns, and the resulting wide diversity of cases generated an extremely diverse documentary record across tribunals and through the centuries. Given the sheer number of recorded trials, and their often ad hoc manner of transcription and preservation, research in this area is frequently a hit-or-miss affair. Nevertheless, scholars have devoted more attention to analysis of trial records than to any other inquisitorial source. Whether in close readings of individual trials, or in deriving qualitative and/or quantitative data from whole (sometimes quite enormous) series of proceedings, these documents provide modern researchers with crucial evidence regarding the inquisitions’ actual exercise of power and their impact on targeted segments of society. Given the levels of detail that can emerge from the more extensive testimonial records, these sources have also proved valuable to social, religious and intellectual historians with an interest in the everyday lives and beliefs of deponents—quite apart from their status as collaborators with or victims of the inquisition per se.2

Trial documents can also be more than just sites from which information on the ways, means and subjects of persecution are mined. They constitute a distinct genre of their own, and the different forms in which inquisitorial staff chose to represent and record trial events reveal much about the changing nature of their institution. Whatever a researcher’s focus, it is important to recognize the different types of document for what they are. The following admittedly partial and tentative overview of documents relating to inquisitorial trials and sentencing is intended to draw attention to some of the variations that can be encountered in library or archival holdings; some are relatively well known but others have traditionally been under-utilized. It is to be hoped that future generations of scholars will find gain new insights from both the former and the latter.

In theory, all stages of a formal trial by inquisition should have been diligently recorded and carefully archived for future reference.3 Countless folios of parchment and paper were undoubtedly filled by scribes from the very earliest days of inquisitorial activity; yet few early exemplars have survived. Medieval inquisition trial records can now be identified for a small number of cases; many of their surviving number have been edited and some have been translated in whole or in part, and so are relatively accessible. They range for example from short individual interrogations such as were conducted among the Albigensian communities of southern France, to more politically sensitive and hence substantial trials of leading figures such as Joan of Arc and her comrade-in-arms Gilles de Rais.4

The same sort of variety can also be found in the more numerous surviving records of early modern Spanish, Portuguese, Roman, and New World inquisition tribunals. More or less complete trial transcripts have been identified, published and studied at length in many instances: the spectacular cases of archbishop Carranza (1559-1576), cardinal Morone (1552-1559) or Galileo Galilei (1633) are well known, but even those of lesser figures such as the Mexican crypto-Jew Luis de Carvajal and his family (1589-1596) have found their audience.5 Countless equally interesting cases remain unpublished and wholly unstudied, as for example the Notre Dame collection’s lengthy trial of Mexican muleteer Gaspar de los Reyes and his mestiza companion Catelina de Parraga, 1620-1622 [INQ 119].6

Many trials, for a variety of reasons, generated less extensive and hence less informative transcriptions, a fact which can be challenging to interpret. Some, written in haste and subsequently ill-treated, have come down to us in fragmentary notes [INQ 117] or barely legible tatters [INQ 586]; their historical importance remains nonetheless.7 Others were more carefully preserved but lack essential components. Such is the case with a 1774 Mexican inquest alleging sorcery and demonic possession committed by a nomadic healer known as “San Juana” and her daughter Viviana [INQ 123]. After two years of enquiry and expert testimony neither of the accused could be located for questioning, so we lack the crucial “defense” side of the story; their case, replete with intriguing details for social historians, was dismissed for lack of evidence. Even if the curanderas could have been made to testify, too, their recorded words would inevitably suffer distortions. The notaries’ objective to “write down everything that the inquisitor or inquisitors say to the prisoner, and what the prisoner says in return” could seldom be achieved in reality.8 Whatever sort of dialect the Mexican Indian Atanacio de la Cruz may have utilized in arguing his own defense, for example, the record of his 1799 trial for allegedly making a pact with the Devil consists of highly abbreviated summaries and paraphrases set down in the notary’s familiar Spanish idiom [INQ 125].9

Transcripts also tended to go through various stages of drafting, and archived versions can vary widely from collections of rough notes and original letters to polished (and perhaps heavily edited) final copies. Often the extant dossiers are composite mixtures of documents recorded on different occasions and by different scribes; witness testimony alternates with notarial documents inserted to record events such as arrests, transfers, torture, deliberations and judgments. The trial of a Franciscan priest for a controversial 1766 sermon delivered in Mexico [INQ 121], for example, contains at least thirteen separate documents in different hands, including letters written by the defendant himself. The above-mentioned trial of Atanacio de la Cruz is similar in its complexity but also typical in that most of its once-separate original documents were gathered together and registered seriatim in more-or-less chronological order by a single copyist. By taking these details of composition and record-keeping into account, researchers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the actual circumstances in which their primary source data were generated. Inquisitorial trials were not always the models of cold bureaucratic efficiency depicted in polemical imagery [INQ 550].

Partial trial records

However they were produced and recorded, a great many original trial transcripts, especially in Spain, were destroyed in the course of nineteenth and twentieth century upheavals and can therefore no longer be studied in depth. For this reason, as well as for their comparative brevity and ease of use, scholars interested in the statistical analysis of early modern social history have focused a great deal of attention instead on extensive collections of relaciones de causa.10 These skeletal, formulaic trial summaries (giving such data as the reo’s name, occupation, genealogy, place of residence and origin, along with brief notes on trial evidence, confessions, torture use and sentencing) were produced by nearly every Spanish inquisition tribunal and sent to the central Madrid archives on a regular basis from about the mid-sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth.11 They survive in large numbers today at the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid, and can be used to reconstruct the prosecution histories of practically all Spanish-ruled areas.12 A second type of brief, the relaciones de causas pendientes, was only intermittently used in the seventeenth century (from about 1632). Intended to give the Suprema monthly updates on ongoing trials, these sources have generally been used only as supplements to the more common and standardized relaciones de causa. Likewise relegated to a secondary role by most researchers, relaciones de visitas report for the most part only internal discipline and minor cases dealt with in situ by inquisitors. These were produced almost annually throughout much of the sixteenth century but gradually fell out of use in the seventeenth.13 Yet another source, the relaciones de auto de fe with their lists of prisoners and sentences, can in some cases be used to obtain similar sorts of data (see Autos de fe).

Other types of abbreviated trial relación were produced to serve other purposes. Relaciones de meritos give an account of the original evidence against a reo, along with confessions, sentences and an evaluation of subsequent penitential behavior that might be used to argue for a pardon or reduction of penalty. The relación de meritos for Ana Mendez of Cuenca thus serves as a source not only for the circumstances of her original 1596 trial on charges of judaizing but also for her subsequent pardon and release in 1600 despite an initial sentence of perpetual prison [INQ 118]. Ana’s relación also serves as a reminder that inquisition documents may survive in problematic multiple drafts, not to mention potential forgeries. The folder preserved in the Notre Dame collection contains both an original version, complete with manuscript annotations by inquisition officials, and a later error-filled copy (likely the work of an antiquarian collector of curiosities) which could easily have taken on a life of its own if it had been circulated separately.

Later partial copies of inquisition trial testimony or other trial details were routinely made by authorized notaries. In 1640 for example, the testimony of Luis Sánchez García (originally given in 1638) was copied and sealed for use in a new enquiry; the testimony itself related to a case that was over a century old [INQ 13]. Another collection of seventeenth-century documents relating to a whole series of trials held in Llerena was also preserved, presumably for use in ongoing legal disputes whose circumstances are otherwise no longer clear [INQ 63]. Such collections could be of particular significance in conflicts over confiscated property; hence the existence of a portfolio relating to the confiscated Talavera vineyards and olive orchards of Manuel Rodríguez Diaz, which contains documents dating from 1651 to 1859 [INQ 14].

Other types of trial and sentencing records

Many allegations did not result in full-blown inquisitorial trials, but they still left documentation and thus serve as potentially revealing sources for historians. When the orthodoxy of theological writings was questioned, as apparently occurred with the otherwise reputable Franciscans Lucas Waddingus and Marco Antonio Alós y Orraca (d. 1657 and 1667 respectively), experts were called in to provide a Latin brief on the matter [INQ 8]. No strong prosecution could be built in this case, and the very fact that these authors were ever suspected in the first place has otherwise quietly faded from the historical record. Similarly allegations of heretical conduct made by the inquisition’s fiscal or other parties [INQ 124] could also be recorded and archived, whether the charge ever bore prosecutorial fruit or not.

When sentences were passed, they also generated documentation beyond that of the trial record itself. Sentences had to be communicated in duly notarized formats; these could range from printed certificates filled out by hand [INQ 6] to a chillingly brief handwritten and sealed notice of imminent capital punishment [INQ 1]. When comparatively minor sentences had been carried out, reos such as the Toledan silk weaver Alonso Carraza (condemned in 1540 to stand with a yellow candle during high mass as a token form of humiliation) needed certification bearing witness to the fact [INQ 2]. Confiscations of property also required many documents. A printed form dated 1567, with added handwritten details of the properties seized and sold to Juan Ximenez, is but one example of this [INQ 204].

While inquisition trials were normally secret, in some high-profile cases defendants chose to make their arguments before the court of public opinion as well. In 1640, for example, the famed Portuguese scholar Manuel Faria y Sousa published a printed rejoinder to allegations leveled against his commentaries on the Lusiades of Camoens [INQ 135]. The lesser-known Francisco Martinez Marina similarly refuted inquisitorial censure of his legal writings in an extensive treatise of 1818 [INQ 199].14 Once passed, sentences could also be widely publicized—usually in the context of a formal auto de fe as discussed in Autos de fe, but in some cases also through printed notices intended for posting or reading in public places [INQ 395, INQ 402].

Though serious research on series of trial documents must generally be conducted in the major archives of Madrid, Lisbon, Mexico City and Rome, Notre Dame’s Inquisition collection offers a useful cross-section of samples illustrating the genre’s diversity. Inquisitorial trial records are among the most important records available for the study of the institution, its procedures, and its victims. They are far from being a homogeneous body of documents, however, and care must be taken in considering what sort of account is being used. Original full or partial trial transcripts, later abbreviations and notarized or other copies, forms and certificates issued in the course of a trial and sentencing—all offer different types of insights for historical analysis.

Robin Vose

Appendix: Inventory of trials and sentencing sources at Notre Dame

The Inquisition collection at the University of Notre Dame contains at least 22 items that can serve to illustrate the richness and variety of documentation relating to inquisitorial trials. Being for the most part unique manuscripts, these are not listed in Van der Vekene’s bibliographical reference work; the vast majority of surviving originals remain in their country of origin’s principal inquisition archives.

INQ 117. Processo (brief trial notes) of Ana, Indian, for bigamy; Mexico[?], 1538.

INQ 2. Completion of sentence for Alonso Carranza, weaver; Toledo, 1540.

INQ 204. Form for confiscation and sale of property; Granada[?], 1567.

INQ 6. Certificate listing punishments for an excommunicated woman; Toledo, 1574.

INQ 118. Relacion de meritos of Ana Mendez, Portuguese, for judaizing; Cuenca 1596.

INQ 119. Trial of Gaspar de los Reyes, Portuguese, and his companion Catelina de Parraga, mestiza, for iconoclasm; Mexico, 1620-1622.

INQ 13. Copy of testimony given in 1638 by Luis Sánchez García, concerning a case dating to 1525; Madrid, 1640.

INQ 135. Faria de Sousa, Manuel de. Informacion en favor de Manuel de Faria i Sousa, Cavallero de la Orden de Christo, i de la Casa Real. Sobre la Acusacion que se hizo en el Tribunal del Santo Oficio de Lisboa, a los comentarios que docta, i judiciosa, i catolicamente escrivio a Las Lusiades … de Luis de Camoens; [1640].

INQ 14. Collection of legal documents relating to confiscation and sale of property; Talavera[?], 1651-1859.

INQ 586. Trial involving demonic possession of a woman; Rome[?], 1634-1661.

INQ 63. Collection of texts on cases heard at Llerena ca. 1608-1697.

INQ 1. Sealed notice of death sentence; no date or place given [1600s?].

INQ 8. Notes on orthodoxy of writings by Lucas Waddingus and Marco Antonio Alós y Orraca; no date or place given [Rome, 1600s?]

INQ 550. Woodcut image of inquisitorial interrogation, cut from a book; no date or place given [French, 1600s?].

INQ 121. Trial of Joseph Lopez, Franciscan, for an inappropriate sermon; Mexico, 1766-1767.

INQ 122. Jurisdictional essay and collected documents relating to trial of Juan Rodríguez Bejarano, disabled soldier, for bigamy; Madrid, 1771.

INQ 123. Trial in absentia of “San Juana” and her daughter Viviana, for witchcraft; Mexico, 1774-1776.

INQ 124. Denunciation of Josef Zisneros, Franciscan, for inappropriate behavior at mass, etc.; Valladolid, 1796.

INQ 125. Trial of Atanacio de la Cruz, Indian, for making a pact with the devil; Mexico 1799.

INQ 395. Public summary of suspended case against Isabel Herraiz, alumbrada, with instructions for her followers to cease their activities and turn in all writings on the subject; Cuenca, 1804.

INQ 402. Public notice of sentence against priest and rebel leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla; Mexico, 1810.

INQ 199. Martinez Marina, Francisco. Defensa del Doctor Don Francisco Martinez Marina contra las censuras dadas por el Tribunal de la Inquisicion á sus dos obras…; Madrid, 1861 [first published 1818].


1 For a global survey see Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: a global history, 1478-1834 (1995; tr. Jean Birrell, Cambridge 2009), pp. 330-354.

2 Classic examples include Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, Montaillou (tr. Barbara Bray, New York 1978) and Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller (tr. John & Anne Tedeschi, London 1980). For more recent work, much of which remains dependent on trial documents, see Kimberly Lynn Hosain, “Unraveling the Spanish Inquisition: Inquisitorial Studies in the Twenty-first Century” in History Compass 5/4 (2007), pp. 1280-1293.

3 On the theoretical norms of inquisitorial documentation in the medieval period see James Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society (Ithaca 1997), pp. 25-42. In the sixteenth century further efforts were made to keep more fulsome and coherent sets of records in the various tribunals, with mixed results; see Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (1906; repr. London 1922), vol. 2, pp. 250-261.

4 Jean Duvernoy, for example, edited and translated hundreds of surviving interrogations drawn from bishop Jacques Fournier’s original three-volume dossier (only one of which is now extant only as Vatican MS 4030) for the southwestern French diocese of Pamiers, 1318-1325; Le registre d’inquisition de Jacques Fournier (1965; repr. Paris 2004). The mid-thirteenth-century Languedocian trials recorded in MS 609 of the Bibliothèque municipal de Toulouse (portions of which can be found printed in modern publications) have also attracted much attention; see for example Mark Pegg, The Corruption of Angels (Princeton 2001). On Joan’s famous 1431 trial, see Daniel Hobbins, The Trial of Joan of Arc (Cambridge Mass. 2005). Also Reginald Hyatte (ed.), Laughter for the Devil: the trials of Gilles de Rais, companion-in arms of Joan of Arc (Cranbury 1984).

5 Jose Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras, Fray Bartolomé Carranza: documentos historicos (Madrid 1962), 2 vols.; Massimo Firpo & Dario Mercato, Il Processo Inquisitoriale del Cardinal Giovanni Morone (Rome 1981-1995), 6 vols.; Francesco Beretta, Galilée devant le tribunal de l'inquisition: une relecture des sources (Fribourg 1998). Martin Cohen’s The Martyr (1973; repr. Albuquerque 2001) is devoted to the Carvajal family; see pp. 278-281 for details on the relevant trial records, both published and unpublished.

6 The Portuguese and Mexican Inquisition archives’ holdings of trial records are nearly complete. For Spain, the best-preserved collections of original trial records are those from Toledo and Cuenca, with those from Zaragoza, Valencia and the Canary Islands also being fairly rich; see Gustav Henningsen, “La eloquencia de los números: promesas de las “relaciones de causas” inquisitoriales para la nueva historial social” in Ángel Alcala (ed.), Inquisición española y mentalidad inquisitorial (Barcelona 1984), pp. 219-221. The contents of the Vatican’s inquisition archive, opened to researchers only in 1998, have yet to be fully analyzed.

7 INQ 117 is a case in point, for its few scrawled comments on just two folios bear witness to one of the earliest inquisitorial trials of an indigenous woman in Mexico: that of “Ana”, an Indian, for bigamy. INQ 586 is a much longer record from the seventeenth-century Roman Inquisition, involving an alleged case of demonic possession.

8 On Spanish norms for transcription see the Instrucciones of 1561, tr. in Lu Ann Homza, The Spanish Inquisition 1478-1614: an anthology of sources (Indianapolis 2006), p. 225.

9 LeRoy Ladurie’s claims that the Fournier register (notwithstanding its inevitably conversion of Provençal dialects to Latin) actually preserved “the direct testimony of peasants themselves” have been seriously questioned; see for example Leonard Boyle, “Montaillou Revisited: Mentalité and Methodology” in J.A. Raftis (ed.), Pathways to Medieval Peasants (Toronto 1981), pp. 119-140; Carlo Ginzburg, “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist” in Clues, Myths and the Historical Method (1986; tr. John & Anne Tedeschi, Baltimore 1989), pp. 156-164 is more positive.

10 See in particular Jaime Contreras & Gustav Henningsen, “Forty-Four Thousand Cases of the Spanish Inquisition (1540-1700): Analysis of a Historical Data Bank” in Gustav Henningsen & John Tedeschi (eds.), The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe (Dekalb 1986), pp. 100-129.

11 See for example Archivo Histórico Nacional, Inquisición, libros 682 and 683 for relaciones de causa of the Sardinia tribunal (late sixteenth to seventeenth centuries). These thick bound volumes are also interspersed with additional material on particularly important or interesting prisoners such as the judaizing priest Dr. Angel Carcassona or the renegade adventurer Nicolas Salari.

12 The series for Seville, Valladolid and Cordoba are incomplete however, and the Corte tribunal of Madrid does not seem to have submitted relaciones de causa; see Contreras & Henningsen, “Forty-Four Thousand” p. 110 and Jaime Contreras, “Las causas de fe de la Inquisición de Galicia: 1560-1700” in Joaquín Pérez Villaneuva (ed.), La Inquisición española: nueva visión, nuevos horizontes (Madrid 1980), p. 359.

13 Contreras pp. 357-358. An overview of the latter rich, as yet wholly understudied source is given in Bethencourt, The Inquisition pp. 211-221 and 237-245. See for example the extremely long and detailed visita records of late sixteenth-century Sardinia (not mentioned in Bethencourt) contained in AHN, Inq., legajos 1631-1635; a single visita conducted there in 1613 produced nearly four thousand pages of handwritten notes.

14 Though not all such private printings were intended for publication; see for example the lavishly printed appeal to inquisitors by Mexican litigant Christoval Lopez de Ossuna in a property case, now F 1231.4 .P978 in the Lilly Library.

To cite this essay:

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