On the Wikipedia page about "Criticism of the Catholic Church", there was recently (though removed by an editor since this question was asked) a little paragraph about the Medieval European Inquisition which states

In spite of (relatively rare) instances of torture and wrongful execution, [the inquisition] was still widely considered in Europe to be the fairest (and most merciful) judicial system in Europe at that time, as evidenced by records of people blaspheming in secular courts intentionally for them to be brought before the Inquisition for a more just and fair trial.

My question is, are there documented cases of people deliberately blaspheming to be tried in the Inquisition courts? Is there any evidence pointing to the fact that Medieval Europeans preferred to be tried in the Inquisition courts rather than other secular courts?

I have never heard of such a thing before but of course it may just be the modern media portrayal. There are three references provided for that paragraph of the Wikipedia article. The first is a book. The second is from the "Eternal Word Television Network – Global Catholic Network" which I am not tempted to believe or infer such a claim from. The third is a dead link to an article by Thomas F. Madden, which contained this claim, but did not give any details or specific references for it:

There are actually records of convicts in Spain purposely blaspheming so that they could be transferred to the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition.

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    The EWTN references a BBC documentary from the '90s entitled The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, which is widely cited by Catholic sources. It might have details, but I haven't watched it (yet).
    – HDE 226868
    Jun 9, 2016 at 21:22

1 Answer 1


As I expected, the source of this claim is the standard modern history of the Inquisition, The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (fourth edition, 2014). Chapter 9 gives us the details:

The Inquisition was unusually fortunate in its choice of residences. In some of the largest cities of Spain it was allowed the use of fortified castles with ancient and reliable prison cells. …

In all these buildings the gaols were in a fairly good condition. This may explain why the [private] prisons of the Inquisition were generally considered less harsh and more humane than either the royal prisons or ordinary ecclesiastical gaols. There is the case of a friar in Valladolid in 1629 who made some heretical statements simply in order to be transferred from the prison he was in to that of the Inquisition. On another occasion, in 1675, a priest confined in the episcopal prison pretended to be a judaizer in order to be transferred to the inquisitorial prison. In 1624, when the inquisitors of Barcelona had more prisoners than available cells, they refused to send the extra prisoners to the city prison, where ‘there are over four hundred prisons who are starving to death and every day they remove three or four dead.’ No better evidence could be cited for the superiority of inquisitorial gaols than that of Córdoba in 1820, when the prison authorities complained about the miserable and unhealthy state of the city prison and asked that the municipality should transfer its prisoners to the prison of the Inquisition, which was ‘safe, clean, and spacious. At present it has twenty-six cells, rooms which can hold two hundred prisoners at a time, a completely separate room for women, and places for work.’ On another occasion the authorities there reported that ‘the building of the Inquisition is separate from the rest of the city, isolated and exposed on all sides to the winds, spacious, supplied abundantly with water, with sewers well distributed and planned to serve the prisoners, and with the separation and ventilation necessary to good health. It would be a prison well suited to preserve the health of prisoners.’

… The prison cells also often had an open regime. In some tribunals, the prisoners were free to come and go, providing they observed basic rules. In 1655 a report on the tribunal of Granada observed that prisoners were allowed out at all hours of the day without restriction; they wandered through the city and its suburbs and amused themselves at friends' houses, returning to the city only at night; in this way they were given a comfortable lodging-house for which they paid no rent.

For more details on these anecdotes, he offers his own book The Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter Reformation, which I don't have access to.

To answer the other half of the claim, was the Inquisition a merciful court for its time? By the standards of both secular and religious courts, yes. Again from Chapter 9:

By the 1560s, indeed, Spain was one of the countries with the lowest level of executions for religious reasons. … The proportionately small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal. … it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe. A comparison, indeed, of Spanish secular courts with the Inquisition can only be in favor of the latter.

This is not to say that the Inquisition would be acceptable today, nor that it was lacking in racial prejudices, pointless tortures, and legally harmful practices like anonymous witnesses. All the courts of 16th c. Europe were miserably corrupt by our standards.

But by the standards of the 15th and 16th cc., the auto-da-fé was not shocking to the conscience of any West European. The myth of a court that was out of the ordinary for its period is part of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition created by Spain's political enemies in Holland and England; the Inquisition was subsequently used in French Revolutionary propaganda and became symbolic of the Catholic Church. Historical revision of the Inquisition is currently the subject of lively academic discussion.

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    This seems one sided. If there is a debate, then don't describe the claim as a fact, describe the debate.
    – Sklivvz
    Jun 11, 2016 at 7:21
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    @Sklivvz I meant more banally that academics have only seriously improved the methodology of Inquisition studies in the past 50 years or so, so there is plenty to discuss. I don't mean that this answer is in doubt.
    – Avery
    Jun 11, 2016 at 7:31
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    You say: "The myth of an exceedingly brutal court is part of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition", this is unsupported by any source I can find on the matter, even the revision page which you share says "torture was strictly a means of obtaining the only full proof available" (and not a punishment). I don't see how you can describe torturing people as not "exceedingly brutal". There are horrific torture machines in any inquisition museum in Europe.
    – Sklivvz
    Jun 11, 2016 at 7:57
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    By "exceedingly" I meant in comparison to other methods of trial used at the time. The stuff in those museums is mostly fabricated, by the way.
    – Avery
    Jun 11, 2016 at 8:23
  • I think you might have misedited the answer.
    – Sklivvz
    Jun 12, 2016 at 15:40

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