A while ago the Vatican opened its archives and a report about the Inquisition was created that painted a different picture of the Inquisition than the one we're used to (news article). The report shows a lower amount of torture and death sentences than previously believed:

"The recourse to torture and the death sentence weren't so frequent as it long has been believed," said Agostino Borromeo, a professor at Rome's Sapienza University.

Specifically, about the Spanish Inquisition it states

Borromeo, who oversaw the volume, said that while there were some 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain, researchers found that about 1 percent of the defendants were executed.

Do the results of this report fit with other research on the Inquisition? Was torture and burning people at the stake really an exception, and not the rule?

  • 3
    C'mon... everyone knows it was like this: youtube.com/watch?v=CSe38dzJYkY (nice question anyway)
    – nico
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 7:08
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    What are the worst-case numbers to support "than previously believed" ? Online estimates say 1 - 2 % of 100,000 which tallies with the numbers in this report. However, even that number is not to be condoned imo.
    – JoseK
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 10:19
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    The thing about the Spanish Inquisition wasn't as much the death sentences, but the number of people "put to the question" as a standard procedure of a "trial". And the Catholic Church has NEVER covered up their misdeeds, right? Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 10:29
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    Turture and death weren't the only things they did. They would 1) "convert" Jews, and 2) simply take all their property if they refused Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 16:43
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    Compared with Abu Graib and Guantanamo, it wasn't that bad. :) Sorry - couldn't resist. But sounds like a strawman. 1250 people killed for being agents of Satan sounds bad enough. And what happened to the rest? Some minor torture, or a fair trial with verdict of not guilty and compensation? Didn't they have to fear the death? How big was the population then? Commented Sep 7, 2011 at 0:59

1 Answer 1


A quick overview of the available literature supports the stated claims, if we assume that the popular image of the Inquisition involves routine torture and execution.

In an article on "Inquisition Proceedings against Muslims in 16th Century Latin America" published in Islamic Studies, Rukhasana Qamber writes that:

In a comprehensive study of the Mexican Inquisition [in the 16th century], Richard Greenleaf found that 95 out of 100 Mexicans during the colonial period had no contact with the Inquisition. Of the five who did, one sixth were not tried by the Holy Office and perhaps two out of 100 were condemned, 0.5 out of 100 underwent judicial torture, and less than 0.1 out of 100 were executed.

On the subject of "The Repression of Sexual Behavior by the Aragonese Inquisition between 1560 and 1700" in the Journal of the History of Sexuality Andre Fernandez writes:

It is important to note that for 2.5 percent of solicitants, that is, six out of the 245 reported cases the council voted for torture.

In "Inquisition and the Prosecution of Heresy: Misconceptions and Abuses" published in Church History, Henry Ansgar Kelly writes:

I dismiss without further ado the modern notion that defendants in any canonical process, inquisitorial or not, were presumed guilty until proven innocent. No one could be legally convicted of a crime without adequate proof [...] Huguccio in the twelfth century formulated the rule that ecclesiastical judges should employ only moderate forms of torture, which John Andrew in the fourteenth century interpreted to mean rods or switches or leather whips rather than the rack or claws and cords. Eventually, restrictions were placed on the use of torture by papally appointed heresy inquisitors because of reported abuses.

Perhaps the most fitting one-sentence answer to your question comes from an article by Ruth Behar, an anthropologist form University of Michigan, who begins an article on the subject by writing:

In Mexico, as in Spain, the Inquisition was far less severe than legend would have it, showing little concern to eradicate magic and witchcraft among common people or to convict and burn them for their heterodox beliefs.

The results of the report you quote seem to fit the general consensus of contemporary scholars.

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