University of California at Berkeley

Behind the Scenes at the Inquisition

Its Persecutions May Have Been Overplayed, But Clean Linen on Friday Could Cost a Life

 by Kathleen Scalise

Long lost historic records on the Mexican Inquisition recently acquired by Berkeley document torture and burning at the stake, exile for sex acts and witchcraft, and other startling proceedings.

The manuscripts are mostly court cases and describe some key trials held by the Inquisition in the Americas.

Dating from 1593 to 1817, there are 61 volumes of original manuscripts, some of which are well known and were considered lost or destroyed until they turned up at a book fair this year, said Walter Brem, Latin American curator for the Bancroft Library.

Together they comprise one of the largest purchases ever made by the Bancroft.

The Mexican Inquisition was an arm of the Spanish Inquisition, an organization of the Catholic Church. The Inquisition originated in late medieval France and was used in Spain to maintain religious purity during the reconquest of the Spanish Peninsula over the Islamic Moors.

In Spanish America, the Inquisition was launched to counter the Protestant "menace" and periodically focused on prosecuting Jews. But much of its energy went toward preventing sexual misconduct, especially among the clergy.

The importance of the documents to scholars lies in the "extensive evidence of how people lived and their own testimonies," said Brem. "We can derive a lot about their assumptions and outlook."

The collection also contains physical evidence, in some cases, including the rope by which one suspect committed suicide and finger bones and prayers used by another for witchcraft.

The Bancroft now owns the largest collection of original Inquisition documents outside Mexico, said Brem, as well as a rich collection of related historical materials of the period.

Included in the newly acquired documents, bound in old leather and tied with thongs, are three particularly important trials of the Carvajal family of crypto-Jews, a group who supposedly converted to Christianity but were suspected of practicing Jewish rites secretly.

The accused were ultimately convicted, strangled and burned at the stake. Evidence of their heresy included use of clean clothing and bed linens on Friday -- which was used to prove they were observing the Jewish Sabbath -- dietary restrictions and secluded gatherings.

"These are famous, famous cases," said Brem. "At the time, the Inquisition was very interested in rooting out other participants. They cast a wide net throughout Mexico in the later decades of the 16th century."

Many of the other trials in the Bancroft documents discuss men and women accused of unacceptable sexual practices.


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