How the Spanish Inquisition punished offenders in Malaga

The painting ‘El tribunal de la Inquisición’, by Francisco de Goya, shows the form the process took.
The painting ‘El tribunal de la Inquisición’, by Francisco de Goya, shows the form the process took. / SUR
  • 'Sanbenitos' were worn as a punishment for a range of minor offences such as eating meat at Lent; more serious crimes, such as selling one’s soul to the devil, were punishable by death

. The Spanish Inquisition: history books about Spain in the period between the 15th and 18th centuries devote pages to it, and museums have sections about the punishments which were meted out to the ‘díscolos’ who deviated from this unique way of understanding the Catholic faith.

The Inquisition and everything about it generates a certain fascination and hundreds of stories about it have been handed down from generation to generation. But how did it really work in Malaga? What punishments were given to people who the tribunal considered witches? And above all, did the city come under special scrutiny from the authorities, watching to make sure there were no deviations from moral dogmas?

There are gaps in the knowledge of the Inquisition in Malaga, but historian Jorge Jiménez Reyes, who created one of the cultural routes for the Cultopía company, says that Malaga “probably was one of the cities which gave the Inquisition’s tribunals the most work”.

There are various reasons for this, but it has a lot to do with the fact that it is a coastal city and ports were considered ‘naturally sinful’ places. In fact, the interchange with the foreign population, who were subject to the local laws no matter where they came from, meant that the city had a reputation for loose morals.

Among other things, this was because there was a great deal of prostitution in the city and although it was legal and there was even an ‘official prostituter’ designated by the Catholic monarchs themselves, women who engaged in prostitution were especially associated with witchcraft because it was not uncommon for them to use it as a way of getting off the streets and even finding a husband. That was always punished by the Inquisition, if it could be shown that those incantations were linked to renouncing the Catholic faith.

To put this in context, it is convenient to remember in the first instance that at that time religion and magic were seen as two sides of the same coin: “In the same way that the saints were invoked to intercede with any particular problem, others would also invoke the devil to do the same thing,” explains Jorge Jiménez.

Secondly, the Catholic monarchs set up the tribunals not only to fight against witchcraft but especially against false converts.

A monastery as punishment

However, the rigour of the Inquisition delved into all strata of society and the general inquisitor, who was based in Granada, had ‘delegates’ in every important city. It was he who took part in one of the proceedings documented in Malaga in the 16th century, against Fray Diego de Velázquez, confessor of the Trinidad convent, reciter and professor of theology.

The prelate held a privileged position in the convent, but lacked ‘patronage’ in the ecclesiastical structure and his main ambition was to become a cardinal.

“He was accused of casting spells to try to pact with the devil, to get the money necessary to make the contacts he needed,” says Jorge.

When that information reached the ears of the general inquisitor in Granada, he ordered Fray Diego de Velázquez to be sent to the harshest monastery he could find, sharing a cell, taking on the most menial position in the community and totally prohibited from receiving communion or making confession. He also lost all his titles.

How the Spanish Inquisition punished offenders in Malaga

Some documents from the 16th century, which was possibly the harshest of the Inquisition, also tell of the case against María Alemán, a woman who came to Malaga after being expelled from Baeza for witchcraft and prostitution. There, she had been denounced by her neighbours because “her spells work”. That was deemed to be because she had made a pact with the devil.

Suckling a demon

However, she was tried in Malaga over another accusation, which said she had “suckled a small demon” which she had found starving in the street and breast fed it. In gratitude, that devil gave her its powers, a ‘sin’ which was more than enough for her to be given the Inquisition’s harshest punishment. In fact, her life was saved - she was just banned from the Kingdom of Granada and Madrid - because she was able to show that the ‘exchange’ was not to sell her soul to the devil, but because she was acting out of Christian charity and sympathy.

In other cases there was less piety and the prisoners were sentenced to death, especially in the case of false converts or those who had been found to have sold their souls to the devil or taken part in others doing so.

Although many trials took place behind closed doors (and always after two independent witnesses had signed a report to avoid false or vengeful accusations), in the most serious cases the public were asked to attend so that the sentencing or execution took place in front of them and served as an example. In other words, that was how they learned the lesson.

On public display

The trials by Inquisition did not always end with the death penalty. In fact, there were different degrees of punishment which were applied as a corrective measure, but above all so that people were able to identify someone as the ‘sinner’. In this public sentencing sanbenitos played a fundamental role: they were tunics or scapulars which condemned people had to wear every day, with all that that implied.

For example, if someone with a small business had to put a sanbenito on every day they would lose all their clients: nobody would want to risk being associated with the sinner.

How the Spanish Inquisition punished offenders in Malaga

There were also different levels of this type of punishment. Jorge Jiménez says there were six categories, and the lowest one was the white scapular for minor offences (such as eating meat during Lent).

Different elements of costume were added according to the severity of the offences, ranging from a red cross (in memory of the Cross of St Andrew, which represented humility and suffering), to a type of hood or crown, which were the antecedents of the pointed hoods worn by the penitents in the Easter processions of today.

Some of them even bore an illustration of the sin which had been committed, or the punishment given: in some of Francisco de Goya’s most famous paintings you can see people who had been ordered to wear these symbols on their heads and others wearing scapulars.

That form of public humiliation was common during the 15th and 16th centuries, but from the 17th century the sanbenitos were no longer worn as a punishment every day and were hung in churches instead, although of course they still bore the name of the person who had committed the sin. That is where the expression ‘colgar el sambenito’, meaning ‘hang up the sanbenito’ which is still used today, came from.