February 28, 2015

How Many People Died in the Inquisition?

by Nathan Busenitz

inquisitionsHow Many Protestants Were Killed in the Inquisition?

A friend asked me that question earlier this week. And so I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts, from a historical perspective.

Opinions about how to answer the question vary widely. Some suggest that just a few thousand people were executed during the Inquisition, while others project that there were tens of millions of victims. So how can the estimates be so widely divergent?

There seem to be several explanations:

1. First, the imprecise nature of the historical records means that contemporary historians are forced to extrapolate on the basis of the limited information they possess.

One of the first accounts of the Inquisition came from a former Spanish secretary to the Inquisition named Juan Antonio Llorente (1756–1823). According to Llorente, the total number of “heretics” burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition totaled nearly 32,000. Llorente adds that another 300,000 were put on trial and forced to do penance (cf. Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition [W. W. Norton, 1964; reprint, 1996], 123).

But there is considerable controversy about the accuracy of Llorente’s figures. As a result, historians must decide whether or not to take those numbers at face value. Some believe his numbers are too low, and should be adjusted higher. However, the majority of modern scholars believe his numbers are too high.

William D. Rubinstein summarizes the consensus of modern scholarship:

Nothing in the whole history of the Catholic church did more than the Inquisition to damn it in the eyes of rational, enlightened thinkers, or to give it the reputation for medieval barbarism it held in many quarters until recently. The Inquisition was only formally abolished in the early nineteenth century. Yet it also seems clear that the number of victims of the Inquisition can easily be exaggerated. Juan Antonio Llorente (1756–1823), a fierce enemy of the Inquisition, whose Critical History of the Inquisition of 1817–19 remains the most famous early work attacking everything connected with it, estimated the number of executions carried out during the whole of the period that the Spanish Inquisition existed, from 1483 until its abolition by Napoleon, at 31,912, with 291,450 “condemned to serve penances.” . . . Most recent historians regard even this figure as far too high (William D. Rubinstein, Genocide [Routledge, 2004], 34).

The conservative approach of modern scholarship can be seen in the writings of Henry Kamen, who is one of the leading authorities on the Spanish Inquisition. His work on The Spanish Inquisition is published by Yale University Press (Fourth Edition, 2014). Kamen’s research has led him to conclude: “We can in all probability accept the estimate, made on the basis of available documentation, that a maximum of three thousand persons may have suffered death during the entire history of the tribunal” (p. 253). Kamen’s estimates may be too low, but they represent the general perspective of contemporary scholars.

Modern historians also note that sixteenth-century Spain (during the height of the Spanish Inquisition) only had a total population of around 7.5 million people (cf. John Huxtable Elliott, Spain and Its World, 1500–1700 [Yale University Press, 1989], 223). Consequently, the notion that the Spanish Inquisition could be executing tens of millions of people during that same time period seems mathematically untenable.

2. Second, some earlier historians seem to have conflated the number of people killed with the number of people persecuted by the Inquisition. In other words, when they spoke of “victims of the Inquisition” they did not specify between those who were executed and those who were merely imprisoned or forced to flee because of the erupting persecution. Obviously, depending on how one defines a victim, the number of victims could vary widely. Perhaps only tens of thousands were executed, but hundreds of thousands were victimized in some way.

David Plaisted (a professor of computer science at UNC) notes that possibility in his paper titled, “Estimates of the Number Killed by the Papacy in the Middle Ages and Later” (http://www.cs.unc.edu/~plaisted/estimates.doc). He thinks the number of executions during the Spanish Inquisition could be quite a bit higher than just a few thousand. However, he acknowledges that the very large numbers (given by some earlier historians) might include everyone who was put on trial, and not just those who were killed. Also, some of the largest estimates likely include non-Protestants (such as Jewish and Muslim populations) who were expelled from Spain as a result of the persecution. If so, it helps explain where those very large estimates originated.

3. Third, confusion also stems from the conflation of the Inquisition with other events in European history. In the narrow sense, the term “Inquisition” refers to official trials conducted by Roman Catholic authorities in places like Spain and Portugal. When the question is limited to just those Inquisitions, the number of Protestants executed is likely in the thousands or tens of thousands.

However, if the term is used in a broad sense—to represent all Roman Catholic activity against non-Catholics—then the numbers rise dramatically. If the historian includes forms of torture and killing that did not involve a formal trial, along with religious wars and other forms of Catholic violence enacted against Protestants and other non-Catholics (in areas outside of Spain and Portugal), then one can easily speak in terms of millions of people who were killed.

David Plaisted acknowledges that reality in his study: namely, that the really big estimates of Protestants killed by the papacy throughout European history necessarily include those who died in religious conflicts like the Thirty Years War.

So … how many Protestants were killed during the Inquisition?

Well, that depends on how you are using the word “Inquisition.” And even then, the reality is that no one knows for sure.

However, if we are simply talking about official executions during the Spanish Inquisition, most contemporary experts would place the total number of executions between 3,000 and 10,000, with perhaps an additional 100,000 to 125,000 dying in prison as a result of torture and maltreatment. The Inquisition in neighboring Portugal resulted in even fewer such deaths (cf. Joseph Pérez, The Spanish Inquisition [Profile Books, 2006], 173; R. J. Rummel, Death by Government [Transaction Publishers, 2009], 62).

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
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  • Johnny

    This was very interesting. Honestly a question I’ve not really considered but still fascinating all the same

  • winteryblackknight

    Has anyone looked at how many Catholics were executed during the English protestant inquisition? Or in Holland, the German Protestant League, Denmark, Sweden or Norway?

    • GinaRD

      I’m reading an excellent new book about that period right now (the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics, I mean). It’s called “God’s Traitors” by Jessie Childs. The author has done her homework and is very fair to both sides. It’s a good read if you’re interested in the period.

    • Still Waters

      Good point, the Thirty Years War – which was the most brutal of the religious conflicts – was a war, and thus had two sides, both of which shed blood.

      • The 30 years war may (only “may”) have had religious motivations at the start but it was not mainly a religious war and as it developed it was not really one at all. Eventually Catholics and Protestants fought on the same side for territorial reasons.

        • Still Waters

          I don’t disagree that the lines between Protestant and Catholic became blurred, especially after Cardinal Richelieu allied himself with the Swedes, but it is hard to say it had nothing to do with religion when the war involved Germany’s Protestant Union and Catholic League; or when the Edict of Restitution banned Calvinist worship; or when the final Treaty of Westphalia guaranteed that each German state could determine its own religion. In seeking to reduce the victim count of Catholics to a historically accurate level, we must not then whitewash Protestant ill-doing (such as their treatment of Anabaptists and other non-conformists).

          • That the resolution meant that “each German state could determine its own religion” is evidence that religion had faded as a factor in the war. The onset of the war may have had a religious component but it also maybe that religion was only appealed to as a cynical ploy to motivate people to fight for something they cared about when they didn’t care about the territorial ambitions that may have been the over-riding cause all along.

    • Luvabulldawg

      Not enough, that’s for certain.

      • winteryblackknight

        Not enough what?

    • There’s was no “English protestant inquisition”. Elizabeth I herself may have been a secret Catholic but like her father kept the Anglican church in the “middle way” for political reasons. Some Jesuits conspired against her, seeking to assassinate her and were executed but there was not systematic attempt to execute Catholics in England, like the one “Bloody Mary” used against Protestants during her reign.

      • winteryblackknight

        “Elizabeth herself may have been a secret Catholic” Are you serious? Any priest caught secretly celebrating mass met a horrible death as well as anyone who harboured them. Anyone caught promoting the Catholic faith also met a horrible death. She began this persecution after Pope Pius V declared against her. This persecution lasted beyond the reign of James II. Bloody Mary had a lot of scores to settle from persecutions that took place during her father’s reign and she was formed by those persecutions. In Ireland the persecution took the form of depriving any Catholic of rights under the law and their property. The Quebec Act was the first time Catholics had any rights under the law in the British Empire since the reign of Elizabeth


        • That’s inaccurate. Elizabeth’s policy was one of moderation, with herself as the head. She was probably not particularly religious herself. The remaining Catholic priests from the reign of Mary I (“bloody Mary”), her half-sister and predecessor, were allowed to stay and continue to observe their rituals. After the Jesuits targeted England for priests to try to win England back to Catholicism, in 1581 and 1585, Parliament passed laws for the death penalty on such “missionaries”. In Elizabeth’s personal chapel, the crucifix was displayed; she liked candles and music, and disliked long or frequent sermons — all signs of Catholicism. However, she disliked some Catholic rituals such as the elevation of the host, which implied that she may have rejected the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. She did not approve of the clergy marrying but as this was an integral aspect of Protestantism, she had to accept it.

          James II, who lived about a century later, was a Catholic.

          • winteryblackknight

            Yes, she was moderate in the early part of her reign but after the excommunication by Pius V she reversed course. The death penalty was levied against more than just Jesuit missionaries but anyone guilty of harboring a priest or any priest practising as such.
            James II was indeed a Catholic but in his short reign he was not able to reverse the penal laws against Catholics.

          • Elizabeth I reigned from to 1558 to 1603. The excommunication from Pius V (c. 1570), coincided with an attempted Catholic revolt in the north and did not mark a “reversed course”. On the contrary, while Parliament sought stricter reprisals against Catholics, Elizabeth intervened to soften them, hence demonstrating her moderation, perhaps even sympathies for Catholicism. The suppression of Catholicism was highest at about 1585, around the same time as the the Spanish armada, the Jesuit infiltration, and suspected conspiracies around “Mary Queen of Scotts”. It subsided by the end of her reign. The death penalty was levied for treason, not simply theological reasons.

          • Still Waters

            James II’s Catholicism led to England replacing him with his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Penalties for being Catholic did not begin to be abolished until the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which provoked the Gordon Riots in London, later immortalized by Dicken’s historical novel, ‘Barnaby Rudge’. Full freedom for Catholics to move in any circle did not come until the final Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

          • My original point was that Elizabeth I may have had some sympathies with Catholicism. I think her personal chapel, intervention on behalf of Catholics and antipathy to Puritanism demonstrates as much.

  • Can we conclude that all of those who have high estimates of those executed by the inquisition (over 10,000?) have an agenda, like Llorente, or are non-historians, probably popularizers and also with an agenda, like George Ryley Scott?
    What of the historical merit, if any, of the claims by David Plaisted? Your article suggested he conflated all “victims” (meaning those put on trial and those who fled prosecution). But isn’t 50 million even too high a number for this too?

  • Still Waters

    If we are speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, it is probable that more Jews and Native Americans suffered than Protestants. It was in France that Protestants were treated mercilessly and repeatedly massacred in the thousands and tens of thousands, but that wasn’t at the direction of the Inquisition and although those who instigated those acts were Catholics, it was more concern for political power than religious fervour which motivated their actions. After all, the infamous Catherine de Medici was from the famous Florentine oligarchy, and Italy’s wars during this period (which were nasty) between duchies and the papal states had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with gaining or keeping political power. Europe was in a constant state of brutal conflict between about 1450 and 1700, and not every conflict had religion at the bottom of it.

  • JohnCountryman21

    I appreciate the article and the writer’s diligence to site his his references.
    I remind myself of a couple of things;
    This national dialog all got started from remarks, (inaccurate and irrelevant at best), from our commander in chief at the national prayer breakfast.
    Which started a whirlwind of a backlash, and causing some strife and even some division on the social network of christian believers I belong to.
    That was unfortunate.

    • Yes, that’s probably the origin of it. And that claim that the inquisition resulted in so many deaths is frequently made by those trying to discredit Christianity (which tells us the intellectual environment “our commander in chief” is from). Anyone who has attempted to debate atheists and skeptics has run into the accusation that Christianity has caused so many atrocities, and then they name the inquisition as an example. Brannon Howse is giving help to the enemies of Christianity. I doubt he knows that as I doubt he tries to engage anyone outside the faith. That is, he is only playing to his base and convincing no one while hurting those, like Todd Friel, who actually try to win people to the Lord.

  • One correction: the 30 years war was not a religious conflict. Protestants and Catholics fought on the same side at some points.

  • Michelle

    Pastor John MacArthur seems to think 50 million Christians were killed by the Catholics according to what he sites in his sermon ‘The Persecution and Endurance of Christians, Part 2’. He sites historian John Dowling as a credible source. The persecutions he is speaking of are between 600 ad and 1800 ad. Would you consider these inflated numbers?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for your question. You will notice in that sermon that Dr. MacArthur was referring, in a general sense, to all Roman Catholic violence against Protestants throughout the Medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods. He did not use the term “Inquisition.”

      The full transcript of that message can be found here: http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/42-258/the-persecution-and-endurance-of-christians-part-2?term=42-258

      As I said in my article, “If the historian includes forms of torture and killing that did not involve a formal trial, along with religious wars and other forms of Catholic violence enacted against Protestants and other non-Catholics (in areas outside of Spain and Portugal), then one can easily speak in terms of millions of people who were killed.”

      Hope that helps,

      • Michelle

        Thank you for you reply.

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