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Introduction to inquisition familiars and officials


Like all powerful institutions, inquisitions functioned in the final analysis thanks to the efforts of individuals. These ranged from a more or less centralized leadership to local judge-inquisitors, advisors, jailers and armed associates who carried out the bulk of a tribunal’s day-to-day activities. Each had his own reasons for taking on inquisitorial duties, with compensation varying considerably over time in financial and social as well as spiritual terms. Membership in the inquisition hierarchy could entail power and influence; for some it was an important career move that benefited entire families for generations to come. Yet it could also bring conflict and resentment from neighbors, with lawsuits and even violent attacks an ever-present possibility. Inquisition officials (accompanied in some cases by their wives and families) therefore banded together in fraternal organizations and promoted their group interests with almost as much energy as they devoted to the struggle against heresy itself. These individuals and groups played essential roles in inquisition history, and fortunately a number of sources have been preserved to shed light on their identities and activities.

The basic management structure of inquisitorial tribunals was established in medieval times, with two or more qualified legal and/or theological experts designated to serve as local judges in heresy cases. These were often mendicant friars directly appointed by the pope, but bishops were also theoretically responsible for inquisitions in their dioceses.1 Expert advice from university theologians played an important role in some more complex trials.2 Practical support, in terms of the capture and detention of suspects as well as protection for inquisitors, was provided by armed laymen. In Languedoc the latter role was sometimes filled by comital or royal bayles, but in Italy volunteers were deputed as crocesignati (literally “crusaders”); from the later thirteenth century on they were granted papal indulgences.3 Unfortunately few traces of these lower level inquisition functionaries have remained from which to reconstruct their biographical details; even for the most notorious medieval inquisitors such information can be quite difficult to come by.4

Inquisition offices would be more carefully defined over time, and regional variations began to solidify in the early modern period. In Spain, a Consejo de la Suprema y General Inquisición (the “Suprema”) was centrally located in Madrid with supervisory powers over all the realm’s tribunals by 1488 at least; it was to be directed by a single royally nominated (though papally appointed) Inquisitor General.5 Local Spanish inquisitions were further mandated by the Instrucciones of 1484 to employ two legally trained inquisitors, assisted by a small corps of legal and/or theological advisors (calificadores), constables (alguaciles), and prosecutors (fiscales) as well as notaries and secretaries, though in practice composition and numbers varied considerably.6 Unpaid officials were also appointed to serve as needed: the comisario were generally village priests assigned to assist in local fact-finding, while familiares—like the medieval crocesignati—were laymen authorized to bear arms and assist the inquisitors by forcible means as required.7 In Portugal and in Italy similar hierarchies performed similar functions, though of course with different terminology as well as regional particularities and changes over time.8

It is important to take into consideration the personal abilities and flaws of those who actually filled these positions. In some cases officials themselves left autobiographical writings to enrich future research.9 Nevertheless biographical studies of inquisition office holders remain in their infancy.10 Larger scale sociological studies have fared somewhat better, though the data remains incomplete for some regions. Preliminary results suggest that Spanish familiares tended to be drawn from the agrarian middle class and wealthy bourgeoisie throughout the sixteenth century, with a gradually shift in favor of the aristocracy in later periods.11 An even more marked transition appears in the Portuguese data: very few familiares were named in the early decades and these seem by and large to have been drawn from the middle and lower classes, but by the eighteenth century their swollen numbers had come to be recruited almost entirely from the nobility.12 The extensive privileges attendant on membership in the corps of Portuguese familiares, codified and publicized in lengthy manuals at the turn of the eighteenth century, undoubtedly stimulated elite interest [INQ 11, INQ 144]. Service in the ranks thus generally seems to have become more prestigious and desirable over time, and changes in membership numbers and profiles inevitably brought about alterations in the sorts of tasks individual familiares were expected to do.

Still, other important questions remain. To date membership lists in the inquisition archives have provided the predominant source of data for studying familiares and other officers, with different types of document still awaiting fuller exploitation.13 Membership certificates provide another rich source base which has received scant notice despite their potential for revealing office holders’ pretentions and self-perceptions. These “take-home” artifacts served as proof of employment (and so of eligibility for protections and benefits). Though to some extent standardized in form and content, they could also vary considerably in detail and seem in many instances to have been individually tailored to suit the tastes of their issuers and/or recipients.14 They could be solemnly prepared yet relatively simple manuscript documents on parchment [INQ 107], or printed forms (on either paper or parchment) with blank spaces left for details to be filled in by hand [INQ 94, INQ 99, INQ 100, etc.]; manuscript certificates too could be prepared in advance with names and dates left blank for future completion in another hand [INQ 92]. But manuscript [INQ 98, INQ 101, INQ 104, etc.] and printed [INQ 97, INQ 102, INQ 103] certificates alike were also frequently decorated with ornate hand-embellished and/or block-printed borders. In some cases these could be extremely ornate, with clear evidence of professional artistry and liberal use of expensive pigments and gold leaf [INQ 101].

Certificates were also issued to officials such as comisarios [INQ 98], notaries [INQ 108, INQ 109, INQ 110] and alguaciles [INQ 115]. One unadorned 1662 manuscript from Palermo names the governor of Panteleria island a “teniente de capitan” for the inquisition [INQ 105]; the Inquisitor General likewise signed off on a nomination to the post of alguacil de la santa cruzada in 1747 [INQ 113]. Generally such certificates were signed by senior inquisition officials and stamped with wax seals; in some cases however one gets a glimpse of the slow wheels of administrative inefficiency (or perhaps hesitancy) as documents could be ratified months and even years after first drafting [INQ 98, INQ 113]. Further documents might be drafted to bolster a pretender’s claim to a post [INQ 16], and sometimes later copies of certificates and accompanying documentation were compiled, presumably to serve some sort of now-obscure legal purpose [INQ 12]. As individual as their former owners, each sheet, file and dossier has a story to tell if only the trouble is taken to unravel it.

One particularly significant aspect of these documents is the varying degree to which they demonstrate a concern for limpieza de sangre (or “blood purity”, absence of Jewish or Muslim taint in one’s ancestry). Some certificates include specific reference to the candidate’s limpieza (and that of his wife) [INQ 102, INQ 103, INQ 110, etc.], but many others do not. Sketches of family trees might also be included to bolster genealogical claims, and in some cases these were clearly added long after the original date of issue—raising additional questions of how these documents’ significance and social utility may have changed from one generation to the next [INQ 92, INQ 97]. Limpieza continued to be a serious matter for some inquisition personnel on and off through the nineteenth century [INQ 581], but it was always controversial and enforcement was erratic.15 A complete analysis of precisely where and when blood purity was actually at issue would greatly benefit from a survey of familiares’ and other inquisition officials’ appointment certificates.

Aside from certificates, numerous other types of documents can be adduced to shed light on careers in the Holy Office. The Notre Dame Collection includes salary requisitions and receipts for officials in seventeenth-century Peru [INQ 569, INQ 576, INQ 577]; lucrative tax exemptions for Spanish inquisition officials are also laid out in a fragmentary royal decree of 1706 [INQ 293]. A secretary of the Valladolid tribunal was assured of a pension and other benefits in 1716 [INQ 111]. Yet even the highest officials were not beyond reproach, as Inquisitor General Manuel Quintano Bonifaz discovered when he was briefly exiled by the king in 1761 [INQ 26]. Indeed, mistreatment of inquisition familiares was common enough to warrant the production of printed forms denouncing alleged episodes [INQ 209, INQ 211, INQ 212]. Nor did feuding families hesitate to deploy their inquisitorial connections whenever these might cause harm to local rivals.16


Dangers potentially confronting inquisitorial officials and their collaborators, evident since medieval times, were fully recognized by the papacy in the 1569 bull Si de protegendis.17 At the same time Pius V revived and re-instituted an exclusive congregation for inquisition personnel known as the confraternity of St. Peter Martyr; this organization was to provide a sense of corporate identity, protection and privilege for its members until its final extinction in the nineteenth century.18 Its papal indulgences were collected, together with recent and centuries-old bulls and indulgences for the crocesignati, and printed in multiple editions (including some in Spanish translations) [INQ 215, INQ 315, INQ 316, INQ 318]—as were their guiding constitutions [INQ 156, INQ 167].19 Peter of Verona (d. 1252) was the inquisition’s sainted martyr par excellence, and his image can commonly be found in inquisition documents.20 His example to later opponents of heretical depravity was also held up for all to admire in sermons delivered for the benefit of confraternity members amid the pomp and ceremony of regular feast day celebrations [INQ 157, INQ 558].

In Spain the St. Peter Martyr confraternity’s duties sometimes overlapped with those of the military Orders and armed local groups such as the Santas Hermandades Viejas.21 Originally founded in the Middle Ages to defend property owners in the unsettled central highlands of Toledo, Ciudad Real and Talavera de la Reina, the Hermandades expanded and enjoyed royal protections and privileges comparable to those of the familiares by the sixteenth century [INQ 3]. Their early charters and privileges were carefully preserved and printed in multiple editions through the seventeenth century [INQ 213, INQ 245], with additions and increasingly ostentatious formatting in the eighteenth that may suggest a growth of claims to social importance [INQ 319, INQ 321, INQ 328, INQ 335, INQ 352]. Members were clearly proud of their service combatting lawlessness of all sorts, and though normal targets were bandits and gypsies [INQ 116] the Brothers worked together with inquisition tribunals as an essential part of early modern Iberia’s emerging disciplinary structures.22 Such Hermandades were finally abolished in the 1840s, and replaced by formal national bodies such as the Guardia Civil.

While some preliminary work on medieval and early modern inquisition confraternities has been done, their study remains “nearly virgin territory” just as it was forty years ago.23 Documents relating to the inquisitors and their staff as individuals also remain among the most under-utilized of all inquisition records, and it is even unclear precisely where research on these materials would most fruitfully be conducted. The University of Notre Dame Collection offers a rich introductory assortment indicating the genre’s striking variety, but a great deal of exploration and itemsuing will be necessary if certificates of familiares and related textual artifacts are ever to be fully integrated with the wider fields of inquisition research.

Robin Vose

Bibliography: documentation on familiares and other personnel in the Notre Dame Inquisition Collection

The Inquisition Collection at the University of Notre Dame contains more than 50 items illustrating the broad variety of documents produced to record and celebrate the work of inquisition officials.

Certificates and documents of appointment:

INQ 92. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Valladolid 1545.

INQ 93. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Valladolid 1559.

INQ 94. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Valencia 1569.

INQ 95. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Seville 1572.

INQ 96. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Seville 1577.

INQ 97. Familiar certificate, printed, Valladolid 1597.

INQ 98. Comisario certificate, manuscript, Cordoba 1602-1606.

INQ 99. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Murcia 1603.

INQ 101. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Granada 1615.

INQ 100. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Logroño 1617.

INQ 12. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Logroño 1617-1629 [copies].

INQ 102. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Valladolid 1631.

INQ 103. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Valladolid 1635.

INQ 104. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Toledo 1650.

INQ 105. Teniente de capitan certificate, manuscript, Palermo 1662.

INQ 16. Calificador candidacy document, manuscript, Valladolid 1671.

INQ 106. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Toledo 1678.

INQ 107. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Seville 1685.

INQ 108. Notary certificate, manuscript, Valladolid 1700.

INQ 109. Notary letter of appointment, manuscript, Valladolid 1700.

INQ 110. Familiar certificate, printed and manuscript, Granada 1704.

INQ 25. Manuscript documents relating to appointments in Lima (Peru), 1711-1765.

INQ 112. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Cordoba 1744.

INQ 112. Familiar certificate, manuscript, Cordoba 1744.

INQ 113. Alguacil de la santa cruzada letter of appointment, manuscript, Madrid 1747.

INQ 372. Secretary candidacy document (for both university and inquisition), printed, Valladolid 1762.

INQ 26. Manuscript documents relating to dismissal and exile of inquisitor-general Manuel Quintano Bonifaz, 1764.

INQ 114. Familiar certificate, manuscript, 1779 [fragmentary copy].

INQ 115. Alguacil mayor certificate, manuscript, Toledo 1785.

INQ 163. Printed instructions for comisarios, Barcelona 1799.

INQ 116. Printed and manuscript documents relating to membership in Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1804-1818.

INQ 581. Certificate of legitimacy and blood purity, manuscript, 1807.

Privileges, benefits and indulgences:

INQ 3. Royal protections for Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1510.

INQ 211. Documentation relating to alleged mistreatment of a familiar, 1600.

INQ 212. Documentation relating to alleged mistreatment of a familiar, 1600.

INQ 569. Salary receipt for Lima (Peru) inquisition secretary, 1604.

INQ 213. Manual of privileges, Toledo Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1608.

INQ 215. Translation of 1611 papal indulgences for inquisition officials and confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1612.

INQ 315. Translation of earlier papal indulgences for confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1612.

INQ 245. Manual of privileges, Toledo Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1665.

INQ 576. Salary documents for Lima (Peru) inquisition officials, 1684-1685.

INQ 577. Salary document for Lima (Peru) lawyer, 1694.

INQ 144. Manual of privileges for Portuguese inquisition familiars and officials, 1699.

INQ 11. Undated manuscript copy of privileges for Portuguese inquisition familiars [17th century].

INQ 209. Undated documentation relating to alleged mistreatment of a familiar [17th century].

INQ 293. Fragmentary document on tax exemptions for inquisition officials, 1706.

INQ 111. Retirement and pension documentation for inquisition secretary, 1716.

INQ 316. Translation of earlier papal indulgences for confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1724.

INQ 318. Translation of 1611 papal indulgences for inquisition officials and confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1724.

INQ 319. Manual of privileges, Ciudad Real Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1725.

INQ 321. Manual of privileges, Ciudad Real Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1725 [with further appended documents, 1727-1728].

INQ 328. Documents relating to Toledo Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1735.

INQ 335. Manual of ordinances, Toledo Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1740.

INQ 352. Manual of ordinances, Talavera Santa Hermandad Vieja, 1749.

INQ 156. Constitutions for confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1782.

INQ 167. Constitutions for confraternity of St. Peter Martyr, 1802.


INQ 558. Antonio Rosado, 1620 Portuguese sermon in honor of St. Peter Martyr.

INQ 157. Diego Josef de Cadiz, 1786 Spanish sermon in honor of St. Peter Martyr.


1 An introduction to the medieval inquisitiones haereticae pravetatis is in Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley 1989), pp. 40-74. See also the important comments of Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Inquisition and the Prosecution of Heresy: Misconceptions and Abuses” in Church History 58 (1989), pp. 439-451.

2 The trials of the Talmud and Joan of Arc are two prominent examples involving faculty drawn from the university of Paris; see also the academic cases discussed in J.M.M.H. Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris 1200-1400 (Philadelphia 1998).

3 The role of bayles is discussed in Mark Pegg, The Corruption of Angels (Princeton 2001), pp. 30-31 and James Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society (Ithaca 1997), pp. 16ff.

4 William Walsh’s Characters of the Inquisition (New York 1940) provides a quite superficial and apologetic glimpse. More scholarly (yet still far from complete) studies have been done for figures such as Peter of Verona, and Bernard Gui; see for example James Given, “A Medieval Inquisitor at Work: Bernard Gui, 3 March 1308 to 19 June 1323” in Samuel Cohn and Steven Epstein (eds.), Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living (Ann Arbor1996), pp. 207-232 and Donald Prudlo, The Martyred Inquisitor (Aldershot 2008) as well as Laurent Albaret, Les inquisiteurs: portraits de défenseurs de la foi en Languedoc (Toulouse 2001). I have not yet seen Claudia Heimann’s published dissertation on Nicolaus Eymerich (Münster Aschendorff 2001).

5 The details and in particular the extent of royal control are debated in Bartolomé Bennassar, L’Inquisition Espagnole (Paris 1979), pp. 75-103; cf. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (New Haven 1997), pp. 138-140; details on the gradual establishment of the Suprema and office of the inquisitor-general through the foundational decades are discussed by both authors. Cf. Peters, Inquisition pp. 90-91.

6 Rogelio Pérez-Bustamante, “Nóminas de inquisidores. Reflexion sobre el studio de la burocracia inquisitorial en el siglo XVI” in Joaquín Pérez Villanueva (ed.), La Inquisición Española: nueva vision, nuevos horizontes (Madrid 1980), pp. 257-269.

7 Kamen, Spanish Inquisition pp. 145 and 148.

8 For Portugal and its colonies see Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: a global history, 1478-1834 (1995; tr. Jean Birrell, Cambridge 2009), pp. 77-80; the various Italian inquisitions’ organizational structures (with a central Sacra Congregazione rather than a Suprema, vicarei foranei instead of comisarios, etc.) are surveyed in Bethencourt, op.cit. pp. 83-93 as well as John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (Binghamton 1991), pp. 127-203 and now Christopher Black, The Italian Inquisition (New Haven 2009).

9 The memoirs of Diego de Simancas for example, author of a major inquisitorial manual (see Inquisitorial manuals), were printed along with those of other prominent contemporaries in Manuel Serrano y Sanz (ed.), Autobiografias y Memorias (vol. 2 of the Nueva Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, Madrid 1905), pp. 151-210.

10 Fanciful literary treatments abound, such as Victor Hugo’s Torquemada (Paris 1882); many of these overlap with polemical literature as discussed in Polemics and histories. More scholarly modern efforts include Julio Caro Baroja’s pioneering collective biography in El Señor Inquisidor y otras vidas por oficio (Madrid 1968), pp. 15-63 and José Luis González’ recently republished work on El inquisidor general Fernando de Valdés (1968; new ed. Oviedo 2008). Lower-level functionaries have attracted less attention. Preliminary results for Valencia and Jaén can be found in essays by Ricardo García Cárcel and Luis Coronas Tejada (respectively) in Pérez Villanueva, Inquisición Española pp. 271-283 and 293-302; for the Portuguese world see James Wadsworth’s Agents of Orthodoxy (Lanham 2007), and other studies listed in his “Historiography of the Structure and Functioning of the Portuguese Inquisition in Colonial Brazil” in History Compass 8/7 (2010), pp. 636-652).

11 Jaime Contreras, “The Social Infrastructure of the Inquisition: Familiars and Commissioners” in Ángel Alcalá (ed.), The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial Mind (Highland Lakes 1987), pp. 133-158.

12Bethencourt, Inquisition pp. 74-83.

13 Visitas and other archival sources may also be used to varying effect, while Jesús Bravo Lozano has noted the possibility of employing “Testamentos de familiares del Santo Oficio” in Pérez Villanueva, Inquisición Española pp. 285-292

14 A sample 1581 Cordoban text is printed in Bennassar, Inquisition Espagnole pp. 100-101; among other noteworthy details it does not mention the candidate’s limpieza. Bethencourt, Inquisition p. 161 provides a photographic reproduction of an illustrated 1760 Venetian certificate, printed with manuscript additions. Libro 502, sección Inquisición in the Madrid Archivo Histórico Nacional contains a whole series of familiar certificates according to Bethencourt, op. cit. p. 112, n. 22; I have not yet been able to examine this collection.

15 A fundamental study is Albert Sicroff, Les controverses des statuts de “pureté de sang” en Espagne du XVe au XVIIe siècle (Paris 1960). Sicroff is criticized however by Kamen (Spanish Inquisition pp. 230-254) among others for his oversimplifications. Familiares of Morisco or Indian descent are known to have been appointed from time to time; see for example Bethencourt, Inquisition pp. 164-165.

16 See the case study in Jaime Contreras, Sotos contra Riquelmes (Madrid 1992).

17 This bull was regularly re-issued in Spain for years to come; Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (1906; repr. London 1922), vol. 3, pp. 189-190. On copies of Si de protegendis see also Policies and proceedings.

18 Confraternities devoted to this saint already existed in medieval times; see Gilles Meersseman, “Études sur les anciennes confréries dominicaines II: les confréries de Saint-Pierre Martyr” in Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 21 (1951), pp. 51-196.

19 Several of these are analyzed in Juan Galende Díaz, “Una Aproximación a la Hermandad Inquisitorial de San Padro Martir” in Cuadernos de Investigación Historica 14 (1991), pp. 45-86, along with a full reproduction of the 1782 Madrid text [INQ 156].

20 On inquisitorial use of Peter’s iconography see Bethencourt, Inquisition pp. 111-112.

21 There is confusion in some sources about these bodies, to be distinguished from the short-lived national Santa Hermandad constituted by the reyes católicos from about 1476 to 1498; see Kamen, Spanish Inquisition p. 44 and Marvin Lunenfeld, The Council of the Santa Hermandad (Coral Gables, 1970). The “Old” Hermandades are richly described in J.M. Sánchez Benito, Santa Hermandad Vieja de Toledo, Talavera y Ciudad Real (siglos XIII-XV) (Toledo 1987), ibid., Colección de documentos de la Santa Hermandad (1300-1500) (Toledo 1990), T. Engenios Martín, La Santa Hermandad Vieja de Talavera (Toledo 1992), A. Guillaume Alonso, Una institución del Antiguo Régimen: la Santa Hermandad Vieja de Talavera de la Reina (siglos XVI y XVII) (Talavera 1995), and M.F. Gómez Vozmediano, “Una corte rural de justicia: La Santa Hermandad Vieja de Almodóvar del Campo (1456-1808)” in Cuadernos de Historia Moderna 22 (1999), pp. 107-135. For Seville cf. Celestino López Martinez, La Santa Hermandad de los Reyes Católicos (Seville 1921), which despite its title covers the entire early modern period to the nineteenth century.

22 The Hermandades’ evolving historical relationships with local inquisition tribunals deserve further attention. Additional materials relevant to the Toledo Hermandad are contained in the Archivo Histórico Nacional (Madrid), sección inquisición (legajos 659-661) as well as sección universidades according to López Martinez, Santa Hermandad p. 4.

23 This was the verdict of Jacques LeGoff in “Ordres mendiants et urbanisation dans la France médiéval” in Annales E.S.C. 25 (1970), p. 927, n. 6.

To cite this essay:

Vose, Robin. “Section 5: Familiars and officials.” Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Notre Dame, 2010. <>