Introduction to Autos De Fe
Inquisition sentences, unlike the secret trials themselves, were intended to be widely publicized both as an example to others and as an assertion of the tribunals’ claims to power and righteousness. In medieval times trials normally concluded with a sermo generalis, essentially the forerunner of the early modern auto de fe [Portuguese auto da fé, lit. “act of faith”]; a public spectacle in which the reconciled demonstrated their penitence, lists of charges and sentences were read out, and preachers held forth on edifying subjects (generally a sermon touching on the theological necessity to punish wrongdoing) before unfortunate convicts were led off to receive their various punishments.1 Throughout, the Christian faithful gathered together to demonstrate their piety and to learn spiritually beneficial lessons; if they also experienced thrills of horror and titillation while watching their neighbors’ misfortune that was perhaps inevitable. Actual performance of physical or capital punishment—the public lashings and burnings that drew such large audiences in medieval and early modern times—was carried out after the conclusion of the sermo or auto proper, by secular authorities in a location at some remove from the site of the inquisition’s solemn penancing rituals. Preserving the pious fiction that the Church shed no blood, prisoners sentenced to death were merely “relaxed” to the secular arm.
Written records may have been kept and circulated to describe some medieval sermones generales, but they have not survived to modern times. Instead there seems to have been a gradual move from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries towards the development of increasingly sophisticated means of communicating the inquisition’s public message through dissemination of auto de fe relaciones and other types of documentation by inquisition officials themselves, their supporters, and in some cases even their opponents. This shift parallels broader trends in early modern communications history. Printing gradually became more and more normative and influential, experiments in terms of layout and presentation were essayed, while all levels of society came to expect and to consume records of important events (“news”) at an ever-increasing rate.2 Such documentation also reveals the great diversity with which autos de fe were celebrated in different times and places, from massive, lengthy and hugely expensive ceremonies featuring royal appearances and multiple executions, to small private affairs in which a handful of penitents received only minor punishment for their sins. By studying the means by which inquisition officials sought to record and publicize these key events, we can learn much about what they did, but also why they did it and how they wished for it to be remembered.
An infamous series of Spanish autos circa 1560, in which numerous high-ranking figures allegedly connected to alumbradismo, Protestantism and other outlawed religious views were targeted and in some cases put to death, seems to have marked a turning point in the writing of auto relaciones. Descriptions of these autos were apparently written by anonymous eyewitnesses and can be found in a great many manuscript copies [INQ 51]. The initial genesis of such texts is obscure, but evidently they caught the public imagination and circulated widely at a more or less informal level; most of the surviving exemplars seem to have been copied into private collections of curiosities in the eighteenth century (presumably with lines of manuscript transmission dating back to sixteenth century originals).3 Some may have been made for Protestant sympathizers.4 An undated (early eighteenth century?) but remarkably detailed Dutch woodcut depicting Augustín Cazalla’s 1559 Valladolid auto further demonstrates the extraordinary resonance these particular trials had among later generations [INQ 551].
Manuscript records of autos and those who appeared at them continued to be made, dispatched and archived for internal use by the Spanish inquisition through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.5 Personal manuscript copies of relaciones were likely also made from time to time for later autos, but few have survived. In time specially printed relaciones too began to appear, produced by officers of the inquisition itself or by authorized proxies, for the express purpose of commemorating and publicizing especially important autos such as those graced by royal attendance, or those in which a tribunal wished to signal its renewed activity. These documents seem to have been an innovation of Philip IV’s image-conscious reign, beginning in the 1620s, but the precise context of their creation and distribution remains obscure.6 They could be extremely brief, giving nothing more than a quick description of ritual processions and a list of sentences delivered in some cases [INQ 55], while others stretched to more than sixty pages and included embellishments such as prefatory discussions of the inquisition’s history and organizational structure, complete with heraldic illustrations [INQ 57, INQ 565]. Like the early manuscript auto accounts mentioned above, some of these printed texts (and manuscript versions too) eventually found their way into eighteenth-century collections of curiosities.7
In some cases clusters of auto relaciones were published together, as is the case with volumes published in Mexico (ca. 1649) and Mallorca (1691) to commemorate particularly intense periods of inquisitorial persecution there [INQ 52, INQ 62]. Though for the most part describing the activities of Spanish tribunals, elaborate eighteenth-century relaciones were also produced in Peru [INQ 83, 561] and Sicily [INQ 80]. In some instances Spanish relaciones were even published to record autos held in Portugal [INQ 61, INQ 76]. By the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, authors and artists were occasionally commissioned to assemble substantial tomes containing everything from introductory essays and detailed lists of the sentenced malefactors to impressive woodcut images of the proceedings and long lists of personages in attendance by order of rank [INQ 60, INQ 80]. Full texts of sermons preached on these special occasions can also be found in some of the larger relaciones [INQ 60, INQ 80, INQ 561].
In the 1720s a different type of document began to make its appearance. At a time when Spanish inquisition tribunals were redoubling their efforts to prosecute suspected crypto-Jews, a multitude of simpler, smaller-format (and presumably cheaper) relaciones began to be produced and widely circulated. These slender pamphlets (often consisting of no more than a single, four-folio quire) gave only the briefest lists of convicts’ personal information, including crimes and sentences. The events they described tended to be smaller autos particulares celebrated more or less privately in local churches as opposed to the awe-inspiring autos publicos generales. They were produced and sold by a variety of booksellers, apparently for the public market, and many exemplars show signs of having been bound up in larger compilations—whether themed collections of auto de fe relaciones (perhaps for practical use as inspirational reading for local pastors?) or “collections of curiosities” such as those mentioned above.8 They exist by the dozen in the Notre Dame Inquisition collection [INQ 66, etc.; see below] and others such as the Hebrew Union College library. Printed autos are scarce at the Archivo Histórico Nacional, however, suggesting that copies were generally not kept by tribunals themselves or by the Suprema.
Images depicting autos de fe were also made in some instances by order of the inquisitors, as noted above.9 These tend to focus on the solemnity of the event, as with the iconic image of judges and accused facing one another in the royal presence that was produced for a Madrid auto of 1680 [INQ 60]. A painted version of this same scene was also created by the respected artist Francisco Rizi [INQ 553].10 More gruesome images of heretics burning at the stake tend to be the work of Protestant polemicists seeking to discredit the institution [INQ 552], though in at least one instance such an image actually formed part of an official relación commissioned by the tribunal of Sicily in 1724 [INQ 80].
By the mid-eighteenth century printed relaciones seem to have fallen out of favor, though informal manuscript accounts continued to be produced [INQ 84, INQ 27]. Publishers interested in furthering the “Black Legend” image of inquisitorial horror also continued to circulate accounts of both recent [INQ 153] and long-ago auto de fe events (on this topic, see also Polemics and histories). Contemporary descriptions of the massive 1610 witchcraft trials at Logroño in the Basque country were published in multiple new nineteenth-century editions [INQ 85, INQ 88];11 many re-editions of Joseph Olmo’s fulsome 1680 Madrid relación (both with and without fold-out illustrations) have also appeared since 1820 [INQ 86, INQ 87, INQ 90, INQ 91].
Where Spanish inquisition officials and their supporters produced descriptive relaciones and lists of sentences, their Portuguese counterparts preferred to publish sermon texts as a means of conveying their ideological message. Sermons were undoubtedly preached at all general autos, but the printed auto da fé sermon seems to have developed as a uniquely Portuguese genre in the seventeenth century [INQ 53, etc.; see below].12 Where the form and content of Spanish auto sermons can often only be guessed at,13 extant Portuguese sermons are numerous enough to permit not only analysis of doctrinal content preached at a given event but also to develop a sense of the Portuguese inquisition’s generalized public discourse.14 Though some may have been printed on the author’s own initiative rather than that of an inquisition tribunal itself, it would be safe on the whole to consider these documents to be the more or less “official” voice of the Portuguese inquisition.
Apart from some exceptional works from the Goa inquisition in India,15 Portuguese auto da fé sermons tend to be quite formulaic in format, tone and content.16 Physically, they are more or less uniform: slender volumes of about 10 to 20 unassuming paper folios measuring approximately 190mm by 130mm, unbound or with a variety of simple bindings (likely added to suit the needs of later owners).17 Beginning like all sermons with a Biblical quote, they quickly developed their theme into a strong anti-Jewish message, often delivered in a blistering second-person oratory as if chiding the penitents themselves as well as any secret Jews who might be lurking in the audience. Anti-Jewish polemic is supported in these printed versions with scholarly marginal notes, citing Biblical and Patristic authorities above all but also—significantly—medieval anti-Jewish sources such as the famous Letter of Rabbi Samuel and the De Arcanis Catholicae Veritatis of Petrus Galatinus (Pietro Colonna Galatino), through which sermon authors could quote Talmudic and Rabbinic material lifted from Ramon Martí’s Pugio fidei. Further study of these sermons and their sources will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on the state of (anti-) Jewish studies in Portuguese university circles of the time.18
The efforts made to print these sermons (which often appeared within weeks of their original delivery) seems to indicate a special zeal on the part of the 17th century Portuguese Church to promote anti-Jewish arguments broadly among the populace. Not only were such sermons to be read at auto da fé mass gatherings; they were made available for repeat consultations by a primary audience of priests and theologians who might in turn utilize the sermons’ ideas and authorities in their own work. Yet others also obtained and read copies of these sermons in ways unintended by the inquisitors. A 1705 sermon preached by Diogo da Annunciazam Justiniano at Lisbon, for example, was apparently smuggled out of the country by (or for) members of the London Sephardic Jewish community. Subsequently re-printed and distributed in an undated false imprint, the pirated sermon text was accompanied by a learned theological rebuttal from the famed London rabbi David Nieto (d. 1728) for manifestly anti-inquisition polemical purposes [INQ 64].
Clearly auto de fe relaciones, while offering concrete data on prisoners and trials complementary to that of the relaciones de causas and other trial documentation (see Trials and sentencing), also have their own stories to tell. Along with the printed sermons of the Portuguese autos da fé, these carefully-constructed representations of the inquisition at work reveal a great deal about the institution, its self-perception, and the ideology it wished to present to others. Evolving over time, and varying from region to region, these valuable primary sources offer a multitude of new avenues through which to study the history of the Spanish, Portuguese and other early modern inquisitions.
1 The sermo generalis is described in Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (New York 1888), vol. 1, pp. 389-393. For an overview of the auto de fe, including much information on the textual representations discussed here, see Francisco Bethencourt, The Inquisition: a global history, 1478-1834 (1995; tr. Jean Birrell, Cambridge 2009), pp. 246-315; also Consuelo Maqueda Abreu, El auto de fe (Madrid 1992).
2 Much has been written on the implications of the “print revolution” in early modern history, especially on religious history; see for example Elizabeth Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe (Cambridge 1979). On related histories of the book, and of reading, see more recently Guglielmo Cavallo & Roger Chartier (eds.), A History of Reading in the West (1995; tr. Lydia Cochrane, Boston 1999). The rise of the Iberian relación as a written record of everything from royal processions and bullfights to inquisition autos is treated in José Simón Díaz, Relaciones breves de actos publicos celebrados en Madrid de 1541 a 1650 (Madrid 1982).
3 See in addition to the Notre Dame copy (whose pagination shows it too to have once been part of a larger volume), Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid MS 721, ff. 95-115—a volume once owned by king Philip V—MS 947, ff. 175-202, etc. Also British Library, London, Egerton MS 568L, p. 231 among many others. The nature and history of these collections remains obscure but their varied contents suggest that they were assembled by well-to-do antiquarians with a taste for matters religious, philosophical and political. An exemplary copy of a relación for the auto of September 24, 1559 was published by Pedro Roca in the Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas y Museos 3:8 (1903), pp. 215-218.
4 British Library, Cotton Vespasian C. vii., ff. 238r-239r contains a manuscript account in English of an auto held at Seville in 1562.
5 See for example the thick volume entitled Libro de Autos de Fe, 1648-1794, now Archivo Histórico Nacional, Inquisición, Legajo 1, expediente 1. Bethencourt, The Inquisition pp. 293-294 also mentions printed auto lists, presumably for internal use, that were “an early experiment… abandoned in the 1620s”.
6 The fact that such texts were printed at all suggests that they were intended for public consumption, but it seems unlikely that their audience would have been very broad.
7 See for example British Library Egerton MS 1887L, which contains several printed relaciones (1624 Madrid, ff. 28r-29v; 1627 Cordoba ff. 30r-34v etc.) bound together with manuscript accounts from multiple autos of 1559 (Valladolid, ff. 1r-22r), 1630 (Toledo, ff. 35r-v), 1692 (Seville, ff. 36r-38v) and so on. Henry Charles Lea seems to have obtained something of the sort in his Memoria de diversos autos de Inquisición, described on pp. 592-611 of vol. 1 of A History of the Inquisition of Spain (1906; repr. New York 1922). Lea used this eighteenth-century manuscript collection as a major source for early autos despite its unknown provenance; more research needs to be done into the history of this type of collection.
8 Several editions include advertisements for bookshops such as that of Manuel de los Rios in Seville, “donde se hallàran todos los Autos de Fè” [INQ 76]. Bethencourt, The Inquisition pp. 293-294 notes that Isidro Joseph Serrete’s shop in Madrid stocked sixty different relaciones. For an example of an auto de fe collection promiscuously binding this sort of mass-produced eighteenth-century printed text along with earlier seventeenth-century productions and manuscripts, see British Library, Egerton MS 1887L.
9 María Victoria González de Caldas, “Nuevas imágenes del Santo Oficio en Sevilla: el auto de fe” in Ángel Alcala (ed.), Inquisición española y mentalidad inquisitorial (Barcelona 1984), pp. 237-265.
10 María Victoria Caballero Gómez, “El Auto de Fe de 1680: un lienzo para Francisco Rizi” in Revista de la Inquisición 3 (1994), pp. 69-140.
11 On the celebrated 1610 trials see Gustav Henningsen, The Witches’ Advocate: Basque witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (Reno 1980) and ibid. (ed.), The Salazar Documents (Leiden 2004).
12 A few Spanish sermons connected to other aspects of the Inquisition have been preserved in similar printed formats; see for example INQ 564, a sermon in celebration of a new Banned Book Index. Printed at Madrid in 1640, it is identical in physical dimensions to the Portuguese auto sermons discussed here, differing only in its topic and language. Cf. a sermon delivered on the occasion of a new “edicto de la fee” at Tehuacan (Mexico) in 1695, now BX 1740 .M6 T6 Mendel at the Lilly Library (Bloomington IN).
13 There are noteworthy exceptions in the case of well-recorded major autos as noted above [INQ 60, 80, 561]. Other isolated examples may be found in non-inquisition sources; for example a sermon preached by St. Luis Bertrán at a Valencian auto in 1579 was preserved in his collected works (Las obras, y sermons, que predicò, y dexò escritos el glorioso padre, y apostolic varon San Luis Bertran de la sagrada orden de predicadores (Valencia 1690), vol. 2, pp. 317-322).
14 See the lists in Edward Glaser, “Portuguese Sermons at autos-da-fé: Introduction and Bibliography” in Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 2 (1955), pp. 53-78 and 96; also R.E. Horch, Sermões Impressos dos Autos da Fé (Rio de Janeiro 1969) for copies held in Brazil’s Fundação Biblioteca Nacional at Rio. Emil Van der Vekene lists approximately 75 such sermons in his Bibliotheca Bibliographica Historiae Sanctae Inquisitionis (Liechtenstein 1992) vol. 1, pp. 251-253, mostly preserved in Portugal and the Catholic University of America (Washington DC).
15 See for example Hebrew Union College INQ #0157, an unusually lengthy (124 pp.) Sermam do auto da fe contra a Idolatria do Oriente preached by the Dominican Antonio Pereyra in 1672. This work is clearly focused on condemning Indian religion instead of Judaism; it was shipped to Lisbon and finally printed there on the initiative of the Order in 1685. Not all Goan sermons were so distinctive however. HUC INQ #050 is a more traditional 1628 printing of a sermon originally delivered at Goa in 1617 by fr. Manoel da Encarnaçam of the same Order. It is marked only by its near-exclusive reliance on Aquinas as an authority, perhaps reflective of the dearth of library resources available to Preachers in the East at this time. More comparative work on these sermons is required.
16 Edward Glaser, “Invitation to Intolerance: A study of the Portuguese sermons preached at autos-da-fe” in Hebrew Union College Annual 27 (1956), pp. 327-385; also Robin Vose, “The Inquisition in Its Own Words: Portuguese auto-da-fé Sermons as Historical Sources” in Wout van Bekkum & Paul Cobb (eds.), Strategies of Medieval Communcal Identity: Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Leuven 2004), pp. 87-108.
17 Many auto sermons in the Notre Dame collection were clearly rebound long after printing, and several show signs of having been collected at some point into larger volumes [INQ 56, 59]. Some can also be found among collected sermons on a variety of topics; see for example British Library Add 28483 (a seventeenth or eighteenth-century manuscript collection of Portuguese sermons, with auto sermon on ff. 215r-219r). Cf. the Sermoens varios of Christovam de Almeida (Lisbon 1673-1686), with auto sermon in vol. 4, pp. 260-297 [same as INQ 59, first published on its own in 1664]; thanks to Cecilia Mushenheim at the Marian Library, University of Dayton for providing me with a copy of this work.
18 It may be significant, for example, that one of the few Pugio fidei MSS remaining today is a very early Portuguese university copy (now Coimbra BU 720). See Kaeppeli vol. 4, p. 245 (corr. from vol. 3, p. 282); also J. Chorão Lavajo, Cristianismo e Islamismo na península ibérica, Raimundo Martí um precursor do diálogo religioso (3 vol. diss., University of Evora, 1988).
To cite this essay:
Vose, Robin. "III. Autos de fe."Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Notre Dame, 2010. <https://inquisition.library.nd.edu/genre-autos-de-fe-introduction>