Skeletons of Jewish victims of Inquisition discovered in Portugal

Example of Spanish Inquisition violence in 16th Century Valladolid. Credit: Jan Luykens.

A dozen skeletons found in a rubbish dump were Jewish victims of Portugal’s Inquisition, according to researchers.

The excavation team uncovered the remains in Evora, east of Lisbon, at the former Jail Cleaning Yard of the Inquisition Court. The dump functioned between 1568 and 1634. Inquisition manuscripts confirmed that 87 prisoners died when the jail was in use.

The three male and nine female victims died with no funeral rights or burial goods. Researchers noted that “the sediment surrounding the skeletons is indistinguishable from the household waste layer where they were placed, suggesting that the bodies were deposited directly in the dump”. In death, the humiliation compounded those accused of being Jewish or heretics.

Pope Gregory IX created the Inquisition in 1233, after a period of consolidation in Europe,  to ensure heretics did not undermine papal authority. For example, they branded the Cathers and Waldensians heretics for their metaphysical Christian beliefs.

Suspicion followed Jewish converts; some believed they continued to practice Judaism in secret. A converso faced fines, imprisonment or burning at the stake if found guilty of practising their old faith.

Under the Inquisition, the accused had no right to face or question their accuser; it validated the testimonies of criminals and the excommunicated. It sought ought so-called heretics, nothing about the movement proved passive.

In 1391, following a series of riots in Spain, 20,000 faced the prospect of embracing Catholicism under pain of death. Though some sought to continue pracitising their Jewish faith in secret. Later generations still attended Bar Mitzvahs and attended circumcisions.

By the 15th century, converting to Catholicism in Spain carried the promise of social mobility. By 1492, Spain forced its Jewish communities into exile, some went to the Ottoman Empire, others moved to Portugal. But the arrival of the Inquisiton provided fresh challenges.

Seeking Iberian unification with Spain, King Manuel I  decreed expulsion for the Jews and Muslims (Moors) who did not convert to Christianity within ten months. That rhetoric did not reflect his intentions to pursue an integrationist policy until his death in 1521.

His successor, King João III, founded an institutionalised Inquisition in 1536, after gaining the blessing of Pope Paul IV. A few years later and the Pope reformed the Roman Inquisition in 1542.

In 1998, scholars held a conference at the Vatican on the Inquisition. The fruits of that discussion turned into a 800 page report published in 2004. Its editor, Professor Agostino Borromeo, argued that of the 125,000 cases tried by the Spanish Inquisition, only 1 per cent resulted in the death penalty.

In Germany, they argue, more male and female “witches” died at the hands of separate civilian trials in the early 15th century. Of a population of 16 million, 25,000 died. In Lichtenstein, 10 per cent of the 3,000 faced death for witchcraft.

In spite of Borromeo’s claims, in 2000, Pope John Paul II made a sweeping apology (in all but name) for the sins committed in the Crusades, Inquisition, and Holocaust.

Historian António José Saraiva noted that at least 40,000 Portuguese were charged. Of that number, at least 1,200 died. Portugal’s Jewish communities totalled 400,000 during the Inquisition. In constrast, the modern figure stands at just 600. Spain and Portugal enacted the right of return for Sephardic communities in 2013.

Researchers added that it was impossible to know conclusively if the skeletons were Jews.