Inquisitorial Topics: Sodomy and Inquisition

Also known as nefarious sins, abominable or unspeakable crimes. This variety included sexual relations between persons of the same sex.

Inquisitorial Topics: Sodomy and Inquisition
Balboa's dogs against the sodomite indigenous peoples. (De Bry, America pars cuarta..., Amsterdam 1592). Image:

They were also called nefarious sins, abominable or unspeakable crimes. This variety included sexual relations between persons of the same sex; sexual relations between persons of opposite sexes against nature and sexual relations with animals. From the end of the 16th century onwards, inquisitorial documents distinguished sodomy as such from bestial sodomy or bestiality.

The sanctions for these crimes were drastic because it was understood that sex was used against the natural laws established by God, the same laws that are governed by the attraction and complementarity of the opposite sexes, whose use is related to the reproduction of the species. Most of those prosecuted for these crimes were men.

Since time immemorial, and even more so during the Middle Ages, these crimes were considered among the most serious that could be committed. For this reason, long before the existence of the Holy Office, the civil authorities acted against them with the utmost rigor.

Those who committed such offenses - and even those who attempted it - in some places were burned alive, while in Spain they were publicly castrated, after which they were suspended by the feet until they died. The Catholic Monarchs changed this sanction to burning at the stake and confiscation of goods (1497).

In Castile, sodomites were judged by the civil courts. Only in the Kingdom of Aragon, in conformity with a brief of Clement VII (1524), they were judged by the Tribunal of the Inquisition. In the Indies, as in Castile and the other Hispanic dominions, sodomy was a matter for the civil courts.

It should be pointed out that even in Aragon such a crime could be judged indistinctly by the Inquisition or by the other courts of justice, but the perpetrators of such offenses.

"They had a great advantage if they were tried by the Inquisition: it was one of the rare opportunities to save their skin".

The sodomites prosecuted by the Inquisition were treated with energy but, at the same time, with benignity. Thus, the Tribunal recognized extenuating circumstances and the possibility of repentance on the part of the accused. In such cases, his life would be spared but he would be subject to some severe sanction.

This could include imprisonment for a certain period or being sent to the galleys. The banishment, the confiscation of goods, or the imposition of a fine in proportion to the economic situation of the defendant, receiving between 100 and 200 lashes in addition to which spiritual punishments would be received.

On the other hand, the civil courts would apply capital punishment, without any possibility of repentance, if it could be proved that a person had committed such offenses. While in the civil courts every sodomite was condemned to death, in the Inquisition Tribunal only a minority of sodomites were sentenced to death.

For example, in the Court of Valencia, 359 were prosecuted between 1565 and 1785, of which 37 (10.3%) were released. For this reason and with reason Henry Kamen argued years ago:

"In this, the humanity and benignity of the Inquisition contrast sharply with the invariable executions of the accused by the secular courts."