National Library finds rare 18th-century text detailing Portuguese Inquisition

Centuries-old manuscript, recounting more than 100 years of hearings and brutal executions of individuals accused of practicing Judaism and other ‘sins,’ is now digitized online

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

A page from the manuscript describing autos-da-fé trials in Lisbon from 1540-1669, during the Portuguese Inquisition. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
A page from the manuscript describing autos-da-fé trials in Lisbon from 1540-1669, during the Portuguese Inquisition. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

An 18th-century document detailing the activities of the Portuguese Inquisition, which punished people for upholding Jewish traditions and committing other transgressions, has been found by the National Library of Israel and made available online, the library announced.

The library’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People on Wednesday publicized the 60-page document written in Portuguese, which mainly recounts public hearings and executions taking place between 1540 and 1669, most of them in Lisbon called autos-da-fé, which were carried out by the Catholic Church. The manuscript was found in the library’s archives.

The victims detailed in the documents were mostly then-recently converted Christians accused of maintaining their Jewish customs, but also included “Old Christians” found guilty of committing acts of “sodomy, bigamy, possession of forbidden books, and sacrilege,” the library’s statement said.

The inquisition began in 1536, as a response to a surge of forcibly converted Jews crossing into the country from neighboring Spain, where they were fleeing similar atrocities. The hearings and executions carried on for more than two centuries and were considered acts of penance for the accused. The public spectacles brought large crowds who came to watch the brutal executions carried out, which included so-called sinners being burned alive by the authorities.

The archive’s director, Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, said the rare findings “shed light on the realities of a complex chapter in Jewish history” and the rigorous nature of the church’s enforcement of its rules.

“We hope the newly discovered document will help scholars better investigate this fascinating and difficult period of history,” he added.

An illustration of an auto-da-fé in Lisbon during the Portuguese Inquisition, which began in 1536 and was abolished in 1821. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

The manuscript goes into specific detail about the autos-da-fé, including victim counts, dates, locations and even the names of the priests who spoke at the public spectacles.

The rituals were finally officially abolished in 1821.

Beginning in 2015, Portugal and Spain announced that anyone who could prove they descended from Sephardim — Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 1492 as a result of the Inquisition — could apply for citizenship.

In March 2020, the Portuguese parliament approved an annual memorial day for victims of the atrocities, held on March 31.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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