How the Inquisition worked in Brazil | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Research uncovers the mechanism that made it possible for the Santo Oficio Court to establish vast networks of agents in the territory (image: Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, RJ)

How the Inquisition worked in Brazil

February 12, 2014

By José Tadeu Arantes

Agência FAPESP
– How was the Inquisition Court, headquartered in Lisbon, present even in the confines of colonial Brazil, collecting accusations, making arrests, and taking people to be tried in Portugal? To which institutions was the Inquisition related? Which social sector cooperated with it?

These questions inspired the doctoral dissertation “Ecclesiastical Power and Inquisition in the Lush-Brazilian XVIII Century: Agents, Careers, and Mechanisms of Social Promotion,” presented by Aldair Carlos Rodrigues at the Department of History at the School of Philosophy, Letters, and Humanities at the Universidade de São Paulo.  

The study, under the supervision of Laura Mello e Souza as part of the Thematic Project “Dimensions of the Portuguese Empire,” received the CAPES 2013 Award (History) and the CAPES Darcy Ribeiro Grand Prize for Dissertations (covering Humanities, Applied Social Sciences, Linguistics, Letters and Arts, and Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Education) offered by the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) of the Ministry of Education (MEC). 

“The main conclusion was that the Inquisition managed to work in Brazil because it had efficient mechanisms and offered positions that attracted the elite of colonial society. The court did not have a court here, but its activities branched out through a network of agents created in the colony,” said Rodrigues.

According to the researcher, the attraction of this network was the social distinction and the privileges that its members enjoyed. “It was not easy to join the ranks of the Inquisition because the institution had several very exclusive mechanisms. So anyone who could pass through their filter acquired notable social status,” he affirmed.

For members of the elite at the time in both the Iberian Peninsula and the American colonies, it was important to prove the “purity of one’s blood”. This involved proving that one did not belong to one of the “worthless” races (Jews, Muslims, Negros, and indigenous people).

The Inquisition was considered the most rigorous institution for determining “blood purity”. Entering its ranks was the equivalent of presenting all of society with a certificate of “pure blood”. “This made belonging to the Inquisition very attractive. Through the ‘statute of pure blood’, the Inquisition played an important role in the process of forming and structuring the social elite of Brazil during the XVIII century,” commented Rodrigues.

He considers this the major innovation of his study. “The majority of the research on the Inquisition is focused on its victims. My study sought to investigate this other aspect, the social insertion of the Inquisition, and its role in the structuring of Brazilian society in the constitution of hierarchies. These are two complementary approaches. Studying the Inquisition from the angle of social insertion allowed me to understand how this institution could last so long. The Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536 and was only abolished in 1821 in the context of the so-called Liberal Revolution of the Port,” he said.

The beginning of the Inquisition’s activities on the Iberian Peninsula can be best understood when we consider that the States that had formed in this period were founded as faith units. Built in the context of Christians’ fight against Muslims, they deeply identified with the Catholic faith. The survival of other religious persuasions in the same territory kept in check these faith units and, by extension, the political unit.

“The creation of institutions tasked with the violent repression of religious dissidents, like the tribunals of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, emerged in this context,” explained Rodrigues.

The survival of these same courts and their apparatus as late as the first half of the XIX century –not only in Iberian metropoles but also in the American colonies – demands another type of explanation. In this case, the social attractions as a result of the application of “blood purity statutes” and a series of privileges such as tax exemptions help to explain how this institution was able to structure a vast network of agents that perpetuated its operations.

“The stamp of ‘pure blood’ that belonging to the ranks of the Inquisition afforded was an enormous attraction to colonial elites – both those that were consolidated and the emerging ones. To have an idea, according to my research on the XVIII century, there were approximately 200 commissioners of the Inquisition in the ecclesiastic sector. At the same time, the number of civil agents linked to the institution reached approximately 2,000, 457 of them in Minas Gerais alone,” Rodrigues emphasized.

According to Rodrigues, these civil agents, called “Santo Oficio families”, were mainly people who contributed to the commercial activities but did not have social status. For such people, entering the Inquisition was a quick and efficient form of social ascension.

“When we focus the analysis solely on the number of people sentenced, the Inquisition’s mechanisms of profound insertion into the social schemes of the day tend to go unnoticed. My research made me realize that this institution was much more rooted in colonial society than what was imagined,” he said.

Rodrigues spent nearly nine months studying the vast documentation in the archive of the Tower of Tombo in Lisbon, first with the support of the Camões Institute (Cathedral Jaime Cortesão) and later with FAPESP funding. One of the focuses of this study was the communications system established between the Inquisition Court in Lisbon and the ecclesiastical network installed in Brazil.

“I studied 1,165 registers of correspondence issued in the XVIII century. One can observe that there was an efficient communication system linking the Lisbon Court to the territory of Brazil, using a system profoundly rooted in the institutional hierarchy of the dioceses,” he said.

“Each diocese was split into several ecclesiastical counties, which did not necessarily coincide with civil counties. The counties, on the other hand, split into parishes, and the parishes into chapels. When the Inquisition distributed a printed edict with the objective of collecting accusations, this edict had to be read at the end of this mass and then affixed on the doors of the church or the sacristy, remaining there until a new edict was released,” he added.

In the case of the Mid-South, the edicts arrived in Rio de Janeiro and were distributed throughout the region. From the headquarters of the diocese, the prints reached the ecclesiastical counties. “The Cleansweep Vicar” was the main agent of the country, and he directed these edicts to the parishes. The priests distributed them to the chapels. When the chaplain read the edict, he had to sign a receipt and, in some cases, even note the time the document was read.

“This mechanism allowed the Inquisition from Lisbon to have full knowledge of the entire path followed by the correspondence. Over time, this flow was gradually optimized,” affirmed Rodrigues.

Furthermore, there was cooperation from the episcopal justice. The agents of bishops were not involved in the persecution of “crimes of heresy”, only of “moral delicts.” However, when faced with suspicions of heresy in the instances of episcopal courts, they transmitted the accusation to Lisbon. The prelates had supplementary mechanisms for the imposition of Catholic orthodoxy: “the diocesan visits.”

“The bishop travelled throughout his diocese from community to community, inspecting the behavior of the clergy and the population. One of the functions was to check the doors of the church or sacristies to verify if the edicts of the Inquisition were affixed there. If they were not, there were penalties to punish those responsible for this ‘failure’. This allowed the inquisitor in Lisbon to have control of even the very doors of the church in Brazil,” emphasized Rodrigues.

This mechanism, previously little known, was uncovered in Rodrigues’ dissertation. “I hope that my work contributes to the reformulation of didactic books, eliminating the false idea that the Inquisition was practically nonexistent in Brazil,” he affirmed.

Publication of the work as a book was also funded by FAPESP and will be released in 2014.

Top prizes

In addition to the major award received by Rodrigues, CAPES gave two other large awards. Priscila Pini Zenatti of the Graduate Program in Genetic and Molecular Biology at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), who is currently a FAPESP post-doctoral fellow, received the Zeferino Vaz Grand Prize for Dissertations in Biological Sciences, Health Sciences, and Agrarian Sciences and Multidisciplinary – Environmental Sciences with the dissertation “Study on the IL-7R in Pediatric Acute Lymphoid Leukemia of the T-Line.”

Jonas Maziero, of the Graduate Program in Physics at the Universidade Federal do ABC (UFABC), received the CAPES Álvaro Alberto da Mota e Silva Grand Prize for Dissertations in Engineering, Exact and Earth Sciences, and Multidisciplinary Sciences – Materials and Biotechnology with the thesis “Quantification, Dynamics, Testimonies and Applications of Quantum Discordance.”

More information on the CAPES 2013 Grand Prize for Dissertations:



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