At his trial in 1633 Galileo was threatened with torture. I was surprised that the Inquisition was still using such a barbaric practice at so late a date, I always associate it with the Medieval_ Inquisition, the religious wars of the C16 etc. rather than the Age of Enlightenment. However I then found mention of John Coustos being 'racked' by the Portugese Inquisition in 1743. Pope Pius VII finally abolished the practice in 1816 but I assume, perhaps naïvely, that it's use had declined by then. On the other hand, it may be that the Papal bull of 1816 was needed to prevent something that was still in use?

So when did the Catholic Inquisition actually stop using torture? Is there a documented last use of this horrible practice?

  • 4
    After the end of the religious wars and the rise of national states in continental Europe, the papal inquisition lost most of its capacity to prosecute heresy to national jusrisdictions. After 1600, there was no longer a "Catholic Inquisition". Three separate institutions remained that were overseen by the pope: the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, and the Holy Roman Inquisition (with jurisdiction over the Church State). All three were used as intruments to stop the spread of protestantism – the state religion in half of Europe – from spreading to their territory.
    – ccprog
    Aug 7, 2023 at 14:54
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    It would be very interesting to put the Inquisition's de facto use and de jure power to use torture against the de facto and de jure status of torture in European governments. I doubt you can really understand the former without knowing the latter which underlay peoples' understanding at the time.
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 11, 2023 at 0:17

1 Answer 1


This is a partial answer pertaining to the Spanish Inquisition only. It is wholly based on the book:

Jean-Antoine Llorente, Histoire critique de l'Inquisition d'Espagne, Vols. 1-4, Paris 1817-1818.

Google provides scans of vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4. Don Juan Antonio Llorente, the author of this book ("A critical history of the Spanish Inquisition") was formerly secretary of the Inquisition of the Court and wrote it in self-imposed French exile. He based it on original documents from the archives of the Supreme Council and the subordinate tribunals of the Holy Office.

In volume 1, pp. 305 & 306 he states that torture had factually been abolished for quite some time:

Il est certain que la torture n'a pas été décrétée depuis long-temps par les inquisiteurs, de manière qu'on peut aujourd'hui la regarder comme abolie par le fait; le fiscal lui-même serait souvent fâché qu'on l'ordonnât, et s'il la demande, c'est pour suivre l'exemple de ses prédécesseurs: toutefois, il n'y a pas moins de cruauté à la faire craindre [...]

Translation: "It is certain that torture has not been decreed by the inquisitors for a long time, such that one can regard it as de facto abolished today; the prosecutor himself would often be angry that it should be ordered, and if he asks for it, it is to follow the example of his predecessors: however, there is no less cruelty in making [a prisoner] fear it [...]"

However, in the same volume, p. 309, Llorente makes it clear that torture has not been abolished de jure as of the time of writing:

Ma plume se refuse à retracer le tableau de ces horreurs; car je ne connais rien de plus opposé, que cette conduite des inquisiteurs, à l esprit de charité et de compassion que Jesus Christ recommande si souvent aux hommes dans l'Evangile; et cependant, malgré ce scandale, il n'existe encore, après le 18e siècle, aucune loi ni aucun décret, qui ait aboli la torture.

Translation: "I refuse to provide a more detailed description of these horrors, as I know nothing more opposed to the spirit of charity and compassion Jesus Christ recommends so often to men in the Gospels than this behavior of the inquisitors; and yet, despite this scandal there still exists, even after the close of the 18th century, no law or decree which has abolished torture."

Presumably Llorente was not yet aware of the papal decree of 1816 when he wrote this. In volume 4, p. 169 he has caught up to the latest developments:

Une lettre de Rome, du 31 mars 1816, annonce que Sa Sainteté vient d'abolir la torture dans tous les tribunaux du Saint Office, et qu'elle a fait communiquer cette résolution aux ambassadeurs d'Espagne et de Portugal. Une seconde lettre de la même capitale du 17 avril suivant, donne plus de détails, et mérite d être insérée ici, malgré son étendue:

Translation: "A letter from Rome, dated March 31, 1816, announces that His Holiness has just abolished torture in all the tribunals of the Holy Office, and that he has communicated this decision to the ambassadors of Spain and Portugal. A second letter from the same capital that followed on April 17 provides more details, and deserves to be inserted here in spite of its length:"

While Llorente's book presents a number of historical cases in which torture was used, I have not been able to identify a last documented instance of torture in it as the work is quite voluminous. It should be noted that, after being briefly abolished during Napoleonic times, the Spanish Inquisition continued as an institution until 1834.


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