A digital approach to the Early Modern inquisition in Portugal

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Sometimes a word evokes almost automatically an association with a distinct historical period. The word inquisition is first and foremost linked with medieval Europe. On this blog and website I explain why speaking about the inquisition is misleading. In Early Modern Europe the Spanish and Italian inquisition received most attention from historians, but in Italy you have to distinguish between Rome and Venice. Recently the project TraPrInq started for the transcription and study of records of the inquisition in Portugal between 1536 and 1821. The project is accompanied by the blog e-Inquisition hosted by the international Hypotheses network. In this post I will look at the plans of the project team and its importance for studying both Portuguese and Brazilian history.

Records from four centuries

The blog for TraPrInq itself show nicely how much this project is in a starting phase. While preparing this post its layout changed. At the blog a concise presentation of the project is offered in French, Portuguese and English. The core of the current team is the Centro de Humanidades (CHAM) at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Alas I could not find any information about this project running in 2022 and 2023 at the website of the CHAM. However, it is stated TraPrInq is connected with an earlier CHAM project on censorship and the Portuguese inquisition. One of the main objectives is to create transcriptions of court records using the Transkribus technology, discussed here earlier in a post about Early Modern court records and legal consultations in Germany. In fact Hervé Baudry, the blog editor, is responsible for the Transkribus model for Latin-Portuguese print from the seventeenth century. By the way, this and other models are also present for free use without registration at the recently launched platform Transkribus AI.


As for now 140 records have been transcribed, good for some 190,000 words, a fair base for a HTR (Handwritten Text Recogniition) model in Transkribus. I was somewhat mystified by the utter absence of information about the actual location of the records to be transcribed and studied. The clue for a unmistakable identification is the fact the records stem from a tribunal with jurisdiction both in Portugal and Brazil. The Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (ANTT) in Lisbon is the holding institution. It is not a bad idea to start with one of its four virtual exhibitions concerning the inquisition in Portugal. preferably with Inquisição da Lisboa online telling you about the nearly 20,000 registers for which 2,3 million digital images have been put online. The ANTT has within the archive of the Tribunal de Santo Oficio (TSO) records of the Inquisição de Lisboa (IL). The scope note and inventory in Portuguese of this archival subfonds is available online at the :Portuguese Digitarq portal. Series 028 contains the processos. Digital images of documents are directly linked to numerous items.

Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the Portuguese inquisition I tried to look a bit wider for information about its archival traces. The wiki of FamilySearch brings you only to records for a few years digitized earlier and available at SephardicGen. The online inventory of the ANTT is mentioned by Family Search, but not its inclusion of digitized records. It is a nice exercise to compare versions of the relevant Wikipedia articles in English, Portuguese and Spanish, in particular for their bibliographies and linguistic preferences. Luckily I found a special of the Brazilian journal Politeia: Historie e Sociedade 20/1 (2021) with a Dossiê Temático Tribunal do Santo Ofício Português, 200 anos após extinção: História e Historiografia opening with a contribution by Grayce Mayre Bonfim Souza about the archive of the Tribunal do Santo Oficio.

Let me not forget to note here the CHAM has created an online index of the fonds Manuscritos do Brasil held at the ANTT. The e-Inquisition blog contains currently apart from the brief introduction five articles,four in Portuguese and one in English touching a wide variety of themes, The recent brief article in English brings you an overview of the palaeographers and historians in the project team. Baudry wrote for example about censorship in the books of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa and (in French) about the famous trial of Manuel Maria de Barbosa du Bocage, with images and transcriptions of four documents. Baudry’s article about Pedro Lupina Freire brings a seventeenth-century notary into the spotlights who became an agent for the tribunal. A most fascinating article is concerned with the double use of asterisks by censors, both to hide information and to highlight matters.

No doubt more information about the TraPrInq project will soon appear at the e-Inquisition blog and at the website of the CHAM, in particular concerning the progress at Transkribus of the creation of the new HTR model for Portuguese Early Modern script, and the location where transcriptions will become available online for the wider scholarly community. Thanks to this transcription project the records of the Inquisição de Lisboa will surely show more of their rich content touching many parts of the Early Modern world, not just Jewish and colonial history. The combination of a detailed inventory, digitized images and digital transcriptions will make it possible to ask different questions. This project shows at least the very real need for trained palaeographers, but I am sure the knowledge of legal historians, too, will be necessary to tap this wealth of information.

An addendum

In Spring 2022 the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal held the exposition Bibliotecas limpas. Censura dos livros impressos nos séculos XV a XIX curated by Hervé Baudry. The virtual exposition Bocage 1735-1805 created by the BN brings you to the life and works of this poet; the chronology mentions his trial in 1802.

Censorship by the Portuguese inquisition is the subject of the portal Inquisition in Action launched on June 20, 2022 by the CIUHCT, also in Lisbon.

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