History of the World According to the Movies: Part 19 – The Catholic Counter-Reformation


Here is Queen Isabella of Spain played by Rachel Weisz in The Fountain. I chose this picture since Queen Isabella of Spain is one of the few figures in the Catholic Counter-Reformation to be depicted in a positive light since she’s mostly seen being a patron of Christopher Columbus (and that most movies on the Inquisition are usually played for horror). However, unlike most depictions of her including this, she’s also known for starting the Spanish Inquisition we all know as the one of the fiercest villainous organizations depicted on film. Also, there’s no way in hell the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada would’ve ever wanted to assassinate her for since he knew what the penalty would be (while a Grand Inquisitor making an attempt on her life would actually seem more like karma). Also, she was not in love with a Conquistador (and was faithful to her husband King Ferdinand as well as the fact the Conquistadors weren’t around until after she was dead) and certainly didn’t look like that around middle age and seems to retain her figure all too well after ten pregnancies.

Of course, there’s also the Catholic Counter-Reformation which sought to correct certain abuses of the Catholic Church as well as bring the faith back to the people. Of course, the Counter-Reformation was a time of the Inquisitions where many of the leading clerics would round up heretics for torture and trial. The most famous was the Spanish Inquisition which tended to turn out of nowhere from time to time at a random mention uttering “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” then proceeded to torture people with dish racks, fluffy cushions, and comfy chairs (actually this isn’t the one from Monty Python, sorry). Actually the real Spanish Inquisition was a quasi – state and religious organization started by Ferdinand and Isabella that was set to unite Spain under the “new” Catholicism once and for all, which more or less pertained to expelling or persecuting the Jews and Muslims in the area, especially those who converted. Oh, and there were plenty of other Inquisitions to root out heresy as well. You also have the Jesuits under Saint Ignatius Loyola who found a new order of priests devoted to education, spiritual exercises, and total obedience to the Pope. Of course, while this movement exists today, it didn’t always get good press. Then there’s the Catholic mysticism of Saint Theresa of Avila and her order captured most famously in a statue by Bernini. And last but not least, let’s not forget the Council of Trent which helped shaped Catholicism within much of its history before Vatican II. Of course, some reforms would be unmet, but this managed to put some areas of Europe back in the Catholic Church’s hands as well as helped make the Church a more efficient and accountable religious institution. Still, Hollywood rarely touches upon this and sees the Catholic Church during the Reformation as a static and backward institution which doesn’t say the whole truth (I mean you get movies about Martin Luther but you barely have any on Ignatius Loyola or Theresa of Avila). And depictions of the Inquisitions are much worse than they were in real life by 16th century standards (this doesn’t dismiss them as bad guys but they weren’t nearly the monsters you see in the movies). So here are some cinematic inaccuracies relating to the Catholic Reformation.

Catholic Reaction:

Catholic leaders refused to debate or engage Martin Luther. (Some Catholic theologians actually did and in public like Johann Eck.)

Catejan was a cardinal during the conclave that elected Pope Leo X in 1513. (He was made a cardinal four years later.)

Girolamo Aleander was a cardinal during the Diet of Worms. (He wouldn’t become cardinal until 15 years later.)

Catholic Europe was rife with witch burning hysteria. (The real witch-burning hysteria was in Protestant northern Europe where more witches were killed. The Inquisition did their share to prevent such hysteria in Catholic areas.)

Catholic clergymen and leaders were misogynistic. (Maybe, but many Protestant sects were no better since they wanted all women to stay in the kitchen more or less. Oh, and they did raided convents as well as forced nuns to convert and marry in some situations. At least Catholic women had some choice to become nuns if they wanted to. The 16th century wasn’t a good time for women, let’s just leave it at that.)

Catholic priests were all trained assassins in the 16th century. (Yeah, I can believe it. Not really.)


Pope Julius II wore golden armor. (He was a warrior pope who did wear armor, but it wouldn’t have been made out of gold {which is too soft for the battlefield}.)

Pope Julius II was clean shaven. (He had a beard. He also had an illegitimate daughter and was rumored to be gay, strangely.)

Pope Leo X was around in 1525. (He died well before then.)

Pope Julius II was present in Rome when Martin Luther was there. (He wasn’t.)

Pope Leo X put a bounty on Martin Luther’s head. (He actually sent orders that Luther’s safe passage was to be respected.)

The Catholic Church refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon out of moral principles. (The real reason had nothing to do with moral principle as we learn from Lucrezia Borgia’s married life for but then again, her dad was the pope. Also, Henry VIII was in good graces with the Church prior to that time and was given the title “Defender of the Faith,” from Leo X long before he was petitioning for a divorce and knew the pope owed him a favor. However, the reason why the Pope Clement VII didn’t grant Henry VIII a divorce had nothing to do with the fact that he was married but who he was married to and in a loving relationship of over 20 years in fact. Not to mention, annulments were fairly common back then and if Henry VIII was married to anyone else, he probably would’ve obtained it easily. Yet, Clement VII was being held prisoner by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. Also, Henry VIII wasn’t asking for a divorce from the Pope but an annulment so he wouldn’t have his daughter Mary inherit the throne after he died. He didn’t just want to be single again, he wanted Catherine declared a whore and his daughter Mary a bastard. It’s pretty obvious why Charles V didn’t want that done to his aunt. It didn’t really work. Besides, other heirless kings have divorced their wives before. And Pope Clement VII didn’t really refused, but delayed making any decision hoping that either Henry or Charles would die in the process or just wanted Henry to take care of the matter himself, but not in the way he wanted it.)

Henry VIII’s annulment request to the Pope was unusual for its time. (Contrary to what you see in movies, trying to divorce your spouse on grounds of consanguinity was actually very common on among the royals and nobles who could afford it and the fact they married among their own kinds, leaving the marriage pool quite small to begin with. Eleanor of Acquitaine did this by saying that King Louis VII of France on grounds that they were 3rd cousins even though she basically dumped him for a man who was just as closely related to her as he was. And this was a successful case. The only thing that was unusual about Henry’s request is that Catherine of Aragon was his sister-in-law before she was his wife and that he asked for a special dispensation to marry her. And now he was using their former connection to annul their marriage which didn’t go well with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was keeping Pope Clement VII in prison.)

The Borgias:

Pope Alexander VI had five kids. (He’s said to have more than that. Yet, some say that he may not have fathered any kids at all. Still, he’s said to have a descendant named Francis who became a Jesuit and a saint. Also, he’s an ancestor of Brooke Shields.)

Cesare Borgia killed Lucrezia’s second husband Alfonso of Aragon. (He was primarily accused of his brother-in-law’s murder but he had a lot of other enemies, too, so we’re not sure. Also, though the Borgias had a notorious reputation for ruthlessness and murder, they were no more murderous than any other prominent Italian family at the time. They just got a bad rep for being social climbers and Spanish. Oh, and Niccolo Machiavelli’s shout-out to Cesare in The Prince certainly doesn’t help either.)

Lucrezia Borgia had sex with her male relatives. (This most likely never happened and the child born in the Borgia household in 1498 wasn’t Lucrezia’s son.)


The Jesuits were assassins. (They were a priestly order set up by Saint Ignatius Loyola, which helped reinvigorate Catholicism through education and spiritual exercises. Nevertheless, the first Jesuits were ex-soldiers, by the way and called themselves “Soldiers of Christ.”)

The Inqusitions:

The Inquisition was one of the big muscles of oppression during the Counter-Reformation. (Actually the Inquisition began before that and even though it ended in the 1800s, it was off and on. It began in the 1300s, peaked in the 1500s with the Reformation and Spanish Inquisition, and died down way after that. Also, the real muscle for the Counter-Reformation were the Jesuits who helped reclaim areas of Catholicism with education and zeal. Not only that, the Protestants had their ways of oppressing others, too whether they be Catholic, Jewish, or different kind of Protestant.)

The Inquisition consisted of a bunch of witch-hunters who accused people of witchcraft. (Actually the Spanish Inquisition was more interested in condemning heretics {or whatever else the Spanish Crown wanted for sometimes the Spanish Inquisition targeted certain individuals for solely political reasons}. Even at the height of witch craziness, the official Catholic Church position on witchcraft accusations was superstitious nonsense and actually tried to suppress witch-hunts and often investigated the cases of the accused so they can acquit them and calm down the public panic. And the Church had forbidden the belief in witchcraft since the 7th century even though it became more open to it late in the Middle Ages. Not to mention, the Spanish Inquisition was more likely to go after the accusers than the accused unless they were also suspected of heresy. Also, the Spanish Inquisition only executed 12 people for witchcraft {and the inquisitors involved in those were punished}. Not only that, some of the first people to speak out against accusations of witchcraft and torture were priests based on their experiences and did so by pointing out the obvious. However, there were witch burnings in Protestant areas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and witchcraft was considered a crime according to secular law.)

Veronica Franco was accused of witchcraft and was tried by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. It was only by the intervention of the Marco Venier and Venetian senate that she was dismissed of all charges. (Sure, yet even though the Inquisition tried her, they were on her side and would eventually dismiss her of all charges anyway, no matter what the people of Venice did because this was how the Inquisition normally handled witchcraft charges. Thus, she was never in any danger from them. They only arrested and tried her in order to calm down the public hysteria and prove that the notion of witchcraft was just superstitious nonsense.)

The Catholic Church largely supported the Spanish Inquisition, which tortured, persecuted, and slaughtered tens of thousands. (The Spanish Inquisition was mostly operated by the Spanish government and while the Catholic Church hierarchy supported it to a certain extent, but it was the least religiously motivated inquisition though despite its reputation. If it was ever used as a political tool of repression, it was mainly for the Spanish Crown, not the Church. And this Inquisition often focused its surveillance on cities due to limited resources and wasn’t deployed much overseas. They were also highly regulated, didn’t always use torture to extract confessions, and served primarily to educate ordinary people about the faith and how to uphold it, sort of what the Jesuits did. The Spanish Inquisition only executed about 1500-5,000 of the people it tried in its entire existence {mostly because the convict usually fled and burned in effigy}, which was less than how many people were killed executed in Europe for witchcraft at the same time estimated at 60,000. Also, the Spanish Inquisition spent most of their time correcting peasant superstitions, lapses of morality and sexual misconduct, and confronting religious ignorance. Heresy only occupied 3% of their cases, which by Hollywood standards is boring. They also introduced the presumption of innocence, provided legal counsel for the accused, considered confession without factual corroboration unfit grounds for sentence, and were forbidden to accept accusations from ex-convicts or people who could benefit from the sentence. None of that was observed by most secular courts of the period as well as were methodical for gathering and basing their cases on evidence. They also didn’t burn books either despite having a banned books list, the books were widely available. As for torture, it was considered an exceptional method up to the 18th century, just as fines and imprisonment are used today but it wasn’t to a high degree since the Inquisition was forbidden to draw blood during torture. Of course, they didn’t believe in habeas corpus either and the accused could be in prison for two years without knowing his or her accusers were. Actually the notoriety of the Spanish Inquisition was more or less formulated by anti-Catholic propaganda and that Spain was at war with Protestant nations like England and the Netherlands where there was more freedom of speech for its time and the printing press was much more available. So while the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t in any way nice and did persecute people, they were far from the ideal frothing at the mouth villains from Hollywood movies {since they wouldn’t burn people at the stake who were accused of heresy by their neighbors who just didn’t like them}.)

The Spanish Inquisition and the Papal Inquisition were one and the same. (They were completely separate organizations and happened at completely different times.)

The Catholic Church executed heretics during the Counter Reformation and Inquisition under auto da fe (act of faith). (The Church never executed anyone even for heresy since priests were and still are forbidden to shed blood. When they did convict someone, the Church handed him or her to the secular authorities who executed them. Also auto da fe was not the execution itself but the public penance of convicted heretics that occurred before the sentence was to be carried out and many were spared at the last moment if they confessed and repented.)

The Spanish Inquisition was a religious organization that handled only religious cases. (The Spanish also used it as a tool for political repression ran by the state and all cases were reported to the El Escorial first, not the pope. Actually it was mainly used as a tool for political repression and one of the least religiously motivated inquisitions to date. In fact, the very existence of the Spanish Inquisition sort of violated the separation of church and state but then again, there wasn’t much separation in Spain to begin with.)

The Spanish Inquisition was Spain’s muscle to suppress heretical ideas and enforce the old Catholicism on the population. (Actually the Spanish Inquisition was not interested in enforcing the “old” Catholicism as it was promoting the “new” Catholicism, making the country resistant to the Counter-Reformation. And it was also used to Christianize Granada or expel those who didn’t want to convert {or were practicing their old religions in secret}.)

Veronica Franco was tried once by the Inquisition. (She was tried twice for witchcraft and in both she confessed to performing sorcerous rituals to entertain her clients and insisted she didn’t believe them. The Inquisition just said her actions were inappropriate and not do them anymore in each case. Her witchcraft case against the Inquisition was no less ordinary than anyone else’s in Catholic Europe. Oh, and she was denounced by her son’s tutor over revenge since she suspected him of theft of various precious items in her house, not because she bewitched legions of men.)

2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 19 – The Catholic Counter-Reformation

  1. “Anti-Catholic” is the ultimate casuist oxymoron! This country was built to escape their un-Maerican McCarthyite inquisitions. As Queens wiretaps will soon reveal, their politicians all slur Asians, Jews & Blacks. Anyone who knows the cruel, vindictive ending of Vercingetorix, Spartacus and Carthage can only blame Rome for the death of the Messiah. Let them off to Argentina where Croat and Arab Nazis pork for lore enforcement, casuistry and pestilence instead of thinking!

  2. Actually when it comes to our country being built on religious freedom, it was actually founded by English people who didn’t want to be part of the state Church of England which was Protestant, not Catholic. While Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were founded by Protestant nonconformists like Puritans and Quakers, Maryland was originally settled as a haven for English Catholics escaping terrible persecution under the English Crown. So to say that this country was built to escape from the Roman Catholic Church’s Un-American McCarthyite inquisitions is really not very accurate, as far as the original 13 colones are concerned. I could also say the same for the French Louisiana Territory and the Spanish settled American Southwest since they were colonies of Catholic countries. Seriously, you can look it up in any American history textbook. Not to mention, Vercingetorix, Carthage, Spartacus and all that might’ve been doomed by Rome, but that was before Christ. So to equate Rome with the Roman Catholic Church at the time is ridiculous. As for “Anti-Catholic,” it’s not a casuist oxymoron since while it has done bad things and persecuted people in the past, but some people tend to go a bit overboard, sometimes giving the Church a bad rap where it’s not necessary, and that’s all I have to say about that. Still, how Hollywood depicts the Catholic Counter Reformation is just terrible because it really wasn’t just about Inquisitors burning heretics or squaring off with Martin Luther.

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