Sentenced to Burn in Effigy

We’re all broadly familiar with the Spanish Inquisition, that fanatical office of the Spanish monarchy that used the Church to hunt down anyone who deviated from Catholicism. And we all know how fond the Inquisition was of burning people at the stake. But what did they do when somebody needed burning, but wasn’t around to be burnt? Then answer: burn them in effigy! It’s a fascinating practice with weird implications for the gaming table.

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Wellcome Collection. Released under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The Spanish Inquisition was a product of the end of the Reconquista (772-1492 A.D.), a seemingly-endless series of wars between the Catholic kingdoms in northern Spain and the Muslim states in southern Spain. As the Reconquista was coming to a close, the new united Catholic kingdom found itself ruling over an Iberian peninsula that was frustratingly full of non-Catholics. Lots of folks were Muslims, of course – much of Spain had been Muslim for almost a millennium. And the Muslim states had a tradition of letting Jews live and practice freely, so there were lots of Jews in Spain too. The fanatically Catholic king and queen of Spain wanted no part of this. They made it clear – convert to Catholicism or get out.

And many converted. For these so-called ‘New Christians’, staying in their homeland was more important than keeping their faith. But the Spanish monarchy was suspicious of these converts. What if they were publicly Catholic, but maintained Jewish or Muslim practices in secret? (And, people being people, many did just that.) Secret Jews, secret Muslims, and ordinary Christian heretics were, in the eyes of the Spanish monarchy, an existential threat to the safety and salvation of the Spanish people. They had to be dealt with.

The goal of the Spanish Inquisition was to seek out and imprison heretics, including Protestants, secret Jews, and secret Muslims. Once imprisoned, these people could be made to see the error of their ways. Those who persisted in their errors, who were unrepentant in their heresy, were burned alive. But sometimes a heretic was unavailable to be burned alive. Often folks skipped town. Failure to appear when summoned by the Inquisition meant you were automatically a heretic, and being a heretic for a year without promising the Inquisition you’d do better automatically made you unrepentant. So a year after someone fled, they were automatically sentenced to burn! Furthermore, a lot of folks accused were already dead! This put the inquisition in a pickle: they had a lot of folks they needed to burn, but couldn’t. The compromise was burning them in effigy.

For a bizarre example, look to the Spanish playwright Antonio Enríquez Gómez. In 1659, he was accused of ‘Judaizing’ (secretly practicing Judaism). He fled, adopted a new identity, and was actually in the crowd at his own burning-in-effigy in Seville in 1660. He was later caught and repented, but died in prison in 1663 while awaiting sentencing. In 1665 he was posthumously ‘reconciled’ (brought back into the Church), again in effigy.

Two effigies on poles. Their tabards feature hellmouths that contain figures that may be acting out their subjects’ sins (sodomy on the left and fornication on the right?).

What did these effigies look like? They were made of plaster or paperboard and were between life-size and half-life-size. Each wore a mask painted by a local artist to resemble the condemned person it represented. Their clothes were also appropriate for their subjects, and usually included a tall, conical hat. Crucially, each effigy bore a tabard over its clothes. This tabard, called a sambenito, was a symbol of heresy. It sported a red ‘X’ on a yellow background. Repentant heretics wore sambenitos in public as a symbol of penance (and humiliation), and condemned heretics wore sambenitos on their way to the stake. The effigies were stuck atop long poles and were marched in a parade to the burning fields outside of town to be lit on fire.

If money was tight or if there were too many effigies for a convenient procession, the dummies could be made ‘Janus-faced’. Each effigy would do double duty for two heretics, and would have two painted masks, one on each side of its head.

If the person the effigy represented was already dead, their bones needed to be burned too. Sometimes, their coffin was carried behind the effigy as part of the procession. Other times, the bones were placed in a box held in the effigy’s hands. Sometimes the bones were placed inside the effigy itself!

A sambenito in close-up. Detail from For Having Been Born in Other Parts by Francisco Goya.

This has been weird so far, but it’s going to get weirder. I turn your attention to a case out of the Mexican Inquisition in 1578. Mexico, at the time ‘New Spain’, had its own small branch of the Inquisition that operated under the same principles. One morning, everyone in the tiny town of Tecamachalco woke up to find an effigy had been hung in the doorway of the village church. It was made of an Indian wool cloth, stuffed with hay, and wore a sambenito. It had two faces, one painted on each side of the head. One face had a tongue stitched onto it that was forked like a snake’s. The other face was gagged. One hand held a distaff and spindle (used to spin thread), and beneath the effigy was a pile of firewood.

In the effigy’s other hand, there was a letter written in a fancy gothic script only used by professional scribes. It read, “I, the great feudal lord of Mount Calvary, Rubio Naranjo, as the lord of this town, order all the neighbors to present me with all my forebears’ property, which are the coats of arms of the most blessed San Benito. No one is more worthy to have them than me, thanks to my great deeds, which are known to everyone. Signed Hernando Rubio Naranjo.”

The setup was dense with symbolism.

  • Hernando Rubio Naranjo was a wealthy man in Tecamachalco and well-known as a womanizer, a braggart, and a cad. No one liked him.

  • San Benito is a pun. It’s Spanish for ‘St. Benedict’, the noted 6th century monk, but it’s also an obvious play on ‘sambenito’.

  • While the sambenito was worn by all heretics, it was especially associated with Judaizers (secret Jews) in the popular imagination.

  • Convicted Jews had their property seized by the crown.

  • The reference to Mt. Calvary could be a reference to the resurrection of Christ, but it was also a popular reference in antisemitic rhetoric of the time to the act of blaming Jews for the death of Christ.

To put it all together, if the unpopular Rubio Naranjo was owed his ancestors’ property because his family coat of arms was a sambenito, it meant he was a secret Jew. And since he was the feudal lord of Jews and had done great deeds, it meant he was a great Jew.

Now, the guys who hung up the effigy weren’t actually accusing Naranjo of practicing Judaism. They were just antisemitic assholes who didn’t know any other way to say “We strongly dislike this guy”. You’ll recognize this rhetorical strategy if you’ve ever been on Xbox Live and had an eleven-year-old call you a string of increasingly implausible slurs. The idiot kid is angry at you (for some goddamn reason), but he doesn’t literally mean what he is saying.

Anyway, hanging up this effigy was a crime: misuse of official Inquisition symbols. It’s sort of like trademark infringement. The Inquisition was also grumpy about people throwing ‘Jew’ around as an insult without meaning it, because it made it harder for the Inquisition to tell who was actually being accused of Judaizing and who was just being slighted. It took the Inquisition four years to find out who was responsible for the business in Tecamachalco. Of the four people convicted, all were whipped, three were tortured, and two were sentenced to row in a prison galley for five years.

One of very few contemporaneous color images of Inquisition effigies. They’re on poles along the staircase and in the crowd. Detail from Auto de Fe en la Plaza Mayor de Madrid by Francisco Rizi.

At the gaming table, the obvious use for burning in effigy is to run a wax-museum-style adventure in a warehouse full of effigies the night before they’ll be burned. The effigies of these dead heretics are possessed by the souls of their subjects, who are understandably upset about the whole postmortem execution thing. The PCs are hired to guard the warehouse against living heretics, who are planning to rescue their comrade’s bodies and souls. But then some of the effigies start moving when the PCs aren’t looking; an NPC security guard is found strangled by soft, pasteboard hands; and eventually one of the effigies even escapes the warehouse to enact its revenge on the (probably deserving) head inquisitor. Naturally, the living heretics make their move at the least convenient time for the party. Expect such an adventure to end either with the PCs switching sides to help the heretics or sacrificing their payday to burn the warehouse with all the effigies still inside.

The incident in Tecamachalco could also make great inspiration for an adventure. But unless you know your gaming group really well (and trust them not to be dicks), you probably want to file off the explicitly antisemitic stuff. This is not how you want to learn that one of your gaming buddies is Jewish, but doesn’t talk about it much. Take out the bits about Mt. Calvary, the wealth of ancestors, the sambenito, and the pun about St. Benedict.

Fortunately, that still leaves you a lot to work with: the two faces, the forked tongue, the gag, the distaff and spindle, the firewood, and the fancy gothic lettering on the note. The note, of course, can say whatever you want; adapt it so it makes sense in your fictional setting. The two faces may imply hypocrisy. The forked tongue could imply lying – or deviltry! The gag might imply a desire to silence the target, or that the target is silencing others. Removed from context, the distaff and spindle to me symbolize ‘domestic’ witchcraft, like a witch’s broom and cauldron, which are also mundane household objects given occult power by a witch. And if the firewood comes from a specific and unusual kind of tree, it could convey information too: rowan to combat fey, ironwood against devils, or rosewood against infidelity. As in real life, your PCs will have to decide whether the effigy represents a serious accusation of witchcraft, adultery, espionage, or whatever you choose, or whether it’s a spurious accusation made by someone lashing out.


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Source: Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition by Luis R. Corteguera (2012)


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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