The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) is a style of nonobjective historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Spanish Empire, its people and its culture in an intentional attempt to damage its reputation. The Black Legend propaganda originated in the 16th century, a time of strong rivalry between European colonial powers.
Anti-Spanish sentiment appeared in many parts of Europe as the power of the Spanish empire grew. With the Hapsburg realm, Spain dominated much of Europe including present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and parts of Italy. In 1555 Pope Paul IV described Spaniards as "heretics, schismatics, accursed of God, the Offspring of Jews and Marranos, the very scum of the earth". During the Eighty Years' War English and Dutch propaganda depicted Spaniards as bloodthirsty barbarians, drawing on racial stereotypes that likened them with Arabs. In the following centuries anti-Spanish stereotypes circulated widely, especially in English, Dutch and German-speaking parts of Europe. This propaganda would depict exaggerated versions of the evils of Spanish colonial practices and the Spanish Inquisition.
In the 18th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant (who never went to Spain) stated that "The Spaniard's bad side is that he does not learn from foreigners; that he does not travel in order to get acquainted with other nations; that he is centuries behind in the sciences. He resists any reform; he is proud of not having to work; he is of a romantic quality of spirit, as the bullfight shows; he is cruel, as the former auto-da-fé shows; and he displays in his taste an origin that is partly non-European." Historian Walter Mignolo has argued that the Black Legend was closely tied to ideologies of race, both in the way that it used the Moorish history of Spain to depict Spaniards as racially tainted, and in the way that the treatment of Africans and Native Americans during Spanish colonial projects came to symbolize their moral character.
The label "White Legend" is used by some historians to describe a historiographic approach that they consider to go too far in trying to counter the Black Legend, and which consequently ends up painting an uncritical or idealized image of Spanish colonial practices. Such an approach has been described as characteristic of Nationalist Spanish historiography during the regime of Francisco Franco, which associated itself with the imperial past couched in positive terms. Some, such as Benjamin Keen, have criticized the works of e.g. John Fiske and Lewis Hanke as going too far towards idealizing Spanish history.
National Review Online ran a great piece on the Inquisition(s) ten years ago by the wonderful historian Thomas Madden. To understand the Inquisition we have to remember that the Middle Ages were, well, medieval. We should not expect people in the past to view the world and their place in it the way we do today. (You try living through the Black Death and see how it changes your attitude.) For people who lived during those times, religion was not something one did just at church. It was science, philosophy, politics, identity, and hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community. The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made it a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training — something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.
The Catholic Church’s response to this problem was the Inquisition, first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184. It was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges. From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community. And for those interested, here is Madden on the Spanish Inquisition. Again, many terrible things were done by the medieval Church under the banner of the Inquisition. But very often many more terrible things were done by medieval Europeans away from that banner and on more than one occasion the terror stopped when the Inquisitors arrived. One might argue that at least some of the principles valued by the inquisitors — the need for a fair trial, the deployment of reason to determine the facts, the recognition that every soul has value, the rejection of mob rule and arbitrary punishment — are in harmony with the Enlightenment rather than at war with it.
(Editors Note: This does not answer questions such as why the accused was not told what they were accused of, corruption, need for torture, why there was no free trial, why clerics acted as the state religious police)