Renaissance and Reformation Juan de Torquemada
Thomas Izbicki
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0506


Juan de Torquemada (b. 1388–d. 1468) was a Dominican cardinal, Thomist theologian, canon lawyer, and a polemicist. Born in Castile, his family possibly included converted Jews. Torquemada joined the Dominicans Order and attended the Council of Constance (1414–1418). After the council, he was sent to the University of Paris to study theology. Having concluded his studies, Torquemada returned to Castile, where he became prior in Valladolid and then Toledo. Torquemada entered public life when both his province and Juan II of Castile dispatched him to the Council of Basel (1431–1449). Upon arriving, he took the oath of incorporation and joined the deputation on reform. The council was resisting efforts of Pope Eugenius IV to move it to Italy to meet the Greeks, and it was trying to impose reforms on the Roman curia. Torquemada, fearing the council might curtail the privileges of the friars, wrote in opposition to Basel’s proposed reforms. To reward the friar for this opposition, Eugenius made Torquemada Master of the Sacred Palace, his theological adviser. When Eugenius tried to move the council to Ferrara, Torquemada joined him. The Basel assembly declared Eugenius deposed and elected its own pope, Felix V (Amadeus VIII of Savoy). Eugenius waged a diplomatic war against Basel with Torquemada as an envoy. He was in Florence, the new site of the council, for discussions leading to a brief-lived union of churches. He also debated papal supremacy with Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, former president of Basel, being rewarded with promotion to cardinal. Cardinal Torquemada dressed as a friar but took part in curial business. The cardinal was involved in reforming religious houses in Rome and Castile. He also participated in four papal elections. These roles did not prevent Torquemada from writing devotional texts and polemics, including tracts attacking Islam and defending Jewish converts in Castile. One of the devotional texts is the Meditationes, one of the earliest printed texts in Italy. It was published in 1467 with woodcut illustrations based on frescos by Fra Angelico. Torquemada’s most important writing was the Summa de ecclesia (1453), dedicated to Pope Nicholas V. It addressed four subjects: the visible church; the papacy; general councils; heresy and schism. Torquemada was a papalist but no absolutist. He believed a pope could lose his office for heresy or endangering the church. Torquemada complemented his Summa with a commentary on Gratian’s Decretum, which was used by conciliarists to back conciliar supremacy. His thought on the church influenced Thomas de Vio (Cajetan), Robert Bellarmine, and the School of Salamanca.


Juan de Torquemada was engaged in the significant events of his time, especially those concerning popes and councils. Conciliarism was rooted in a heritage of authoritative texts, some opening the way for limiting papal power (Tierney 1955, Oakley 2003). Torquemada replied, reinterpreting these texts in ways that made it hard to restrain a Roman pontiff without removing all limits. The Council of Constance had required that there would be a general council every ten years. Basel, summoned by Pope Martin V, negotiated with the Hussites of Bohemia, eventually agreeing to let Hussites receive communion under both species, bread and wine. In addition, it issued a series of reforms for the church, including reform of the Roman curia (A Companion to the Council of Basel 2016, Stieber 1978). Making matters more complicated, Pope Eugenius IV, Martin’s successor, tried to move the assembly to Italy for a council of union with the Greeks (Gill 1961). The Basel assembly resisted, appealing especially to the Constance decree Haec sancta, which declared a general council superior to the pope in matters of heresy, schism, and reform. Eugenius gave ground for a time, but he decreed at last the transfer of the council to Ferrara. The Basel assembly split. The majority wanted to meet the Greeks in Avignon. The minority opted for Italy as a site agreeable to the Greeks. Basel declared Eugenius deposed and chose Amadeus VIII of Savoy as Pope Felix V. A diplomatic war erupted, especially in the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the council of union moved from Ferrara to Florence, where it reached agreement on union; but that union found little acceptance in the East (Gill 1959, Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence 1991). The union strengthened Eugenius’s hand in defending his pontificate, as witnessed by his bull Moyses (Unity, Heresy, and Reform 1977). Torquemada and others revived papalist polemic in this context (Horst 2006). In the end, Felix gave up the struggle; and Basel accepted Eugenius’s successor, Nicholas V. Thereafter, the accepted popes, Nicholas and his successors, resided in Rome. The papacy became a patron of arts and letters. These endeavors were expensive, and the curia sought to increase its revenues (Thomson 1980). Further demands for reform were made, but they gained little traction in Rome. Cardinals like Torquemada were reformers, but others cardinals became papal princes and sources of scandal.

  • A Companion to the Council of Basel. Edited by Michiel Decaluwé, Thomas M. Izbicki, and Gerald Christianson. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    Essays treating most aspects of the council, including its internal organization and negotiations with the Hussites and the Greeks.

  • Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438/39–1989. Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 1991.

    Collected papers commemorating the fifth centennial of the Council of Ferrara-Florence, especially its decree of union with the Greeks (1439).

  • Gill, Joseph. The Council of Florence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

    The best-known history of the council by a scholar sympathetic to Eugenius IV.

  • Gill, Joseph. Eugenius IV, Pope of Christian Unity. Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1961.

    Gill treated Eugenius IV more positively than have some other scholars. The author’s focus on the effort to unite Eastern and Western churches is the most important part of this book.

  • Horst, Ulrich. Dominicans and the Pope: Papal Teaching Authority in the Medieval and Early Modern Thomist Tradition. Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

    A brief overview of Dominican writings, including those of Torquemada, supporting papal teaching authority (magisterium).

  • Oakley, Francis. The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church, 1300–1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Much of past scholarship treated conciliarism from the viewpoint of its papalist opponents. Oakley integrates conciliarism into the mainstream of Catholic theology as a respectable set of ideas.

  • Stieber, Joachim. Pope Eugenius IV, the Council of Basel and the Secular and Ecclesiastical Authorities in the Empire. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1978.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004477346

    Stieber’s massive volume is sympathetic to the Council of Basel, including its effort to impose reforms on the Roman curia. It should be read as a counterweight to the pro-papal volumes of Joseph Gill.

  • Thomson, John A. F. Popes and Princes, 1417–1517: Politics and Polity in the Late Medieval Church. London: Allen & Unwin, 1980.

    Thomson provides an overview of papal history from the end of the Great Western Schism to the eve of the Reformation. It includes a focus on how Rome sought to replace revenues lost to conciliar reforms.

  • Tierney, Brian. Foundations of the Conciliar Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

    A groundbreaking study of the roots of conciliarism in Catholic tradition with an emphasis on canon law. That approach was supplemented by Francis Oakley with an emphasis on theology.

  • Unity, Heresy, and Reform, 1378–1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism. Edited by C. M. D. Crowder. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977.

    A selection of significant documents in English translation beginning with the Great Western Schism and ending with the condemnation of appeals from pope to council by Pope Pius II.

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