“Devassa”: historical origins and meanings

Atualizado: 5 de out.

Bárbara Dantas

* Se precisar citar, tê-lo como referência, seguir:

DANTAS, Bárbara. "Devassa: historical origins and meanings." In: DANTAS, Bárbara; NETO, Reny Baptista. Brazil and International Legal Systems: Theoretical Studies and Legal Practices. Vila Velha-ES: Balsamum Editora, 2020, p. 123-146.

Disponível em: https://www.barbaradantas.com/post/devassa-historical-origins-and-meanings

RESUMO: Alguns conceitos são importantes para a Linguística e a História: longa-duração, estrutura histórica x contexto histórico (defendidos por Jacques Le Goff); além de macrosistemas históricas frente à microhistória (notabilizados por Carlo Ginzburg). Linguística e História se unem quando se busca a etimologia de um termo ou os diferentes usos e significados deste mesmo termo no decorrer da História da humanidade. Um passado longínquo pode, dessa forma, tornar-se bem próximo de um tempo pretérito não tão distante de nós. Assim veremos neste estudo que encontrou a palavra Devassa na Bíblia, mais especificamente nos Livros dos Macabeus do Antigo Testamento, bem como em três outras ocasiões, já no passado colonial brasileiro: Na cidade de Salvador-Bahia, no século XVII; durante os julgamentos dos Inconfidentes mineiros e na Devassa contra os Jesuítas na comarca do Espírito Santo, ambos no século XVIII. Nosso caminhar pelos usos da palavra devassa começará na Antiguidade, nas desérticas paragens da Cisjordânia e chegará à modernidade, às tropicais terras do Brasil Colonial. Algumas paradas estratégicas serão feitas para melhor contextualizar e dirimir dúvidas a respeito desta palavra que, desde os tempos das primitivas tribos judaicas, era sinônimo de ato judicial para ouvir testemunhas, fosse de cunho religioso, militar ou civil.

PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Devassa; Livros dos Macabeus; longa-duração; microhistória; comarca do Espírito Santo.

RESUMEN: Algunos conceptos son importantes para la lingüística y la historia: estructura histórica a largo plazo x contexto histórico (defendido por Jacques Le Goff); Además de los macrosistemas históricos contra la microhistoria (notable por Carlo Ginzburg). La lingüística y la historia se unen cuando se busca la etimología de un término o los diferentes usos y significados de ese término a lo largo de la historia de la humanidad. Por lo tanto, un pasado distante puede volverse muy cercano a un tiempo pasado no tan distante de nosotros. Así veremos en este estudio que encontró la palabra Devassa en la Biblia, más específicamente en los Libros de los Macabeos del Antiguo Testamento, así como en otras tres ocasiones, ya en el pasado colonial brasileño: en la ciudad de Salvador-Bahía, en el siglo XVII; durante los juicios de los Inconfidentes de Minas Gerais y la Devassa contra los jesuitas en Espírito Santo, ambos en el siglo XVIII. Nuestro viaje a través de los usos de la palabra Devassa comenzará en la Antigüedad, en las partes desiertas de Cisjordania y alcanzará la modernidad, las tierras tropicales del Brasil colonial. Se harán algunas paradas estratégicas para contextualizar y resolver mejor las dudas con respecto a esta palabra, que, desde los tiempos de las primeras tribus judías, ha sido sinónimo de un acto judicial para escuchar a los testigos, ya sea de naturaleza religiosa, militar o civil.

PALABRAS CLAVE: Devassa; Libros macabeos; larga duracion; microhistoria Condado de Espírito Santo.

ABSTRACT: Some concepts are important for Linguistics and History: long-duration, historical structure x historical context (defended by Jacques Le Goff); besides history macrosistem against micro-history (distinguished by Carlo Ginzburg). Linguistics and history come together when searching for the etymology of a term or the different uses and meanings of that term throughout the History of humanity. A distant past can thus become very close to a past tense not so far from us. Thus we will see in this study that found the portuguese word devassa in the Bible, more specifically in the Books of the Maccabees of the Old Testament, as well as on three other occasions, already in the Brazilian colonial past: In the city of Salvador-Bahia, in the seventeenth century; during the judgments of the Minas Inconfidentes and the Devassa against the Jesuits in the county of Espírito Santo, both in the eighteenth century. Our journey through the uses of the portuguese word “devassa” will begin in antiquity, in the deserted parts of the West Bank, and reach modernity, to the tropical lands of colonial Brazil. Some strategic stops will be made to better contextualize and clarify doubts about this word that, since the time of the primitive Jewish tribes, was already synonymous of judicial act to hear witnesses, of religious, military or civil nature.

KEYWORDS: Devassa; Books of the Maccabees; long-duration; microhistory; County of Espírito Santo.


This work intends to make a historical path about the portuguese word “devassa” without being restricted to its etymological sense, more important for grammarians than for historians. When a researcher finds himself face to face with a word that has a long duration,[1] he is sometimes impelled to find other uses that it has had in the past, in different cultures and places.

The “long duration”, concept defended by Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014), strives for a historical understanding in two prisms that, although different, are related: the structure and the context. The structure is formed from customs (the consuetudines), from the formative ideas of a given social nucleus, customs which are transformed into socio-cultural, religious or political norms. These ideas, in turn, in their secular or millennial journey within society, will influence the construction of different ideas and practices that, in fact, are more ephemeral than structures. These ideas become thoughts and uses of a particular conjuncture or context. In other words, the context is a “short duration” - transitory - time frame that is influenced by a “long duration” mental structure - secular or millennial.

Jacques Le Goff's defense is consistent with the worldwide applauded method of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985). Despite his somewhat materialistic and economist character, in his work The structures of daily life,[2] we note that the approach clarifies how the practices influenced culture. After all, do practices determine thinking? Or does thought determine practice? In Braudel, we see that there is no hierarchy, what exists are mental developments that influenced techniques, or techniques that influenced mentalities.

In this interpenetration of uses and ideas, some elements may be short-lived, while others will be long-lived. So are the languages, the writings, in short, the extremely elaborate means that man found to communicate, to leave as a tribute to the posters or simply to survive. In this sense, Gladis Massini-Cagliari called the passion of some scholars for the letters of the past as the “archaeological fascination with the ancient manuscript text and the taste for its deciphering”.[3] And it is obvious that only the love of letters (either the old or the current) can transform a textual heritage into History itself. Only the passion for codices, for manuscripts, can explain the priceless cultural fruits of Palaeography and Diplomatics when they provide us, researchers of the 21st century, with access to texts from the 17th, 18th, or even millennia ago, such as of Sacred Scripture.

In these reflections that involve the portuguese word “devassa”, in addition to the biblical text, we have the result of the paleographic and historical analyzes of two researchers. In the Chapter XI of the book Na Trama das Redes (2010), written by the professor at the Federal University of Viçosa-MG, Francisco Carlos Consentino, who presents us with the quarrels between brazilian governments and the representatives of the portuguese crown in the final years of the 17th century.

The professor at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, Luiz Cláudio M. Ribeiro, brought to light the complete corpus documental of the Devassa against the jesuits in the County of Espírito Santo (1761) after the expulsion of all the jesuits from the territories of Ultramarine Empire by the Marquês de Pombal (1699-1782). Furthermore, the extensive work of translating the source, the researcher goes beyond just making a source public, it helps us to reflect on the respect of its historical importance: “[...] an ideological anti-Jesuit debate instituted around the modernity, a discussion between Jesuitism and anti-Jesuitism becomes evident in the document ”.[4]

In both, we note the respect for the original linguistic structures according to the rules of paleography, which denotes more of a choice than a necessity, since every edition of an ancient text only asks for a normative to be chosen from among those that Philology offers us: critical, facsimile, diplomatic, semi-diplomatic or genetic editing.[5]


That is the purpose of this study, a tour of a biblical - but also historical - time, that of the great jewish patriarchs and heroes who lived in Judea, a mountainous region south of Israel, between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean and which, today, we can locate as the southern region of the West Bank. Forming both a nation and a culture, moreover, they were the progenitors of a monotheistic faith amid animist or polytheistic religions. Amid the adventures and misfortunes of the Jewish people - recorded in the Books of the Maccabees, Biblical Old Testament - is what may be one of the first known records of the portuguese word “devassa”.

In modern times, we will see more records of the portuguese word “devassa”. Brazil was the richest colony of the Portuguese Empire,[6] here, the powers of command and governance alternated in relations that were not always friendly and honest. From the 16th century onwards, the portuguese crown decided to change the way of governing this vast territory and instituted the appointment of the Governor-General of the State of Brazil based in the city of Salvador, Bahia.[7] But, conflicts of jurisdiction and accusations of abuse of power did not cease, they just alternated. It was in the meantime that the governor-general between 1678 and 1682, Roque da Costa Barreto, was instructed by representatives of the king to make a fuss with the officers of the Court of Appeal of Bahia due to the denunciation made by the Salvador City Council.

To conclude this tour through the uses of the word devass, we will analyze some excerpts from Devassa da reforma da religião da Companhia de Jesus nesta comarca do Espírito Santo, transcrição paleográfica do manuscrito de 1761, carried out by researcher Luiz Cláudio M. Ribeiro and published by EDUFES in 2018. The Jesuits have accumulated a large and “enviable” heritage in the region of Espírito Santo since the beginning of portuguese colonization. In the 18th century, according to the researcher, the Jesuits already owned four farms and “Espírito Santo was a true Jesuit potentate”.[8]


Without the dictionary I am nothing! So, let's start with it.

The portuguese term “devassa” continues with the same meaning after millennia of use, the variations are small and relate more to its uses than to its meaning, as we will see below.

PRIBERAM is a dictionary that I really appreciate because it shows us the variations of meaning that a word can have in other countries in which portuguese is the official language, in particular, Portugal. This dictionary classifies “devassa” as “inquiry to investigate criminal acts”; the portugueses verb devassar has as synonyms, among others, “to inform yourself, to inquire”; the devasso portuguese noun (female and male), on the other hand, is associated with the “depraved, unruly, dissolute, libertine” individual.[9] This denotes yet another permanence of meaning in this long historical period through which languages are formed and are fixed, especially ours, the Portuguese Language.[10] I consulted other dictionaries, such as Aurélio, and similarities prevailed.


The portugueses word “devassa” has been used since the colonial period and refers to the portugueses verb devassar: to search, to inquire. It is possible to find references to it in a large part of the bureaucratic documentation produced by the bailiffs of that period: outside judge, ombudsman, ordinary judge, judge of peace, among others. Their duties were similar to those of today's bailiffs: inspecting the local population and prosecuting crimes. In case of denunciation, it was up to the judge and his scrivener to collect the testimonies of the parties involved, this action was called “devassa”. After that, it was up to the judge to decide what penalty the accused would suffer.[11] In other words - anachronisms aside - the devass was similar to what today is a police investigation into a crime.

The most famous legal proceeding in brazilian lands was instituted against those responsible for the Conjuration Mineira of 1789, an event that established the maximum guilt and death penalty for Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, Tiradentes (1746-1792). The work of the 1970s by the english historian and brazilianist Kenneth Maxwell, A devassa da devassa - A Inconfidência Mineira: Brasil e Portugal 1750-1808 (1750-1808) became a classic of the historiography of the period.[12] The author did not pretend, he associated Tiradentes with another one of those who, despite being “white”, had no properties and was looking for any means to stand out socioeconomically.[13] Regarding the renowned book, let us see one of the criticisms, in which the play on words is delightful: “Mais uma vez a devassa é devassada, e muito bem”. Profa. Célia Galvão (Isto É).[14]

The Glossário de palavras e expressões (séculos XVIII e inícios do XIX) made available by the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) at UNICAMP reminds us, among others, of the utmost function of the legal proceeding or “devassa”: interrogating witnesses.[15] We have already noted its association with the legal sphere, as it asserts a type of investigation, "a thorough investigation of a criminal act through research and the examination of witnesses". For example, the portuguese terms “fechar a devassa” and “tirar a devassa” are used, respectively, to proceed or not with a court order or to initiate or not a criminal process.[16] In other words, researching, gathering evidence, observing and interrogating are legal synonyms or the gathering of legal procedure for an examination of witnesses. “Devassa” is similar to an investigation of a criminal act and the legal act is one that makes use of witnesses to obtain information about a crime, infraction or crime.

But, it is worth mentioning that, if the word kept its meanings, its practices varied ... a lot.


"These instituted investigations and legal proceeding [devassa] acts against Judas' friends" (Mk 9:26).[17] The Old Testament text shows us how old the practice of interrogations of a religious and military nature is, since they go back to the times before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Maccabees are two books in which the exploits - military victories and defeats - of the Jews are reported in the form that we can associate with reports of battles and major military deeds. This verse in question is later than the one that reports the fateful military defeat and death of Judas Maccabeus in 166 BC, religious and military leader of the Jews, which provided a period of relative peace and prosperity to those who inhabited the "land of Judah", the Judea.

In the Introduction to the Books of the Maccabees, and in the following footnotes, commentators on the Jerusalem Bible certify that these events occurred in the second half of the second century BC and were recorded by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) in his book Jewish Antiques.[18] One of the notes points out that:

Rebel Jews were to be exterminated or sold as slaves (2Mc 8: 9-11) and their land would be confiscated, then redistributed, in part, to foreigners (cf. Dn 11: 39). Judea would thus become 'land of the king', divided into lots and rented to settlers, according to Seleucid custom.[19]

In 161 a. C., Báquides, general Selêucida and “governor of Transeufratênia”, was in charge to pacify Judea, western half of the Selêucida Empire, because its inhabitants rose against the king Demétrio I (187-150 a. C.). Another note from the Jerusalem Bible states that:

Persecution causes the awakening of religious consciousness. Opposition to Hellenism takes the form of violent interventions (2, 15-28), or passive resistance (2, 29-38), finally of holy war: already under Matathias (2, 39-48), but above all under Judas Maccabees (3-5). He understood that the preservation of religion was linked to national independence, which is why the struggle continued even after religious freedom was recognized (6, 57-62). But this transfer of the conflict to the political field opened the door to party commitments and struggles [...].[20]

Bacchides came to the end of his mission. He achieved three feats: to end the life of Judas Maccabeus, to dismantle the army of the Jews and to undermine the conspiratorial forces of the Jewish people. Let's see what the full text shows us:

After the death of Judas, the wicked reappeared over the whole of Israel, and all those who did injustice rose again. In those days there was also a terrible famine, so the country sided with them. Báquides, for his part, chose among the wicked men those whom he had made lords of the country. The latter established investigations and legal proceeding [devassas] against Judas' friends, making them appear before Bacchides, who took revenge on them and covered them with insults.

Shortly after Judas' death, the seleucid general welcomed powerful Jews who instituted a "devassa" in which all friends of the dead Jewish leader were ostensibly obliged to submit. In that inquiry, the accused had to put themselves in front of Báquides and, without the right to defend themselves, suffered their vengeful and punitive wrath.

Let us note a devassa as “inquiry to investigate a criminal act”, that is, the alliance with Judas Macabeu. But, for the author of the Book of Maccabees, the inquirers were the “wicked”. After all, they were the ones who associated themselves with Báquides - the “depraved, unruly, dissolute, libertine” - who took the lands of the Jews, enslaved their women and children, besides killing their most honorable and brave men. In this case, “devassos” were those who allowed themselves to be sold to the greek general and allowed him to inquire, offend and take revenge on jewish brothers.


Governance and power: the portuguese empire and its brazilian colony

The Portuguese Overseas Empire, between the 16th and 18th centuries, had to be simultaneously centralized and decentralized to cope with the enormous and growing demand for different commercial, socio-political and cultural relations to which it was subject.[21] The immense empire under which the scepter and the portuguese crown had command extended, one could say, from one corner of the planet to another: Macau, in China; the entire length of the Brazilian coast; as well as several commercial warehouses on the Atlantic coast of the African continent. It was in this global environment and with many facets that the governments installed in Lisbon tried, continuously, to institute the best ways to govern or to control their factories and colonies overseas.[22]

In that context, Brazil was a unique case, since 1530 the Portuguese monarchy saw in this territory a fruitful region to establish a broader domain both politically and economically. For this, several initiatives were necessary to govern a colony that, in addition to being vast, was dominated by indians and by nature, most of the time, savage and cruel to the European who ventured here.[23] The distribution of Hereditary Captaincies was the first initiative, still in 1530, and in 1549, the General Government was instituted.[24]

The centralizing forces coming from the capital of the portuguese empire used political and economic powers established in the colonies. In the “State of Brazil”, the City Council and the “Tribunal da Relação” were the colonial voices that the documents of the time brought to the poster researchers.[25]

In our case, let us note the importance of the epistles of the period. In those times, it was common to send letters addressed directly to the king of Portugal. A practice that impresses some researchers, while indicating a culture and “economia de mercês” in which the king, as the "head" of the government, had the prerogative to "reward" those subjects who, even in the distant colony, lived for the common good and for the crown.[26]


It was in that culture of “exchange of favors” that the Chamber of Salvador felt at liberty to send a letter to the king asking for urgent measures in relation to the inappropriate attitudes of some portuguese judges who, associated with court officials - “the people in toga” - of the “Tribunal da Relação de Salvador” were acting contrary to the common good of “soteropolitana” society. In addition, they could cause damage to the portuguese crown.[27]

In a historic structure in which the centenary centralizing power coming from the Lisbon metropolis in the person of the governor-general was linked to constantly changing circumstances, adapted and linked to multiple local governments and elites, Consentino presented us with the creation of the “Tribunal da Relação”, in 1609,[28] which was reestablished in 1652. In that context, the government-general was in Bahia, in the city of Salvador. Therefore, the “Relação da Bahia” became the highest body of justice in the State of Brazil.

All the governors-general had the task of keeping themselves informed about the activities of the governmental and judicial bodies closest to him and taking the necessary measures in case of omission or unlawful act of any subject of the king. Following regulations, they affirmed and reaffirmed the delegation of powers directly from the king to the governor general of Brazil.[29] Let's see what the regiment of Diogo de Mendonça Furtado, governor-general between 1621 and 1624 shows us:

Just as it is in my service, be sure not to give Donatars more jurisdiction than that which belongs to him for his donations, and to have a great deal of vigilance and warning in him, even so, I will do well that you do not take yours or consent that my bailiffs take it or break your privileges and donations before in everything that belongs to you will make you fulfill and keep it.[30]

These prerogatives brought the centralization of powers over the governor-general and the symbolic representativeness linked to the royal figure, since they came from a political-religious ceremony called “menagem” in which royal power was delegated to the governor-general of the State of Brazil.[31] Even captaincy governors should obey governors-general according to a royal institute, as we will see in the following excerpt:

Your Lordship cannot deny that you are the subject of this Government, and that the subjects, even if they have a lot of justice, do not play to defend their opinion but obey the orders of their Generals: and if they are violent, or unjust, the prince decides them, and punishes them: but as long as their Real determination does not exist, the orders of their Generals will always subsist and be obeyed by the subjects.[32]

However, the governors-general who alternated in the highest governmental post in the State of Brazil were unable to prevent abuses or lack of decorum among other minor representatives of the portuguese crown sent to Brazil (such as the judges), as well as among the judicial and local government leaders, the justice agents and the city councils, respectively.

A good example of those disagreements and controversies, is in the Instruções of king Pedro II (that reigned between 1683 and 1706) to the governor-general Roque da Costa Barreto, in which the monarch asked the governor of Brazil to initiate an investigation on the “Relação da Bahia”, because the Chamber of Salvador had sent a complaint to the king. The document asked “certain news of these procedures you will get secret information, so that in all truth it can be learned and can remedy the losses that my vassals suffer in the excess of these ministers”.[33] We see that it was also the duty of the governor-general to investigate the activities of the justice and treasury officers who worked at the “Relação” and to “appoint a judge to take the legal proceeding [para tirar devassa]”[34] by asking and inquiring those who were accused of impropriety in their judicial offices or in governance.

Another task of the governor-general was to notify the king of any escape from order, omission or crisis, because it was up to the king - and only him - to direct his vassal on the best course of action.[35] Meanwhile, Roque da Costa Barreto led an inquiry, in which four spheres of power were involved: portuguese crown, governor-general, “Tribunal da Relação” and the City Council. The governor-general has appointed a judge to lead the judicial investigation: hearing witnesses and other determinations. Fearful with such a show of power and afraid of suffering reprisals after having its members heard, the Chamber of Salvador sent the king another letter, dated August 16, 1678, in which “complained about the legal proceeding instituted by the governor [reclamava da devassa instaurada pelo governador], as the investigation was chaired by one of the judges and ended up generating panic among the witnesses”.[36]

The answer came in december of that same year. The king's attorney was careful to guide and reassure his subjects with regard to “real justice” in the face of the complaints they received from the city councilors, but he did not forget the Instruções they gave to Roque da Costa Barreto. The extract below is illuminating:

Your Highness Prince being so equal for the prize of the ministers, who are good, as for the punishment of those who are bad, and having them no less than from the doors inside the experience, because assisting Your Highness the first voices of their cries confess that Your Highness will have an exact legal proceeding taken [tirar uma exata devassa] from the procedure of those ministers, from which punishment could be followed not only for those who deserve in present, but as an example for those who serve in the future.[37]

The prosecutor did not stop there, he took the opportunity to remind the “camaristas soteropolitanos” that a conflict of jurisdiction was taking place between the members of the municipal governmental institution, that is, to think that he can “take or put magistrates”, and this function is only up to the vassals appointed by royal determination:

It seemed to him that the Bahia Chamber should immediately respond severely, so that those councilors who Your Highness had not shared with them would understand how to govern their Monarchy, who cannot have a voice but for their complaint, that Your Highness will embrace as a Prince, as a Father, and as a Lord, when justified.[38]

Well, yet another jurisdictional dispute in Brazil ended in “devassa”.

At the end of the day, the return of four judges to Portugal and a simple “tug of an ear” from the crown prosecutor, reminding the Bahian Legislative Chamber of their due place in matters relating to the governance of the monarchy.

It is observed that the power to institute a “devassa” rested with the ruler who occupied the highest position in the governance of that locality, a power instituted by the king himself and, therefore, with powers of command that he would not submit to any other.

Just as Báquides was able to request a search of local judean leaders to investigate “the friends” of Judas Macabeu, here we are seeing that the governor-general of Brazil, Roque da Costa Barreto, also had the prerogative to appoint a judge to interview people and inquire about the complaints received. We see that the power to institute a “devassa” goes beyond political power, goes beyond this field and falls within the judicial and social sphere. Devassa was the means by which the governor-general could reaffirm his power, an attitude similar to that which the king's attorney registered in the letter of 1678, with which he also reaffirmed the real power through the legal proceeding among the camaristas who dared to question the appointments of the governor-general.


The Kingdom of Portugal, from its creation, still in 1179, until the end of modernity, cannot be understood apart from the norms of the Catholic Church.[39] Inherent in Iberian culture in general, this link between government, militarism and religion in Iberian Countries (Portugal and Spain) goes back to the years after the invasion, plundering and establishment of Berber Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula in the year 722. The Berbers crossed the Sea Mediterranean from the Maghreb, in North Africa and, in the course of a few years, in the south-north direction, dominated all the cities and regions surrounding them until subjugating all the Visigoth kingdoms that existed there and restrict their dominance at the feet of the long strip in the north covered by the oldest mountain range in Europe, the Pyrenees.[40] In other words, the Iberian kingdoms of the Visigoths Christian had to pile up at the foot of the mountain range that separates the Iberian Peninsula from Europe.

Those offenses were not forgotten. In fact, they served as food both for a feeling of “holy war” between the cornered christian kingdoms and for the successive joint military offensives to try to expel the “moors”[41] from Iberia. What historiography called Battles of the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, were seven centuries of struggles between christians and moors until, in 1492, the last muslim kingdom, Granada, capitulated and the entire Iberian Peninsula became "christian".[42]

Therefore, the union between government and militarism under the banner of christ was not new in modernity, it was the result of a long-established historical structure. We can go further and remember that the Books of Maccabees present us with this relationship even in antiquity: government, war and religion speaking only one language.


The “Church of Rome” obtained a privileged space in the Iberian Peninsula, in general, and in Portugal, in particular. Its institutional and legal tentacles were noted by the institute not only of the secular and regular clergy formed in Rome and active in the portuguese kingdom, but mainly, by the heavy arm of the Inquisition.[43] The Holy Office, or “Tribunal da Inquisição” is a more modern and less medieval judicial institution, its institute in Spain was decreed by Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) in 1478, at the request of the “catholic kings”, Fernando de Aragão (1452-1516) and Isabel de Castela (1451-1504).[44] In Portugal, the year 1536 marked the beginning.[45]

From the dawn of modernity to the 18th century,[46] history books remind us of and recall the power and terror that inquisitive circumspects - mainly Spanish - disseminated throughout Europe and european overseas domains, including Brazil.[47] If european governments were still centralized between the 16th and 17th centuries, the same happened with the judicial activities of the Inquisition in portuguese and brazilian lands. In the 18th century, Portugal and Brazil, simultaneously, saw an increase in the power of the Inquisition.[48]


November 10, the day when christians gather to celebrate the “Dia de Todos os Santos”, came to a tragic end in the year 1755. Lisbon, one of the most picturesque capitals in Europe, was plagued by repeated catastrophes that, in the course of some hours, destroyed almost the entire city, and claimed the lives of thousands of people. It could be said that the numbers of cataclysms, of the geological revolutions that altered the surface of the land and sea, causing such devastation, will never be fully known. First, the earth shook, walls rose and crumbled; then, fires consumed what had not collapsed; finally, the Tejo retreated and then returned as a quick and gigantic mountain that submerged the city with water and wreckage.[49]

The spirits became exalted. There were those who were against the saints and against the catholic religion because they believed were abandoned. But others raised their voices in favor of increased faith and piety, as these tragic events show just how much the city of Lisbon was left to addictions. In that environment, a man with a successful history as a former diplomat to put things in their empty seats... and there was Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), the future Marquis of Pombal, offering his “new arithmetic politics ”[50] then desperate king of Portugal, D. José I.

Bad for bad, better with Pombal”,[51] were 27 years of pombaline government, in which political stability reigned, but the prevailing and, for centuries, sovereign religiosity was questioned. The rationality of the Lights, of the Enlightenment, found the doors of Portugal opened by Pombal himself.[52]

In addition to political persecution, the Marquis of Pombal rearranged the Portuguese Inquisition and gave it new importance. And so, the Catholic Church saw the collapse of one of its pillars by the “hard” work of its own children, the inquisitors. Suddenly, a new catastrophe struck men. This time, on a religious order, the Jesuits.[53]

After years of intense search for an effective means to extinguish the religious order, in September 1759, the Jesuits, "notorious rebels, traitors, adversaries and aggressors"[54] were expelled from all territories of the Portuguese Overseas Empire. And the final annihilation came in 1773, when Pope Clement XIV, authorized the publication of the papal bull in which the Society of Jesus was definitively and totally extinguished.[55]

The 18th century passed, the Catholic Counter-Reformation was already two hundred years old, it had lost its rapturous power against the Protestants and surrendered to more practical issues related to the political power of the Catholic Church and the State in the face of an increasingly larger world, that world arising from circumnavigation trips by europeans and their colonies established on all continents: Asia, America, Africa and Oceania.[56]

So, what to do with the Jesuits? In those times, they were more disturbing than helping. Complaints came from all parts, especially with regard to education: the fact that Jesuit schools were too long in studying Latin was questioned, which reduced the strength of students to dedicate themselves to studies associated with science abstracts (mathematics and the like) and practical sciences (commerce, for example).[57]

In the previous centuries, mainly in the XVI, the Order of the Jesuits was fundamental for the advent of a Catholic Church strong and orthodox enough to oppose the Protestants, more and more numerous and powerful. The wisdom of the Jesuits (on both theological and political issues) was such that, according to Quentin Skinner, the series of Controversies written by the ignatian priests of Italy, Antonio Possevino (1534-1611) and Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1611), and published between 1581 and 1592, was the most erudite critic of that period against the political and ideological theses of the Lutherans.[58]

However, the Jesuits' preponderance in worldly or religious matters caused much dissatisfaction in other religious orders, especially among dominicans. After all, these were the creators of future and modern inquisitorial practices. Still in the 13th century, the founder of the Order of Preachers (Ordo Prædicatorum), Domingos de Gusmão (1170-1221), asked the pope for permission to "inquire" and condemn the cathar heretics in the south of France, as they were causing many quarrels, disturbances and disunity among the faithful.[59]

The disagreements between dominicans and jesuits increased when they took over the most important enterprises of both the church and the kingdoms connected to it. But the dominican friars continued to lead inquisitorial practices around the catholic world and were always on the lookout for Jesuits and their “damned” practices.

This disagreement with the dominicans was a fundamental point for the fall of the Order of the Jesuits, not only in the territories under the command of the Portuguese Empire, but throughout the catholic universe at that time. “The power they held almost ruined them.”[60] Will Durant (1885-1981) highlighted the Jesuits' ordeal in French territory at the same time that the ignatians installed in the lands of the Portuguese Empire were under attack by the Marquis of Pombal, other religious orders and public opinion.

In France, the end of the activities of the Jesuits was near, from 1757, after a severe defeat of the French army in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). Suddenly, the Jesuits became public enemies and the preferred “target” of the lowest teasing and accusations. There was no vice or malice alien to the Jesuit priests, they were denounced for every kind of vile attitude and character flaw: heresy, hiding wealth, pederasty or betrayal for supposedly passing on privileged and strategic information to the enemies of the French sovereign.[61] Not a rare coincidence, because, in history, it is known that nothing is better to start the exile or the destruction of members of an institution than the good old public defamation.

This was the case in France, with the inquiries opened by the Parliament of Paris (1761),[62] as well as in Portugal, with the “devassa” in several locations in the Portuguese Empire, all against the Jesuits. Furthermore, we will see how these european macro-events reverberated out of the continent, crossed the Atlantic and arrived at the calm beaches of the coast of Espírito Santo, a village that also had its Devassa contra os Jesuítas.


With inquiries - or “devassa” ones - against the Jesuits, the Dominicans joined other religious and, finally, were able to act in the way they knew best, through the Inquisition. And it was not just the order of the Dominicans that acted directly to the ruin of the Jesuits, religious of other orders also participated in the inquiries as witnesses or assistants. This nuance of disputes within the administrative-religious structure of the Catholic Church from the second half of the 18th century onwards is present in some parts of the work Devassa da reforma da religião da Companhia de Jesus nesta comarca do Espírito Santo.

Up to this moment we have been through some legal proceeding, one recorded in the Bible and others at brazilian territory in the colonial period. Among these, the most well-known was the one instituted against the mining contradictions in the 18th century; the other took place about a hundred years earlier, in Bahia, at the request by governor-general of the State of Brazil; finally, we will now present to you our last and most important source with the word “devassa”. For this, let's look at the first extract selected:

by the very Reverend Sub-delegate Commissioner it was said that, by virtue of his commission, he wanted to proceed with the interrogations together, and signed by him, questioning witnesses, to discover for them all the guilt that the Religious of the same Company had committed, both inside, as well as outside of their Convents, Colleges, Villages, Farms, and more homes of their Residences in this District, and all the defects they have incurred, both regarding regular compliance with their statutes, and rule, and full satisfaction of the substantial votes of their Religion , as well as in everything else belonging to the ecclesiastical state, for true knowledge of their crimes, and the corresponding penalty will be given to them [63]

A somewhat precarious region compared to its neighbors (to the north, Bahia; to the south, Rio de Janeiro; to the west, entering the continent, the rich Minas Gerais), here we are in the County of Espírito Santo.[64] The Jesuits arrived there in 1551, just two years after the first ignatians who came to Brazil.[65] In this sense, Russel-Wood emphasized that, next to the mill houses, the Chambers, the colonial dwellings, there were the religious constructions. Whether churches or convents, schools or nursing homes, the religious actively participated in the social life of the residents of the richest colony of the Portuguese Empire. Among the religious orders, that of the Jesuits stood out.[66]


On the Jesuits who lived in this region, there were accusations of behavior not consistent with those of religious. Note that the accusations that the Jesuits were "notorious rebels, traitors, adversaries and aggressors" broke away from the macrostructure of the extensive Portuguese Empire and appeared in the microstructure of the small comarca Espírito Santo.[67]

There is no denying the weight of a mental structure in which, in the 18th century, it was already a century old with regard to the various procedures necessary to carry out a legal process. And, of course, its relationship with a collective defamation of the accused to give greater emphasis and support to the decisions that would be taken after the end of the work of justice. We saw that, in France, in the same period, the Jesuits were also being slandered or, in portuguese,"devassados" publicly and legally.

In this way, the interrogations in the Espírito Santo county were conducted through a previous set of questions and accusations, among which the witnesses should answer affirmatively or negatively. For affirmative cases, they should detail what happened. Let us observe how the questions have a subliminal content in which the witnesses were asked to report "if they know, or they will hear [...]".[68] This shows that the respondent could claim to know something effectively or, simply, heard it through the small mouth of the people that these things against which the religious were accused, really happened. Let's go back to the source extracts, they show us the sequence of questions previously asked by the inquisitors:

First, if you know or have heard that the religious of the Society of Jesus in this Bishopric have been failing to regularly observe their statutes and fully fulfill their vows, both in their Convents, Colleges and Residences, as well as outside them.

Second: as for the poor vote, if they are traders, doing business or private: if they bought for less to sell for more for [...] interests, profits, or exchange, [...] purely for business purposes.

Third: if they vexed the peoples [...] obtaining with falsehoods what was not due to them by justice;

Fourth: As for the vow of obedience, rites, false doctrines or erroneous opinions were taught or practiced against the Canonical Decrees, General Councils, Pontifical Bulls and against the Laws of His Majesty Fidelísssima [...]

Fifth: If they were arrogant, wanting everyone to be subordinate to them [...] intending these Fathers with their power and malevolence to be feared and obeyed by all, compelling them by these unjust means to the lack of observance of the Divine and human Laws [ ...]

Sixth: On the vow of chastity: Whether they live or lived chastely in the cities, Villas, Farms and Villages that administered [...] if they spoke and advised something that would cause scandal in this matter of chastity.

Seventh: [...] they fully fulfilled their obligations only by living with regular observance of the vows [...] for the office of Pastors, teaching the rudiments of Our Holy Catholic Faith [...][69]

Among the questions, a large part is related to the synonyms of “devasso” noun in the portuguese language (in english, wanton): "depraved, unruly, dissolute, libertine". We do not believe in linguistic coincidences, here there is a play on words carefully shaped to support the accusations, a common practice in the inquisitorial sphere.[70]


In Espírito Santo, the “Most Reverend Doctor Antonio Estevez Ribeira, Apostolic Sub-delegate Commissioner”[71] proceeded with an investigation to - with previously selected witnesses in the religious, civil and governance spheres - find out about complaints against Jesuits who lived in this region until 1760, but were expelled according to the law instituted by the Marquis of Pombal. At this time, 474 Jesuits were in Brazil.[72]

The work of Devassa da reforma da religião da Companhia de Jesus nesta comarca do Espírito Santo began on May 28, 1761 and ended the following year, on April 30, 1762. The records of the inquiry are detailed as to the titles and functions of each part of the “devassa”, which denotes the legal/religious bias of the investigation, in addition to affirming the veracity of its conclusions because they were investigated and witnessed by notable people from the region and others from Portugal, as was well suited to the practices of a “society of court”[73] in which titles - especially those of a religious nature - were important possessions to dignify individuals, in addition to providing the chance to obtain “mercês”, privileges and offices directly from the king.[74] We will see, for example, how the titles overlap between “sobelegado Apostolico”, “Commissario do Santo Offício” and “Vigario”. All appoint only one individual, Antonio Estevez Ribeira, responsible for the proceedings and progress of the process. Below, the original extract clarifies us better:

[...] in this Nossa Senhora da Victoria ville, Head of the County of Espírito Santo, and Retirement Houses of the Reverend Doctor Antonio Esteves Ribeira, Commissioner of the Holy Office and Vicar to the Church of Our Lady Conceição from village of Guaraparim, Bishopric of Rio de Janeyro.[75]

In the files of the inquiry, there are four religious who answered the questions of the inquisitor, Antonio Estevez Ribeira. Let's see who they are and what the Jesuits was accused:

• “Reverend Father Frey Jozê de Jezus Maria, Prior of the Convent of Nossa Senhora do Carmo in this village, and of the Province of Rio de Janeiro” (that is, abbot of a monastery) reported the following charges against the Jesuits: buying cheaper to sell more expensive; take alms from various chapels for yourself; disturb and threaten with eviction residents of neighboring lands; bribery of bailiffs; induction of witnesses: “and inducing witnesses to swear on it in favor of said Black, the inquiry proof came out more favorable to luck, that said Black was free from the death penalty”;[76]

• “The Reverend Father Prezentado Frey Manoel da Conceição, Carmelite religious (monk), and conventual of the Convent of Nossa Senhora do Carmo in this Vila de Nossa Senhora da Victoria Head of the Comarca do Espírito Santo” declared that: a Jesuit sold gunpowder and lead to a higher than normal price: “it didn't reach the right weight, because it used to be sold”; the same Jesuit ordered to weave “cotton cloth with red stripes” and had them sold; other Jesuit priests ordered the Indians to sell wood; the Jesuits maintained a “public sale, and in it their slaves selling sugar, corn, and sugar cane to the people”; “The said priest Miguel Lopes induced false witnesses in the same village for all the causes of his lands, and any others, which he judged and despotically governed the justice of the said village”; a religious of the Society of Jesus, in a preaching, stated that "only the Jesuits were saved"; “It was public and notorious that the Fathers of the Society of Jesus were superb and arrogant”; a priest from the “Collegio da Villa” maintained illicit relations with a mulatta slave and had two twin daughters with her, the same did the “Rector of this Collegio da Villa”, he related to a mulatta and, on his farm, he had a son with one of her slaves; it also tells that a slave and a harlot entered the premises of the “Collegio” late at night;[77]

• “Reverend Father Manoel da Rocha Machado Clerigo Presbyter of the habit of São Pedro” (that is, a secular priest) told the inquisitor that: “he knows because he is public, and it is well known that the Fathers of the Company of the College of this Village” used their slaves to sell various products; "They did not like all those who opposed their determinations"; "Forbade freedom for the Indians"; they did not allow ecclesiastical or secular justice to enter indigenous villages administered by Jesuits "to inquiry and punish any offense of the Indians";[78]

• “The very Reverend Antonio de Syqueira Quental, Arcediago da Sé Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, born in the city of Lisbon” said that: “the Fathers of the Company to achieve the possession of some lands were vexing the poor”; used violence to be feared and obeyed by everyone; they had a poor man's house burned; they took the crops from the fields of “Capitão Mor da Villa”; they cut and smashed canoes; a religious of the Company, with a stick, beat an Indian out of jealousy of an Indian.[79]

At the end of the inquiries, in the “Term of Closing”, inquiry's witnesses are present and sign the document. All are religious, among them, three carmelite friars: “Frey Jozê de Jezus Maria”, a well-known witness; and “Frey Jorge de Vasconcellos and Frey Manoel da Conceição” who worked as assistants in the same convent; in addition to a secular priest, that is, a cleric in front of a church: “Manoel da Rocha Machado Clerigo Presbitero Secular, and assistant at the so-called Villa de Nossa Senhora da Victoria”.[80]

Amid accusations of economic and political bias, this “Devassa” registered a wide range of illegal practices and crimes linked to “moral conduct and sexual abstinence”, according to the analysis of Ribeiro, a researcher from this source.[81] For him, it is striking that almost all the witnesses reported attitudes in this area, which greatly aggravated the crimes for which the Jesuits were accused, in the same way that the Portuguese document of 1759 accused them: “rebels, traitors, adversaries and aggressors ”.


This analysis aimed to show the long historical path of the portuguese word “devassa” when relating an important document from the 18th century - recently made available to the general public - to Devassa da reforma da religião da Companhia de Jesus nesta comarca do Espírito Santo, with the inquiry against the “friends of Judas Macabeu” in the 2nd century BC; and the two inquiries that took place in Salvador in 1652: one at the request of the governor general of the State of Brazil, Roque da Costa Barreto, against the “Tribunal da Relação da Bahia”; and another at the request of the Crown Prosecutor, as he considered the complaint of the Salvador City Council to be inappropriate.

It should be noted that the portuguese word - both its noun and its verb - after millennia of use, continued to have a meaning closely linked to judicial issues. “Devassa” basically means an inquiry with the use of witnesses, as we saw in the “Devassa” that took place in the county of Espírito Santo. The verb “devassar” supports the idea of investigating a complaint through the search for evidence and reports, as we saw in the “devassa” undertaken against the “Tribunal da Relação da Bahia” and the Salvador City Council. The biblical example showed us, in addition to the longevity of the term, a context in which “devassa” was undertaken both militarily and religiously. In this, finally, we note that “devassa” and “devassar” have the same etymological meaning as a result of their long history and practices.

In the middle of the long-duration history of the portuguese word “devassa”, we went through some contextual peculiarities that denoted the vigor of the term, regardless of the space-time frame in which it was found.

In the province of Bahia, the breakdown of hierarchy, the search for “mercês” and privileges, the disputes for power became a little more evident when we had contact with the policeman exchanged between brazilian governments and the Lisbon metropolis. Through the letters we note the importance of “Devassa” as an intercontinental judicial instrument used by governments affiliated to the Portuguese Empire to settle disputes and impose some order. Especially when the breaches of hierarchy were present, at those moments, there was nothing like searching the accused to show them their real position.

In the Devassa na Comarca do Espírito Santo, the subject deepens and gains more than intercontinental airs. A certain timelessness is necessary when we are faced with a mental and historical structure far away and widespread throughout Europe. In order to understand the causes and the desired effects within this Devassa, it was necessary to return to some historical facts and characters from Italy and France in order to understand a little more about the past importance of the Jesuits, as well as the factors that triggered their fall. Wealth, as well as the domain of knowledge, generate disagreements and factionalism. The Jesuits, over almost three centuries, obtained both wealth and mastery of knowledge. Disagreements with other political and economic domains took place, other religious orders fought against them for centuries and the end came on horseback, with royal and papal interdictions.

“Devassa” is a portuguese and brazilian legal term with the purpose that covers several areas. Instituting a inquiry/”devassa” is a symbol of an acquired power, from the respondentes/“devassados”, my condolences.


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