~ The Inquisition ~

The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with the eradication of heresies.


The Inquisition was a medieval church court instituted to seek out and prosecute heretics. The term is applied to the institution itself, which was episcopal or papal, regional or local; to the personnel of the tribunal; and to the judicial procedure followed by the court. Notoriously harsh in its procedures, the Inquisition was defended during the Middle Ages by appeal to biblical practices and to the church father Saint Augustine, who had interpreted Luke 14:23 as endorsing the use of force against heretics.

Development and Institution

Problems with sects like the Albigenses (Cathari) and Waldenses in the 12th century first led to the episcopal Inquisition. Often at the instigation of secular rulers, bishops were urged to investigate and deal locally with heretics, since they were seen as a threat to both the ecclesiastical and the social order. Papal documents as well as the Second, Third, and Fourth Lateran Councils (1139, 1179, 1215) prescribed imprisonment and confiscation of property as punishment for heresy and threatened to excommunicate princes who failed to punish heretics.

The papal Inquisition was formally instituted by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. Following a law of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, enacted for Lombardy in 1224 and extended to the entire empire in 1232, Gregory ordered convicted heretics to be seized by the secular authorities and burned. Like Frederick, Gregory also mandated that heretics be sought out and tried before a church court. For this purpose, he first appointed special inquisitors (for example, Conrad of Marburg in Germany and Robert le Bougre in Burgundy) and later entrusted the task to members of the newly established Dominican and Franciscan Orders of friars. The independent authority of the inquisitors was a frequent cause of friction with the local clergy and bishops.


During the 13th century, the typical procedure began with the arrival of the inquisitors in a specific locality. A period of grace was proclaimed for penitent heretics, after which time denunciations were accepted from anyone, even criminals and other heretics. Two informants whose identity was unknown to the victim were usually sufficient for a charge. The court then summoned the suspect, conducted an interrogation, and tried to obtain the confession that was necessary for conviction. In order to do this, assisting secular authorities frequently applied physical torture. This practice probably started in Italy under the impact of rediscovered Roman civil law and made use of such painful procedures as stretching of limbs on the rack, burning with live coals, squeezing of fingers and toes, or the strappado, a vertical rack.

At the beginning of the interrogation, which was recorded summarily in Latin by a clerk, suspects and witnesses had to swear under oath that they would reveal everything. Unwillingness to take the oath was interpreted as a sign of adherence to heresy. If a person confessed and was willing to submit, the judges prescribed minor penances like flogging, fasts, prayers, pilgrimages, or fines. In more severe cases the wearing of a yellow "cross of infamy," with its resulting social ostracism, or imprisonment could be imposed. Denial of the charges without counterproof, obstinate refusal to confess, and persistence in the heresy resulted in the most severe punishments: life imprisonment or execution accompanied by total confiscation of property.

Since the church was not permitted to shed blood, the sentenced heretic was surrendered to the secular authorities for execution, usually by burning at the stake.

When the Inquisition had completed its investigations, the sentences were pronounced in a solemn ceremony, known as the sermo generalis ("general address") or, in Spain, as the auto-da-fe ("act of faith"), attended by local dignitaries, clergy, and townspeople. Here the penitents abjured their errors and received their penalties; obstinate heretics were solemnly cursed and handed over to be burned immediately in public.

Several inquisitors' manuals have survived, among them those of Bernard Gui and Nicolas Eymeric. Other sources include checklists of standard questions and numerous official minutes of local inquisitions. Some of these materials have been published, but most exist in manuscript only.

The first inquisitors worked in central Europe (Germany, northern Italy, eastern France). Later centers of the Inquisition were established in the Mediterranean regions, especially southern France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The tribunal was used in England to suppress the Lollards (followers of the 14th-century reformer John Wycliffe). Queen Mary I of England (r. 1553-58) used the tribunal in her effort to reverse the Protestant Reformation. The Inquisition's long survival can be attributed to the early inclusion of offenses other than heresy: sorcery, alchemy, blasphemy, sexual aberration, and infanticide. The number of witches and sorcerers burned after the late 15th century appears to have been far greater than that of heretics.

Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisition underwent special development in Portugal and Spain and their colonies. At the insistence of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV endorsed (1483) the creation of an independent Spanish Inquisition presided over by a high council and grand inquisitor. Legend has made the first grand inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, a symbol of ultimate cruelty, bigotry, intolerance, and religious fanaticism.

The truth is that the Spanish Inquisition was particularly severe, strict, and efficient because of its strong ties with the crown. Its major targets were the Marranos (converts from Judaism) and Moriscos (converts from Islam), many of whom were suspected of secretly adhering to their original faiths. During the 16th century, Protestants and Alumbrados (Spanish mystics) seemed to be the major danger. Often serving political ends, the inquisitors also exercised their dreaded functions among the converted Indian populations of the Spanish colonies in America. The Inquisition was finally suppressed in Spain in 1834 and in Portugal in 1821.

Roman Inquisition

At the time of the Reformation, Pope Paul III created a cardinals' commission at the curia as the final court of appeal in matters of heresy. This Roman Inquisition was solidified (1588) by Sixtus V into the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, also known as the Holy Office, whose task was to watch over the correct doctrine of faith and morals for the whole Roman Catholic church. Reorganized in 1908 under the simpler title Congregation of the Holy Office, it was redefined by Pope Paul VI in 1965 as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the more positive task of furthering right doctrine rather than censuring heresy.


Unlike many other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Judaism), the Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure with a central bureaucracy. In the early years of the church, there were several competing sects that called themselves Christian. But after the Emperor Constantine I (280?-337 CE) made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and the local administrative structures were pulled together into one hierarchy centered in Rome, doctrinal arguments were settled by Church Councils, beginning with the Council of Nicea in 325 (which formulated the Nicean Creed). Those whose beliefs or practices deviated sufficiently from the orthodoxy of the councils now became the objects of efforts to bring them into the fold. Resistance often led to persecution.

Heresies (from L. haeresis, sect, school of belief) were a problem for the Church from the beginning. In the early centuries there were the Arians and Manicheans; in the Middle Ages there were the Cathari and Waldenses; and in the Renaissance there were the Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Rosicrucians. Efforts to suppress heresies were initially ad hoc. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, Church Councils required secular rulers to prosecute heretics. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX published a decree which called for life imprisonment with salutary penance for the heretic who had confessed and repented and capital punishment for those who persisted. The secular authorities were to carry out the execution. Pope Gregory relieved the bishops and archbishops of this obligation, and made it the duty of the Dominican Order, though many inquisitors were members of other orders or of the secular clergy. By the end of the decade the Inquisition had become a general institution in all lands under the purview of the Pope. By the end of the 13th centuries the Inquisition in each region had a bureaucracy to help in its function.

The judge, or inquisitor, could bring suit against anyone. The accused had to testify against himself/herself and not have the right to face and question his/her accuser. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and heretics. The accused did not have right to counsel, and blood relationship did not exempt one from the duty to testify against the accused. Sentences could not be appealed. Sometimes inquisitors interrogated entire populations in their jurisdiction. The inquisitor questioned the accused in the presence of at least two witnesses. The accused was given a summary of the charges and had to take an oath to tell the truth. Various means were used to get the cooperation of the accused.  Torture came into use by the middle of the 13th century. The findings of the Inquisition were read before a large audience; the penitents abjured on their knees with one hand on a bible held by the inquisitor. Penalties went from visits to churches, pilgrimages, and wearing the cross of infamy to imprisonment (usually for life but the sentences were often commuted) and (if the accused would not abjure) death. Death was by burning at the stake, and it was carried out by the secular authorities. In some serious cases when the accused had died before proceedings could be instituted, his or her remains could be exhumed and burned. Death or life imprisonment was always accompanied by the confiscation of all the accuseds' property.

Abuses by local Inquisitions early on led to reform and regulation by Rome, and in the 14th century intervention by secular authorities became common. At the end of the 15th century, under Ferdinand and Isabel, the Spanish inquisition became independent of Rome. In its dealings with converted Moslems and Jews and also illuminists, the Spanish Inquisition with its notorious autos-da-fé represents a dark chapter in the history of the Inquisition. In northern Europe the Inquisition was considerably more benign: in England it was never instituted, and in the Scandinavian countries it had hardly any impact.

Pope Paul III established, in 1542, a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials, whose task it was to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines. This body, the Congregation of the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, part of the Roman Curia, became the supervisory body of local Inquisitions. The Pope himself holds the title of prefect but never exercises this office. Instead, he appoints one of the cardinals to preside over the meetings. There are usually ten other cardinals on the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican order. The Holy Office also has an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advise it on specific questions. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," and the first to be "formally heretical" and the second "at least erroneous in faith" in theology. This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until revised and Galileo to be admonished about his Copernicanism. It was this same body in 1633 that tried Galileo.


Among the innumerable victims of the Inquisition were such famous people as the philosopher Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Joan of Arc, and the religious order of knights called the Templars. The institution and its excesses have been an embarrassment to many modern Christians. In anti-Catholic and antireligious polemics since the Enlightenment (for example, Voltaire's Candide), the Inquisition has been cited as a prime example of what is thought to be the barbarism of the Middle Ages. In its day there was some popular sympathy for the Inquisition. Some saw it as a political and economic tool, others, as a necessary defense for religious belief. Nevertheless, despite all efforts at understanding the institution in the light of social, political, religious, and ideological factors, today the Inquisition is generally admitted to belong to the darker side of Christian history.

Coulton, George G., The Inquisition (1929; repr. 1974); Hauben, Paul J., ed., The Spanish Inquisition (1969); Kamen, Henry A., The Spanish Inquisition and Society in Spain in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1985); Langdon-Davies, John, The Spanish Inquisition (1938; repr. 1964); Lea, Henry C., A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, 3 vols. (1888; repr. 1988); Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, trans. by Barbara Bray (1978). Monter, William, Frontiers of Heresy (1990); O'Brien, John A., The Inquisition (1973); Peters, Edward, Inquisition (1988; repr. 1989); Roth, Cecil, The Spanish Inquisition (1938; repr. 1987); Wakefield, Walter L., Heresy, Crusade, and Inquisition in Southern France, 1100-1250 (1974)






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