The Terrifying Inquisition
IT WAS the 13th century. The whole of the south of France was said to be infested with heretics. The local bishop had failed in his attempts to uproot these weeds growing in his diocese, a field supposed to be exclusively Catholic. More drastic action was deemed necessary. The pope’s special representatives “in the matter of heresy” moved in. The Inquisition had come to town.
The roots of the Inquisition go back to the 11th and 12th centuries, when various dissident groups began springing up in Catholic Europe. But the Inquisition proper was inaugurated by Pope Lucius III at the Synod of Verona, Italy, in 1184. In collaboration with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, he decreed that any person who spoke or even thought contrary to Catholic doctrine would be excommunicated by the church and duly punished by the secular authorities. Bishops were instructed to seek out (Latin, inquirere) heretics. This was the beginning of what was called the Episcopal Inquisition, that is, placed under the authority of the Catholic bishops.
However, as it turned out, in Rome’s eyes the bishops were not all sufficiently zealous in ferreting out dissidents. So several succeeding popes sent out papal legates who, with the help of Cistercian monks, were empowered to carry out their own “inquiries” into heresy. Thus, for a time, there were two parallel Inquisitions, called the Episcopal and the Legatine Inquisitions, the latter more severe than the former.
Even this harsher Inquisition was not sufficient for Pope Innocent III. In 1209 he launched a military crusade against heretics in southern France. These were mostly Cathars, a group that mixed Manichaeism with apostate Christian Gnosticism.* Since Albi was one of the towns in which the Cathars were particularly numerous, they came to be known as Albigenses.
The “holy war” against the Albigenses ended in 1229, but all the dissenters had not been stamped out. So that same year, at the Synod of Toulouse in southern France, Pope Gregory IX gave a new stimulus to the Inquisition. He arranged for permanent inquisitors, including one priest, in every parish. In 1231 he enacted a law whereby unrepentant heretics would be sentenced to death by fire and repentant ones to life imprisonment.
Two years later, in 1233, Gregory IX relieved the bishops of their responsibility to seek out heretics. He set up the Monastic Inquisition, so called because he appointed monks as official inquisitors. These were chosen mainly from among members of the newly founded Dominican Order, but also from among the Franciscans.
The Inquisitorial Procedure
The inquisitors, Dominican or Franciscan friars, would assemble the local inhabitants in the churches. They were summoned there to confess to heresy if they were guilty of it or to denounce any heretics known to them. Even if they suspected someone of heresy, they were to denounce the person.
Anyone—man, woman, child, or slave—could accuse a person of heresy, without fear of being confronted with the accused or of the latter even knowing who had denounced him. The accused rarely had someone to defend him, since any lawyer or witness in his behalf would himself have been accused of aiding and abetting a heretic. So the accused generally stood alone before the inquisitors, who were at the same time prosecutors and judges.
Those accused were given at the most a month to confess. Whether they confessed or not, the “inquiry” (Latin, inquisitio) would begin. The accused were held in custody, many in solitary confinement with little food. When the bishop’s prison was full, the civil prison was used. When it overflowed, old buildings were converted to prisons.
Since the accused were presumed guilty even before the trial began, the inquisitors used four methods to induce them to confess to heresy. First, threat of death on the stake. Second, shackled confinement in a dark, damp, tiny cell. Third, psychological pressure by prison visitors. And, last, torture, which included the rack, the pulley, or strappado, and torture by fire. Monks would stand by to record any confession. Acquittal was virtually impossible.
Sentences were pronounced on Sundays, in church or in a public square, with the clergy present. A light sentence could be penances. Yet this included the compulsory wearing of a yellow felt cross sewn to the clothes, which made it well-nigh impossible to find employment. Or the sentence could be public flogging, imprisonment, or being handed over to the secular authorities for death by fire.
The heavier penalties were accompanied by the confiscation of the condemned person’s property, which was shared by the Church and the State. The surviving members of the heretic’s family thus suffered greatly. The houses of heretics and of those who had given heretics shelter were torn down.
Also, dead people reported to have been heretics were tried posthumously. If they were found guilty, their bodies were exhumed and burned, and their property confiscated. Again this brought untold suffering to the innocent surviving members of the family.
Such was the general procedure followed by the medieval Inquisition, with variations according to time and place.
In 1252 Pope Innocent IV published his bull Ad exstirpanda, officially authorizing the use of torture in the ecclesiastical courts of the Inquisition. Further regulations for the way torture was to be used were promulgated by Popes Alexander IV, Urban IV, and Clement IV.
At first the ecclesiastical inquisitors were not allowed to be present when the torture was administered, but Popes Alexander IV and Urban IV removed this restriction. This enabled the “questioning” to continue in the torture chamber. Similarly, as originally authorized, torture was to be applied only once, but the papal inquisitors got around this by claiming that renewed sessions of torture were merely “a continuation” of the first session.
Soon even witnesses were being tortured to make sure they had denounced all the heretics they knew. Sometimes an accused person who confessed to heresy was tortured even after confessing. As The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, this was “to compel him to testify against his friends and fellow-culprits.”—Volume VIII, page 32.
Six Centuries of Terror
Thus, the inquisitorial machinery was set in motion in the first half of the 13th century C.E. and was used for several centuries to crush anyone who spoke or even thought differently from the Catholic Church. It spread terror throughout Catholic Europe. When, toward the end of the 15th century, the Inquisition began to calm down in France and other countries of Western and Central Europe, it flared up in Spain.
The Spanish Inquisition, authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478, was first directed against the Marranos, or Spanish Jews, and the Moriscos, or Spanish Muslims. Many of these, who had adopted the Catholic faith out of fear, were suspected of continuing to practice their original religion secretly. In time, though, the Inquisition was used as a terrifying weapon against Protestants and any other dissenters.
From Spain and Portugal the Inquisition spread to the colonies of these two Catholic monarchies in Central and South America and elsewhere. It ended only when Napoleon invaded Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. It was temporarily restored after Napoleon fell but was finally suppressed in 1834, only a century and a half ago.
Catholic historians often indiscriminately label medieval heretics “Manichaean sects.” Mani, or Manes, was a third century C.E. founder of a fusion religion that mixed Persian Zoroastrianism and Buddhism with apostate Christian Gnosticism. And while such dissident groups as the Cathars may have been rooted in the teachings of Mani, this certainly was not true of the more Bible-oriented dissident groups such as the Waldenses.
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Various methods of torture inflicted by the inquisitor
Photo Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris
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Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture