The Inquisition is the institutional practice of specially appointed Roman Catholic priests charged with investigating and putting on trial individuals suspected of "heresy" (holding to beliefs and practices that were considered to be a threat to, or significantly out of line with, official Roman Catholic teaching). This system was used by the Roman Catholic Church from around the 12th century all the way up until the early 20th century. Those convicted of heresy by the inquisition were typically turned over to civil authorities to carry out their determined sentences, up to and including death. By the 16th century and the dawn of the printing press, the inquisition was also closely connected with the systematic effort to suppress books and pamphlets considered heretical and to impose legal restrictions on publication that would prevent such works from being printed in the first place. 3
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Inquisition was first established in the Middle Ages with the primary purpose of combating the teachings of a group known as the "Cathars" or sometimes as the "Albigenses". This widespread religious movement in Western Europe allegedly taught a form of dualism, believing in two equal and opposite divine beings, one of light and goodness, the other of darkness and corruption. They were considered such a threat to the Roman Catholic identity in Europe that a Crusade was even called against certain cities sympathetic to their cause to try and stop their spread with military force. It is primarily in this context that the process first began of assigning specially trained and chosen priests to investigate the beliefs of those in certain areas suspected of Cathar influence and to condemn all found to hold Cathar beliefs, and likewise punish those found guilty of in any way aiding them. These were often small, largely independent teams of a few priests in various areas working alongside local governments largely independently of one another, linked mostly through an innovative system of carefully indexed and shared documents and records, facilitated by Rome, which allowed such things as for one inquisitor to more easily discover if an accused individual had been tried before by another inquisitor, and if so to use those records to catch him in any inconsistent testimony. Once set in motion, the inquisition did not limit itself to the Cathars alone, but tried and convicted doctrinal heretics and accused witches 10 and was utilized in the suppression of a religious military group known as the "Knights Templar" in France.
In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV established a new inquisition, particularly in Spain, in response to growing concern that many Jews who had professed conversion to Christianity were in fact still secretly holding to their Jewish beliefs and practices. He granted Catholic Kings the authority to appoint three inquisitors in every town to address the issue, a power previously reserved for the Pope himself. On this basis, the Spanish Inquisition was formally organized by the Spanish crown in 1480. The Spanish Inquisition was more intense than previous inquisitions, in part because it was more secular. This is not to imply that the religious elements were in any way removed, or that politics was not ever involved in previous activities of the inquisition, but when the crown was given direct authority over the institution, it freely utilized it for purposes that distant Rome would not. The Spanish utilized the trials of the inquisition to gather galley slaves for its navy and expanded the crimes it was to address beyond heresy to things like smuggling and horse theft. They were so notorious for seizing the property of the accused that the Pope himself wrote a formal rebuke to King of Spain bemoaning that he "has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls but by lust for wealth." Indeed, many cultural divides within Spanish life were swept up into the agenda of the Spanish Inquisition. As one historian notes:
"Unlike earlier inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition was bound up not only with religious concerns, but with an ideology of ethnicity - the notion of limpieza de sangre, or 'purity of blood.' It was about classes of people rather than just categories of belief. And unlike earlier inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition was a wholly owned subsidiary of the State."
Meanwhile, the Pope did continue directing the inquisitions elsewhere, especially in the Papal States (territories in which the Pope was himself the sovereign political leader as well as the head of the Church, primarily in Italy). These efforts were centralized (and intensified) into a formal organization headquartered in the Vatican after the dawn of the Reformation in the 16th century. Indeed, persecution of Protestants was more violent and thorough in Italy, where ideology was the primary focus, than in the national Inquisitions like Spain, where ethnic and political concerns could be more fierce. Large numbers of religious dissidents from both Spain and the Papal states began to flee as refugees to the newly formed Protestant lands in Germany and Switzerland where they could escape the inquisition's hand. Yet, while the interrogation and condemnation of heretics remained a significant part of its work, the dawn of the printing press created a new focus of suppressing documents that would spread such teachings. This took hold first in the Papal lands, but Spain and others gradually followed suit in producing lists of banned books to be rooted out and in screening publication of new works. The formal inquisition under the Papacy, headquartered in the Vatican, continued to operate until the early 20th century. In fact, while the penal methods of the inquisition are no longer employed and there is no more authoritative index of banned books, the institutional body in the Vatican still technically exists today under the name "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." As such, it still must evaluate and sign off on any document coming from the Vatican before it will be published and it still serves to define, identify, and judge instances of heresy within the Roman Catholic communion, though of course today neither the heretic nor his books run any risk of being set ablaze by them.
PAIN AND PUNISHMENT
While the inquisition was responsible for the execution of thousands of men and women, it did not execute people directly. After trying them, it handed its condemned over to the civil authorities to carry out the punishment. As such, it largely relied on the execution methods already in place. The executions of the inquisition were indeed quite brutal, however, this was not by peculiar design but rather because nearly all executions of those days were brutal. In the 19th century, the condemned of the inquisition were executed by hanging rather than by methods like burning at the stake because hanging was by then the normal method of most executions. Still, the inquisition did come to attach theological significance to the idea of burning a heretic, such as its public picture to observers of the fiery torments of hell and the symbolic idea of erasing the heretic entirely from memory. They even attempted to erroneously argue for it biblically in passages like John 15:6. The Inquisition would even exhume the bodies of those already dead and buried if they were later determined to have been heretics, and burn the remains publically. Thus, it is not by accident that "burning at the stake" is the method that came to define the inquisition in most people's minds both then and now, and it certainly became the Inquisitions preferred method. This can be seen even in the title of an early protestant criticism of the practices of the inquisition, "Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them".
The interrogation of the accused was among the central duties of the Inquisitors. They actually became surprisingly skilled in human psychology as they observed, documented, and shared with one another their discoveries on the various ways that people deflect questions and conceal information. They also developed psychological strategies of their own to draw out information through the interrogation process, strategies quite similar to what interrogators still utilize today. But the most notorious of the inquisitors' tools in extracting information was the use of various forms of physical torture. Again, the inquisitors did not perform the torture with their own hands, but brought in the local civil authorities to do so while the Inquisitors asked the questions. Accordingly, the methods used were those methods already existing in medieval Europe and familiar to the local governments. Torture was not utilized by the Inquisition to punish a known heretic, but rather to seek a confession from a suspected heretic. It was a form of interrogation, and was therefore inevitably used on the innocent as well as the guilty. The crime of heresy being one purely within oneself, the only definite way to determine your guilt was for you yourself to admit it, therefore the confession was of utmost importance to the Inquisition. The goal was not to force the innocent to falsely confess, but to compel confession only from the guilty, and therefore certain steps were taken. The accused were often not told what they were charged with, lest they falsely confess to whatever the charge was just to make the pain stop. A confession made during torture was also inadmissible as evidence. The person had to repeat the confession again later, and torture was only officially allowed to be tortured once so that they did not repeat the confession only out of fear of further torture (though this last rule was twisted or outright broken frequently) Many of those who suffered torture and were released uncharged, or who were convicted but punished with a lesser sentence and released alive, fled to protestant lands for refuge and published their stories.
THE REFORMATION AND THE INQUISITION
When the Protestant Reformation turned people back to the word of God as the final authority and to the theological foundations of the gospel of salvation by God's grace alone through faith alone, it had implications in almost all areas of life and faith. Neither the text of Scripture nor protestant theology could allow for the ordaining and organizing a body of special agents of the church to seek out heretics by wit or force and deliver them up for punishment wherever they may be. This does not, however, mean that all protestants immediately rejected the idea of formal persecution. The Swiss reformation, beginning under Ulrich Zwingli, supported local governments in their decision to persecute a group of more radical protestants known as the Anabaptists, who rejected infant baptism in favor of the view that the church consisted only of those who repented of their sins and received baptism as a conscious outward expression of their inward conversion. The Anabaptists also taught extreme nonresistance, which meant they so strongly opposed violence that they refused to serve as soldiers in legitimate defense of their land or even be political leaders because they would have to order the use of force upon criminals or in military action. Local governments saw these things as seditious, as threats to social unity and to the security of their country, and so they sought to suppress them by force. At the beginning, the Swiss reformers generally agreed. The Swiss Anabaptists received life imprisonment or were executed by drowning. Indeed, many protestant lands did not begin as places overly hospitable to certain kinds of dissenters, though in most cases the concern was with forms of dissent that were believed (rightly or wrongly) to harm the security or order of the civil society. 44 Yet the return to biblical theology in the reformation presented a huge challenge to these ideas of formal persecution, and would prove in many places to be its undoing, and would indeed challenge it throughout the world. 45
Martin Luther, considered by most to be the founder of the protestant reformation, himself spoke against formal persecution, saying that the burning of heretics was contrary to the will of the Spirit, and the Lutheran territory of Strausburg took this to heart and formally tolerated dissenters like the Anabaptists. While the Swiss reformation under Calvin remained harsh toward heretics and Calvin is famous for his consent to the burning of the anti-Trinitarian heretic Michael Servetus, when the Calvinistic reformation spread to Holland it would transform Holland so that by the 17th century it was a place without a "state church" and where most religious expressions were permitted under the law. The Anabaptists themselves spoke and wrote boldly in defense of the freedom of conscience and a century later the birth of the Baptist churches in England would bring still another wave of biblical argumentation for religious liberty. Through the consistent work of they and of many other English Christians, in 1689 England took a major step in that direction with the passage of the "Act of Toleration". The biblical foundation of the Reformation compelled Protestantism to ultimately reject the use of compulsion and persecution, and it ultimately became a powerful and effective voice for religious liberty.
The inquisition was a Roman Catholic institution born in the Middle Ages and carried on through much of the modern era, whereby ordained church authorities were trained to specialize in the investigation of heretical beliefs and to cooperate with local governments to see them punished. Using the penal methods of the day, their punishments were often as brutal as the age around them, and torture was often employed in a regulated fashion to compel confession from those being investigated. It had different expressions in different times and places and was arguably at its worst when most under the authority and direction of secular state authorities. This institution has no basis in Scripture or in the New Testament church, and the Protestant Reformation's return to the ultimate authority of Scripture over and above the authorities of the Church or of tradition not only never allowed them to create a similar church institution, but ultimately led them to reject legal punishment of doctrinal error and to be a leading voice in moving the convictions of the western world in the direction of religious liberty.
INQUISITION, SPANISH. Since its inception the Spanish Inquisition has been controversial. In 1478 Ferdinand of Aragón (ruled 1471–1504) and Isabella of Castile (ruled 1474–1504) requested papal permission to establish the religious tribunals in Castile. Unlike the medieval papal Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was a hybrid religious-secular institution under the authority of the crown, which appointed its officials and supervised its operation. The tribunals employed judicial procedures that were both contrary and offensive to existing Castilian legal practice. The establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in the kingdom of Aragón, which already had its own (albeit moribund) papal Inquisition, was seen as an affront to the kingdom's privileges, and one inquisitor was assassinated in the cathedral of Zaragoza in 1485. During the sixteenth century northern Protestants used the Inquisition as a cornerstone of the anti-Spanish propaganda campaign later dubbed the Black Legend. Even in its abolition the Inquisition was controversial, as it took three attempts to suppress the court, which lingered until 1834.
Since the fifteenth century the Inquisition has inspired a lively and sometimes lurid debate over the nature of its policies and practices.
EARLY YEARS OF THE INQUISITION
The first inquisitors arrived in Seville in November 1480. Their mission was to extirpate heresy and punish the guilty. Court procedures drew on medieval inquisitorial practice, distilled into the Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicolau Eimeric in 1376. The medieval Inquisition had been founded to combat Catharism, but the Spanish Inquisition's special target was the new heresy of "Judaizing." During the fifteenth century, either by force or choice, many Spanish Jews had converted to Christianity. Some of these New Christians (conversos) continued to practice Judaism secretly while advancing rapidly in Christian society. Seville, the first city targeted by the Spanish Inquisition, was home to a large and wealthy converso community. Several hundreds of people were tried and punished in a short period of time, and similar scenes were repeated in Córdoba, Ciudad Real, Toledo, and Valencia.
The Inquisition used several degrees of sentencing. For those found guilty of heresy, there was relaxation to the secular arm of justice (for death by burning), relaxation in effigy for those heretics who had fled or previously had died, and reconciliation for those who abjured and promised to return to the Christian fold. In all cases, the property of those found guilty of heresy was confiscated. Both during and after public humiliation and sentencing at the ceremony known as the auto da fe, the condemned were obligated to wear a distinctive penitential tunic (the sanbenito) over their clothes, and they and their male descendants were banned from holding public office for several generations. Undoubtedly, for those Old Christians who were determined to eliminate unwanted competition from the converso class, the Inquisition was an efficient weapon.
The Inquisition's formative phase lasted until 1517. A well-defined institutional structure took shape. At the top were the inquisitor general (also called the grand inquisitor; the first was Friar Tomás de Torquemada [1420–1498]) and the royal council, known as La Suprema. Several permanent tribunals emerged at this time, while others functioned briefly and then disappeared. During the formative years the tribunals focused almost exclusively on Judaizers. The limited evidence that survives from this period suggests that perhaps as many as 15,000 to 20,000 people were tried during this time, nowhere near the 340,592 suggested in 1808 by the Inquisition's critic and former secretary Juan Antonio Llorente (1756–1823). One must remember furthermore that a great many of the sentences were handed out in absentia or posthumously, so even during this period of fierce persecution about 30 to 40 percent of those arrested ultimately faced the death penalty.
PERIOD OF GREATEST INFLUENCE
The Inquisition's period of greatest influence occurred in 1569–1621, during the reigns of Philip II (ruled 1556–1598) and Philip III (ruled 1598–1621). Before then, under Charles V (ruled 1517–1556), the Inquisition had suffered from a lack of direction. Prosecution of Judaizers had run its course, and aside from prosecuting the heretics known as alumbrados and the followers of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536) in the 1520s and 1530s, the tribunals were left without a well-defined mission. The decade of the 1550s changed all that, however, when Protestants were found in Seville and at the royal court at Valladolid. Under inquisitor general Fernando de Valdés (1483–1568), the tribunals were reformed and redirected toward combating Protestantism.
Eventually numbering a total of sixteen tribunals in Spain, two in Italy, and three in the New World, the Inquisition took over responsibility for censorship and contraband and greatly expanded its prosecution of various religious crimes. In addition to Protestants, conversos, Moriscos (converted Muslims), and foreigners, ordinary Spaniards were drawn into the tribunals, as even the most casual religious oaths and statements became worthy of scrutiny and correction. Detailed questioning of prisoners, once limited to those accused of the most heinous heresies, now was applied to the most unlikely suspects, who were usually fined a ducat or two (a heavy fine for most) and sent on their way without further ado. The large majority of all cases undertaken by the Inquisition took place during this period.
During this period each tribunal functioned at a high level of efficiency thanks to the efforts of two groups of officials, one consisting of professional, salaried career men and the other made up of unpaid volunteers. The professional core of each tribunal included two inquisitors, lawyers for the prosecution, secretaries, a jailor, a bailiff, and a doorman. Periodically one inquisitor was required to go on a circuit (the visita) of his district, while the other inquisitor remained at home to handle business there. The tribunals relied heavily on various types of unpaid officials. First, there were the two networks of familiars and comisarios. The familiars were laymen charged with carrying messages and arresting suspects and delivering them to the Inquisition, but they were not spies and informers. The comisarios were priests who assisted in the gathering of evidence at the local level. To assess the heretical content of the accusations, the inquisitors were advised by theologians known as calificadores. At key stages in a trial inquisitors were required to consult with voting members of the tribunal, who voted on whether or not to indict, torture, and convict. Cases involving the death penalty were sent to the Suprema for review and approval, and each tribunal
The period 1569–1621 also witnessed a series of controversial trials. First, the archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain, Bartolomé de Carranza (1503–1576), was sucked into the vortex of court intrigue that consumed the early years of Philip II's reign. Carranza's trial, which lasted from 1559 to 1576, started in Spain and ended in Rome. He was all but exonerated of the charges of heresy in 1576 but died shortly thereafter. A second politically motivated trial was the case of Philip II's secretary Antonio Pérez (1539–1611), who was implicated in the murder of another secretary. After Pérez escaped to Aragón in 1590, Philip tried to recapture him using the Inquisition of Zaragoza. The use of the Inquisition in this manner provoked such widespread discontent in Aragón that Philip was forced to order in the army. Despite these two famous cases, such overt political abuse of the Holy Office's power was rare. However, the Inquisition believed it was entirely justified in closely monitoring Spain's spiritual writers and preachers, who were suspected of having Protestant tendencies. Nowadays the list of those tried or called in for questioning reads like a who's who of Spain's most famous religious men and women, including, among others, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint John of Ávila, Friar Luis de Granada, Saint Francisco de Borja, Friar Francisco de Osuna, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and Friar Luis de León.
DECLINE OF THE INQUISITION
The Inquisition declined with the Spanish empire in the seventeenth century. As the tribunals pulled back from their ambitious program of vigilance, caseloads and revenue fell. The tribunals focused on cases of Portuguese conversos living in Spain, witchcraft and superstition, and censorship. In the eighteenth century the Inquisition could not stop the slow spread of Enlightenment ideas to Spain, and the country's intellectuals increasingly began to see the tribunals as out of step with the times. With the Napoleonic invasion of 1808, the courts were suppressed for the first time, at the hands of French officials and Spanish liberals. Conservative nationalists, however, fighting for independence and the return of Ferdinand VII (ruled 1808, 1814–1833), claimed that the court was the guardian of Spanish identity and morals. The Inquisition was restored without powers in 1814, only to undergo a lingering death between 1820 and 1834.
The Holy Office was suppressed for the final time by official decree in 1834, but historians have argued about its significance ever since. In the nineteenth century Protestant historians and Spanish liberals blamed Spain's backwardness on the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, which were seen as having terrorized the country, suppressed the basic rights of freedom of speech and religion, and retarded economic growth and scientific thought. In the twentieth century, with the advent of murderous anti-Semitic and totalitarian regimes, the focus shifted to understanding the Inquisition's role in the long history of the persecution of Jews and repression of entire populations. Under the pro-Catholic dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1892–1975; ruled 1939–1975), censorship prevented Spaniards from freely evaluating the Inquisition's legacy, and in the 1970s the most objective work was carried out by foreign historians interested in the new social history and history of mentalités. After the collapse of the regime in 1975, Spaniards in the 1980s and 1990s joined in a renaissance of Inquisition studies to understand their country's complex history. The large body of scholarship produced since 1975 has considerably modified and fleshed out understandings of the Holy Office, which has come to be seen as considerably less monolithic and ruthless than was previously thought.
THE TOP 10 QUESTIONS EVERYONE HAS ABOUT THE INQUISITION The Huffington Post, Cullen Murphy, ‘God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World’, Mar 24, 2012
1. I KNOW WHAT THE WORD “INQUISITION” MEANS, EVEN USE THE WORD MYSELF SOMETIMES, BUT MY HISTORY IS SHAKY. WHAT DOES IT REFER TO?
It was a means used by the Church to enforce orthodoxy. Inquisitors would go out into troublesome regions, question people intensively, conduct tribunals and mete out punishments, sometimes harsh ones, like burning at the stake. Depending on the time and place, the targets were heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, rationalists and sometimes people who held superstitious beliefs. The Inquisition everyone has heard of is the Spanish Inquisition, but there was more than one Inquisition, and the earliest, at the start of the 13th century, wasn’t in Spain. And although Jews were sometimes the focus of that first Inquisition, as they primarily were in Spain, the more urgent targets were Christian heretics in the south of France and northern Italy.
2. HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE BURNED AT THE STAKE?
No one really knows. The inquisitors were excellent record-keepers — at times truly superb. One surviving document gives the expenses for an execution down to the price of the rope used to tie the victims’ hands. But a lot of the records have been lost. An estimate that has wide credibility among historians is that about 2 percent of those who came before Inquisition tribunals were burned at the stake, which would mean several tens of thousands of people. The rest suffered lesser punishments.
3. OVER WHAT PERIOD OF TIME ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Roughly 700 years. The official start is usually given as 1231 A.D., when the pope appoints the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity.” The Spanish Inquisition, which begins under Ferdinand and Isabella, doesn’t end until the 19th century — the last execution was in 1826. At the outset, the main focus was on Jews and “judaizers” — Christian converts of Jewish ancestry who were accused of secretly adhering to Judaism. The Roman Inquisition, created to fight the Reformation, and run from the Vatican, doesn’t come to an end until the 20th century.
4. DOES IT SURVIVE IN ANY FORM? I SOMETIMES HEAR ABOUT THEOLOGIANS TODAY GETTING INTO TROUBLE.
The Vatican’s Congregation of the Inquisition was formally abolished in 1908 — but it may be more correct to say it was renamed. It was turned into the Holy Office, which in the 1960s became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the department that Cardinal Josef Ratzinger ran before he became Pope Benedict XVI. It occupies the palazzo built for the Inquisition in the middle of the 16th century. And it’s still the department that keeps an eye on what theologians write, sometimes calling them on the carpet.
5. DOES THE INQUISITION EXPLAIN WHY SPAIN IN SOME WAYS TOOK LONGER TO MODERNIZE THAN FRANCE OR ENGLAND?
Historians do ask this question, but you’ll get different opinions. The “yes” answer will point to the wholesale expulsion from Spain in 1492 of many thousands of Jews — people who were often highly educated professionals. And it will point to the attempted suppression, over centuries, of intellectual inquiry of all kinds. The same kind of suppression occurred in Italy. The problem is figuring out how effective the suppression really was, not to mention disentangling the influence of the Inquisition from other factors. Bottom line, though: No one argues that the Inquisition was a force for enlightenment.
6. DID TORQUEMADA HIMSELF HAVE JEWISH ANCESTRY?
Historians have looked into this pretty carefully. The consensus seems to be that Tomas de Torquemada, who directed the Spanish Inquisition in its earliest (and bloodiest) years, did not have Jewish ancestry, but other members of his extended family probably did. This wouldn’t have been unusual in Spain. Over the centuries there was considerable mixing among Christians, Muslims and Jews, especially in the higher ranks.
7. WHEN I THINK “INQUISITION,” I THINK “TORTURE” — IS THAT REAL OR IS IT A MYTH?
Torture was an integral part of the inquisitorial process, mainly to extract confessions — just as it was part of the systems used by secular courts of the time. Modern historians explain that the Church tried to regulate torture, establishing clear guidelines for its use. Unfortunately, limitations on torture never really work — that’s one lesson from the Inquisition, and from the recent American experience. It’s never hard to justify applying a little more physical coercion once you’ve decided that physical coercion is fine to begin with. Medieval inquisitors, limited to one session of torture per person, sometimes conducted a second or third or fourth, arguing that it was just a “continuance” of the first.
8. IS WATERBOARDING TORTURE?
Vice President Dick Cheney called waterboarding “a dunk in the water.” The Justice Department attempted to define torture so narrowly that nothing came up to the torture threshold unless it risked causing irreversible impairment, organ failure or death. The inquisitors believed that waterboarding was torture. That’s why they used it.
9. HOW DOES THE INDEX OF FORBIDDEN BOOKS FIT INTO THE PICTURE?
It was created by the Roman Inquisition to deal with the onslaught of books — many of them advancing ideas the Church didn’t like — made possible by the printing press, and over the centuries the Index grew and grew. It existed for a very long time — it wasn’t abolished until 1966. The impulse to criticize still has some life. A decade ago Josef Ratzinger expressed concern over the “subtle seductions” of Harry Potter.
10. THE “MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD” PART OF YOUR TITLE — WHAT’S THE ARGUMENT?
The Inquisition was based on intolerance and moral certainty. It tried to enforce a particular view, often with violent means. There’s nothing new about hatred and persecution; human beings have been very good at this for millennia. What’s new about the Inquisition is that persecution is institutionalized. It persists for generation after generation. That requires organizational tools that were being newly developed in the Middle Ages. How do you create and manage a bureaucracy? How do you collect information and organize it in a way so that you can find what you need? How do you discover what people are doing and thinking? We take the ability to do all these things for granted. When you look at the Inquisition, you see these capabilities coming into existence. You see the world becoming modern.