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CARM Luke Wayne, 2/23/16

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


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.


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.


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.


The Portuguese Inquisition was based on its medieval progenitor which was established to enforce the orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism against the Cathars, a dissident Christian sect in southern France The Inquisition combined the power of God and State. The Inquisition condemned a prisoner to the flames but “relaxed”, that is, “transferred1 him or her to secular authority to carry out the actual killing, thus washing its hands of the matter. The Church could not be seen to have blood on its hands. Similarly, torture was conducted without causiiq bloodshed.

The Inquisitors cultivated fear and terror not only on New Christians but on the whole society by the celebration of auto de fes, a public spectacle of humiliation which ended in public burnings at the stake. Ii is estimated that about 2,000 people were burned at the stake. Many ol those condemned to death were burned alive, which meant that death came slowly and painfully, often taking up to two hours. The use of torture and the secrecy of the Inquisition added to the fear and tyranm of terror.

The holy terror started when an Inquisitor arrived in a town and read the edict of faith preaching against heresy and extolling the virtues ol Holy Roman Catholicism. Parishioners were exhorted to confess the their heretical sins and those of others. Failure to report heresy was a crime.  Arrest not only resulted in imprisonment but also certain financial ruin for the assets of the arrested person were confiscated, even if the person was released and reconciled to the church. A vast network of informers and agents both at home and abroad maintained the reign of terror and fear.


The Inquisition was concerned primarily with maintaining Catholic orthodoxy for the whole of society: one religion, one people. Its main objective was to exterminate the secret practice of Judaism by Mew Christians. Intolerance was the governing principle. It criminalized any deviance from Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Any challenge to the primacy of the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was a challenge to the divinity of Christ and thus equal to treason warranting horrific punishment of burning at the stake in addition to confiscation of assets, torture and imprisonment, often for years. A heretic either had to be cured or destroyed, otherwise they could infect others.

The Inquisition institutionalized intolerance and violence. It reflected the growth of unchecked modem centralized power. It was superbly efficient. Its detailed rules covered every aspect of its organization ind operation through successive Codes of procedure known as Regimentos. It kept meticulous records and followed legal procedure.  The Inquisition became the most powerful institution of its time, even lefying pope and king. Its dreaded tentacles spread far and wide. It is ilie origin of modem totalitarianism.


Secrecy was the modus operandi of the Inquisition. A prisoner was not told the reason for their arrest, or any information about the Charges against them; they were expected to confess their guilt, even if il required a little prompting with torture. Prisoners were not permitted to communicate with one another. Everyone involved had to swear an Oath of secrecy, from the prisoner to the jailer, the lawyers, even the Inquisitors. The identity of witnesses were withheld from the accused, even the particulars of the charges themselves were secret. Every proceeding in the process was secret. A breach of secrecy constituted a crime of heresy, punishable by death. Prisoners who had been released were not permitted to discuss any aspect of their case.

The Inquisition legal process was not an adversarial one. The accused was presumed guilty upon arrest; it was simply a question of deciding the degree of culpability and the appropriate sentence. Denial of the Charges was not an available option. If an accused refused to confess, he or she was deemed to be “negativo” which resulted in the death penalty. Confession and granting of mercy was the best to be hoped for.

The Portuguese Trial, Manuel Azevedo and Fernanda Guimaraes, pp31-37, 2013

1.  Denunciations

A person could voluntarily appear before the Mesa to confeiss their crimes in the hope of being reconciled to the Church with light punishment. Sometimes New Christians voluntarily turned themselves in as a group, hoping for leniency and thus avoiding the inevitab!e arrests.

Generally, a complaint was started with a denunciation of a person to the Tribunal or to a Familare (an agent of the Inquisition). An anonymous complaint sufficed to start an investigation. The reading of the edict of faith or grace also produced denunciations, although this method could create disturbances as happened in the riot of Fundao where the Inquisition agents locked the doors of the Church with everyone inside (See Antonieta Garcia, Um Motim No Fundao-1580).

2.  Arrest

In theory, an arrest warrant required the signature of two Inquisitors. The arrest was carried out by the meirinho (bailiff) or by a Familare who delivered the prisoner to the Inquisition jail. If the prisoner was arrestd in the hinterland or overseas, far away from one of the three Tribunals the prisoner was required to pay the costs of transportation. Bailifs usually seized the assets of the prisoners to cover initial expenses.

3.  Delivery of the prisoner

Upon delivery of the prisoner to the Tribunal jail, he or she would be' relieved of their personal possessions, and handed over to the alcaide the prison warden. A curator was appointed if the prisoner was a minor

4.  Hearings before the Inquisitor

Generally, a prisoner was expected to confess their crimes. The Regimentos prescribed three interrogation sessions: genealogy, generalities, and specifics.

i) Genealogy

The first session before the Mesa was to obtain the prisoners genealogy: the identity of the accused, the siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and their descendants, both paternal and maternal as well as the family of the spouse if the accused was married. Often, especially in the early stages of the Inquisition, the accused persons withheld information or gave details about relatives who had left the country.

After recording the genealogy of the prisoner, he or she was asked in recite basic prayers such as the “Hail Mary and Our Father’ and the commandments to test their knowledge of Catholicism. Naturally, any clever New Christian memorized Catholic prayers. The prisoner was then asked to explain why they had been arrested. If they stated that they did not know, they are admonished and encouraged to confess. If the prisoner did not confess, they were sent away to be recalled at a future date, sometimes months or years later.

ii) Generalities (In Genere)

At the second session the accused were admonished once again and forewarned of the consequences of not confessing. Either the accused started to confess or was sent away again to languish in Inquisition dungeons.

Hi) Specifics (In Specie)

In the third session, if the accused had already made a satisfactory confession, they were asked about their deviant beliefs: the rituals and ceremonies they practiced, who had taught them, who they discussed il with, the length of time they remained deviant, who their confessors were, what they had confessed, and what had caused them to give up the Law of Moses and return to the Catholic fold.

If the accused refused to confess they were deemed negativo (negative). If they had made an unsatisfactory confession, they were adjudged confitente diminuto (diminished confessant). Either finding could warrant the death penalty.

The prisoner was asked about the denunciations made against them but was not provided with any specifics. For example, the Inquisitor night state that the Mesa had information that the prisoner fasted on Jewish holy days, or told someone that Christ was not the Messiah, or that they did not work on Saturdays. Sometimes the prisoner denied the suggestions and invented a reason to explain their behavior. Later, perhaps after years of languishing in jail, they would confess to Judaizing.

In most Inquisition cases, the prisoner made numerous appearances before the Mesa, either by request or upon being summoned. The Inquisitors prompted the prisoner to name as many persons as they could with whom they had Judaized.  A sign of sincere confession was the denunciation of close family members such as spouses, children or grandchildren.  Often prisoners who had been sentenced to death would denounce all their relatives and friends on the way to the pyre in the hope of a reprieve.  In this way, the Inquisition apparatus had constant new information with which to carry out its heinous work.

5.  Confessions

The objective of the Inquisitors was to obtain a confession, even If it required the use of torture. Prisoners were promised leniency and mercy if they confessed at the earliest opportunity but could do so at any time even after sentencing, which in some cases saved their lives.  In some instances the prisoners were beaten to encourage confessions.  The following account is from the prison at Coimbra in 1618,

“...Serving as the Inquisitor and president (of the court), Mr Simao Barreto de Meneses of the court of the Holy Office of the said city of Coimbra at the court hearings and admonitions which he made to the prisoners therein, terrorized and threatened them so much and treated them so harshly, that they were all frightened.   And the said Mr. Simao Barreto went every day to the cells two or three times, at any times of the day and ordered that men and women be whipped  in his presence.......first asking if they wanted to confess, and if they declined he would order them whipped until the blood ran thick, saying in a loud voice that could be heard throughout the cells "hit him, hit him, that dog kill him."

6.   Torture

Any prisoner could be tortured upon a ruling of the Mesa.  Following the ruling which also stipulated the method of torture, the prisoner was summoned, advised of the decision and immediiately put to torture without giving the prisoner any time to deliberate or appeal.  The Interrogating Inquisitor was acccompanied by another judge and sometimes by an Ordinario (ordinary parish priest representing a bishop).  A notary and physician also attended the former to record the proceedings and the latter to advise if and when the torture should be stopped because death was imminent.

Two main maethods were used in Portugal, the pole (strappado) and the potro (the rack).  In the first the hands of the prisoner were tied behind their back with a rope attached to a pulley. The Prisoner was then hoisted up and suspended for a period of time, and then suddenly released, once or several times, often causing dislocation of the arms leading to paralysis or loss of sensation, but no bloodshed. In the second method, the prisoner laid on a flatbed while each arm and leg was fastened and progressively stretched by use of ever tightening ropes on a crank, using either four or eight ropes. Women were subjected to the latter method.

If a priisoner failed to confess within three days of the torture, they were to be sentenced; if they withdrew their confession, or failed to ratify a confession within 24 hours, they could be repeatedly tortured.  Torture was stopped only when a person who was negative made a satisfactory confession.

According to the Regimentos, a person who had been sentenced to death (but would not have known), could still be tortured, but such procedure was reserved for special cases, such as, “a dogmatist who has taught or perverted a great number of people or someone from whom a great deal is expected.”

The torture session began with a general admonishment and “much charity”. The prisoner was advised that if he or she should suffer or die during the torture, it was their own fault, for they had brought it upon themselves by not confessing their crimes. A prisoner could stop the torture by confessing at any time, but the cords would not be released unless the confession was satisfactory. It is estimated that about twenty per cent of prisoners were tortured, although no comprehensive analysis has been carried out that we know of.

7. The Indictment (“Libelo”)

If the confession of an accused was considered unsatisfactory, the Prosecutor filed an Indictment containing the accusations. The accusations were based on the denunciations, interrogations, and confessions, whether obtained by torture or not. The articles of accusation withheld any specifics of the witness names, places or dates. The accused was summoned to the Mesa where the Indictment was read out. Indictments were not filed in all cases, only where the accused denied or minimized blameworthiness.

8. Publication of the evidence against an accused

After the filing of an Indictment the prosecutor published its proof, which connsisted of vague information about the evidence of each witness against the accused, but again without publishing the names of the witnesses or particulars.  The prisoner was permitted to see the publication but it had to be returned to the Mesa.

9.  The Defense “lawyer” (procurador)

The accused was entitled to a legal representative, a procurador (procurator, legal agent), who was an employee of the Tribunal, Their role was limited to encouraging confessions. They were obliged to withdraw if the prisoner was defending themselves “unjustly”.  The procurador could testify on behalf of the prosecution. They could not be present during interrogations. The procurador could meet with the accused only in the presence of an Inquisitor. If the prisoner requested writing paper, the pages were numbered and had to be returned to the Mesa. The accused or his procurador were not entitled to possess any documents. Solicitor-client confidentiality was unthinkable.

10.  Contraditas (Refutations or Contradictions)

Presenting “contraditas” or refutations was really the only method of defense. Contraditas were any facts which discredited a witness. The objective was to show personal enmity by the denunciator so as to impugn their credibility. However, first the accused had to guess as to who were his or her denunciators and then give a plausible reason for the unreliability of their denunciations. In addition, the accused had to provide the names of witnesses who would support the contraditas.  If the accused guessed wrongly, there could be terrible consequences.

11.  Testimony-Witnesses

Once the Prosecutor had outlined the case and the accused presented its defense, the witnesses were called to testify, but ii absence of the accused. In some cases Inquisitors ordered commission evidence taken or enquiries made to the parish priests. Often the accused failed to call most of the witnesses named in his or her contraditas especially if they lived far from the Tribunal. Sometimes, a witness called by the accused would give evidence in favor of the prosecutor. No one could be trusted, not even close family members.

12.  Tribunal Decision

The members of the Mesa reviewed the Indictment and all the evidence in a case before rendering their decision. Each Inquisitor, Auxiliary Inquisitor or Ordinario voted on the decision.  In some cases the decision had to be reviewed by the General Council, such as those condemned to death by burning at the stake or notorious cases requiring special attention.

13. Sentences

Prisoners were notified of their sentences fifteen days before the auto de fe except prisoners deemed negativo or relapsed. If the prisoner was to be handed over to the secular authority to be “relaxed”, they were given a three days notice, usually on the Friday before the auto de fe. The prisoner’s hands were fastened and a priest was appointed as their confessor. The Inquisitors did not want to create martyrs so every effort was made to persuade the condemned to announce their conversion to Catholicism on their way to the pyre, thereby saving themselves from the horror of being burned alive by being strangled first.

Those with lesser sentences such as reconciliation to the Church, were nevertheless marked for life. They were barred from working as civil servants, physicians or surgeons, trustees, tax collectors, ship's captain, as well as subject to having their assets confiscated. Persons who had been charged but were not present because they had died in or fled the country, or committed suicide were also sentenced for their assets could then be confiscated.

14. Sentencing penalties

In addition to the death penalty, the Inquisitors could impose conditions on a sentence of reconciliation such as:

(I)  Perpetual imprisonment, which was often commuted after several

(Ii)  Discretionary imprisonment in which a person could be arrested anytime, or ordered to reside in a specified location,

(Iii)  Perpetual wearing of penitential habit, which as above, was subject to commutation,

(Iv)  Exile to the Colonies, such as Brazil or Africa or to a specified location such as Castro Marim in the Algarve, which seemed to be a favored location,

(v)  Exile to the galleys for a number of years,

(vi) Public flogging,

(vii)  Mandatory religious instruction, confession, or attendance at Church, and Public or private abjuration.

15.  Appeals

The General Council had general powers of appeal but rarely exercised them from death sentence appeals.  Appeals were mostly on procedural matters or commuting sentences, such as pleading to waive the wearing of a sambenito or conical hat in the streets  as it usually made begging more difficult, or commuting perpetual sentences.

The Huffington Post,  Cullen Murphy, ‘God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World’,  Mar 24, 2012


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Rice University

After the Roman Church had consolidated its power in the early Middle Ages, heretics came to be regarded as enemies of society. The crime of heresy was defined as a deliberate denial of an article of truth of the Catholic faith, and a public and obstinate persistence in that alleged error. At this time, there was a sense of Christian unity among townspeople and rulers alike, and most of them agreed with the Church that heretics seemed to threaten society itself.

However, the repression of heresy remained unorganized, and with the large scale heresies in the 11th and 12th centuries, Pope Gregory IX instituted the papal inquisition in 1231 for the apprehension and trial of heretics. The name Inquisition is derived from the Latin verb inquiro (inquire into). The Inquisitiors did not wait for complaints, but sought out persons accused of heresy. Although the Inquisition was created to combat the heretical Cathari and Waldenses, the Inquisition later extended its activity to include witches, diviners, blasphemers, and other sacrilegious persons.

Another reason for Pope Gregory IX's creation of the Inquisition was to bring order and legality to the process of dealing with heresy, since there had been tendencies in the mobs of townspeople to burn alleged heretics without much of a trial. Pope Gregory's original intent for the Inquisition was a court of exception to inquire into and glean the beliefs of those differing from Catholic teaching, and to instruct them in the orthodox doctrine. It was hoped that heretics would see the falsity of the ir opinion and would return to the Roman Catholic Church. If they persisted in their heresy, however, Pope Gregory, finding it necessary to protect the Catholic community from infection would have suspects handed over to civil authorities since these her ethics had violated not only Church law but civil law as well. The secular authorities would apply their own brands of punishment for civil disobedience which, at the time, included burning at the stake.

The inquisitiors, or judges of this medieval Inquisition were recruited almost exclusively from the Franscian and Dominican orders. In the early period of the institution, the Inquisitiors rode the circuit in search of heretics, but this practice was short lived. The Inquisitors soon acquired the right to summon the suspects from their homes to the Inquisition center. The medieval Inquisition functioned only in a limited way in northern Europe. It was employed most in the south of France and in northern Italy.

Throughout the Inquisition's history, it was rivaled by local ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions. No matter how determined, no pope succeeded in establishing complete control of the institution. Medieval kings, princes, bishops, and civil authorities wavered between acceptance and resistance of the Inquisition. The institution reached its apex in the second half of the 13th century. During this period, the tribunals were almost entirely free from any authority, including that of the pope. Therefore, it was almost impossible to eradicate abuse.

A second variety of the Inquisition was the infamous Spanish Inquisition, authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478. Pope Sixtus tried to establish harmony between the inquisitors and the ordinaries, but was unable to maintain control of the desires of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella. Sixtus agreed to recognize the independence of the Spanish Inquisition. This institution survived to the beginning of the 19th century, and was permanently suppressed by a decree on July 15, 1834.

A third variety of the Inquisition was the Roman Inquisition. Alarmed by the spread of Protestantism and especially by its penetration into Italy, Pope Paul III in 1542 established in Rome the Congregation of the Inquisition. This institution was al so known as the Roman Inquisition and the Holy Office. Six cardinals including Carafa constituted the original inquisition whose powers extended to the whole Church. The "Holy Office" was really a new institution related to the Medieval Inquisition only by vague precedents. More free from episcopal control than its predecessor, it also conceived of its function differently. Some saw its establishment as an attempt to counter-balance the severe Spanish Inquisition at a time when much of Italy was under Spanish rule. Whereas the medieval Inquisition had focused on popular misconceptions which resulted in the disturbance of public order, the Holy Office was concerned with orthodoxy of a more academic nature, especially as it appeared in the writings of theologians. In its first twelve years, the activities of the Roman Inquisition were relatively modest and were restricted almost exclusively to Italy. Cardinal Carafa became Pope Paul IV in 1555 and immediately urged a vigorous pursuit of "suspects." His snare did not exclude bishops or even cardinals of the Church. Pope Paul IV carged the congregation to draw up a list of books which he felt offended faith or morals. This resulted in the first Index of Forbidden Books (1559). Although succeeding popes tempered the zeal of the Roman Inquisition, many viewed the institution as the cutomary instrument of papal government used in the regulation of Church order. This was the institution that would later put Galileo on trial.


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