Inquisition in Europe

The Inquisition was a tribunal or system of tribunals instituted by the Roman Catholic Church for the discovery, examination and conviction of heretics and their punishment by the secular arm. Under the successors of Constantine in the Roman Empire the repression of heresy, or rather the enforcement of the decrees of Church councils and synods, was a function of the imperial government, which inflicted temporal penalties upon the propagators of religious beliefs that contradicted the creeds approved by the state. When the reigning emperor was a favorer of Arianism or any other of the heterodox creeds, the orthodox bishops and their flocks were persecuted; when he was of the orthodox party the heterodox sects were put under the ban. In executing the decrees of the councils the imperial officials, called in the laws of Theodosius and Justinian “inquisitors” (inquisitores), were assisted by the bishops; but the tribunals were the ordinary secular courts and judgment was rendered in the name of the state, not the Church. But in the 12th century, when the supremacy of the ecclesiastical power was universally recognized in western Europe, the initiative in the work of repressing heresy was taken by the Church as of course, and the discovery, trial and conviction of the offenders were functions of the ecclesiastical power solely: the secular power simply executed the judgments of the Church tribunals. Boniface VIII’s definition of the respective powers and the mutual relations of Church and state was not proclaimed till the close of the 13th century; but had a similar definition been promulgated in the 12th century it would have expressed the universal sentiment of princes and peoples at the time. The celebrated bull, Unam Sanctam, defines that “Both swords, the spiritual and the temporal, are in the power of the Church; yet the one is to be wielded for the Church’s behoof, but the other by the Church herself: the one by the hand of the priest, the other by that of the king and the soldier, though at the will and sufferance of the priest ad nutum et patientiam sacerdotis. And sword must be subordinate to sword — oportet gladium esse sub giadio, and the temporal authority subject to the spiritual power — temporalem auctoritatem spirituali subjici potestati.”

The first step toward the establishment of courts of inquisition would seem to have been taken in 1179 when the third Council of the Lateran issued a decree of excommunication against the adherents of the heretical sects of southern France, who are charged not only with holding abominable heretical tenets but also with practising “unheard-of cruelties against the Catholics,” demolishing the churches and massacring widows and orphans. The Council grants “an indulgence of two years to those who shall make war on them.” This decree was re-enforced by the Council of Verona (1184) over which Pope Lucius III presided and at which the Emperor Frederic I assisted; the Council directs the bishops to bring to trial persons accused of heresy and to inflict fit punishment on the guilty. The fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), held in the reign of Innocent III, imposed on the bishops the duty of making a visitation of their dioceses twice or at least once a year either personally or by delegates to see that the Church’s laws be enforced. Bishops are authorized to bind the inhabitants of a district by oath to search out heretics and bring them to trial. By the Council of Toulouse (1229) in the pontificate of Gregory IX the search for heretics (inquisitio hereticæ pravitatis) was systematized. The bishops are to name for each parish two or three respectable laymen who shall take oath zealously to search out heretics and to deliver them up to the baillis. Whosoever knowingly conceals a heretic loses all his goods. If heretics are discovered on the estate of a landowner, he incurs the penalties: the house of the heretic shall be torn down. Heretics who recant have to seek a new abode and must wear on their clothing two crosses of different colors until the Pope or his legate permits them to assume the ordinary garb. Whoever abstains from use of the sacraments is held suspect of heresy. A person convicted or suspected of heresy is debarred from the practice of medicine. Lest the ordinary Church authorities should be remiss in carrying out this system Gregory IX named (1232) as “pontifical inquisitors” monks or friars from outside, chiefly Dominicans; shortly after the pontifical inquisitors were chosen from the order of the Dominicans exclusively. Thus the duty of inquisition was taken out of the hands of the bishops and was discharged by officials, responsible only to the Pope; from the judgments of the inquisitorial tribunals there was no appeal but only to the Holy See; in 1263 Urban IV appointed an inquisitor-general for Provence, as a means of lowering the flood of appeals to Rome. The institution passed from southern France into the other provinces of that kingdom and into Italy, Germany and Poland. The Inquisition in England was directed by the metropolitans and their suffragans without being responsible to any inquisitor-general; but as long as Lollardism disturbed the peace of the Church the search for heretics was prosecuted rigorously: bishops and arch-deacons were required twice a year to make inquisition of suspects; any man might be compelled under penalties to inform against persons suspected of heresy; the statute de hæretico comburendo was enacted by the Parliament in 1396.

In Spain the Inquisition, as set up in 1481 by Ferdinand and Isabella, was as much (or more) a political as an ecclesiastical institution: the officials from highest to lowest were appointed by the sovereigns and its action was directed by them without responsibility to the Holy See; Ranke calls the Spanish Inquisition “a royal tribunal furnished with spiritual weapons”; Llorente admits as much. The number of persons put to death under sentence of the Inquisition in Spain is put by Llorente at 31,000 from first to last, that is, during 330 years. But Llorente made it impossible to check his statements by burning the original documents. Ranke impeaches his honesty; Prescott says that his estimates are “most improbable.” Catholic historians call attention to the fact that not only heresy but many other offenses against the laws were judged by the courts of inquisition in Spain, viz.: polygamy, seduction, unnatural crimes, smuggling, witchcraft, sorcery, false personation, etc. At the time when the Inquisition flourished, persecution for heresy was a universal practice amongst all Christian peoples, and the methods of punishment inflicted were general throughout Europe. Protestant England persecuted as harshly and vigorously as Catholic Spain, and in both countries denial of the state religion was equivalent to treason.

See Also

  • Inquisitorial system
  • Vatican
  • Directorium Inquisitorum
  • Joan of Arc Trial
  • Galileo Galilei Trial
  • Edgardo Mortara’s abduction
  • Logroño Trials
  • Giordano Bruno

Further Reading

  • Adler, E. N. (April 1901). “Auto de fe and Jew”. The Jewish Quarterly Review (University of Pennsylvania Press) 13 (3): 392–437. doi:10.2307/1450541.
  • Burman, Edward, The Inquisition: The Hammer of Heresy (Sutton Publishers, 2004)
  • Carroll, Warren H., Isabel: the Catholic Queen Front Royal, Virginia, 1991 (Christendom Press)
  • Foxe, John (1997) [1563]. In Chadwick, Harold J. The new Foxe’s book of martyrs/John Foxe; rewritten and updated by Harold J. Chadwick. Bridge-Logos.
  • Given, James B, Inquisition and Medieval Society (Cornell University Press, 2001)
  • Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999);
  • Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, 4 volumes (New York and London, 1906–7)
  • Parker, Geoffrey (1982). “Some Recent Work on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy”. Journal of Modern History 54 (3).
  • Peters, Edward M., Inquisition (University of California Press, 1989);
  • Twiss, Miranda (2002). The Most Evil Men And Women In History. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.
  • Walsh, William Thomas, Characters of the Inquisition (TAN Books and Publishers, Inc, 1940/97);
  • Whitechapel, Simon, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003)