Inquisition, The: The Inquisition in the Old World

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The long history of the Inquisition divides easily into two major parts: its creation by the medieval papacy in the early thirteenth century, and its transformation between 1478 and 1542 into permanent governmental bureaucraciesthe Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman Inquisitions, all of which endured into the nineteenth century. What unites both phases is the struggle of the Roman church to suppress various forms of heresy, which ecclesiastical authorities believed posed serious threats to proper worship in Christian communities. It is worth stressing that, for more than five centuries, the average European Christian approved of the activities of the Inquisitions. Inquisitions had no coercive powers and depended upon the cooperation of local people to denounce heretics and upon local secular authorities to punish them. Interestingly, the inquisitors never composed written justifications for their activities because their basic purpose seemed self-evidently beneficial to good Christians. Until the mid-eighteenth century, inquisitors almost never encountered serious opposition, except in rare situations where heretics either formed a majority or were deeply embedded among the local ruling class. For example, in the sixteenth century the Spanish Inquisition was perceived as an instrument of foreign tyranny by both Catholic Neapolitans and heretical Netherlanders; in both cases an ultimately successful "popular" opposition was manipulated by local magnates.

Originally directed primarily against the Cathars of southern France, inquisitors spread to many other regions of continental Europe; only places that rarely used canon law, such as the British Isles or Scandinavia, never had them. After eliminating the Cathars, papally appointed inquisitors targeted primarily Waldensians, but they also investigated a variety of other heretics, including the Spiritual Franciscans and the antinomian "Brethren of the Free Spirit" (who never existed as an organized sect) as their activities spread into northern Italy, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Bohemia, and northeastern Spain. After 1430, inquisitors in Switzerland and Germany further broadened their range of activity by helping define and punish the newly defined offence of diabolical witchcraft (it was a "mixed" crime, punishable by either inquisitors or secular courts). Meanwhile, in a different kind of extension, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella created the Spanish Inquisition to punish Jewish behavior among Spain's large and influential communities of converted Jews; a generation later, another state-run Inquisition was created in Portugal for the same purpose. After 1520 the spread of Protestantism gave fresh business to inquisitors wherever the institution survived or was rebuilt, as in Italy. After 1540 the largest group of heretics arrested in Spain were baptized Muslims, who outnumbered converted Jews and Protestants combined.

Medieval Inquisitions: Origins and Procedures

Unlike Byzantium, the Latin church felt no need to develop any special proceedings against heretics until the twelfth century. Two separate but almost simultaneous developments created the preconditions for a revived and intensified investigation of religious dissenters. The first development was the great increase in heresy in several parts of western Europe. By the twelfth century, the Cathars appeared to form the most dangerous group. However, their political strength was broken after 1209 by a new type of crusade, directed against internal rather than external enemies of the church. As Catharism was gradually eliminated during the thirteenth century, it was replaced by other, more widespread, forms of organized heresy, not imported from the East but indigenous. Consequently, defining and condemning heretical beliefs and practices occupied much of the papacy's attention at the time of the third and fourth Lateran councils in 1179 and 1215.

Ever since the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire, heresy had been a punishable crime. The primary responsibility for disciplining heretics rested with the hundreds of bishops scattered across Christian Europe, who had the authority to use the ancient Roman procedure of inquisitio, involving ex officio investigations. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, each bishop had the right to name an inquisitor for his diocese or even perform the duty himself. The most famous medieval inquisitorial register, describing the elimination of the last Cathar heretics in the Pyrenean village of Montaillou, was kept by an early fourteenth-century French bishop who later became pope. Subsequently, the trial of a famous German mystic, Meister Eckhardt (1328), was begun by the archbishop of Cologne, but it was later transferred to the papal court. Moreover, although much inquisitorial history has been written as though papally appointed inquisitors were the only zealous pursuers of heretics in medieval Europe, the inquisitors were always less violent, and often less zealous, than secular judges in dealing with heretics. The Albigensian Crusade, with its powerful (if apocryphal) slogan "Kill them all! God will know his own!" offers vivid testimony of just how bloodthirsty ordinary Christians could be.

However, the spread of heresy led the medieval papacy, whose power had increased steadily since the Investiture controversy, to substitute its own central authority for local episcopal inquisitions, especially during the pontificate of Innocent III (11981216). Like most major medieval popes, Innocent had been trained in the relatively new discipline of canon law; it was a fateful coincidence that church law, based largely on Roman precedents, developed simultaneously with heresy in twelfth-century western Europe. With his decretal of 1199, Vergentis in senium, Innocent III took the crucial step of combining heresy with the Roman-law doctrine of lèse-majesté, thereby accusing heretics of treason against God and enabling both ecclesiastical and secular authorities to apply the full force and procedure of Roman law against them. In 1207, Innocent III also ordered that the houses of convicted heretics be torn down and their property (like that of convicted traitors) confiscated: one part of the proceeds went to the accuser, one part to the court, and the remainder was invested in building prisons. After the murder of a papal legate in 1208, Innocent III proclaimed the Albigensian crusade, a twenty-year campaign that decisively tilted the long-term trend of the Western Christian clergy away from persuasion of unbelievers in favor of coercion.

Besides the growth of heresy and canon law, one must also consider the role of the new Dominican order, founded in 1220, before one can understand the thirteenth-century papal Inquisition. Saint Dominic did not intend to punish heretics but to convert themhis order, founded in the old Cathar capital of Toulouse, was (and is) named the Order of Preachers. But the founder's stress on proper theological training, together with the fact that the new order was directed by a minister-general responsible only to the pope, made the Dominicans uniquely valuable in Rome's ongoing struggles against heresy, and they quickly became inquisitors as well as preachers. In 1231, Gregory IX commissioned a German Dominican monk as a judge-delegate under papal authority with orders to go anywhere he wished to preach and also to "seek out diligently those who are heretics or reputed as heretics." Although medieval inquisitors included Franciscans and other clerics, Dominicans dominate medieval inquisitorial history, from the diary-like notices of the early Dominican Pelisso describing the activities of inquisitors at Toulouse in the 1230s to the careers of Tomás de Torquemada and the German authors of the Malleus maleficarum in the 1480s. It is certainly no accident that both major fourteenth-century codifiers of inquisitorial procedure, a Frenchman and a Catalan, were Dominicans.

Between 1230 and 1260, such legally trained popes as Gregory IX and Innocent IV completed the process of transforming their delegated judges into papal inquisitors of heretical pravity. The process was piecemeal; no single papal bull or other document provides an exact official date of birth for the medieval papal Inquisition, but some benchmarks do emerge. Besides his commission to the German Dominican prior, in 1231, Gregory IX also issued the decretal Excommunicamus, clarifying that death was the appropriate punishment for unrepentant heretics. A short manual for papally delegated inquisitors, produced at Toulouse around 1248 or 1249, outlined the correct procedures they should follow, from their original appointment through the pronunciation and implementation of final sentences against convicted heretics. In 1252, Innocent IV's bull Ad extirpandum legalized the use of torture to detect heretics and compel confessions, although inquisitors could not apply it themselves.

The basic procedures of medieval inquisitors changed relatively little between the short guide of 12481949 and the far more elaborate manual of Nicolas Eymeric a century and a quarter later, and they changed even less between Eymeric and the nineteenth century. Nearly always, inquisitorial procedure followed normal rules of canon law. The newly appointed inquisitor, normally assigned to a particular region for a specified number of years, began with a sermon that urged his listeners to denounce suspected heretics and announced a grace period, during which voluntary confessions that implicated fellow heretics would be accepted without legal consequences. Officially, repentance rather than punishment of heretics remained the primary purpose of the inquisitors: they wanted heretics to abjure their errors, accept whatever penance was imposed upon them, and assist the Inquisition. Hearings were held in private, but the penances were always pronounced in public, with all physical punishments carried out by local secular officials.

Inquisitorial punishments emphasized shaming and humiliating heretics rather than killing them. No first offender who confessed at any stage of the trial was executed; only obdurate heretics and repeat offenders were "relaxed to the secular arm." Most offenders were therefore punished with some mixture of monetary fines, whippings, and imprisonment (a sentence of "perpetual" imprisonment generally meant seven years and could be reduced for good behavior). Many penitents were also forced to wear special garments in public. Like secular courts under Roman law, inquisitors could also condemn heretics who were already dead or absent, after which they might burn a skeleton or an effigy and confiscate property from their heirs.

Much ink has been shed, especially in Protestant countries, about the legal iniquities of the Inquisition. However, in many ways it provided a fairer form of justice than most secular courts or jury trials. Because inquisitors, unlike secular courts, were ultimately concerned with saving the soul of the accused, their prisons were better run than secular jails (clever prisoners tried to be transferred from secular to inquisitorial jurisdiction, but never the reverse). Inquisitors discounted the truthfulness of confessions wrung out under torture, and generally employed torture only against heretics who had already been convicted in order to discover their associates and leaders. Although defendants had no right to choose their own lawyers, inquisitors provided prisoners ample opportunity to name and discredit all of their personal enemies and provided a free "public defender" to avoid formal miscarriages of justice. In terms of procedure, inquisitors were unusual in only one significant respect: as their earliest guide of 12481949 insisted, "we do not deviate from established legal procedure except that we do not make public the names of witnesses." They did this in order to protect the well-being of their informers, employing a simpler and cheaper method than the current witness-protection program used in the contemporary United States. This famous provision served the Inquisition well: for six hundred years, there was no serious effort to change it.

Another common misconception about both the medieval and modern Inquisitions is their role in the ugly record of European witchcraft. It is undeniable that fifteenth-century inquisitors in the Swiss and northern-Italian Alps contributed heavily to transferring the notion of a satanic conspiracy from secret nocturnal meetings of heretics to gatherings of old women who cast harmful spells on their neighbors. Moreover, a German inquisitor produced the Malleus maleficarum, Europe's first and most famous practical guide to conducting a witch trial. However, theory is one thing and practice is another. Even in the fifteenth century, most "witches" were executed by secular rather than inquisitorial courts. After 1530, fewer than fifty were executed by all Inquisitions combined, a tiny number compared with the nearly forty thousand burned by Europe's secular courts. Around 1615 the Spanish Inquisition, not usually considered an example of "enlightened" justice, pioneered the skeptical investigation of material evidence and confessions of witchcraft.

The "Modern" Inquisitions: Spain, Portugal, Rome

Two major limitations of the thirteenth-century inquisitorial system should be stressed. One was institutional: papally appointed inquisitors lacked any permanent organization or central direction. The other limitation was geographical: in several parts of medieval Europe, including places with numerous heretics, such as England or northern France, heresy cases were tried by secular rather than inquisitorial courts. In its long history, the papally appointed Inquisition eventually managed to partially overcome the first difficulty, but it never overcame the second. In fact, after the Protestant Reformation, the Inquisition's sphere of activity shrank considerably: a generation after a German Dominican inquisitor gave Europe its first detailed guide for trying witches in 1486, the Inquisition disappeared from the Holy Roman Empire and Bohemia after Martin Luther's successful defiance of papal inquisitors. In 1539 a former inquisitor was himself burned for heresy by a secular court at Toulouse, the Inquisition's original birthplace in southern France. After the mid-sixteenth century, the Inquisition's history was essentially reduced to Mediterranean Catholic Europe, south of the Alps and Pyrenees, where it had been reshaped into three government-controlled permanent institutionsthe Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman Inquisitions.

The oldest and most famous of the "big three" was the Spanish Inquisition. Chartered by the papacy in 1478 at the request of Spain's "Catholic kings," Ferdinand and Isabella, in order to discipline and punish crypto-Jewish behavior among their uniquely large and prominent population of conversos, or baptized Jews, the Spanish Inquisition held its first auto-de-fe at Seville in 1480 and lasted until its third and final abolition in 1836. The most important departure separating Spain's Holy Office from its medieval predecessors is that its inquisitor-general (Torquemada was the first) was named and paid by the king and merely approved by the pope. Since the inquisitor-general appointed all of his local subordinates, the Spanish Inquisition became effectively a branch of the royal government (in Spanish court protocol, the Supreme Council of the Inquisition occupied fifth place in the hierarchy). The Inquisition was also the only royal institution that functioned identically in both Isabella's Castile and Ferdinand's Aragon. With few and insignificant exceptions, the papacy exercised no supervision or control over its operations.

The overall pattern of its activities falls into four stages. A bloodthirsty first half-century was directed almost exclusively against Spain's numerous and influential communities of baptized Sephardic Jews (conversos ). Incomplete records suggest at least two thousand of them were burned, along with an approximately equal number of cadavers and effigies (one of Torquemada's earliest rules insisted that "trials of the living must never take precedence over trials of the dead"). Although the scale of its public slaughter of "Judaizers" was unprecedented in the annals of the medieval Inquisition, such numbers appear small by modern standards; the number of Jews killed at Nazi gas chambers in one August day of 1944 probably surpassed the number of officially Christian conversos executed by Spain's Holy Office across three and a half centuries.

Afterwards, between 1530 and 1630, the Spanish Inquisition greatly extended the range of its investigations while reducing its relative severity: about ten people were executed each year throughout the entire system. Spanish conversos now accounted for barely 10 percent of those arrested or executed, while Protestants (mostly foreigners) and especially Moriscos (baptized Muslims) comprised its principal heretical prisoners. The following century (16301730) saw a greatly reduced rate of activityannual executions dropped from ten to twoand Judaizers, now principally immigrants from Portugal, again became its primary victims, especially during a final and little-explored surge of cruelty in the 1720s. In the final century of its activities, the Spanish Inquisition did relatively little damage to anyone before Napoleon abolished it in 1808; it was restored twice, once after Spanish liberals abolished it in 1821.

The range of the activities of the Spanish Inquisition from 1530 to 1630 is indeed remarkable. During this century every tribunal held regular autos de fe with a variety of prisoners, and submitted annual reports to the Supreme Council (enabling historians to follow their activities with remarkable precision). Most of its forty thousand prisoners were ordinary Spaniards, often charged with blasphemy or infringing the requirements of the Council of Trent; the Holy Office became the coercive arm of Spanish confessionalization. Many were charged with "mixed" crimes, like bigamy or witchcraft, which could be tried in either royal or inquisitorial courts. Men accused of homosexual or bestial "sodomy," another "mixed" crime, which inquisitors judged in only three northeastern tribunals, accounted for 170 burnings, almost as many as Protestantism or Islam. However, the Spanish Inquisition executed only two dozen witchesa smaller number than those killed for "opposition to the correct and proper functioning of the Holy Office" (e.g., by murdering its witnesses, reminding us again why their names were concealed). In a truly bizarre extension of inquisitorial logic, several dozen prisoners were charged with heresy for smuggling horses to French Protestants.

The Spanish Inquisition developed extremely long arms, both geographically and socially. During the reign of Philip II, it expanded to the Americas, establishing tribunals in Mexico City, Lima, and later Cartagena (Colombia). Although most subjects of the Aztec and Inca empires were converted to Catholicism before the Inquisition was introduced, the Holy Office cannot be considered a form of "colonial" exploitation; Philip II had ruled that native Americans were not "reasonable people" (gente de razón ) and thus not subject to the Inquisition, although mestizos and baptized African slaves were subject to it. Meanwhile, its reach in Spain was boundless; almost nobody was exempt from the Spanish Inquisition, one of the few European institutions thatthen or nowoverrode all social privileges. The Inquisition imprisoned and punished numerous powerful conversos holding important offices; it also punished some high-ranking "pure-blooded" Spaniards, including an archbishop of Toledo, Philip II's most trusted private secretary, and the grandee who headed the crusading order of Montesa. In such cases, the Spanish Inquisition did not take lives, but it most certainly ruined careers.

When Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Spain's remaining practicing Jews in 1492, many of them took the short and easy route across the Portuguese border. Five years later, when Portugal's king wanted to marry a Spanish heiress, Spanish diplomatic pressure provoked forcible Christian baptisms of thousands of these Jewish religious refugees. It was only a matter of time before Portugal's extremely unconverted "New Christians" encountered a virtual carbon copy of the Spanish Inquisition, which the papacy chartered in 1536 and reinforced in 1547.

The Portuguese Inquisition was even more closely connected to the crown than the Spanish model. Portugal's first inquisitor-general was the son of a king and eventually became king himself. During the Spanish occupation of Portugal (15801640), his second successor combined the offices of viceroy and inquisitor-general. Because Portugal was much smaller than Spain, the Portuguese Inquisition had only three European tribunals, but it expanded overseas even sooner, establishing a tribunal in India by 1560. Although relatively harmless after 1774, Portugal's Holy Office lasted until 1821. Its remarkably well-preserved records show a tenacious obsession with Judaizing by descendants of the New Christians of 1497: they accounted for almost 80 percent of all trials in mainland Portugal and for almost all of its thousand-plus public executions between 1540 and 1761. In India, Asian Christians formed the majority of the Portuguese Inquisition's thirteen thousand prisoners, but even here most of those burned were Sephardic New Christians.

In 1542, frightened by the Protestant movement in Italy, Pope Paul III created the Roman Inquisition with the bull Licet ab initio. Like its Iberian counterparts, it was restricted by some "enlightened" princes after the mid-eighteenth century and suffered greatly from Napoleon; but unlike them, it revived quickly and held jurisdictional power until the unification of Italy in 1861. The Roman Inquisition continues to exist in toothless form, being renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965. Because Italy remained politically divided until 1861, the Roman Inquisition was far more complicated than either Iberian model. The Congregation of the Holy Office, a standing committee of cardinals, often presided by the pope in person, regulated a network that eventually included forty-six tribunals; a few of them (e.g., Malta) lay outside Italy, while large parts of modern Italy (e.g., the entire south plus Sicily and Sardinia) avoided it. Within Italy, the Inquisition resembled a governmental agency only in the ten tribunals of the papal states. The Roman Inquisition's largest single cluster (fifteen tribunals) belonged to the Venetian Republic, which imposed various restrictions on its standard operations; minor restrictions affected the Inquisition elsewhere. Whereas almost all inquisitors in Spain or Portugal after 1550 were secular clerics trained in canon law, the Roman Inquisition followed medieval precedents by appointing only Dominican (or sometimes Franciscan) monks.

Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese tribunals, the origins of the Roman Inquisition had nothing to do with baptized Jews; perhaps not coincidentally, there is enough evidence to affirm that the Roman Inquisition seems far less bloodthirsty than either Iberian tribunal. The likeliest guess is that the Roman Inquisition put only about 125 people to death, the vast majority being Italian Protestants; about half of its victims were burned in Rome and two dozen others were drowned secretly in Venice. The Roman Inquisition succeeded in its original purpose of controlling Protestantism on the Italian peninsula, but it did so through suffocation rather than burning it out. The most convincing explanation for the Roman Inquisition's success is the co-optation of confessors, who were required to denounce to the Holy Office any penitent admitting any unorthodox behavior.

Public knowledge of the operations of the Roman Inquisition was hampered until 1997 by the closing of its central archive and the disappearance of the records of its trials, which were mostly destroyed in Napoleon's time. To some extent, the lack of quantitative information about the Inquisition's operations has been offset by the exceptional richness of a few famous trials that have been studied in exemplary depth. The Roman trial of the Florentine mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1634, which ended with the condemnation of Copernican astronomy and the perpetual house arrest for this aged prisoner, surely constitutes the single most famous case in the history of any Inquisition. Its execution in 1600 of another Copernican and renegade Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno, is known to all Italians. The Inquisition's two trials of Domenico Scandella, better known as "Menocchio," an obstinate and argumentative miller in a remote village of northeastern Italy who was finally executed in 1599, have made him almost as famous.

Did the Inquisitions Succeed?

Both the medieval and modern forms of the Inquisition compiled a mixed record with respect to their principal purposes. Dominic saw Cathars as the most dangerous heretics of his day, and a century after his death they had been eliminated. However, the Waldensians, who constituted the principal targets of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century inquisitors, outlasted their persecutors and still exist today. The record of the early modern state-run Inquisitions is comparably mixed. It is difficult to deny that the Roman and Iberian Inquisitions played a major role in eliminating all serious traces of native Protestantism in Mediterranean Europe. But the baptized Muslims of Spain could not be coerced into behaving like Tridentine Catholics, and their expulsion in 1609 constituted a major defeat for the Spanish Holy Office.

The Spanish Inquisition's record with Sephardic conversos remains controversial. One could assert, however, that the relative scarcity of prosecutions after 1530 implies that most of them, like the ancestors of Saint Teresa of Avila or the Jesuit general Diego Laynez, became proper Catholics. Although Portuguese New Christians resisted Tridentine Catholicism far more stubbornly, part of the explanation is surely the circumstances of their 1497 "conversion," and Portuguese historians claim that their persecution across eight or nine generations has social rather than religious roots.

See Also

Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Marranos; Persecution, article on Christian Experience; Torquemada, Tomás de.


Much useful material can still be found in Henry Charles Lea's three-volume History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, first published in 1887, and his four volumes on the Spanish Inquisition, but they must be supplemented by more recent scholarship. Edward Peters's Inquisition (Berkeley, 1988) provides an excellent introduction to the long-term history and mythology of this institution, while the best survey of the modern state-run Inquisitions is Francisco Bethencourt, L'Inquisition à l'époque moderne: Espagne, Italie, Portugal, XVe-XIXe siècle (Paris, 1995). Both have extensive bibliographies. The standard English-language history is Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, Conn., 1997). By far the most interesting case study of the medieval Inquisition is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, translated by Barbara Bray (New York, 1978), and for the modern Inquisitions, Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980).

William Monter (2005)