Medieval Inquisition

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This article is about the 12th- and 13th-century inquisitions. For later ones, see Inquisition (disambiguation).
Pope Gregory IX

The Medieval Inquisition was a series of Inquisitions (Catholic Church bodies charged with suppressing heresy) from around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). The Medieval Inquisition was established in response to movements considered apostate or heretical to Christianity, in particular Catharism and Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy. These were the first inquisition movements of many that would follow.

The Cathars were first noted in the 1140s in southern France, and the Waldensians around 1170 in northern Italy. Individual "Heretics", such as Peter of Bruis, had often challenged the Church. However, the Cathars were the first mass heretical organization in the second millennium that posed a serious threat to the authority of the Church. This article covers only these early inquisitions, not the Roman Inquisition of the 16th century onwards, or the somewhat different phenomenon of the Spanish Inquisition (late 15th century), which was under the control of the Spanish monarchy using local clergy. The Portuguese Inquisition (16th century) and various colonial branches followed the same pattern.


Medieval Inquisition is defined by French historian Jean-Baptiste Guiraud (1866–1953) as "... a system of repressive means, some of temporal and some others of spiritual kind, concurrently issued by ecclesiastical and civil authorities in order to protect religious orthodoxy and social order, both threatened by theological and social doctrines of heresy".[1]

All major medieval inquisitions were supposedly decentralized. Authority rested with local officials based on guidelines from the Holy See, but there was no central top-down authority running the inquisitions, as would be the case in post-medieval inquisitions. Thus there were many different types of inquisitions depending on the location and methods; historians have generally classified them into the episcopal inquisition and the papal inquisition.

The first medieval inquisition, the episcopal inquisition, was established in the year 1184 by a papal bull entitled Ad abolendam, "For the purpose of doing away with." It was a response to the growing Catharist movement in southern France. It was called "episcopal" because it was administered by local bishops, which in Latin is episcopus, and obliged bishops to visit their diocese twice a year in search of heretics.[1]

The Inquisition was established by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 as a special court to curb the spread of heresy.[2] Pope Gregory IX's response to the failures of the episcopal inquisition with a series of papal bulls became the papal inquisition.[3] The papal inquisition was staffed by trained inquisitors or judges recruited almost exclusively from the Franscian and Dominican orders.[4] As mendicants, they were accustomed to travel. Unlike the haphazard episcopal methods, the papal inquisition was thorough and systematic, keeping detailed records. Some documents from the Middle Ages involving first-person speech by medieval peasants come from papal inquisition records. This tribunal or court functioned in France, Italy and parts of Germany and had pretty much ceased operation by the early fourteenth century.[5]

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 their 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 heretics 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.[4]

Pope Innocent IV officially sanctioned the use of torture to extract the truth from suspects in 1252. Over centuries the tribunals took different forms, investigating and stamping out various forms of heresy, including witchcraft and Judaism.[2]

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 of and resistance to 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.[4]

In northern Europe the Inquisition was somewhat more benign: in the Scandinavian countries it had hardly any impact. In southern Europe, the Inquisition existed in the kingdom of Aragon during the medieval period, but not elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula or some other countries, including England.

In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. According to the governor general of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, recent studies "seem to indicate" that "torture and the death penalty were not applied with the pitiless rigor" often ascribed to the Inquisition.[2]

According to historian Thomas Madden, "[t]he Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made heresy a capital offense" [emphasis in original]. In the early Middle Ages, people accused of heresy were judged by the local lord, many of whom lacked theological training. Madden claims that "The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule" [emphasis in original].[6]

Madden argues that while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.[7]

Inquisitions against non-Catholic movements[edit]

The spread of other movements from the 12th century, can be seen at least in part as a reaction to the increasing moral corruption of the clergy, which included illegal marriages and the possession of extreme wealth. In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition's main focus was to eradicate these new sects. Thus its range of action was predominantly in Italy and France, where the Cathars and the Waldensians, the two main heretic movements of the period were.

The Cathars were mostly in the South of France, in cities like Toulouse. They appear to have been originally founded by some soldiers from the Second Crusade, who, on their way back, were converted by a Bulgarian sect, the Bogomils. Cathars' main heresy was their belief in dualism:[5] the evil God created the materialistic world and the good God created the spiritual world. Therefore, Cathars preached poverty, chastity, modesty and all those values which in their view helped people to detach themselves from materialism. The Cathars presented a problem to feudal government by their attitude towards oaths, which they declared under no circumstances allowable.[8] Therefore, considering the religious homogeneity of that age, heresy was an attack against social and political order, besides orthodoxy.[1]

The Waldensians were mostly in Germany and North Italy. The Waldensians began as a group of orthodox laymen concerned about the increasing wealth of the Church. As time passed, however, they found themselves stepping beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.[5] In contrast with the Cathars and in line with the Church, they believed in only one God, but they did not recognize a special class of priesthood, believing in the priesthood of all believers. They also objected to the veneration (not synonymous with worship) of saints and martyrs, which were part of the Church's orthodoxy. The complaints of the two main preaching orders of the period, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, against the moral corruption of the Church, to some extent echoed those of the heretical movements, but they were doctrinally conventional, and were enlisted by Pope Innocent III in the fight against heresy. As a result, many Franciscans and Dominicans became inquisitors. For example, Robert le Bougre, the "Hammer of Heretics" (Malleus Haereticorum), was a Dominican friar who became an inquisitor known for his cruelty and violence. Another example was the case of the province of Venice, which was handed to the Franciscan inquisitors, who quickly became notorious for their frauds against the Church, by enriching themselves with confiscated property from the heretics and the selling of absolutions. Because of their corruption, they were eventually forced by the Pope to suspend their activities in 1302.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, two other movements attracted the attention of the Inquisition, the Knights Templar and the Beguines.

It is not clear if the process against the Templars was initiated by the Inquisition on the basis of suspected heresy or if the Inquisition itself was exploited by the king of France, Philip the Fair, who wanted the knights' wealth. In the search for Templars, two inquisitors were also sent to the British Isles. This is the only instance of inquisitorial action in the British Isles and not a successful one, mainly because the inquisitors could not instigate false confessions through torture, as its use was forbidden by common law.

The Beguines were mainly a women's movement, recognized by the Church since their foundation in the thirteenth century as mystics. However, with the Council of Vienne in the fourteenth century, they were proclaimed heretics and persecuted, with large numbers being burned at the stake in Narbonne, Toulouse and other French cities. They were also attacked in Germany, the first attempt of the Inquisition to operate in the area.

Another aspect of the medieval Inquisition is that little attention was paid to sorcery. In fact several Popes were suspected of having a strong interest or practicing alchemy and it was only with Pope John XXII, who was himself suspected of being a magician, that sorcery became another form of heresy and thus liable to prosecution by the Inquisition.[citation needed]

Joan of Arc[edit]

In 1430 Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, promoted a trial against Joan of Arc, who was also known as the "Maid of Orleans". In the fifteen months since her involvement in 1429, she had subverted the course of the war between the English and the French. She did this by liberating Orléans and defeating the English invaders on several occasions.

The reasons behind this process were politically motivated. Cauchon aspired to become cardinal, but to obtain this and further recognitions, he needed the support of the King of England and the Duke of Bedford, who in turn needed to rid themselves of Joan. Furthermore, giving to her victories a diabolic origin would have been a conceivable way to bolster their men's morale. Thus the decision to involve the Inquisition, which therefore did not instigate the trial and in fact showed a reluctance throughout its duration. Seventy charges were brought against her, including accusations of witchcraft and dressing as a male. Joan was first condemned to life imprisonment and the deputy-inquisitor, Jean Le Maitre, obtained from her assurances of relinquishing her male clothes. However, after four days, in which she was allegedly tortured by English soldiers, she refused again to wear female clothes, which was seen as a sign of her return to heresy. She was therefore burnt at the stake two days later, on 30 May 1431.

In 1455, by the order of King Charles VII of France, who Joan had publicly supported, a rehabilitation trial was opened in the Notre Dame de Paris to investigate the dubious circumstances which led to Joan's execution. The Inquisitor-General of France was put in charge of the trial. After a careful analysis of all the proceedings, including Joan's answers to the allegations, he pronounced null her condemnation. Joan of Arc was eventually canonized in 1920. The rehabilitation of Joan of Arc was also unprecedented in the previous history of the Inquisition, reflecting a clear signal in the decline of the medieval Inquisition in France.

Inquisition procedure[edit]

The papal inquisition developed a number of procedures to discover and prosecute heretics.


When a papal inquisition arrived at a town it had a set of procedures and rules to identify likely heretics. Legally, there had to be at least two witnesses, although conscientious judges rarely contented themselves with that number.[8]

First, the townspeople would be gathered in a public place. Although attendance was voluntary, those who failed to show would automatically be suspect, so most would come. The inquisitors would provide an opportunity for anyone to step forward and denounce themselves in exchange for easy punishment. As part of this bargain they would need to inform on other heretics. In addition, the inquisitors could simply force people to be interrogated.[citation needed]


The inquisitorial trial generally favored the prosecution (the Church). Confessing 'in full' was the best hope of receiving a lighter punishment - but with little hope of escaping at least some punishment. And a 'full' confession was one which implicated others, including other family members. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and convicted heretics. The inquisitor could keep a defendant in prison for years before the trial to obtain new information, and could return them to prison if he felt that the witness had not fully confessed.

Despite the unfairness of the procedures, the inquisitors did provide some rights to the defendant. At the beginning of the trial, defendants were invited to name those who had "mortal hatred" against them. If the accusers were among those named, the defendant was set free and the charges dismissed; the accusers would face life imprisonment. This option was meant to keep the inquisition from becoming involved in local grudges. Early legal consultations on conducting inquisition stress that it is better that the guilty go free than that the innocent be punished. Gregory IX urged Conrad of Marburg: "ut puniatur sic temeritas perversorum quod innocentiae puritas non laedatur" — i.e., "not to punish the wicked so as to hurt the innocent".[8]


Torture could be used after 1252. On May 15, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull entitled Ad extirpanda, which authorized the use of torture by inquisitors. Torture was undoubtedly used in the trial of the Templars, but is in fact not much found in heresy trials until the later fourteenth century. Torture methods that resulted in bloodshed, births, mutilation or death were forbidden. Also, torture could be performed only once. However, it was common practice to consider a second torture session to be a "continuation" of the first. The most commonly employed methods of torture included hanging by the wrists, with weights suspended from the ankles (a form of torture known as strappado); the rack; foot roasting; and the water torture.[citation needed]


Among the possible punishments were prayer, pilgrimage, wearing a yellow cross for life, banishment, public recantation, or, occasionally, long-term imprisonment[citation needed]. The unrepentant and apostates could be "relaxed" to secular authority, however, opening the convicted to the possibility of various corporal punishments, up to and including being burned at the stake. Execution was neither performed by the Church, nor was it a sentence available to the officials involved in the inquisition, who, as clerics, were forbidden to kill. The accused also faced the possibility that his or her property might be confiscated. In some cases, accusers may have been motivated by a desire to take the property of the accused, though this is a difficult assertion to prove in the majority of areas where the inquisition was active, as the inquisition had several layers of oversight built into its framework in a specific attempt to limit prosecutorial misconduct.

The inquisitors generally preferred not to hand over heretics to the secular arm for execution if they could persuade the heretic to repent: Ecclesia non novit sanguinem. For example, Bernard Gui, a famous inquisitor working in the area of Carcassonne (in modern France), executed 42 people out of over 900 guilty verdicts in fifteen years of office. Execution was to admit defeat, that the Church was unable to save a soul from heresy, which was the goal of the inquisition.[citation needed]


The inquisitions in combination with the brutal Albigensian Crusade were very successful in eliminating opposition and contrast to the Catholic institution. When they started, the other sects were quite strong and growing, but by the 14th century the Waldensians had been driven underground and the Cathars had been slaughtered en masse or forced to recant. Some residents of the Pays Cathare identify themselves as Cathars even today. They claim to be descended from the Cathars of the Middle Ages. However, the delivering of the consolamentum, on which historical Catharism was based, required a linear succession by a bon homme in good standing. It is believed that one of the last known bons hommes, Guillaume Belibaste, was burned in 1321.


  1. ^ a b c Pappalardo, Francesco. "Medieval Inquisition", Istituto per la Dottrina e l'Informazione Sociale
  2. ^ a b c Stanley, Alexandra. "Vatican Is Investigating the Inquisition, in Secret", New York Times-International Herald Tribune, 31 October 1998
  3. ^ "A History of The Inquisition". Retrieved 2011-03-28. 
  4. ^ a b c "Historical Overview of the Inquisition", The Galileo Project, Rice Univ.
  5. ^ a b c "Medieval Inquisition", Univ. of St. Thomas
  6. ^
  7. ^ Madden, Thomas F., "The Real Inquisition"
  8. ^ a b c Blötzer, Joseph. "Inquisition." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 23 Jun. 2013

Further reading[edit]

  • Hamilton, Bernard, The Medieval Inquisition (London, 1981).

See also[edit]

External links[edit]