Roman Inquisition

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The Roman Inquisition, formally the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, was a system of tribunals developed by the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church, during the second half of the 16th century, responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of a wide array of crimes relating to religious doctrine or alternate religious doctrine or alternate religious beliefs. In the period after the Medieval Inquisition, it was one of three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Spanish Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition.


Like other iterations of the Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition was responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of committing offenses relating to heresy, including Protestantism, sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft, as well as for censorship of printed literature. After 1567, with the execution of Pietro Carnesecchi, an allegedly leading heretic, the Holy Office moved to broaden concerns beyond that of theological matters, such as love magic, witchcraft, superstitions, and cultural morality. However, the treatment was more disciplinary than punitive.[1] The tribunals of the Roman Inquisition covered most of the Italian peninsula as well as Malta and also existed in isolated pockets of papal jurisdiction in other parts of Europe, including Avignon in France. The Roman Inquisition, though, was considerably more bureaucratic and focussed on pre-emptive control in addition to the reactive judicial prosecution experienced under other iterations.[2]


Typically, the pope appointed one cardinal to preside over meetings of the Congregation. Though often referred to in historical literature as Grand Inquisitors, the role was substantially different from the formally appointed Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. There were usually ten other cardinals who were members of the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also had an international group of consultants; experienced scholars of theology and canon law who advised on specific questions. The congregation, in turn, presided over the activity of local tribunals.


The Roman Inquisition began in 1542 as part of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation against the spread of Protestantism, but it represented a less harsh affair than the previously established Spanish Inquisition.[3] In 1588,[4] Pope Sixtus V established 15 congregations of the Roman Curia of which the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition was one. In 1908, the congregation was renamed the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office and in 1965 it was renamed again and is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While the Roman Inquisition was originally designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy, the institution outlived that original purpose and the system of tribunals lasted until the mid 18th century, when pre-unification Italian states began to suppress the local inquisitions, effectively eliminating the power of the church to prosecute heretical crimes.


Main article: Nicolaus Copernicus

In 1616, the Roman Inquisition's consultants gave their assessment of the proposition that the sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy" and that the first was "formally heretical" while the second was "at least erroneous in faith". (The original assessment document from the Inquisition was made widely available in 2014.)[5]

This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books).


Main article: Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei revised those same theories and was admonished for his views on heliocentrism in 1615. The Roman Inquisition concluded that his theory could only be supported as a possibility, not as an established fact.[6] Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated him and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point.[6] He was tried by the Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, and the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was banned. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest at his villa in Arcetri near Florence.[7]


Among the subjects of this Inquisition were Franciscus Patricius, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Gerolamo Cardano, and Cesare Cremonini. Of these, only Bruno was executed, the last by the Roman Inquisition. Campanella was later implicated in a conspiracy to drive the Spanish from Naples and Sicily and was imprisoned for twenty-seven years in various Neapolitan fortresses.[8] He was finally released from the Castel Nuovo in 1626, through Pope Urban VIII, who personally interceded on his behalf with Philip IV of Spain. The miller Domenico Scandella was also burned at the stake on the orders of Pope Clement VIII in 1599 for his belief that God was created from chaos.[9]

The Inquisition also concerned itself with the Benandanti in the Friuli region, but considered them a lesser danger than the Protestant Reformation and only handed out light sentences.

17th century traveler and author, John Bargrave, gave an account of his interactions with the Roman Inquisition.[2] Arriving in the city of Reggio (having travelled from Modena), Bargrave was stopped by the city guard who inspected his books on suspicion some may have been on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Bargrave was brought before the city's chief inquisitor who suggested they converse in Latin rather than Italian so that the guards might be prevented from understanding them. The inquisitor told him that the inquisition were not accustomed to stopping visitors or travellers unless someone had suggested they do so (Bargrave suspected that Jesuits in Rome had made accusations against him). Nonetheless, Bargrave was told he was required to hold a license from the inquisition. Even with a license, Bargrave was prohibited from carrying any books, "printed at any heretical city, as Geneva, Amsterdam, Leyden, London, or the like".[2] Bargrave provided a catalogue of his books to the inquisition and was provided with a license to carry them for the rest of his journey.

The Inquisition in Malta (1561 to 1798) is generally considered to have been gentler.[10]

Italian historian Andrea Del Col estimates that out of 51,000 — 75,000 cases judged by Inquisition in Italy after 1542 around 1,250 resulted in a death sentence.[11]

Historiography of the Roman Inquisition and early modern witchcraft accusations[edit]

The Inquisitions have long been one of the primary subjects in the scholarly debates regarding witchcraft accusations of the early modern period. Historian Henry Charles Lea places an emphasis on torture methods employed to force confessions from the convicted.[12] Carlo Ginzburg, in one of his influential work, The Night Battles, discussed how Inquisitorial propaganda of demonology distorted popular folk beliefs.[13] In similar light, Elliott P. Currie saw The Inquisitions as one singular, ongoing phenomenon, which drove the witch-hunt to its peak. Currie argued that the methods pioneered by the Inquisition indirectly guided continental Europe to a series of persecutions motivated by profit. Second-wave feminism also saw a surge of historical interpretation of the witch-hunt.[14] A number of 100,000 to 9,000,000 executions was given, all of which was attributed the The Inquisition. Feminist scholars Claudia Honeger and Nelly Moia saw the early modern witch-craze as a product of Inquisitorial influence, namely the Malleus Maleficarum.[15][16] Radical feminist writers Mary Daly, Barbara Walker, and Witch Starhawk argued that the Inquisition were responsible for countless, "hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions", deaths, most of them women. This notion was similarly echoed by Third-wave feminist writer Elizabeth Connor, who agreed with the notion of "Gynocide", or "woman hunting" inaugurated by the Malleus.[17] The same sentiment regarding the Inquisition's notorious reputation of torture was shared by American writer and attorney Jonathan Kirsch. In his book, The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, Kirsch argued that the Inquisition's use of torture not only applied to the witch-craze which peaked in early 17th century, but also for Salem witch trial. The model of repressive system influenced, Kirsch argued, was also applied for Nazism, Soviet Russia, Japanese Internment Camp, McCarthyism, and most recently, the War on Terror.[18]

Historiography of the Roman Inquisition and its relation to witch-hunting. "A" and "B" stand for Articles and Books

Through further conducted research and available evidence, the Roman Inquisition were seen in a different light. In contrast with feminist arguments, historians like Clarke Garrett, Brian Levack, John Tedeschi, Matteo Duni, and Diane Purkiss pointed out that most witch-trials and executions were conducted by local and secular authorities.[19][20][21][22][23] Clarke Garrett mentioned the quick decline and insignificance of the Malleus Maleficarum. In-depth historical research regarding minor details of different types of magic, theological heresies, and political climate of The Reformation further revealed that Inquisitorial procedures greatly restrained witch-hunting in Italy. Scholars specialized in the Renaissance and Early Modern period such as Guido Ruggiero, Christopher F. Black, and Mary O'Neil also discussed the importance of proper procedures and sparse use of torture. The low rate of torture and lawful interrogation, Black argued, means that trials tended to focus more on individual accusation, instead of groups. For the same reason, the notion of the Black Sabbath was much less believed in contemporary Italian popular culture.[1][24][25] The Holy Office's function in the disenchantment of popular culture also helped advance rationalism by getting rid of superstitions.

Historians who leaned toward the witch-hunt-restraining argument were more inclined to differentiate different Inquisitions, and often drew contrast between Italy versus Central Europe. The number of executed witches is also greatly lowered, to between 45,000-60,000. Those who argued for the fault of the Inquisition in the witch-craze are more likely to contrast Continental Europe to England, as well as seeing the Inquisitions as one singular event which lasted 600 years since its founding in the 11th or 12th century. The significance and emphasis of the Malleus Maleficarum is seen more frequently in arguments which hold the Inquisition accountable for the witch-craze.

Later history[edit]

For a broader coverage related to later history and names, see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The last notable action[according to whom?] of the Roman Inquisition occurred in 1858, in Bologna, Papal States, when Inquisition agents legally removed a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his family.[26] The local inquisitor had learned that the boy had been secretly baptized by his nursemaid when he was in danger of death. It was illegal for a Catholic child in the Papal States to be raised by Jews. Pope Pius IX raised the boy as a Catholic in Rome and he went on to become a priest. The boy's father, Momolo Mortara, spent years seeking help in all quarters, including internationally, to try to reclaim his son. These efforts availed him none at all. The case received international attention and fueled the anti-papal sentiments that helped the Italian nationalism movement and culminated in the 1870 Capture of Rome.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Black, Christopher F. 2009. The Italian Inquisition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  2. ^ a b c Pope Alexander the Seventh and the College of Cardinals by John Bargrave, edited by James Craigie Robertson (reprint; 2009)
  3. ^ Hsu, Jeremy. "Sloppy Records Cast Galileo's Trial in New Light", Live Science, September 30, 2010
  4. ^ [1] Dissertation C. Beaudet, The Catholic University of America, 2010
  5. ^ Domínguez, Nuño (28 Feb 2014). "Una errata reproducida durante siglos cambia la censura de la Iglesia a Galileo".; also arXiv:1402.6168
  6. ^ a b Hannam, James. "The Genesis of Science". 2011. p329-344.
  7. ^ Finnocchiaro, Maurice (1989). The Galileo Affair. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 291. 
  8. ^ Ernst, Germana, "Tommaso Campanella", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  9. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo (1980) The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, (translated by John and Anne Tedeschi) Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, ISBN 0-8018-4387-1
  10. ^ The Archives of the Roman Inquisition in Malta
  11. ^ Andrea Del Col: L'Inquisizione in Italia. Milano: Oscar Mondadori, 2010, pp. 779-780. ISBN 978-88-04-53433-4.
  12. ^ Connor, E. (1990, Jan 31). Burning times: The inquisition's reign of terror. WomenWise, 12, 5
  13. ^ Ginzburg, Carlo. 1983. The Night Battles : Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries. London ; Melbourne: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  14. ^ Currie, Elliott P.. 1968. “Crimes Without Criminals: Witchcraft and Its Control in Renaissance Europe”. Law & Society Review 3 (1). [Wiley, Law and Society Association]: 7–32
  15. ^ Honegger, Claudia. 1979. “Comment on Garrett's "women and Witches"”. Signs 4 (4). University of Chicago Press: 792–98
  16. ^ Moia, Nelly. 1979. “Comment on Garrett's "women and Witches"”. Signs 4 (4). University of Chicago Press: 798–802.
  17. ^ Connor, E. (1990, Jan 31). Burning times: The inquisition's reign of terror. WomenWise, 12, 5.
  18. ^ Kirsch, Jonathan. 2008. The Grand Inquisitor's Manual : A History of Terror in the Name of God. New York, N.Y.: HarperOne.
  19. ^ Tedeschi, John. 1983. “THE ROMAN INQUISITION AND WITCHCRAFT: An Early Seventeenth-century « Instruction » on Correct Trial Procedure”. Revue De L'histoire Des Religions 200 (2). Armand Colin: 163–88.
  20. ^ Garrett, Clarke. 1979. “Reply to Honegger and Moia”. Signs 4 (4). University of Chicago Press: 802–4.
  21. ^ Purkiss, Diane. “A Holocaust of one’s own:; The myth of the Burning Times.” The Witch in History. Routledge, London: 1996. Print.
  22. ^ Michael D. Bailey. "Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy (review)." Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 4, no. 1 (2009): 104-107. (accessed April 25, 2016).
  23. ^ Michael D. Bailey. "The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (review)." Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 2, no. 1 (2007): 101-103.
  24. ^ Ruggiero, Guido. Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  25. ^ 1986. Inquisition and Society in Early Modern Europe. London: Croom Helm
  26. ^ Kertzer, David I. (1997). The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-45031-9. 
  27. ^ David Rabinovitch, producer, director (May 2007). "The End of the Inquisition". Secret Files of the Inquisition. PBS. 

Short bibliography[edit]

  • Christopher Black, The Italian Inquisition, Yale University Press, New Haven–London 2009
  • Andrea Del Col, L’Inquisizione in Italia. Dall’XI al XXI secolo, Mondadori, Milan 2006
  • Dizionario storico dell’Inquisizione, edited by V. Lavenia, A. Prosperi, J. Tedeschi, 4 vol., Edizioni della Normale, Pisa 2010
  • Massimo Firpo, Inquisizione romana e Controriforma. Studi sul cardinal Giovanni Morone (1509–1580) e il suo processo d’eresia, 2nd edition, Morcelliana, Brescia 2005
  • Massimo Firpo, Vittore Soranzo vescovo ed eretico. Riforma della Chiesa e Inquisizione nell’Italia del Cinquecento, Laterza, Rome–Bari 2006
  • Giovanni Romeo, Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma, Sansoni, Florence, 1990
  • Giovanni Romeo, Ricerche su confessione dei peccati e Inquisizione nell’Italia del Cinquecento, La Città del Sole, Naples, 1997
  • Giovanni Romeo, L’Inquisizione nell’Italia moderna, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2002
  • Giovanni Romeo, Amori proibiti. I concubini tra Chiesa e Inquisizione, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2008
  • John Tedeschi, The prosecution of heresy: collected studies on the Inquisition in early modern Italy, Medieval & Renaissance texts & studies, Binghamton, New York 1991.
  • Costantino Corvisieri, "Compendio dei processi del Santo Uffizio di Roma (da Paolo III a Paolo IV)," Archivio della Società romana di storia patria 3 (1880), 261-290; 449-471

External links[edit]