Christianity has gone through several major events that have shaped the modern religious environment. One of the largest events to ever have occurred in the history of Christianity was the inquisition. The inquisition was a movement carried out by various bodies within the Roman Catholic Church meant to fight against heretics.
The Roman Catholic Church termed the event as inquiry on heretical perversity (Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis)1. The movement was directed towards heretical behavior of converts and Catholic believers, and was not concerned with individuals outside its jurisdiction, such as Muslims or Jews.
Historians have identified four main instances where the inquisition occurred. They include: The medieval inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition and the Roman Inquisition.
The Early Roman Catholic Church
In order to understand how the Inquisition was created, it is important to understand how the early medieval society existed and the position of the Catholic Church at this time. The Church has always believed that it is the only representative of Christ here on earth, and was assigned the duty of spreading Christ’s teachings to everyone2.
To question this sacred duty or the authority of the Church to carry out this duty is the height of offence. This fact is enhanced further by the claim of the Church that it is the ultimate authority in all affairs, including monarchs3. At the helm of this belief is the Pope who insists on his own infallibility. According to the Church, decisions made by the pope are inspired by God therefore they cannot be questioned or mistaken4.
The Medieval Inquisition
During the 12th century, Pope Lucius III announced the Episcopal Inquisition after he issued a papal bull called the Ad abolendum on 4th November, 11845. The papal bull also known as the Charter of the Inquisition stated that in order to eradicate the various heresies that were springing up in different parts of the world, the full power of the church should be awakened.
The bull was an instruction to bishop and held that all heretics who refused to repent were to be turned over to civil authorities and that their material wealth confiscated to be used by the Church6. The papal bull was meant to counter the budding Catharist movement in southern France. It was however unsuccessful in eliminating the spread of heretic movements..
During the 13th century, the world was experiencing a great change. The Roman Catholic Church had gained a lot of power and had a virtually absolute control over most of the Christian world. Farming practices had evolved and technology was growing at a very fast pace. Education was improving and the church was unable to assert its control on the education institutions that were springing up at a very fast pace7.
It was during this time that the Roman Catholic instituted the earliest formal Inquisition. The inquisition was directed at the increasing heretical movements at the time especially the Cathars and the Waldensians8. Pope Gregory IX instigated the Inquisition when he requested investigations to be carried out on the Cathars of Southern France.
The Church had at one time tried to eliminate them through the Albigensian Crusade but failed. The church then started the Episcopal inquisition that was operated by local clergy but this failed too. Pope Gregory sought to remedy this by instituting an inquisition that was to be operated by trained clergy men9. The Pope chose individuals mainly from the Dominican Order as they had a strong reputation of being anti-heresy.
The Catharist heresy was that believers of this movement believed that there were two gods who were equal in power. One god was the embodiment of everything that was chaotic, corporeal and powerful. The other god was the embodiment of peace, order and love. He was a being of pure spirit and was entirely untarnished by the stain of matter10. It was this god that they worshipped.
The Waldensians differed from the Cathars in that they believed in the existence of the only one supreme God. This sect was started by Peter Waldo who gave up all his material wealth and began preaching about poverty and simplicity. Within a short time, he had a large following of individuals who had given up all their wealth and travelled spreading the gospel and living lives of poverty.
Since Waldo was not trained by the Church, Pope Alexander III therefore concluded that his teachings were without divide inspiration and ordered him to stop11. Waldo and his followers refused the limitations imposed on them by the church and continued with their work. As a result, the next Pope Lucius III excommunicated all the members of the movement and soon after they were placed in the list of known heretics.
The medieval inquisition was very systematic and most of the details were recorded. The inquisition followed a laid out procedure that was followed by all inquisitors.
First, an investigation of the alleged heretics was carried out. When the inquisitor entered a town suspected to be harboring heretics, he first requested for a town meeting. At the meeting, the inquisitor offered the people a chance to denounce themselves promising easy punishment for those who complied. If no one stepped forward, the inquisitor had the power to demand that people be interrogated in order to gain information12.
The second step involved the trial. In order to receive a lighter punishment, the accused had to offer a full confession together with a list of other heretics in the area. Testimony could be taken from any source including convicted heretics, people of unsavory characters, individuals who had been excommunicated and even criminals.
The accused was however granted the right to name people who may have a grudge with him and if the accuser was on that list, the case was dropped and the accuser sent to jail for life. This was to ensure that the process was not used by people to settle local disputes13.
The third step involved torture. Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull that allowed the use of torture during inquisitions. During the earlier part of the Medieval inquisition torture was hardly used and it only become widely use in the 14th century. All methods of torture that could result in miscarriages, mutilation, bloodshed and death were forbidden by the church14.
The final step in the medieval inquisition was punishment. Those who failed to repent were forwarded to the secular authority where they faced corporal punishment, life imprisonment and sometimes death. By the end of the Medieval Inquisition, All the Cathars had been eliminated by the Church.
The medieval inquisition came to an end in the 15th century after it was replaced by the Spanish Inquisition15. By the end of the Medieval Inquisition, All the Cathars had been eliminated by the Church.
The Spanish Inquisition
Of all the inquisitions, none has received much attention like the Spanish Inquisition. This is mainly due to the fact that it was the bloodiest and most controversial inquisition to ever have been propagated by the Roman Catholic Church. During much of Spain’s history, the three main religions i.e. Christianity, Islam and Judaism coexisted together in relative peace16.
Spain was divided into two; the large part was controlled by Christian while a small part (the Iberian Peninsula) was controlled by the Muslims Moors until the 12th Century when the Christians defeated the Moors in a war and Christian rule was re-instituted.
Under the Muslim rule, the Jews flourished as they were granted several privileges. Although they we discriminated in some activities, they could own possessions, practice their faiths and work among the Moors. During the end of the 11th century, a second invasion of Islam adherents took place.
The Almohads had little patience with non-believers and Jews were persecuted and driven away from their homes where they settled in the Christian dominated part of Spain17. These Jews knew Arabic and had a lot of experience on the most effective commercial techniques.
The political leaders of the Christian Spain therefore promoted the settlement of the Jews despite the objections from the Catholic Church. During the prosperous age in Spain history, the three religions lived in relative peace. Work was available for all and there was no need for competition or rivalry.
This however came to an end after the Black Death ravaged the country. People found themselves poor without enough resources to satisfy everyone. The Christians believed that the plague was a curse for sins they had carried out. Christian monks urged the people to repent and return to the Church. The presence of the Jews was now an unacceptable condition as the Church believed they were corrupted by evil.
The anti-Semitic sermons by the archdeacon of Ecija, Martinez Fernand, finally sparked an all out persecution that swept the whole of Spain18. Synagogues were looted and converted into churches, Jews were murdered and most of them were turned out of the homes and places of work.
At this time most Jews offered to be converted while some of them left Spain. During the beginning of the 14th century there were very many conversions and a new breed of Christians, the conversos, emerged in Spain19.
In 1477, Queen Isabel I was notified by a Friar that there existed Crypto-Jews among the Conversos in Andalusia. She then decided to institute the Inquisition to find and punish the crypto-Jews, and requested for the Pope’s permission. The Pope issued a papal bull accepting the request but only after he was pressured into it by Ferdinard II of Aragon20.
This inquisition was not controlled by the Church but rather by the Monarchy. In 1483, all the Jews who had not converted were chased out of Andalusia. Another Papal Bull was passed later that year on the insistence of Ferdinard. This time the bull instituted a formal inquisition under the guidance of the Church.
Under this new system, people were given a month long grace period were they could confess and information could be gathered on possible crypto-Jews21.
The Inquisitor laid down some of the evidence used to identify crypto-Jews that included: Those who stocked up food before the Passover, those who bought their meat from Jewish butchers or converses only and those houses in which no smoke was visible on Saturdays as this would mean they were secretly observing the Sabbath22.
Crypto-Jews were given the chance to confess and denounce their ways but those who relapsed faced death by burning. About 2000 people were executed between 1480 and 1530 with over 90% having Jewish origins23.
In 1492, all Jews who had refused to convert were expelled from Spain24. During that year, just before the deadline, many Jews converted to Christianity by baptism. Apart from crypto-Jews, the Inquisition also targeted Moriscos (converted Muslims) and Protestants.
However, the number of Protestants in Spain was very low hence only a small number of Lutherans were ever presented before the Inquisition. In 1609, King Phillip III gave the order that saw all the Moriscos expelled from Spain25. The Spanish Inquisition followed various steps that included the accusation, detention, trial, torture, sentencing and the autos-da-fe.
The first step was the accusation of suspected heretics. The Inquisitor usually read the Edict of Grace after the Sunday mass; that was a compilation of suspected heresies and would urge everyone to attend the tribunals in order to ease their conscience26.
The Edict of Grace was so called as it allowed anyone who confessed within the grace period lenience. Those who confessed were urged to name others and as such, they were the main source of information. After the Edict of Grace came the Edict of Faith. This involved urging the people to anonymously denounce those among them that they suspected of being guilty.
The second step was the detention of those denounced. Most people were detained for a very long time before their case could be studied by the qualifiers. During detention, the material belongings of the accused was confiscated and sold to pay for the proceedings as well as pay the various parties involved in the case27.
The third step was the trial and torture of the accused. Both the accused and their denouncers were given a chance to offer their testimonies. The defendant was granted counsel who mainly acted as advisers while at the same time urging the defendant to tell the truth.
The defendant had to options to plead his case; he could either find witnesses to support his claim or he could prove that the accuser’s testimonies are untrustworthy28. As in most tribunals during this period, torture was also used to acquire information. The torture used was such that it could not disfigure the accused or draw blood.
The final step involved the sentencing of the accused by the courts. In some cases, though rarely, the defendant could be set free. In most cases, the accused was reconciled with the Church through punishment. The ultimate punishment was relaxation to the local authorities. This involved being executed by burning at the stake at a public execution29.
The final step is autos-da-fe carried out after every condemnatory sentencing. It involved a public ritual that formalized the return of the individual to the church or in some cases the punishment of the individual as an impudent heretic30. The Spanish Inquisition came to an end when a royal decree by Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies abolished the system.
The Portuguese Inquisition
This was a tribunal instituted in Portugal after King Joao III Manuel I had requested the Pope to set up the inquisition31. The Portuguese Inquisition was very similar to the Spanish inquisition in terms of the targets of the Inquisition and the process of the inquisition. As in the Spanish version, the Portuguese Inquisition targeted conversos suspected of practicing Judaism in secret32.
Many of these converses originated from Spain and had sought refuge in Portugal during the Spanish inquisition. In Portugal, the Inquisition was also under the authority of the Monarch and the Grand Inquisitor was chosen by the King but named by the Pope33.
The inquisition targets new converts who did not follow the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The inquisition was also carried out in colonies of Portugal mainly Goa, Cape Verde and Brazil.
Cases of bigamy and witchcraft were also investigated by the Inquisition as well as the censure of books thought to be against the Catholic Church. The inquisition mimicked the Spanish inquisition and involved the accusation, detention, trial, torture, sentencing and the autos-da-fe34.
The total number of those burned at the stake has been cited as 1808 between 1540 and 1794. In 1674, the Portuguese Inquisition was suspended and the inquisitors were instructed not to confiscate property, torture or pass sentences of relaxation.
This was mainly due to the work of Antonio Vieira who approached Pope Innocent IX in order to stop the practice35. The Inquisition however was formerly abolished in 1821 by the Constituent assembly of the country after being dormant for a long time.
The Roman Inquisition
The Roman Inquisition was instituted as a chain of tribunals that was charged with prosecution individuals charged with heresy, professing to Judaism, sorcery and immorality among other crimes against the church.
The inquisition was also responsible for censoring of literature that was deemed to be against the Church or that threatened the power of the church. The Inquisition was instituted in 1542 by Pope Paul III and lasted for about 300 years36.
The Roman Inquisition was mainly instituted to curb the spread of the Protestant movement in Italy. The Inquisition was initiated by the Papal bull from Pope Paul III, Licet ab Initio in 195237.
This was as a response to his growing concerns on the spread of emerging protestant movements such as the Lutherans, Calvinists and other protestant movements. The inquisition was modeled after the Canon law and was meant to ensure that the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church was not under any threat38.
The Inquisition followed similar steps as those before it. The first step was identification of heretics. This was either through confession or denunciation. Those who freely confessed were only given light punishment but those who were denounced had to go to trial.
Those denounced were arrested and brought before the Inquisition. After presentation, the accused was given a chance to name all the people that bore him malice. After this, witnesses were brought before the court and the proceedings were initiated. The Inquisition required that accurate records of the proceeding be kept starting from the summoning to the final punishment39.
After the trial, torture was also used to get information. Torture was however only allowed when the evidence proved without a doubt that the accused is guilty or when the accused insisted on innocence despite the evidence presented40.
The Inquisition generally ended with the sentencing whereby those who repented and denounced their ways were re-integrated back to the church after the punishment laid down by the Inquisitor or in rare occasions, the accused was hanged if he did not renounce his way.
The Inquisition is one of the most important events to occur in religious history. It has elicited many views and emotions to various people. To the Catholics, it was a regrettable mistake, to others it was a travesty perpetuated by a religious order that aimed to control the world. The inquisition mainly developed due to the narrow mindedness of the Catholic Church during a time when the world is changing.
It began as a way for the Church to control intelligent thought and thinking of people. The infallibility of the Pope in that all decisions made by him are under Divine inspiration may was the source of the Church’s narrow mindedness. The reaction to the rise of heretical movement was also flawed and resulted in an even bigger break-up of the Church.
Out of the four Inquisitions that took place during the history of the Church, it was the Spanish Inquisition that had the biggest effect of them all. This inquisition led to numerous deaths and the displacement of a whole group of people. The inquisition has become one of the biggest mistake ever carried out by the church and has been used many times to question the divine origin of the Catholic Church.
Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. New York: Yale University Press, 1997
Perez, Joseph. The Spanish Inquisition: A History. New York: Yale University Press, 2004
Peters, Edward. The Inquisition. California: University of California Press, 1989
Rawlings, Helen. The Spanish Inquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006
Thomsett, Michael. The Inquisition: A History. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010
Vacandard, E. The Inquisition: A Critical and Historical Study of the Coercive Power of the Church. Fairford: The Echo Library, 2010
1 Michael Thomsett, The Inquisition: A History (North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010), 3
2 Ibid, 4
3 E. Vacandard, The Inquisition: A Critical and Historical Study of the Coercive Power of the Church (Fairford: The Echo Library, 2010), 14
4 Ibid, 4
5 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 13
6 Edward Peters, The Inquisition (California: University of California Press, 1989), 41
7 Vacandard, Coercive Power of the Church, 6
8 Peters, The Inquisition, 43
9 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 14
10 Ibid, 14
11 Peters, The Inquisition, 45
12 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 15
13 Ibid, 15
14 Peters, The Inquisition, 52
15 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 15
16 Helen Rawlings, The Spanish Inquisition (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 26
17 Joseph Perez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History (New York: Yale University Press, 2004), 5
18 Ibid, 7
19 Ibid, 8
20 Rawlings, The Spanish Inquisition, 30
21 Perez, The Spanish Inquisition, 12
22 Ibid, 13
23 Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New York: Yale University Press, 1997), 17
24 Perez, The Spanish Inquisition, 34
25 Ibid, 46
26 Ibid, 133
27 Kamen, Spanish Inquisition, 32
28 Perez, The Spanish Inquisition, 146
29 Perez, The Spanish Inquisition, 148
30 Ibid, 154
31 Vacandard, Study of Coercive Power of State, 78
32 Ibid, 78
33 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 133
34 Perez, The Spanish Inquisition, 158
35 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 135
36 Ibid, 206
37 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 209
38 Ibid, 206
39 Peters, The Inquisition, 106
40 Ibid, 107