by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The most feared and detested institution of the Middle Ages was the Inquisition. Feared because of its seemliness unlimited power to condemn almost anyone, and despised for the abuses of that power. Yet the reality of the Inquisition was much less then its reputation and all the horror stories it inspired. This essay will sketch out that reality.

The sole purpose of the Inquisition was to root heresy, any belief not in accordance with orthodox Catholic dogma. The goal was not to condemn these heretics, but to win them back to orthodox thinking. To have an unrepentant heretic burnt at the stack was, in a sense, a defeat. The Inquisitors actually had no such power for this last act, but simply handed over to the secular authorities these unrepentants. Much of the heretic burning that occurred during the Middle Ages was mob action.

This does not mean that the church of this cruel execution. While canon law had forbidden the Church from taking a life, it did not prevent the Church from urging the secular authorities to carry it out. And while the Inquisitors did not mention the ultimate fate of these heretics, they certainly knew what it was. Towards the end of the period, the Papacy spent much effort making sure that the authorities executed the sentence.

The extreme reaction that heresy generated has to do with the medieval mind-set. While the vast majority of the population was to various degrees ignorant of church dogma and lackadaisical in attendance, it nevertheless formed the framework in how they saw the world, and their place in it. And to the medieval mind, perception was reality. Thus heresy had the potential to disrupt the workings of the world. In those areas where heresy became widespread, it was because the proponents of the heresy successfully argued that they represented a step back to a purer form of the Church.

The basic structures of the Inquisition derive from the Roman judicial system, and always have been a part of the organized Church. And it was always a part of the duties of the clergy to seek out and suppress heresies. In theory, a local priest could conduct an Inquisition. But more usually it was expected that the bishops would regularly conduct these efforts. But for various reasons, the bishops tended to make this a very low priority item. During the 12th century as various heresies made their appearance, particularly the Cathars, the Papacy made increasingly frantic appeals to the bishops to conduct these Inquisitions.

Finally in 1231, Pope Gregory IX setup a separate organization, under papal control, that was The Inquisition. To circumvent local sympathies and the possibly of bribes, he staffed it with friars, principally the Dominicans, though the Franciscans also had a major role. The Dominicans were particularly well suited to the role as their original purpose was to preach to heretics to win them back to the Catholic Church.

The procedures used by the Inquisitors were rather simply and straight forward. They would come into an area where there was rumor to be heresy. They would call a meeting of all the local residents and give a short sermon of why he was there, the dangers of heresy, and the prospect of reconciliation. He then would wait for those who willing confessed to heresy, and for those who would accuse others of heresy. The accused was then brought before the Inquisitor and questioned. The punishment handed out depended on when in the process the heretic recanted. The sooner he did, the lesser the punishment but only if the repentance was sincere in the judgment of the Inquisitor. Only the initial meeting and the pronouncements of punishment was done in public, all else was done in complete secrecy.

The potential for abuse was clear even to the Inquisitors. And there were plenty of conscientious Inquisitors who made an effort to minimize that abuse. The penalty for false-witness was just as great as heresy itself. And while there was an opportunity for material gain, the case of the Templars being the most prominent, or political in the case of Joan of Arc, most of the abuses of the system were due to the zealous of the Inquisitors to stamp out heresy. Once accused, the defendant was assumed guilty and was given no means to prove his innocence. He was trapped in a bizarre world defined by the Inquisitor’s fantasies.

The Inquisition is also linked to witch hunts. In 1398 it was declared that acts of witchcraft had an implicit if not explicit pact with the Devil, and therefore a form of heresy. It was in this way that the Inquisition got involved with hunting witches. Yet, ironically, the Inquisition persecuted few witches. By the time of great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, the institution of the Inquisition had become moribund in the areas where these hunts occurred.

The most notorious of the heresy hunters is the Spanish Inquisition organized by Torquemada in 1483. There are two aspects of the Spanish Inquisition that were different from previous Inquisitions. First, it was not targeted against an existing or emerging heresy, but those former believers of the Moslem and Jewish faiths that had converted to Catholicism under political pressure. The sin being guarded against here was the back sliding of these converts to their former beliefs. The second difference was that the Spanish Inquisition was under the control of the Spanish crown and not the Pope. Its scope of operations was all of the Spanish Empire till its disbanding in the first half of the 19th century.

The Inquisition continues to this day, though it is not known by that name, but as the Holy Office. Its official name is the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, though it was called the Congregation of the Inquisition when it was formed in 1542. This was a part of the formal re-organization in response to the Protestant Reformation, modeled on the Spanish Inquisition. In theory it retains all usual powers of the original Inquisitions, though practical realities greatly limit it.



Hamilton, Barnard. The Medieval Inquisition. Teaneck: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981.

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1993.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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