The Inquisition set up in the Languedoc was not the first Inquisition set up by the Roman Church. Bishops' Inquisitions had existed for centuries, but being local, never had the impact of later Papal Inquisitions. The Inquisition which is the subject of this page was the Medieval Inquisition, established informally by Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century and formalised by later popes.
The more widely known Spanish Inquisition was set up around two centuries later by their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand (of Aragon) and Isabella (of Castile). In later centuries another Papal Inquisition would be created to exterminate Protestant ideas in Southern Europe. Like the Spanish Inquisition, it would follow the practices of the original medieval Inquisition in the Languedoc - the one we are talking about here.
The express purpose of this original medieval Inquisition was to discover and eliminate vestiges of Cathar belief left after the Cathar Crusades. During the crusades, ordinances had been passed which imposed new penalties for heresy. After the death of Innocent III in 1216 Honorius sanctioned Dominic Guzmán's new religious order, popularly known as the Dominicans after him. The Dominicans in turn created the first formal Inquisition. In 1233 the next pope, Gregory IX, charged the Dominican Inquisition with the final solution: the absolute extirpation of the Cathars. Soon the Franciscans would join in too, but it is Dominic Guzmán (St Dominic) and his followers who have left the legacy of bitterness that endures in the Languedoc into the third millennium.
By the end of the fourteenth century Catharism had been virtually extirpated. Before the Crusade the Languedoc, under the Counts of Toulouse, had been the most civilised land in Europe. People here had preferred simple asceticism to venality and corruption. Learning had been highly valued. Literacy had been widespread, and popular literature had developed earlier than anywhere else in Europe. Religious tolerance had been widely practised. Jews enjoyed ordinary civil rights. The Languedoc had been the home of courtly love, poetry, romance, chivalry and the troubadours. All this was swept away by the Albigensian Crusade and St Dominic's Inquisition.
Procedures were developed over time, evolving from fairly amateur attempts to establish guilt to a sophisticated mechanism that would guarantee guilt. Initially welcomed by the Catholic community, the Inquisition soon came to be widely hated throughout the Languedoc by Jews, Cathars, Waldensians and Catholics and alike - including local priests and bishops. Part of the reason was that the Inquisition, with its papal backing, was able to ignore the established power structure. It acted independently of and often against the interests of local potentates, bishops, lords and municipal councils alike. Inquisitors were attacked when they appeared in public without their armed guards. The Inquisitors' practice of digging up the bodies of supposed heretics in cemeteries excited particular local ire, and it was not unknown for church bells to be rung to celebrate the murder of Inquisitors, as after the massacre at Avignonet in 1242.
From contemporary documents we can trace the development of the torture techniques developed by Dominican Inquisitors. Here for example is an extract from an open letter written around 1285 by the Consuls of Carcassonne to Jean Galand, an Inquisitor at Carcassonne.
These abuses and the complains about them also occurred as Albi and at Cordes
The procedure was that Inquisitors would announce their arrival in a town in advance. Everyone was invited to attend and confess their errors. When the Inquisitors arrived "volunteers" were interviewed. If they confessed to relatively minor misdeeds, were prepared to swear fidelity to the Catholic Church, and were willing to provide useful information about others then they were given a small penance and the matter was closed. Some of the consequences of this practice were:
- It provided an opportunity for obliging Catholics to betray friends and family, and a virtual obligation for everyone to do so - failure to provide useful information was taken as lack of genuine zeal and commitment to the One True Church.
- It provided a formal record of a first offence. This had a salutary effect since a second offence carried the death penalty.
- It efficiently filtered out Cathar parfaits and other "heretics" who were not willing to swear any oath, let alone one of fidelity to the Catholic Church. Anyone who had not volunteered was immediately suspected, and their failure to confess voluntarily was itself evidence against them.
"... Carry from now on and forever two yellow crosses on all their clothes, except their shirts, and one arm shall be two palms long while the other transversal arm shall be a palm and a half long and each shall be three digits wide with one to be worn in front on the chest and the other between the shoulders."
From its beginning, the Papal Inquisition worked by ignoring all rules of natural justice. Guilt was assumed from the start. The accused had no right to see the evidence against them, or their accusers. They were not always told what the charges were against them. They had no right to legal counsel, and if exceptionally they were allowed a legal representative then the representative risked being arrested for heresy as well.
People were charged on the say-so of hostile neighbours, known enemies and professional informers who were paid on commission. False accusations, if exposed, were excused if they were the result of "zeal for the Faith". Guilty verdicts were assured - especially since, in addition to their punishment, half of a guilty person's property was seized by the Church. The Dominicans soon hit on the idea of digging up and trying dead people, so that they could seize property from their heirs.
Techniques of obtaining confessions included threats of procedures against other family members, promises of leniency in exchange for a confession, trick questions, sleep deprivation, indefinite imprisonment in a cold dark cell on a diet of bread and water. At Carcassonne, the Inquisition walled people up. Those sentenced to the wall in its stricter form - there were two levels - had little chance of survival for very long. Strict immuration was in effect an alternative form of death sentence. In the course of time the Inquisition would develop a wide range of even more ghastly techniques to break, maim and kill people.
Torture became a favourite method of extracting confessions for offences both real and fabricated. Its use was explicitly sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV in 1252 in his bull ad extirpanda though it had been practiced from the earliest days. Inquisitors and their assistants were permitted to absolve one another for applying torture. Instruments of torture, like crusaders' weapons, were routinely blessed with holy water.
Torture was applied to obtain whatever confessions were required, and sometimes just to punish people that the Church authorities did not like - people could be and were tortured even after they had confessed.
From time to time attempts were made to regulate procedures in response to complaints from municipal councils. In theory, only one session of torture was permitted, but this restraint could be ignored - repeated torture was regarded as as the continuation of a single session, or the rule was regarded as applying separately to each charge, so that all the Inquisitors needed to do was generate as many charges as they needed. Other nominal constraints on the shedding of blood, endangering life and torturing minors were routinely ignored - no one was in a position to enforce them, and mutual absolution seems to have been available on request.
Together, these techniques were responsible for the first police state in Europe, where the only thoughts and actions permitted were those approved of by the Roman Church, where no-one could be trusted, and where duty to the totalitarian authority took precedence over all other duties, whether those duties were to one's sovereign, family, friends, religious beliefs or conscience.
Many of the techniques developed by the Medieval Inquisition were picked up and used by later totalitarian regimes and police states. Among them are the creation of racial and religious ghettos; the forcible wearing of "badges of shame"; formalised propaganda and forgery; spying; seizure of property, threats, false promises, intimidation and torture; and disregard for what has long been regarded as natural justice.
It is difficult to find any technique of modern totalitarianism that was not pioneered by the Medieval Inquisition, right down to the good cop / bad cop routine; physical restraint; the separation of families; sexual humiliation; the use of agents provocateurs and listening tubes; false promises of leniency; and softening up new victims using psychological techniques such as leaving them for weeks, cold and hungry, isolated in cells within hearing distance of the torture chamber.
Inquisitors even charged people for the equipment used to execute members of their families - just as the very worst twenty-first century totalitarian states do
Pretty much the only Catholic churchman to have emerged from the whole of the Cathar period with any integrity (as measured by modern secular standards) was a Franciscan friar called Bernard Delicieux.
Delicieux came from Montpellier, not then part of France.
He noted with some justification that there was no way of establishing one's innocence: "... if St. Peter and St. Paul were accused of 'adoring' heretics and were prosecuted after the fashion of the Inquisition, there would be no defense open for them."
Delcieux was involved in the case of Castel Fabre, a unique and revealing case in which a man was found non-guilty by the Inquisition. It is revealing in that the only reason that a defence could be mounted was that another arm of the Church stood to lose if a guilty verdict were returned. The facts of the case were that the Dominicans were trying to disinherit Castel's heirs on the grounds that he had been a Cathar - unlikely since he had been buried in a convent. The Franciscans had evidence that he had left his worldly goods to them - again suggesting that he had not been a Cathar at all. If he was guilty then the Dominicans would get the goods. If he were innocent the Franciscans would get them. These unusual circumstances provided a unique opportunity for a genuine trial based on evidence - itself an interesting fact in that it showed that the Church new full well what a properly conducted trial looked like.
Bernard famously created such popular pressure against the Inquisition and their hated Wall, that the king's agents were eventually obliged to free its wretched prisoners. The scene, painted much later, by Jean-Paul Laurens (1838 – 1921) is depicted on the right, and may be seen at the Musée des Beaux arts in Carcassonne (just off the Square Gambetta).
Bernard was unpopular with the Dominican Inquisitors whose absolute power he temporarily threatened. He was implicated in a plot to return the Languedoc to the Aragonese rulers in the shape of Ferrand, the King of Majorca. Jaume of Aragon, aware of the plot, revealed it to Phlippe le Bel, King of France. The rebels were executed and Bernard ended up incarcerated in the Wall, sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. He was later delivered to the Pope, Clément V , who kept him prisoner in Avignon. In 1310 he was released and went to Béziers but a new pope John XXII had him re-arrested in 1317. Judged at Castelnaudary in 1319, he was "put to the question" (ie tortured). He died in prison the following year.
Streets are named after him in Montpellier and Toulouse.
Some Useful References
The Inquisition - Expanded Version and how The Inquisition developed in later Times
In 1184 Pope Lucius III and the Emperor Frederick formulated a programme for the repression of heretics. This document, Ad abolendum, is sometimes known as the charter of the Inquisition, because it set the tone for future developments. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 ordered all bishops to hold an annual inquisition, if there was a suspicion of heresy in their See. But these Episcopal inquisitions were found to be inadequate for the task .
Over the centuries there have been a number of Inquisitions. They have been directed against pagans and supposed witches, dissenting sects, Cathars, Muslims, Jews and members of other religions. They have also been directed against freethinkers, apostates, atheists and blasphemers.
The Medieval Inquisition A roving papal Inquisition was set up in 1231 by Pope Gregory IX. He extended existing legislation against heretics and introduced the death penalty for them – indeed for anyone who dissented from his views. Initially intended to be temporary, this Inquisition was used to extirpate surviving Cathars in the Languedoc. Anyone accused or ‘defamed’ was treated as guilty, and no one once defamed got off without some punishment. After 1227 inquisitorial commissions were granted only to the friars, usually to the Dominicans. The Inquisition was now the ‘Dominican Inquisition’. Dominic Guzmán’s threats of slavery and death for the citizens of the Languedoc were fulfilled for a second time. First the massacres, now the Inquisition.
The Bishop of Toulouse marked the canonisation of St Dominic on his first Saint’s Day (4 th August 1234) by burning a woman for her Cathar beliefs. She had confessed to him as she lay sick in bed with a fever. She was carried to a field, still on her sickbed, and consigned to the flames without even a show trial.
All of the legal apparatus of the Inquisition was developed during this period. Elsewhere, courts followed at least the basic rules of justice: the accused knew their accusers, they were allowed legal representation, in some places judgement was delivered by a jury composed of peers of the accused. The old bishops’ Inquisitions had been public hearings, but these papal inquisitions were different: now secret hearings took place before clerical judges and prosecutors. Guilt was assumed from the start. There were no juries, and no legal representation for the accused. There was no habeas corpus; no disclosure of any evidence against the accused, and no appeal. Inquisitors were allowed to excuse each other for breaches of the rules – which meant that in effect there were no rules. There were secret depositions and anonymous accusations, torture and unlimited detention in appalling conditions for those who failed to confess. Dead people were tried along with the living. When found guilty their children were disinherited. At least half the estate generally went to the Church – so that the Church had a direct material interest in a guilty verdict. Children and grandchildren of those found guilty were all debarred from any secular office .
Gregory IX’s immediate successor died before assuming the reins of office, but the next pope, Innocent IV, made the Inquisition into a permanent institution. In 1252 he issued a bull Ad extirpanda, which explicitly authorised the use of torture, seizure of goods and execution, all on minimal evidence. Torture was to be administered by the secular authority, but when this proved impractical the inquisitors were allowed to administer it themselves (and to absolve each other for doing so). Thereafter it was an exceptional man, woman or child who could not quickly be convinced of his or her heresy
In theory torture could be applied only once, and could not be such as to draw blood, to cause permanent mutilation or to kill. Boys under the age of 14 and girls under 12 were excused. In practice there was no one to enforce any of these safeguards, and they were all ignored. The accused were imprisoned, often for many months, before being examined. They were often kept in solitary confinement, in unsanitary conditions, in a dark dungeon, and without adequate heating, food or water. This was deliberate, and designed to ensure that most of the accused would already have broken by the time of the first examination. Only the strongest characters were able to face a tribunal of hooded figures who claimed to have heard witnesses and seen incriminating evidence. Most of the accused were prepared to admit anything, even though they did not know what the accusations were. Those who failed to admit their crimes were taken to the torture chamber and shown the instruments of torture. This too was designed to terrify and break them – the dark chamber, the horrifying instruments, the torturer-executioner dressed and hooded in black. If they still failed to admit their guilt they were then subjected to torture: men, women and children alike. Some people were tortured for years before confessing. Only the most exceptional could resist. Every day they risked being tortured to death.
Tortures varied from time to time and place to place, but the following represent the more popular options. Victims were stripped and bound. The cords were tied around the body and limbs in such a way that they could be tightened, by a windlass if necessary, until they acted like multiple tourniquets. By attaching the cords to a pulley the victim could be hoisted off the ground for hours, then dropped. Whether the victim was pulled up short before the weight touched the floor, or allowed to fall to the floor, the pain was acute. This was the torture of the pulley, also known as squassation and the strappado. John Howard, the prison reformer, found this still in use in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Around 12 50 Alphonse de Poitiers wrote to Pope Innocent IV asking him to issue a bull against heresy. This document is known in the form of a draft, on the back of which is a sketch showing a man being burned at the stake.
The document itself (copy shown below) is rarely mentioned, though it may have had important repercussions. The document is undated but must have been drafted after 1249 when Alphonse took the title Count of Toulouse. Pope Innocent's bull Ad extirpanda, was issued on May 15, 1252, authorising the use of torture for eliciting confessions from heretics.
Ad extirpanda applied specifically to regions of what is now northern Italy, but it possible that it is based on the text of another bull, now lost, issued in response to Alphonse's request.
The rack was a favourite for dislocating limbs. Again, the victim could be flogged, bathed in scalding water with lime, and have their eyes removed with purpose designed eye-gougers. Fingernails were pulled out. Grésillons (thumbscrews) were applied to thumbs and big toes until the bones were crushed. The victim was forced to sit on a spiked iron chair that could be heated by a fire underneath until it glowed red-hot. Branding irons and red-hot pincers were also used. The victim’s feet could be placed in a wooden frame called a boot. Wedges were then hammered in until the bones shattered, and the ‘blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance’. Alternatively the feet could be held over an open fire, and literally roasted until the bones fell out; or they could be placed in huge leather boots into which boiling water was poured, or in metal boots into which molten lead was poured. Since the holy proceedings were conducted for the greater glory of God the instruments of torture were sprinkled with holy water.
Whole families were accused. Family members would often be induced to incriminate each other in order to minimise the suffering of their loved ones. Minor heretics who confessed might escape with light sentences, whereas denial invited trouble. The inquisitor Conrad of Marburg burned every victim who claimed to be innocent. Hearings of the Inquisition denied every aspect of natural justice, and became ever more prejudiced as time went on. They were held in secret, generally conducted by men whose identities were concealed. In the Papal States and elsewhere, Dominicans acted as both judges and prosecutors. By papal command they were forbidden to show mercy. There was no appeal. The evidence of embittered husbands and wives, children, servants and persons heretical, excommunicated, perjured and criminal could be used, secretly and without their having to face the accused, their charges being communicated to the victim only in summary form if at all.
No genuine defence could be sustained. For example, if a husband provided an alibi, saying that his wife had been asleep in his arms when she was alleged to have been attending a witches’ sabbat, it would be explained to him that a demon had adopted the form of his wife while she was away. The husband had been duped. There was no way for him to prove otherwise. Spies were employed with the incentive of payment by results. Perjury was pardoned if it was the outcome of ‘zeal for the faith’ – i.e. supporting the prosecution. Loyalties were over-ridden so that obedience to a superior was forbidden if it hindered the inquiry, and those who helped the inquisitors were granted the same indulgences as pilgrims to the Holy Land. Any advocates acting for and any witnesses giving evidence on behalf of a suspect laid themselves open to charges of abetting heresy. No one was ever acquitted, a released person always being liable to re-arrest and a condemned person liable to a revised sentence with no retrial, at the discretion of the Inquisitor. In theory torture could be inflicted only once, but in practice it was repeated as often as necessary on the pretext that it was a single occurrence, with intervals between the sessions. Confessions were virtually guaranteed unless the victim died under torture. Then came the sentence, and execution of the sentence:
...The obdurate and relapsed were taken outside the church and handed to the magistrates with a recommendation to mercy and instruction that no blood be shed. The supreme hypocrisy of this was that if the magistrate did not burn the victims on the following day, he was himself liable to be charged with abetting heresy
(Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy, p 109) .
Almost everyone fell within their jurisdiction. People were executed for failing to fast during Lent, for homosexuality, fornication, explaining scientific discoveries, and even for professional acting.
In order that no blood be shed, the favoured methods of execution did not involve the cutting of flesh. So it was that burning was popular, the stake having been inherited from Roman law. The estates of those found guilty were forfeit, after the deduction of expenses. Expenses included the costs of the investigation, torture, trial, imprisonment and execution. The accused bore it all, including wine for the guards, meals for the judges, and travel expenses for the torturer. Victims were even charged for the ropes to bind them and the tar and wood to burn them. Generally, after paying these expenses, half of the balance of the estate went to the Inquisitors and half to the Pope, or a temporal lord. This proved such an efficient way of raising money that it became popular to try the dead as well as the living. Bones were dug up and burned, even after many years in the grave. As in trials of the living, there were no acquittals, and the heretic’s property was forfeit. In practice this meant that the heirs of the deceased were dispossessed of their inheritances .
The trial of the Knights Templar demonstrates how unjust the Inquisition could be. The charges of heresy against them were almost certainly fabricated. No real evidence was ever produced to support the accusations. The best that could be managed was hearsay evidence such as that of a priest (William de la Forde) who had heard from another priest (Patrick de Ripon) that a Templar had once told him, under the inviolable seal of confession, about some rather improbable goings on. Inquisitors obtained the most damning evidence through the use of torture. In countries where torture was not permitted, the Templars denied the charges, however badly they were otherwise treated and however long they were imprisoned. As soon as torture was applied the required confessions materialised. Inquisitors refused to attach their seals to depositions unless they included confessions, so that only one side of the case appeared in official records. In France, where torture was applied freely, there were many confessions, and also many deaths under torture. Accused persons who retracted their confessions faced death at the stake as relapsed heretics .
Under torture, the Templar Grand Master himself, Jacques de Molay, confessed – though it is likely that his confession was fabricated or at least added to, since he was dumbfounded when it was read out to him in public. When he tried to mount a defence on behalf of the Templar Order, he was told that "in cases of heresy and the faith it was necessary to proceed simply, summarily, and without the noise of advocates and the form of judges". Since all of the Order’s assets had been seized there was in any case no way for him to mount an effective defence. Even by asking to do so he invited death at the stake, as a number of churchmen pointed out at the time.
When no English Templars could be induced to confess, the Pope insisted that torture be applied. He was shocked to discover that the common Law of England prohibited torture and insisted that his law "God's Law" be applied and torture inflicted. When the Archbishop of Mainz delivered a verdict favourable to the Templars at a provincial council, the Pope simply annulled it. When it looked as though the Templars in Cyprus might be acquitted, the Pope ordered a new trial backed by torture. When the fate of the Templars was considered at the Council of Vienne late in 1311 the cardinals had ‘a long dispute’ as to whether a defence should be heard at all. In the event no defence was heard and the Pope enforced the King of France’s demand that the Order be suppressed.
Templar assets were divided up between Church and State, and interest in the fates of individual Templars immediately subsided. Jacques de Molay retracted his confession knowing what the consequences would be, and was roasted alive, slowly, over a smokeless fire on 18 th March 1314. A document recently re-discovered (The Chinon Parchment) reveals that the Pope knew the Templars to be innocent of the charges against them.
The activities of the Medieval Inquisition were so terrible that the memory of them has survived throughout Europe to the present day. Some Christians acknowledge that this body was one of the most sinister that the world has ever known, and now attribute its work to satanic forces.
The Spanish Inquisition The Medieval Inquisition was established in Barcelona in 1233. Five years later its authority was extended to Castile, Leon and Navarre. This was essentially an extension of the Inquisition established to extirpate the remnants of Catharism. Over 200 years later another inquisition was to appear : the Spanish Inquisition. Their Roman Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, established it in 1479, with the explicit sanction of Pope Sixtus IV, who in 1483 also confirmed the Dominican friar Thomas de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor for Aragon and Castile. The Inquisition was initially directed against Jewish and Muslim converts who were suspected of returning to their own religion, and thus being guilty of apostasy. (Many had converted to Christianity only under threat of death.)
The process was much the same as that of the Medieval Inquisition, and indeed was deliberately modelled on it. It too was manned mainly by Dominicans. They copied the methods of arrest, trial, punishment, staffing, and procedure, even down to the blessing of the instruments of torture.
There were a few differences from the Medieval Inquisition, for example there were cases where people were able to mount a defence and were acquitted. Better records were kept. Some inquisitors seem to have been relatively enlightened and were suspicious of accusations motivated by the self-interest of accusers. Prisons seem to have been better than most ecclesiastical prisons – there are cases of people committing minor heresies in order to get themselves transferred from ecclesiastical prisons to those of the Inquisition. On the other hand, this may say more about ecclesiastical prisons than Inquisition prisons, for even in the latter many died before their cases were heard. In the early days the accused were able to appoint their own defence counsel, but by the mid-sixteenth century this had changed. If advocates were permitted they had to be abogados de los presos, officials of the Inquisition, dependent upon the inquisitors for their jobs. It is fair to assume, as their clients did, that these court officials were aware of their employers’ expectations and of the dangers of doing their jobs too well .
It was widely accepted that the Inquisition existed only to rob people, as they openly affirmed (Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, p 150). Both rich and poor knew that it was the rich who were most at risk. The fact that the Inquisition funded itself from the property it confiscated meant that in effect it burned people on commission. Individual inquisitors also funded themselves, acquiring great wealth during their careers. Some inquisitors were known to have fabricated evidence in order to extort money from their victims, but even when discovered they received no punishment. Similarly their staff of helpers, called familiars, were free to commit crimes without fear of punishment by the secular courts. After 1518 this was formalised. Familiars enjoyed immunity from prosecution similar to benefit of clergy or modern diplomatic immunity. This provided another cause of popular scandal, along with their exemption from taxation .
The activities of the inquisitors were resented by all sections of society, and the papacy was obliged to interfere from time to time, although the inquisitors were powerful enough to ignore it on many occasions. Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull on 18 th April 1482 protesting that
in Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but by lust for wealth, and that many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many.
When someone was arrested all of his or her property was seized. This was then sold off as required to pay for the upkeep of the person arrested. This might go on for years until the property was all sold off. The families of the accused were not supported, so they also suffered hardships. In some cases the children of rich parents starved in the streets. Others survived by begging. The King, Ferdinand, intervened from time to time, and later, in 1561, provision was made to support dependents– although the effect was to use up the sequestered assets that much faster.
The accused were invited to confess their crimes but not told what these crimes were. Sometimes it was difficult to guess, as any of the following were considered serious crimes: changing bedding on a Friday, not eating pork, dressing in certain ways, wearing earrings, speaking in foreign languages, owning foreign books, casual swearing, criticising a priest, or failing to show due reverence to the Inquisition. Three methods of torture were popular, the garrucha, the toca and the potro. The garrucha was the strappado under another name. The toca was a water torture - copied by Us forces in the early twenty-first century. A linen strip was forced down the throat of the accused and water poured down it until the stomach was distended. The potro was a form of rack combined with tourniquets.
Surviving records of these torture sessions make harrowing reading. As the torture progressed the victims were soon ready to admit to anything. They would admit to having done whatever they were accused of. But since they did not know the specifics of the accusation they could not admit to them item by item. More torture was applied. They admitted to whatever their accusers had said, but again they could not be specific because they did not know what their accusers had said. More torture was applied. They begged for clues. They begged for mercy. They were told to confess. They confessed to crimes, real or invented, apparently whatever they could think of. They asked what it was the inquisitors wanted and offered to confess to it whatever it was – still not good enough. More torture was applied. And so it went on, sometimes until they went mad. Sometimes they died under tortured. Many died in prison. Others committed suicide. Of the survivors some were disabled for life.
The lucky ones got off with penance, whipping or banishment. Others were condemned to slow deaths in prison or in the galleys. As the writer George Wryly Scott noted in his book A History of Torture:
Of all the punishments which the Inquisition inflicted in the name of God, for sheer long-continued cruelty, nothing ever rivalled the treatment of the galley-slaves, who were flogged very nearly every day during the period they laboured at the oars…It was a fate worse than death. For, as everyone knew, it meant a life of the most terrible hardship man could possibly endure and yet continue to live; it almost inevitably entailed death long before the sentence was completed. It meant, in the majority of instances, that the victim was gradually whipped to death.
Others were condemned to public execution, but this was rarely a simple matter of dispatching the victim. Even those who confessed immediately were tortured. Execution was not the sentence – it was an additional sentence. At the end of the trial a public ceremony was held called an Auto-da-fé (Portuguese for Act of Faith). The victim was dressed in a penitential tunic ( san benito) painted with a design. Impenitents wore tunics painted with pictures of their wearers burning in Hell with devils fanning the flames. On their heads they wore 3-foot-long pointed pasteboard caps (corozas), also painted. Around their necks they wore nooses, and in their hands they carried candles. Anyone judged likely to speak out against the Inquisition was gagged. After a procession came a Mass and sermon, in which the Inquisition was praised and heresy condemned. The sentences were read aloud and then carried out. As usual the secular authorities were obliged to burn victims on the Church’s behalf on the grounds that ecclesia non novit sanguinem – the Church does not shed blood. Burning generally took place on Sundays or festivals in order to attract the largest possible audience. Participation was a meritorious act – so for example any persons who helped collect firewood would earn a remission of their sins.
A slow roasting was considered preferable to quick incineration. Victims were tied high up on their stakes, partly to give the crowds of faithful a good view, partly to prolong the agony. Sometimes there was further torture before the fire was lit. For example Protestants who refused to recant had burning sprigs of gorse thrust into their faces until they were burned black. The whole event was a popular festival for the devout, who enjoyed the spectacle and ridiculed the victims in their death agonies. The events were closely linked to royal spectacles. The king was obliged by his coronation oath to attend these mass burnings. Such burnings were even held to help celebrate royal marriages .
Children and grandchildren of the condemned were prohibited from becoming priests, judges or magistrates, lawyers, notaries, accountants, physicians, surgeons, or even shopkeepers. They could not become mayors or hold other public offices. Some penalties passed from generation to generation without limit. Under statutes of limpieza de sangre, the descendants of heretics, like those of Jews and Moors, suffered civil disabilities because of their ‘tainted blood’. San benitos worn by heretics were hung up in local churches as an eternal badge of shame so that no one should forget their heretical ancestors.
The Spanish Inquisition continued its work for centuries, and exported its practices to the New World. The Portuguese exported similar practices to their colonies, not only to the New World but also east to countries like Goa. The fact that few of the indigenous people of the New World could be induced to convert should have meant that there was little recidivism, and therefore little heresy. In fact many hundreds of heresy trials were conducted in South America .
The Spanish Inquisition continued to execute its victims into the nineteenth century. When the French army invaded Spain in 1808 the Dominicans in Madrid denied that they had torture chambers in their building. The soldiers searched and found that they did. The chambers were full of naked prisoners, many of them insane. Similar discoveries were made throughout the country.
While it existed, the Spanish Inquisition was regarded with horror, even by Roman Catholics from other countries who witnessed its activities. It was abolished by Joseph Bonaparte in 1808, but it was reintroduced by Ferdinand VII in 1814, and finally ended by government decree on 15 th July 1834 .
The Roman Inquisition The Roman Inquisition, more correctly the Congregation of the Inquisition, was set up in 1542 by Pope Paul III to help eradicate Protestantism from Italy. It was composed of cardinals, one of whom had proposed its establishment in the first place. He later became Pope himself, taking the name Paul IV. A keen opponent of the free exchange of ideas, he enjoys the distinction of having put even his own writings on the Index.
Procedures of the Roman Inquisition were no more just than those of earlier inquisitions, and executions became more common than in Spain. Freethinkers and scientists were added to the existing categories of victim for torture and execution. It was this inquisition that was responsible for burning the foremost philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Giordano Bruno, in 1600; and for inducing the foremost scientist, Galileo, to recant under the threat of torture .
Book burning was as popular as elsewhere, but political repression added a new dimension. This persecution too continued for centuries, until the papacy became too far out of step with the rest of Western Christendom. Eventually the Church decided to change its ways, or at least give the appearance of changing them. Pope Pius VII purported to forbid the use of torture in 1816, although in practice it continued to be used for decades to come. Public burnings became something of an embarrassment too. The answer was not to abandon executions but to carry them out more discreetly. Pius IX, in an edict of 1856, sanctioned ‘secret execution’. In the Papal States things had changed little since the Middle Ages – it was for example still a crime to eat meat on a feast day. Political trials were conducted by priests, whose power was absolute. Again, the accused were not permitted legal representation, nor were they allowed to face their accusers. All this came to an end only in 1870, when the Papal States were seized. The last prisoners of the Inquisition were released , and the Pope became a self-confined prisoner in his own palace.
In 1908 the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Inquisition changed its name to the Holy Office. In 1967 it changed it again, this time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It still functions from a large building near the sacristy of St Peter’s in Rome. Since 1870 its dungeons have been converted into offices. Despite the name change, there is no apparent embarrassment about its history. On the contrary it still conducts heresy trials according to rules that breach what are elsewhere regarded as elementary rules of natural justice .
Despite the methodical destruction of Church torture chambers in modern times there is still evidence of their existence – not only medieval records but the testimony of early penal reformers like John Howard (1726–1790). Museums throughout Europe display instruments of torture carefully designed to inflict the maximum of pain over prolonged periods without shedding blood (a Papal requirement).
Because so many records have been lost, no one knows how many men, women and children were tortured or burned to death over the centuries by the various inquisitions. Similarly undetermined is the number of families dispossessed, children orphaned, communities destroyed. All we can say with certainty is that the pain and suffering that was caused is incalculable. Even sources sympathetic to the Roman Church have accepted estimates in excess of nine million.
One irony is that the Medieval, Spanish and Roman Inquisitions would all have burned Jesus as a persistent heretic if he had appeared before them. They might each have done so on different grounds: for example for advocating absolute poverty, for practising Judaism, and for criticising St Peter.