Christianity and its concept of justice – the Inquisition
Posted on April 2nd, 2017


The principle of the Inquisition was murderous … The popes were not only murderers in the great style, but they also made murder a legal basis of the Christian Church and a condition for salvation.
Lord Acton (1834-1902)

The name Inquisition is somewhat misleading in that over the centuries there have been a number of Inquisitions. They have been directed against all of the groups we have looked at – pagans and supposed witches, dissenting sects, Cathars, Moslems, Jews and members of other religions. They have also been directed against freethinkers, apostates, atheists, and blasphemers.

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 to the task.

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. This Inquisition was initially intended to be temporary, and 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 (4th 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 .

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, no legal representation for the accused . No habeas corpus. No disclosure of any evidence against the accused. 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. People were immured, walled up, chained, with no light and given only bread and water. 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 an direct material interest in a guilty verdict. Children and grandchildren of those found guilty were all debarred from any secular office.

Gregory’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 fourteen and girls under twelve 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 insanitary 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 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 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. It was also called the strappado, by which name we have already encountered it at Bamberg). John Howard found this still in use in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century . 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 which 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 Judge and Prosecutor. 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 him only in summary form.

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 advocate acting for and any witness 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. .

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 blood not 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 Templars 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 . The most damning evidence was obtained by Inquisitors 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 case appeared in official records. In France, where torture was applied freely there were many confessions, and also many deaths under torture. Anyone who retracted their confession faced death at the stake as a relapsed heretic.

Under torture, the Grand Master himself confessed – though it is likely that his confession was fabricated or at least added to, since he was dumfounded when it was read out to him in public. When he tried to mount a defence on behalf of the 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. 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. 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 Cypress 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 weather a defence should be heard at all . In the event no defence was heard and the Pope enforced the King’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, the Grand Master, retracted his confession knowing what the consequences would be, and was roasted alive, slowly, over a smokeless fire on 18th March 1314. .

The activities of the 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. On the other hand there are many others prepared to defend its record.

The Spanish Inquisition. The Medieval Inquisition was established in Barcelona in 1233. Five years later its authority was extended to Castille, Leon, and Navarre. This was essentially an extension of the Inquisition established to extirpate the remnants of Catharism. Over two hundred years later another inquisition was to appear: the Spanish Inquisition. It was established by their Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabela, 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 Moslem 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 modeled on it. It too was manned mainly by Dominicans. They copied the methods of dilation, 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 were 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 eccliastical prisons – there are cases of people committing minor heresies in order to get themselves transferred from eccliastical prisons to those of the Inquisition. On the other hand, this may say more about eccliastical 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 defense councel, 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, dependant 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 . 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 beople 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 interfer from time to time though the Inquisitors were powerful enough to ignore it on many occasions. Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull on 18th 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 their 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. Their families were not supported, so that 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 – though 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: changing bedding on a Friday, not eating pork, dressing in certain ways, wearing earrings, speaking in foreign languages, owning foreign books, casual swearing, critisising a priest, failing to show due reverence to the Inquisition, all these could be serious crimes. Three methods of torture were popular, the garrucha, the toca and the potro. The garrucha was the strapedo under yet another name. The toca was a water torture. 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 torniques.

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 accussed of. But since they did not know the specifics of the accusation they could not admit to them item by item. Not good enough. 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. Still not good enough. 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 would admit to anything if only the torture would stop. Sometimes it was what the Inquisitors wanted, sometimes it was not. If it was not more torture was applied. 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 survivers some were disabled for life.

The lucky ones got off with penances, whipping or banishment. Others were condemned to slow deaths in prison or in the galleys.

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. An impenitent wore one painted with a picture of its wearer burning in Hell with devils fanning the flames. On their heads they wore a three foot long pointed pasteboard cap (coroza), also painted. Around their neck they wore a noose, and in their hands they carried a candle. 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 anyone who helped collect firewood would 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 furzes thrust into their faces until they were burned black. The whole event was 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 prohibitted from becoming priests, judges or magistrates, lawyers, notaries, accountants, physicians, surgeons, or even shop keepers. 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 ancesters. When old san benitos wore out over the centuries they were replaced by new ones with the written details copied onto it from the original.

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 very few New World Indians 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.

As for other Inquisitions, the total number of men, women and children tortured or burned to death is unknown because so many records have been lost. So to for the famies dispossed, children orphaned, communities destroyed. All we can say with certainty is that the pain and suffering caused is incalculable. It is also fair to say that, while it existed it, the Spanish Inquisition was regarded with horror, even by 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 15th 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 western world. 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, though 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 discretely. 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.

Because so many records have been lost no one knows how many people were sentenced to death by Inquisitors. Even sources sympathetic to the Roman Church accept 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.

2 Responses to “Christianity and its concept of justice – the Inquisition”

  1. Charles Says:

    Only way to spread Christianity was either by use of force, tempting with offers of food, cloth or positions. It is the same as Islamism which is worse. It told its believers to to kill and destroy all those who do not believe and also their descendents.

    No one had seen God. Christianity depends on belief. The seventy two prophets in the Bible, beginning with Mosses had not seen the God. When Mosses asked God to show himself to him, the God said no, as he cannot see God and live. When Mosses asked god to show hiself to the Israelites , the God came in the form of a column of smoke.

    The God only appeared to prophets not in a vision but only to whisper prophecies. Therefore you had to first believe in the prophet to believe the existence of a God, But the prophets too had only heard his whispers.

    Hence the inquisition. The New Testament one of the means to Colonise poor countries giving them Christianity a civilised religion, was written after the Bible, to make Christianity more human (the Christianity of the Bible is a most cruel religion), giving God a son who came to take onto himself the sins of the people. Bible was written for the Israelites and the West had no religion, it was the New Testament that provided the West with a religion.


  2. Nimal Says:

    Most developed countries are secular and won’t allow the religions get in the way of running the country.
    Some of the worse people among the Christians are those who claim to be religious, goes to church daily and one of my employee in UK is one of them is the worse one in my lot.I keep her employed out of pity as she will be jobless and no one will employ a such a freak.
    Two years ago I had to sack over 15 persons employed in three outlets in Kandy, because of their commitment to their respective faiths that used as an excuse for various failiures, had to employ 15 instead of 12 and barely broke even. Since I let the outlets I am getting a good income which Sudatrh is aware of.
    Religions are truly opium of the people, very addictive and lethal.Last Friday I gave the important points of the Buddha’s teaching at drink up at the pub and few of my sudda friends seems to have found the causes for their life’s misery and shortfalls. They showed some responsibility and respect and I left it at that without going into silly rituals.

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