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Medieval Inquisition

by Francesco Pappalardo


1. The origins

It is a common notion that the tribunal of the Inquisition was the ordinary means utilized by the Catholic Church to fight heresy. As a matter of fact, to safeguard orthodoxy is first of all a duty of the episcopate, whose task is not only to teach the truth of faith, but also to defend it from those who threaten it; moreover, it is correct to speak of a "tribunal of the Inquisition" only to a limited extent . Finally, it is necessary to specify that the same name is given not only to the institution risen in XIII century, the so-called medieval Inquisition, but also to the spanish Inquisition – created by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) in 1478 on demand of Queen Isabel of Castile (1451-1504) and King Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) – and to the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, instituted by Pope Paul III (1534-1549) in 1542.

The Inquisition arose at the end of Middle Ages proper as a Church’s answer to the excesses of the heretical movements that didn’t limit themselves to support deviations of strictly theological character – which had till then opposed on a doctrinal level and only by spiritual means – but were also deadly threatening society . The steadfast opposition of the people to heretics’ violence forced the ecclesiastical authorities to intervene, basically to control and to curb a reaction by the people and handled by secular tribunals – sometimes without the necessary wisdom – under the illusion of solving the problem simply by sending heretics to the stake.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the deep malaise generated inside Christendom by the spread of Catharism, hiding a subversive ideology under the fascination of the apparent austerity of life of the proselytes. The danger was first of all represented by the condemnation of the material world, implying the absolute prohibition of procreation and, as top of perfection, ritual suicide. Besides that, the refusal of taking any oath, implied the breaking of the feudal bond, a pillar of medieval society. Therefore, considering the religious homogeneity of that age, heresy was an attack against social and political order, besides orthodoxy . Protestant historian Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), though not very lenient with Inquisition, writes that "[...]the cause of orthodoxy was nothing else than the cause of civilization and progress".

Temporal and spiritual powers got to combine their efforts against heresy after having long acted on their own, the former by its own tribunals, hanging and stake, the latter by excommunication and ecclesiastical censorship. Medieval Inquisition is then defined by French historian Jean-Baptiste Guiraud (1866-1953) as "[...] a system of repressive means, some of temporal and some others of spiritual kind, concurrently issued by ecclesiastical and civil auhorities in order to protect religious orthodoxy and social order, both threatened by theological and social doctrines of heresy". The new institution took shape in three steps: the Constitution Ad abolendam by Pope Lucius III (1181-1185), of 1184, obliging bishops to visit their diocese twice a year in search of heretics (inquisitio); the creation of the so-called "Legatine" Inquisition by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), sending Cistercian monks to preach in the most affected countries and to publicly debate with heretics; the Constitution Excommunicamus by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1247), of 1231, creating the first permanent inquisitors, mostly chosen among Dominican and Franciscan friars.

The constitutive quality of the new structure was nor in the nature of crimes and penalties, neither in the procedure, but rather in the figure of a delegated judge in point of ecclesiastical criminal law.

Therefore, it was not created a special court for a given kind of crimes or criminals – in this sense a tribunal of the Inquisition never existed throughout the Middle Ages – but it was nominated an extraordinary judge, whose jurisdiction joins the ordinary one’s: the bishop. Finally, it must be remembered how inquisitors were competent to judge the baptized only, and therefore Jews and Muslims were not under thir jurisdiction.


2. The procedure

Thanks to the always observed prescription of writing down every instruction phase, deposition or testimony, the Inquisition is one of the first institutions of the past about which we have such an amount of data to make any historical misinterpretation about the organization as well as the adopted procedure impossible. Actually, scholars who have began to explore the huge archival documentation in the last years, found themselves – to their amazement – in the presence of tribunals provided with equitable rules and not arbitrary procedures, of judicial courts ready to advise against the use of torture and to discourage groundless reports or secret accusations; the experts discovered structures much more clement than the contemporary lay tribunals. Besides, although certain propaganda insists on the ideological and totalitarian character of the Inqisition, it gets more and more evident how there is a chasm between this institution’s methods and the control and manipulation of persons put into effect by modern State.

The depiction of the cruel and ignorant inquisitor is false: inquisitors were usually learned, honest and irreproachable persons, loath to decide about defendant’s destiny hastly and gratuitously. On the contrary, they would rather aim at forgiving the guilty and letting him back in the bosom of the Church. In XIV century the Inquisition created the jury – the consilium, allowing the defendant to be tried by a large standing council of sworn judges–, and other legal institution in favor of the convict such as day release, prizes for good conduct and mitigation of sentences. Bogus as well is the depiction of a widespread and indiscriminate use of torture, to which inquisitors of XIV century would resort rarely and under very strict rules, unlike secular judges. The imaginary about inquisitional tribunals as the scene of extremely subtle cruelties, of ingenious ways to inflict pain and also of a criminal insistence in wringing confessions, is the result of the sensational writers’ propaganda, who exploited the credulity of many.

Finally, also the depiction of the Inquisition as a bloodthirsty tribunal is false. In fact, the examination of statistical data concerning judgments has definitively demonstrated the groundlessness of this thesis because of the low percentage of convictions, especially of death sentences. The Inquisition pursued the aim of correcting and bringing the heretic back to faith;

for this end, inquisitors would impose spiritual penances, giving the guilty a chance of mending; they would also ligthen the heaviest sentences, if signs of repentance were recognized, and would deliver the guilty to the secular arm – that is death – the recidivists who belied all hopes for their conversion and honesty by going back to their errors. Death penalty wasn’t inexorably inflicted by the Inquisition, and the judgment was often modified, in sharp contrast with the unfailing execution of the guilty by secular tribunals and with the mercilessness of inquisitional systems in Protestant countries. For instance, the examination of archives shows that in the second half of XIII century death sentences by the inquisitors of Toulouse were only 1% of the total. Besides, scholars have ended the examination of inquisitional trials by Bernard Gui (?-1331) – the dominican friar slandered in Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name Of The Rose and in the homonymous 1986 movie directed by Jean Jacques Annoud– ascertaining that only 42 accused were delivered to the secular arm over a number of 930, while 139 were acquitted, and the rest of them received light and often extremely mild sentences.

After having achieved its ends with the distruction of heresy, the Inquisition begun to decline slowly almost everywhere. Increasingly subject to the control of secular powers, it disappeared by itself in different periods. A decisive turning point was marked by French monarchy, that slowly took away the competence in point of heresy from inquisitors, committing it to royal tribunals and to the Parliament; during the Great Western Schism, even the theological faculty of the university of Paris claimed examination and judgment over heresy crimes. This way, the Inquisition in France became only a mark usurped by secular authorities and no more within the Church’s power. The courts that tried the Templar Knights in 1307 and St. Joan of Ark (1412-1431) were no more the authentic Inquisition, but only the expression of a "lay" power.


3. The Roman Inquisition

Faced to the danger represented by new heretic theories by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) – devastating the most thriving Christian communities in Europe – the Catholic Church had to intervene firmly again, after having tried a conciliatory attitude with no results. In July 21st 1542, by the Bull Licet ab initio, Pope Paul III (1534-1549) reorganized the medieval inquisitional system and creates the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, or Holy Office.

The authority of the Roman Inquisition was basically limited to the States of the Italian peninsula, where it became an inexpugnable stronghold against any doctrinal straying and preserved the spiritual heritage of the Italian people, contributing to Counter-Reformation’s victory over Humanism, Renaissance and Protestant Pseudo-Reformation.

The history of this institution has not been correctly studied yet. As a matter of fact, the anti-Catholic character of the unification of Italy reanimated the polemic of the Elightenment and Protestant propaganda, that depicted the Inquisition as a symbol of obscurantism and gave the historical analysis an ideological nature. A rigorous study of documentary sources would have greatly contributed to debunk the clichès about the Roman Inquisition. In an interview with writer Vittorio Messori, historian Luigi Firpo – a prominent representative of laicist culture and one of the few scholars to have access even to the classified documents of the Holy Office – declared: "I am sure the opening of that archive, till now very restricted also because of organizational reasons, would be of great help to the image of the Church [...]. If those papers were opened to all scholars, other pieces of the unjustified black legend surrounding the Inquisition would fall".

Reorganized by Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914) by the Constitution Sapienti consilio of June 29th 1908, the old Inquisition was then reformed by Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) by the Motu Proprio Integrae servandae of Dec. 7th 1965, also renaming it as Holy Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Such a reform has modified the Holy Office’s procedures, but has confirmed its primary task: "safeguarding doctrine of faith and morals throughout the universal catholic world" (n.29) especially by promoting sound doctrine.

Deepenings: about the results of the renewed historical research see: Brian Van Hove S.J., Beyond The Mith Of Inquisition, Faith and Reason, winter 1992.

(In Italian) vedi un'introduzione, in Leo Moulin (1906-1996), L'Inquisizione sotto inquisizione, trad. it., a cura dell'Associazione Culturale ICARO, Cagliari 1992; i risultati della rinnovata ricerca storica - poco noti al di fuori della cerchia degli addetti ai lavori -, in Brian van Hove S.J., Oltre il mito dell'Inquisizione, in La Civiltà Cattolica, anno 143, n. 3419, 5-12-1992, pp. 458-467; e n. 3420, 19-12-1992, pp. 578-588; vedi pure la voce Inquisition, scritta da Jean-Baptiste Guiraud per il Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, edito fra il 1911 e il 1913, trad. it. con il titolo Elogio della Inquisizione, Leonardo, Milano 1994, a cura di Rino Cammilleri, con un invito alla lettura di Vittorio Messori e con preziose Integrazioni bibliografiche, redatte da Marco Invernizzi e da Oscar Sanguinetti, rassegna ragionata e aggiornata delle correnti storiografiche sul tema; e una sintesi nel mio Lo "scandalo dell'Inquisizione". Tra realtà storica e leggenda storiografica, AA. VV., Processi alla Chiesa. Mistificazione e apologia, a cura di Franco Cardini, 3a ed., Piemme, Casale Monferrato (Alessandria) 1995, pp. 353-371.