The Medieval Christian Church: Holy Office of the Inquisition


Figure 1.--This 17th century engraving depicts an auto-da-fé ceremony in Spain. It was part of the ceremony pronouncing judgement on accused heretics. Noitec thecaktar boys at the front of the procession.

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a system of tribunals which became a permanent institution charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith. The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. The Church in the 12th century was at the peak of its power. Its moral authority was unquestioned. The Papacy decided that strong action was needed to disuade non-conformistrs like the Catahri. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enfirce hisb decree. Pope Gregory gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics, although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans. The Holy Office of the Inquisuituion by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. Inquisitors had the authority to bring suit against any individual. Those accused by the Inquisition had virtually no rights as we know them today. The inquisators employed various means to ensure the accused cooperated in the trail. Until the creation of the Holy Office, there had been no tradition of routinely employing torture in Christian canon law, although it was commonly resorted to in civil trails. The Inquisition gradually adopted the measures used by civil authorities. Inquisators were commonly resorting to coersive measures including torture by the mid-13th century. The inquisators findings were read before a large audience. The now chastened penitents would abjure on their knees with one hand on a Bible held by the inquisitor that they now rejected their heretical beliefs. A variety of absues soon occurred in local inquisitions. The confiscation of property was a powerful inducement to coruption. Also accusations to the Inquisition became a an all too frequrent way of settling persoinal disputes and vendettas. The papacy, as a result of local abuses, acted to limit the Inquisition. The papacy both issued reforms and regulated the Inquisition. Paul III became pope in 1241. He quickly established a more organized system for administering the Inquisition. Secular authorities in many areas began to intervene by the 14th century. Ferdinand and Isabel, after finally defeating the Moors in 1492 embarked on an effort to purify Spain. They gave the Spanish Inquisition independent from Rome. Spanish authorities dealt harshly with suposedly insincere converted Moslems and Jews ( conversos ) as well as illuminists. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe, but especially Elizabethan England which was targeted by the Spanish Armada and would have faced the Inquisition if Phulip II's forces had succeeded. Elizabethan courtiers and churchmen were thus active in spreading especially lurid accounts of the Spanish Inquisition. Elsewhere in Europe, especially the North, the Inquisition was more benign.

Early Church

The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. The Church from its beginning had struggled with competing sects with differences on a variety of doctrinal issues, especially the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father. There was a first no way of resolving these disputes. This changed with Emperor Constantine I (280?-337 AD) who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. As a result, the Pope in Rome supported by the Emperor began to build an administrative structure that recreive wide acceptace among local bishops throughout the Empire. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities.

Church Councils

Doctrinal disputes were addressed by Church Councils, beginning with the Council of Nicea called by Constantine (325 AD). With the new centralized structuire and backed by the authority of the state, the Church now had the means to demand and enforce adherence to established doctrine. The early Church had faced the Arian and Manichean heresies. The Medieval Church faced the Cathari and Waldenses. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the late Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem.

13th Century

Beginning in the 13th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. This was probably promted by the strenth of the Catahri. The Church in the 13th century was at the peak of its power. Its moral authority was unquestioned. The Papacy decided that string action was needed to disuade non-conformists like the Catahri, Waldenses, and Albigenses. It is unclear why Pope Gregory IX decided to create a permanent office to deal with heresy. The Church for 12 centuries had dealt with heresy in an ad hoc basis. Some of the 13th century heresies were esoecually dangerous. Many heresies invlved docrinal issies, sometimes obsure matters. The 13th century Cathari were especially dangerous to the Church. Their rejection of tithing would have destroyed the financial foundation of the Western Church. Gregory's battle with the Emoeror Frederic may have also been realted to his decission.

Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocen III sent an extroidinary commission to southern France to help local officials prevent the spread oif the Albigensian heresy. The Fourth Lateral Councilm warned bishops and civil magistrates to be vigilent against heretics (1215). A council held in Toulouse instructed parish priests and reputable laymen (familars) to report in heresy.

Pope Gregory IX (1227-41)

Gregory was born in 1155. He ascended to the papacy in 1227 at an advanced age. Gregory emerged as a compromise candidate when the College of Cardinals had difficulting reaching agreement on better known candidates. He had not sought the post and actually argued against his selection. Gregory was not a cautious man, despite his age, and upon becoming pope acted firmly. He took the dangerous action of placing Holy Roman Emperor Frederic under the ban of the church for failing to fulfill his oath to participate in the Crusades (1227). One of his first acts was cannonizing St. Francuis of Asisi, even though he had some doubts about his astigmata (1228). Frederick countered with a conspiracy to kill Gregory and almost succeeded. Frederick for his part did eventually launch a Crusade and was crowned king of Jerusalem (1229). It was then that Gregory turned his attention to heretics (1231). Gregory died 10 years later at the age of 98 (1241). Gregory also ordered the first complete and authoritative collection of papal decrees, known as the Corpus Iuris Canonici. This compilation was the fundamental source of Catholic canon law until the promulagtion of the Codex Iuris Canonici (1917). At the time of his death, his old nemesis Emperor Frederic was preparing to attack Rome.

The Dominicans

The Dominican Order or Dominicans were an Order of Friars Preachers. The Dominican Order was founded by Domingo de Guzman (known as Dominic) at Toulouse, France. They received their pontifical letters (1205) and adoopted the rule of St. Augustine (1216). Like the Franciscans, the Dominicans were mendicant friars, meaning that the members of the order sustained themselves by begging. They insisted on absolute poverty, rejecting even communal property. The mission of the Dominicans was to counteract prevalent heresies through preaching, teaching, and the example they set of austerity. The need for the order became clear to Dominic during his effotts to convert the Albigenses. Thus te Dominicans were the obvious choice for pope Gregory when he established the Inquisition (1231). The Dominicans became along with the Fransicans the most influential brotherhoods in the Church. The Dominicans played major role in the Christianization of Latin America.

The Roman Inquisition

Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and a permanent institution called the Inquisition for discovring, judging, repressuing and punishing heretics. This is referred to as the Roman Inquisitioin meanung the Inquisition administered and supervided by the Roman Curia of the Cathholic Church. The term is used to diferentiate the Roman Inquisitiin with the Soanish Inquisitioin which was conducted independently from Rome under tghe auspices of the Spanish monarchy. The penalties of the Inquisitioin could be severe. Life imprisonment and penance for those who confessed and repented and capital punishment for those refused to admit the errors of their ways. Any actual executions would be carried out by civil authorities. Pope Gregory also gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics. Although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans, most were. The Holy Office of the Inquisuituion by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. The Holy Office of the Inquisition became permanent system of tribunals charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith.

Trials

The judge in trials held by the inquisition were called inquisitors. He had the authority to bring suit against any individual. Those accused by the Inquisition had virtually no rights as we know them today. They were required to testify against themselves. Testimony could be accepted from virtually anyone: criminals, people who habitually lied, as well as heretics and those accused of heresy under going torture. The accused had no right to legal counsel. Family members were expected to testify against an accused heritic. There was no right of appeal to higher Church boidies or to secukar authorities. There were even instances where inquisitors interrogated entire populations. There were legal refinements. The inquisitor had to question accused heritics in the presence of at least two witnesses. Before beginning the inrtrogation, the accused was given a summary of the charges against him. He had to take an oath that his testomony would be truthful.

Torture

The inquisators employed various means to ensure the accused cooperated in the trail. Until the creation of the Holy Office, there had been no tradition of routinely employing torture in Christian canon law, although it was commonly resorted to in civil trails. The Inquisition gradually adopted the measures used by civil authorities. Inquisators were commonly resorting to coersive measires including torture by the mid-13th century.

Findings

The inquisators findings were read before a large audience. The now cghastened penitents would abjure on their knees with one hand on a bible held by the inquisitor that they now rejected their heretical beliefs. There was no right of appeal, except to the pope himself. Inquisator Generals were appointed to redice appeals to thec pope. The first was appointed gfor Provence (1263). Later appeals could be made to the Holy Office in Rome (1542).

Penalties

The penalties issued by the Inquisition varied greatly. Many were not the draconian sentences commonly associated with the Inquisition. Penalties included church attendance and visits, pilgrimages, and wearing the cross of infamy. There were also more serioius sentinces. There was imprisonment (often for life although they were often commuted). For those who would not abjure or recant their heresy there was death. The death sentence was being burning at the stake and was carried out by the civil authorities. Dearh sentences in the Roman Inquisition were, however, realtively rare. Death or life imprisonment meant the confiscation of guilty heretic's property. Thus heresy was not only a personal amtter, but one that affected the entire family, including the accused's wife and children.

Abuses

A variety of absues soon occurred in local inquisitions. The confiscation of property was a powerful inducement to coruption. Also accusations to the Inquisition became a an all too frequrent way of settling persoinal disputes and vendettas. The papacy, as a result of local abuses, acted to limit the Inquisition. The papacy both issued reforms and regulated the Inquisition. Secular authorities in many areas began to intervened by the 14th century.

National Developments

The course and severity of the Inquisition varied from country to country. The most famous of course is the Spanish Inquisition.

England

The act of the Inquisition in Engkand was the supression of the Templars (1308). Elizabethan England was targeted by the Spanish Armada and would have faced the Inquisition if Philip II's forces had succeeded. Elizabethan courtiers and churchmen were this active in spreading especially lurid accounts of the Spanish Inquisition.

France


Germany

Pope Gregory's dispute with the Emperor Frederic affected hois abiklity to administer the Inquisition in the Hily Roman Emopire because tghe Church depended in the cooperation of civil authorities.

Italy

The most noted action taken by the Inquisition in Italy was the trail of Galileo (1633). Many others were targetted including university students and priests. The impact of the Inquisition in Italy is difficult to assess. It certainly stopped the spread of Protestantism. It also had a chilling affect on intelectual inquiry. Italy had beebn an important center of learning during the Renaissance. After the Inquisitioin and Counter Reformation Italy became an intelectual and economic backwater of Europe, Various factors werevinvolved, but the Inquisition was certainly one of them.

(The) Netherlands

The Spanish Inquisition was used as an instrument to suppress the Protestant Reformation and the effort of the Dutch to gain their independence in the Netherlands.

Spain

KIng Ferdinand and Queen Isabel established the Spanish Inquisition as separate from the Roman Inquisition (about 1480). They and suceeding Spanish monarchs appointed the officers of the Spanish Inquisition and they were not responsible to the Church in Rome. After finally defeating the Moors in 1492, the Spanish monarchy embarked on an effort to purify Spain. Spanish authorities dealt harshly with suposedly insincere converted Moslems and Jews ( conversos ) as well as illuminists. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe. Unlike tge Roman Inquisition. death sentences in the Spanish Inquisition were quite common. Here there are no precisec numbers. Estimates range from 3,000 to more than 40,000 individuals. The wide range results from the competing claims of Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. The most notorious Spanish Inquisator General was Tomás Torquemada. The Spanish Inquisition was persued with great ferocity in thec 16th century, throughout Spain and Spain's colonies in America and Europe such as the Netherlands. The Spanish Inquisition not only pursued heretics but becamec involved in not only politics, but other crimes including some without any religioius connotations (polygamy, seduction, aduktury, smuggling, usury, and other offenses). The barbarous methods used to extract confessions from the acused as well as witnesses apauled even contemporary Europe. While not as lurid as the enemies of Spain and the Church aleged, they were indeed apauling, especially for an arm of the Church. The intebnsity of the Inquisition relacked in the 17th century. Eventually inquisators were requuired to obtain rotal authority for an arrest (1770). The Soanish Inqusition was fianlly abolished (1834).

Other countries

Elsewhere in Europe, especially the North, the Inquisition was more benign.

Pope Paul III (1241- )

Paul III became pope in 1241. He quickly established a more organixzed system for administering the Inquisition. Paul created a permanent eclesiastical body, the Congregation of the Holy Office as part of the Roman Curia. He staffed the Congregation with cardinals and other officials (1542). The Congragation's responsibilities were to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to rigorosly examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines. The Congregation this supervised local Inquisitions throughout Europe. The Pope became prefect of the Congrgation, but appoints a cardinals to coduct meetings of tghe Congregation. The Congregation was normally composed of 10 cardinals in addituon to the presiding cardinal. Also participating were a prelate and two assistants chosen by the Dominicans. The Holy Office also had international consultants, experts in theology and canon law, who advised as required on specialized subjects.

Pope Innocent IV

Pope Innocent IV authorixzed the use of torture by the Inquisution (1252).

Cosmology

Experts during the trial of Galileo assured the Congrgation that the earth was the center if the universe and the Sun contary to Copernicus' book moved around the earth (1616). Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Galileo was admonished about his Copernicanism. Later Galileo thinking thatv he was protected by his realtionshipn with a new pope, published his own book. He was brought before the Inquisition (1633). Eventually he is humbkled and forced to reacant.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's first major military assignment for the French Republic was a campaign in northern Italy (1796). His poorly equipped troops routed the armies of Savoy and Austria. This brought him in contact with the papacy and the Inquisition for the first time. It was Napoleon who brought the flame of the Enligtenment to Italy which had become one of the nost backward areas of Europe. As emperor he eventually moved south and began to reprganize Italy politically. He made his son-in-law King of Naples. He issued degrees ending the Inquisition which he saw a a relic of the medieval era. A major aspect of the Code Civil which is one of his msajor accomplishments was the separation of church and state. Of course he had vested interests. He did not want church interference in his rule of France. Napoleon also opened the doors of the Ghetto for Jews. Other laws such as wearing yellow caps and other destinctive clothing were repealed. As part of his plan to reorganize and modernize Italy, he saw a need to discredit the papacy and Church. Over 3,000 cases of papal documents, many related to the Inquisition were brought to Paris for study (1810). A number were lost along the way, but 3,239 cases with 100,00 volumes reach Paris. Piere Codanu was given the job of reviwing the documents. Some of the documents he finds are accounts of thectrial of Galileo. After Napoleon's defeat, the Church wants the documents back, The French Government is only willing to pay for afraction of the shipping cost. bout 2/3s of the files are classified as exorndable. These are sold to various people using scrapmpaper such as fish mongers. Some fall in the hands of bankers who successfully black mail the Church to give them back.

Papal States

With the fall of Napoleon (1814/15), the Congress of Vienna returned the Papal States to the papacy. Papal authorities hearded the Jews back into ghettos and reinstituted the restrictions on the Jews. They also reinstituted the Inquisition. Here the down fall ofv the Inquisition came with the kidnapping of a 6-year old Jewish boy in Bologna--Edgardo Montara.

Modern Status

The Roman Inquisition has in effect never ended. The Congregation of the Holy Office is now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and continues to be a body in the Roman Curia. Of course it no longer burns heretics, but rather addresses the question of hertical writings.

Sources

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd editioin (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.

Hamilton, Bernard. The Medieval Inquisition (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981).

O'Brien, John A. The Inquisition (New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1973).

Peters, Edward. Inquisition (New York: Free Press; London: Collier Macmillan, 1988).

Tedeschi, John. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy (Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1991).







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Created: August 20, 2003
Last updated: 9:39 AM 1/9/2013