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The Inquisition

A special tribunal established by the medieval church for the purpose of combating heresy. In the Middle Ages the growing threat of heretical groups, particularly the Cathari,* led to the acceptance by the church of the use of the secular authority, of physical penalties, and of an inquisitorial method as means for their suppression. Alexander III* at the Council of Tours (1163) urged secular princes to prosecute heretics, to imprison them, and to confiscate their property. He also directed the bishops to search out heretics, encouraging them to replace the older method of trial by accusation, which depended upon the initiative of an accuser, with the more vigorous and effective method of inquest in which the judge took the initiative.

It was Gregory IX,* however, who in a series of actions from 1231 to 1235 imposed on such activities a formal organization and set of procedures whereby the apprehension and trial of heretics was reserved to the church and the major responsibility for such work was given to papal inquisitors. He is therefore often credited with having established the Inquisition. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was authorized by Sixtus IV.* It followed procedures similar to those described below but was characterized by its subservience to the state, with its appointments officially made by the secular authority.

Dominicans and Franciscans were most often chosen as papal inquisitors. Assisted by numerous aides, the inquisitor would begin his work in a town by calling the clergy and people to a solemn assembly at which those who knew themselves to be guilty of heretical views were urged to confess within a period of grace frequently ranging between two and six weeks. Those who did so were normally given light penalties. At the expiration of this period the inquisitor began a systematic search for suspects who would be summoned before the tribunal for interrogation. The suspect, who was not allowed legal defense but could have a counselor, was encouraged to confess his errors, and toward this end Innocent IV in 1252 allowed the use of torture.

When confessions were not forthcoming, the testimony of two witnesses, if it could not be refuted, was considered sufficient for conviction. The practice of withholding from the accused the names of the witnesses was not modified until the time of Boniface VIII (1294-1303). Some safeguards were provided, however, for the accused, such as the opportunity to discredit as witnesses one's enemies, the punishment of false witnesses, and the various restrictions placed on the use of torture. Nevertheless, frequently the accused found himself in the position in which he was assumed to be guilty; his safest mode of escape was to confess, since by persistently asserting his innocence he ran the risk of being judged an obdurate heretic, for which the punishment was death. If he were so judged, he would be abandoned to the secular authority for burning, for the church did not participate officially in the shedding of blood. Milder punishments included imprisonment, confiscation of property, wearing a yellow cross, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, flagellation, and pilgrimage.

In the early modern period the Roman Inquisition, established by Paul III in 1542, was used to combat witchcraft and the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestants also were to be found employing inquisitorial procedures against those suspected of sorcery and incorrect doctrine. The increasing secularization of Western society, however, was accompanied by the decline of such activities by religious institutions. To modern minds the Inquisition rightly seems abhorrent, but to be fair one must recall the Zeitgeist in which it operated and remind oneself of the activities of modern institutions which also, but sometimes more subtly, suppress those who hold unorthodox views.

H.C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (3 vols., 1888); A.S. Tuberville, Medieval Heresy and the Inquisition (1920); H. Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (1966).