when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of
those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the
testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice,
saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging
and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"
Crusading against heretics
the Crusades, nations designated by the Church of Rome as enemies of Christianity
were the enemies initially targeted for attack. By the latter stages of
the Crusades, it dawned on the Roman church that the enemies of its gospel
permeated not just the Holy Land, but the Church's own European backyard.
What was called for was essentially a Crusade by Europeans against
the Church of Rome expanded its enemies list to include anyone who did not
completely subscribe to the authority of the Pope and to the teachings of
the Roman Church. These were "heretics" in the eyes of Rome.
Francis of Assisi, one of the few more godly figures of the Crusades,
was about the last major voice to advocate the winning over of heretics
with persuasion instead of persecution. Unfortunately, beliefs to the contrary
were dominant and would eventually result in centuries of search-and-destroy
missions; missions intent on ferreting out heretics from among the population
and punishing their alleged crimes of the mind. This is the terrible period
known as the Inquisition.
Inquisitors are officially sanctioned
inquisition was originally a lower form of criminal case. In 1166, the English
Assizes of Clarendon began making general inquests for the expulsion
of heresy (actually the basis of today's grand jury format). Soon after
that, the Inquisition officially came into being as the Church of Rome appointed
its bishops to go about questioning everyone in their various districts
to find out who was and was not a heretic.
this early point, there was no consistent or exact guideline to determine
the degree to which a person's involvement in heresy merited punishment.
Some secular authorities already had laws in place against heresy. The punishments,
if any, ranged from fines to whippings. Expectedly though, it was not long
before people learned to tell the roving bishops exactly what they wanted
to hear and normal life resumed after the bishops moved on. Heresy against
the Church of Rome continued unabated.
Church of Rome eventually realized the bishops' ineffectiveness and decided
that trained experts were needed for the job. It called for specific and
permanent tribunals dedicated to prosecuting heresy. That tribunal would
be free of local prejudices (for the sake of impartiality), sworn to renounce
worldly pleasure, without the promise of personal gain, and trained by the
Church of Rome for the detection and conversion of heretics.
boards of inquiry, once established, were given total absolution
so as to allow them uninhibited freedom in dealing with uncooperative citizenry.
In Rome's view, absolution was necessary in light of the difficulty inquisitors
would face in trying to extract peoples' secret thoughts and opinions; an
area in which both crime and criminal were equally difficult to ascertain.
(Later in 1245, Pope Innocent IV would even extend absolution to
spies which inquisitors might appoint in order to trick a community's inhabitants
into speaking unguardedly.)
the Church of Rome summoned and initially funded the inquisitions, it decreed
that the inquisitions were to be instituted and carried out by the individual
nations (thus the Italian Inquisition, Spanish Inquisition,
etc.). Surprisingly, a very general and non-specific edict that established
inquisitional courts actually met with public approval in the early 1200's.
But neither the public, nor perhaps even Rome, recognized the horrible extermination
process that was about to be loosed.
Destiny of a heretic
the Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent III decried the Church's
attitude concerning the destiny of heretics and pronounced it the duty of
each secular power to execute them. Around 1220, Frederic II was
coronated and, having been charged with heresy himself, sought to prove
his innocence by passing edicts so cruel that his allegiance toward Rome
would hopefully go unquestioned. Henry Charles Lea documents Frederic's
edicts that laid the foundation for the centuries of terror to follow:
Heretics of all sects
were outlawed; and when condemned as such by the Church they were to be
delivered to the secular arm to be burned. If, through fear of death,
they recanted, they were to be thrust into prison for life, ... All the
property of the heretic was confiscated and his heirs disinherited. His
children, to the second generation, were declared ineligible to any positions
of emolument or dignity, unless they should win mercy by betraying their
father or some other heretic. All 'credentes', fautors, defenders, receivers,
or advocates of heretics were banished forever, their property confiscated,
and their descendants subjected to the same disabilities as those of heretics.
...This fiendish legislation was hailed by the Church with acclamation...
large number of the Inquisition's executions are recorded by John Foxe
in first-hand accounts within his 1563 book Christian Martyrs of the
World. In order to appreciate the magnitude of fear that was generated
by the Inquisition's public burnings (and to dispel any Hollywood version
of such an end), here is a small portion of frightfully graphic detail from
just one of Foxe's observations:
Even when [John] Hooper's
mouth was black and his tongue swollen, his lips continued to move until
they shrank to the gums. He knocked on his breast with his hands until
one of his arms fell off. Then he knocked with the other - fat, water,
and blood dripping off the ends of his fingers - until his hand stuck
to the iron around his waist.
Hooper was in the
fire for over forty-five minutes, suffering patiently even when the lower
part of his body burned off and his intestines spilled out. Now he reigns
as a blessed martyr in the joys of heaven that are prepared for the faithful
in Christ. 17
The Inquisitions worsen
the Crusades began faltering in the Holy Land and the Muslim nations gained
the upper hand, the Popes' and European kings' frustrations were seemingly
vented on their own people in an even more merciless quest to route out
heresy at home. In the year 1223, all non-Latin Scripture was banned.
Christian sects like the Waldenses were sought out for persecution. The
Spanish Inquisition eliminated nearly all the Protestants in Spain with
over one third of its 291,000 victims suffering under the Dominican monk
Thomas of Torquemada. 18
1252, Pope Innocent IV greatly expanded the powers of inquisitors to include
the placing of all rulers, knights, and inhabitants under their subordination.
He also reversed an earlier papal decree to now entitle inquisitors to one-third
of all fines they imposed and one-third of all property and possessions
they confiscated. As
you can imagine, personal financial gain greatly accelerated the "discovery"
of heretics and increased the number of arrests and burnings.
8.5 A typical inquisitional hearing
On the inquisitor's arrival
large cities, inquisitional hearings became a frequent occurrence. On an
inquisitor's typical visit, everyone within a certain radius had to appear
before him within twelve days or face de facto excommunication.
They had to tell what they knew of any heretics in the district and report
anyone whom "differed in life and morals from the common conversation of
the faithful". 19
a general rule, the more suspects one named, the better chance of leniency
or even immunity from being prosecuted one had. It proved beneficial for
townspeople to come forward early and indict anyone whom might later name
them. That was done in hopes of impeaching the other person's credibility
first. All such information was then recorded in detail, reproduced fourfold,
and distributed throughout the countryside. This was done so that no single
act of vandalism could destroy the Inquisition's growing database of rumors,
accusations, and innuendoes.
-- Upon being arrested
being arrested, no limit was placed on how long a suspect could be held;
some cases ran into decades before even the first hearing. The age of seven
was the minimum allowable age for arrest and imprisonment. Lea describes
the prisons as "a horrible place, consisting of small cells, deprived of
all light and ventilation, where through long years the miserable inmates
endured a living death far worse than the short agony of the stake." 20
-- Prosecution and defense
in court, the inquisitor notoriously functioned as both prosecution and
defense. The inquisitor was typically forbidden to reveal the names
of witnesses against the suspect, and sometimes would not even tell the
suspects what the charges were against them. It was up to the suspects to
guess what they had been charged with, who the witnesses were against them,
and sufficiently discredit the testimony of each. Failure to do so could
result in death.
-- Confession and sentencing
any suspect did not quickly confess their guilt, they could be returned
to prison until such time the inquisitor wished to review them again, if
even at all. Some suspects were sentenced to being crushed to death for
refusing to plea.
witness who had supported a suspect later pronounced guilty could, by law,
receive the same punishment as that suspect. And once a suspect was declared
guilty, their spouse was also condemned unless they had denounced the other
during the trial. If perchance a person was declared not guilty and then
re-arrested at some future point, death by fire immediately and without
trial was the rule.
-- Immunity for the wealthy
inescapable as all of this sounds, there were loopholes for a few. The inquisitors
answered solely to the Pope, and they and their spies had the Pope's approval
to continually absolve one another from all sins and crimes. Bishops were
largely immune from prosecution as well.
the passing of time, inquisitors began extending their absolutions and immunities
to wealthy or influential persons in exchange for generous contributions.
However, this usually happened only where there was a blatant absence of
evidence or where the absence of sufficient force prevented the arrest of
-- Re-execution of the dead
the flip side of immunity, not even the dead were free from trial and execution.
At any point, one's dead ancestor could be charged with suspicion of heresy,
dug up, put on trial, found guilty, and their remains burned. The dead ancestor's
estate, previously left to the heirs, was then confiscated by Rome (a similar
trial was specifically ordered by Pope Pius II in 1458). 24
this time, the one advantage that living suspects had over the dead was
that the living had the right to appeal to the Pope for clemency. However,
none but the elite had the legal know-how to make effective use of this
rule. Furthermore, anyone who assisted a suspect in filing an appeal faced
the possibility of being charged with impeding the Inquisition. At
the inquisitor's discretion, both persons could burn at the stake.
Even the Friar Bernard Delicieux was burned in 1319 for merely vocalizing
concern about the appeals process.
The Crusades fail and the Inquisitions worsen again
things were to follow as the Crusades were ending in dismal failure. The
use of torture was sanctioned by Pope Alexander IV in 1256 for the
so-called greater good. Lea writes of Pope Urban VI's personal management
of torture as late as 1385:
When it came to the
turn of the Cardinal of Venice, Urban entrusted the work to an ancient
pirate, whom he had created Prior of the Order of St. John in Sicily,
with instructions to apply the torture till he could hear the victim howl;
the infliction lasted from early morning till the dinner-hour, while the
pope paced the garden... 21
knew that the public's fear of them was great and that a general atmosphere
of terror had been created. They also knew that this terror was leading
the innocent as well as the guilty to say anything in court. (Likely because
false accusation was about the only sin not being prosecuted.) The conclusion
was finally reached that no one, innocent or guilty, could be trusted to
volunteer any trustworthy information.
having received Rome's holy sanction, torture became mandated for both
suspects and witnesses. If either tried self-starvation to escape the
agony of their torture, it was considered an admission of heresy and the
offender was burned. In the case of anyone who pleaded innocent upon arrest
but later under torture gave in to the charges against them, they were still
in trouble. They had now become susceptible to the charge of perjury for
having contradicted their initial plea.
The creation of additional thought-crimes
daily management of all these inquisitorial duties were reportedly becoming
too burdensome for the papal office so, in 1262, Pope Urban IV created
what was essentially an Inquisitor General's office. The Church of Rome
would still maintain an active role by defining new capital crimes such
as doubt of faith and impeding the Inquisition. With the establishment
of these crimes, even the plea of innocence or withstanding of torture (both
which prolonged what was assumed to be one's eventual confession) could
be considered impeding to the Inquisition's timely prosecution of heresy
if a church prosecutor so wished.
addition to the heinous crime of pleading "not guilty", the definition
of heresy was
expanded to include omissions as well as commissions. Roland Bainton
writes, "Heresy might be detected in the omission of any reference to the
intercession of Mary and the Saints,..." 22
time, the most frightening crime of all was defined: suspicion of heresy.
Rumors, grudges, insinuations, a careless word, a mistaken act - any one
of these could sentence even the godliest person to burning. This could
be and was inferred from anything. Foxe writes of Cicely Ormes who
"drew the attention of the officers to herself by speaking encouraging words
to the two prisoners on the way to the stake. For this she was put in prison
and soon after taken before the chancellor for examination." 23
was later burned to death between the hours of seven and eight on the morning
of September 23, 1557.
The beginning of the end
was just one of many to question the horror that was ravaging Europe and
parts of Asia and Africa. The Inquisition had not only been effective at
crushing most local churches into subordination to Rome, it had a chilling
effect on European culture as a whole:
As no man could be
certain of the orthodoxy of another, it will be evident how much distrust
must have been thrust upon every bargain and every sale in the commonest
transactions of life. The blighting influence of this upon the development
of commerce and industry can readily be perceived... It was this, among
other incidents of persecution, which arrested the promising civilization
of the south of France and transferred to England and the Netherlands,
where the Inquisition was comparatively unknown, the predominance in commerce
and industry which brought freedom and wealth and power and progress in
its train. 25
every Pope was a zealous proponent of torture and fiery death. Some even
pronounced edicts aimed at rescinding some of the Inquisition's powers.
However, inquisitors largely maintained that the total absolution given
to them and their office by previous popes had technically cleared them
of wrongdoing. This was their logical, albeit sinister, justification of
all that was transpiring.
Inquisition began to fade only when Europe's monarchies began to be affected
by the feudal system, when European nations became distracted by wars against
one another, and when the influence of individual citizens began to grow.
A great many persons had fed the Inquisition's insatiable fires and their
countrymen had not forgotten them.
time, nations incrementally withdrew their support from inquisitions as
well as from the Church of Rome; England being one of the first to do so.
But before the Inquisition's final disappearance in the eighteenth-century,
out from it would emerge the mercifully revitalizing periods of the Renaissance
and the Reformation.
NEXT: The Reformations
Catholicism vs. Protestantism