Human Lives Human Rights: Extremism in Europe has a long history. Since the Middle Ages, with the establishment of courts of inquisition, excommunication of dissidents and in many cases their execution, the Church institutions have been the originators of extremism on this continent. Extremism continued in post-medieval Europe and was fueled by Protestant leaders; the trial and execution of Michael Servetus by John Calvin can be considered as on e of examples of the matter. Later, extremism was found in new forms in Europe and among them is the hyper totalitarian nationalism of fascism and Nazism in many European countries.
Inquisition, a judicial procedure and later an institution that was established by the papacy and, sometimes, by secular governments to combat heresy. Derived from the Latin verb inquiro (“inquire into”), the name was applied to commissions in the 13th century and subsequently to similar structures in early modern Europe.
In 1184 Pope Lucius III required bishops to make a judicial inquiry, or inquisition, for heresy in their dioceses, a provision renewed by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Episcopal inquisitions, however, proved ineffective because of the regional nature of the bishop’s power and because not all bishops introduced inquisitions in their dioceses; the papacy gradually assumed authority over the process, though bishops never lost the right to lead inquisitions. In 1227 Pope Gregory IX appointed the first judges delegate as inquisitors for heretical depravity—many, though not all, of whom were Dominican and Franciscan friars. Papal inquisitors had authority over everyone except bishops and their officials. There was no central authority to coordinate their activities, but after 1248 or 1249, when the first handbook of inquisitorial practice was written, inquisitors adopted common methods.
In 1252 Pope Innocent IV licensed inquisitors to allow obdurate heretics to be tortured by lay henchmen. It is difficult to determine how common this practice was in the 13th century, but the inquisition certainly acquiesced in the use of torture in the trial of the Knights Templar, a military-religious order, in 1307. Persecution by the inquisition also contributed to the collapse of Catharism, a dualist heresy that had great influence in southern France and northern Italy, by about 1325; although established to defeat that heresy, the inquisition was assisted by the pastoral work of the mendicant orders in its triumph over the Cathars.
The inquisition declined in importance in the late Middle Ages, though it continued to try cases of heresy—e.g., the Waldenses, the Spiritual Franciscans, and the alleged heresy of the Free Spirit, a supposed sect of mystics who advocated antinomianism—and cases of sorcery. The most vigorous dissenting movements of the 15th century, Lollardy in England and Hussitism in Bohemia, were not subject to its jurisdiction.
When instituting an inquiry in a district, an inquisitor would normally declare a period of grace during which those who voluntarily confessed their own involvement in heresy and that of others would be given only light penances. The inquisitor used these confessions to compile a list of suspects whom he summoned to his tribunal. Failure to appear was considered evidence of guilt. The trial was often a battle of wits between the inquisitor and the accused. The only other people present were a notary, who kept a record of the proceedings, and sworn witnesses, who attested the record’s accuracy. No lawyer would defend a suspect for fear of being accused of abetting heresy, and suspects were not normally told what charges had been made against them or by whom. The accused might appeal to the pope before proceedings began, but this involved significant cost.
After consulting with canon lawyers, the inquisitor would sentence those found guilty at a sermo generalis, or public homily. Judicial penances were imposed on those who had been convicted of heresy and had recanted. The most common punishments were penitential pilgrimages, the wearing of yellow crosses on clothing (which was feared because it led to ostracism), and imprisonment.
The inquisition employed two kinds of prisons, both staffed by laymen. One type was the murus largus, or open prison, which consisted of cells built around a courtyard in which the inmates enjoyed considerable freedom. The other type was the murus strictus, a high-security prison, where inmates were kept in solitary confinement, often in chains. Heretics who admitted their errors but refused to recant were handed over to the secular authorities and burned at the stake. There were usually not many cases of this kind, because the chief aim of the inquisitors was to reconcile heretics to the church. On rare occasions, however, large public executions did take place, as at Verona in 1278, when some 200 Cathars were burned.
Although heresy was a capital offense in virtually all the states of western Europe, some rulers—for example, the kings of Castile and England—refused to license the inquisition. Even where it did operate—in much of Italy and in kingdoms such as France and Aragon—the inquisition relied entirely on the secular authorities to arrest and execute those whom it named and to defray all its expenses. The money came partly from the sale of the confiscated property of convicted heretics.
Although some scholars have denied that the medieval inquisition was an institution, others maintain that it is the best way to describe a group of men who enjoyed the same powers, were directly responsible to the pope, employed servants and officials, and had absolute control over a number of large prisons and their inmates. Nevertheless, its power was very limited, and, arguably, it was important chiefly because it established a tradition of religious coercion in the late medieval Western church that was inherited by both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century.
From the 15th to the 19th century, inquisitions were permanently established, bureaucratically organized, appointed, and supervised tribunals of clergy (and occasionally laymen). They were charged with the discovery and extirpation of heterodox religious opinion and practice in Christian Europe. The institutional inquisitions were similar to other institutions of government and discipline in early modern Europe. The earliest, largest, and best-known of these was the Spanish Inquisition, established by Pope Sixtus IV at the petition of Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Aragon and Castile, in a papal bull of Nov. 1, 1478. It was eventually extended throughout the Spanish empire in Europe and the Americas through a system of subordinate regional tribunals. It was formally abolished by the Spanish government in 1834. Later institutional inquisitions were established in Portugal in 1540 (abolished in 1821) and in Rome (for the Papal States and some other parts of Italy) in 1542; the latter was erected into the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, or Holy Office, one of the 15 secretariats into which the administrative reforms of Sixtus V (1585–90) divided papal government. (In 1965 the Holy Office was reorganized by Pope Paul VI and renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.) In 1547 the government of Venice established a tribunal of laymen, which was converted into a tribunal of clergy by 1551 but closely monitored by the Venetian government. The Venetian inquisition lasted until 1797. Another institutional inquisition, that of the city of Lucca, established in 1545, was also originally staffed by laymen but then clericalized after a few years.
The Spanish and Portuguese tribunals were departments of state intended initially to detect crypto-Judaism among Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants and later to detect and eradicate Protestant Christianity. The Roman and other inquisitions were also departments of state, designed chiefly to combat Protestantism, which was conceived and defined as heresy in Catholic territories. All inquisitions had the power to supervise and discipline the moral failings of both clergy and laity.
These institutional inquisitions, some scholars have argued, differed from earlier inquisitorial tribunals established by papal delegation in various parts of western Europe in the 13th century and intermittently thereafter, because the earlier tribunals were either those of individual bishops acting in their ordinary judicial capacity or those of individuals commissioned by the pope to extirpate heresy in specific places or for specific periods. They used similar procedures, sometimes communicating with each other, and were instructed by the same handbooks of doctrine and procedure, but possessed no common organization or other institutional features. Although early inquisitorial practices in some instances moved toward institutionalization, only those of the 16th century displayed full institutional characteristics.
The institutional inquisitions bore a number of common features. Their officials were systematically recruited, appointed, and replaced, and they used well-defined and distinctive legal procedures. The inquisition possessed a vertical command-and-review structure, which required regular reports from subordinate branches, visitations and review of the activities of subordinate and regional branches, operational instructions, and preservation and regular consultation of archives. The inquisitions were also characterized by signs and insignia of membership and autonomous control of institutional finances and public activities (in Spain, the well-known autos-da-fé).
In some cases, the institutional inquisitions themselves exerted considerable control over the prosecution of offenses that other courts treated with less consistency. In 1610 the Spanish inquisitor Alonso Salazar de Frias was sent by his superiors to review the evidence in a series of trials for witchcraft in northern Spain. When Salazar de Frias reported that he found insufficient evidence for conviction, and in spite of protests from two other fellow inquisitors, his program for the reform of witchcraft trials by the Spanish Inquisition was accepted and made official by the Supreme Council in 1614. In this case the institutional structure of the inquisition virtually eliminated accusations of and trials for witchcraft throughout the range of its jurisdiction.
All of the institutional inquisitions worked in secrecy, except for closely regulated public appearances. Their secrecy permitted those who opposed them to speculate about and often fictionalize dramatically their secret activities, producing many of the myths about inquisitions that are found in European literature from the 16th century to the present.
Local governments, for their part, were concerned with political dissenters, primarily those who committed treason against the state. The reason that executions were rare is because they were so costly. Unless a heretic was also a political threat, local officials wouldn’t ordinarily get entangled in the Church’s problems.
One’s eternal soul could be imperiled by adherence to heretical doctrine. What has come to be regarded as the Catholic form of the Inquisition was an ecclesiastical tribunal established in twelfth-century France for the suppression of heresy. The Inquisition therefore dealt with ideas, news, information, and the dissemination of knowledge—striving to defend people from wayward doctrine by ensuring its purity and veracity.
Marcus, a PhD student in History at Stanford University, drew upon the work of historian Edward Peters who distinguishes between three types of inquisitions: There is the “inquisition,” which was a legal practice that originated in Ancient Rome. Then there is the “Inquisition,” which usually comes with a modifier before it. That’s because there were Inquisitions in many parts of the Catholic world, including Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Mexico, and even in Goa, a state located in western India. Each of these Inquisitions had different concerns. Even Naples had a different inquisition from the one in Rome. Finally, there is “The Inquisition,” a stubborn myth whose origins can be traced to the “Black Legend” and the Protestant polemicists from the Netherlands in the 16th century who spread it. What was their sinister tale? “That Catholic Spain (which controlled the Netherlands at the time) is the worst and destroys everything,” said Marcus, mimicking the legend’s exaggerated tone.
The propaganda started against Spain, but then spread to Italy and other parts of Europe. “It’s an enduring legend,” she added. In 1559, the Roman Inquisition under Pope Paul IV issued the first papal index of prohibited books. Catholics were now expressly forbidden from reading Martin Luther or any books written by Protestants. But the Church soon realized that not all Protestant intellectual work is heretical. “Some of the books they wrote are scary theology that you don’t want around,” said Palmer, “but some of the books that they wrote are drawings of rocks.” And these drawings might prove incredibly helpful to a Catholic geologist, only he is unable to use them because they were created by a heretic. “How do you handle that? Is that allowed? Is that not allowed?” asked Palmer, showing how the Church was forced to bend its rules, to make exceptions.
After the Roman Church had consolidated its power in the early Middle Ages, heretics came to be regarded as enemies of society. The crime of heresy was defined as a deliberate denial of an article of truth of the Catholic faith, and a public and obstinate persistence in that alleged error. At this time, there was a sense of Christian unity among townspeople and rulers alike, and most of them agreed with the Church that heretics seemed to threaten society itself.
Heresies (from L. haeresis, sect, school of belief) were a problem for the Church from the beginning. In the early centuries there were the Arians and Manicheans; in the Middle Ages there were the Cathari and Waldenses; and in the Renaissance there were the Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Rosicrucians. Efforts to suppress heresies were initially ad hoc. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, Church Councils required secular rulers to prosecute heretics. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX published a decree which called for life imprisonment with salutary penance for the heretic who had confessed and repented and capital punishment for those who persisted. The secular authorities were to carry out the execution. Pope Gregory relieved the bishops and archbishops of this obligation, and made it the duty of the Dominican Order, though many inquisitors were members of other orders or of the secular clergy. By the end of the decade the Inquisition had become a general institution in all lands under the purview of the Pope. By the end of the 13th centuries the Inquisition in each region had a bureaucracy to help in its function.
The judge, or inquisitor, could bring suit against anyone. The accused had to testify against himself/herself and not have the right to face and question his/her accuser. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and heretics. The accused did not have right to counsel, and blood relationship did not exempt one from the duty to testify against the accused. Sentences could not be appealed. Sometimes inquisitors interrogated entire populations in their jurisdiction. The inquisitor questioned the accused in the presence of at least two witnesses. The accused was given a summary of the charges and had to take an oath to tell the truth. Various means were used to get the cooperation of the accused. Although there was no tradition of torture in Christian canon law, this method came into use by the middle of the 13th century. The findings of the Inquisition were read before a large audience; the penitents abjured on their knees with one hand on a bible held by the inquisitor. Penalties went from visits to churches, pilgrimages, and wearing the cross of infamy to imprisonment (usually for life but the sentences were often commuted) and (if the accused would not abjure) death. Death was by burning at the stake, and it was carried out by the secular authorities. In some serious cases when the accused had died before proceedings could be instituted, his or her remains could be exhumed and burned. Death or life imprisonment was always accompanied by the confiscation of all the accused’s property.
However, the repression of heresy remained unorganized, and with the large-scale heresies in the 11th and 12th centuries, Pope Gregory IX instituted the papal inquisition in 1231 for the apprehension and trial of heretics. The name Inquisition is derived from the Latin verb inquiro (inquire into). The Inquisitors did not wait for complaints, but sought out persons accused of heresy. Although the Inquisition was created to combat the heretical Cathari and Waldenses, the Inquisition later extended its activity to include witches, diviners, blasphemers, and other sacrilegious persons.
Another reason for Pope Gregory IX’s creation of the Inquisition was to bring order and legality to the process of dealing with heresy, since there had been tendencies in the mobs of townspeople to burn alleged heretics without much of a trial. Pope Gregory’s original intent for the Inquisition was a court of exception to inquire into and glean the beliefs of those differing from Catholic teaching, and to instruct them in the orthodox doctrine. It was hoped that heretics would see the falsity of the ir opinion and would return to the Roman Catholic Church. If they persisted in their heresy, however, Pope Gregory, finding it necessary to protect the Catholic community from infection would have suspects handed over to civil authorities since these her ethics had violated not only Church law but civil law as well. The secular authorities would apply their own brands of punishment for civil disobedience which, at the time, included burning at the stake.
The inquisitors, or judges of this medieval Inquisition were recruited almost exclusively from the Franscian and Dominican orders. In the early period of the institution, the Inquisitors rode the circuit in search of heretics, but this practice was short lived. The Inquisitors soon acquired the right to summon the suspects from their homes to the Inquisition center. The medieval Inquisition functioned only in a limited way in northern Europe. It was employed most in the south of France and in northern Italy.