There has been no more organized effort by a religion to control people and contain their spirituality than the Christian Inquisition. Developed within the Church’s own legal framework, the Inquisition attempted to terrify people into obedience. As the Inquisitor Francesco Pena stated in 1578, “We must remember that the main purpose of the trial and execution is not to save the soul of the accused but to achieve the public good and put fear into others.” The Inquisition took countless human lives in Europe and around the world as it followed in the wake of missionaries. And along with the tyranny of the Inquisition, churchmen also brought religious justification for the practice of slavery.
The unsubmissive spirit of the Middle Ages only seemed to exacerbate the Church’s demand for unquestioning obedience. The Church’s understanding of God was to be the only understanding. There was to be no discussion or debate. As the Inquisitor Bernard Gui said, the layman must not argue with the unbeliever, but “thrust his sword into the man’s belly as far as it will go.” In a time of burgeoning ideas about spirituality, the Church insisted that it was the only avenue through which one was permitted to learn of God. Pope Innocent III declared “that anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of God which conflicted with Church dogma must be burned without pity.”
Before the inquisition was fully underway, the Church welcomed heretics back into its fold under terms it considered reasonable. The following is an example of such terms:
On three Sundays the penitent is to be stripped to the waist and scourged by the priest from the entrance of town … to the church door. He is to abstain forever from meat and eggs and cheese, except on Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, when he is to eat them as a sign of his abnegation of his Manichaean errors. For twoscore days, twice a year, he is to forgo the use of fish, and for three days each week that of fish, wine and oil, fasting, if his health and labors will permit. He is to wear monastic vestments, with a small cross sewed on each breast. If possible, he is to hear mass daily and on feast-days to attend church at vespers. Seven times a day he is to recite the canonical hours, and, in addition the Paternoster ten times each day and twenty times each night. He is to observe the strictest chastity. Every month he is to show this paper to the priest, who is to watch its observance closely, and this mode of life is to be maintained until the legate shall see it fit to alter it, while for infraction of the penance he is to be held as a perjurer and a heretic, and to be segregated from the society of the faithful.
Few heretics returned to the Church of their own accord.
The Church turned to its own canon law to authenticate an agency which could enforce adherence to Church authority. In 1231 Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition as a separate tribunal, independent of bishops and prelates. Its administrators, the inquisitors, were to be answerable only to the Pope. Its inquisitional law replaced the common law tradition of “innocent until proven guilty” with “guilty until proven innocent.” Despite an ostensible trial, inquisitional procedure left no possibility for the suspected to prove his or her innocence; the process resulted in the condemnation of anyone even suspected of heresy. The accused was denied the right of counsel. No particulars were given as to the time or place of the suspected heresies, or to what kind of heresies were suspected. A suspected friendship with a convicted heretic was also a crime, yet no information was given as to which heretic the accused was to have “adored.” The names of accusing witnesses were kept secret. One’s only recourse was an appeal to the Pope in Rome, which was so futile as to be farcical. The friar Bernard Delicieux declared:
… that if St. Peter and St. Paul were accused of ‘adoring’ heretics and were prosecuted after the fashion of the Inquisition, there would be no defense open for them.
The inquisitor presided over inquisitional procedure as both prosecutor and judge. While he was technically to arrive at his decision after consulting with an assembly of experts of his choosing, this check to his power was soon abandoned. An inquisitor was selected primarily on the basis of his zeal to prosecute heretics. He and his assistants, messengers, and spies were allowed to carry arms. And in 1245, the Pope granted him the right to absolve these assistants for any acts of violence. This act rendered the Inquisition, which was already free from any secular jurisdiction, unaccountable to even ecclesiastical tribunals.
Inquisitors grew very rich. They received bribes and annual fines from the wealthy who payed to escape accusation. The Inquisition would claim all the money and property of alleged heretics. As there was little chance of the accused being proven innocent, there was no need to wait for conviction to confiscate his or her property. Unlike Roman law that reserved a portion of property for the convicted’s nearest heirs, canon and inquisitional law left nothing. Pope Innocent III had explained that God punished children for the sins of their parents. So unless children had come forth spontaneously to denounce their parents, they were left penniless. Inquisitors even accused the dead of heresy, sometimes as much as seventy years after their death. They exhumed and burned alleged heretic’s bones and then confiscated all property from the heirs.
Inquisitors rarely shared the money collected with the episcopal courts, the civil government, or spent it building churches as planned. One historian writes how the inquisitor was often able to “seize everything for himself, not even sending a share to the officials of the Inquisition at Rome.” Inquisitors were reluctant to pay even for the cost of feeding their victims, encouraging the families or the community to pay such costs. It was hardly a coincidence that the eagerness of the Inquisition in any given region was proportionate to the opportunities for confiscation.
Ironically, inquisitors were most often chosen from Dominican and Franciscan orders, both of which originally professed vows of poverty. The Church did little to encourage their ideal of poverty. Although it regarded the Franciscan founder, Francis of Assisi, as a saint, the Church persecuted Francis’s followers who upheld his ideas of poverty, those known as the Fraticelli, or “Spiritual Franciscans.” The Church denounced the Fraticelli as “false and pernicious” and in 1315 excommunicated them. Pope Martin V ordered their village of Magnalata leveled and every resident slain. The Franciscans who abandoned Francis’s teachings, however, were often appointed as inquisitors. While it did not overtly endorse the Inquisition’s avarice and corruption, the Church did little to stop it.
The Inquisition had devastating economic impact. Aside from directly seizing the property of successful merchants by accusing them of heresy, inquisitors crippled commerce by holding certain operations suspect. For example, maps and map-makers, so essential to navigating traders and merchants, were held in deep suspicion. Inquisitors believed the printed word to be a channel of heresy and so hampered the communication produced by the fifteenth century invention of the printing press. The mere suspicion of heresy annulled all rights of the suspended individual. When accused, all debts owed by the heretic and any liens which secured those debts became null and void. The historian Henry Charles Lea writes:
As no man could be certain of the orthodoxy of another, it will be evident how much distrust must have been thrown upon the commonest transactions of life. The blighting influence of this upon the development of commerce and industry can readily be perceived, coming as it did at a time when the commercial and industrial movement of Europe was beginning to usher in the dawn of modern culture.
While inquisitors themselves prospered, their activity left communities impoverished.
The Inquisition was merciless with its victims. The same man who had been both prosecutor and judge decided upon the sentence. In 1244 the Council of Harbonne ordered that in the sentencing of heretics, no husband should be spared because of his wife, nor wife because of her husband, nor parent because of helpless children, and no sentence should be mitigated because of sickness or old age. Each and every sentence included flagellation.
Of the sentences, pilgrimages were considered the lightest. Yet, undertaken on foot, such penances could take years, during which the penitent’s family might perish. Carrying a much greater stigma than pilgrimages was “wearing the crosses,” also known as poena confusibilis or “humiliating punishment.” The penitents were required to wear large saffron-colored crosses on the front and back, which subjected them to public ridicule and hindered every effort of earning a livelihood. A more frequent sentence was perpetual imprisonment, which always entailed a scant diet of bread and water, sometimes meant being kept in chains, and occasionally entailed solitary confinement. The life expectancy in all the prisons was very short.
The harshest sentence of burning at the stake was given to those who either failed in their previous penance, relapsed into heresy, or who would not confess to any crime. Although the Church had begun killing heretics in the late fourth century and again in 1022 at Orléan, papal statutes of 1231 now insisted that heretics suffer death by fire. Burning people to death technically avoided spilling a drop of blood. The words of the Gospel of John were understood to sanction burning: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
The Church distanced itself from the killing by turning heretics over to secular authorities for the actual burning. Such secular authorities, however, were not allowed to decline. When the Senate of Venice in 1521 refused to approve such executions, for example, Pope Leo X wrote that secular officials were:
… to intervene no more in this kind of trial, but promptly, without changing or inspecting the sentences made by the ecclesiastical judges, to execute the sentences which they are enjoined to carry out. And if they neglect or refuse, you (the Papal legate) are to compel them with the Church’s censure and other appropriate measures. From this order there is no appeal.
In practice, any secular authorities who refused to cooperate were excommunicated and subject to the same treatment as suspected heretics.
By far the cruelest aspect of the inquisitional system was the means by which confessions were wrought: the torture chamber. Torture remained a legal option for the Church from 1252 when it was sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV until 1917 when the new Codex Juris Canonici was put into effect. Innocent IV authorized indefinite delays to secure confessions, giving inquisitors as much time as they wanted to torture the accused. Although the letter of law forbade repeating torture, inquisitors easily avoided this rule simply by “continuing” torture, calling any interval a suspension. In 1262 inquisitors and their assistants were granted the authority to quietly absolve each other from the crime of bloodshed. They simply explained that the tortured had died because the devil broke their necks.
Thus, with license granted by the Pope himself, inquisitors were free to explore the depths of horror and cruelty. Dressed as black-robed fiends with black cowls over their heads, inquisitors could extract confessions from nearly anyone. The Inquisition invented every conceivable devise to inflict pain by slowly dismembering and dislocating the body. Many of the devices were inscribed with the motto “Glory be only to God.” The rack, the hoist, and the water tortures were the most common. Victims were rubbed with lard or grease and slowly roasted alive. Ovens built to kill people, made infamous in twentieth century Nazi Germany, were first used by the Christian Inquisition in Eastern Europe. Victims were thrown into a pit full of snakes and burned alive. One particularly gruesome torture involved turning a large dish full of mice upside down on the victim’s naked stomach. A fire was then lit on top of the dish causing the mice to panic and burrow into the stomach. Should a victim withstand such pain without confessing, he or she would be burned alive at the stake, often in mass public burnings called auto-da-fé.
Contemporary writings echo the terror created by the Inquisition. Juan de Mariana reported in the 1490s that people
… were deprived of the liberty to hear and talk freely, since in all cities, towns, and villages, there were persons placed to give information of what went on. This was considered by some the most wretched slavery and equal to death.
A writer in 1538 described life in the Spanish city of Toledo:
… preachers do not dare to preach, and those who preach do not dare to touch on contentious matters, for their lives and honor are in the mouths of two ignoramuses, and nobody in this life is without his policeman … Bit by bit many rich people leave the country for foreign realms, in order not to live all their lives in fear and trembling every time an officer of the Inquisition enters their house; for continual fear is a worse death than a sudden demise.
The Inquisition often targeted members of other religions as severely as it did heretics. The Inquisition now lent its authority to the long-standing Christian persecution of Jews. Particularly during the Christian Holy Week of the Passion, Christians frequently rioted against Jews or refused to sell them food in hopes of starving them. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III required Jews to wear distinctive clothing. In 1391 the Archdeacon of Seville launched a “Holy War against the Jews.” By 1492 the Inquisition in Spain had become so virulent in its persecution of Jews that it demanded either their conversion to Christianity or their expulsion. Muslims experienced little better. Not surprisingly, Islamic countries offered far safer sanctuaries to escaping Jews than Christian lands.
Historians have often diminished Christian responsibility for the Inquisition by dividing the Inquisition into three separate phases: the medieval, the Spanish, and the Roman. The greater secular influence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella is thought to separate the Spanish inquisition from the medieval. Yet, the Spanish Inquisition’s most influential leader, the Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, was appointed Inquisitor General by Pope Sixtus IV. Jews were expelled from Spain, not from a profit motive (there was little money to be made in banishing a large community whose taxes were paid directly to the crown), but from the fear that Jews contaminated Christian society. The Roman Inquisition is distinct from the medieval mainly because it was renamed. In 1542 Pope Paul III reassigned the medieval Inquisition to the Congregation of the Inquisition, or Holy Office. Each phase was identical, however, in its demand rooted in the orthodox conviction that God similarly requires unquestioning obedience.
The tyranny inherent in the belief in singular supremacy accompanied explorers and missionaries throughout the world. When Columbus landed in America in 1492, he mistook it for India and called the native inhabitants “Indians.” It was his avowed aim to “convert the heathen Indians to our Holy Faith” that warranted the enslaving and exporting of thousands of Native Americans. That such treatment resulted in complete genocide did not matter as much as that these natives had been given the opportunity of everlasting life through their exposure to Christianity. The same sort of thinking also gave Westerners license to rape women. In his own words, Columbus described how he himself “took [his] pleasure” with a native woman after whipping her “soundly” with a piece of rope.
The Inquisition quickly followed in their wake. By 1570 the Inquisition had established independent tribunal in Peru and the city of Mexico for the purpose of “freeing the land, which has become contaminated by Jews and heretics.” Natives who did not convert to Christianity were burned like any other heretic. The Inquisition spread as far as Goa, India, where in the late 16th and early 17th centuries it took no less than 3,800 lives.
Even without the formal Inquisition present, missionary behavior clearly illustrated the belief in the supremacy of a single image of God, not in the supremacy of one all-encompassing divinity. If the image of God venerated in a foreign land was not Christian, it was simply not divine. Portuguese missionaries in the Far East destroyed pagodas, forced scholars to hide their religious manuscripts, and suppressed older customs. Mayan scribes in Central America wrote:
Before the coming of the Spaniards, there was no robbery or violence. The Spanish invasion was the beginning of tribute, the beginning of church dues, the beginning of strife.
In 1614 the Shogun of Japan, Iyeyazu, accused the missionaries of “wanting to change the government of the country and make themselves masters of the soil.”
With no understanding of shared supremacy and authority, missionaries fought among themselves just as had early orthodox Christians who had “wanted to command one another” and lusted “for power over one another.” In Japan and China, the Dominicans fought bitterly with the Capuchins. And in India, the Jesuits fought several wars against the Capuchins. A Seneca chief asked of a Moravian missionary in 1805, “If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?”
Missionaries often took part in the unscrupulous exploitation of foreign lands. Many became missionaries to get rich quickly and then return to Europe and live off their gains. In Mexico, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits were known to own “the largest flocks of sheep, the finest sugar ingenios, the best kept estates …” The Church, particularly in South America, supported the enslavement of native inhabitants and the theft of native lands. A 1493 papal Bull justified declaring war on any natives in South America who refused to adhere to Christianity. As the jurist Encisco claimed in 1509:
The king has every right to send his men to the Indies to demand their territory from these idolaters because he had received it from the pope. If the Indians refuse, he may quite legally fight them, kill them, and enslave them, just as Joshua enslaved the inhabitants of the country of Canaan.
Orthodox Christians defended slavery as part of the divinely ordained hierarchical order. Passages in the Bible support the institution of slavery:
Both the bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever. [Leviticus 25:44-46]
St. Paul instructed slaves to obey their masters [Ephesians 6:5; I Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-10]. The early St. John Chrysostom wrote:
The slave should be resigned to his lot, in obeying his master he is obeying God …
And in the City of God, St. Augustine wrote:
… slavery is not penal in character and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order and forbids disturbance.
While there were missionaries who recognized the humanity of Native Americans and worked earnestly to improve their lot, few recognized an inherent injustice in the idea of slavery. Even the well-known Jesuit Antonio Vieira, who was imprisoned by the Inquisition for his work on behalf of the native inhabitants, advocated importing black Africans to serve as slaves for colonial settlers. And he still considered fugitives from slavery guilty of sin and worthy of excommunication.
Orthodox Christianity also supported the practice of slavery in North America. The eighteenth century Anglican Church made it clear that Christianity freed people from eternal damnation, not from the bonds of slavery. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, wrote:
The Freedom which Christianity gives, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Domination of Men’s Lusts and Passions and inordinate Desires; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their being baptised, and becoming Christians, makes no manner of Change in it.
Slaves should, however, be converted to Christianity, it was argued, because they would then become more docile and obedient.
Both the Inquisition and those supporting the practice of slavery relied upon the same religious justification. In keeping with the orthodox Christian belief in a singular and fearful God who rules at the pinnacle of hierarchy, power resided solely with authority, not with the individual. Obedience and submission were valued far more than freedom and self-determination. The Inquisition played out the darkest consequences of such a belief system as it imprisoned and killed the bodies and spirits of countless people — and not simply for a brief moment of time. The Inquisition spanned centuries and was still active in some places as late as 1834.
Helen Ellerbe is a researcher, writer, and public speaker living in the San Francisco bay area. She is the author of The Dark Side of Christian History.