Inquisitions of the Middle Ages

For nearly six centuries, the Catholic Church operated a series of inquisitions for the purpose of wiping out heresy and witchcraft. The original article I wrote can be found here.


Though the Inquisition is generally thought of as as a single organization or series of events, there were, in fact, several inquisitions occurring throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. In practice, the Catholic Church operated the various inquisitions almost like a franchise, with inquisitors being sent to different areas to establish offices for the purpose of rooting out heresy, sorcery, and various other perceived wrongdoings. And while the public might have an idea of the Inquisition as a crackdown on witchcraft, the earliest manifestations targeted mainly other, supposedly heretical, branches of Christianity.

The Early Inquisitions

Though the Catholic Church had, before the 12th century, considered heresy a crime that could be punished with imprisonment, it wasn’t until roughly 1140 — with the spread of the heretical Christian sect called the Cathars — that the church began taking the threat more seriously. The first of the so-called “Medieval Inquisitions” was established in 1184 by papal bull, and soon thereafter inquisitors were sent to parts of Italy and France to deal with new religious movements, including the Cathars, the Bogomils, and the Waldensians. While these were all Christian sects, their beliefs strayed from Catholic orthodoxy; the Cathars, for example, believed in both a good and evil God, and since the evil God had created the earth, everything material in the world was to be avoided as far as possible. Dominicans and Franciscans, who were generally also considered heretics because of their belief in the corruption of the Church, were not persecuted, and in fact were recruited by Pope Innocent III into the cause of the inquisition. The Knights Templar, on the other hand, who had long been valued allies of the Catholic Church, were ruthlessly targeted, possibly due to political maneuvering by French king Philip the Fair, who wanted to get his hands on their vast wealth.

Methods of the Inquisition

A 1252 papal bull authorized the use of torture by inquisitors. The various methods of torture — including strappado, the rack, and simulated drowning — were meant not as punishment, but to encourage confession of one’s crimes, and more importantly, to implicate others who could then be hauled in by authorities and subjected to the same treatment. Once an accused heretic was brought in for questioning, there was little he or she could do to win freedom. Even a confession was considered unsatisfactory without the naming of names. The accused had no right to an attorney, could be held indefinitely, and was never told what the charges against him or her were, or who had made the accusations. Torture would be applied until the “heretic” had confessed, though the confession had to be repeated later, so that the Church could avoid charges that the confession had been forced under duress. If execution was called for, the heretic was handed over to secular authorities to keep the Church’s hands clean. Once the execution had been carried out — usually by burning alive, though the victim might be strangled before the fire was lit if he or she had repented the crime — the victim’s property and assets would be confiscated and remanded to Church authorities, often leaving the family of the “heretic” destitute. And death itself was often no barrier to the Church’s investigations, as several supposed heretics who had died as much as fifty years before were sometimes dug up, paraded through the streets, and burned at the stake. The relatives of this unfortunate corpse were then stripped of their assets.

The Spanish Inquisition

Perhaps the best known of the inquisitions due to its mentions in popular culture, the Spanish Inquisition was also little concerned with sorcery or witchcraft. This particular inquisition — established in 1478 at the behest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, with the help of Pope Sixtus IV — almost exclusively targeted Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and were suspected of carrying on the rituals of their previous religions in secret. Known as Marranos or conversos, Jews who were observed changing their underclothes on Saturday or refraining from eating pork were duly reported, as were Moriscos, or “secret Muslims,” who were caught doing something as harmless as eating couscous. Later targets of the Spanish Inquisition included Protestants and members of the Greek Orthodox Church. This particular inquisition operated most everywhere the Spaniards conquered, including Peru, Mexico and Guatemala, and continued operating until about 1821.

Witch Hunts

Witchcraft and the Inquisition are inseparably intertwined in the popular imagination, probably due to the presence of horrifying texts such as the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, but the fact remains that those accused of witchcraft or sorcery made up only a fraction of victims. Those accused tended to be female, single, aged and ugly; anyone exhibiting personal eccentricities in dress or manner were also suspected, as were midwives. Moreover, people accused of witchcraft were often tried by civil courts, as the local inquisitions perceived more of a threat from heretics than witches.

Additional Source:

Kirsch, Jonathan (2008). The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God. HarperOne. ISBN 978-0060816995.