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The Inquisition

Out of the darkness of the post-Constantine world, there emerged in the early Middle Ages a terrifying theological crusade that swept through the dank villages and walled capitals of the heart of Europe and sent to their graves hundreds of thousands of howling, innocent victims.

Known as the Inquisition, the movement—established and guided by the Latin Catholic Church—was aimed at rooting out and punishing heresy throughout Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean and, eventually, the Americas. By the time the fires of the Church-sanctioned Inquisition had burned out in the early nineteenth century, its cruel impact had been felt from Paris and Milan to Malta and Mexico City. Hardest hit were the unprotected populations of Protestants, Jews and Muslims in Spain, Italy and France and Native Americans in the New World.

The only regions of Europe that escaped the wrath of the Inquisition were Great Britain and Scandinavia.

The Inquisition had its origins in the first centuries of the Common Era when the Roman justice system established a special board of inquiry to investigate and litigate those suspected of treason and lesser crimes. Torture was occasionally used to draw out confessions—but nothing like the harsh forms that would evolve following the Germanic invasions that came in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In 1184, Pope Lucius III issued a special decree which some historians regard as the “founding charter of the Inquisition.” The controversial Ad abolendam directed church leaders in southern France to spearhead efforts to identify and round up suspected heretics in their respective jurisdictions for conversion or prosecution. Dominican and Franciscan priests and other followers of mendicant religious orders provided a ready supply of papal inquisitors.

Singled out for special prosecution early on were heretics in France and Spain known as Cathars (also known as Albingenses) and Waldensians in Germany and northern Italy. Thousands died on “the rack,” their bodies pulled and broken apart in horrific fashion.

An extract from Miller’s Church History provides a vivid account of how the rack worked:

“The naked arms, to which a small hard cord was fastened, were turned behind the back, heavy weighks were tied to the feet; and then the sufferer was drawn up by the action of a pully to the height of which he was in. Having been kept suspended for some time, he was suddenly let down with a jerk to within a little distance of the floor; this done several timnes, the joints of the arms were dislocated, whilst the cord, by which he was suspended, cut through the skin and flesh, and penetrated to the bone; and by means of the weights appended to the feet, the whole frame was violently strained.”

Torture by fire was another equally painful process implemented by inquisitors to elicit confession. According to Miller’s Church History, the prisoner was positioned on the floor with his feet pointed toward a fire. “The soles of his feet were rubbed with lard and placed near the fire, until, writhing in agony, he was ready to confess what his tormentors required.”

The worst fate, however, awaited those found guilty and sentenced directly to death. On the date of their execution, the doomed would be dressed in a sackcloth adorned with crude depictions of demons and hellfire, then marched through towns past cheering crowds until they came to the firepit. There, hoods were placed over the heads and, following a roaring sermon by the bishop or the court inquisitor, the convicted man or woman would be burned alive.

Small pieces of wood were usually placed around the bottom of the stakes first and set on fire. As the flames spread from their bare feet and rose higher, more wood was piled around the writhing, screaming prisoner confined to the stake until soon he or she was swathed in a crackling blue cloud of smoke. The smell of burning flesh, not to mention the pain and horror, must have been indescrible.

“Death came long before the torch enveloped the victim’s head and sent arrows of fire and smoke shooting out from around the hair,” according to one account.

The most famous victim of the French wing of the Inquisition was Joan of Arc, the so-called “Maid of Orleans,” who was burned at the stake in 1431. A century earlier, in 1307, some 20,000 Knights Templar in France were tortured before being committed to the flames.

According to a special Arts & Entertainment report, inquisitors would usually arrive in a town and make their presence known by announcements at either the Town Hall or on the steps of the local church or cathedral. The purpose of this announcement was to offer citizens a last chance to admit to heresy.

“Those who confessed received a punishment ranging from a pilgrimage to flogging,” according to the A&E report. “Those accused of heresy were forced to testify. If the heretic did not confess, torture and execution were inescapable. Heretics weren’t allowed to face accusers, received no counsel, and were often victims of false accusations.”

Unrepentant heretics were usually tried by a clergical court then, if found guilty, were handed over to secular authorities to be burned at the stake. Occasionally, however, especially in the smaller towns and villages, local clergymen took matters into their own hands and conducted punishments and executions.

The Inquisition in Spain was launched in 1480. At the time, the population of Jews and Muslims was quite large and figured prominently in the financial and commercial trades. However, in order to live and practice in Spain, most of these outsiders had converted to Christianity.

As the shadow of the Inquisition spread, most of these sub-classes of “outsiders” deemed heretical were called in for questioning. At the heart of it all was their loyalty to the Catholic Church. Jews, Muslims and Protestants, for example, who could substantiate their faith were usually forced to pay a fine and released. Those accused of secretly continuing to practice their old religions, however, were forced to either confess or suffer the wrath of the inquisitors—which usually meant conversion, deportation or execution.

Death invariably awaited even those who confessed, however.

In 1481, 20,000 converted Spanish Jews known as “Conversos” offered their confessions, hoping that would spare them from the flames. Inquisitors decreed that their penitence required them to turn over to them the names of other heretics. By year’s end, thousands of these cooperative Conversos were burned at the stake.

Those heretics who could fled to Rome, where they threw themselves on the mercy of Pope Sextus. After a lengthy study, the pope determined that Spanish authorites had been too harsh with the Conversos and, in 1482, appointed a special council under the leadership of a particularly bloodthirsty clergyman named Tomas de Torquemada to take command of the overall investigation.

Torquemada was soon named Inquisitor General and quickly set about establishing courts across Spain and Portugal to try and render punishment to heretics hauled before him. A variety of painful torture, from the rack and water dunking to threats of execution, became one of his favorite systems for eliciting confessions.

On the day of sentencing, Torquemada required the condemned to be bound and dragged into the center of town where he or she would face the prosecutor at a public event known as the Auto-da-Fe. Clad in a sackcloth with a single eyehole over their heads, these heretics would stand before the inquisitor and hear the charges read off to them in a thunderous, accusatory tone. Those who refused to confess were quickly thrown into a bonfire amid the cheering cries of approval of the masses eager for a day of merrymaking and excitement.

Following the death of Torquemada, another cleric named Diego de Deza took over as Inquisitor General. Following in his predecessor’s footsteps, de Deza wasted no time escalating the hunt for heretics. After rounding up scores of suspects, including members of nobility and local governments, he convened trials that resulted in the usual range of punishments.

In 1504, King Ferdinand promoted Cardinal Gonzalo Ximenes de Cisneros, head of the Spanish Catholic Church, to de Deza’s old job as Inquisitor General. Ximenes, who, with his swirling, pointed beard, red cap and flowing silk robes fit the stereotypical image of the inquisitor general perfectly, had previously made a mark in Granada persecuting Islamic Moors.

As Inquisitor General, Ximenes pursued Muslims into North Africa, establishing the Inquisition in towns where he lorded over local populations by threatening mass executions for those who refused to confess and convert. Ximenes’s heavy-handed domination gradually became too extreme, even for the Spanish monarch, and he was dismissed in 1517 after pleas from prominent Conversos.

But the Inquisition was just warming up.

As Spain expanded into the Americas, so did the Inquisition, established first in Mexico in 1570. There, and beyond to Spain’s southern-most colony of Peru, the march of the inquisitors and their military companions—the conquistadores—continued, ruthlessly tracking down Protestant missionaries and their Indian allies. Countless thousands were burned alive for refusing to convert. Many Indians were confined to cages, their arms bound and suspended over flames where they were roasted alived. Others, no less fortunate, were thrown to packs of savage dogs, which Spanish conquistadores deliberately kept underfed and tied up before being released on helpless Indians.

In 1542, as the Protestant Reformation caught fire in parts of northern Europe, Rome established its own Inquisition when Pope Paul III created the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition to combat Protestant heresy. This Inquisition is best known for putting Galileo on trial in 1633.

Two years later, with Roman approval, the Spanish Index was created, listing books considered heretical and forbidden in Spain. A decade later, in 1556, Philip II came to the Spanish throne and ordered a crackdown on Protestantism in the Netherlands. There, thousands of Lutherans were arrested and either hanged or burned at the stake.

But times were changing. Following the Reformation and a series of religious wars in Europe, public opinion gradually turned against the cruelties of the Inquisition.  By the time of the Enlightenment, courts of inquisition and the horrific executions were beginning to be phased out.

In 1808, Napoleon conquered Spain and ordered the Inquisition there abolished altogether. After the French emperor’s defeat in 1814, Ferdinand VII tried to reinstate the Inquisition but was ultimately prevented by the French government. By 1834, the Inquisition was officially declared defunct.

The last person known to be executed by the Inquisition was Cayetano Ripoll, a Spanish schoolmaster hanged for heresy in 1826.

(Read the conclusion of this chapter and much more in E. Randall Floyd's upcoming book, The Dark Side of History. Now available at

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