The Inquisition: A Review

Like most people, I have read bits and pieces and a few articles over the years on the Inquisition, but until recently had never read a comprehensive account. Finally I have remedied that deficiency and while it is green in my mind wish to share what I found. The Inquisition by Brenda Stalcup, book editor of the Turning Points in World History series, is the book I read and recommend.

  • The Inquisition began in the 12th century in response to a rise in the number of heretical sects in Western Europe.  These heretics were people disgusted with the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.  They disagreed with church dogma, rituals and theology.
  • Preceding the Inquisition was a practice known as the Accusatory. Dissenters had to have been accused of heresy before the authorities could take action. The Inquisition had the added feature of searching out the heretics. The inquisitors encouraged citizens, friends, family and enemies to expose their fellow citizens. Many did so in an effort to gain favor from the inquisitors. Everyone feared being accused.
  • The Inquisition began in the Languedoc region of France in response to the rise in popularity of the Cathars, a religious sect also known as Albigenses. After attempts to eradicate them failed, Pope Innocent III invoked the Albigensian Crusade (1209 – 1229) against them. Despite 20 years of searching and killing by the Crusaders in Southern France they failed to eradicate the heretical Cathars.
  • In 1233 Pope Gregory IX directed the Dominican Order to begin an Inquisition in Languedoc. It quickly spread over Western Europe. Accusatory and inquisitor efforts had been going on for many decades before Gregory IX wrote his encyclical letter of 20 April, 1233 in which he ordered the Dominicans to conduct an Inquisition in the provinces of Bordeaux, Bourges, Narbonne, Auch.
  • Some so-called heretics were easily identified and located because they openly espoused their views; others were reported on by  neighbors, friends and enemies. Many people turned on friends in order to get even brief relief from extreme torture.
  • Property of the accused was confiscated, sometimes even before the final decision about guilt was made. The family was evicted from the property of the accused and the relatives had no inheritance rights. The proceeds were shared by the church and state and often by the individual inquisitors.
  • Under torture, some persons accused the dead of having been heretics, and in such cases the bones of the accused were excavated and burned in public; the property that had been inherited was taken from the heirs and divided among the authorities involved. Never mind that the accused were not alive to defend themselves; it likely would have had no effect on the outcome.
  • The public ceremony at which the sentence of the condemned was announced was known as an auto de fe’ “Act of Faith”. In Spain it became an elaborate festival.
  • Public burning at the stake was the usual method of executing heretics.
  • In 1492 all Jews were evicted from Spain. They had lived there for more than 1000 years. Some had converted to Catholicism and had  later renounced the faith or propounded unacceptable views. The unconverted Jews were accused of turning the “Conversos” from the faith, of causing them to become heretics.  The Jews were given only four months to dispose of their property and leave the country, and they could take no money or other valuables with them. Columbus left Spain the same year searching for the Indies.  Part of his motivation may have been to find a place for the displaced Jews. According to this book he may have been a Jew himself.
  • In the 1550s there were more Jews in Mexico City than there were Catholics.
  • With the discovery of the new world and the arrival there of Catholic officials came the Inquisition. It was applied to Indians, Protestants and Jews until the 19th century. Thus, the Inquisition lasted more than 700 years.
  • The Inquisition is not always pleasant reading, but it is an enlightening book.
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