It's History

It’s History: Inquisitions in the Middle Ages

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of my history posts. So. Today I’m going to give a quick run-down of inquisitions in the Middle Ages.

Inquisitions in the Middle Ages, unlike their far more famous successor, the Spanish Inquisition, were not any one single unified thing. Originally it was Pope Lucius III who, in 1184, issued his bull Ad abolendam, which basically outlined measures for rooting out heretics and prosecuting them. Because during the 12th century, heresy (or, the more PC term, “religious dissent”) was starting to become more of an issue, primarily from the Cathars and Waldensians. (Both of which I will do a post on later.) Initially inquisitions were left up to local officials to take care of (the Episcopal Inquisition) but since this proved to not be very effective since bishops sort of had plenty of other things on their minds, in the early half of the 13th century the pope took over, appointing inquisitors – often Dominicans – who answered to no one except the pope and were specially trained in inquisitorial procedure and finding heretics.

The primary duty of the inquisitors was to inquire – to question. The court would set up shop in an area and call people to appear so that they could be questioned. These interrogations often took place over the course of several days, with a high level of sophistication compared to many other courts of the time as inquisitors adapted their interrogation techniques based on what they thought would be most likely to yield the answers they were looking for. Inquisitorial manuals also appeared during the 13th and 14th centuries, outlining the different types of heresy and how to best question those who adhered to each sect. Those being questioned had to swear an oath before beginning, although certain sects such as the Waldensians refused to swear oaths so this could also be used as a means of determining if someone was a heretic or not.

As is popularly known, there was always the risk of punishment hanging over supposed heretics’ heads – although, since the Church wasn’t technically allowed to punish people, any punishments given out by the Church were classified as penance, while any punishments had to be meted out by secular authorities. For example, Church authorities could assign confessed heretics to do certain things like prayer, or they could imprison people, since technically these people weren’t being “punished.” However, if someone refused to recant (take back their heretical beliefs), or if they had recanted but turned back to the Dark Side (relapsed heretics), they were then relaxed to the secular arm – basically, the Church handed dissenters over to secular authorities, who then punished these people, often by burning them at the stake.

There were various types of dissent that didn’t really fly with the Church. The two that were most often persecuted were the Cathars and the Waldensians (both of which I’ll write up posts on in the future), although other groups such as the Beguines, Jews, and witches (to a lesser extent) were also subjected to the inquisitors. Often it was for things like not having papal recognition or permission to preach (like the Waldensians), although in the case of the Cathars, there actually is some disagreement over whether or not they were actually a Christian sect since there were so many doctrinal differences. (Basically…the Cathars believed in two Gods, which the Church really didn’t seem to like. I’ll talk about this more in the future.)

And…there is a very quick introduction to the subject of inquisitions in the Middle Ages. I actually wrote a term paper on this for my medieval religion seminar last spring, and had a very hard time finding sources that were in English. However, a couple that I was able to locate in case you want to read more than I have here because I don’t really want to write another 20 page paper on the subject:

Given, James. Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Gui, Bernard. The Inquisitor’s Guide: A Medieval Manual on Heretics. Translated by Janet Shirley. UK: Ravenhall Books, 2006.

Fournier, Jacques. “Inquisition Records.” In Readings in Medieval History, edited by Patrick J. Geary, 540-559. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1989.


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