Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.
Chapter 8: The Inquisition
Efforts to stamp out heresy led to the establishment of the Holy Inquisition, one of mankind’s supreme horrors. In the early 1200s, local bishops were empowered to identify, try, and punish heretics. When the bishops proved ineffective, traveling papal inquisitors, usually Dominican priests, were sent from Rome to conduct the purge.
Pope Innocent IV authorized torture in 1252, and the Inquisition chambers became places of terror. Accused heretics were seized and locked in cells, unable to see their families, unable to know the names of their accusers. If they didn’t confess quickly, unspeakable cruelties began. Swiss historian Walter Nigg recounted:
The thumbscrew was usually the first to be applied: The fingers were placed in clamps and the screws turned until the blood spurted out and the bones were crushed. The defendant might be placed on the iron torture chair, the seat of which consisted of sharpened iron nails that could be heated red-hot from below. There were the so-called ‘boots,’ which were employed to crush the shinbones. Another favorite torture was dislocation of the limbs on the rack or the wheel on which the heretic, bound hand and foot, was drawn up and down while the body was weighted with stones.
So that the torturers would not be disturbed by the shrieking of the victim, his mouth was stuffed with cloth. Three- and four-hour sessions of torture were nothing unusual. During the procedure the instruments were frequently sprinkled with holy water.
The victim was required not only to confess that he was a heretic, but also to accuse his children, wife, friends, and others as fellow heretics, so that they might be subjected to the same process. Minor offenders and those who confessed immediately received lighter sentences. Serious heretics who repented were given life imprisonment and their possessions were confiscated. Others were led to the stake in a procession and church ceremony called the “auto-da-fe” (act of the faith). A papal statute of 1231 decreed burning as the standard penalty. The actual executions were performed by civil officers, not priests, as a way of preserving the church’s sanctity.
Some inquisitors cut terrible swaths. Robert le Bourge sent 183 to the stake in a single week. Bernard Gui convicted 930 confiscating the property of all 930, sending 307 to prison, and burning forty-two. Conrad of Marburg burned every suspect who claimed innocence. He met his downfall when he accused a count of riding on a crab in a diabolical rite, whereupon an archbishop declared the charge groundless and Conrad was murdered, presumably by agents of the count.
Historically, the Inquisition is divided into three phases: the medieval extermination of heretics; the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s; and the Roman Inquisition, which began after the Reformation.
In Spain, thousands of Jews had converted to Christianity to escape death in recurring Christian massacres. So, too, had some Muslims. They were, however, suspected of being insincere converts clandestinely practicing their old religion. In 1478 the pope authorized King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to revive the Inquisition to hunt “secret Jews” and their Muslim counterparts. Dominican friar Tomas de Torquemada was appointed inquisitor general, and he became a symbol of religious cruelty. Thousands upon thousands of screaming victims were tortured, and at least 2,000 were burned.
The Roman period began in 1542 when Pope Paul III sought to eradicate Protestant influences in Italy. Under Pope Paul IV, this inquisition was a reign of terror, killing many “heretics” on mere suspicion. Its victims included scientist-philosopher Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’s theory that planets orbit the sun. He was burned at the stake in 1600 in Rome.
The Inquisition blighted many lands for centuries. In Portugal, records recount that 184 were burned alive and auto-da-fé processions contained as many as 1,500 “penitents” at a time. The Inquisition was brought by Spaniards to the American colonies, to punish Indians who reverted to native religions. A total of 879 heresy trials were recorded in Mexico in the late 1500s.
The horror persisted until modern times. The Spanish Inquisition was suppressed by Joseph Bonaparte in 1808, restored by Ferdinand VII in 1814, suppressed again in 1820, restored again in 1823, and finally eradicated in 1834.
Lord Acton, himself a Catholic, wrote in the late 1800s: “The principle of the Inquisition was murderous…. The popes were not only murderers in the great style, but they also made murder a legal basis of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation.”
Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics
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