The Catholic Inquisition And Torture

By Dr. Mike Magee | 1 June 2006

(Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr / Public Domain)

The trials were conducted secretly in the presence of a representative of the bishop and of the stipulated number of local laymen. Torture of the accused and his witnesses soon became customary and notorious, despite the long-standing papal condemnation of torture by Nicholas I (858-867). Mere suspicion was enough to warrant it. Pope Innocent IV ultimately permitted torture in cases of heresy as even Jesuits admit, but, as if to suggest it was not that serious, they say it was not a means of punishment but a way of getting the truth, and, to exonerate the pope they claim the idea came from the civil courts. They also want to imply it was not often used because it was seldom mentioned in the records.

Papal decree at first forbade a cleric, being of a holy estate, from being present at the torture. It was done outside the court and so was not in the records. Though the popes at first said that clerics must not be present at torture, Alexander IV and Urban IV said they might be present. Thereafter, everywhere the Inquisitor bent over the writhing victim and shrieked his “Do you confess?” It remained a legal recourse of the church for five centuries until it was abolished by pope Pius VII (1800-23) in 1816.

Torture was habitual and appalling. Confessors, who purported to be the friend and defendant of the accused person, urged the victims not to confess even under torture if the accusation was false. Naturally that earned additional torture until the victim broke down. The confessor then urged the victim to withdraw what had been confessed if it was untrue and merely the result of yielding to pain. The poor victim would then withdraw the confession before the judge and earn a fresh period of “continued” of torture.

Apologists claim that the Inquisition was humanely conducted. Doubtless most of the judges were men of principle, such as it existed, and applied the law correctly, as it stood, but the law was wicked, so what were the judges? This is the Church, the body of Christ, as it likes to maintain. How could a holy body allow even one case of torture, and, having allowed it, how can it try to pretend it never happened, or was humane? Are we to suppose with the Christians that the rack, thumbscrews, strappado and burning coals are “humane?” Savonarola, an orthodox and most pious Puritan, was tortured seven times. The witches of Arras were tortured forty times. Thirty-six Knights Templar—tough soldier monks—died under torture at Paris and twenty-five more at Sens.

Even witnesses, if they could not agree, were tortured until they did, so bringing an accusation could be dodgy in itself. When a death sentence was proclaimed, it was often preceded by torture anyway. Flesh might be torn off with red hot pincers or the right hand would be burnt off. The death penalty was often death by torture. To be broken on the rack, burning alive, and hanging drawing and quartering were all death by torture.

Clerical excuses for torture are that the Church did not start it, that it was not a mode of punishment, but a means of eliciting the truth, it was not allowed for a long time in the ecclesiastical courts, and it was not authorized in the Inquisition until twenty years after it had begun. Innocent IV sanctioned it, in 1252, and Alexander IV confirmed it, in 1259, and Clement IV, in 1265. It was not to cause the loss of life or limb or imperil life. Torture was to applied only once, and not then unless the accused were uncertain in his statements, and seemed already virtually convicted by manifold and weighty proofs. Quaestio was to be deferred as long as possible, and until all other expedients were exhausted. Conscientiousness and sensible judges quite properly attached no great importance to confessions extracted by torture. Ignoring all the evidence that torture was used often, the revisionists cite the experienced inquisitor, Eymeric, who declared: “torture is deceptive and ineffectual”.

In the beginning, torture was held to be so odious that clerics were forbidden to be present under pain of irregularity. In 1260, Alexander IV authorized inquisitors to absolve one another of this irregularity. Urban IV, in 1262, confirmed it, and it was taken as formal licence to examine heretics in the torture chamber, as inquisitors’ manuals noted.

Clement V said that the accused must be tortured only once, but this was circumvented:

1. by assuming that with every new piece of evidence the rack could be utilized afresh,
2. by imposing fresh torments on the victim, often on different days, not repeated but continued.

So, those who retracted a confession given under torture could have it continued, not repeated! All over Christendom the inquisitors found that no one—popes among them—would object if it were “continued”, on the next day and as many days as they thought fit. Did a pope rebuke or check them?

Furthermore, Clement had spoken only of the accused, so the inquisitors concluded they were free to torture witnesses to make them denounce people for as long and as harshly as they liked. A witness might be put upon the rack at the discretion of the inquisitor. Moreover, if the accused was convicted through witnesses, or had pleaded guilty, the torture might still he used to compel him to testify against his friends and fellow-culprits.

It would be opposed to all Divine and human equity to inflict torture unless the judge were personally persuaded of the guilt of the accused.

This shows that the inquisitors had the fate of everyone at their whim. To be “personally persuaded” of someone’s guilt allowed the judge to use whatever means were needed to elicit a confession. Little reliance may be placed upon the assertion so often repeated in the minutes of trials:

The confession was true and free. Sine torturae et extra locum torturae—without torture and outside the torture chamber.

Careless recorders would show it to be false by writing that a victim “freely” confessed after being taken down from the rack. Joseph Blötzer, admits that when torture is not mentioned in the records of a trial, it is not safe to assume it was not used. Since torture was inflicted outside the court room by lay officials, and since only the voluntary confession was valid before the judges, there was no occasion to mention in the records the fact of torture. Clement V ordained that inquisitors should not apply the torture without the consent of the diocesan bishop.

Some Christian apologists try to say that the popes did their best to check the excessive zeal of inquisitors, even though it was the popes themselves who introduced it. From the middle of the thirteenth century, popes ceased to condemn torture itself, but tried to restrict its use. Who would be judging the severity of the torture? Nothing compels the belief that their calls for restriction had any effect. The severity of torture remained in many cases extreme.

The revisionists claim that torture was most cruelly used, where the inquisitors were most exposed to the pressure of civil authority. Frederick II, though always boasting of his zeal for the purity of the faith, abused both rack and Inquisition to put out of the way his personal enemies. The tragical ruin of the Templars is ascribed to the abuse of torture by Philip the Fair and his henchmen. Blessed Joan of Arc could not have been sent to the stake as a heretic and a recalcitrant, if her judges had not been tools of English policy. And the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition are largely due to the fact that in its administration civil purposes overshadowed the ecclesiastical.

Much of this apology is just a refusal to say what a curious expression, often translated literally from medieval Latin, meant.

Since the Church can no farther punish his misdeeds, she leaves him to the civil authority.

Seems like Pontius Pilate washing his hands. The Church just washes its hands of an intransigent sinner. In truth, it was turning the victim over to the civil authorities for them to do what the clerics themselves baulked at, even in those days—murdering the victim. Because the prelates did not dirty their own hands with torture and judicial murder but left it to the secular arm, and because they knew there was no advantage in some cases of age and extreme poverty, and so the punishments were commuted or mitigated, the revisionists boast that:

On the whole, the Inquisition was humanely conducted.
Joseph Blötzer, Catholic Encyclopedia

It leaves a feeling of nausea that anyone today can claim such a criminal and evil institution as the Inquisition could be described as humane. Even if there had not been a single victim of torture in 500 years, the very purpose of it was to terrify whole populations into submission. To do it, it had to have a reputation for cruelty, so it was cruel!

The consuls of Carcassonne in 1286 complained to the pope, the King of France, and the vicars of the local bishop against the inquisitor Jean Garland, whom they charged with inflicting torture in an absolutely inhuman manner, and this charge was no isolated one. The case of Savonarola has never been altogether cleared up in this respect. The official report says he had to suffer the pulley (strappado). When Alexander VI (1492-1503) showed discontent with the delays of the trial, the Florentine government excused itself by urging that Savonarola was a man of extraordinary sturdiness and endurance, and that he had been vigorously tortured on many days—the papal protonotary, Burchard, says seven times—but with little effect.

Officially it was not the Church that sentenced unrepenting heretics to death, more particularly to the stake. The convicted heretic was referred to the civil magistrate with a bogus plea for mercy. If mercy were ever given, the secular magistrate would be brought before the tribunal as a heretic himself.

Four years into his pontificate, Gregory IV gave the opinion, then prevalent among lawyers, that heresy should be punished with death, seeing that it was confessedly no less serious an offence than high treason. The Church had the exclusive right to decide in matters of heresy but it was not her office to pronounce sentence of death. The Church, thenceforth, expelled from her bosom the impenitent heretic, whereupon the state took over the duty of his temporal punishment. Frederick II, in his Constitution of 1224, says that heretics convicted by an ecclesiastical court shall, on imperial authority, suffer death by fire, and similarly in 1233. Gregory IX therefore is considered to have avoided any share either directly or indirectly in the death of condemned heretics. Not so the succeeding popes. In 1252, Innocent IV says:

When those adjudged guilty of heresy have been given up to the civil power by the bishop or his representative, or the Inquisition, the chief magistrate of the city shall take them at once, and shall, within five days at the most, execute the laws made against them.

His bull “Ad Exstirpanda” and the corresponding regulations of Frederick II had to be entered in every city among the municipal statutes under pain of excommunication, which was also visited on those who failed to execute both the papal and the imperial decrees.

This bull remained a fundamental document of the Inquisition, renewed or reinforced by several popes, Alexander IV (1254-61), Clement IV (1265-68), Nicholas IV (1288-02), Boniface VIII (1294-1303), and others. The civil authorities, therefore, were enjoined by the popes, under pain of excommunication to execute the legal sentences that condemned impenitent heretics to the stake. If someone was excommunicated and did not get it lifted within a year, they were legally heretical, and incurred all the penalties that affected heresy.

There was a political reason when popes restrained the local zeal of the Inquisition anywhere. After Gregory IX had succeeded in having the secular authorities adopt the death sentence for heresy everywhere, in face of the horrible death in front of them, many victims now confessed, and they were imprisoned for life.

Revisionists say that imprisonment, immuration or incarceration, was not punishment, but an opportunity for repentance, or to keep people away from the “infection” of heresy. It was inflicted for a definite time or for life. It was quite a humane business on the whole, they say. They often had good cheer, saw their friends, and so on. Immuration for life was the lot of those who had failed to profit by the aforesaid term of grace, or had perhaps recanted only from fear of death, or had once before abjured heresy.

The king of France, who had no tenderness for heretics, forced the pope to interfere with his inquisitors in the south of France for the barbarity of their prisons. Hundreds died in them. The reason was that the common sentence was “most strict prison”—close and solitary confinement on bread and water, in the foulest dungeons conceivable, often in irons or chained to the prison wall. The dungeon or cell was the tomb of a man buried alive. The prison cells were supposed to be kept sufficiently clean and bearable as not to endanger the life nor the health of occupants, but their true condition was often deplorable:

The unfortunates were bound in stocks or chains, unable to move about, and forced to sleep on the ground… There was little regard for cleanliness. In some cases there was no light or ventilation, and the food was meagre and very poor.

People bound in stocks and chains could not get up to go to the lavatory, so the reference to “little regard for cleanliness” meant they were laying in their own excrement. Some were treated better. Money will buy comforts and privileges in most places and rich heretics got less strict conditions, but even they could not buy luxury.

Without trial, on the mere denunciation of two men who might be enemies or tortured witnesses or men bribed to bring about the confiscation of their property, they have, for a “heresy” which they have abjured, if it ever existed, lost all their property, seen wife and children reduced to beggary, and been imprisoned for life.

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 1 – Root Out Heretics

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 2 – Tears of Spain

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 3 – War on Ideas

Secret Files of the Inquisition – part 4 – End of Inquisition

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