The Medieval Catholic Inquisition

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

A roving papal Inquisition was set up in 1231 by Pope Gregory IX. He extended existing legislation against heretics and introduced the death penalty for them — indeed for anyone who dissented from his views. Initially intended to be temporary, this Inquisition was used to extirpate surviving Cathars in the Languedoc. Anyone accused or “defamed” was treated as guilty, and no one once defamed got off without some punishment. After 1227 inquisitorial commissions were granted only to the friars, usually to the Dominicans. The Inquisition was now the “Dominican Inquisition”. Dominic Guzmán’s threats of slavery and death for the citizens of the Languedoc were fulfilled for a second time. First the massacres, now the Inquisition. The Bishop of Toulouse marked the canonisation of St Dominic on his first Saint’s Day (4th August 1234) by burning a woman for her Cathar beliefs. She had confessed to him as she lay sick in bed with a fever. She was carried to a field, still on her sickbed, and consigned to the flames, without any trial. The churchmen then repaired for their celebratory banquet, at which they thanked Saint Dominic for his miraculous assistance.

All of the legal apparatus of the Inquisition was developed during this period. Elsewhere, courts followed at least the basic rules of justice: the accused knew their accusers, they were allowed legal representation, in some places judgement was delivered by a jury composed of peers of the accused. The old bishops’ inquisitions had been public hearings, but these papal inquisitions were different: now secret hearings took place before clerical judges and prosecutors. Guilt was assumed from the start. There were no juries, and no legal representation for the accused. There was no habeas corpus; no disclosure of any evidence against the accused, and no appeal. Inquisitors were allowed to excuse each other for breaches of the rules — which meant that in effect there were no rules. There were secret depositions and anonymous accusations, torture and unlimited detention in appalling conditions for those who failed to confess. Dead people were tried along with the living. When found guilty their children were disinherited. At least half the estate generally went to the Church — so that the Church had a direct material interest in a guilty verdict. Children and grandchildren of those found guilty were all debarred from any secular office.

Gregory IX’s immediate successor died before assuming the reins of office, but the next pope, Innocent IV, made the Inquisition into a permanent institution. In 1252 he issued a bull Ad extirpanda, which explicitly authorised the use of torture, seizure of goods and execution, all on minimal evidence. Torture was to be administered by the secular authority, but when this proved impractical the inquisitors were allowed to administer it themselves (and to absolve each other for doing so). Thereafter it was an exceptional man, woman or child who could not quickly be convinced of his or her heresy.

In theory torture could be applied only once, and could not be such as to draw blood, to cause permanent mutilation or to kill. Boys under the age of 14 and girls under 12 were excused. In practice there was no one to enforce any of these safeguards, and they were all ignored. The accused were imprisoned, often for many months, before being examined. They were often kept in solitary confinement, in unsanitary conditions, in a dark dungeon, and without adequate heating, food or water. This was deliberate, and designed to ensure that most of the accused would already have broken by the time of the first examination. Only the strongest characters were able to face a tribunal of hooded figures who claimed to have heard witnesses and seen incriminating evidence. Most were prepared to admit anything, even though they did not know what the accusations were. Those who failed to admit their crimes were taken to the torture chamber and shown the instruments of torture. This too was designed to terrify and break them — the dark chamber, the horrifying instruments, the torturer-executioner dressed and hooded in black. If they still failed to admit their guilt they were then subjected to torture: men, women and children alike. Some people were tortured for years before confessing. Only the most exceptional could resist. Every day they risked being tortured to death.

Tortures varied from time to time and place to place, but the following represent the more popular options. Victims were stripped and bound. The cords were tied around the body and limbs in such a way that they could be tightened, by a windlass if necessary, until they acted like multiple tourniquets. By attaching the cords to a pulley the victim could be hoisted off the ground for hours, then dropped. Whether the victim was pulled up short before the weight touched the floor, or allowed to fall to the floor, the pain was acute. This was the torture of the pulley, also known as squassation }. It was also called the strappado, (by which name we have already encountered it being used at Bamberg). John Howard, the prison reformer, found this still in use in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The rack was a favourite for dislocating limbs. Again, the victim could be flogged, bathed in scalding water with lime, and have their eyes removed with purpose designed eye-gougers. Fingernails were pulled out. Grésillons (thumbscrews) were applied to thumbs and big toes until the bones were crushed. The victim was forced to sit on a spiked iron chair that could be heated by a fire underneath until it glowed red-hot. Branding irons and red-hot pincers were also used. The victim’s feet could be placed in a wooden frame called a boot. Wedges were then hammered in until the bones shattered, and the “blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance”. Alternatively the feet could be held over an open fire, and literally roasted until the bones fell out; or they could be placed in huge leather boots into which boiling water was poured, or in metal boots into which molten lead was poured. Since the holy proceedings were conducted for the greater glory of God the instruments of torture were sprinkled with holy water.

Whole families were accused. Family members would often be induced to incriminate each other in order to minimise the suffering of their loved ones. Minor heretics who confessed might escape with light sentences, whereas denial invited trouble. The inquisitor Conrad of Marburg (or Konrad von Marburg) burned every victim who claimed to be innocent.

Hearings of the Inquisition denied every aspect of natural justice, and became ever more prejudiced as time went on. They were held in secret, generally conducted by men whose identities were concealed. In the Papal States and elsewhere, Dominicans acted as both judges and prosecutors. By papal command they were forbidden to show mercy. There was no appeal. The evidence of embittered husbands and wives, children, servants and persons heretical, excommunicated, perjured and criminal could be used, secretly and without their having to face the accused, their charges being communicated to the victim only in summary form.

No genuine defence could be sustained. For example, if a husband provided an alibi, saying that his wife had been asleep in his arms when she was alleged to have been attending a witches” sabbat, it would be explained to him that a demon had adopted the form of his wife while she was away. The husband had been duped. There was no way for him to prove otherwise. Spies were employed with the incentive of payment by results. Perjury was pardoned if it was the outcome of “zeal for the faith” — i.e. supporting the prosecution. Loyalties were over-ridden so that obedience to a superior was forbidden if it hindered the inquiry, and those who helped the inquisitors were granted the same indulgences as pilgrims to the Holy Land. Any advocates acting for and any witnesses giving evidence on behalf of a suspect laid themselves open to charges of abetting heresy. No one was ever acquitted, a released person always being liable to re-arrest and a condemned person liable to a revised sentence with no retrial, at the discretion of the inquisitor. In theory torture could be inflicted only once, but in practice it was repeated as often as necessary on the pretext that it was a single occurrence, with intervals between the sessions. Confessions were virtually guaranteed unless the victim died under torture. Then came the sentence, and execution of the sentence:

…The obdurate and relapsed were taken outside the church and handed to the magistrates with a recommendation to mercy and instruction that no blood be shed. The supreme hypocrisy of this was that if the magistrate did not burn the victims on the following day, he was himself liable to be charged with abetting heresy.

Almost everyone fell within their jurisdiction. People were executed for failing to fast during Lent, for homosexuality, fornication, explaining scientific discoveries, and even for professional acting.

In order that no blood be shed, the favoured methods of execution did not involve the cutting of flesh. So it was that burning and roasting were popular, the stake having been inherited from Roman law. Estates of those found guilty were forfeit, after the deduction of expenses. Expenses included the costs of the investigation, torture, trial, imprisonment and execution. The accused bore it all, including wine for the guards, meals for the judges, and travel expenses for the torturer. Victims were even charged for the ropes to bind them and the tar and wood to burn them. Generally, after paying these expenses, half of the balance of the estate went to the inquisitors and half to the Pope, or a temporal lord. This proved such an efficient way of raising money that it became popular to try the dead as well as the living. Bones were dug up and burned, even after many years in the grave. As in trials of the living, there were no acquittals, and the heretic’s property was forfeit. In practice this meant that the heirs of the deceased were dispossessed of their inheritances.

More detail, with references and photos at

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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