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What were the Inquisitions?

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The Inquisitions were judicial institutions or tribunals that were established by the Roman Catholic Church in order to seek out, try, and sentence people that the Roman Catholic Church believed to be guilty of heresy. The purpose of the inquisitions was to secure and maintain religious and doctrinal unity in the Roman Catholic Church and throughout the Holy Roman Empire, through either the conversion or persecution of alleged heretics. Historians generally distinguish the Inquisitions based on four different time frames and areas that they took place in. These are the Medieval or Episcopal Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, and the Roman Inquisition.

Prior to the founding of the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of their version of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the punishment for heresy among Christians was usually excommunication from the church. However, with the marriage of church and state that arose in the 4th century, people that the Roman Catholic Church considered to be heretics also came to be considered as enemies of the state and were subject to many forms of extreme punishment, including death. It wasn’t until the 12th century that official Inquisitions were organized and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church to officially deal with what they saw as a rise in organized heretical groups within the Holy Roman Empire.

The first of the Inquisitions is known as the Medieval or Episcopal Inquisition and refers to the various tribunals that started around 1184. It includes the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230) and the Papal Inquisition (1230), which arose in response to large popular movements in Europe that were considered to be heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. It was during this time (1231) that Pope Gregory IX shifted the power to punish heretics away from the local bishops and put the inquisitors under the special jurisdiction and authority of the papacy. He also established severe penalties for those found guilty of committing heresy, and his decree set forth new guidelines for investigating and punishing heresy in the Holy Roman Empire. Generally, when an Inquisition was set up to investigate heresy in a particular area of the Holy Roman Empire, the Pope would appoint two inquisitors, each of which had equal authority in the Inquisition or tribunal. Because these inquisitors had the power to investigate and excommunicate even princes, they wielded enormous power and influence in the Holy Roman Empire.

While some of the inquisitors had reputations as being men of justice and mercy, others were known to subject people to cruel and unusual punishment, including many different kinds of torture, which is what the Inquisitions are generally remembered for. Because they could imprison suspects that they thought were lying, some inquisitors used torture as an attempt to get them to admit what the inquisitor wanted to hear. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV officially sanctioned torture as a way of extracting the “truth” from suspects. Prior to that time, this type of extreme punishment was foreign to church tradition and practice. During the Spanish Inquisition alone, as many as 2,000 people were burned at the stake within one decade after the Inquisition began.

The next major Inquisition period is known as the Spanish Inquisition. It was set up by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1478 with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV. Unlike the previous Inquisition, it was completely under royal authority and was staffed by secular clergy. It mainly focused on Jews who had professed to be converts to Roman Catholicism but who were suspected of having continued to practice Judaism. Later on, with the spread of Protestantism into Spain, the Inquisition would also begin to persecute Protestants who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, after the decline in religious disputes in the 17th century, the Spanish Inquisition essentially became more like a secret police that would investigate and retaliate against internal threats to the Spanish authorities. The Spanish Inquisition is probably the most infamous for its torture and the number of people executed as a result of it. Over the course of its history, the Spanish Inquisition tried more than 341,000 people, of whom about 32,000 were executed.

Another important period is known as the Portuguese Inquisition and was established in Portugal in 1536 by the king of Portugal, João III, and operated much like the more famous Spanish Inquisition. Later, in 1560, in India and other parts of the Portuguese Empire in Asia, the Goa Inquisition was set up in the Indian city of Goa to deal with converts from Hinduism who were suspected of continuing to practice or hold to some Hindu beliefs.

The last period is known as the Roman Inquisition, and it was established in 1542 when Pope Paul III established the Holy Office as the final court of appeals in all trials of heresy. This group was made up of cardinals and other officials whose task was to maintain and defend the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. This group played an important role in the Counter-Reformation, and it was also this body that condemned Galileo for “grave suspicion of heresy” and banned all of his works in 1633 for teaching that the earth and other planets orbited the sun. In 1965, Pope Paul VI reorganized the Holy Office and renamed it as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it remains in effect today.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022