10 Facts About the Inquisitions | History Hit

10 Facts About the Inquisitions

Jessica Dalton

13 Jan 2021
St. Dominic Presiding at an Auto-da-Fé, panel by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1503. (Image Credit: Prado Museum, P00618Archivo Mas, Barcelona / Public Domain).


1. There was more than one inquisition

People often speak of The Inquisition. There were, in fact, several. All had the same fundamental aim: to find and investigate those whose beliefs seemed to deviate from the teachings of the Catholic Church. However, they were run by different people, in different places and targeted different groups.

Not all inquisitions were run by the pope and his delegates. The Spanish Inquisition was established by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella between 1478 and 1480. In 1536, King João III of Portugal founded his own inquisition, which also had a tribunal in his colony of Goa. The medieval inquisitions in France and Italy were overseen by bishops and religious orders answerable to the popes.

Only the Roman Inquisition, founded in 1542, was supervised by men appointed directly by the pope. And even the Roman Inquisition was an umbrella organisation that sought, and often failed, to direct multiple tribunals across Italy.

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2. Inquisitors had different targets

We might associate inquisitions with heresy but in reality the inquisitors had many different targets. In 13th-century France, Pope Innocent III charged inquisitors to root out the Cathars or Albigensians, who were deemed heretics for practicing an ascetic form of Christianity that deviated from traditional teachings about the nature of God.

In Spain, on the other hand, the inquisition was founded to find Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity but secretly practiced their old religion. The Spanish monarchs forced all non-Christians to convert or leave Spain. Yet they feared that many had converted falsely. These conversos were also the main target of the Portuguese Inquisition.

3. The aim of the inquisitions was to convert, not to kill

Although the inquisitions quickly won a reputation for violence, their main aim was to convert people to their way of thinking, not to execute them. It was for this reason that inquisitors questioned their suspects about their beliefs carefully, before outlining where they deviated from orthodox Christian teachings. If the accused recanted and pledged to remain true to orthodox teaching, he or she was generally given light penances, such as prayers, and allowed to leave.

It was only when a man or woman relapsed that they would be condemned to a more violent punishment, like rowing in the galleys or even execution. The inquisitors’ main aim was to convert people and stop them from spreading beliefs that, in their view, would condemn them and others to an eternity in hell.

4. Torture was used, sparingly

Contrary to legend, most inquisitors were advised to use torture sparingly, especially in the later tribunals like the Roman Inquisition. By the 16th century it was clear that torture led to false confessions and, even worse from the inquisitors’ perspective, false conversions. Inquisitors’ manuals and correspondence often advised that violent methods of extracting information should be avoided or kept to an absolute minimum.

Whilst some inquisitors deviated from these regulations, many historians believe that the later inquisitions had a greater respect for human rights than their secular counterparts.

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition

Etching of the inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. (Image Credit: Wellcome Images, Photo number: V0041650 / CC).

5. People DID expect the inquisition

Though Monty Python claimed that the element of surprise was key to the work of the Spanish Inquisition, most inquisitors announced their arrival with a poster or Edict of Grace. These documents were displayed in public places, such as on the doors of large churches, and warned locals that there was a new inquisitor in town.

The edicts called upon heretics and others who had deviated from the faith to present themselves to the tribunal immediately. Those who did so would be guaranteed lighter punishments. The edicts also called upon locals to hand over prohibited books and reveal any religious rebels in their midst.

6. The inquisitors sought to remedy their bad reputation

From the earliest days, inquisitors had a bad reputation, caused by overzealous and poorly regulated tribunals, and the violent public punishments that took place in the medieval period and under the Spanish Inquisition. As the tribunals relied on people turning in themselves or their neighbours, this fear was a real obstacle to their work.

In 16th-century Italy, one inquisitorial edict sought to assuage concerns, assuring locals that the inquisitors desired ‘the salvation of souls not the death of men’. Elsewhere, inquisitors collaborated with groups that had less a fearsome reputation, like the recently established Society of Jesus.

7. As times changed, so did the inquisitors’ targets

When the Protestant Reformation sparked a wave of new Christian beliefs and sects across Europe, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions began to pursue more heretics, as well as conversos.

Later, as the threat of Protestantism waned in Italy, the Roman Inquisition shifted its focus to other deviations from the faith. In the 17th century, Italian tribunals still questioned men and women accused of Protestant heresy but they also investigated other religious rebels, like bigamists and blasphemers.

Galileo before the Holy Office - Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury 1847

A 19th-century depiction of Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 1847 (Image Credit: Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury / Public Domain).

8. Most inquisitions did not stop their work until the 19th century

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions operated until the early 19th century. By that time, the jurisdiction of the Spanish Inquisition had diminished considerably and it mainly concerned itself with censoring books.

The last person executed by the Spanish Inquisition was Cayetano Ripoll, a teacher in Valencia. In 1826, he was hanged for denying Catholic teachings and encouraging his students to follow suit. By 1834, the Spanish Inquisition had been disbanded.

9. The papal inquisition still exists today

The Roman Inquisition, run by the popes, was never formally closed. That said, when the disparate states of Italy were united in the late 19th century, it lost control of the local tribunals.

In 1965, the central tribunal in Rome was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Today it is responsible for defining Catholic teachings when they are challenged by new doctrines and investigating priests and prelates who have committed crimes against the faith and minors.

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10. The inquisition has been key to anti-Catholic legends, which continue to shape perceptions

The inquisitions have long been preceded by their reputation. Over the years, films, books and plays have highlighted and even exaggerated the darkest aspects of the inquisitors’ work. From Gothic novels to Monty Python, the Black Legend of the Inquisition is still powerful. Even if most inquisitors deserved a reputation that was more grey than black or white.

Jessica Dalton