The Inquisition: An Atheist Perspective

This lecture will discuss some of the reasons for the Inquisition, an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Catholic Church, first established formally between 1227 and 1233, during the pontificate of Gregory IX.  It will discuss the three main divisions of the Inquisition, which was never a secular institution, although we shall see the role the secular authorities played in carrying out the sentences of the condemned. We shall also see how the Inquisition in Spain was under the control of the monarchy rather than the Pope.

There was the Medieval Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, which ultimately spread to Portugal and other areas as well, and the Roman Inquisition, which was the one that ensnared Galileo. (Please see the text and link to the lecture titled The Conflict between Science and Religion, Part 1 for a more thorough discussion on the trial of Galileo.) There were smaller tributaries of the Inquisition, as well, such as the witch hunts in Europe and America, (see The Devil, Part 2) and the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar which are beyond the scope of this lecture.

When Pope Urban II launched the first Holy Crusade in 1096, which was supposed to reconquer Jerusalem, it was the beginning of an era of economic change, warfare and social upheaval that radically altered medieval Europe.

Here is R.W. Southern on the situation: “The secular ruler had been demoted from his position of quasi-sacerdotal splendor, the pope had assumed a new power of intervention and direction in both spiritual and secular affairs, the Benedictine Rule had lost its monopoly on the religious life, an entirely new impetus had been given to law and theology, and several important steps had been taken towards understanding and even controlling the physical world.

The accelerated rate of economic development was in the background to all these changes, and it grew substantially with the creation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which opened a closed feudal society to new trade routes.  Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, these trade routes overflowing with commercial goods, also opened the way for the incursion of Eastern heresies, or what the Church considered heresies.  These ideas were simply different interpretations of traditional scripture and doctrine concerning the nature of god and so on.  From about 1150 on, a flood of heresies helped define the 12th Century.  The Church was under threat to its power and authority and responded with ever more rigorous, cruel, and ultimately well organized efforts to eliminate these heresies.

The Church itself was partially responsible for the popularity of heretical ideas and movements.  Its clergy had grown corrupt and avaricious.  People felt the need of some sort of moral guidance in those troubled times and did not find the clergy adequate.  Pope Innocent III’s opening address to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 affirmed that the corruption of the common people stemmed from the poor example of the clergy. 

Some of the priests actually opened taverns, using the clerical collar as an inn sign; others sold holy oil, relics and indulgences. There were married priests or priests who openly kept concubines.  The Council of Paris, 1209, forbade the populace to attend such clergies’ masses. That same council talked about nuns organizing parties and wandering the streets at night.  Many of the clergy hunted, gambled and engaged in heavy drinking.  Apparently many of both sexes in Holy Orders freely took lovers.

The most significant sect to threaten the monolithic Church was that of the Cathars, similar to the earlier Gnostic heresy we discussed in The Devil, Part Two on Scholars have determined that Cathar beliefs had come from the Eastern Bogomils, whose leader, Peter Bogomil (927- 969,) spoke for the peasants against the Tsar.  His church spread quickly to the West.  Strictly speaking, the Cathars were not really Christians, as they believed in a corrupt god who had created the material world and a good god who had created the immaterial one.  Such a dualistic doctrine terrified the Church, which had earlier been significantly challenged by similar Gnostic convictions.  The Church had enormous difficulty with the problem of explaining the existence of evil, both physical and moral, in a world which was presided over by an all powerful, all loving god.  Personally, I have always thought Gnostic mythology more salient than Christian mythology.  So did many people in medieval times.

The Cathars were very powerful and organized in some areas of France and Italy by the beginning of the 13th century.  They were divided into dioceses, with bishops and deacons, and had their own ceremonies and sacraments. 

The highest order in their church was that of the “perfecti,” who ate no meat or diary food and were celibate.  Many of them traveled with an escort, preaching and making converts where they could.

A second substantial threat to the Church was the Waldensian heresy. This group was made up of Christian fundamentalists who criticized the growing wealth, corruption and secularism of the Church.  Together, the Cathars and the Waldensians created a significant threat and alternative to the Church because their criticisms of it were true and very damaging.

There was widespread belief in magic by the general populace as well, and lack of church attendance.  Indeed many people in various regions had no priest and only heard Mass when their area Bishop visited them from time to time.  People underwent baptism and revered the communion host for the magical powers they believed such sacraments contained.  Peasants were skeptical about the virgin birth of Jesus, and other unnatural events, such as the putative resurrection of Jesus.

When Innocent III became Pope in 1198, he faced looming threats from the encroachment of Islam after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, and from heresy. Not only were the Cathars in Southern France and the Waldensians active and spreading, but so was the preaching of Joachim da Fiore (Died 1202.) Fiore was a popular, charismatic mystic who preached, among other things, a coming age when the Church would not be needed.

The stage was set for the formal inquisition, which had existed earlier, but in a disorganized and haphazard manner.

Two determinants were necessary for a powerful and effective inquisition and both elements came together at this time: the founding of the Mendicant orders and the Albigensian Crusade.  In 1206, the Pope allowed the founding of the Dominican Order, which lived on donations and by so-called begging.  In 1210, the Pope gave Francis of Assisi permission to found a preaching order, also mendicant.  Both orders were supposed to preach against heresy.  But as Maisonneuve has stated: “…preaching tends naturally toward inquisition.”  The Dominicans and Franciscans were most useful for an inquisition, as they were mobile and could travel to some areas with relative ease.  The Dominicans were the foremost inquisitors of the Medieval Inquisition, with the Franciscans not far behind.  Both orders were active in the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions as well.  When a young girl, I was educated by Dominican nuns, who were smart and worldly and encouraged women to pursue careers.  I never heard one word about the activity of the Order during the Inquisitions.  It saddens me personally to learn about the dark history of the Order through several centuries, from its very founding.

In 1208, Peter of Castlenau, a papal legate, was murdered in the area of Languedoc in Southern France, where the Cathars were very strong and entrenched.  Secular lords saw a wonderful opportunity to conduct a crusade without the expense and time of going overseas.  Albi was a city where many Cathars had gathered- that is why the Crusade bears the name, the Albigensian Crusade.  Languedoc relied on mercenary troops, which were no match for Raymond, Viscount of Beziers and Raymond VI of Toulouse. 

City after city fell to the so-called crusaders and at Beziers, 7,000 people were massacred and the cathedral destroyed at the command of the brutal Simon of Montfort. Cathar lands had been promised to those who conquered the Cathars and Simon was the biggest landholder in Languedoc when he died. The Albigensian Crusade was originally supposed to be a forty day expedition, but it dragged on for twenty years.  The violence perpetrated was described by the Church as an act of love, based on profound Christian charity.  Ironically, the brutality of this persecution of the Cathars had the effect of scattering many of the so-called heretics to other important cities and regions, such as Poland, Bohemia, and North and Central Italy.  But ultimately the mendicant orders became more efficient, and the church bureaucracy well-organized. The Cathars were effectively wiped out by about 1325.

There was one last element to be put into place for a truly organized Inquisition:  Church doctrine had to be solidified and that was achieved in 1215 at the important Fourth Lateran Council.  Four hundred Bishops and 800 abbots attended, along with representatives of most of the rulers of Western Christendom.  The Council repeated the traditional Church faith and also made it an obligation for both sexes to make a confession to their parish priest and to receive Holy Communion once a year, at Easter.  It also laid out, in clause after clause, the ways the traditional faith was erroneously interpreted by heretics, especially Cathar heretics.  A third canon issued by the Council was devoted to the suppression of heresy.

One can perceive how the full Inquisition ultimately came into being, with a ferocity and ability to pursue heretics across Europe. 

The procedures of early inquisitors, such as the infamous Conrad of Marburg, Robert le Bougre and Peter of Verona demonstrate that they lacked precise and pragmatic instructions. After having committed atrocity after atrocity on lesser citizens, Conrad went after the fortune of a wealthy lord, Count Henry of Sayn, in 1233, accusing him of heresy. An inquiry made up of influential people decided the lord was innocent, but the fierce Conrad demanded the judgment be overturned. When his demands were ignored, he left. Five days later, in apparent retaliation, he was found murdered on the road along with his Franciscan assistant. Kings and bishops in the Rhineland had feared for their lives when this man came into their region. He had condemned and burned citizens in a seeming frenzy.  Such lack of restraint and method needed a remedy.  Inquisitors, many in the Church believed, needed uniform instructions and restraints. Instruction was also important for the training of new inquisitors.

The difficulty of training inexperienced inquisitors was remedied by two early manuals, the 1242 Directory by St. Raymond of Penafort and the 1244 The Processus Inquisitionist (Capitals mine) written by Bernard of Caux and John of St. Pierre.  Later works were elaborations on these two shorter manuals.  I would like to give an overview of the ten sections of the Directory, because it was a model for most of the manuals and laid out the terms, definitions, and treatment of heretics, the largest target of the Medieval Inquisition.  I am dependent on Burman’s The Inquisition for this list.

Section One defines heretics: they are people who listen to the sermons of Cathars and those who believe Cathars are good men. 

Also on the suspected list are people called concealers, who hide or see heretics and don’t report them, people who actually conceal Cathars in their own homes, defenders of Cathars in any way, and also, and this was very important, people who renounced heretical practices and then returned to them.  Why this was important was that some of the most egregious punishments were meted out to those who returned to heresy after renouncing it.  It could earn burning at the stake.

The second section simply states that any of the transgressors who are accused of engaging in the practices listed in Section One will be excommunicated and will have to disprove the heresy charges in a year’s time.  They will also have to perform the prescribed penances if judged as heretics. Section Three states that heretics who refuse to repent will be handed over to the secular authorities for either prison or burning at the stake.  The civil authorities actually carried out all executions of the Inquisition, so it could not be claimed the Church was responsible for murder.  There is more on the formulary for the words heretics who wished to abjure should use in Section Four.  Section Five gives the words to be used by heretics doing public penance and Six the formula for a witness to swear that he firmly believes the accused was never a Cathar.  Seven is chilling- it calls for suspected Cathars buried in cemeteries or suspects who died during inquisition to be disinterred and burned.  This was frequently carried out.  It gave people the message that one was never safe from the long arm of the Inquisition, even in death.  Property could be confiscated as well, and the heretic’s heirs would not inherit.

Eight and Nine specify that priests must write out heard confessions of heretics and turn them over to the Bishop, and all suspects must publicly renounce their heresy and are then immune from further punishments.  The last, the Tenth Section, details a list of penances, such as people having to wear two crosses perpetually, of a color distinct from the other colors of their clothes, the obligation to keep Lent for ten years and so on.  The colored cross penance was often disastrous for citizens.  They were isolated from their community, finding it almost impossible to get employment or business, to get help to work for them, and for their children to make decent marriages.  Medieval societies were tightly knit, and such isolating punishments were more terrible than the modern mind first suspects.

The manual, Processus Inquisitionis, details how to record the sessions, confessions and punishments, methods of summoning suspects, the normal legal procedures used by officers, days when penances should be performed, more obsession with already buried bodies not escaping and so forth.  It is fascinating to see the clever wickedness of the Church in this manual.  After a suspect has confessed and reconciled himself to the Church, he is supposed to take himself to the prison.  In this way, it could be claimed that the Church never imprisoned anyone, just as it could be claimed that it had never executed anyone. Torturers also received absolution in advance.

But for those of us in the present day, the real point of the manuals is a glimpse of how the process of the Inquisition became a legal procedure, with clear and detailed protocols for the inquisitors.

Eventually a very efficient and extensive archive was developed which made it almost impossible to escape after a person entered the Inquisition’s records.  Inquisitors had enormous powers and also the right to sell the goods confiscated from putative heretics.  Such authority obviously opened the way for corruption and venality.  I am taking time, with the detailing of the Inquisition’s legal processes, to establish the fact that many contemporary historians have noted: the Inquisition functioned as a highly efficient bureaucracy, with informers, surveillance, clerks, record keepers, and procedural techniques.  It lasted almost seven hundred years in its different manifestations and with different targets, keeping such extraordinary records that historians have learned many details of everyday life  in the past through examining the inquisitors’ and their clerks’ minute observations. The Nazis of the 20th Century were not the first ones to be efficient killing machines.  God’s Jury was the first and the prototype for the future.

It is important to remember that the inquisitor was both prosecutor and judge.  The accused was not informed of the charges against him, or who his accuser was.  Torture was supposed to be used only once; but that injunction was often subverted by the continuance of a session, so in reality the torture could be used for many sessions.  People were encouraged to turn in their neighbors and acquaintances for heresy; accused heretics were often the targets of old grudges and offenses.  Once a person confessed, they were encouraged, no really forced, to incriminate others.

I do not want to linger too long on the methods of torture; they have been described all too well in other histories of the Inquisition and are readily found on the Web.

But I will enumerate the usual process. At first inquisitors did not have the right to torture suspects, but in 1256, Pope Alexander IV gave them the right to absolve each other and give their colleagues dispensations.

 Initially suspects were given a look at the instruments of torture, what the contemporary philosopher, Michel Foucault, called the first degree of torture.  This sight often elicited confessions of heresy.  There were six main instruments: the ordeal of water, very similar to our contemporary water boarding, the ordeal of fire (grease was usually put on the soles of the feet and fire applied to them,) the strappado- being dropped from a height while bound by the arms, causing dislocations, the wheel, with the prisoner tied to a large cartwheel and his body battered with hammers, and the rack, where a prisoner’s body would be stretched to breaking.  The stivaletto was a vicious boot type of torture that could result in permanent disablement.  That great historian of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea, has said that the “whole system of the Inquisition was such as to render the resort to torture inevitable.” Most historians believe that the Medieval Inquisition used torture fully as much as the Spanish Inquisition did in the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

Once the prisoner confessed, the secret process became public.  Minor offenses received sentences of prayer, pilgrimages, and various other disciplines, as well as fasting and fines.  Wearing the two crosses, usually yellow and never on yellow clothes, was a severe punishment in medieval society, as we mentioned earlier, as people were afraid of associating with a person convicted of being a former heretic. Life in prison usually meant only three or four years, as there were not enough facilities to hold so many prisoners.   

If sentenced to an ordinary prison and not a dungeon, the prisoners could talk, exercise and so on.  They could also receive gifts of food and other commodities by simply bribing the guards.  The dungeons usually meant being chained by the hands and feet.  Confiscation of the property of heretics was common.  Often, too, the homes of convicted heretics were destroyed.  When a person was arrested, their property was usually confiscated before conviction, especially if they were wealthy.

Burning at the stake was the sentence imposed on an unrepentant heretic.  It was most frequently used on unrepentant or relapsed heretics.  As Lea noted, condemning a prisoner to be burned at the stake by the secular authorities was an act of desperation.  Lea explains that once a prisoner admitted his/her heresy, defended it and refused to recant, the inquisitors were forced, by their very systems and thought processes, to bind the heretic over to be executed.

This spectacle, the burning of heretics, was truly an impressive and frightening public ceremony, staged on Sundays or important feast days.  Not only live heretics were burned, but also the bones of dead ones.  The Church wanted to impress on the populace that dead heretics had no place in their community, that they even polluted Christian grave yards.  Book burning began to take place, although on a smaller scale than in later centuries. The Spanish Inquisition burned books, but books did not become an important target until the Roman Inquisition.  Sometimes there were mass burnings.  Religion and religious ideology began the heinous process of arrest, torture and punish. In later centuries, we have seen secular societies follow suit.

Interestingly enough, after the end of the Cathar heresy, largely conquered by 1325 and totally finished by about 1370, the emphasis of the Medieval Inquisition shifted rather than ended.  It had become an institution of great efficiency, with a long reach across Europe.  The shift in emphasis was toward posthumous convictions of suspected heretics and confiscations of the wealth of both living and dead heretics.  The Church made a fine income from confiscations.  The Church at this time also began to turn on itself- the mass burnings of the Order of the Knights Templar, most likely hated for its power and wealth, were likely brought about by false charges.  The Order was destroyed and its wealth confiscated.  Other orders and church men were condemned by the Medieval Inquisition, which came to an end by the middle of the 14th Century.

The secular powers had found such a loyal and efficient police organization a great benefit, and after a while, many secular princes co-opted the Inquisition for their own ends, destroying powerful rivals and families.  But by the middle of the 14th Century, trials of ordinary people fell off dramatically.  Burman tells us that in 1461, the inquisitor at Bologna was sent to Rome to teach theology because his inquisitorial services were never required. When Martin Luther’s effigy and books were burned in Rome in 1521, there was no inquisitor at the dramatic event.  We have seen, in the lecture The Devil, Part 2 on, the shift to trials and burnings for witchcraft and sorcery at a later period, but that shift was not part of the Medieval Inquisition as most scholars have defined it. The Medieval Inquisition was effectively over, but its methods, manuals, techniques and bureaucratic efficiency were established and used in the second part of its long history, during the Spanish Inquisition.

The Medieval Inquisition had not been severe in Spain, but in 1478, Spain itself underwent a series of changes, and these changes contributed to the formation of the Spanish Inquisition, a ferocious, efficient institution, which lasted over 350 years.  This particular persecution centered mainly on Jewish converts to Christianity, who were generally falsely accused of having secretly reverted to Judaic faith and practices.  It also persecuted, although to a much lesser extent, Muslims who had converted and then covertly returned to Islam.

The Spanish Inquisition, from its very inception, was under the auspices of Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen.  Originally medieval Spain offered great religious tolerance. Its Jewish community had thrived and many of its citizens had become prominent members of Spanish society.  Their rise created envy and dislike among the old Christian aristocracy.  In 1235, Jews were made to wear a yellow patch for easy identification, and in 1391, there was a huge outbreak of massacres of Jews, with 4,000 people killed in Seville alone. At that time, tens of thousands of Jews converted to Christianity to avoid being murdered by mobs.  The old Christian aristocracy had doubted the sincerity of the conversions from the first.  But Jewish converts intermarried with Spaniards at all social levels and also achieved financial success and social success in Spain, as well as important positions.

Ferdinand and Isabella wanted to, and did, unify Spain into one country, but unfortunately they desired to achieve religious conformity in Spain as well.  They were also responding to a deep fear that converts who had been forced to convert would contaminate the entire Christian faith.

 In 1492, the year Columbus sailed for America, with considerable sums from Jewish investors, Spain took Granada back and exiled the Muslim Sultans.  Ferdinand and Isabella set their royal house up in Granada, a symbolic gesture celebrating the end of centuries of Muslim rule in that part of Spain.  The monarchs felt they no longer needed Jewish financial help and suddenly gave all the Jews of Spain four months to either convert to Christianity or leave the country.  The figures are not exact, but historians place the number of Jews who left Spain between 165,000 and 400,000.  About 50,000 people decided to stay.  Those who left had to pay exorbitant taxes to the Port Authorities on departure.  Columbus saw many of the Jews leaving and described it as a scene of misery.  Shortly came the announcement of Columbus’ discovery of America, and the opening of the New World helped Spain become wealthy.  But we shall see later in this lecture how the expulsion of the Jews contributed to the decline of Spain and its economy as well as its culture in the long run.

As I mentioned, Ferdinand and Isabella were at the head of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Pope allowed it to be placed outside papal jurisdiction.  The Council of the Inquisition was called the Suprema, which was run by the Inquisitor General.  The first and positively the most terrible Inquisitor General was Torquemada, who created the first rules. He was a Dominican.  Generally, however, the Spanish Inquisition used the same methods and techniques formulated by the Medieval one.  There was an important exception, however.  The Spanish Inquisition was much more efficient than the previous one, much larger and kept much better records, even down to the minutest details of the interrogations.  The man power involved in that institution was enormous.

 There were the permanent and temporary tribunals, with huge staffs to aid the two inquisitors of each tribunal. The entourage usually consisted of a constable, assessors of the evidence, and a prosecuter, plus gaolers, chaplains, clerks and notaries. There were, in addition, men called familiars, 805 of them in Granada and 1,009 in Seville by the 16th Century. They were spies and informers for the Inquisition, lawless and irresponsible. They usually offended more by their great numbers than by their actions.  Such posts could be bought and sold and some were hereditary.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of, this huge organization, the Inquisition often only managed to break even.  This is a remarkable fact, because the organization collected vast sums from confiscations and investments.  The inquisitors had free room and board and especially low prices on food if they needed to purchase any.  But the huge entourages they maintained as they travelled ate up money.  The Spanish Inquisition was never profitable.  It is gratifying to contemplate its lack of profitability.  But its cruelty and ferocity were legendary.  Needless to say, the Spanish Inquisition caused thousands of deaths, great suffering, and often contributed to adverse economic effects in Spain.  By about 1490, some historians say 2,000 people were executed and by 1520, 4,000.  After that, the burnings declined. 

But let us not forget that the French Inquisitor, Nicholas Remy, was said to have had 800 women burned in one day during the witch hunts.  After a while we are left with a sickening feeling when confronted with facts from the various Inquisitions and we almost lose the ability to be shocked at the number of executions.  Some revisionists say only 3,000 people were burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition.  Only 3,000?! Is that not enough?  People were also sentenced to the galleys, rather than prison.  Eventually ships were huge floating prisons, with plenty of cheap labor for the country.

The late Benzion Netanyahu was a well known historian. His 1995 book on the Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain is his best known work.  In this work, he vehemently contradicts the romanticized version of the Jewish conversos clinging to their Jewish faith and claims that story was completely untrue.  Very few conversos secretly practiced their original Jewish faith. The rabbis in North Africa railed against the converted Jews in Spain, calling them wicked and faithless.

Netanyahu charges that the Spanish Inquisition was not about religion but toward the Jews as people.  It was racist, according to the professor.  He argues that the Christians resented the high stations the conversos had reached.  These former Jews served in public offices with great distinction, which they were allowed to do as they were now Christian.  And being Christian, they could not really be attacked on the grounds of religion.  Netanyahu believes they were attacked on the grounds of impurity of blood.  Finally, according to the professor, Ferdinand, the King, saw a fine political opportunity in siding with the old Christian aristocracy and also a chance to strip the new Christians of their wealth. 

Henry Kamen, who is not Jewish, but Southeast Asian, and a fine historian of the Inquisition, does not agree with Netanyahu’s theory.  He does concur that most conversos did not practice the Jewish faith secretly.  He believes the Spanish Inquisition, except for savage officials such as Torquemada, was not worse than the other Inquisitions.  It was, he says, always understaffed, and not very wealthy.  The infamous auto da fes dramatized in paintings and books were relatively rare. 

In the end, Kamen maintains, the Spanish Inquisition was a means of making a living for many people, and it became an institution like other ones- mindless, operating out of sheer inertia, frequently heedless of consequences and often manipulated by other forces.  Kamen maintains that in some way, its plodding continuation is part of its horror.  But he feels that it was not particularly about religion.  I cannot agree.  Many Spanish monarchs, as well as the Church, in Spain were fanatical on questions of faith.  Ferdinand and Isabella were not only politically and economically motivated to found an Inquisition, but religiously driven as well.

Kamen points out that most of the conversos in Spain were not particularly wealthy, and that the Crown did not gain much from the expulsion of the Jews.  Most of the wealthy Jews were allowed to leave with their assets.  He has discovered that the blood purity discrimination came about after the Inquisition was established.  Kamen believes that all police bodies operate in the same way- repressively.  They are created to produce fear, he claims.  From the Inquisitions to the Gestapo and so forth, Kamen states that all of them are alike. 

So he believes that the real question must be, and I quote: “…why these bodies are allowed to exist.” He thinks that if a country such as Spain allowed a repressive body like the Inquisition to exist for nearly 400 years, it is not because the Inquisition forced itself on the Spanish nation.  It is because the Spaniards allowed it to exist.  Kamen wants to know why ordinary people turned conversos into the Inquisition. The most frequent denunciations of people came from friends, neighbors, traveling companions and so on.

He wants to know what actually brings Inquisitions into existence.  He admits he does not have an answer.

I agree.  He does not have an answer.  Nor do other historians.  The same vicious practices spread to Portugal, Brazil, Goa, the Americas and other regions.  The Spanish Inquisition became a global institution, sometimes snatching people who had left for the Americas and bringing them back for trial in Spain.  Mexico saw more of the Inquisition than New Mexico, but the reach of the Inquisition was very long.  However Spain suffered serious consequences from its embrace of inquisition and racism, as I have mentioned earlier. We shall see the long range effect this persecution of the Jews had on the nation. 150,000 people were tried between 1550 and 1800 in Spain alone.  The Spanish Inquisition lasted until 1800!

I believe Kamen’s question is the essential one.  Why did ordinary people become so quick to denounce friends, neighbors and confidants?  Part of the process, of course, was to denounce someone before you were denounced to demonstrate that you were not a heretic or a traitor.  But the issue is deeper and more puzzling than that. The question is a fearsome one, and I suspect that if we ever find the answer, it will be just as frightening.

We do know that it was the French Enlightenment that helped start the end of the Spanish Inquisition.  Napoleon formally abolished the Inquisition in 1808.  By then the new ideas of the Enlightenment had infiltrated Spain despite severe censorship.  However, the Inquisition still continued to function from time to time.  Finally, after many revivals, the Spanish Inquisition was suppressed in 1834.  The last execution was in 1820, a teacher hanged as an impenitent deist. In 1869, the principle of religious tolerance was made part of the Spanish Constitution.

But there was yet another Inquisition which ran parallel to the Spanish one for some time.  The Roman Inquisition was begun in 1542, by Pope Paul III.  In some of its methods, it resembled the earlier Medieval Inquisition, but it was even more centralized and bureaucratic.  It was also less itinerate.  Many cities in Italy had permanent Inquisition headquarters and its inquisitors answered to a committee of Church cardinals who were under an Inquisitor General.  A prisoner still did not know who had denounced him, but he was frequently allowed to know the charges that had been brought against him and obtain a lawyer.  This was tricky because if the lawyer became convinced his client was guilty, he was obligated to drop the case or be under suspicion of heresy himself. There was actually a small out for the accused.  The manuals allowed the lawyer to claim his client had suffered a slip of the tongue, was confused and so on.  So the defense of a “mistake” on the part of the prisoner rather than heresy had a small chance of succeeding.

Pope Paul IV, a former cardinal and an ex Dominican, who was elected in 1555, was a fierce supporter of the Inquisition.  Leopold von Ranke, the historian, says this of Paul: “He favored above all other Institutions, the Inquisition, which indeed he himself had established… he never missed meetings of the congregation of the Inquisition.  He wished its powers to be exercised in the severest manner.”

It was also Paul who established the Index of Forbidden Books in 1559, and made the Jews of Rome wear distinctive clothing and be confined to a ghetto.

He also discontinued Michelangelo’s pension and had veils and loincloths painted on the nude figures of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  They are still there.  Paul was utterly certain of his beliefs and utterly severe.  At his death, the Roman crowd went wild and sacked the headquarters of the Inquisition, freeing the prisoners as well, and then burned the building down, destroying the Inquisition’s files and books. 

The new Pope, Pius V, built an even more imposing Inquisition Headquarters.  He actually pulled the work which needed to be done on the unfinished Basilica of St. Peter’s and other important construction such as aqueduct repair, to concentrate on the new Inquisition building.  The fury of the Roman mob was quelled and their rebellion died down.  But it is interesting that Italians did try to rid themselves of the Inquisition.  I wonder if Kamen has looked into how quickly such insurgencies are put down, particularly when people have no arms nor funds and no help from outside their country. Did the Spanish people really allow the Inquisition to continue or were they unable to raise resistance to it?

The Roman Inquisition attacked heretics, freethinkers, Lutherans, some Jews and so on.  This Inquisition tortured and killed many people.  However, as it progressed, it became clear that its main target was books.  The other two Inquisitions were about targeting people.  The Roman one became more concerned with eliminating what the Church considered dangerous books and heretical ideas, and sometimes their writers.  It also conducted a campaign against new scientific ideas which contradicted official Church doctrine.

In 1564, an expanded Index was issued by the Council of Trent and therefore had more authority than the earlier indexes.

 It was called the Tridentine Index and became the basis for all future lists.  In 1571, Pius V created a special Congregation of the Index and the Inquisition lost full control of it.  However, the Magister of the Papal Office, always a Dominican, was in charge of both the Index and the Inquisition.  The Inquisition served as a law force to enforce decisions made by the officials of the Index.  In 1917, mark the date, the Index was put in full control of the Inquisition. 

Before I get into the Guttenberg Revolution, I would just like to list the basic ten rules that were the basis for the Tridentine Index and all future indexes.  I am using the lists provided by historians such as Edward Burman.  All books condemned before 1515 that were not in this Index were condemned anyway.  Books of the heresiarchs were completely forbidden.  Translations of ecclesiastical writers were permitted if they contained nothing contrary to sound doctrine.  Permission from an Inquisitor or a Bishop was required in order to read translations of the Bible.  Books edited by heretics could be read after corrections.  Books concerning controversies between contemporary heretics and Catholics in the vulgar tongue were under the same rules as Bible translations.  Obscene books and lascivious books were to be banned.  Ancient texts could be read for their style, but not by the young.  Books which were good but having heretical portions could be read after corrections by Catholic divines.  Any books about sorcery, magic, divination and so on were utterly banned.  And of course it was the Index which established the procedures for vetting the books listed above.

Heretics previously belonged to an oral culture. 

Books were unique objects in earlier times and to reproduce a book required time-consuming hand copying. (Please see How Atomism and Lucretius made the Renaissance Modern at for an expanded discussion of early book production.)  The printing press was developed by Guttenberg and others in the middle of the 15th Century.  The change to book production was sudden and of enormous significance.  The Roman Inquisition killed many people, but as I mentioned, its main thrust was truly at books and their ideas.  Cullen Murphy states that it is estimated that scribes copied out some 2.7 million books over the course of the entire 14th Century.  Printers produced more than that number in the single year of 1550!  Aldus Manutius, a publisher and printer, put out the famous Aldine books. He established his press in Venice in 1494.  With his innovations in typography, more words could be printed on smaller pages without being difficult to read.  Classic works became accessible to many people. They were the equivalent of today’s paperbacks. Murphy explains books became easier to carry and easier to conceal.  Soon the printers’ establishments were as central spaces as the churches and the markets.

Martin Luther, according to Elizabeth Eisenstein, claimed to have been surprised at the furor caused by his challenge of a debate when he nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517.  He was likely being disingenuous when he wrote to the Pope a few months later, saying that he had intended his theses strictly for the academic circle in Wittenberg.  But nevertheless when reproduced by the printing press, his ideas spread so quickly that he must have been genuinely surprised at their large circulation.

Eisenstein goes on to explain that it was no longer possible to get rid of the ideas of dissident preachers and others by burning them at the stake.  Their sermons could and would be published long after their death, and their ideas could live far beyond the grave.  As with our contemporary digital revolution, attempts to exert control were never completely successful.

The Church recognized the difficulty of complete suppression of new ideas and scientific theories that contradicted church doctrine.  To censor the new ideas was the main thrust behind the establishment of the Index of Forbidden Books in 1559.  It is interesting to note that in 1571 the Congregation of the Inquisition took charge of the censorship of books. The Index had become a power in its own right.  Eventually the Inquisition began to subside, but the Index remained and was added to substantially.  Censorship was the primary face of Church suppression presented to the public for many years rather than its earlier suppression and murder of people.

Cullen Murphy maintains that it will be many years before the complete history of the infamous and now contemptible, in secular eyes, Index will be written.  The scholars of this institution have only been allowed access for less than a generation, while the Index existed more than four hundred years!  Now in the contemporary world, bishops are still expected to fix an imprimatur- let it be printed, or to refuse to allow some categories of Catholic books to be published. 

Cullen Murphy relates an interesting tale that will amuse secular readers. Carlo Ginzburg, the respected historian, wrote to Pope Paul II in 1979, asking him to open the church Archives. He believes the letter began something like this: “The writer of the present letter is a Jewish historian, an atheist, who has been working for many years on inquisitorial papers.” He had no answer.  Twenty years later, in 1998, he received a letter inviting him to the opening of the Archives, or Archivio. Bad luck, answered Ginzburg; he had a conflict in dates.  Then a monsignor at the Vatican phoned him. Ginzburg explained his date conflict.  The monsignor said that that was a pity because Ginzburg’s letter had been influential in the opening of the Sant’Uffizio Archive. “What letter?” asked Ginzburg. “Your letter to the Pope,” answered the Monsignor, referring to Ginzburg’s letter, written twenty years earlier. The amazed Ginzburg changed his date and attended the partial opening of the Archives.  Change does not come quickly to the Church!  The Archives are now basically open, but with exceptions.

During the Roman Inquisition, The Index spread to other countries than Italy; it was widely distributed and enforced by the Church. The Church additionally decided that it had not been proactive enough with Martin Luther and the entire Reformation.  The Reformation had become firmly established in many regions of Northern Europe, with political protection and funds.  Nevertheless, the Church believed it could stem the tide, not just in its Papal States in Italy, but in other areas where papal authority still had some influence.  Church officials set about the task in their customary bureaucratic manner.

They tried to frighten and discourage people from even taking up a pen to write their ideas.  This is a most pernicious type of censorship- the coercion of people into self-censorship.  They demanded changes before a book could be printed or discouraged publishers from releasing certain works.  Of course this censorship effort was quite time-consuming.  Censors had to first read the manuscripts.  Most of their attempts at censorship were very labor intensive and slow.

The censors collected dangerous books after publication, generally destroying them by burning.  Already published books were also scrutinized line by line, with parts that the censors thought should be deleted or altered inked by hand.  If their corrections were not included in the book, the volume would never be allowed to be published again.  Teams of investigators were sent out to admonish and warn publishers and to examine the volumes in public libraries.  Agents were actually sent to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which took place twice a year, to learn about new and shocking titles that were forthcoming from European presses. 

Inspectors were placed at ports and border crossings to search for contraband books.  A person who needed to read a book on the Index had to apply for a license.  This rule also applied to highly placed Vatican officials. 

Murphy reports that a 16th Century censor wrote privately: “What we need is a halt to printing, so that the Church can catch up with the deluge of publications.”  The Church regarded the printing press as a satanic device.  It aided the outbreak of rational thinking.

To add to the frustration of being unable to stem the tide of books and ideas, the Roman Inquisition was not an extremely consistent or efficient institution.  Bethencourt, the historian, talks about the fact that two hundred registers a year survive from a period in the 18th Century.  These registers detail searches of thousands of ships from one major Portuguese port for contraband books.  There were virtually no such books found, but the searches went on and on and were dutifully noted.  The historical records of the Index reveal bureaucratic bungling and repetitive and meaningless reports.

But the toll, as I have mentioned, was not just born by individual thinkers.  Italian philosophers and scientists had taken the lead in the Renaissance.  The Roman Inquisition truncated it and Italian philosophy and science never regained their sterling reputation.  Thorndike has shown how many scientific careers in Italy were destroyed by the combined efforts of the Index and the Inquisition.  We all know about the trial of Galileo and the silencing of his scientific ideas. However, new material has emerged that shows that Galileo was also condemned because of his embrace of atomism.  Theologians, among other fears concerning the theory of atoms, thought that atomism would mean that some material matter would remain in the consecrated host and therefore would not be the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ.

Copernicus’s book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was banned in 1616, and three years later, Kepler’s works.  The English Protestant poet, Milton, raged against the Index in his great and famous pamphlet on the Freedom of the Press, written in 1644. Boccaccio’s Decameron, written around 1353, was banned, as were Machiavelli and other writers.  Veronese, the splendid 16th Century painter, was questioned about his painting of the Last Supper, now known as The Feast in the House of Levi.  He was set free, but had to change the picture to satisfy the Inquisition. Oddly enough, the secular features the censors strongly objected to were taken out, but the painting retained its secular resonance without objections from the Inquisition.

By 1840, the Roman Inquisition was the only one left alive.  In 1870, the Italian Kingdom forces laid siege to Rome and when France withdrew, took control of the city.  The Pope and the authority of the Holy See were reduced to 108 acres.  In reality, what conquered the Inquisition were the winds of Enlightenment thought blowing through Italy. But the Church never stopped in its efforts to capture the minds of thinking Catholics.

The Congregation of the Inquisition was formally abolished in 1908, but it was renamed the Congregation of the Holy Office and in 1917 given broad powers concerning Church doctrine and policing of the faithful. In 1985, it was renamed The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the CDF.  The Index was formally abolished in 1963. 

Cullen Murphy has explained what the CDF is, and most importantly, what its functions are. By the way, it is housed in the building originally built to lodge the Inquisition in 1542.

 In 1988, Pope John Paul II said the CDF’s job was to “promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.”  The Vatican pronouncement against cloning and same-sex marriage originated in the CDF, according to Murphy.  Murphy states that the CDF attracts the most conservative curial clerics as personnel.  Its tradecraft is rusty.  “But on it plods,” says Murphy, “until the opportunity for extraordinary mischief at last arises.” 

Intellectually, Murphy maintains, “it has a reputation for mediocrity.” It is bureaucratic and slow.  The officials do not torture people any longer nor do they burn books.  But the CDF can withhold a license to teach as a Catholic theologian.  It can bar or dismiss people from jobs at certain Catholic institutions.  It is able to apply pressure through the leadership of certain orders.  It can even excommunicate, although this is rare.  But it has the greatest leverage on Catholics in official influence, especially those who wish to remain loyal to the Catholic Church as an institution. If one chooses to walk away from that institution, it has no power at all. 

Priests from the Liberation Theology Movement have been silenced as well as theologians.  The CDF has tried to exert influence on Catholic universities, to put them on a tighter leash.  It demands that presidents, rectors and professors of philosophy and theology at Catholic universities sign an oath that they adhere to whatever official doctrines the Pope or Bishop advance.  This has been resisted in America. 

As for the Index, the decisions that placed many books on it are likely to amuse and disgust secular thinkers. Voltaire, Descartes, Locke and Pascal would all be proscribed over the years. 

But Darwin and Freud were not!  The censors usually could only read Latin and Italian, sometimes a little French, so usually books published in English or German escaped scrutiny unless they were published in translation.  When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in Italian, it came under serious scrutiny, but it was finally left alone.  Its crime?  The favorable view of Quakers in the novel.  Hegel and Kant, written in German, escaped for years.  Marx’s Das Kapital and Hitler’s Mein Kampf were never proscribed.  Oddly enough, the Teutonic College has sat inside the Vatican, just a few hundred yards from the Inquisition’s palazzo and has had Germans there since before the Inquisition. The censors could just have walked over and asked for help.  The mind boggles at such oddities and nonsense.  But as we have seen, even nonsense, given enough power, can be deadly.

Spain never prospered properly even with the vast amounts of money from America and its colonies.  When the Jews were expelled, the country lost people who had the expertise and sophistication in international finance so necessary to Spain. Spain’s economy suffered as well from the rapid export of capital out of the country. Most of the Jews who left took their capital with them. The center of European economic activity moved from Spain and developed far away- to Germany, Antwerp and England in particular.  The old Christian nobility of Castile was contemptuous of all trades but arms and so never filled the vacuum left by the expulsion of the Jews.  In fact, commercial activity and prosperity shifted, it seems, from the areas in Southern Europe most controlled by the Inquisition.  The shrewd financiers in Florence, Italy however, did not permit confiscation very often and objected to the policy most strenuously.  While other medieval towns declined, Florence prospered.

We have seen the chilling effect the Inquisition had on art and literature, although culture still flourished during the Renaissance.  The main thrust of the Inquisition was against scientific writings and philosophical speculation.  We have seen how Italy lost its lead in science and philosophy during the Renaissance to other nations.  Persecuting magicians was another heinous stifling.  Magical experiments and speculations led often to genuine scientific experimentation.  The Dominican Order in the 1200’s forbade their members to study medicine, natural philosophy and chemistry.  We have seen the silencing of Galileo. He was one of the most prominent among many who were stifled by the Inquisition. 

The great historian of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea, and other historians’ final condemnation of the Inquisition was on legal grounds.  The accused was charged with a crime of suspicion and this became the usual practice.  The prisoner was treated as “one who had no rights, whose guilt was assumed in advance, and from whom confession was extorted by guile or by torture.” Aldous Huxley, the well known novelist and thinker stated: The Inquisition burns and tortures in order to perpetuate a ritual and an eccliastico-politico- financial organization as necessary to man’s salvation.”

We atheists know that this wretched religion’s corruption certainly stemmed in part from its foundation on a lie, a fantasy of Jesus’ putative death and resurrection which was supposed to assure ours. The foundational myth soon crystallized into an eccliastico-politico-financial organization that promised man happiness in heaven as it robbed him of it on earth. 

Some historians have raised a compelling question in view of the horror and violations of the Inquisitions, the Holy Wars and other atrocities of the Church.  “If what the Inquisitors did was to preserve Christianity, was Christianity worth preserving?”

My personal answer is No.  Christianity was not worth preserving, nor any other religion.  Christopher Hitchens spoke very concisely for the secular community when he titled his 2007 anti-religious volume, Religion Poisons Everything. I rest my case, temporarily, as I have spoken about the heinous effects of religion in many of my lectures, and I can assure you, I will be speaking more on the topic in future lectures.

Video of Lecture: The Inquisition: An Atheist Perspective

Lecture: The Inquisition: An Atheist Perspective

Video of Discussion: The Inquisition: An Atheist Perspective

Discussion: The Inquisition: An Atheist Perspective


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