The Inquisition

The part of Roman law which was used almost exclusively by the Church was called the "inquisito" -- the inquiry. The inquisition was set out to act as a penitential and proselytizing office, not a true penal council. Therefore, its chief desire was a promise from the accused to the Church pledging eternal loyalty and obedience. All the inquisition desired was an acknowledgement that heresy was sinful, and thus punishable, so the sinner could be reconciled with the Church. Thus, the Inquisition inflicted no real penal punishments. The Holy Office was set on conversion back to the Word of God. They did not consider heresy` a crime, merely a sin for which confession and absolution was required.

If the sinner refused to abjure and repent, he was no longer under the protection of the Church. By an agreement between the Church and the State, the accused was abandoned by the papal are and turned over to the State. Such a case was viewed as a total failure by the Inquisitor. As a priest, he had failed to return the lost sheep to the fold, thus falling short of both his official and Holy duties.

Each Inquisitor had enormous duties. The individual was put in chard of a certain district, which was usually very large geographically. Each had his own headquarters where the trials were held and where official documents were stored. Often times this office was in a Dominican convent, but some were housed in the Bishop's palace. The workload required extraordinary persistence, patience, and bravery, to some extent. Inquisitors were put in the precarious place between the Church and disgruntled heretics.


Before an accused heretic ever went to trial, he was urged to confess and repent for his sins. This often worked, for people feared public humiliation, and the wrath of God. If this were the case, the Inquisition only required a basic confession, and penitance was mild, if even necessary. Other cases, who refused the initial abjuration, went on before the Inquisition.

Witnesses were then called to testify against the heretic. Testimony by anyone was encouraged, thus wives denounced their husbands, mothers accused their children, and so forth. Even criminals, other heretics and excommunicates could appear as witnesses. The accused would never know who had testified against him, so everyone felt safer. It took at least two witnesses to force an arrest of a heretic. Suspects with good reputations often required more witnesses in order to build a case against the accused.

These denunciations were transcribed by notaries of the Holy Office and then submitted to the Inquisitor. If he decided this information warranted investigation, he issued a warrant for the heretic to appear before the Inquisition on a specified date. This summons was usually served by a minor officer of the Inquisition, and was accompanied by a full written statement of the evidence held against the accused. In some instances, the accused would also be forced to give a statement before the preceedings began. Finally, and order of arrest was issued and the heretic was in the hands of the Holy Office. If the seemed to be any indication the suspect might fell, the order of arrest was sent out with the original summons. In cases such as this, the individual had no warning of his arest and was immediately jailed.

The accused was thus brought before the Inquisitor and asked if he had any mortal enemies. If the answer was yes, or if it was known that the accused had quarreled with someone recently, the prosecution received a blow. However, the Inquisitor held firm control over the preceedings of the trail. His purpose being to extract a confession, the Inquisitor had every right to take the appropriate measure to ensure this outcome -- and so began the interregations.

It was during this phase of the trial that the accused became truly helpless. Knowing his duty well, the Inquisitor employed every resource he had available to secure confession. These included long winded and cicumloquacious cross examinations, leading the accused into a trap of confession, and adjourning the trial for as long as was deemed necessary. One Inquisitor summoned a heretic in 1301, but did not impose his penitance until 1319. During this time of recess, the heretic could be allowed to go home, stay with the Inquisitor at a convent, or be imprisoned -- this was completely up to the Inquisitor.

If the accused still refused to abjure and confess, the Inquisitor could use torture. Torture was afflicted upon the accused until such time as he signified a readiness to confess his sin. The most common type of torture was the strappado -- a rope hanging over a pulley attached to the ceiling. The hands of the accused were tied behind his back and attached to the rope. The rope was raised to the ceiling and allowed to fall, thus dislocating the shoulder blades. Torture was not widely reported, but most assuredly happened -- it was the blackest mar the Holy Office ever bore.

When the Inquisitor was pleased with the confession, he pronounced his sentence. This ranged from the accused wearing crosses to going on a pligrimmage, to burning at the stake. Penance of some kind was almost always imposed, and that person wore a stain on their character for the rest of their life. However, it is important to remember the Inquisition was to reform, not condemn or punish. This was welcome by both sides because the accused was not a convicted criminal, although his moral character could be questionable. So concludes the history of the medieval inquisition.