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(ĭn'kwĭzĭsh`ən), tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church established for the investigation of heresy.

The Medieval Inquisition

In the early Middle Ages investigation of heresy was a duty of the bishops. Alarmed especially by the spread of Albigensianism (see AlbigensesAlbigenses
[Lat.,=people of Albi, one of their centers], religious sect of S France in the Middle Ages. Beliefs and Practices

Officially known as heretics, they were actually Cathari, Provençal adherents of a doctrine similar to the Manichaean dualistic
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), the popes issued increasingly stringent instructions as to the methods for dealing with heretics. Finally, in 1233, Pope Gregory IX established the papal Inquisition, dispatching Dominican friars to S France to conduct inquests.

When an inquisitor arrived, a month of grace was allowed to all who wished to confess to heresy and to recant; these were given a light penance, which was intended to confirm their faith. After the period of grace, persons accused of heresy who had not abjured were brought to trial. The defendants were not given the names of their accusers, but they could name their enemies and thus nullify any testimony by these persons. After 1254 the accused had no right to counsel, but those found guilty could appeal to the pope. The trials were conducted secretly in the presence of a representative of the bishop and of a stipulated number of local laymen. Torture of the accused and his witnesses soon became customary and notorious, despite the long-standing papal condemnation of torture (e.g., by Nicholas I); Innocent IV ultimately permitted torture in cases of heresy.

Most trials resulted in a guilty verdict, and the church handed the condemned over to the secular authorities for punishment. Burning at the stake was thought to be the fitting punishment for unrecanted heresy, probably through analogy with the Roman law on treason. However, the burning of heretics was not common in the Middle Ages; the usual punishments were penance, fine, and imprisonment. A verdict of guilty also meant the confiscation of property by the civil ruler, who might turn over part of it to the church. This practice led to graft, blackmail, and simony and also created suspicion of some of the inquests. Generally the inquisitors were eager to receive abjurations of heresy and to avoid trials. Secular rulers came to use the persecution of heresy as a weapon of state, as in the case of the suppression of the Knights TemplarsKnights Templars
, in medieval history, members of the military and religious order of the Poor Knights of Christ, called the Knights of the Temple of Solomon from their house in Jerusalem.
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The Inquisition was an emergency device and was employed mainly in S France, N Italy, and Germany. In 1542, Paul III assigned the medieval Inquisition to the Congregation of the Inquisition, or Holy Office. This institution, which became known as the Roman Inquisition, was intended to combat Protestantism, but it is perhaps best known historically for its condemnation of Galileo. After the Second Vatican Conference, it was replaced (1965) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which governs vigilance in matters of faith.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was independent of the medieval Inquisition. It was established (1478) by Ferdinand and Isabella with the reluctant approval of Sixtus IV. One of the first and most notorious heads was Tomas de TorquemadaTorquemada, Tomás de
, 1420–98, Spanish churchman and inquisitor. A Dominican, he became confessor to Ferdinand II and Isabella I and in 1483 was appointed inquisitor general of Castile and Aragón, charged with the centralization of the Spanish Inquisition.
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. It was entirely controlled by the Spanish kings, and the pope's only hold over it was in naming the inquisitor general. The popes were never reconciled to the institution, which they regarded as usurping a church prerogative.

The purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to discover and punish converted Jews (and later Muslims) who were insincere. However, soon no Spaniard could feel safe from it; thus, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Theresa of Ávila were investigated for heresy. The censorship policy even condemned books approved by the Holy See. The Spanish Inquisition was much harsher, more highly organized, and far freer with the death penalty than the medieval Inquisition; its autos-da-fé became notorious. The Spanish government tried to establish the Inquisition in all its dominions; but in the Spanish Netherlands the local officials did not cooperate, and the inquisitors were chased (1510) out of Naples, apparently with the pope's connivance. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in 1834.


See E. M. Peters, Torture (1985) and Inquisition (1988); C. Murphy, God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (2012); J. F. Chuchiak 4th, The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536–1820 (2012). For the Spanish Inquisition, see studies by A. S. Tuberville (1932, repr. 1968), C. Roth (1938, repr. 1964), R. E. Greenleaf (1969), P. J. Hauber (1969), H. A. F. Kamen (1965 and 1998), and E. Peters (1989).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

One of the darkest periods of Church history occurred over a period of about three hundred years, beginning with the appointment by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 of a special tribunal designed to root out and destroy heresy. A designated inquisitor, usually a Dominican or Franciscan, would typically come into town with great fanfare (accompanied by great dread) and announce that all heretics had a period of two to six weeks to confess their heresy. Those who repented were usually given light sentences. At the end of the grace period, the questioning began. It only took the testimony of two witnesses, whose identities were kept secret, to convict a supposed heretic. By the time of Pope Innocent IV in 1252, torture was allowed. The accused could be assisted by a counselor but could not be defended by a lawyer. These individuals were usually better off if they confessed to something, even if innocent, because the process of determining guilt was a painful one. Typically people were tortured until they pled guilty; then they were executed, often by burning at the stake, on the basis of their confession.

The Inquisition was not limited to the Catholic Church. Although it was not called by that name, New England Protestants did much the same thing during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.

As secular political power grew, the Inquisition gradually declined. Although it quite justifiably seems abhorrent to the modern mind, it must be remembered that similar human rights violations exist even today in some totalitarian states. Then as now, the Inquisition was more about entrenched power than religion.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

George L. Burr says, "Not till the fourteenth (century) did the Holy Inquisition draw witchcraft fully into its own jurisdiction and, by confusing it with heresy, first make the witches a diabolic sect and give rise to the notion of the witch-sabbath." Witchcraft generally fell under the heading of heresy, and from the middle of the fifteenth through the middle of the eighteenth century, burning at the stake was the supreme penalty for committing such an act. (In Britain hanging was the rule. There, witchcraft was looked upon as a civil crime, and those accused came under the jurisdiction of the secular arm of the law.) This stemmed from St. Augustine's (354-430) theology as expressed in Liber de Fide ad Petrum Diaconum, in which he said that he "most firmly holds and in no way doubts that not only every pagan, but every Jew, heretic, and schismatic, will go to the eternal fire, which is prepared for the Devil and his angels." This position was incorporated into Liber extra, as issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1234. The position was later developed and expanded upon by such inquisitors as Nickolas Eymeric and Thomas Aquinas.

Torture of those accused of heresy—which would continue until a confession was obtained—was recognized by both the ecclesiastical and secular courts. In Spain and Italy, all heretics were burned alive, but elsewhere, there was the opportunity for a guilty person to be strangled just prior to being burned. This exception was only granted if the accused showed contrition and begged forgiveness.

The Inquisition was started by the Catholic Church, but soon after, the Protestants also took up the cause. Jean Bodin, writing in De la Demononamie des Sorciers (Paris, 1580), stated that, "Even if the witch has never killed or done evil to man, or beasts, or fruit, and even if he has always cured bewitched people, or driven away tempests, it is because he has renounced God and treated with Satan that he deserves to be burned alive. . . . Whatever punishment one can order against witches by roasting and cooking them over a slow fire is not really very much, and not as bad as the torment which Satan has made for them in this world."

As Rosemary Guiley points out, "The Inquisition was not a persecution of witches per se; it was a persecution of heretics and enemies of the church. The `crime' of witchcraft became an effective way to accomplish the Inquisitor's aims." In many cases across Europe, charges of witchcraft were leveled against people for purely political reasons. Not all of those charged were poor (Dame Alice Kyteler, for example), and the church, the state, or the feudal overlord benefitted from the confiscation of the accused's property. Therefore, in many cases, the temptation of wealth and property proved to be too much, and a charge of witchcraft was used to gain access to that wealth.

The Church's efforts had been growing more forceful as time went on, and by 1184, under the direction of Pope Lucius III, all deviations from the Church's teachings were being investigated by the bishops. The papal Inquisition was established between 1227 and 1233. The Inquisition traveled a circuit and carried out its investigations and tortures in strict secrecy. It was only at the Sunday masses that the findings were made public.

The first person accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake was Angela, Lady of Labarthe, in Toulouse, France, in 1275. The last execution in England was in 1717; in Scotland, 1727. It is impossible to say exactly how many people were put to death under a charge of witchcraft—and it should be remembered that very few of those accused were actually Witches—but the records of Vatican official Bartolommeo Spina show that he alone was responsible for burning more than 1,000 people accused of witchcraft in one year (1523). Between 1581 and 1591, Nicholas Remy, Attorney-General of Lorraine, boasted that he burned 900 witches who had been found guilty. There are many examples of people being burned by the hundreds throughout the persecutions. Some estimates put the total number around 500,000, while some place it as high as nine million.

As Rosemary Guiley points out, today modern Wiccans speak of a possibility of a return to "the burning times," meaning that they fear there is a reawakening happening that will echo the religious persecutions of the past. This fear stems from the words and actions of many Christian fundamentalists, including the political actions taken by Senator Jesse Helms.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in the Catholic Church a special ecclesiastical court for trying heretics; it existed from the 13th to the 19th century.

As early as 1184, Pope Lucius III and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa established a strict procedure for the investigation of heretics by bishops and their trial by episcopal courts; however, the secular authorities were obliged to carry out any death sentences imposed by these courts. The Inquisition as an institution was first discussed at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), convoked by Pope Innocent III; it established a special process for prosecuting heretics (per inquisitionem), sufficient grounds for which was the declaration of accusatory rumors. From 1231 through 1235, Pope Gregory IX by a number of decrees transferred the functions of prosecuting heresies, which had previously been carried out by bishops, to specially empowered persons—the inquisitors (at first appointed from among the Dominicans and later from the Franciscans as well); in a number of European states (Germany, France, and others) inquisitional tribunals were set up, which were entrusted with the trial of heretics, as well as the imposition and implementation of sentences. Thus the institution of the Inquisition was formed.

Members of the inquisitional tribunals possessed personal inviolability and were not under the jurisdiction of the local secular or ecclesiastical authorities; they were directly responsible to the pope. Because of the secret and arbitrary procedure of such court trials, those accused by the Inquisition were deprived of any and all guaranties. The extensive use of torture and encouragement and rewards for informers and the material self-interest of the Inquisition and the papacy themselves, which acquired huge funds because of the confiscation of the condemned persons’ property, made the Inquisition the scourge of Catholic countries. Those condemned to death were usually handed over to the secular authorities for burning at the stake.

In the 16th century the Inquisition became one of the principal weapons of the Counter-Reformation. In 1542 a supreme inquisitional tribunal was established in Rome. Many outstanding scholars and thinkers became victims of the Inquisition (G. Bruno and G. Vanini, for example). The Inquisition raged with special fury in Spain, where it had been closely connected with the royal authority since the end of the 15th century. More than 10,000 persons were burned alive during the 18 years alone that Torquemada was Grand Inquisitor (15th century). During the 18th century the Inquisition was abolished in most countries of Western Europe, and during the 19th century it was abolished in Portugal (1820), Spain (1834), and the Papal State (1859). The functions of the Inquisition were partially transferred to the Congregation of the Holy Office (one of the influential organs of the Papal Curia, which was assigned the function of combating communism in the middle of the 20th century); in 1965 it was reorganized as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Li, G. Ch. Istoriia inkvizitsii v srednie veka, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1911–12.
Llorente, J. A. Kriticheskaia istoriia ispanskoi inkvizitsii, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1936. (Translated from French.)
Grigulevich, I. R. Istoriia inkvizitsii. Moscow, 1970 (Bibliography.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Roman Catholic tribunal engaged in combating and suppressing heresy. [Christian Hist.: NCE, 1352]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. an official inquiry, esp one held by a jury before an officer of the Crown
2. another word for inquest


History a judicial institution of the Roman Catholic Church (1232--1820) founded to discover and suppress heresy
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005