Papal Inquisition Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The papal Inquisition developed a legal mechanism for suppressing heresy and was instituted gradually during the course of a millennium, causing the suffering and death of thousands of people during the Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

When Christianity Christianity;heresy and became the religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the sudden growth of Christian believers created problems of authority for both church and state. Maintenance of the social order required the prohibition of antisocial behavior such as sorcery, sacrilege, and treason. At first, coercion to ensure harmony was avoided as being contrary to Gospel precepts. Under the Christian emperors, notably Constantine’s sons, physical force by the state was introduced to bring about unanimity of belief. Nonconformists were regarded as potential rebels and traitors whose activities undermined the state. Heresy;papal Inquisition [kw]Papal Inquisition (1233) [kw]Inquisition, Papal (1233) Inquisition Italy;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] France;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Spain;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Germany;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Laws, acts, and legal history;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Religion;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Social reform;1233: Papal Inquisition[2370] Innocent III Frederick II (1194-1250) Gregory IX Innocent IV

After Constantine, the unity of Christian belief was considered a guarantee of the unity of the empire. The church fathers were divided on the use of coercion, but Augustine’s views became dominant in the West. He maintained that the state, like a benevolent father, was required to encourage heretics to return to orthodoxy and thus save their souls. Thus, church and state were united in a common cause.

Shortly after the year 1000, a form of neo-Manichaeism, Catharism, or Albigensianism Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) , spread over western Europe. The popular revulsion against adherents of this sect was especially strong in France, where thirteen Cathari were burned at the stake in 1022 by order of Robert II, and the three-year-old corpse of a heretic was exhumed and taken out of Christian burial ground. Execution by fire was an innovation unheard of before that time, but in 1028, heretics were burned by popular demand at Milan. In 1051, some Cathari were hanged in the presence of Emperor Henry III. These eleventh century outbursts seem to have been prompted by the general populace rather than by the Church. Toward the end of the twelfth century, however, Catharism had spread to such an extent in southern France that the very existence of the Church seemed to be threatened.

Once attention was called to the danger, churchmen became convinced that some machinery must be set in motion to deal with it. The relatively casual approach by many bishops to heresy was changed in 1184, when the Council of Verona Verona, Council of (1184) decreed that bishops were to make a formal inquest in each diocese to root out heretics. This was the beginning of the episcopal inquisition. The Church prescribed imprisonment, excommunication, and confiscation of property but did not condone the burning or death of heretics. In 1199, Pope Innocent III Innocent III equated heresy with treason. The heretics were to be handed over to the secular powers for unspecified punishment and their lands were to be confiscated. In 1220, Frederick II Frederick II decreed that relapsed heretics were to be burned and that lesser offenders were to lose their tongues.

During the papal Inquisition, sentencing was pronounced at a public procession called the auto-da-fé (act of faith), which all residents of the locality were urged to attend. This engraving appears in a 1692 edition of Historia Inquisitionis, by Philip of Limborch.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The episcopal inquisition was not successful in stemming the tide of heretics. Pope Innocent III sent his own legatine inquisitors to southern France, and it was the murder of one emissary that touched off the crusade against the Albigensians. With the Treaty of Meaux Meaux, Treaty of (1229) in 1229, the crusade came to an end, but heresy was still prevalent. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX Gregory IX issued two papal bulls establishing the papal Inquisition, which in theory was to be implemented in cooperation with the bishops but in practice was often an instrument of papal control. Dominicans and Franciscans were generally chosen as papal inquisitors.

The inquisitor was a privileged person under the special favor of the Papacy, who could be controlled by the pope alone. He was surrounded by numerous assistants: delegates who asked preliminary questions and heard witnesses, socii who accompanied the inquisitor, familiars who acted as personal guards and agents, notaries, counselors, and servants. The careful preservation of records promoted the success of the Inquisition, for it rendered almost impossible the escape of any suspect. Some were apprehended years later, far from the scene of the original trial, on the basis of the trial records.

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX issued two papal bulls establishing the papal Inquisition.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The inquisitor’s task was formidable, as he was obliged to determine the state of a person’s innermost convictions. The matter of interpretation of the nature of heresy gave abundant scope for uncovering the smallest details of a person’s moral life. Inquisitors recognized a complex hierarchy of heretics, from those who were merely suspected to those who obstinately adhered to error. In the latter case, they were summarily handed over to the secular authorities to be executed, but even those who were merely suspect received some type of penance because it appeared a wrong to God that anyone whose orthodoxy was in doubt should escape penalty. The list of offenses included anticlericalism, association with heretics (including even close relatives), moral offenses, sorcery, and witchcraft. It was rare for an accused heretic to escape some form of punishment despite protestations of innocence.

After arriving at a town within his province, the inquisitor let it be known that he would receive accusations and confessions for a period of time. After that he proceeded to summon suspects who had not voluntarily presented themselves. The accused were not permitted to cross-examine their accusers, but they were permitted to draw up a list of any enemies who might gain from their conviction. Prejudiced evidence from such enemies was not to be admitted. The inquisitor was assisted by a council, and in theory, he was to reach his verdict in consultation with the council and the bishop. In practice, the verdicts were often made by the inquisitor-judge alone. Torture, which had been permitted by Pope Innocent IV Innocent IV in his bull Ad extirpanda (1252), was abrogated by Pope Boniface VIII Boniface VIII . The sentence was pronounced at the sermo generalis or auto-da-fé (act of faith), a public exhibition that all residents of the locality were urged to attend. Sentences varied from death by fire, carried out by the state, to imprisonments of varied duration, confiscation of goods, pilgrimages, and lesser penances.

The Spanish Inquisition, Inquisition;Spanish which was not established until the end of the fifteenth century, bears a different character. It was established to discover heretics among converted Muslims (Moriscos) and Jews (Marranos), only later extending its activities to include Protestants. It was primarily an instrument of the state. In fact, many orthodox bishops and Jesuits were singled out for harassment and even death because of their criticism of the secular authorities.


With the firmly established power, significance, and influence of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe came prescriptions for the strict adherence to Church doctrine and the swift punishment of heretics, including those accused of promulgating what were considered anti-Christian beliefs or beliefs against papal authority, and those accused of witchcraft, sorcery, and alchemy. Not only were heretics considered enemies of the Church, they were also enemies of society.

What was unique about the papal Inquisition was its practice of actively seeking out possible heretics and not simply responding to claims of heresy. The term “inquisition,” from the Latin inquiro, means “to inquire into.”

The influence of the papal Inquisition and its model reached into the mid-sixteenth century, when, in 1542, Pope Paul III established the Congregation of the Inquisition as the final court of appeals for heresy trials. The trend continued into the twentieth century. In 1908, this congregation became known as the Holy Office, and in 1965, it came to be called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baigent, Michael, and Richard Leigh. The Inquisition. New York: Viking, 1999. A comprehensive history of the Inquisition from its medieval origins to the present.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Given, James B. Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. A detailed study of the Inquisition in one region of France. Three sections focus on the technologies employed by the inquisitors, the methods of individual and collective resistance attempted by those accused of heresy, and the social and political context in which the Inquisition in France took place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kieckhefer, Richard. “The Office of Inquisition and Heresy: The Transition from Personal to Institutional Jurisdiction.” In Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (January, 1995): 36-61. The author indicates that there was no “Inquisition” as a systematic structured entity until 1542, a fact that is not recognized by many authors on the subject. At first, there were only individual local efforts, and only gradually did a systematic, centralized, curial inquisitional authority emerge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lea, Henry Charles. The History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. 3 vols. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1958. This work is considered foundational for all significant study on the topic of the Inquisition. The book outlines the gradual establishment of inquisitorial procedure and shows how after 1250 the papal legates served as an arm of central authority over the bishops as well as detectors of heresy, thus enhancing papal centralization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monter, E. William. Frontiers of Heresy: The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This book concentrates particularly on the Spanish Inquisition. It includes interesting tables and appendices showing the number of people who were put to death in various tribunals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: Free Press, 1988. The author contends that the Inquisition began when the Church employed clergy to preserve orthodox religious beliefs from the attacks of heretics. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, these localized inquisitions were transformed into the Inquisition, mainly because it served the purpose of various political regimes. The book also includes chapters on the Inquisition in literature and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, Albert C. The Medieval Inquisition. 2d ed. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991. For its specific topic, this book singles out the period of the 1200’s in Languedoc, southern France. It details how the beliefs of the Albigensians and the Waldensians resulted in the establishment of the Inquisition.

Categories: History