7 Myths about the Inquisition

A couple of months back I posted an article examining 7 Myths About the Crusades. It seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, so this week I thought I would post a similar article looking at some of the common myths surrounding the Inquisition.

— 1 —

The term “Inquisition” actually refers to an institution not an event.

Actually, more like a group of institutions within the judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church whose aim was to combat or suppress heresy. Begun in 12th century France, the ecclesiastical tribunal known as the inquisition has evolved over the years but is still an active part of the Roman Curia today, although admittedly operating under a different name. Originally the inquisition was carried out using local clergy as judges,1 but starting in the 1250’s inquisitors were generally chosen from members of the Dominican Order due to their unique charism. St. Dominic founded his order in 1216 in order to preach the Gospel and combat heresy. Is it any wonder that their name gave rise to the pun that they were the Domini canes, or Hounds of the Lord?2 In 1904 the office of the inquisition was given the new name Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, and in 1965 it became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and remains as such to this day.

— 2 —

Much like the Crusades, the Inquisition was not a single event, but can be generally broken into the following categories.

  • Medieval Inquisition – 1184 AD through the 14th century.
  • Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance – During this time the tribunal’s geographic scope was expanded to other European countries resulting most notably in:
  1. The Spanish Inquisition – 1478 AD – 1834 AD (this is the inquisition which is perhaps most widely misrepresented today.)
  2. Portuguese Inquisition – 1536 AD – 1821 AD
  • The Roman Inquisition – 1588 AD – Present, in the form of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Spain and Portugal in particular operated inquisitorial courts throughout their respective empires with a particular focus on the issue of Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism – partly because these minority groups were more numerous in Spain and Portugal than in many other parts of Europe, and partly because they were often considered suspect due to the assumption that they had secretly reverted back to their previous religions.

The concept and scope of these inquisitions were also significantly expanded in response to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

— 3 —

The Inquisition was born out of a need for fair trials, and to prevent unjust executions.

“For people who lived during those times, religion was not something one did just at church. It was science, philosophy, politics, identity, and hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community.

The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made it a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training–something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.

The Catholic Church’s response to this problem was the Inquisition, first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184. It was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges. From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.”3 

— 4 —

The Spanish Inquisition was actually vastly superior to other secular courts of the day. [Tweet This]

Unlike the situation in the secular courts of the day, the use of torture was strictly regulated by the Church. In fact, torture was not regarded as a mode of punishment, but purely as a means of eliciting the truth. It was actually prohibited for the first twenty years of the inquisition before being first authorized by Pope Innocent IV in 1265.

The procedures of the Inquisition are well known through a whole series of papal bulls and other authoritative documents, but mainly through such formularies and manuals as were prepared by St. Raymond Peñaforte (c1180-1275), the great Spanish canonist, and Bernard Gui (1261-1331), one of the most celebrated inquisitors of the early 14th Century. The Inquisitors were certainly interrogators, but they were also theological experts who followed the rules and instructions meticulously, and were either dismissed or punished when they showed too little regard for justice. When, for example, in 1223 Robert of Bourger gleefully announced his aim to burn heretics, not to convert them, he was immediately suspended and imprisoned for life by Pope Gregory IX.4

From the start limits were placed on the use of torture that were unheard of in the secular courts of the day.

  • It was not to cause bloodshed, the loss of life or limb, or imperil life.
  • Torture was to applied only once, and not then unless all other expedients were exhausted.
  • When it was used, it was not to be applied for more than 15 minutes.
  • It was never administered by the inquisitor (a cleric) but rather by the executioner appointed by the state. (In fact, in the beginning, torture was held to be so odious that clerics were forbidden to be present under pain of irregularity)
  • A Physician had to be present and could stop the proceedings at any time.

There were no rapes, feet burning, creative torture chambers, iron maidens, etc., and reports show that between 98%-99% of all inquisition trials did not involve torture at all. Compared to secular courts that decreed the death penalty for damaging shrubs in England, or disembowelment for sheep-stealing in France, the Spanish Inquisition was actually far more conservative than the secular Europe of the day. In fact, there are multiple accounts of convicts in Spain blaspheming on purpose, precisely so that they would be transferred to the significantly more humane prisons of the Spanish Inquisition.

According to Professor Kamen, “In fact, the Inquisition used torture very infrequently. In Valencia, I found that out of 7,000 cases only two percent suffered any form of torture at all and usually for no more than 15 minutes . . . I found no one suffering torture more than twice.” Prof. Jaime Conterras agreed: “We find when comparing the Spanish Inquisition with other tribunals that the Spanish Inquisition used torture much less. And if we compare the Spanish Inquisition with tribunals in other countries, we find that the Spanish Inquisition has a virtually clean record in respect to torture.”5

— 5 —

The death toll numbers that you may have heard are wrong.  Flat out wrong.

Protestant preacher Jimmy Swaggart claimed that 20 million people were murdered by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition.6 Another Protestant text, “The Mystery of Babylon Revealed” claims 95 million people were killed during the Inquisition.

Really? 95 million? How is that even possible? It is not until modern times that the population of all of Europe even begins to approach 95 million. The present-day population of France, Spain, and Italy is about 150 million. To kill 95 million during just the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church would have had to kill every man, woman, and child in all of Europe, then import millions more just to kill them too.

In contrast to these claims, modern historians have begun to study the documentary records of the Spanish Inquisition. The archives of the Suprema, today held by the National Historical Archive of Spain (Archivo Histórico Nacional), conserves the annual relations of all inquisition processes between 1560 and 1700 AD. This material provides information about 49,092 judgements which were carefully studied by Gustav Henningsen and Jaime Contreras. They calculate that only 1.9% of those processed were burned at the stake.

You read that right –

According to the historical records, less than 2% of all accused heretics were executed.

García Cárcel estimates that the total number processed by the Spanish Inquisition throughout its history was approximately 150,000. Applying the percentages of executions that appeared in the trials of 1560 – 1700 AD (about 2%), the approximate total would be about 3,000 put to death. Even if we take into account variances due to records from other regions and possible variations throughout the rest of the time period, it is highly unlikely that the total death toll would exceed 3,000 – 5,000 executed during the entire 300 year period of the Spanish Inquisition. Henningsen and Contreras also studied the records of 44,674 other cases, finding that 826 resulted in executions in person and 778 were executions in effigy alone – i.e. a straw dummy was burned in place of the person.7

With all of that in mind, it is also important to note:

— 6 —

The Catholic Church executed no one.

That’s right, the Catholic Church never executed a single heretic. The Church did impose punishment on heretics in order to bring them to repentance. Most frequently certain good works were ordered, e.g. the building of a church, the visitation of a church, a pilgrimage, the offering of a candle or a chalice, participation in a crusade, and the like. Other punishments were more severe: fines whose proceeds were devoted to public purposes such as church-building and road-making, whipping with rods during religious services, the pillory, the wearing of colored crosses, and so on.

The hardest penalties were imprisonment, excommunication from the Church, and surrender to the civil authority. “Cum ecclesia” ran the regular expression, “ultra non habeat quod faciat pro suis demeritis contra ipsum, idcirco, eundum reliquimus brachio et iudicio saeculari” — i.e. since the Church can no farther punish his misdeeds, she leaves him to the civil authority.

Officially then, it was never the Catholic Church that sentenced unrepenting heretics to death. Rather, it was the state who determined and carried out the sentence of death. Heretics were traitors to both God and king, and dangerous to the welfare of the kingdom. Therefore, they deserved death. And unlike the Church, the state had no qualms about carrying out this sentence.

— 7 —

The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition

“Between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries in western Europe, the Latin Christian Church adapted certain elements of Roman legal procedure and charged papally appointed clergy to employ them in order to preserve orthodox religious beliefs from the attacks of heretics … Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries … these procedures, personnel and institutions were transformed by polemic and fiction into myth, the myth of The Inquisition. The institutions and the myth lived — and developed – in western Europe and the New World until the early nineteenth century, when most of the inquisitions were abolished, and the myth itself was universalized …

Although the inquisitions disappeared, The Inquisition did not. The myth was originally devised to serve variously the political purposes of a number of early modern political regimes, as well as Protestant Reformers, proponents of religious and civil toleration, philosophical enemies of the civil power of organized religions, and progressive modernists; but the myth remained durable, widely adaptable, and useful, so that in time it came to be woven tightly into the fabric of modern consciousness. So tight is its place in that weave that the myth has been revived in the twentieth century …

Some myths are tougher and more durable than the occasions which first create and employ them. The Inquisition [as myth] was an invention of the religious disputes and political conflicts of the sixteenth century. It was adapted to the causes of religious toleration and philosophical and political enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this process, although it was always anti-Catholic and usually anti-Spanish, it tended to become universalized, until, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become the representative of all repressive religions that opposed freedom of conscience, political liberty and philosophical enlightenment.

In the United States, far more than in Europe, The Inquisition remained an evil abstraction, sustained by anti-Catholicism and supported by political opposition.”8

In 1994 the BBC broadcast a television documentary entitled, The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition. It is just over 45 minutes long, free to watch on YouTube, and I highly recommend it. Enjoy!

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  1. Peters, Edward. “Inquisition”, p. 54. 

  2. The reference to “hounds” draws on the tradition that St. Dominic’s mother, while pregnant with him, had a vision of a black and white dog with a torch in its mouth; wherever the dog went, it set fire to the earth. It was explained that the vision was fulfilled when Dominic and his followers went forth, clad in black and white, setting fire to the earth with the Gospel. In English, the word “hound” has two further meanings that may be drawn upon. A hound is loyal, and the Dominicans have a reputation as obedient servants of the faith. And a hound pursues its quarry (“hounds”), with perhaps a sometimes negative connotation or reference to the order’s involvement with the Holy Inquisition. 

  3. The Real Inquisition, National Review Online, Thomas F. Madden. 

  4. Maycock, The Inquisition, 128-29 

  5. The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, BBC 

  6. Jimmy Swaggart, Catholicism and Christianity, pg. 31 

  7. Gustav Henningsen, The Database of the Spanish Inquisition. The relaciones de causas project revisited, in: Heinz Mohnhaupt, Dieter Simon, Vorträge zur Justizforschung, Vittorio Klostermann, 1992, pp. 43-85. 

  8. Edward Peters, Professor of Medieval History, University of Pennsylvania, “Inquisition”, published 1988 by the Free Press (pp. 1, 2, 231, 263, 308)  

  8 comments for “7 Myths about the Inquisition

  1. August 29, 2014 at 2:36 AM

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting this, because I have learnt little differently in my Medieval History class. Catholicism always scared me.

    Inquisition is very barbaric, I can’t change my opinion, but it’s important to know that Catholic Church is not to blame entirely.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      August 29, 2014 at 6:35 AM

      Sophie, thanks for the response! I think at the very least I have come to realize that it was a different world then and it doesn’t make sense to try and judge the past based on our current sensibilities. It’s odd, because I am glad that inquisitions of this sort no longer take place, but also deeply concerned by the pervasive religious and moral relativism of our day, and the rampant heresy within Christianity itself. It seems to me that any sense of “orthodox” or “heretical” has died with the inquisition – and I am not sure that that is a good thing at all.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      August 29, 2014 at 7:14 AM

      Sophie – I also wanted to say that I understand that the Jews were not necessarily treated fairly during this time by the Spanish government, and that the Church was unfortunately involved in this unfair treatment. And, for that I am truly sorry.

  2. August 29, 2014 at 6:47 AM

    History is repeating itself. Muslims are again killing innocents all over the world. They are again threatening to destabilize nations from within with sleeper cells of terrorism (Ever heard of the “maranos”.

    The threat is so large that after 911, the US, a Protestant country, felt it necessary to begin more aggressive questioning of imprisoned Muslim terrorists. (A program which could be called an “inquisition”.)

    And persecuted Christians are again calling their brothers to come to their aid. (Crusades)

    • Adam N. Crawford
      August 29, 2014 at 7:18 AM

      De Maria – I agree that there is certainly a parallel between the events that led to the Crusades and what is currently taking in place in Iraq with the ISIS persecution of Christians. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Christopher Chackman
    July 22, 2017 at 10:25 PM

    Truth is their were many Inquisitions throughout history. Spain was one of many. The death toll was closer to the hundreds of thousands, if you combine all of the countries and time periods involved not including the many other atrocities of Christianity and Islam, namely the Crusades. Point is when greedy and corrupt people got their hands on propaganda as deceptive and ingenious as the Malleus Malificarum people died as a result. Doesn’t matter if it was one person who was tortured or one hundred thousand. What these people did to the innocent is flat out wrong and unforgivable. Anyone who uses their religious beliefs to justify murder is a hypocrite and a disgrace to humanity.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      August 4, 2017 at 10:19 AM

      Christopher – thanks for the comment. I must confess that I am a little confused by your remarks. You state that the, “Truth is their were many Inquisitions throughout history. Spain was one of many.” but that is one of the very points I make in my article. Please refer to myths one and two above.

      As to your second claim that, “The death toll was closer to the hundreds of thousands, if you combine all of the countries and time periods involved not including the many other atrocities of Christianity and Islam, namely the Crusades.” You seem to be conflating and combining two very different events, the Crusades (also not a single event, but rather wars which took place over centuries) and the Inquisition (an institution which still exists today.) You also seem to be conflating and combining two very different religions, namely Islam and Christianity?!

      If interested, I would refer you to another article I wrote: 7 Myths About the Crusades

      God bless.

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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