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The Medieval Inquisition is a series of Inquisitions (Roman Catholic Church bodies charged with suppressing heresy) from around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). It was in response to large popular movements throughout Europe considered apostate or heretical to Christianity, in particular Catharism and Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy. These were the first inquisition movements of many that would follow.

The Medieval Inquisitions were in response to growing religious movements, in particular the Cathars first noted in the 1140s and the Waldensians starting around 1170, in southern Francemarker and northern Italymarker. Individual "Heretics", such as Peter of Bruis, had often challenged the Church. However, the Cathars were the first mass heretical organization in the second millennium that posed a serious threat to the authority of the Church.


All major medieval inquisitions were decentralized. Authority rested with local officials based on guidelines from the Holy See, but there was no central top-down authority running the inquisitions, as would be the case in post-medieval inquisitions. Thus there were many different types of inquisitions depending on the location and methods; historians have generally classified them into the episcopal inquisition and the papal inquisition.

The first medieval inquisition, the episcopal inquisition, was established in the year 1184 by a papal bull entitled Ad abolendam, "For the purpose of doing away with." The inquisition was in response to the growing Catharist heresy in southern Francemarker. It is called "episcopal" because it was administered by local bishops, which in Latin is episcopus. The episcopal inquisition was not very effective for many reasons. The bishops often did not reside in their dioceses, living in far-off cities such as Rome and rarely, if ever, visiting. When they did visit, bishops were busy and had many other responsibilities. Also, the procedures used in this inquisition were not effective. For example, according to the Ad abolendam, it was required to reveal the name of the accuser to the accused, and this would often lead to the revenge killing of the accuser before the trial.

In the 1230s, Pope Gregory IX responded to the failures of the episcopal inquisition with a series of papal bulls which became the papal inquisition. The papal inquisition was staffed by professionals, trained specifically for the job. Individuals were chosen from different orders and secular clergy, but primarily they came from the Dominican Order. The Dominicans were favored for their history of anti-heresy, education, and skill in debate. As mendicants, they were accustomed to travel and not interested in personal gain. Unlike the haphazard episcopal methods, the papal inquisition was thorough and systematic, keeping detailed records. Some of the most useful documents from the Middle Ages involving first-person speech by medieval peasants come from papal inquisition records.

In northern Europe the Inquisition was considerably more benign: in the Scandinavian countries it had hardly any impact. It existed in the kingdom of Aragonmarker during this period, but not elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula. The Inquisition was never instituted in Englandmarker, but Christopher Columbus carried it with him to the New World. In the Early Modern period, during the turmoils of the Protestant Reformation, "witchhunts" became an issue, particularly in northern Europe, mostly outside the formal institution of the Inquisition.

Persecutions against heretic movements

The spread of heretic movements from the 12th century, can be seen at least in part as a reaction to the increasing moral corruption of the clergy, which included illegal marriages and the possession of wealth.In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition's main focus was to eradicate these new sects. Thus its range of action was predominantly set in Italy and France, where such sects had settled. The two main heretic movements of the period were the Cathars and the Waldensians.

The former were mostly in south of France, in cities like Toulouse. They appear to have been originally founded by some soldiers from Second Crusade, who, on their way back, were converted by a Bulgarian sect, the Bogomils.Cathars' main heresy was their belief in dualism: the evil God created the materialistic world and the good God created the spiritual world. Therefore, Cathars preached poverty, chastity, modesty and all those values which in their view helped people to detach themselves from materialism.

The Waldensians were mostly in Germany and North Italy. In contrast with the Cathars and in line with the Church, they believed in only one God, but they did not recognize priesthood nor the veneration (not synonymous with worship) of saints and martyrs, which were part of the Church's orthodoxy.The other two main sects of the period, which preached against the moral corruption of the Church, were the Dominicans and the Franciscans. However, instead of persecuting them, Pope Innocent III decided to employ them in the fight against heresy. As a result, many Franciscans and Dominicans became inquisitors. For example, Robert le Bougre, the "Hammer of Heretics" (Malleus Haereticorum), was a Dominican friar who became an inquisitor known for his cruelty and violence. Another example was the case of the province of Venice, which was handed to the Franciscan inquisitors, who quickly became notorious for their frauds against the Church, by enriching with confiscated property from the heretics and the selling of absolutions. Because of their corruption, they were eventually forced by the Pope to suspend their activities in 1302.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, two other movements attracted the attention of the Inquisition, the Knights Templars and the Beguines.

It is not clear if the process against the Templars was initiated by the Inquisition on the basis of suspected heresy or if the inquisition itself was exploited by the king of France, Philip the Fair, who wanted the knights' wealth. In the search for Templars, two inquisitors were also sent to the British Isles. This is the only instance of inquisitorial action in the British Isles and not a successful one, mainly because the inquisitors could not instigate false confessions through torture, as its use was forbidden by common law.

The Beguines were mainly a women's movement and had previously been recognized by the Church since their foundation in the thirteenth century as mystics. However, with the Council of Vienna in the fourteenth century, they were proclaimed heretics and persecuted, with large numbers being burned at the stake in Narbonne, Toulouse and other French cities. They were also attacked in Germany, the first attempt of the Inquisition to operate in the area.A possible explanation of this shift is that, after the successful extirpation of the Cathars, the Inquisition needed new heresies to fight against and new revenues to sustain itself. Thus it directed its attention to pseudo-heretic movements.Another aspect of the medieval Inquisition is that little attention was paid to sorcery. In fact several Popes were suspected of having a strong interest or practice alchemy and it was only with John XXII, who was himself suspected of being a magician, that sorcery became another form of heresy and thus liable of persecution by the Inquisition.

Persecutions against individuals

Joan of Arc

In 1430 Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, promoted a trial against Joan of Arc, also known as the "Maid of Orleans", a woman who, since her involvement in 1429 had subverted in fifteen months the course of the war between the English and the French, by liberating Orleans and defeating the English invaders on several occasions.

The reasons behind this process were politically motivated. Cauchon aspired to become cardinal, but to obtain this and further recognitions, he needed the support of the King of England and the Duke of Bedford, who in turn needed to rid themselves of Joan. Furthermore, giving to her victories a diabolic origin would have been a conceivable way to alleviate their men's morale. Thus the decision to involve the Inquisition, which therefore did not instigate the trial and in fact showed a reluctance throughout its duration.Seventy charges were brought against her, including accusations of witchcraft and dressing as a male. Joan was first condemned to life imprisonment and the deputy-inquisitor, Jean Le Maitre, obtained from her assurances of relinquishing her male clothes. However, after four days, in which she was allegedly tortured by English soldiers and possibly raped, she refused again to wear female clothes, which was seen as a sign of her return to heresy. She was therefore burnt at the stake two days later, on 30 May 1431.

In 1455, by the order of King Charles VII of France, who Joan had publicly supported, a rehabilitation trial was opened in Notre Dame at Paris to investigate the dubious circumstances which led to Joan's execution. The Inquisitor-General of France, was put in charge of the trial. After a careful analysis of all the proceedings, including Joan's answers to the allegations, he pronounced null her condemnation. Joan of Arc was eventually canonized in 1920. The rehabilitation of Joan of Arc, was also unprecedented in the previous history of the Inquisition, reflecting a clear signal in the decline of the medieval Inquisition in France.

Inquisition procedure

The papal inquisition developed a number of procedures to discover and prosecute heretics.


When a papal inquisition arrived at a town it had a set of procedures and rules to identify likely heretics. First, the townspeople would be gathered in a public place. Although attendance was voluntary, those who failed to show would automatically be suspect, so most would come. The inquisitors would provide an opportunity for anyone to step forward and denounce themselves in exchange for easy punishment. As part of this bargain they would need to inform on other heretics. In addition, the inquisitors could simply force people to be interrogated. Once information had been gathered, an inquisitorial trial could begin.


The inquisitorial trial generally favored the prosecution (the Church). The accused was expected to self-incriminate and did not have the right to face and question the accuser. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and convicted heretics. Blood relationship did not exempt one from the duty to testify against the accused. The inquisitor could keep a defendant in prison for years before the trial to obtain new information.

Despite the seeming unfairness of the procedures, the inquisitors did provide some rights to the defendant. At the beginning of the trial, defendants were invited to name those who had "mortal hatred" against them. If the accusers were among those named, the defendant was set free and the charges dismissed; the accusers would face life imprisonment. This option was meant to keep the inquisition from becoming involved in local grudges. A confession under torture was not admissible in court, although the inquisitor could threaten the accused with torture during the proceedings.


Torture was used after 1252. On May 15, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull entitled Ad exstirpanda, which authorized the use of torture by inquisitors. Torture methods that resulted in bloodshed, mutilation or death were forbidden. Also, torture could be performed only once. However, it was common practice to consider a second torture session to be a "continuation" of the first. People were also tortured by getting hung by their wrists, and have weights hung from their ankles.


Among the possible punishments were a long pilgrimage for first offenders, wearing a yellow cross for life, confiscation of property, banishment, public recantation, or long-term imprisonment. Burning at the stake was only for the most serious cases, including repeat offenders and unrepentant heretics. Execution was done not by the Church, which was forbidden to kill, but by secular officials. The accused could have all of his property confiscated, and in many cases, accusers may have been motivated by a desire to take the property of the accused.

The inquisitors generally preferred not to hand over heretics to the secular arm for execution if they could persuade the heretic to repent: Ecclesia non novit sanguinem. It was in the inquisitors' interest to be perceived as merciful, and they generally preferred to keep defendants alive, even while almost torturing them to death, in hopes of obtaining confessions. For example, Bernard Gui, a famous inquisitor working in the area of Toulousemarker (in modern France), executed 42 people out of over 900 guilty verdicts in fifteen years of office. Execution was to admit defeat, that the Church was unable to save a soul from heresy, which was the goal of the inquisition.


The inquisitions in combination with the brutal Albigensian Crusade were fairly successful in eliminating mass heresy. When they started, the heretical sects were quite strong and growing, but by the 14th century the Waldensians had been driven underground and the Cathars had been slaughtered en masse or forced to recant. Some residents of the Pays Cathare identify themselves as Cathars even today. They claim to be descended from the Cathars of the Middle Ages. However, the delivering of the consolamentum, on which historical Catharism was based, required a linear succession by a bon homme in good standing. It is believed that one of the last known bons hommes, Guillaume Belibaste, was burned in 1321.

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