In order to understand the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the late 15th century, we must look briefly at its predecessor, the medieval Inquisition. Before we do, though, it’s worth pointing out that the medieval world was not the modern world. For medieval people, religion was not something one just did at church. It was their science, their philosophy, their politics, their identity, and their 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. Medieval Europeans were not alone in this view. It was shared by numerous cultures around the world. The modern practice of universal religious toleration is itself quite new and uniquely Western.
Secular and ecclesiastical leaders in medieval Europe approached heresy in different ways. Roman law equated heresy with treason. Why? Because kingship was God-given, thus making heresy an inherent challenge to royal authority. Heretics divided people, causing unrest and rebellion. No Christian doubted that God would punish a community that allowed heresy to take root and spread. Kings and commoners, therefore, had good reason to find and destroy heretics wherever they found them—and they did so with gusto.
One of the most enduring myths of the Inquisition is that it was a tool of oppression imposed on unwilling Europeans by a power-hungry Church. Nothing could be more wrong. In truth, the Inquisition brought order, justice, and compassion to combat rampant secular and popular persecutions of heretics. When the people of a village rounded up a suspected heretic and brought him before the local lord, how was he to be judged? How could an illiterate layman determine if the accused’s beliefs were heretical or not? And how were witnesses to be heard and examined?
The medieval Inquisition began in 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent a list of heresies to Europe’s bishops and commanded them to take an active role in determining whether those accused of heresy were, in fact, guilty. Rather than relying on secular courts, local lords, or just mobs, bishops were to see to it that accused heretics in their dioceses were examined by knowledgeable churchmen using Roman laws of evidence. In other words, they were to “inquire”—thus, the term “inquisition.”
From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep that had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring those sheep 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.
Most people accused of heresy by the medieval Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentence suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely departed out of hostility to the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to the secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Church did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.
As the power of medieval popes grew, so too did the extent and sophistication of the Inquisition. The introduction of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the early 13th century provided the papacy with a corps of dedicated religious willing to devote their lives to the salvation of the world. Because their order had been created to debate with heretics and preach the Catholic faith, the Dominicans became especially active in the Inquisition. Following the most progressive law codes of the day, the Church in the 13th century formed inquisitorial tribunals answerable to Rome rather than local bishops. To ensure fairness and uniformity, manuals were written for inquisitorial officials. Bernard Gui, best known today as the fanatical and evil inquisitor in The Name of the Rose, wrote a particularly influential manual. There is no reason to believe that Gui was anything like his fictional portrayal.
By the 14th century, the Inquisition represented the best legal practices available. Inquisition officials were university-trained specialists in law and theology. The procedures were similar to those used in secular inquisitions (we call them “inquests” today, but it’s the same word).
Thomas F. Madden, “The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition”, Crisis Magazine, 2003-10-01.