Historical revision of the Inquisition

Historical revision of the Inquisition is a historiographical project that has emerged in recent years. In the last forty years, with opening of formerly closed archives, the development of new historical methodologies, and, in Spain, the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, new works of historical revisionism have reread the history of the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions.

Writers associated with this project share the view of Edward Peters, a prominent historian in the field, who states: "The Inquisition was an image assembled from a body of legends and myths which, between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, established the perceived character of inquisitorial tribunals and influenced all ensuing efforts to recover their historical reality.

Significant works

The two most significant and extensively cited sources of this revised analysis of the historiography of the inquisitorial proceedings are Inquisition (1988) by Edward Peters and The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision (1997) by Henry Kamen. These works focus on exposing and correcting the revisionist and misinterpreted histories that surround the inquisitions today. The following research is an attempt to present Peters’s and Kamen’s ideas by discussing some of the most popular and misguided opinions about the inquisitions held by modern society.

Understanding inquisitions

Because the inquisitorial process was not based on tolerant principles and doctrines such as freedom of thought and freedom of religion that became prominent in Western thinking during the eighteenth century, modern society has an inherent difficulty in understanding the inquisitorial institutions. From the Middle Ages well into the seventeenth century in Catholic Europe, the law stated that the worst offence one could commit was that which threatened the unity and security of the Catholic Church, and most importantly, the salvation of souls. Uniformity of worship does not appear to have been the motivation for setting up the Spanish Inquisition at all. “The Inquisition can only be understood within the framework of the centuries of its existence, when religious uniformity and orthodoxy and obedience to authority were enforced by almost all political and religious institutions, and were considered essential for the very survival of society" (Hitchcock 1996).

Regardless of the century, inquisitions were ecclesial investigations conducted either directly by the Catholic Church or by secular authorities with the support of the Church. These investigations were undertaken at varying times in varying regions under the authority of the local bishop and his designates or under the sponsorship of papal-appointed legates. The purpose of each inquisition was specific to the outstanding circumstances of the region in which it was held. Investigations usually involved a legal process, the goal of which was to obtain a confession and reconciliation with the Church from those who were accused of heresy or of participating in activities contrary to Church Canon law. The objectives of the inquisitions were to secure the repentance of the accused and to maintain the authority of the Church. Inquisitions were conducted with the collaboration of secular authorities. If an investigation resulted in a person being convicted of heresy and unwillingness to repent punishment was administered by the secular authorities.

The Inquisitions in France

Cathars and Waldensians

The two heresies that gave birth to the French medieval inquisitions were that of the Cathars (also known as the Albigensians) and the Waldensians. The Cathars essentially believed that a “good god” created everything heavenly while an “evil god” – the God of the Old Testament – created the material world with the Church acting as its vehicle (Horvat 1998: 4). The Waldensians rejected the sacramental authority of the Church and its clerics and encouraged apostolic poverty (Peters 1988: 43). These movements became particularly popular in Southern France as well as Northern Italy and parts of Germany. Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century often pointed to these movements as part of an underground reformed Church that had been the victim of persecution for centuries even though the Cathars and the Waldensians had an unquestionably non-Reformed, dualistic perception of God (Peters 1988: 123).

The "Grand Program"

During the eleventh century, a new wave of religiosity swept through Europe. It claimed that the prospect of salvation in the world would greatly increase if the world were reformed. In addition, the papacy itself underwent reform at the end of the eleventh century and the Church began devising its “grand program of sanctifying the world” (Peters 1988: 40). This “grand program” was a combination of the Church’s need to reform its institutional life, free itself from secular control, and to build a Christian society. There was also a growing opinion that those who rebelled from the church's beliefs (heretics) or those who behaved in a manner that was “un-Christian” were not simply souls led astray in a “temptation-filled world, but [were] subverters of the world’s new course” (Peters 1988: 40).

Until the late twelfth century, the investigation of heresy was considered the responsibility of local churches and it was held that local secular authorities would prosecute heretics. However, in 1179, the Church’s “grand program of sanctifying the world” saw the creation of The Third Lateran Council that included a canon condemning heretics (Peters 1988: 47). In 1184, Pope Lucius III issued the Ad abolendam, labeled "the founding charter of the inquisition," that called for those found as heretics by the local church to be turned over to secular courts (Peters 1988: 47). Finally, in 1199, Pope Innocent III equated heresy with treason and in 1208 called for a “crusade” against the Albigensians (Peters 1988: 50).

The "Albigensian Crusade"

According to Peters the violence of the following “Albigensian Crusade” was not in line with the reforms and plans of Innocent, who stressed confession, reform of the clergy and laity, and pastoral teachings to oppose heresy (Peters 1988: 50-51). Peters asserts that the violence was due to the “crusade” being under the control of mobs, petty rulers, and local bishops who did not uphold Innocent’s ideas, armies from northern France swept through the south and essentially eradicated the Albigensians. The uncontainable, prejudicial passion of local mobs and heresy hunters, the violence of secular courts, and the bloodshed of the Albigensian crusade sparked a desire within the papacy to implement greater control over the prosecution of heresy. This desire led to the development of organized legal procedures for dealing with heretics (Peters 1988: 52-58).

Codes and torture

The new codes and procedures detailed how an inquisitorial court was to function. If the accused renounced their heresy and returned to the Church, forgiveness was granted and a penance was imposed. If the accused upheld their heresy, they were excommunicated and turned over to secular authorities. The penalties for heresy, though not as severe as the secular courts of Europe at the time, were codified within the ecclesial courts as well (e.g. confiscation of property, turning heretics over to the secular courts for punishment) (Horvat 1998: 7; Peters 1988: 58-67). Additionally, the various “key terms” of the inquisitorial courts were defined at this time, including, for example, “heretics,” “believers,” “those suspect of heresy,” “those simply suspected,” “those vehemently suspected,” and “those most vehemently suspected” (Peters 1988: 63).

Generally, inquisitorial courts functioned much like the secular courts of the time, though their sentences and penances were less cruel.(Peters 1988: 65) A number of procedures and protections restricted the torture of the accused and capital punishment was executed by secular authorities in light of the clerical prohibition on shedding blood.(Peters 1988: 45) However, much inhumane torture could nonetheless be inflicted. Torture was not used as a form of punishment, as was frequent in secular courts. Any confession made following or during torture had to be freely repeated the next day without torture or it was considered invalid (Peters 1988: 65). “Technically, therefore, torture was strictly a means of obtaining the only full proof available…[The inquisitors’] tasks were not only – or even primarily – to convict the contumacious heretic, but…to preserve the unity of the Church” (Peters 1988: 65).

After the suppression of the Albigensian heresy in southern France in the thirteenth century, inquisitorial trials diminished in the face of more pressing local needs and any lingering trials were left to secular authorities. Inquisitorial courts conducted under local episcopacies worked closely with local secular authorities and dealt with local circumstances. Regional control of the inquisitorial process and regional concerns became dominant (Peters 1988: 74). By the mid to late fourteenth century, papal-commissioned inquisitors were dissolved in many parts of Europe.

The Inquisitions in Spain

Antisemitism and the "conversos"

Antisemitic attitudes increased all over Europe during the late thirteenth century and throughout the fourteenth century. England and France expelled their Jewish populations in 1290 and 1306 respectively (Peters 1988: 79). At the same time, during the Reconquista, Spain’s anti-Jewish sentiment steadily increased. This prejudice climaxed in the summer of 1391 when violent anti-Jewish riots broke out in Spanish cities like Barcelona (Peters 1988: 82). These mob riots led to major forced conversions of Jews to Christianity. To distinguish them from non-converted or long-established Christian families, new converts were labeled conversos, or New Christians. These distinctions formed part of the limpieza de sangre ("blood purity") doctrine.

Peters writes,

“From the mid fifteenth century on, religious anti-Semitism changed into ethnic anti-Semitism, with little difference seen between Jews and conversos except for the fact that conversos were regarded as worse than Jews because, as ostensible Christians, they had acquired privileges and positions that were denied to Jews. The result of this new ethnic anti-Semitism was the invocation of an inquisition to ferret out the false conversos who had, by becoming formal Christians, placed themselves under its authority” (Peters 1988: 84).

It was a heated mixture of this racial and religious prejudice against the conversos that ignited what later became known as the “Spanish Inquisition.”

Papal Bull

Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella requested a papal bull establishing an inquisition in Spain in 1478 in response to the unrest and mob violence against the conversos. Pope Sixtus IV granted a bull permitting the monarchs to select and appoint two or three priests over forty years of age to act as inquisitors (Peters 1988: 85). In 1483, Ferdinand and Isabella established a state council to administer the inquisition with the Dominican Friar Tomás de Torquemada acting as its president, even though Sixtus IV protested the activities of the inquisition in Aragon and its treatment of the conversos. Torquemada eventually assumed the title of Inquisitor-General (Peters 1988: 89).

The main heresy prosecuted during the period of inquisitions in Spain was the alleged secret practice of Judaism among the conversos. From the establishment of the inquisitions up to 1530, it is estimated that approximately 2,000 “heretics” were turned over to the secular authorities for execution in Spain (Kamen 1997: 74). Many of those convicted of heresy were conversos who fled Spain, often to Italy where conversos were not subject to prejudice (Peters 1988: 110).

There were so few Protestants in Spain that widespread persecution of Protestantism was not physically possible. In the 1560s, a little over one hundred people in Spain were convicted of Protestantism and were turned over to the secular authorities for execution. From 1560 to 1599, two hundred more people were accused of being followers of Martin Luther. “Most of them were in no sense Protestants...Irreligious sentiments, drunken mockery, anticlerical expressions, were all captiously classified by the inquisitors (or by those who denounced the cases) as ‘Lutheran’” (Kamen 1997: 98).

Procedure and torture

Evidence and witness testimony was gathered before an arrest was made. Once an arrest was made, the accused was given several opportunities to admit to any heretical behavior before the charges against him/her were identified. If the accused did not admit to any wrongdoing, the inquisitors dictated the charges and the accused was required to respond to them immediately (Peters 1988: 93). Torture was used; however, it was allowed solely in cases that involved charges of religious heresy only. Because many inquisitorial trials did not involve heresy alone, torture was relatively rare. Additionally, the restrictions on torture in the inquisitorial courts were much more stringent than those that regulated the torture in the secular courts. Torture was only used for extracting confessions during a trial and was not used as punishment after sentencing. If torture was utilized, the accused was required to repeat their repentance freely and without torture (Peters 1988: 92-93). The Inquisition also had a rule that they were only allowed to use torture once, however, they were able to 'suspend' sessions and resume them the following day, so that this rule was effectively negated.

As seen in the French inquisitions, the purpose of Spanish inquisitorial torture was to gain either information or confession, not to punish. It was used in a relatively small percentage of trials, since of course the threat of torture if no confession was given was often enough to induce one, and was usually a last resort (Kamen 1997: 174-192). The “scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers on the inquisition have little basis in reality, though the whole procedure was unpleasant enough [even] to arouse periodic protests from Spaniards” (Kamen 1997: 189).

The auto de fe

The auto de fe that followed trials is the most infamous and misunderstood part of the inquisitions in Spain. The auto de fe involved prayer, a Catholic mass, a public procession of those found guilty, and a reading of their sentences (Peters 1988: 93-94). Artistic representations of the auto de fe usually depict torture and the burning at the stake. These paintings became a major source for creating the violent image popularly associated with the Spanish inquisitions. However, this type of activity never took place during an auto de fe, which was in essence a religious act. Torture was not administered after a trial concluded and executions were always held after and separate from the auto de fe (Kamen 1997: 192-213).

Between 1550 and 1800, the inquisitions in Spain focused on not only Protestants, but also the conversos, the supervision of their own clergy, the general problem of non-mainstream religious beliefs among Catholics, and “blasphemous” or “scandalous” behavior (Peters 1988: 86). Spanish inquisitions were not exceptionally different from other European courts of the time in their prosecution of these offences, as many of these charges were viewed as part of a broad class of moral crimes that raised legitimate concern to spiritual and secular courts in an age when religion was regarded as the fundamental foundation of society (Peters 1988: 87).

The Inquisitions in Italy


Increasing trends in regionalism, the criticism of ecclesiastical abuses, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Schism all contributed to the emergence of new religious dissent and unrest in fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy. Furthermore, widespread ecclesiastical and clerical reform advanced through the last decades of the fifteenth century, and by the second decade of the sixteenth century, reform movements prevailed in many parts of Europe (Peters 1988: 106).

The protests raised by Martin Luther that began in 1517 did not initially receive much attention from the papacy (Peters 1988: 107). Luther and his supporters concreted the principles of the Protestant Reformation during the 1520s, sparking the development of many reform movements in various regions of Italy. By the time of the pontificate of Paul III, the Reform movement had swept much of Europe away from the Catholic Church. In response, Paul III issued the Licet ab initio, establishing inquisitions in Rome in 1542 (Peters 1988: 108). These inquisitions consisted of six cardinals given the authority to investigate heresy and to appoint deputies when they deemed necessary.

The creation of the Holy Office

Although the Roman inquisitions worked moderately and guardedly during the remainder of the pontificate of Paul III, they became an essential part of the structure of Rome when Paul IV, who became pope in 1555, launched the Counter-Reformation that Paul III began (Peters 1988: 108). Later, in 1588, Pope Sixtus V officially organized the inquisitions into the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition or Holy Office (Peters 1988: 109). It is important to note, however, that this was only one of fifteen administrative departments of the papal government and was not the sole operating body of the Church.

"Heresies" of the Italian Inquisitions

Even though the inquisitions in Spain prosecuted a small quantity of Reformers, the Roman inquisitions were the first to target intentionally and specifically the “heresy” of Protestantism. These inquisitions and their subordinate tribunals were generally successful in keeping any substantial Protestant influence from spreading throughout Italy (Peters 1988: 110). Protestants in the decades and centuries to come would use this relatively short-lived persecution as the basis for their accusations about the awful “Inquisition.” Protestant movements were reduced by around 1600, so for the duration of the seventeenth century the Roman inquisitions turned their focus to offences other than Protestantism, notably “magical” heresy (Peters 1988: 111).

In many trials involving “witchcraft” or “sorcery,” “the inquisitors understood very well that the lack of catechesis or consistent pastoral guidance could often result in misunderstandings of doctrine and liturgy, and they showed tolerance of all but the most unavoidably serious circumstances. Thus, although both the Spanish and Roman inquisitions prosecuted the offenses of witchcraft and sorcery very early and vigorously, they also were the first courts to be skeptical of the evidence and mechanism of witchcraft accusations, and they consistently offered the most lenient treatment to marginal cases” (Peters 1988: 111).

Evolution of the Holy Office

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Congregation of the Holy Office had virtually no power or influence outside the Papal States (Peters 1988: 119). Its main function shifted yet again to the investigation of clerical immorality and corruption and to the censoring of printed books, the latter of which was the key responsibility of the Congregation of the Index (Peters 1988: 119). By 1860, the restrictions placed upon ecclesiastical authority and the emerging national Italian state only further reduced the activities of the Holy Office. With its powers reduced to the weakened Papal State, the Office became an advisory committee to the late nineteenth century popes, where it played a far greater advisory than executive role (Peters 1988: 120).

In 1965 Pope Paul VI changed the Office’s name to The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and abolished the Congregation of the Index entirely in 1966. Since then, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has functioned as a papal advisor on theological matters and on matters of ecclesiastical discipline. “Although its work is regular, the Congregation can now hardly be thought of as an Inquisition” (Peters 1988: 120).

The Creation of "The Inquisition"

The modern day notion of a unified and horrible “Inquisition” is an assemblage of the “body of legends and myths which, between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, established the perceived character of inquisitorial tribunals and influenced all ensuing efforts to recover their historical reality” (Peters 1988: 122). It was the relatively limited persecution of Protestants, mostly by the inquisitions in Spain and Italy, that provoked the first image of “The Inquisition” as the most violent and suppressive vehicle of the Church against Protestantism. Later, philosophical critics of religious persecution and the Catholic Church only furthered this image during the Enlightenment (Peters 1988: 122).

"A Protestant Vision..."

What made it possible for the Reformers to characterize “The Inquisition” was the clerical organization and support of the inquisitions in Spain and Italy, their “united” success in keeping Protestant doctrines out of their countries, and the fear of “The Inquisition” being initiated in other parts of Europe. “As a Protestant vision of Christian history took shape in the sixteenth century, the contemporary inquisitions were identified with the inquisitorial tribunals of the medieval past, and the Protestant Reformers with earlier victims of The Inquisition ” (Peters 1988: 122). Additionally, Catholic defenders of the inquisitorial process used the same argument – that the Reformers were no different from medieval heretics and should be prosecuted in the same manner – thus perpetuating the idea of a continuous, masterminded, “Inquisition” (Peters 1988: 123).

Within the climate of religious persecution that clouded much of the sixteenth century, martyrdom became a Protestant narrative of religious struggle against the Catholic Church, especially Catholic Spain. Reformers presented “The Inquisition” as a unified, papal-dominated process that lasted from the thirteenth century through the seventeenth century. They created accounts of Protestant martyrs and a “hidden” Church, which produced extreme anti-Catholic attitudes (Peters 1988: 123). Additionally, European political resentment against Spain, which was the greatest power in Europe at the time, took focus on “The Inquisition.” This resentment and the resulting anti-“Inquisition” propaganda that was published came to a head during the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain (Peters 1988: 144).

The Revolt of the Netherlands

By around 1550, the Dutchprinting press and propaganda turned to the service of political reform, with The Inquisition as a major focus, on…a wide scale and with…devastating effects” (Peters 1988: 144). Even though the Dutch organized their own state-run inquisitions, it was feared that King Philip II would implement a new “Spanish Inquisition” in the Netherlands to eliminate Protestantism. Popular literature, circulating pamphlets, and other images painted the picture of a widespread, awful “Spanish Inquisition.” Eventually, “The Inquisition” became viewed as the primary instrument of Catholic tyranny, not only of Protestants, but also of freedom of thought and religion in general.


In 1567, the Spanish Protestant Antonio del Corro, a close relative of an inquisitor and ferocious enemy of the Spanish Inquisition, published A Discovery and Plaine Declaration of Sundry Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spain under the pseudonym Reginaldus Gonzalvus Montanus (Peters 1988: 133). This document, along with a number of successive publications, was reprinted and translated throughout Europe and became the definitive source on “The Inquisition” for hundreds of years. “Montanus portray[ed] every victim of the Inquisition as innocent, every Inquisition official as venal and deceitful, [and] every step in its procedure as a violation of natural and rational law” (Peters 1988: 134). The majority of the “histories” about “The Inquisition” written after 1567 relied on Montanus as their main source.

William of Orange

Also cited as one of the most famous documents supporting the myth of “The Inquisition” is the Apologie of William of Orange, published in 1581 (Peters 1988: 153). Written by the French Huguenot Pierre Loyseleur de Villiers, the Apologie also narrated an horrific “Spanish Inquisition.” This document preserved and reinforced all of the anti-“Inquisition” propaganda generated at the beginning and throughout the Dutch revolt (Peters 1988: 153).

The Black Legend

During this time, England, under the rule of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and threatened with military attacks from Spain, found a new surge of nationalism being fueled by anti-Catholic propaganda centered on a series of books and pamphlets that detailed the horror of the “Spanish Inquisition” (Peters 1988: 139-144). Peters writes, “An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth-century Europe, borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries. Spaniards…have termed this process and the image that resulted from it as ‘The Black Legend,’ la leyenda negra” (Peters 1988: 131).

The Enlightenment and Art

By the seventeenth century, “The Inquisition” provided political and philosophical thinkers with an ideal symbol of religious intolerance. These philosophers and politicians passionately denounced “The Inquisition,” citing it as the cause for all the political and economic failures in countries where “Inquisitions” were held. From these debates on toleration, “The Inquisition” was presented by French philosophes as the worst of any religious evil to ever come out of Europe (Peters 1988: 155-154). Additionally, writers, artists, and sculptors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used “The Inquisition” as one of their main inspirations, retaliating against “The Inquisition’s” suppression of creativity, literature, and art (Peters 1988: 189). These artistic images have arguably become some of the most long-lasting and effective perpetuators of “The Inquisition” myth.

See also


  • Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
  • Bradley, Gerard. “One Cheer for Inquisitions.” Catholic Dossier. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 1996).
  • Carroll, Anne W. “The Inquisition.” Christ the King: Lord of History. Rockford Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers Inc, 1994. 207-211.
  • Hitchock, James. “Inquisition.” Catholic Dossier. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 1996).
  • Horvat, Marian. “The Holy Inquisition: Myth or Reality.” Catholic Family News. (Mar, 1998).
  • Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition : A Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
  • Kelly, Henry A. “Inquisition and the Prosecution of Heresy: Misconceptions and Abuses.” Church History. Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec, 1989). 439-451.
  • Madden, Thomas F. “The Real Inquisition: Investigating the Popular Myth.” National Review Online. June 18, 2004.
  • O’Connell, Marvin R. “The Spanish Inquisition: Fact Versus Fiction.” Catholic Dossier. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 1996).
  • Parker, Geoffrey. “Some Recent Work on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy.” The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sept, 1982). 519-532.
  • Rice, Ellen. “The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition.” Catholic Dossier. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov-Dec, 1996).
  • Sanchez, M. G. Anti-Spanish Sentiment in English Literary and Political Writing. (PhD Diss, University of Leeds, 2004).
  • Van Hove, S.J., Fr. Brian. “Beyond the Myth of The Inquisition: Ours is ‘The Golden Age’.” Faith and Reason. (Winter, 1992).


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