[in-kwuh-zish-uhn, ing-]
Inquisition, tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church established for the investigation of heresy.

The Medieval Inquisition

In the early Middle Ages investigation of heresy was a duty of the bishops. Alarmed especially by the spread of Albigensianism (see Albigenses), the popes issued increasingly stringent instructions as to the methods for dealing with heretics. Finally, in 1233, Pope Gregory IX established the papal Inquisition, dispatching Dominican friars to S France to conduct inquests.

When an inquisitor arrived, a month of grace was allowed to all who wished to confess to heresy and to recant; these were given a light penance, which was intended to confirm their faith. After the period of grace, persons accused of heresy who had not abjured were brought to trial. The defendants were not given the names of their accusers, but they could name their enemies and thus nullify any testimony by these persons. After 1254 the accused had no right to counsel, but those found guilty could appeal to the pope. The trials were conducted secretly in the presence of a representative of the bishop and of a stipulated number of local laymen. Torture of the accused and his witnesses soon became customary and notorious, despite the long-standing papal condemnation of torture (e.g., by Nicholas I); Innocent IV ultimately permitted torture in cases of heresy.

Most trials resulted in a guilty verdict, and the church handed the condemned over to the secular authorities for punishment. Burning at the stake was thought to be the fitting punishment for unrecanted heresy, probably through analogy with the Roman law on treason. However, the burning of heretics was not common in the Middle Ages; the usual punishments were penance, fine, and imprisonment. A verdict of guilty also meant the confiscation of property by the civil ruler, who might turn over part of it to the church. This practice led to graft, blackmail, and simony and also created suspicion of some of the inquests. Generally the inquisitors were eager to receive abjurations of heresy and to avoid trials. Secular rulers came to use the persecution of heresy as a weapon of state, as in the case of the suppression of the Knights Templars.

The Inquisition was an emergency device and was employed mainly in S France, N Italy, and Germany. In 1542, Paul III assigned the medieval Inquisition to the Congregation of the Inquisition, or Holy Office. This institution, which became known as the Roman Inquisition, was intended to combat Protestantism, but it is perhaps best known historically for its condemnation of Galileo. After the Second Vatican Conference, it was replaced (1965) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which governs vigilance in matters of faith.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was independent of the medieval Inquisition. It was established (1478) by Ferdinand and Isabella with the reluctant approval of Sixtus IV. One of the first and most notorious heads was Tomas de Torquemada. It was entirely controlled by the Spanish kings, and the pope's only hold over it was in naming the inquisitor general. The popes were never reconciled to the institution, which they regarded as usurping a church prerogative.

The purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to discover and punish converted Jews (and later Muslims) who were insincere. However, soon no Spaniard could feel safe from it; thus, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Theresa of Ávila were investigated for heresy. The censorship policy even condemned books approved by the Holy See. The Spanish Inquisition was much harsher, more highly organized, and far freer with the death penalty than the medieval Inquisition; its autos-da-fé became notorious. The Spanish government tried to establish the Inquisition in all its dominions; but in the Spanish Netherlands the local officials did not cooperate, and the inquisitors were chased (1510) out of Naples, apparently with the pope's connivance. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in 1834.


See E. M. Peters, Torture (1985) and Inquisition (1988). For the Spanish Inquisition, see studies by A. S. Tuberville (1932, repr. 1968), C. Roth (1938, repr. 1964), R. E. Greenleaf (1969), P. J. Hauber (1969), H. A. F. Kamen (1965 and 1998), and E. Peters (1989).

The term Inquisition can refer to any one of several institutions charged with trying and convicting heretics within the Roman Catholic Church and sometimes other offenders against canon law. It may refer to:

  1. an ecclesiastical tribunal
  2. the institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy
  3. a number of historical expurgation movements against heresy (orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church)
  4. the trial of an individual accused of heresy.

Inquisition tribunals and institutions

Before the 12th century, the Western Christian Church already suppressed what it saw as heresy, usually through a system of ecclesiastical proscription or imprisonment, but rarely resorting to torture or executions as this form of punishment had many ecclesiastical opponents, although some non-secular countries punished heresy with death penalty.

In the 12th century, in order to counter the spread of Catharism, prosecutions against heresy became more frequent. The Church charged councils composed of bishops and archbishops with establishing inquisitions. (see Episcopal Inquisition)

In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX (reigned 1227-1241) assigned the duty of carrying out inquisitions to the Dominican Order. Inquisitors acted in the name of the Pope and with his full authority. They used inquisitorial procedures, a legal practice commonly used at the time. They judged heresy alone, using the local authorities to establish a tribunal and to prosecute heretics. After the end of the fifteenth century, a Grand Inquisitor headed each Inquisition. Inquisition in this way persisted until the 19th century.

In the 16th century, Pope Paul III established a system of tribunals, ruled by the "Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition", and staffed by cardinals and other Church officials. This system would later become known as the Roman Inquisition. In 1908 Saint Pope Pius X renamed the organisation: it became the "Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office". This in its turn became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965, which name continues to this day.


A 1578 handbook for inquisitors spelled out the purpose of inquisitorial penalties: ... quoniam punitio non refertur primo & per se in correctionem & bonum eius qui punitur, sed in bonum publicum ut alij terreantur, & a malis committendis avocentur. [Translation from the Latin: "... for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit."]

Historic Inquisition movements

Historians distinguish between four different manifestations of the Inquisition:

  1. the Medieval Inquisition (1184- )
  2. the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834)
  3. the Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821)
  4. the Roman Inquisition (1542- ~1860 )

Because of its objective — combating heresy — the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptised members of the Church (which, however, encompassed the vast majority of the population in Catholic countries). Secular courts could still try non-Christians for blasphemy. (Most of the witch trials went through secular courts.)

Different areas faced different situations with regard to heresies and suspicion of heresies. Most of Medieval Western and Central Europe had a long-standing veneer of Catholic standardisation, with intermittent localised outbreaks of new ideas and periodic anti-Semitic/anti-Judaic activity. Exceptionally, Portugal and Spain in the late Middle Ages consisted largely of multi-cultural territories fairly recently conquered from Muslim control, and the new overlords could not assume that all their newer subjects would suddenly become and remain compliant true-believer orthodox Catholics. So the Inquisition in Iberia had a special socio-political basis as well as more conventional religious motives. — With the rise of Protestantism and ideas of the Renaissance perceived as heretical by the Catholic church, the extirpation of heretics became a much broader and more complex enterprise, complicated by the politics of territorial Protestant powers, especially in northern Europe: war, massacres and the educational and propagandistic work of the Counter-Reformation became more common than a judicial approach to heresy in these circumstances.

Medieval Inquisition

Historians use the term 'Medieval Inquisition" to describe the various inquisitions that started around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). These inquisitions comprised the legal response to large popular movements throughout Europe considered apostate or heretical to Christianity, in particular the Cathars and Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy. Other Inquisitions followed after these first inquisition movements.

Legal basis for some inquisitorial activity came from Pope Innocent IV's papal bull Ad exstirpanda of 1252, which authorized and regulated the use of torture in investigating heresy.

Spanish Inquisition

King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile set up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV. In contrast to the previous inquisitions, it operated completely under royal authority, though staffed by secular clergy and orders, and independently of the Holy See. It targeted primarily converts from Judaism (Marranos or secret Jews) and from Islam (Moriscos or secret Moors) — both formed large groups still residing in Spain after the end of the Moorish control of Spain — who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion (often after having converted under duress) or of having fallen back into it. Somewhat later the Spanish Inquisition took an interest in Protestants of virtually any sect, notably in the Spanish Netherlands. In the Spanish possessions of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy, which formed part of the Spanish Crown's hereditary possessions, it also targeted Greek Orthodox Christians. After the intensity of religious disputes waned in the 17th century, the Spanish Inquisition developed more and more into a secret-police force working against internal threats to the state.

The Spanish Inquisition also operated in the Canary Islands.

King Phillip II set up two tribunals (formal title: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición) in the Americas, one in Peru and another in Mexico. The Mexican office administered the Audiencias of Guatemala (Guatemala, Chiapas, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica), Nueva Galicia (northern and western Mexico), and the Philippines. The Peruvian Inquisition, based in Lima, administered all the Spanish territories in South America and Panama. From 1610 a new Inquisition seat established in Cartagena (Colombia) administered much of the Spanish Caribbean in addition to Panama and northern South America.

The Inquisition continued to function in North America until the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821). In South America Simón Bolívar abolished the Inquisition; in Spain itself the institution survived until 1834.

Portuguese Inquisition

The Portuguese Inquisition formally started in Portugal in 1536 at the request of the King of Portugal, João III. Manuel I had asked Pope Leo X for the installation of the Inquisition in 1515, but only after his death (1521) did Pope Paul III acquiesce. However, many place the actual beginning of the Portuguese Inquisition during the year of 1497, when the authorities expelled many Jews from Portugal and forcibly converted others to Catholicism. The major target of the Portuguese Inquisition were mainly the Sephardic Jews that had been expelled from Spain in 1492 (see Alhambra decree); after 1492 many of these Spanish Jews left Spain for Portugal but were eventually targeted there as well.

The Inquisition came under the authority of the King. At its head stood a Grand Inquisitor, or General Inquisitor, named by the Pope but selected by the Crown, and always from within the royal family. The Grand Inquisitor would later nominate other inquisitors. In Portugal, the first Grand Inquisitor was Cardinal Henry, who would later become King. There were Courts of the Inquisition in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, and Évora.

The Portuguese Inquisition held its first auto da fé in Portugal in 1540. It concentrated its efforts on rooting out converts from other faiths (overwhelmingly Judaism) who did not adhere to the strictures of Catholic orthodoxy; the Portuguese inquisitors mostly targeted the Jewish "New Christians," conversos, or marranos.

The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to Portugal's colonial possessions, including Brazil, Cape Verde, and Goa, where it continued as a religious court, investigating and trying cases of breaches of the tenets of orthodox Roman Catholicism until 1821.

King João III (reigned (1521-1557) extended the activity of the courts to cover book-censorship, divination, witchcraft and bigamy. Book-censorship proved to have a strong influence in Portuguese cultural evolution, keeping the country uninformed and culturally backward. Originally oriented for a religious action, the Inquisition had an influence in almost every aspect of Portuguese society: politically, culturally and socially.

The Goa Inquisition, another inquisition rife with antisemitism and anti-Hinduism and which mostly targeted Jews and Hindus, started in Goa in 1560. Aleixo Dias Falcão and Francisco Marques set it up in the palace of the Sabaio Adil Khan.

According to Henry Charles Lea between 1540 and 1794 tribunals in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora resulted in the burning of 1,175 persons, the burning of another 633 in effigy, and the penancing of 29,590. But documentation of fifteen out of 689 Autos-da-fé has disappeared, so these numbers may slightly understate the activity.

The "General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation" abolished the Portuguese inquisition in 1821.

Roman Inquisition

In 1542, Pope Paul III established the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition as a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials. It had the tasks of maintaining and defending the integrity of the faith and of examining and proscribing errors and false doctrines; it thus became the supervisory body of local Inquisitions. Arguably the most famous case tried by the Roman Inquisition involved Galileo Galilei in 1633. Because of Rome's power over the Papal States, Roman Inquisition activity continued until the mid-1800s.

In 1908 the name of the Congregation became "The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office", which in 1965 further changed to "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", as retained to the present day. The Congregation is presided by a cardinal appointed by the Pope, and usually includes ten other cardinals, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also has an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advise it on specific questions.

Recent investigations into the Inquisition

In 2000 Pope John Paul II called for an "Inquisition Symposium" and opened the Vatican to 30 external historians. Their findings called into question certain long-held beliefs. It emerged that more women accused of witchcraft died in the Protestant countries than under the Inquisition. For example, the Inquisition burned 59 women in Spain, 36 in Italy and four in Portugal, while in Europe civil justice put to trial close to 100,000 women and burned 50,000 of them. Some 26,000 persons condemned as witches died in Germany.

Derivative works

The Inquisitions appear in many cultural works. Some include:

See also

Documents and works

Notable inquisitors

Notable cases involving the Inquisition



  • :Foxe's Book of Martyrs by John Foxe (Bridge-Logos Publishers) ISBN 0-88270-672-1
  • Edward Burman, The Inquisition: The Hammer of Heresy (Sutton Publishers, 2004) ISBN 0-7509-3722-X
    • A new edition of a book first published in 1984, a general history based on the main primary sources.
  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0-300-07880-3
    • This revised edition of his 1965 original contributes to the understanding of the Spanish Inquisition in its local context.
  • Edward M. Peters, Inquisition. (University of California Press, 1989). ISBN 0-520-06630-8
    • A brief, balanced inquiry, with an especially good section on the 'Myth of the Inquisition' (see The Inquisition Myth). This work has particular value because much of the history of the Inquisition available in English originated in the 19th century from Protestants interested in documenting the dangers of Catholicism or from Catholic apologists presenting the Inquisition as an entirely reasonable judicial body without flaws.
  • Cecil & Irene Roth, A history of the Marranos, Sepher-Hermon Press, 1974.
  • William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (TAN Books and Publishers, Inc, 1940/97). ISBN 0-89555-326-0
  • Parker, Geoffrey (1982). "Some Recent Work on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy". Journal of Modern History 54 (3):
  • Ludovico a Paramo, De Origine et Progressu Sanctae Inquisitionis (1598).
  • E. N Adler, Autos de fe and the Jew (1908).
  • J. Baker, History of the Inquisition (1736).
  • R. Cappa, La Inquisicion Espanola (1888).
  • Genaro Garcia, Autos de fe de la Inquisicion de Mexico (1910).
  • F. Garau, La Fee Triunfante (1691-reprinted 1931).
  • Given, James B Inquisition and Medieval Society New York, Cornell University Press, 2001
  • Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (4 volumes), (New York and London, 1906–1907).
  • Juan Antonio Llorente, Historia Critica de la Inquisicion de Espana
  • J. Marchant, A Review of the Bloody Tribunal (1770).
  • J.M. Marin, Procedimientos de la Inquisicion (2 volumes), (1886).
  • Antonio Puigblanch, La Inquisición sin máscara (Cádiz, 1811-1813). [The Inquisition Unmasked (London, 1816)]
  • V. Vignau, Catalogo... de la Inquisicion de Toledo (1903).
  • W.T. Walsh, Isabella of Spain (1931).
  • Simon Whitechapel, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003). ISBN 1-84068-105-5
    • "A good example of how uncritical acceptance of disjointed historical data helps inform contemporary notions of the black legend"
  • Paz y Mellia, Antonio (1914). Catalogo Abreviado de Papeles de Inquisicion. Madrid: Tip. de la Revista de arch., bibl. y museos.
  • Sir Alexandr G. Cardew, A Short History of the Inquisition (1933).
  • Warren H. Carroll, Isabel: the Catholic Queen Front Royal, Virginia, 1991 (Christendom Press)
  • G. G. Coulton, The Inquisition (1929).
  • Ramon de Vilana Perlas, La Verdadera Practica Apostolica de el S. Tribunal de la Inquisicion (1735).
  • A. Herculano, Historia da Origem e Estabelecimento da Inquisicao em Portugal (English translation, 1926).
  • M. Jouve, Torquemada (1935).
  • A.L. Maycock, The Inquisition (1926).
  • H. Nickerson, The Inquisition (1932).
  • H.B. Piazza, A Short and True Account of the Inquisition and its Proceeding (1722).
  • L. Tanon, Histoire des Tribunaux de l’Inquisition (1893).
  • Miranda Twiss, The Most Evil Men And Women In History (Michael O'Mara Books Ltd., 2002).
  • Emile van der Vekene: Bibliotheca bibliographica historiae sanctae inquisitionis. Bibliographisches Verzeichnis des gedruckten Schrifttums zur Geschichte und Literatur der Inquisition. Vol. 1 - 3. Topos-Verlag, Vaduz 1982-1992, ISBN 3-289-00272-1, ISBN 3-289-00578-X (7110 titres sur le thème de l'Inquisition)
  • Emile van der Vekene: La Inquisición en grabados originales. Exposición realizada con fondos de la colección Emile van der Vekene de la Universidad San Pablo-CEU, Aranjuez, 4-26 de Mayo de 2005, Madrid: Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, 2005. ISBN 84-96144-86-0

Online works

External links

Search another word or see inquisitionon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature