Practices of the Inquisition

Manuals. In the early stages of the Inquisition, there were few official guidelines concerning the arrest, questioning and punishment of heretics. In the 1240s, manuals and handbooks for inquisitors began to circulate, which continued into the 17th century. The most influential early handbook was Practica officii inquisitionis heretice pravitatis, authored in 1323-24 by the famous inquisitor, Bernard Gui. Another famous handbook was the Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1488 by two Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.

Traits of the ideal inquisitor. Innocent IV issued a bull in 1254 stating that inquisitors should be forceful preachers and "full of zeal for the state." By the early 14th century, inquisitors were required to be at least 40 years of age; most of them were doctors of law trained at universities.

In his influential manual, Gui sets the requirements for a good inquisitor. Essentially, the man must be inflamed with a passion to eradicate all heresy, but show compassion and mercy too:

The inquisitor . . . should be diligent and fervent in his zeal for the truth of religion, for the salvation of souls, and for the extirpation of heresy. Amid troubles and opposing accidents he should grow earnest, without allowing himself to be inflamed with the fury of wrath and indignation. He must not be sluggish of body, for sloth destroys the vigor of action. He must be intrepid, persisting through danger to death, laboring for religious truth, neither precipitating peril by audacity nor shrinking from it through timidity. He must be unmoved by the prayers and blandishments of those who seek to influence him, yet not be, through hardness of heart, so obstinate that he will yield nothing to entreaty, whether in granting delays or in mitigating punishment, according to place and circumstance, for this implies stubbornness; nor must he be weak and yielding through too great a desire to please, for this will destroy the vigor and value of his work—he who is weak in his work is brother to him who destroys his work. In doubtful matters he must be circumspect and not readily yield credence to what seems probable, for such is not always true; nor should he obstinately reject the opposite, for that which seems improbable often turns out to be fact. He must listen, discuss, and examine with all zeal, that the truth may be reached at the end. Like a judge let him bear himself in passing sentence of corporeal punishment that his face may show compassion, while his inward purpose remains unshaken, and thus will he avoid the appearance of indignation and wrath leading to the charge of cruelty. In imposing pecuniary penalties, let his face preserve the severity of justice as though he were compelled by necessity and not allured by cupidity. Let truth and mercy, which should never leave the heart of a judge, shine forth from his countenance, that his decisions may be free from all suspicion of covetousness or cruelty.

Inquisitors were given full indulgences. They had the power to arrest anyone of any social rank, to seize and sell the property of those they accused and to absolve excommunications. They were both prosecutor and judge. In the early Inquisition, there were many who did their best to pursue truth as they saw it, but many others were corrupted by their power, especially as the Inquisition spread from religious heretics to accused witches.

Arrests and interrogations. In the early Inquisition, accused heretics were given ample opportunity to turn themselves in and repent. They were notified through priests that they should voluntarily convert. Their names were publicly read at sermons. Failing voluntary action, the accused would be arrested and interrogated. If they capitulated, they might be sentenced to penances, fines, whippings, and imprisonment—sometimes for life. A reformed heretic was useful to the church, both as persuasion to others and also for providing the names of other suspects. Unrepentant and relapsed heretics were tortured and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

If an accused heretic died in jail or prior to arrest, the Inquisition did not hold back, but conducted a posthumous trial. If convicted, the body of the accused was dug up and burned.

Torture. Initially inquisitors themselves could not perform the torture. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV gave inquisitors the right to absolve each other and give dispensations, so that they could torture the accused themselves.

By the end of the 13 th century, inquisitors throughout Europe were operating under Ad Extirpa. Pope John XXII expanded the Inquisition, but did attempt to restrict torture in 1317 by issuing a decree that it should be employed only with "mature and careful deliberation." Torture could not be repeated without fresh evidence against a person. However, zealous inquisitors found ways around restrictions. For example, torture over a period of time was not repeated torture, but torture that was "continued." Confessions were always technically "free and spontaneous," for victims were tortured until they "freely" confessed.

There were six primary methods of torture:

• ordeal by water, in which a person was forced to ingest large quantities of water quickly, which burst blood vessels;

• ordeal by fire, in which the soles of the feet were burned by fire or hot irons;

• the strappado, a pulley, used to hang and drop the accused to dislocate joints;

• the rack, a wooden frame used to stretch a body;

• The wheel, a large cartwheel to which the accused was tied and then beaten with clubs and hammers; and

• the stivaletto, wooden planks and metal wedges used to crush feet and legs.

In addition, the accused were imprisoned, sometimes in dungeons, beaten, starved and psychologically abused.

Details about how these methods were applied are given in the TORTuRE entry.

Execution. Burning was seen as the only way to exterminate heretics and discourage participation in religious sects. After the corpse was burned, every bone was broken in order to prevent martyrdom and relics for any followers. The organs were burned, and all the ashes were thrown into water.

Accused witches, who were heretics because they were witches, were burned as well. In England, most witches were hung.

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