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Tabula Rasa

The Inquisition

Witch is Witch

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#1, 1994

Indeed it is all too difficult to get the heretics to reveal themselves when they hide their errors, instead of frankly confessing them, or when reliable and adequate testimony against them is lacking. In such a case all kinds of problems confront the Inquisitor... Laymen of staunch faith find it a scandalous matter if an inquisitorial trial, once begun, is abandoned for some kind of lack of method. When they see the learned thus deceived by common and vile persons, the faith of the Faithful is to some degree weakened; for they believe that we have at our disposal luminous and certain arguments that cannot be refuted, and that they expect us to be able to vanquish [the heretics] in such a way that even a layman can clearly follow the arguments. It is therefore inexpedient in the presence of laymen to debate matters of faith with heretics who are so astute.
Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis
Bernardo Gui, 1323.
trans. Peter Amann. 1967.

 Nooo-body expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms -- oh damn!.
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Season 2, episode 2.
In 1235 Anno Domini, Pope Gregory IX produced the documents that formalised the detection and prosecution of heretics as part of church procedure, throughout the dominions of the Christian church. This action built on a good century of growing concern, violent outbursts and partial legislation, most notably that of his predecessor Innocent III, who made penalties for the practice of heresy part of the church, or canon, law. What Gregory IX achieved, which gives him the dubious privilege of being considered the founder of the Inquisition, was a structure that could enforce those laws.

The term inquisition means at it's simplest, inquiry. History has provided the accretions that give it it's modern flavour; the torture and burning of a variety of witches, Jews and freethinkers, all by fanatical-looking men in red robes. Also, it is little recognised that most of these images come from at least three distinct historical Inquisitions and the related phenomenon of the witch-craze; or that the mechanism of Inquisition in fact survives today in the Catholic church.

The word 'heretic' comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning 'choice'. When Christianity took the place, as it more or less did, of the Roman Empire as the cohesive force in Europe, choice of spiritual belief or practice of belief became something of an unaffordable luxury. It must be understood, that what is meant by the Christian Church in its early centuries and the Middle Ages is a very direct and active form of empire, that liaised to varying extents with the secular rulers of an area. Major heretical movements such as Catharism were viewed by the Church in a similar way to how Genghis Khan was viewed by the Chinese. And because the Churches jurisdiction was spiritual, this was given a moral impetus; what was dangerous to the coadhesivness, and thus effectiveness, of the Church was wrong, and an offence against God.

At the onset of what is called the Medieval Inquisition, the great crusades to the Holy Lands were over. These, in any case, were against pagans rather than heretics, and pagans were cases for conversion rather than inquisition. For instance, in the Practica Inquisitionis of 1323, written by the Dominican friar Bernardo Gui, he specifies amongst his targets Jews that have been converted and then relapsed. The Medieval Inquisition can be considered to occur between 1235 and 1400, and is characterised by the direct control of the Pope, administration by the monastic orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans, and finding its opponents in the Cathars, the Spiritual Franciscans and Waldesians, all genuine schismatic reform movements.

The actual crimes -- which as transgressions of a constituted law, they must be considered -- of these sects, all involved the denouncement and substitution of the established church hierarchy. Respect for the hierarchy formed, in fact, the main difference between heretical movements and some of the new movements within the church, such as the Franciscans; who developed the splinter group of the Spiritual Franciscans who said that the Pope was the Anti-Christ and were hereticated.

Their outlawing by the Church and hunting down by the Inquisition caused many of the other things for which the sects were defamed; from secret meetings, with all the paraphernalia and paranoia they entail, to armed rebellion and political incitement -- the Order of the Dolcinites and their butchering of priests and bishops, for those who have read or viewed The Name of the Rose, was quite real, and another listed target of Bernardo Gui.

But added to these were a list of offences that are what makes the Inquisition of such interest to the history of horror. The charges of sexual perversion, infanticide, cannibalism and parodic desecration and mockery of Christian symbols and rituals have formed the basis of 'evil', and especially of the evil, underground organisation, ever since. Satanism was created by the Inquisition.

Or perhaps, that should be formalised by the Inquisition. The Medieval Inquisition was not something forced upon a reluctant population by external force. In fact some of the most grotesque lynchings and burnings, not to mention what was more or less the last 'crusade', were taken before 1200 by secular authorities and civilian population; the first sentence of burning at the stake for heresy was passed down by the then King of France, Robert the Pious, in 1022. The Albeigensian crusade, launched in 1209 against the Languedoc area of France and the Cathars that inhabited it got so out of hand that Robert's eventual successor had to intervene to stop the wholesale destruction. The heretic, to the Church, may have be wrong, but to the common people at the time they were evil. The methods the Inquisition used were not at all out of step with their time and location; in fact, secular methods were adopted only over a period of time and two papal licenses may indicate how this was so; in 1242, ten years after it's inception, Inquisitors were granted permission to arm a limited number of their household, (not themselves, as it must be remembered the Inquisitors were Dominican and Franciscan monks), and it was only in 1252 that Innocent IV, in the bull Ad extirpanda granted the Inquisition the right to torture. The exact border between religious and secular responsibility was always at best unclear, and contested by either side.

Catharism and Dualism

Cathar comes from the Greek katharoi, meaning pure. The Catharists considered themselves to hold the Christian faith in its most pristine form. The full members of their church, which before persecution had priests and bishops, were referred to as 'the Perfected', and these were men and women committed to assisting others in achieving this state. The Cathars were a western branch of a sect active at the time in Bosnia and Bulgaria, the Bogomils; and it has been proposed that their ideas came originally from Iranian Manicheanism. What all these had in common was a dualist philosophy, one that splits Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, Spirit and Matter, with no possibility of commerce; to whit, matter and material things could not used for good purposes. The consequence of this was the denial that God created the world, and thus, the conclusion that the devil had the power to successfully oppose God.

Inquisition in any area proceeded by the Pope's ordering the Grand Master of the Dominicans or Franciscans to appoint members of their brethren to act as local Inquisitors. These Inquisitors reported to the Pope alone, and had his mandate for the assistance of the secular authorities. The effectiveness of the Inquisition in that area depended very greatly on to what extent those authorities were willing to co-operate. The Inquisition did not come with a standing army, and never in fact had the actual authority to execute the heretics they condemned to that fate. This was a matter of the sovereignty of the local rulers, who could take the consequences -- usually excommunication and/or incitement of their neighbours to invade -- of disobeying the Pope if they wished. The Inquisition did hold the auto-da-fe', the 'act of faith', a public punishment, and possessed prisons. Other sentences, depending upon the severity of the offence and whether the offender was willing to co-operate in the further work of the Inquisition, involved penances such as fasting and scrounging, and the confiscation of property. This latter was always popular, and the proceeds were split between the Inquisition and the local rulers so enforcement was seldom a problem. In fact, the notable excesses of the Medieval Inquisition generally came down to this; as in the case of the Trial of the Knights Templar.

In 1307, Phillip IV of France claimed that the Inquisitor of the realm had informed him that the two-hundred year old order of knights devoted to the protection of the Holy Land and pilgrims, (or to the slaying of pagans, depending on how you look at it), was corrupt, infested by Satanists and ritualised homosexuality. The facts that the Templars were also one of the great banks of the Middle Ages, possessed great quantities of land in Europe and were, furthermore, owed a great deal of money by Phillip, were not taken into consideration; this was after all a religious matter. The Templars were too attractive a target for even the Pope to ignore; else he considered that defending the Templars would bring about a head-on conflict that would only damage the Church. Wholesale torture produced it's usual results; and those who still refused to confess or retracted their forced confessions were burnt. This included the Grand Master and other masters of the order. The property of the Templars was transferred to the other old crusading order, the Knights Hospitaller, but only after the various governments had deducted the expenses of the trial. Phillip had his debts cancelled and further required expenses for the administration of the property. It was popularly supposed that the Hospitallers were poorer after receiving this gift than before. (Incidentally, the Order of the Hospitaller is still around today, under the guise of the St Johns Ambulance society. The Templars are, of course, popularly supposed to be.)

In 1398 the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris determined that sorcery and witchcraft were forms of heresy on the grounds that any form of magic required a pact with the devil, which required acknowledgment of the devil as lord. Sorcery had previously been considered a problem; Bernado Gui's list of the questions to ask a suspected sorcerer are formulated to determine wether in fact the sorcerer is a heretic or just deluded, and they contain no reference to ritual sex, cannibalism or the rest.

The Practice of Sorcery

The sorcerer, soothsayer, or demon-worshipper should be asked the nature and number of the spells, divinations, or invocations he knows and who instructed him in them.

Also, one must stoop to details and consider the status and condition of the persons involved: the interrogation should not be the same for all and should differ for men and women. The accused may be asked the following questions: What does he know? What has he learned? In what practices has he engaged in connection with bewitched children in order to break the spell?

Also, in connection with lost or damned souls.

Also, in connection with thieves, to be unmasked.

Also, in connection with marital discord.

Also, in connection with making the sterile fruitful.

Also, in connection with substances prescribed by sorcerers to be swallowed, such as hair, nail parings, and other things.

Also, in connection with the prediction of events to come.

Also, in connection with the fairies who bring good luck or, they say, are abroad at night.

Inquisitors had previously been instructed to deal with sorcery only if it was clearly related to heresy. From now on, however, there could be no distinction. The first approximation of the witch craze that would evolve by the end of the century had actually occurred back in 1227, when the priest Conrad of Magdeburg, had been appointed to make inquisitorial inquiry in Germany. Conrad claimed to have discovered an organised underground of 'Luciferans', who paid the devil homage in return for sexual pleasures, and who adored him in the form of a huge black cat. Conrad incited mob lynchings of suspects, and eventually accused a nobleman powerful enough to have his Papal license revoked and the priest himself murdered.

It was the charge of witchcraft that enabled the Inquisition to try and condemn Jean d'Arc in 1431 and Gilles de Rais in 1440. An Inquisition never occurred in England, but at this time, after Agincourt, England possessed part of France; the part they were battling for with the French army, led by a seventeen-year-old girl who claimed inspiration from Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. When Jean was captured, the Inquisition was called in by the English to ascertain that this was actually a case of demonic influence, on the grounds of the inspiration and the fact she wore men's garments, which in some interpretations of the bible has the status of a crime. She was burnt in a masterpiece of propaganda that, however, did backfire notably in later centuries. In 1457, Jean's sentence of heresy was revoked, and she is the only victim of the Inquisition to have been granted this admission. It was done so that, in response to popular French demand, she could be canonised.

Gilles de Rais, the Grand Marshall of France and one of Jean d'Arc's former commanders, has instead become firmly entrenched in the history of sadism and depravity. He is supposed to have sexually abused, and then tortured and killed upward of two hundred children. His rank protected him from every charge other than that of black magic; the details of his crimes come from the records of the torture of his servants.

The Inquisition, as the licensing of the use of force in matters of religious faith, formed the structure for the witch craze, that over the next two hundred years cost thousands and thousands of lives. It was two Dominican Inquisitors, Henry Kramer and Jacob Sprenger that in 1486 published the Malleus Maleficarum, the 'Hammer of Witches', which brought all these elements together, and comparison with their list of questions for suspected witches with that of Gui is edifying.

The Practice of Witchcraft

Questions to be asked at the witch trials of Lorraine.

1. How long have you been a witch?
2. Why did you become a witch?
3. How did you become a witch, and what happened on that occasion?
4. Who is the one you chose to be your Incubus? What is his name?
5. What was the name of your master among the evil demons?
6. What was the oath you were forced to render him?
21. What animals have you bewitched to sickness or death, and why did you commit such acts?
22. Who are your accomplices in evil?
23. What is the ointment with which you rub your broomstick made of? 24. What tempests have you raised, and who helped you to produce them?

The actual causes and progress of the witch craze are a subject for volumes; but by the end of the fourteenth century, all the necessary elements were there. The witch craze and the Protestant Reformation, that ultimate, successful schism, were the forces that shaped the Inquisition from then up till the modern period. But special mention must first be made of that most notorious abuse, that was initiated in the Spanish region of Castile in 1478. Queen Isabella received permission from Sixtus IV to operate an Inquisition amongst the Jews and Muslims of her kingdom who were suspected as having accepted Christianity at face whilst continuing their old practices in secret. Her husband Ferdinand of Aragon received permission to Inquire in his adjacent realm, and inevitably in 1483 the two were placed under the Consejo de la Suprema y General Inquisicion, under the jurisdiction of the Dominican friar Torquemada.

The extreme reputation of the Spanish Inquisition derives from a number of factors. It was the first time since Gregory that an Inquisition occurred without the jurisdiction of the Pope; Sixtus gave his permission, but the entire operation was controlled by the Spanish crown. With the complete support it thus possessed, it was probably the most efficient Inquisition in history. It spread throughout all Spanish provinces and colonies, as Mexico and South America was settled, all the while retaining it's centralised control. In fact, it was the only institution of the Spanish government to be recognised throughout its entire empire. One side had finally won the struggle between sacred and secular power, gaining for itself a most effective weapon. And as for the original subject of the Inquisition, the Jews were the other great bank of the Middle Ages and things got accordingly out of hand.

Another factor was, that as a national institution it could be identified with the nation, and Spain was fighting to keep control of what became the Dutch Republic throughout the 1570s. The Spanish Inquisition became a focal point of Dutch propaganda, which Dutch victory disseminated throughout Europe. Here the wheel turns full circle, and in Dutch histories and engravings of the period we have the list of crimes the Inquisition codified being used against it.

The international, Papal Inquisition shortly proved totally ineffective against the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 'protest' to the door of the Whittenburg Cathedral, and the Empire of the Church began to crumble. When the Catholics burnt Protestants, the Protestants tended to turn round and burn them right back. Thus the truly ridiculous situation existing in England in these centuries, where whole generations of nobility popped in and out of favour as alternate monarches favoured different religions; leading eventually to the Anglican church and Northern Ireland. There was a very good reason for the English Queen Elizabeth I, in 1558, to enact new laws which enforced outward conformity with the State religion but which specifically did not proscribe belief or allow for its policing. By order of Paul III, the so-called Roman Inquisition was formed in 1542, originally to fight Protestantism and witchcraft, but becoming of sheer circumstance a purely internal feature of the Catholic church.

The effects of the Inquisition, perhaps not so much on individual heresies but on society's response to them, was immense. So much so that it is difficult to see the Inquisition as quite the freak and perversion of social order it is commonly made out to be. Especially remembering that the formalities of trial and punishment were introduced as a means of controlling a massive case of civil fear and disorder. Certainly, as many modern 'heretics' have discovered, the lessons it propounded have been well learnt.


[97] The Medieval Inquisition, Bernard Hamilton. Foundations of Medieval History, series ed. M.T. Clanchy. Edward Arnold, London, 1981. A superb summary, brief and informative.

[98] A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, H.C. Lea. Vol I. Macmillan, New York. 1909. The complete work is three volumes, but the first is a general overview.

[99] Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis, Bernardo Gui. trans. Peter Amann, in The Medieval World and its Transformations, ed. Gerald M. Straka, Vol.II of Western Society: Institutions and Ideals. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967.

[100] The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, trans. F.Hopman. Penguin. England, 1924.

[101] The Embarrassment of Riches: an interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Simon Schama, Fontana, Great Britain, 1987.

[102] A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, Pagans, Jeffery B. Russell. Thames and Hudson, London, 1980. Truly excellent, the best survey I have come across.

[103] Malleus Maleficarium, Henry Kramer and Jakob Sprenger. trans. Montague Summers, London 1928. c1486.

[104] The Anthropology of Evil, ed. David Parkin. Basil Blackwell, Great Britain. 1987. Fascinating series of essays; the introduction alone is enough to keep you awake at night.

* The Monk, Matthew Lewis MP. 1795. Corrupt monks, corrupt nuns, Inquisitorial tortures and damnation with a capital D. A must.

* The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allen Poe. 1843

* The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd, UK, 1983. Eco has read Bernardo, and shows his gratitude by making him the guest villain. This book acts as a better summary of the religious situation than most histories, and is besides a damn good story.

* Nemesis the Warlock, 2000 AD comics, created in 1981.

* Warhammer 40,000, Game Designers Workshop, 1986. Two examples of the Inquisition in space.

* The Black Castle, Leslie Daniels, Sphere, London, 1978.

* The Palace, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, New English Library, London, 1978. Two examples of a vampire versus the Inquisition (the vampires are the good guys, need we say).


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