The Inquisition - A multi-faceted institution

Seminar Paper, 2011

8 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1.) Introduction

2.) The Medieval Inquisition

3.) The Spanish Inquisition

4.) The Portuguese Inquisition

5.) The Roman Inquisition

6.) Conclusion

7.) Bibliography

1.) Introduction

In order to analyse why exactly the „Inquisition“ often has a rather less favourable connotation and image with most people and to what extent its popular reception thus actually corresponds with the institution's official works and function, one first has to define what the term Inquisition basically refers to. It's name originates from the Latin word "Inquisitio", meaning a legal examination, and is usually applied to a tribunal set up by the Catholic Church to investigate matters involving "heresy" and views differing from canonical belief.[1] There was, however, no such thing as just one single, universal "Inquisition"; but over the course of time there existed four such institutional bodies, with their jurisdiction usually confined to one specific geographical area. Their purpose as well as the methods of investigation did at times differ quite significantly from one another, lending each of them a distinctly individual character.

There are nevertheless certain overall features which can be attributed to all of them. To begin with, each of the Inquisitions were either directly supervised by the Holy See or by local bishops and papal delegates. As for the main objective of the investigations there actually was a two-fold motivation: The primary goal was to obtain confessions from heretics who allegedly committed a sin by having acted against established catholic law, and who were therefore urged to repent in order to secure the salvation of their souls. This was, however, closely linked to a second intention, which basically aimed at ensuring the unity and unquestioned authority of the Catholic Church by not tolerating any diverging practices or ideas.[2] Finally, it is important to note that the respective Inquisitional bodies did not effect the actual punishment of heretics themselves (on the grounds that clergymen were prohibited from spilling blood), but usually transferred them to the secular authorities.[3] In general, the Church itself actually much preferred the recanting of heretics to their actual death since an apostate believer might ultimately be linked to a potential failure of catholic teachings and faith.[4]

2.) The Medieval Inquisition

The main area of operations of the First Inquisition – The Medieval Inquisition - encompassed the southern region of modern-day France as well as the upper northern half of the Italian peninsula. Already in the late 12th century clerical investigations had been initiated by Pope Lucius III as a means of dealing with alleged heresies such as the Catharans and Waldensians.[5] Yet it was only the infamous and violent Albingensin Crusade which eventually led to the official creation of the first Inquisition in 1230 after Pope Gregory IX had recognised the need for a more controlled persecution.[6]

Supervised by local Bishops and run by sophisticated clergymen such as the Dominicans,[7] an organisational framework bound to thoroughly observed procedures was set up. At the same time, the scope of their jurisdiction nevertheless assumed a rather powerful character. To begin with, they had been granted the right to confiscate the property of accused heretics; and naturally it fell to their authority alone to question the latter. The primary object of these questionings was bringing the accused to repent their sins in order to receive forgiveness. To obtain confessions the clerical authorities certainly did not refrain from using torture, even tough the amount and methods of its application were partially restricted (e.g. torture must not lead to death, bloodshed or mutilation); in fact, the common stereotype of a ruthless Inquisitor is only to a very limited extent supported by actual historical evidence.[8] Moreover, coerced extraction of a confession alone did not suffice to make it legitimate, which was why the accused had to repeat it afterwards again.[9]

A renunciation usually led to the administration of absolution, whereas failure to confess entailed excommunication and the transfer to the secular authorities for execution.[10] . Although the Medieval Inquisition dealt with a number of local cases like the Catharans, Waldensians and the Beguines, as well as with some famous trials (Knights Templars, Joanne of Arc),[11] its influence ultimately gradually decreased, so that it had been dissolved in most areas by the end of the 15th century.

3.) The Spanish Inquisition

The contextual background of the Spanish Inquisition was an altogether different one. Following the completion of the Reconquista, Spain witnessed a vast number of conversions of Jews (Marranos) and Muslims (Moriscos) to Christianity as result of mounting anti-Semitic riots and persecutions.[12] These "New Christians" (Conversos) were, however, labelled inferior to the "Old" or pure Christians (Limpieza de Sangre). Tensions ran high between these two groups;[13] and so following a papal Bull in 1478 the Inquisition was officially established.[14] .Interest turned, however, rather swiftly to issues primarily involving heresy, most notably the investigation of secret Jewish practises supposedly conducted by Conversos still loyal to their former faith.[15] Supervised by a General-Inquisitor, the Spanish inquisition set out to persecute in a rather severe manner a large number of suspicious Conversos[16] as well as other people accused of blasphemous behaviour, diverging religious beliefs or of adhering to a different denomination like Protestantism.


[1] (Last accessed on December 9th, 2010)

[2] Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, London 1997, p. 49.

[3] Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, Cambridge 1988.

[4] Mai, Klaus-Rüdiger, Der Vatikan. Geschichte einer Weltmacht im Zwielicht, Köln 2010, p. 272.

[5] Peters, Edward, Inquisition. New York, 1988 , pp. 43-47.

[6] Peters, Inquisition, pp. 50-58.

[7] Mai, Der Vatikan, p. 273.

[8] Infamous men such as Robert le Bourge or Konrad von Marburg rather were the exception, not least because the Holy See itself usually saw to the eventual dismissal of excessively and unnecessary violent clergymen. Mai, Der Vatikan, pp. 269-270.

[9] Peters, Inquisition, pp. 63-65.

[10] Lea, Henry Charles. A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages.

[11] Lea, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, p. 238; p. 338.

[12] Mai, Der Vatikan, p. 371.

[13] Mainly because many "pure" Spaniards resented the many new rights and privileges the Conversos had attained since their conversion. Peters, Inquisition, p. 82-84.

[14] Peters, Inquisition, p. 85.

[15] Perez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History, France 2002, p. 27.

[16] 700 executions alone between 1481 and 1488. Perez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History, p. 27.

Excerpt out of 8 pages


The Inquisition - A multi-faceted institution
University of Luxembourg
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Inquisition, Early Modern Europe, Middle Ages
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Joe Majerus (Author), 2011, The Inquisition - A multi-faceted institution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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