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Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition.
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition.

The word Inquisition (with a capitalized I) occurs in broad use in reference to the judgment of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. It can mean an ecclesiastical tribunal or the institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy; a number of historical expurgation movements against heresy (orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church); or the trial of an individual accused of heresy.

Inquisition tribunals and institutions

Before the twelfth century, the Catholic Church gradually suppressed heresy, usually through a system of ecclesiastical proscription and imprisonment. Although many states allowed the Church to use the death penalty, initially it was not frequently imposed, as this form of punishment had many ecclesiastical opponents.

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, the pope 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: the Medieval Inquisition (1184- ), the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), the Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821) and the Roman Inquisition (1542- ).

Because of its objective — combating heresy — the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptized 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 standardization, with intermittent localized outbreaks of new ideas and periodic anti-Semitic/ anti-Judaic activity. Exceptionally, Portugal and Spain in the late Middle Ages consisted largely of territories fairly recently conquered from a sophisticated and tolerant Arab civilization, 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 other heretical ideas of the Renaissance, the extirpation of heretics became a much larger 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.

Spanish Inquisition

Representation of an Auto de fe, (around 1495).Many artistic representations depict torture and the burning at the stake as occurring during the auto da fe.
Representation of an Auto de fe, (around 1495).
Many artistic representations depict torture and the burning at the stake as occurring during the auto da fe.

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 ( Maranos 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. 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 would subsequently operate in certain Spanish colonies: see for example the Peruvian Inquisition and the Mexican Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition also operated in the Philippines, Guatemala, New Granada, and the Canary Islands. It continued to function in the Americas until the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821). In South America Bolívar abolished the Inquisition; in Spain survived until 1834.

Portuguese Inquisition

Copper engraving intitled "Die Inquisition in Portugall", by Jean David Zunner from the work Description de L'Univers, Contenant les Differents Systemes de Monde, Les Cartes Generales & Particulieres de la Geographie Ancienne & Moderne by Alain Manesson Mallet, Frankfurt, 1685.
Copper engraving intitled "Die Inquisition in Portugall", by Jean David Zunner from the work Description de L'Univers, Contenant les Differents Systemes de Monde, Les Cartes Generales & Particulieres de la Geographie Ancienne & Moderne by Alain Manesson Mallet, Frankfurt, 1685.

The Portuguese Inquisition formally started in Portugal in 1536 at the request of the King of Portugal, João III. Manuel I had asked for the installation of the Inquisition in 1515, but only after his death did the pope acquiesce. However, many place the actual beginning of the Portuguese Inquisition during the year of 1497, when many Jews were expelled from Portugal and others were forcibly converted 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. It was headed by a Grand Inquisitor, or General Inquisitor, named by the Pope but selected by the king, 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.

João III 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 that 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 was that of 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 was 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 discounted 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 4 in Portugal, while in Europe civil justice put to trial close to 100,000 women and burned 50,000 of them. 26,000 condemned "witches" died in Germany.

Derivative works

The Inquisitions appear in many cultural works. Some include:

  • The Spanish Inquisition, the subject of a classic Monty Python sketch ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"), became referenced conspicuously in the film Sliding Doors.
  • The short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum takes place against the background of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • In the alternative history novel The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss, the Spanish Inquisition remains active, in Spain itself and throughout Latin America, during the whole of the twentieth century.
  • A body known as the Inquisition exists in the fictional Warhammer 40,000 universe.
  • Mel Brooks's 1981 film The History of the World, Part I contains a musical number about the Spanish Inquisition.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, the Omnian church has a Quisition, with sub-sections called Inquisition and Exquisition.
  • In J.K. Rowling's 2003 book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Professor Dolores Umbridge sets up an Inquisition at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with herself as the High Inquisitor.
  • The "Dark Ages" setting in the World of Darkness (WoD) fantasy universe makes heavy use of the Inquisition: that particular setting takes place during the early 13th century.
  • The computer game " Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader" made by the former Black Isle Studios uses the Spanish Inquisition as a key plot for the storyline and development of the game.
  • Man of La Mancha, a Broadway musical, tells the story of the classic novel Don Quixote as a play-within-a-play performed by prisoners as they await a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Starways Congress forms an element of the Ender-verse by Orson Scott Card. In the latter books, they play an important part in determining the fate of Lusitania. In Speaker for the Dead, Ender Wiggin threatens to become an Inquisitor and revoke the catholic licence of Lusitania, thus ruining the fragile catholic culture there.
  • The 2006 film The Fountain features elements of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Voltaire's satire Candide has a scene featuring the Portuguese Inquisition, with the title-character and Dr. Pangloss both found guilty of heresy.
  • Dave Sim's award-winning independent comic book Cerebus the Aardvark featured Inquisition-inspired characters in the High Society issues of the series.
  • The 2006 film Goya's Ghosts starring Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman, and Javier Bardem features the Spanish Inquisition. In the film, the painter Goya (Skarsgård) attempts to save his muse, Ines (Portman), from persecution by the Holy Office. He turns to Brother Lorenzo (Bardem) for help who, unknown to Goya, has an agenda of his own.

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