History and Myth: Catholic - Inquisition

The Inquisition: A check against Large Witch Hunts

One of the main controversies about the Catholic Church is the creation and usage of the Inquisition as one of its most effective ways to eradicate heresy. The role of this institution in the actual witch hunts that plagued Europe for almost five centuries is one of the "hottest" topics in the history of the Catholic Church.

In relation with witches and witch-hunting the Inquisition is considered by some as the main prosecutor. The methods used by lay courts when putting people on trial for charges of witchcraft are considered sometimes to be the fault of the Inquisition. Physical torture, moral pressure, and endless forms of harassment are also attributed to the presence of inquisitors in the judicial processes. Where lies the truth?

Created in 1231 by the Pope Gregory IX, for the apprehension and trial of heretics, the Inquisition did not take an interest from the very beginning in witchcraft. It is interesting to know that according to the Catholic Encyclopedia the Pope created this institution to stop the political authorities from interpreting religious dogma (Catholic Encyclopedia, Inquisition). It was only in 1258 that the Inquisition asked the Pope to allow it to judge cases of divination and sorcery. However, it was not until Pope John XXII, in 1320, that "the Inquisition at Carcassonne [was given permission] to prosecute those who worshiped demons, entered a pact with them, made images, or used sacred objects to work magic"(The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, p. 8). Sometimes during these new types of trial the Inquisition narrowed down it's definition of witchcraft as a combination of heresy and sorcery .

In his book, Witches and Neighbors, Robin Briggs points out the fact that although many have died through the centuries because they were accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition, the Holly Office was not guilty of the witch-craze to the extent that it has been said to have been. Briggs tells us that: " Despite its formidable reputation and highly sophisticated procedures, the Inquisition plainly did not more than ruffle the surface of popular culture and magical practice. Like any other repressive institution in Europe, its bark was indefinitely worse than its bite; it lacked the finances, the personnel, the popular support and perhaps even the will to tackle so vast and amorphous a problem." (Briggs, p. 124).

In fact,in the countries where the Inquisition had its largest resources and personnel, Spain and the Italian states, there were far fewer trials and punishments with death for witchcraft than in other parts of Europe. Even Torquemada, the most well known inquisitor in history, busied himself more with Jewish people and Moors than with witches. Briggs writes: " in Spain and parts of Italy the Inquisition played a similar role to the French royal courts, maintaining continual pressure on other jurisdictions, and claiming an effective monopoly over witchcraft trials. While this was not always successful, the overall effect was clearly to inhibit local abuses and discourage large-scale persecution." (Briggs, p.336)

This discourse is not meant however, to absolve the Inquisition for its gruel contribution to the witch-craze.The inquisitors did play their role in condemning people to death. The methods they used to extract confessions were non-physical in the beginning, but the situation changed fairly rapidly. David of Augsburg pointed out to four methods that inquisitors used:

*fear of death, by threatening the accused with the stake if did refused to confess,

*more or less close confinement, possibly emphasized by curtailment of food,

*visits of tried men, who would attempt to induce free confession through friendly persuasion,


(see a clip from Burning Times about torture and Inquisition)

When we watch Burning Times and when we read about all different kinds of torture that were used to make witches confess their "sins" we can't possible remain untouched. Those were most definitely times of horror. When we see the extent to which humanity has gone in its attempt to protect itself from the devil and when we cringe over these images, we must keep in mind the fact that at that point in history torture was common to the judicial system in general. In fact, most people who had the misfortune to have to go through some sort of judicial procedures due to some accusations against them have had to deal with torture. Keeping in mind that almost everybody at the time considered witchcraft a crime and that almost nobody doubted its existence, the fact that torture was used in these kind of trials is only a logical consequence. It is not to say that we agree that it should have been used, but that in that time and in those circumstances it was something to be expected.

The Burning Times, although it raised some very interesting questions about judicial methods and systems, it is also very biased in its campaign against the Catholic Church. In fact, many of the pieces of evidence that they display to illustrate the tortures that the Inquisition practiced on people belong to the arsenal of the civil courts. The interaction between the Inquisition and the civil tribunals, although it had a negative effect on the witch trials, cannot be perceived as a unilateral relationship: both parts had their share of guilt and they should bare it together.

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