Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 25

The Inquisition: Holy Terror of the Dark Ages

One of the darkest, most sinister chapters in the history of medieval culture belongs to the Roman Catholic institution that was formed in the middle ages to investigate and eradicate heresy the inquisition. Although its relatively innocuous name suggests a process of questioning, the inquisition did much more than question accused heretics. Enemies of the Christian Church were routinely tortured, stripped of their property and burned at the stake all in the name of religion.


Although the Catholic Church had become a formidable political and economic power by the Middle Ages, rival faiths managed to flourish during the medieval period, and many of their teachings contradicted Church dogma. One of these so-called heretical sects that arose during this period was the Cathari, a group of ascetics who became influential in Western European society in the 12th and 13th centuries. Not only did the Cathari believe that the world and all other material things were evil, they believed that Jesus was not the son of God but simply an angel. If this were not enough to alarm the Church, the Cathari were also highly critical of the great wealth the Church had amassed and the corruption within its ranks.

The growth of the Cathari movement prompted the Church to fight back. In order to combat and suppress the Cathari and other rival sects, Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition as a papal judicial body that would launch "inquiries" into purported heretics and heretical groups. The first Inquisition was founded in 1233, as a means to implement the strict laws of the Catholicism. Special officers of the Church were enlisted to actively seek out and arrest people thought to believe in or practice teachings that strayed from the Catholic faith. The accused were given time to confess, but if no confession was offered, an inquisitor appointed by the Church interrogated the suspect, looking for beliefs that ran contrary to Church teachings. Inquisitors were typically from the Dominican order, since it was St. Dominic who took a special interest in combating heresy in the 13th century. Dominic and subsequent members of his order became known as "hounds of God."

The interrogations of the Inquisition were at first non-violent, but in the middle of the 13th century Pope Innocent IV allowed the use of torture, which was euphemistically called "the Question," to extract confessions. Once an inquisitor had proven a case of heresy, the accused was sentenced. Depending on the gravity of the "crime," a heretic could be sentenced to prayer, fasting, loss of property, life imprisonment or other punishments. Heretics that refused to recant their wicked beliefs were given the ultimate punishment execution, also known as an auto-da-fe, or Act of Faith.

Many parts of medieval Europe were ravaged by the cancer of the Inquisition, although northern Italy and southern France were particularly affected. One of the more famous cases of the Italian Inquisition was that of the astronomer Galileo, who was arrested in 1633 and imprisoned by the Church because of his heretical notion that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun. The Inquisition forced him to recant his theories. Although the Inquisition persecuted people all throughout Europe, some of the most gruesome excesses occurred in Spain.


From the 11th to the 13th century, the Spanish peninsula was a battleground between the Moors, who were Muslim, and various Christian kingdoms. The Christian forces succeeded in retaking much of Spain in a period now known as the Reconquista, but the Moors managed to hold onto certain areas in southern Spain. By the late 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decided to topple the Moors once and for all and drive out all other non-Christians as well. They decided that establishing a Vatican-sanctioned Inquisition in Spain would help them to accomplish this.

Ferdinand and Isabella successfully convinced Pope Sixtus IV to authorize an Inquisition in Spain in 1478, but the pope soon developed misgivings about his decision. The Spanish Inquisition, based in Seville, took to its job with bloodthirsty zeal, and many people who fell into the grip of the inquisitors were accused with little or no evidence of heresy. Suspects were often tortured and stripped of their property. In 1482, Sixtus issued a papal bull demanding that the inquisitors show some restraint and respect for the law, but Ferdinand refused to follow the pope's decree. The Inquisition was a powerful tool in the hands of the Spanish monarchs, and they insisted on having total control of it.

In 1483, Ferdinand appointed the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada as the Inquisitor-General of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Torquemada laid out guidelines for his fellow inquisitors, and not only did these guidelines deny suspects the right to see the evidence against them but also sanctioned escalating degrees of torture in order to obtain confessions. Torquemada's brutality became legendary, and under his direction the Spanish Inquisition targeted vast numbers of Muslims and Jews, giving these "heretics" the choice of either reconciliation to Christ, or death. Although the Inquisition in Spain functioned until well into the 19th century, it was during Torquemada's tenure that many of the worst incidents of violence and depravity were recorded.


Because priests were forbidden to draw blood, Torquemada and other inquisitors found other inventive methods to prompt confessions when suspects were "put to the Question." One famous method was stretching suspects out on a rack and slowly pulling their limbs out of their sockets. Suspects were also subjected to a water torture in which they were bound to a ladder, a cloth was affixed to their faces and water was poured over the cloth until the suspects nearly drowned and asphyxiated simultaneously. This method of torture has survived to this day as one of the interrogation methods condoned and utilized by the Bush Administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.

Another means of coercion, known as the strappado, involved binding a person's wrists and hoisting his body into the air then dropping him from a height sufficient to shatter his bones. A similar method involved binding the person's wrists behind their back and hoisting them off of the ground by their shackles and leaving them to hang for several hours, sometimes days, until their limbs were wrenched loose from their joints.

Still other devices were specifically designed and constructed with the sole intent of inflicting unbearable pain. One such instrument known as the headcrusher was used to apply tremendous pressure to the skull of the person being interrogated. The thumbscrew was an iron instrument that could be clamped onto the accused person's thumbs or in some cases, their toes. By turning the handle, the inquistor could slowly apply crushing vise-like pressure to the bones of any appendages. The pain was excrutiating, making the device a reliable and effective tool of the Inquisition.

Those found guilty of the most heinous offenses, as well as those who still did not confess or recant their heresies, were executed in public, typically by being burned at the stake in an area of town called the quemadero, or burning place. Suspects who agreed to convert to Christianity at the moment before the fires were lit were given the option of being strangled to death prior to being burned alive. Other executions included using hot pincers to strip the flesh from the bodies of heretics.

Torquemada's guidelines for his inquisitors spelled out his intentions with sinister understatement: "If any person does not tell the truth of their errors, proceedings against them will take place with all possible severity and vigor."

No one was above suspicion and citizens lived in fear that they might be accused of heresy and arrested by the Inquisition. Corruption within the ranks of the Inquisition led to the rise of tormentors who gleefully tortured their prisoners to satisfy their own sadistic desires. The power of the Inquisition was abused, resulting in horrific consequences for anyone who fell into disfavor with them or dared to speak out against them. Since the outcome for anyone who was interrogated was almost always a death sentence, a mere accusation became a way to legally rob a person of their wealth and property.

A volatile political tool, the Spanish Inquisition endured off and on throughout the centuries, with some successors of Ferdinand and Isabella using it to further their ends and others choosing to ban it entirely. Eventually, the Spanish Inquisition was halted once and for all in 1834. Although there were Inquisitions in other parts of Europe, many of these faded in power and eventually disappeared throughout the 16th century. However, the Roman Inquisition, which was formed in 1542, lasted in Italy until the early 20th century. The Roman Inquisition was generally regarded to be less brutal and corrupt than the Spanish version, and over time it evolved into a less sinister branch of papal bureaucracy concerned with clarifying and maintaining the accepted Catholic dogma. In 1908, Pope Pius X changed the name of the Inquisition to the Holy Office, and in 1965 Pope Paul VI changed the name once again to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Throughout the Middle Ages, the violence and hypocrisy of the Inquisition cast a hideous shadow over the original intentions of many religious pursiuts. It is a dark chapter in the history of Christianity, spawning religious fanatacism which sadly, to some extent has survived to the modern era. Although their religion was founded on the the ideals of peace and love, the inquisitors who acted in the name of God used grisly acts of torture and brutal executions with frightening regularity in order to strengthen the Christian faith in Europe and strike fear into the souls of non-believers. The distressing fact that some of these primitive tactics and mindsets have survived to the modern era is a sad testament to human civilization. Hopefully we will remember the stark lessons learned from the past, and society will never again regress to the fanatic brutality of the Dark Ages.