After 1227 Gregory and his successors sent out an increasing number of special inquisitores to pursue heresy. He favored for this task the members of the new mendicant orders, partly because the simplicity and devotion of their lives would counteract the scandals of ecclesiastical luxury, and partly because he could not depend upon the bishops; however, no inquisitor was to condemn a heretic to serious punishment without episcopal consent. So many Dominicans were employed in this work that they were nicknamed Domini canes—the (hunting) “dogs of the Lord.”57 Most of them were men of strict morals, but few had the quality of mercy. They thought of themselves not as judges impartially weighing evidence, but as warriors pursuing the enemies of Christ. Some were careful and conscientious men like Bernard Gui; some were sadists like “Robert the Dominican,” a converted Patarine heretic, who in one day in 1239 sent 180 prisoners to the stake, including a bishop who, in his judgment, had given heretics too much freedom. Gregory suspended Robert from office, and imprisoned him for life.58

The jurisdiction of the inquisitors extended only to Christians; Jews and Moslems were not summoned unless they were relapsed converts.59 The Dominicans made special efforts to convert Jews, but only by peaceful means. When, in 1256, some Jews were accused of ritual murder, Dominican and Franciscan monks risked their own lives to save them from the mob.60 The purpose and scope of the Inquisition are best expressed by a bull of Nicholas III (1280):

We hereby excommunicate and anathematize all heretics—Cathari, Patarines, Poor Men of Lyons … and all others, by whatever name they may be called. When condemned by the Church they shall be given over to the secular judge to be punished…. If any, after being seized, repent and wish to do penance, they shall be imprisoned for life…. All who receive, defend, or aid heretics shall be excommunicated. If anyone remains under excommunication a year and a day, he shall be proscribed…. If those who are suspected of heresy cannot prove their innocence, they shall be excommunicated. If they remain under the ban of excommunication a year, they shall be condemned as heretics. They shall have no right of appeal…. Whoever grants them Christian burial shall be excommunicated until he makes proper satisfaction. He shall not be absolved until he has with his own hands dug up their bodies and cast them forth…. We prohibit all laymen to discuss matters of the Catholic faith; if anyone does so he shall be excommunicated. Whoever knows of heretics, or of those who hold secret meetings, or of those who do not conform in all respects to the orthodox faith, shall make it known to his confessor, or to someone else who will bring it to the knowledge of the bishop or the inquisitor. If he does not do so he shall be excommunicated. Heretics and all who receive, support, or aid them, and all their children to the second generation, shall not be admitted to an ecclesiastical office…. We now deprive all such of their benefices forever.61

Inquisitorial procedure might begin with the summary arrest of all heretics, sometimes also of all suspects; or the visiting inquisitors might summon the entire adult population of a locality for a preliminary examination. During an initial “time of grace,” about thirty days, those who confessed heresy and repented were let off with brief imprisonment or some work of piety or charity.62 Heretics who did not now confess, but were detected in this initial inquiry, or by the spies of the Inquisition,63 or elsewise, were cited before the inquisitorial court. Normally this court was composed of twelve men chosen by the local secular ruler from a list of nominees presented to him by the bishop and the inquisitors; two notaries and several “servitors” were added. If the accused took this second chance to confess they received punishments varying with the degree of their adjudged offense; if they denied their guilt they were imprisoned. Accused persons might be tried in their absence, or after their death. Two condemnatory witnesses were required. Confessed heretics were accepted as witnesses against others; wives and children were allowed to testify against, but not for, husbands and fathers.64 All the accused in a locality were, on demand, allowed to see a combined list of all accusers, without any specification as to which had accused whom; it was feared that individual confrontations would lead to the killing of accusers by friends of the accused; and “in fact,” says Lea, “a number of witnesses were slain on simple suspicion.”65 Usually the accused man was asked to name his enemies, and any evidence against him by such men was rejected.66 False accusers were severely punished.67 Before 1300 the accused was not allowed to have legal aid.68 After 1254 the inquisitors were required by papal decree to submit the evidence not only to the bishop but also to men of high repute in the locality, and to decide in agreement with their votes.69 Sometimes a board of experts (periti) was called in to pass on the evidence. In general the inquisitors were instructed that it was better to let the guilty escape than to condemn the innocent, and that they must have either clear proof or a confession.

Roman law had permitted the eliciting of confessions by torture. It was not used in the episcopal courts, nor in the first twenty years of the papal inquisition; but Innocent IV (1252) authorized it where the judges were convinced of the accused man’s guilt, and later pontiffs condoned its use.70 The popes advised that torture should be a last resort, should be applied only once, and should be kept “this side of loss of limb and danger of death.” The inquisitors interpreted “only once” as meaning only once for each examination; sometimes they interrupted torture to resume examination, and then felt free to torture anew. Torture was in several cases used to force witnesses to testify, or to induce a confessing heretic to name other heretics.71 It took the form of flogging, burning, the rack, or solitary imprisonment in dark and narrow dungeons. The feet of the accused might be slowly roasted over burning coals; or he might be bound upon a triangular frame, and have his arms and legs pulled by cords wound on a windlass. Sometimes the diet of the imprisoned man was restricted to weaken his body and will and render him susceptible to such psychological torture as alternate promises of mercy or threats of death.72 Confessions elicited under torture were little respected by the inquisitorial court, but this difficulty was met by having the accused confirm, three hours later, the admissions he had made under torture; if he refused, the torture could be resumed. In 1286 the officials of Carcassonne sent to Philip IV of France and Pope Nicholas IV a letter of complaint alleging the severity of the tortures used by the inquisitor Jean Galand. Some of Jean’s prisoners were left for long periods in complete darkness and solitude; some were so manacled that they had to sit in their own filth, and could only lie on their backs on the cold earth.73 Some men had been so drawn on the rack that they had lost the use of their arms and legs; some had died under torture.74 Philip denounced these barbarities, and Pope Clement V (1312) endeavored to moderate the use of torture by inquisitors; but his cautions were soon ignored.75

Prisoners who had refused two opportunities to confess and were later convicted, and those who had relapsed into heresy after recanting, were imprisoned for life, or were put to death. Life imprisonment might be mitigated with certain freedom of movement, visitation, and games; or it might be enhanced with fasting or chains.76 Confiscation of property was an added penalty of conviction after resistance. Usually a part of the confiscated goods went to the secular ruler of the province, part to the Church; in Italy one third was given to the informer; in France the crown took all. These considerations stimulated individuals and the state to join in the hunt, and led to trials of the dead; at any time the possessions of innocent persons might be seized on the charge that the testator had died in heresy; this was one of many abuses that popes vainly denounced.77 The bishop of Rodez boasted that he had made 100,000 sols in a single campaign against the heretics of his diocese.78

Periodically the inquisitors, in a fearful ceremony (sermo generalis), announced convictions and penalties. The penitents were placed on a stage in the center of a church, their confessions were read, and they were asked to confirm them, and to pronounce a formula abjuring heresy. The celebrant inquisitor then absolved the penitents from excommunication, and announced the various sentences. Those who were to be “relaxed,” or abandoned to the secular arm, were allowed another day for conversion; those who confessed and repented, even at the foot of the stake, were given life imprisonment; the obdurate were burned to death in the public square. In Spain this entire procedure of sermo generalis and execution was termed an act of faith, auto-da-fé, for it was intended to strengthen the orthodoxy of the people and to reaffirm the faith of the Church. The Church never pronounced a sentence of death; her old motto was eccelesia abhorret a sanguine—“the Church shrinks from blood”; clerics were forbidden to shed blood. So, in turning over to the secular arm those whom she had condemned, the Church confined herself to asking the state authorities to inflict the “due penalty,” with a caution to avoid “all bloodshed and all danger of death.” After Gregory IX it was agreed by both Church and state that the caution should not be taken literally, but that the condemned were to be put to death without shedding of blood—i.e., by burning at the stake.79

The number of those sentenced to death by the official Inquisition was smaller than historians once believed.80 Bernard de Caux, a zealous inquisitor, left behind him a long register of cases tried by him; not one of these was “relaxed.”81 In seventeen years as an inquisitor Bernard Gui condemned 930 heretics, forty-five of them to death.82 At a sermo generalis in Toulouse in 1310 twenty persons were ordered to go on pilgrimage, sixty-five were condemned to life imprisonment, eighteen to death. In an auto-da-fé of 1312 fifty-one were sent on pilgrimage, eighty-six received various terms of imprisonment, five were turned over to the secular arm.83 The worst tragedies of the Inquisition were concealed in the dungeons rather than brought to light at the stake.

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