The medieval Inquisition achieved its immediate purposes. It stamped out Catharism in France, reduced the Waldenses to a few scattered zealots, restored south Italy to orthodoxy, and postponed by three centuries the dismemberment of Western Christianity. France lost to Italy the cultural leadership of Europe; but the French monarchy, strengthened by the acquisition of Languedoc, grew powerful enough to subdue the papacy under Boniface VIII, and to imprison it under Clement V.
In Spain the Inquisition played a minor role before 1300. Raymond of Peñafort, Dominican confessor to James I of Aragon, persuaded him to admit the Inquisition in 1232. Perhaps to check inquisitorial zeal a statute of 1233 made the state the chief beneficiary of confiscations for heresy; in later centuries, however, this would prove a heady stimulus to monarchs who found that inquisition and acquisition were near allied.
In northern Italy heretics continued to exist in great number. The orthodox majority were too indifferent to join actively in the hunt; and independent dictators like Ezzelino at Vicenza and Pallavicino at Cremona and Milan clandestinely or openly protected heretics. In Florence the monk Ruggieri organized a military order of orthodox nobles to support the Inquisition; the Patarines fought bloody battles with them in the streets, and were defeated (1245); thereafter Florentine heresy hid its head. In 1252 the inquisitor Fra Piero da Verona was assassinated by heretics at Milan; and his canonization as Peter Martyr did more to check heresy in north Italy than all the rigors of the inquisitors. The papacy organized crusades against Ezzelino and Pallavicino; the one was overthrown in 1259, the other in 1268. The triumph of the Church in Italy was, on the surface, complete.
In England the Inquisition never took hold. Henry II, anxious to prove his orthodoxy amid his controversy with Becket, scourged and branded twenty-nine heretics at Oxford (1166);84 for the rest there was little heresy in England before Wyclif. In Germany the Inquisition flourished with brief madness, and then died away. In 1212 Bishop Henry of Strasbourg burned eighty heretics in one day. Most of them were Waldenses; their leader, Priest John, proclaimed their disbelief in indulgences, purgatory, and sacerdotal celibacy, and held that ecclesiastics should own no property. In 1227 Gregory IX made Conrad, a priest of Marburg, head of the Inquisition in Germany, and commissioned him not only to exterminate heresy but to reform the clergy, whose immorality was denounced by the Pope as the chief cause of waning faith. Conrad approached both tasks with outstanding cruelty. He gave all indicted heretics a simple choice: to confess and be punished, or to deny and be burned at the stake. When he applied like energy to reforming the clergy, orthodox and heretics joined to oppose him; he was killed by the friends of his victims (1233); and the German bishops took over the Inquisition and domesticated it to a juster procedure. Many sects, some heretical, some mystical, survived in Bohemia and Germany, and prepared the way for Huss and Luther.
In judging the Inquisition we must see it against the background of a time accustomed to brutality. Perhaps it can be better understood by our age, which has killed more people in war, and snuffed out more innocent lives without due process of law, than all the wars and persecutions between Caesar and Napoleon. Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous. Plato sanctioned intolerance in his Laws; the Reformers sanctioned it in the sixteenth century; and some critics of the Inquisition defend its methods when practiced by modern states. The methods of the inquisitors, including torture, were adopted into the law codes of many governments; and perhaps our contemporary secret torture of suspects finds its model in the Inquisition even more than in Roman law. Compared with the persecution of heresy in Europe from 1227 to 1492, the persecution of Christians by Romans in the first three centuries after Christ was a mild and humane procedure. Making every allowance required of an historian and permitted to a Christian, we must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time, as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast.