Part 2: How Confession became a Divinely Instituted Sacrament
Part 3: The Origins of Payment for Penance
Part 4: Crusading and Other Indulgences
Part 5: The Great Schism of the Fifth Century
Part 6: “Deliver us from the hands of the Romans”
Part 7: Impetus for the Crusades
Part 8: “Babies roasted on spits”
Part 9: The Insecurity of the Medieval Church
Part 10: When Suppressing Heresy Became a Crusade
This will be the last of the longer selections I’ll post from Johnson’s “A History of Christianity.” Though it's possible that I will bring up a point or two in another post.
As I noted at the outset of this series, I thought it was important to show that the roots of the Inquisition go back to Augustine -- his world and theology. Many Reformed and Evangelical Protestants know that the Inquisition occurred, but are less familiar with why it occurred or how it came about. What we have in this series is the gestation and the birth of that institution. I know that this series has been tedious for some; perhaps it has been interesting for others. I found it interesting and edifying.
Of course, the ultimate purpose, on this blog, is to talk about the Reformation in an apologetic sense. And that, too, is what I hoped to do – to put “out there” just one more reason for the Reformation.
The Inquisition itself provided the sort of “mood,” or “back-drop” within which other theologies developed. That may or may not be important. Some memories of the Inquisition made it into the U.S. Constitution, in the form of a prohibition against a state religion, and also a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Just precisely how these came about should be the topics of another study. I don’t have all the answers. I merely hope to arouse some curiosity, and to provoke some questions.
* * *
Ever since the eleventh century, secular rulers had been burning those who obstinately refused to fit in with established Christian arrangements; the Church had opposed capital punishment, successive councils decreeing confiscation of property, excommunication, imprisonment or whipping, branding and exile. But in the 1180s, the Church began to panic at the spread of heresy, and thereafter it took the lead from the State, though it maintained the legal fiction that convicted and unrepentant heretics were merely 'deprived of the protection of the Church', which was (as they termed it) 'relaxed', the civil power then being free to burn them without committing mortal sin. Relaxation was accompanied by a formal plea for mercy; in fact this was meaningless, and the individual civil officer (sheriffs and so forth) had no choice but to burn, since otherwise he was denounced as a 'defender of heretics', and plunged into the perils of the system himself.
The codification of legislation against heresy took place over half a century, roughly 1180-1230, when it culminated in the creation of a permanent tribunal, staffed by Dominican friars, who worked from a fixed base in conjunction with the episcopate, and were endowed with generous authority. The permanent system was designed as a reform; in fact it incorporated all the abuses of earlier practice and added new ones. It had a certain vicious logic. Since a heretic was denied burial in consecrated ground, the corpses of those posthumously convicted (a very frequent occurrence) had to be disinterred, dragged through the streets and burnt on the refuse pit. The houses in which they lived had to be knocked down and turned into sewers or rubbish-dumps.
Convictions of thought-crimes being difficult to secure, the Inquisition used procedures banned in other courts, and so contravened town charters, written and customary laws, and virtually every aspect of established jurisprudence. The names of hostile witnesses were withheld, anonymous informers were used, the accusations of personal enemies were allowed, the accused were denied the right of defence, or of defending counsel; and there was no appeal. The object, quite simply, was to produce convictions at any cost; only thus, it was thought, could heresy be quenched. Hence depositors were not named; all a suspect could do was to produce a list of his enemies, and he was allowed to bring forward witnesses to testify that such enemies existed, but for no other purpose. On the other hand, the prosecution could use the evidence of criminals, heretics, children and accomplices, usually forbidden in other courts.
Once an area became infected by heresy, and the system moved in, large numbers of people became entangled in its toils. Children of heretics could not inherit, as the stain was vicarial; grandchildren could not hold ecclesiastical benefices unless they successfully denounced someone. Everyone from the age of fourteen (girls from twelve) were required to take public oaths every two years to remain good Catholics and denounce heretics. Failure to confess or receive communion at least three times a year aroused automatic suspicion; possession of the scriptures in any language, or of breviaries, hour-books and psalters in the vernacular, was forbidden. Torture was not employed regularly until near the end of the thirteenth century (except by secular officials without reference to the Inquisition) but suspects could be held in prison and summoned again and again until they yielded, the object of the operation being to obtain admissions or denunciations. When torture was adopted it was subjected to canonical restraints - if it produced nothing on the first occasion it was forbidden to repeat it. But such regulations were open to glosses; Francis Pegna, the leading Inquisition commentator, wrote:
'But if, having been tortured reasonably (decenter), he will not confess the truth, set other sorts of torments before him, saying that he must pass through all these unless he will confess the truth. If even this fails, a second or third day may be appointed to him, either in terrorem or even in truth, for the continuation (not repetition) of torture; for tortures may not be repeated unless fresh evidence emerges against him; then, indeed, they may, for against continuation there is no prohibition.'
Pegna said that pregnant women might not be tortured, for fear of abortions: 'we must wait until she is delivered of her child'; and children below the age of puberty, and old folk, were to be less severely tortured. The methods used were, on the whole, less horrific than those employed by various secular governments - though it should be added that English common lawyers, for instance, flatly denied that torture was legal, except in case of refusal to plead.
Once a victim was accused, escape from some kind of punishment was virtually impossible: the system would not allow it. But comparatively few were executed: less than ten per cent of those liable. Life-imprisonment was usual for those 'converted' by fear of death; this could be shortened by denunciations. Acts of sympathy or favour for heretics were punished by imprisonment or pilgrimage; there were also fines or floggings, and penance in some form was required of all those who came into contact with the infected, even though unknowingly and innocently. The smallest punishment was to wear yellow cloth crosses - an unpopular penalty since it prevented a man from getting employment; on the other hand, to cease to wear it was treated as a relapse into heresy. A spell in prison was virtually inevitable.
Of course there was a shortage of prison-space, since solitary confinement was the rule. Once the Inquisition moved into an area, the bishop's prison was soon full; then the king's; then old buildings had to be converted, or new ones built. Food was the prisoner's own responsibility, though the bishop was supposed to provide bread and water in the case of poverty. The secular authorities did not like these crowded prisons, being terrified of gaol fever and plague, and thus burned many more people than the Church authorized. The system was saved from utter horror only by the usual medieval frailties: corruption, inertia, and sheer administrative incompetence.
Where the system was employed against an entire community, as in Languedoc, it evoked resistance. There were riots, murders, the destruction of records. Many countries would not admit the Inquisition at all. In Spain, however, it became a state instrument, almost a national institution, like bullfighting, a mystery to foreigners but popular among the natives. It is surprising how often admirable, if eccentric, individuals were burned, not only without public protest but with general approval. Thus the fourteenth century breakaway movement of Franciscans, the fraticelli, who opposed clerical property and reasserted the apostolic practices of their founder, were hunted and burned all over Europe but especially in their native Umbria and the Mark of Ancona; the crowds who watched them destroyed were apathetic or inclined to believe antinomianism was rightly punished. In the Middle Ages, the ruthless and confident exercise of authority could nearly always swing a majority behind it. And the victims of the flames usually died screaming in pain and terror, thus appearing to confirm the justice of the proceedings.
Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, © 1976 Athenium, pgs. 253-255.