The Compassionate Side of the Medieval Inquisition

Drawing: Two priests ask a heretic to repent as torture is administered.

From Wikipedia:

When a papal inquisition arrived at a town it had a set of procedures and rules to identify likely heretics. First, the townspeople would be gathered in a public place. Although attendance was voluntary, those who failed to show would automatically be suspect, so most would come. The inquisitors would provide an opportunity for anyone to step forward and denounce themselves in exchange for easy punishment. As part of this bargain they would need to inform on other heretics. In addition, the inquisitors could simply force people to be interrogated. Once information had been gathered, an inquisitorial trial could begin.

The inquisitorial trial generally favored the prosecution (the Church). The defendant would be allowed a lawyer, but if the defendant was convicted, the lawyer would lose his ability to practice. Therefore most lawyers never took the chance of defending a potential heretic. The trials were conducted in secret with only the inquisitors, the defendant and some inquisitorial staff to take notes. Inquisitors sequestered all of the property of the defendant. The defendant was not told the charges, but was always invited to confess, only guessing what for. The accused was expected to self-incriminate and did not have the right to face and question the accuser. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and convicted heretics. Blood relationship did not exempt one from the duty to testify against the accused. Sentences could not be appealed once made. The inquisitor could keep a defendant in prison for years before the trial to obtain new information.

Despite the seeming unfairness of the procedures, the inquisitors did provide rights to the defendant. At the beginning of the trial, defendants were invited to name those who had "mortal hatred" against them. If the accusers were among those named, the defendant was set free and the charges dismissed; the accusers would face life imprisonment. This option was meant to keep the inquisition from becoming involved in local grudges. A confession under torture was not admissible in court, although the inquisitor could threaten the accused with torture during the proceedings.

Torture was used after 1252. On May 15, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull entitled Ad exstirpanda, which authorized the use of torture by inquisitors. It was a common part of the medieval judicial system and not particular to the inquisition. The torture methods used by inquisitors were mild compared to secular courts, as they were forbidden to use methods that resulted in bloodshed, mutilation or death. Also, torture could be performed only once (although a session could be "suspended", and when continued would be regarded as the same session of torture). One of the more common forms of medieval inquisition torture was known as strappado. The hands were bound behind the back with a rope, and the accused was suspended this way, dislocating the joints painfully in both arms. Weights could be added to the legs dislocating those joints as well.

Once the trial was concluded the results might take years to be revealed, during which time the defendant stayed in prison. The inquisitors would save up the cases and announce them at once in a public ceremony called, in Latin, sermo generalis, or "general sermon." Among the possible punishments were a long pilgrimage for first offenders, wearing a yellow cross for life, confiscation of property, banishment, public recantation, or long-term imprisonment. Burning at the stake was only for the most serious cases, including repeat offenders and unrepentant heretics. Execution was done not by the Church, which was forbidden to kill, but by secular officials. The accused could have all of his property confiscated, and in many cases, accusers may have been motivated by a desire to take the property of the accused.

The inquisitors generally preferred not to hand over heretics to the secular arm for execution if they could persuade the heretic to repent. It was in the inquisitors' interest to be perceived as merciful, and they generally preferred to keep defendants alive in hopes of obtaining confessions. For example, Bernard Gui, a famous inquisitor working in the area of Toulouse (in modern France), executed 42 people out of over 900 guilty verdicts in fifteen years of office. Execution was to admit defeat, that the Church was unable to save a soul from heresy, which was the goal of the inquisition.


Socialist Libertarian said...

I think of this every time I here some Krazy Kristian sprout off, "If Christianity is wrong, howcome there's so many Christians in the world!"

Kyle said...

God should have been more explicit in the lists of No-no's because then John would have no excuse for unbelieving. I mean he should have said something like "Love you neighbor as yourself" and then things like the Inquisition and Slavery in the American south would have been unconscionable. We all know that sinners just need a longer list of No-no's to change their heart from hating God to loving and obeying his commands. Mark 1 for the atheists.

Still believing,

John W. Loftus said...

Kyle, you do not fully appreciate the problem to be this flippant. You need to give it more thought than that, even if in the end you will still disagree.

Kyle said...


The Inquisition was a Catholic institution which I, as a Protestant, condemn. No scriptures in the OT make the evils committed by them acceptable. (This does fall outside DC's purpose of debunking Evangelical Christianity, which of course Catholics are not EC's)

I will point out how scripture ought to be interpreted though I don't have much hope you'll do this since you don't believe them to be inspired. When God draws a person and opens their eyes, they trust Him and read the OT in light of their knowledge of the character of God and His purposes. Some questions that needs to be asked when studying these passages are:

Do you take the facts of the Theocracy of Israel into account when interpreting those verses?

Do you recognize that civil laws given to the Jews were meant in the context of the post Exodus Jewish state where God's miraculous presence had confirmed the Law to the Jews. Therefore, any rejection of God and His laws was especially reprehensible.

Do you know God's purpose in creating the state if Israel?

How do these Laws reflect God's purpose?

God is hard to fully comprehend by virtue of His infitite characteristics. He communicates according to his sovereign plan and what He says is often times not what we expect. Your argument is that God should have said "do not kill to spread the Gospel" or "Do not hold slaves under any circumstances." If he doesn't then he is irresponsible like a slack CEO. This can't be so since God is supposed to be good, therefore, no good God exists.

We say He didn't need to because any true follower of God interprets His commands in light of all other commands. Though even true followers can get it wrong sometimes. Christ never taught us to use force to convert others. He told us to love everyone. Love is the grid through which all actions are filtered to determine their rightness or wrongness.

The commands about slavery in Israel regulate the practice and create improvements in the system. The OT does not create the system of slavery or propose it for future societies. Because it was a fact that existed, God dealt with it by giving Laws to the Jews. He could have abolished slavery at that time, but it was not His purpose with Israel. Is God allowed to have a different purpose than fixing all wrongs in Israel in the time-space domain? Do you think God is responsible for all the sinful actions of sinful creatures? Is it possible He was looking to the eternal perspective of destroying sin for all time by Christ on the cross? The scriptures teach that God used Isreal to receive the Law and to be the source of the Messiah. The Messiah fixed the eternal problem of sin for believers, not all the temporal ones. Did you notice how many people in the Gospel's wanted Jesus to be their earthly King to overthrow the Romans? He could have, but He had a different purpose. If you recognize these things, the troubling aspects of the reality of sin come in to perspective. And of course Judgment Day is when God plans to deal with all sin.

So in about 500 words there is the same answer as my 'flippant' one. Though of course, I considered it to be an appropriate use of sarcasm to make a point. The sarcasm was not meant to be disrespectful to you, but to enhance the obviousness of the error in your argument. I don't enjoy saying you are wrong. It makes me rather sad that you are laboring so hard under a deception. I believe the devil is quite crafty and those who are under his power do not recognize it at all.

Flippantly yours,

Anonymous said...


You are just repeating some very odd Christian arguments. Why does an all powerful God need humans to accomplish his purpose, whatever that happens to be? Obviously he just has to will a thing be done, and it will be done. It makes no sense whatever to say he ~had to~ nail his son to a cross to save humans from their sins. Why would he bother to create humans, knowing that they would just annoy the hell out him? God's behavior makes zero sense. Your God is insane.

Kyle said...

I do not believe I said God needs humans to accomplish his purpose. He does choose to use them. Do you know God's purpose in creating men? He did it to manifest his glory. The greatest existence for a created being is to be in relationship with God where God is understood for who he is. The characteristics of God, or more specifically their expressions, are referred to as God's glory. The glory of God is to the benefit of his creatures and it was God's grace that caused him to make man to experience his glory. Humans have a special capacity to experience the knowledge and power of God.

You seem to be troubled by the fact that making man meant that some would be lost. While I sympathize with the concern that many will be in Hell, I cannot condemn God for it. He is the only one in a position to make a value judgment about whether making humans, when some would go to Hell, was a good thing. The fact that he made us, tells me he considers it to be worth it. I expect to have the rest of the info after I stand in his presence. I hope you will be there with me. Jesus is the door and for now that door is open.

Anonymous said...

Kyle said: The fact that he made us...
That speaks volumes.

Kyle said...

Anonymous said: That speaks volumes.

I suppose you are referring to the naked expression of my presupposition that God exists and is therefore the Creator of all things? The volume depends on the radio you use. :) For the person who has experienced the drawing of God, and the revelation of God in Christ then they recognize this fact. Its not so loud to us. But, for the sake of argument, you could grant my presupposition and apply your 'rule' that God must make sense. I laid out how, given Christian presuppositions, Hell is a value judgement made by God which is understandable within the scope of who God is and His plans for mankind. You might dislike it or think it is false, but such a God as the one of Scripture is not insane and is not bound by the opinions of men like you and me.
If you are genuinely concerned that the cross and its relationship to God's plan does not make sense, let me know and I can help you see the Biblical meaning of the cross.

John W. Loftus said...

If you are genuinely concerned that the cross and its relationship to God's plan does not make sense, let me know and I can help you see the Biblical meaning of the cross.

Okay then, please do. Begin here, then here, then here, then here.

I'd be very interested in you explaining this to us.

Randy said...

Kyle said: For the person who has experienced the drawing of God, and the revelation of God in Christ then they recognize this fact.From the dark recesses of my humble mind, there are facts, then there are facts, and finally, there are facts. There are facts that are known and proven, there are facts that are unknown and unproven, and then there are facts that are known but unproven. The facts that your are speaking of are the latter. Loose translation; God exists because I believe he exists and I want him to exist, therefore he exists.
How much integrity is needed to admit that...apparently to much?

Kyle said...

Your request is a bit long. I will have to take a look at those articles when I am not on the company dime! I can only justify short excursions into the blog world during my breaks.

Is my integrity in question? My knowledge of God is based on two things: personal experience and the written revelation.

Some aspects of revelation are objective, such as the prophecies of the OT that were fulfilled in Christ. We can all examine to see if the specificity of the information about Christ requires a divine mind. Also, were the texts pre-Christ and post-Christ the same, hence no tampering or prophecy rigging? The evidence here is compelling to the one who is not looking to debunk it, but discover if it is true and believe it if so.

The other aspect of revelation is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. I maintain, in accord with scripture, that no amount of 'proof' is enough without the enablement that the Holy Spirit gives. I can tell about my experiences before and after becoming a Christian and tell how the Holy Spirit worked in my life. He changed my attitudes and gave me a new spirit which longs after God. Before I knew Christ, I was at best neutral toward God and at times hostile. Your only access to this information is based on my testimony that it is so. You can accept or reject it. I do not lack integrity to consider it a fact if you do not have access to that information or you deny my testimony. Facts that are acceptable in court, are established by credible witnessess. This is the kind of evidence we have in the New Testament from the apostles, churches, and hostile witnesses such as Paul. The kind of proof you are asking for is absolute, unquestionable proof, but on a practical level, life and death decisions are made with much less certainty than you require. Either you demand too much, or we should be so skeptical that no murderer can ever be convicted and no death penalty applied.