167: CHRISTIAN ATROCITIES #5: The Inquisition

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog where no holds are barred. It is my personal polemic, and in it I think aloud about religion and the world. I hope you get something from it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

In 13th century Europe, the Roman Catholic church had a monopoly, not only on how people worshipped but on how they thought. They were the only show in town, yet somehow, through the chinks a few unwelcome ideas filtered in. Sometimes people were just reacting to the injustices they saw perpetrated by the church every day.

In a bid to ensure 100% loyalty the church called together its leaders in 1215 to proclaim that it was the duty of all bishops to seek out all disloyal elements and eradicate them. This mighty, monolithic totalitarian force set up groups in every parish throughout Europe to track down these heretics. The 4th Lateran Council declared that every baptised Catholic had to swear an oath of loyalty every 2 years, and to assist their parish’s anti-heretic team.

In 1232, Pope Gregory IX upgraded the campaign against heretics and brought it under the control of the Curia and the Dominicans (who were nicknamed the “Domini Canes” which in Latin means the “Hounds of the Lord”). Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican and he legitimised the death penalty  for those who spread ‘contagious and soul destroying false doctrines’. Bands of Dominicans went from town to town; on arrival they assembled the entire population and threatened them with hellfire if they concealed the truth. After having the fear of God put into them, the denunciations began. Children would denounce their parents as heretics, and parents their children. Husbands denounced their wives and vice versa. Old scores were settled, family feuds played out, and vendettas strengthened. Anonymous letters were acted on. Accessories to the ‘crimes’ were accused. All those accused of anything were imprisoned in chains and deprived of the sacraments.

Thus did The Inquisition begin.

In each town that he and his merry band of sadists and torturers went to, The Inquisitor was Prosecutor, Judge and Father Confessor. There was no defence council. The accused had to answer all the questions put to them; they were expected to betray their fellow heretics; and they were obliged to accept any penance imposed.

“The heretic was dragged into the torture chamber and shown all the terrible instruments of torture. If this dreadful display did not make him confess his errors then the instruments were applied to his body, one by one, in a process of slowly increasing pain…Tortures lasting three to four hours were not unusual. While the victim was being tortured, the rack or other instrument was frequently sprinkled with holy water. Countless frightful means were used in the procedure, all with the sole purpose of crushing the victim’s resistance and making him confess…A cloth was usually pushed into the victim’s mouth to prevent the torturers from being distracted or irritated by his wild screams. A heretic might be tortured in this way for hours, until his body had become a flayed, bruised, broken and bleeding mass of flesh. from time to time he would be asked whether he was at last ready to confess. Overwhelmed by pain and half out of his mind with anguish, he would usually, after a few hours of this torment, give all the information that the Inquisitors wanted to hear.” (i)

So that’s where Hitler, Stalin . and the gaolers of Abu Ghraib got it from.

So the accused basically had 2 choices: plead guilty or face more torture. (Fortunately, Pope Innocent IV passed a Papal Bull making torture permissible under Canon Law in 1252).

Those pleading guilty could expect

  • to be beaten publically by the priest at mass every Sunday
  • to be fined, which meant in practice losing all their property (to the Inquisition team, in case you were wondering. In fact, in Spain they went out of their way to target wealthy Christians and Jews, and it is estimated that 50% of Inquisition cases were brought simply for purposes of self-enrichment.)
  • to be sent on a pilgrimage to Palestine on foot
  • to be put in a living grave. This meant being chained in a windowless cell for life
  • to be sent away for good as slaves on a galley, rowing across the seas in all weathers.

Those stupid enough to plead innocent were tortured some more and then burned alive. Although this was on the orders of the Pope, it was carried out by the civil authorities. (They were excommunicated if they didn’t comply.) All those who brought wood to the stake were declared to have performed a ‘meritorious act’, and were granted full remission of their sins.
The bodies of dead heretics were exhumed, burned, and their ashes scattered so they would not resurrect on Judgement Day as in Matthew 16:19!

Autos da Fé were the big mass burnings that took place on Sundays and Feast Days.

  • Horsemen went out to invite people to come
  • High prices were charged for window seats which had a good view over the scene
  • Unlike the Nazis, the Inquisitors did not gas their victims first
  • The victims were raised up high so that all could follow every stage of their agony
  • Their screams were drowned out with hymns of praise

Thomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who died in 1498, boasted that he had put 10,220 to death at the stake and sent 97,371 to the galleys as slaves.

In Seville alone over a 40 year period in the 15th century, 4000 were burnt alive and 30,000 punished

In the town of Guadeloupe, (population 3000), in 1485, 53 people were burnt alive,  46 exhumed corpses were burnt, 16 people were condemned to everlasting imprisonment, and others were sent to the galleys.

In the Papal States (before they became part of the unified Italy) the Inquisition was still active as late as 1870!

The numbers of victims are unknown to the public as the Vatican keeps the records locked away in its archives. (ii)

Related Zingcreed Posts:

Christian atrocities #1: Slavery
Christian atrocities #2: The slaughter of non-Christians
Christian atrocities #3: The Crusades
Christian atrocities #4: Anti-Semitism

(i) Nigg, Walter “Das buch der Ketzer” Zurich (1962)
(ii) Kahl, J. “The Misery of Christianity” Penguin (1968)


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