by Bernard Hamilton

Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd

Foundations of Medieval History series:

The End of the Byzantine Empire
D. M. Nicol


General Preface

Map: The Lands of the Medieval Inquisition



1. Heresy and the Medieval Church

2. The Growth of Heresy up to 1215

3. The foundation of the Inquisition

4. The interrogation of suspects

5. Punishment and penance

6. The Inquisition in Languedoc, 1233 - 1324

7. The growth of the Inquisition

8. Prosecutions of the fourteenth century

9. Sorcery and reform

Further reading


Any discussion of the controversial subject of heresy and its prosecution by the Inquisition is fraught with problems. How is heresy to be defined? Was it different from religious doubt or anti-clericalism? Why did heresy increase and what rules governed the Inquisitors, making them different from other enforcers of orthodoxy? In tracing the evolution of the Inquisition in the centuries before the Reformation, Dr Hamilton shows that the Inquisitors intended to convert heretics through spiritual penances rather than to burn or torture them indiscriminately as lay society often demanded. Nevertheless, the Inquisition, founded by the Papacy at the height of its power in the first half of the thirteenth century was, despite its high religious purpose, responsible for a great deal of inhumanity. In later centuries, indeed, it was sometimes subverted to serve the ends of secular rulers: Philip IV's cynical use of it to destroy the Knights Templar, the elite of Crusading chivalry, is an indication of how far the Inquisition had become, in much of western Europe, an established part of the work of government.


Most people associate the word 'Inquisition' either with the Spanish Inquisition or with the Roman Inquisition which tried Galileo. Both these institutions were creations of the early modern period, but they had evolved from the Medieval Inquisition, founded by Pope Gregory IX in the thirteenth century. That was, in some ways, a very different organization from the Inquisitions of the sixteenth century. In the Middle Ages much of Europe was divided into provinces, each of which was administered by an Inquisitor who had a personal commission from the Pope to examine cases of heresy in his area. There was no central department to direct and co-ordinate this work, and individual inquisitors had no institutional connection with their colleagues in other provinces, though they all exercised identical powers which were defined in canon law. This strange situation had led Kieckhefer in his Repressions of Heresy in Medieval Germany to question whether it is useful to speak of a medieval Inquisition at all, rather than of Papal commissions to make inquisition for heresy. This is not a view I share, otherwise I should not have written this book.

The first comprehensive history of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages to be written in modern times was the work of H. C. Lea, which was published in three volumes in 1888. It has stood the test of time remarkably well, and Lea's chapters on the organization and procedures of the Inquisition were re-published, with an historical introduction by W. Ullmann, in 1963. Of course a great deal of work has been done in the past 92 years on medieval heresy, and this has made some of Lea's historical chapters obsolete. But no definitive new history of the subject has yet appeared, and anybody working in this field will know how necessary it still is to have recourse to Lea's work on some points.

I should like to make clear that this book is not intended to be a new, definitive account of the Medieval Inquisition: it would be impossible to achieve that in a work of this length. This study is a work of synthesis, not of original research, and is intended for the use of people who want an introduction to the subject, and who may not be very familiar with the historical context in which the Inquisition operated.

I have attempted, as far as possible, to look at the Inquisition in action, rather than as it existed in the minds of the canon lawyers who defined its powers. There are excellent studies of the juridical status of the Inquisition, which are listed in the bibliography, and it would be pointless to try to duplicate those works. There is, however, a vast difference between the powers which any institution may possess in theory and the extent to which it can use them in practice. A story used to circulate in Rome in the reign of Pius XII of how the Pope had once said to a cardinal who was urging him to solve some ecclesiastical dispute by Papal fiat: 'You forget, your eminence, that I do not have the powers of an Irish bishop'. Some inquisitors would, I think, have sympathized with Pope Pius: on paper their powers were almost unlimited; in practice they might find it difficult to secure the arrest of a notorious heretic who lived in the same town as themselves.

The history of the Inquisition is in some ways very depressing. Cruelty and intolerance are common to most societies in most ages, but the Inquisition is unusual in that many of the men who administered it were very gifted, sometimes even spiritually gifted, and were justly considered eminent by their contemporaries and in some cases worthy of canonization after their death. Yet these men shared the belief of their society that it was morally wrong to tolerate error, and meritorious to use physical coercion against religious dissenters. Despite this, the history of the Inquisition is a source of hope, since it shows that it is impossible to coerce belief. The inquisitors could, within limits, enforce outward conformity, but they never succeeded in producing by those methods a Christendom whose members all shared a single faith, which was their object. The history of their failure forms a valuable part of western European experience.

Note: Often totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships have also resorted to similar methods of coercion of conscience, simply replacing the dogma of the Church with the prevailing political dogma of the party-state instead.

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