Inquisition The Catholic Church’s persecution of heretics, lasting several centuries and spreading throughout Europe and even into the New World. The primary objective of the Inquisition was to eliminate religious threats to the Church, especially powerful sects such as the Waldenses, Bogmils, Cathars and Albigenses, as well as Jews and muslims. As the Inquisition gathered power, it was turned against Gypsies, social undesirables, people caught in political fights—and witches. Historians estimate that between 200,000 and 1 million people, mostly women, died during the “witch-craze” phase of the Inquisition alone.

The roots of the Inquisition start with the First Crusade launched in 1086 by Pope Urban II, a campaign against muslims to regain territory in the Holy Land. At the same time, the church found itself beset by religious sects growing in power and influence. The church dealt with these sects unevenly, sometimes with tolerance and sometimes with suppression. In 1184, Pope Lucius III issued a bull to bishops to “make inquisition” for heresy. many bishops were too busy to devote much time to this.

The Inquisition is considered to have begun during the term of Pope Gregory Ix, from 1227 to 1233. In 1229, he invited Franciscan monks to participate in inquisitions, a role that expanded for the order for more than two centuries. In 1233 Gregory issued two bulls giving the Dominican order the authority to prosecute heretics. The Dominicans were empowered to proceed against accused heretics and condemn them without appeal, with the help of the secular arm. The Dominicans became the dominant inquisitors for the church.

In 1307, key members of the knIghts templAr were arrested in France and prosecuted as heretics. The objective of king Philip the Fair was more political than religious; he desired to seize the wealth of the Templars, and he wished to maneuver the church to be subservient to the throne. The Templars were accused of witchcraft and Devil worship as part of their heresy. The first public burning of 54 Templars took place on may 12, 1310, and led to the destruction of the entire order. many Templars were tortured into confessions.

The Inquisition took another deadly turn in the 13th century with the issuance of several bulls that gave inquisitors increasing powers to arrest, torture and execute. After 1250, Pope Innocent IV issued a series of bulls to aid Dominican inquisitors in carrying out their duties. His final bull, Ad Extirpa (“to extirpate”), issued on may 15, 1252, turned Italy into a virtual police state with everyone at the mercy of inquisitors. Anyone who exposed a heretic could have him arrested. The inquisitors had the power to torture people into confessions and sentence
them to death by being burned alive at the stake. The bull also put a police force at the disposal of the Inquisition.

Practices of the Inquisition


In the early stages of the Inquisition, there were few official guidelines concerning the arrest, questioning and punishment of heretics. In the 1240s, manuals and handbooks for inquisitors began to circulate, which continued into the 17th century. The most influential early handbook was Practica officii inquisitionis heretice pravitatis, authored in 1323–24 by the famous inquisitor, Bernard Gui. Another famous handbook was the Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1488 by two Dominicans, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.

Traits of the ideal inquisitor.

Innocent IV issued a bull in 1254 stating that inquisitors should be forceful preachers and “full of zeal for the state.” By the early 14th century, inquisitors were required to be at least 40 years of age; most of them were doctors of law trained at universities.

In his influential manual, Gui sets the requirements for a good inquisitor. Essentially, the man must be inflamed with a passion to eradicate all heresy, but show compassion and mercy too:

The inquisitor . . . should be diligent and fervent in his zeal for the truth of religion, for the salvation of souls, and for the extirpation of heresy. Amid troubles and opposing accidents he should grow earnest, without allowing himself to be inflamed with the fury of wrath and indignation. He must not be sluggish of body, for sloth destroys the vigor of action. He must be intrepid, persisting through danger to death, laboring for religious truth, neither precipitating peril by audacity nor shrinking from it through timidity. He must be unmoved by the prayers and blandishments of those who seek to influence him, yet not be, through hardness of heart, so obstinate that he will yield nothing to entreaty, whether in granting delays or in mitigating punishment, according to place and circumstance, for this implies stubbornness; nor must he be weak and yielding through too great a desire to please, for this will destroy the vigor and value of his work—he who is weak in his work is brother to him who destroys his work. In doubtful matters he must be circumspect and not readily yield credence to what seems probable, for such is not always true; nor should he obstinately reject the opposite, for that which seems improbable often turns out to be fact. He must listen, discuss, and examine with all zeal, that the truth may be reached at the end. Like a judge let him bear himself in passing sentence of corporeal punishment that his face may show compassion, while his inward purpose remains unshaken, and thus will he avoid the appearance of indignation and wrath leading to the charge of cruelty. In imposing pecuniary penalties, let his face preserve the severity of justice as though he were compelled by necessity and not allured by cupidity. Let truth and mercy, which should never leave the heart of a judge, shine forth from his countenance, that his decisions may be free from all suspicion of covetousness or cruelty.

Inquisitors were given full indulgences. They had the power to arrest anyone of any social rank, to seize and sell the property of those they accused and to absolve excommunications. They were both prosecutor and judge. In the early Inquisition, there were many who did their best to pursue truth as they saw it, but many others were corrupted by their power, especially as the Inquisition spread from religious heretics to accused witches.

Arrests and interrogations.

In the early Inquisition, accused heretics were given ample opportunity to turn themselves in and repent. They were notified through priests that they should voluntarily convert. Their names were publicly read at sermons. Failing voluntary action, the accused would be arrested and interrogated. If they capitulated, they might be sentenced to penances, fines, whippings, and imprisonment—sometimes for life. A reformed heretic was useful to the church, both as persuasion to others and also for providing the names of other suspects. Unrepentant and relapsed heretics were tortured and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

If an accused heretic died in jail or prior to arrest, the Inquisition did not hold back, but conducted a posthumous trial. If convicted, the body of the accused was dug up and burned.


Initially inquisitors themselves could not perform the torture. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV gave inquisitors the right to absolve each other and give dispensations, so that they could torture the accused themselves.

By the end of the 13th century, inquisitors throughout Europe were operating under Ad Extirpa. Pope John xxII expanded the Inquisition, but did attempt to restrict torture in 1317 by issuing a decree that it should be employed only with “mature and careful deliberation.” Torture could not be repeated without fresh evidence against a person. However, zealous inquisitors found ways around restrictions. For example, torture over a period of time was not repeated torture, but torture that was “continued.” Confessions were always technically “free and spontaneous,” for victims were tortured until they “freely” confessed.

There were six primary methods of torture:

• ordeal by water, in which a person was forced to ingest large quantities of water quickly, which burst blood vessels;

• ordeal by fire, in which the soles of the feet were burned by fire or hot irons;

• the strappado, a pulley, used to hang and drop the accused to dislocate joints;

• the rack, a wooden frame used to stretch a body;

• The wheel, a large cartwheel to which the accused was tied and then beaten with clubs and hammers; and • the stivaletto, wooden planks and metal wedges used to crush feet and legs.

In addition, the accused were imprisoned, sometimes in dungeons, beaten, starved and psychologically abused.
Details about how these methods were applied are given in the torture entry.


Burning was seen as the only way to exterminate heretics and discourage participation in religious sects. After the corpse was burned, every bone was broken in order to prevent martyrdom and relics for any followers. The organs were burned, and all the ashes were thrown into water.

Accused witches, who were heretics because they were witches, were burned as well. In England, most witches were hung.

Witchcraft and Sorcery

In the extension of its power as a religious, social and political force, the church had long opposed pagan practices and sorcery, especially sacrifices to Demons. From the 8th century to about the 12th century, the church sought to wipe out paganism. By the 13th century, there was more tolerance, and the church itself even acquired an aura of magical power. Practices of alchemy, Magic, sorcery, divination and necromancy were widespread, even in the church. John xxII was well aware of this activity and was a believer himself, using magical talismans for protection. A necromantic plot of sympathetic magic was directed at him and his cardinals. The plot failed, but the pope responded by turning the Inquisition against sorcery.

On July 28, 1319, John XXII ordered the prosecution of two men and a woman who were believed to be consulting with Demons and making magical images. He soon followed with another bull directing the Bishop of Toulouse to proceed against sorcerers as if they were heretics. The bishop accused heretics of sacrificing to and worshipping Demons and making pacts with the Devil.

John XXII was especially interested in wiping out magical practices among the clergy and prominent people, but his campaigns sometimes backfired, making the victims and their works more popular than ever. In 1330 the pope issued a bull ordering that sorcerer and witch trials be concluded, and no new ones started. John XXII died in 1334. His successor, Benedict XII, resumed the use of sorcery as a crime of heresy, expanding into small-time practitioners in villages.

In the 14th century, the association between sorcery and heresy took on new dimensions, bringing sorcery and witchcraft into the Inquisition. But nearly 200 years passed before the essential elements of witchcraft as heresy solidified: the Devil ’s pACt, Sabbats, shApe-shIFtIng and mAleFICIA. In 1398, the theological faculty of the University of Paris adopted 28 articles of witchcraft, which became a foundation for subsequent treatises on witchcraft by Demonologists. The articles were considered proof of witchcraft, and they established as fact that a Devil’s pact was necessary for the performance of all acts of magic and witchcraft. The first reference to sabbats in trials occurred in 1475, but sabbats received scant attention until later in the 15th century. Lurid descriptions were given about witches engaging in ritual feasting, sexual orgies and the ritual murder and cannibalism of infants and children.

Devil’s pacts became a central element in the 16th century In the 15th century, the writers of inquisitional handbooks and treatises emphasized sorcery and witchcraft and drew upon the influential writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who in the late 13th century condemned any kind of invocation of Demons and Devil pacts either implicit or explicit.

The campaigns to stamp out sorcery and witchcraft had the effect of whipping up public fears of the powers of magic. People already lived in fear of bewitchment, and the Inquisition intensified it. Ironically, the attention validated the reality of magic and evil powers.

Most accusations against witches concerning evil spell-casting, but diabolical elements were introduced by inquisitors, who sought to prove Devil worship and pacts in order to convict of heresy. Torture also increased in order to secure the necessary “free confessions” to diabolism.

The witch craze raged for nearly three centuries, from the 1500s to the late 1700s, with the most intense persecutions taking place in the 17th century. In the 18th century, the Inquisition lost momentum and finally came to an end.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisition took its own course in Spain and Portugal, where it was turned primarily against Jews and muslims, religious sects and even Freemasons. Accusations of witchcraft and sorcery were used against many of the accused. The driving force behind the Spanish Inquisition was political unification of the three dominant kingdoms of Spain, Castile, Aragon and Granada, pursued by king Ferdinand, who ascended the throne of Aragon in 1479, and his wife, Queen Isabella, who ascended the throne of Castile in 1474. In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV authorized the examination of Jewish converts to Christianity. The new royals used this against what they perceived as “the Jewish” problem in their own land.

The Spanish Inquisition operated outside the jurisdiction of rome and had its own organization of councils and inquisitors, overseen by an Inquisitor General. As the first Inquisitor General, Torquemada established rules and procedures. Salaries and expenses of inquisitors were paid from the goods and properties confiscated from the accused, so there was great motivation to target heretics.

The typical procedure against an accused heretic was to read accusations against him from anonymous accusers. The wordings were deliberately vague, and the accused was forced to guess the identity of his accusers and why he was targeted. If he guessed wrongly, he was sent back to prison and recalled again. If he guessed correctly, he was asked why the witnesses accused him of heresy. In that way, the accused were maneuvered into acknowledging guilt and also naming others who might be dragged into court as well. Throughout, the accused was assigned an “advocate,” a sort of public defender, who in actuality did little to defend the accused. Instead, the advocate encouraged the accused to admit guilt.

In many cases, cruel torture was applied. The torture was both physical and psychological. The latter included taking the accused into dark, underground chambers where inquisitors waited with a black-robed and hooded executioner.

Victims were not given formal trials, but rather subjected to long interrogations punctuated by long periods in prison and by torture. Finally the accused was made to appear at an auto-da-fé, at which a sentence was given. The condemned were not always executed; many were sentenced to prison, whippings, scourging, galleys and fines.

Unrepentant or relapsed heretics were sentenced to death by burning at the stake. If they confessed during the auto-da-fé, they were given the mercy of strangulation prior to burning. The executions were spectacular affairs conducted in a public square, attended by royalty. The stakes were about four yards high, with a small board near the top where the condemned were chained. Several final attempts were made to get the condemned to reconcile to Rome. The executions proceeded by first burning the faces of the condemned with flaming furzes attached to poles that were thrust at them. Then dry furzes set about the stakes were set afire.

The Spanish Inquisition did not succumb to the witch craze that swept through Europe, but instead kept most of its focus on religious heretics. The Spaniards extended their Inquisition into the New World, setting up an office in Mexico, whose jurisdiction reached into what later was part of the American Southwest (see Santa Fe Witches). The Spanish Inquisition came to a formal end in 1834.

See Also:

Further Reading:

  • Lea, Henry Charles. The History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. New York: macmillan, 1908.———. Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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