Judicial institution of the Catholic church.
The Inquisition was originally set up to consolidate and defend the secular power of the Roman Catholic Church through the persecution and elimination of other religions in its territory. Its name, derived from the Latin inquiro ("I enquire"), indicates that unlike other courts, the Inquisition actively seeks out "offenders" and brings them to trial even in the absence of a complaint against them.
The most common accusations brought against the accused were heresy, alchemy, witchcraft and sorcery. Because confessions were obtained through torture, the system was also used to eliminate political or personal enemies through false accusations.
The juridical procedure began with an accusation and an opportunity for the accused to confess and absolve himself or herself. If the accused refused to acknowledge guilt, a trial before the Inquisitor involved interrogation and the calling of witnesses. In many cases interrogation under torture was used to obtain the names of other heretics.
Sentences for accused who confessed ranged from prayers and fasting to confiscation of property (an important instrument to increase the wealth of the church) and imprisonment, often for life. Accused who refused to confess and recant were condemned to death and handed over to the secular authorities for execution; most were burned alive. The same fate awaited persons who recanted but were later found to have relapsed.
The institution of the Inquisition went through three stages.
- The Inquisition of the Middle Ages was established by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 to eliminate various departures from the teaching of the church. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV gave it the power to interrogate under torture. This "medieval inquisition" was active for over 200 years in Italy and southern France and in a limited extent in northern Europe.
- The Spanish Inquisition was authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 to assist the Spanish conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada. It soon became a formidable instrument of power in the hands of the Spanish reactionary aristocracy under queen Isabella I. The Dominican monk Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor, became the symbol of torture and terror.
Jews and Muslims in particular were sought out for conversion, and thousands were persecuted even after conversion and accused of being secret heretics. Estimates of the number of burnings at the stake vary widely; but burnings were a daily event, and an estimate of 2,000 deaths while de Torquemada was in charge is definitely not exaggerated.
This most ruthless form of the Inquisition was restricted to Spain. Charles V introduced it into the Netherlands in 1522 to fight Protestantism, but without success. His action, which cost many lives, contributed to the development of a political opposition against the Spanish occupation that in 1581 led to the emergence of the Dutch Republic.
- The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 by Pope Paul III to combat Protestantism. It was a relatively mild form of Inquisition; some scholars see it as an attempt to prevent the Spanish Inquisition from reaching Italy, parts of which were then under Spanish rule. The severity of the Roman Inquisition varied under different popes; there were brief periods when its practices did not differ much from those that prevailed in Spain. It was instrumental in keeping Protestantism out of Italy.
As the need to combat Protestantism decreased, the Roman Inquisition turned into an ordinary judicial system of government for the Vatican. During a reorganization of administrative procedures in 1908 it was absorbed into the "Holy Office", in charge of questions related to purity of faith. In 1965 its role became part of the new Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Joan of Arc is one of many victims of political show trials under the Inquisition.