The entry begins with a consideration of the different general and particular meanings of the term inquisition, first focusing on its sense as a term of legal procedure in the late twelfth century and its later specialized meaning in the criminal prosecution of heresy. The entry continues with a brief history of the juridical procedure in comparison to other forms of procedure: accusatio and denuntiatio. The entry then describes the use of the procedure in episcopal law courts that tried clerics and others charged with an ecclesiastical crime, its value in overcoming formidable rules favoring clerical defendants, and its prominence in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and subsequent influence on secular courts as well. It then moves on to the history of the criminal prosecution of heresy, the emergence of the Mendicant Orders and the pastoral concerns for penance, the papal commissioning of Dominicans as inquisitors of heretical depravity (inquisitio hereticae pravitatis) in the 1230s.
The earliest inquisitors followed the ordo iudiciarius, the formal legal procedure of canon and civil law (ius commune) that was developed through the twelfth century, but they also added variations when special circumstances warranted them. There is a description of an inquisitorial trial for heresy and a consideration of the emergence of a technology and instructional guidebooks for inquisitors. The entry concludes with a discussion of the relatively limited use of inquisitors of heretical depravity in matters touching professionally privileged corporate groups like faculties of theology and universities and the adoption of inquisitions of heretical depravity in early modern states.
Inquisition, from the Latin substantive inquisitio (pl. inquisitiones, from quaerere “search,” and by extension “inquiry,” “investigation” – in a Roman legal sense, “a search for proofs”), functioned in medieval Latin in one general and several particular senses. It might mean a general inquiry commanded by someone in power in response to information, complaint, clamor, or appeal; e.g., Charlemagne’s charges to clerical and lay investigators, missi dominici, to investigate regional irregularities in his empire or to bishops charged with searching out residual pagan practices or clerical misbehavior. William the Conqueror designated the investigations of property rights that resulted in Domesday Book as inquisitiones. Several twelfth-century popes instructed bishops to carry out an inquisitio veritatis, “inquiry as to the truth,” of various disputed legal matters, including doctrinal dissent, within their dioceses. Bishops had always been responsible for the spiritual life of their dioceses, charged with the responsibility for personal visitations on a regular schedule, and they were judges ordinary for serious ecclesiastical offenses and in some cases secular ones as well. Their visitations and formal inquiries were two vehicles for obtaining information and initiating further hearings, in most cases responding to clamor, public denunciation. Such episcopal inquiries and the later and more precise inquisition of heretical depravity were later justified by citing God’s response to the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18: 21 and the parable of the rich man who sought an accounting from his steward in Luke 16: 1–7. God’s inquest in Eden (Genesis 3: 8–13) was frequently cited by jurists and apologists in the same context.
The most widely known particular sense of the word designates a form of legal procedure of a kind followed in some instances in Roman law in which a single magistrate responding to a public complaint in certain matters handled an entire case from initial investigation to final judgment. But the practice largely ceased in the West after the sixth century, surviving only in occasional ecclesiastical circumstances, notably church councils and in matters touching the ruler’s person, obligations, and property.
One of the outcomes of Carolingian ecclesiastical vigilance in the eighth and ninth centuries (750–950) was the protected legal status of the clergy, laid out in a number of canon law collections (all of them local in origin and limited in authority), the most famous of which was the ninthcentury partially forged collection of disciplinary texts known as Pseudo-Isidore. Such canonical collections, as well as the actions of church councils and episcopal visitations, created a more or less common ecclesiastical procedural culture in western Europe before the emergence of learned law, the Ius commune, in the twelfth century. That culture distinguished between lay persons and clergy, generally regarded the operation of law as a form of dispute settlement that was based on several forms of action: denunciatio/compurgatio and accusatio. The former was based on Matthew 18:15 and required a denunciatio evangelica, a denunciation by local laymen of good reputation – synodal witnesses – that was intended to lead the person denounced to penance and what was called “charitable correction” of his spiritual fault. Its purpose was the reintegration of the accused into society. It also often entailed compurgation – the testimony by respectable witnesses to the character of the accused. The other was accusatio, in which a party claiming injury or damage had to accuse the person responsible before a competent local court, prosecute his own case, and, if he failed, to suffer the same penalties that the accused would have received. The accusatio process might also entail the judicial combat or the ordeal. Both procedures generally satisfied the relatively limited legal needs of an agro-literate, small-scale warrior/peasant society.
The beginnings of the transformation of that society in the late tenth- and eleventh-century reform movement led to a more precisely articulated community, a sharper distinction between laity and clergy, and the gradual centralizing of ecclesiastical authority in the papal office. Reformers also identified two clerical faults – sexual activity on the part of clergy and misuse of ecclesiastical property by clergy and laity – that they designated and misnamed as heresies – Nicolaitism and Simony. Their term haeresis was drawn from much earlier heresiological texts from the second through the eighth centuries, and their use of it also began to be applied to various movements among both clergy and laity that had begun as rejections of and demands for further reform and had turned into dissent from increasingly articulated theological doctrines. Such dissent was handled by the traditional methods of local episcopal synods or provincial or general church councils, appeals to the popes, or voluntary self-censorship. But in cases of wider diffusion of dissent traditional methods proved cumbersome and often encountered widespread opposition. Individual bishops themselves adopted varying attitudes and policies toward such dissent, never consistently and often inefficiently, ignorantly, or indifferently. Even the most widely used and most influential collection of classical canon law, the two recensions of the Decretum of Gratian (1139–1140, 1140–1150) although they said much about heresy, said little of the criminal prosecution of heretics.
Although several well-attended church councils in the early twelfth century (Second Lateran, 1139; Reims, 1157, and Tours, 1163) identified and denounced several devotional movements as heresies and declared their adherents excommunicated and their property confiscated, much depended on individual regions and the energy and interests of their ecclesiastical and lay rulers. The popes’ chief early response was to launch preaching missions into areas said to contain heretics and to urge secular authorities to aid in their discovery and disciplining.
The new problem of criminous clergy and lay dissent required a new form of imposing ecclesiastical discipline, since the older forms proved more and more cumbersome in effecting clerical reform. That new form was the inquisitorial procedure developed in the twelfth century and finalized in the thirteenth. The procedure was re-established initially by papal decision in canon law in episcopal courts around the turn of the thirteenth century, primarily for the trials of clerics charged with serious offenses. Its primary engineer was Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), a graduate of the new theology schools at Paris and a prelate with considerable experience of the law. In December 1199, Innocent issued the decretal Licet Heli which is, with several other Innocentian decretals of the period 1199–1207, considered the starting-point for the extensive adoption of inquisitio procedure in ecclesiastical courts. It was greatly elaborated upon by the same pope in canon 8 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Qualiter et quando. Initially devised as a solution to the procedural difficulties of prosecuting criminous clergy, the inquisitio procedure gradually spread to secular courts.
Inquisitio procedure came to predominate in ecclesiastical courts, but it also gradually reduced, but did not eliminate in secular law, the main earlier form, that of accusatio with its attendant ordeals, trials by combat, and dispute settlement. Inquisitio procedure, on the other hand, was in the hands of a judge (a bishop or someone appointed by episcopal or papal authority or papal legatine authority) from the beginning of a case until the end. From the bishop’s responsibility to determine whether or not a crime had been committed to the final verdict and sentencing of a convicted offender, the judge governed the course of the search for evidence and the trial. The notoriety of the offense (clamosa insinuatio) or the ill-fame of the accused (mala fama) was said to act in place of the accuser. In addition, the importance of witnesses, written documents, more frequent auricular confession, and the theology of penance had grown considerably in importance during the twelfth century. In addition, the accumulation of a literature of criminal procedure had grown up in the twelfth century and was consulted in the ordo iudiciarius, a body of procedural rules that had grown up through the twelfth century that greatly helped to standardize both canon and secular law over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trial of a cleric by inquisitorial procedure could now be more deliberate, better organized and unequivocally decided according to the recently formulated ordo iudiciarius, descriptions of proper judicial procedure from the beginning of a trial to the final disposition of a case. The ordo iudiciarius itself had already been insisted on in ecclesiastical proceedings by Alexander III (r. 1159–1181) and later twelfth-century canonists. Innocent III emphasized the importance of the inquisitio procedure and the responsibilities of episcopal visitation in the eighth canon of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Qualiter et quando. He also supported canon 8 by two other canons: canon 18 prohibited clerics from participating in the judicial ritual of ordeal, and canon 38 required the ecclesiastical judge to retain a scribe whose written record of every trial could be accurately reviewed upon appeal. The council also required all baptized Christians to make annual confession of their sins (canon 21) to their parish priest. By reintroducing and then standardizing inquisitorial procedure in criminal cases involving clerics, Innocent III contributed a new component to criminal legal procedure that eventually went far beyond the disciplining of erring clergy and was adopted widely by many secular courts. Innocent III’s institution of the inquisitio procedure was intended to facilitate such prosecutions when other forms proved inadequate or, as in the case of the ordeal, became virtually prohibited. The inquisitio procedure was also largely adopted by secular criminal procedure by the fourteenth century. The legal reforms of Innocent III reflect both the emergence of the legal theory of papal plenitudo potestatis and the later doctrine that disobedience to papal authority was itself a serious crime, indeed, heresy.
A second particular term, derived from and often confused with the first, inquisitio haereticae pravitatis, “the inquiry into heretical depravity,” and its agent, the “inquisitor of heretical depravity,” came into existence by papal command during the second quarter of the thirteenth century during the pontificate of Gregory IX (1227–1241) to regulate the criminal prosecution of heresy by appointing papal judges delegate or subdelegate using the inquisitio legal procedure to seek out heretics in particular regions for particular periods, thus adding a papally-commissioned official to the existing cadre of episcopal officials and sometimes to the staffs of papal legates to whom they might be attached. Such specialized judicial officials had no greater power than the bishop or legate they served, but their specific focus and, eventually, their greater experience in their specialty meant that they often took the matter of heresy out of the hands of episcopal or legatine officials.
The inquisitio hereticae pravitatis is most usefully considered both in terms of the history of ecclesiastical legal procedure and in those of the history of the criminal prosecution of heresy, since focusing exclusively on the latter has often led scholars to neglect its original rootedness in the former.
The extensive literature on heresy in the early church and in the criminal laws of the later Roman Empire were revived in the disputes of the eleventh- and early twelfth-century reform movement, and the term haeresis was applied to the most prominent instances of clerical misconduct, Simony and Nicolaitism – respectively the lay bestowal of ecclesiastical office or property or the buying and selling of ecclesiastical office or property, and clerical marriage. The term “heresy” then began to be applied to various movements among the clergy and laity that appeared to dissent from increasingly articulated theological doctrines. In the cases of such academic thinkers as Berengar of Tours, Peter Abelard, or Gilbert of Poitiers, such dissent, which usually reached only small and learned publics and was often highly technical, was handled by local episcopal synods or provincial or general church councils, papal appeals, local ecclesiastical superiors, or voluntary self-censorship. But in the case of movements of any wider diffusion conventional methods of ecclesiastical prosecution proved cumbersome and often encountered widespread opposition. Individual bishops themselves adopted varying attitudes and policies toward such dissent, never consistently and often inefficiently or indifferently. Although several church councils in the early twelfth century (Second Lateran, 1139; Reims, 1157, and Tours, 1163) identified and denounced different devotional movements as heresies and declared their adherents excommunicated and their property confiscated, the popes’ chief response was to launch preaching missions into areas thought to contain heretics and to urge secular authorities to aid in their discovery and prosecution. Even the most widely used collection of systematic canon law, the two recensions of the Decretum of Gratian (1139–1140 and 1140–1150) said much about heresy, but little about the criminal prosecution of heretics.
Only during the pontificate of Alexander III (1159–1181) did popes begin to urge regular episcopal visitations within ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses to inquire after heretics and employ the ordo iudiciarius. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 (c. 27) laid out stiff penalties for heretics and their supporters as well as urging the secular powers to prosecute them to the fullest. In 1184 Pope Lucius III (1181–1185) issued the decretal Ad abolendam, legally defining heretics, characterizing different groups of heretics, specifying penalties for clerics and laity convicted of heresy, condemning negligent prelates, repeating Alexander III’s call for regular episcopal visitations to places where heresy had been reported, and spelling out the necessity of lay rulers to assist in the extirpation of heresy. The widened scope of concern for heresy led in 1199 to another decretal of Innocent III, Vergentis in senium, which identified heresy as treason to God, and therefore a public crime. In his decretal Cum ex officii nostri of 1207 Innocent III precisely specified the criminal punishments for convicted heretics. The appearance of Vergentis in the same year as Innocent’s Licet Heli indicates that methods of legal procedure and the criminal characterization of heresy were moving on tracks that might soon converge. The treatment of both topics in the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (cc. 3, 8, 18, 21, 38) drew them even closer.
The Council was held during the course of the Albigensian Crusade (1208–1229), a military enterprise in Languedoc commissioned by Innocent III, directed against Christians, and furnished with all the privileges that had been given for crusades in the east. The Crusade was followed by the triumphalist Council of Toulouse in 1229 and the Council of Bourges in 1235, whose canons ordered that in certain places one priest and three laymen were to inquire diligently concerning heretics in hiding, that secular lords do the same, that repentant heretics wear distinguishing crosses, that no layperson possess any text of scripture except for the Psalter, the Holy Office, and the Hours of the Virgin, as well as other disciplinary measures. The measures of this and later councils and popes were taken to conserve a now-articulated system of belief and behavior across Latin Christian Europe. Conciliar legislation of this kind was paralleled by the legislation of secular rulers, notably the king-emperor Frederick II, whose legislation between 1220 and 1239 was the first substantial secular legislation of its kind since the later Roman Empire. It was quickly followed by the statute of Annibaldo, the Senator of Rome, in 1231.
The pastoral and disciplinary functions of councils were significantly strengthened by the establishment of the Mendicant Orders – the Order of Preachers (founded by St. Dominic) and the Order of Friars Minor (founded by St. Francis of Assisi) – in the years just after the Fourth Lateran Council, their approval by popes Innocent III and Honorius III (1216–1227), and their direct and loyal subjection to the popes and the curia by means of Cardinal-Protectors. The Order of Preachers in particular devoted itself to enthusiastic preaching in Languedoc, insisting that its preachers be well trained (as they were also in hearing confessions, since most of them entered the Order from university circles) and eventually organized under an elected Master who governed the order with an annual General Chapter, consisting of the priors of the provinces into which the Order was divided. The articulated organization and intellectual discipline of the Order of Preachers, as well as their humble material way of life, their effective preaching techniques, their mobility, and their lack of local ties or sympathies made them far more effective preachers against heresy than their twelfth-century monastic (usually Cistercian) predecessors. In the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council, the Albigensian Crusade, and the heightened ecclesiastical concerns about heresy in the Languedoc and elsewhere, Pope Gregory IX found yet another use for the new Orders.
In 1227 he commissioned a Dominican of Cologne, Conrad of Marburg, with two colleagues to investigate heretics in the Middle Rhine region. In 1231 he did the same with the prior and brothers of the Dominican convents in Regensburg, Friesach, and Strasbourg, and in 1233 he commissioned Robert le Bougre to act in the same role in the kingdom of France. In the same year Gregory IX wrote to the provincial priors of the Dominican Order commanding them to select appropriate brothers to be sent to Languedoc in order to assist episcopal inquisitions. He simultaneously wrote to the bishops of Bourges, Bordeaux, Narbonne, and Auch that he was sending friars preachers to assist them in discovering and extirpating heresy from their dioceses. This territorial mandate was continued by assignments of later inquisitors that centered their activities on dioceses, provinces, cities, and kingdoms. The first inquisitors of heretical depravity entered Languedoc in 1234.
Because their brief was narrow and specific and their training largely theological, the early inquisitors were constrained by the legal procedures used in episcopal courts, that is, the standard procedural rules of the ordo iudiciarius, often obtaining professional advice from jurists. Local bishops and papal legates also pressed secular magistrates to cooperate with the inquisitors. But the inquisitors’ special mandate, the seriousness of the offences with which they dealt, and procedural problems raised by crimes of thought led to several variations on conventional procedure.
When inquisitors and their assistants entered an area, they summoned the population to an assembly at which they read aloud their official credentials, preached a sermon on the dangers of heresy and the obligation of all Christians to discover and denounce it, and announced a period of grace (a legal innovation by the inquisitors of heretical depravity), usually 2–4 weeks, during which any heretics or sympathizers might confess voluntarily and receive a light penance. Others were urged to identify those they suspected of heresy. At the same time, the inquisitors received reports of concealed heretics, searched for witnesses, and began gathering evidence against those accused. This part of the procedure later came to be called the inquisitio generalis. At the end of the period of grace, those accused of heresy were arrested and the charges against them read and explained. They were imprisoned, and their interrogations begun on the basis of evidence collected so far. The accused were also forced to enter a plea and to swear an oath to testify truthfully concerning themselves and others, thus risking a charge of perjury if they were found to have lied under oath. The accused were required to be present during the proceedings. If they were not present, their absence was either permitted or condemned as contumacious. All proceedings were recorded in writing – in Latin, although the local vernacular was used in the hearings. This part of the procedure was later termed the inquisitio specialis.
Since the use of torture had come in the ordo iudiciarius to be a legal instrument of the inquisitio procedure when other evidence proved insufficient for conviction, torture could also be employed in certain instances in cases of heresy, although there was considerable sensitivity to the problem of torture and often criticism of its too frequent use. Torture was first permitted in trials for heresy (although not administered by clerics) by the decretal Ad extirpanda issued by Pope Innocent IV (1243–1254) in 1252. Inquisitors who participated in torture sessions were permitted to dispense each other in the later decretal Ut negotium of Pope Alexander IV (1254–1261) in 1256.
At the end of their stay in a particular place, the inquisitors pronounced sentences at a public meeting with a sermon and saw to the administration of punishments – most frequently the penitential wearing of yellow crosses, expiatory pilgrimages, fines, or some form of imprisonment (inquisitorial prisons were the earliest form of punitive imprisonment in Europe), but occasionally death for relapsed heretics, which entailed their being “relaxed” to the “secular arm,” since clerics were prohibited from shedding blood. Throughout the entire process, it is clear that the success or failure of a particular mission depended greatly on the degree of local cooperation it received, from that of the local bishop to that of the secular authorities. Local resistance often proved extremely effective when such cooperation was not forthcoming. Individual inquisitors might be insulted, assaulted, murdered, or dismissed. A spectacular instance of such resistance is the case of the Franciscan Bernard Délicieux in Languedoc between 1299 and 1306, but there were also many others. Unwary inquisitors might also be manipulated by local interests against local enemies.
At the end of a visitation, an inquisitor might be sent to another place to do the same thing, or he might be relieved of the role of inquisitor entirely, since his original commission had been specific to a time and place, dependent on the charge of a living pope, and expiring on the death of that pope. In the decretal Turbato corde of 1267, however, Pope Clement IV (1265–1268) created permanent inquisitor status. Clement IV had earlier, as a prominent lay jurist, compiled a treatise on procedural questions, a consilium, of 1235–1243, which had a long influence on inquisitorial procedure.
In the decades following 1234, the work of the inquisitors of heretical depravity became increasingly specialized and, with considerable regional variations, standardized. In some instances – e.g., the period of grace cited above – their procedures began to diverge from those of the ordo iudiciarius. Juristic thought had always allowed for exceptions to the ordo iudiciarius in cases of particularly heinous or notorious offenses. If an inquisitor thought that witnesses were in personal danger, for example, he withheld the witnesses’ names from the accused. In some instances, testimony from otherwise tainted witnesses was accepted. Because the accused were required to testify “concerning themselves and others,” they were bound by oath to denounce fellow heretics. In the case of the conviction of relapsed heretics, legal counsel was routinely denied. Not only the seriousness of the offense of heresy, but also the mandate to correct it where possible drove many of these variations. The pastoral role of the inquisitors of heretical depravity was essentially one of conversion: ideally, the heretic should be identified, instructed as to his or her error, experience contrition, make confession, abjure error, and perform suitable penance – that is, return to the Church. Those who refused outright to be instructed or, having abjured, relapsed into heresy, were to be abruptly cut off from the community, lest divine wrath descend upon it.
Besides variations on conventional legal procedure, the inquisitors also developed distinctive and effective means of recording and controlling information. Records of testimony and trials were carefully preserved, recopied, and centralized, permitting later analysis and comparing names encountered in other contexts – creating, in short, a regional data-bank of information in conveniently retrievable form, including alphabetization, that could be consulted and employed in later investigations. Specialized forms of citation, sample interrogatories of witnesses and accused, forms of oath, methods of summons, and forms of reconciliation and penance soon developed. In 1248 or 1249 Pope Innocent IV (1243–1254) ordered the inquisitors of Narbonne, Bernard de Caux, and Jean de St. Pierre, to prepare a guidebook of inquisitorial procedure and models of standard forms for the assistance of other inquisitors solicited by a pope. Their work, the Processus inquisitionis, was the first of many manuals of inquisitorial procedure, the most notable of which are those of Bernard Gui, the Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis of c.1323 and the immense manual of Nicolau Eymeric of 1376, the Directorium Inquisitorum, the first such work to be printed.
Regardless of the emergence and definition of the inquisitio hereticae pravitatis and the inquisitor hereticae pravitatis with a staff and other associates as a specialized office and professional career, there was never a central administrative or supervisory institution in Rome or anywhere else – there was no “medieval Inquisition” in the sense that institutional inquisitions appeared in Spain in 1478 and Rome in 1542. There were only inquisitors whose area of responsibility might be an entire kingdom like France or an immense metropolitan province like Mainz, in which there were two inquisitorial provinces, or a city-republic like Florence. There were inquisitors who were enormously conscientious like Bernard Gui and Eymeric, and there were inquisitors who also had distinguished careers outside of their office of inquisitor proper – also like Gui. Groups of inquisitors came out of a common Dominican or Franciscan educational cohort and worked within a Dominican or Franciscan ecclesiological network, although eventually even within the Mendicant Orders inquisitors of heretical depravity were often regarded as specialists and not always in accord with the other pastoral functions of the orders.
The surviving records of the early inquisitors of heretical depravity are relatively slender and local – sometimes at the time or later deliberately destroyed by inquisitors or their enemies, sometimes simply lost or thrown out. The largest single record of the early period is that of the inquisition carried out at Narbonne by Bernard de Caux and Jean de St. Pierre, later the basis for their primitive manual for inquisitors. The best known records are those conducted in the diocese of Pamiers, particularly in the village of Montaillou, between 1318 and 1325 by its bishop, Jacques Fournier (later Pope Benedict XII), or the two trials of Joan of Arc in 1429–1431. Thus, a comprehensive history of medieval inquisitions of heretical depravity must always be partial and localized.
Jacques Fournier was also consulted by Pope John XXII (1316–1334) in the cases of suspect teaching by Meister Eckhardt, William of Ockham, and Peter Olivi and went on to become Pope Benedict XII (1334–1342). His role in these affairs at the papal court reveals another feature of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century ecclesiastical discipline: the emergence of self-policing, semi-autonomous institutions that were capable of dealing with dissent internally because of the specialized character of their work. Such were faculties within universities (particularly theology faculties) and universities as corporate entities. Such also were the mendicant orders. Since the later twelfth century, faculties of theology had become professionalized and corporatized. Initially, they were not the publics for which inquisitors of heretical depravity had first been constituted.
On occasion, however, disputed positions within the schools might be preached outside them. Such was the case with a group of scholar-preachers around Paris, followers of Master Amalric of Bène, who were condemned at a council in Paris in 1210 and burned at the stake in the same year. Later interventions in intra-university disputes usually took place on the authority of the bishop (as at Paris in 1277) or his chancellor, or in the cases of individual thinkers like Ockham or Olivi a special papal commission. The professional self-awareness of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century academics was often scornful of the qualifications of inquisitors to deal with highly technical and philosophical matters. Until the fifteenth century, internal university discipline, episcopal commissions, and papal authority were used more frequently in the affairs of the learned than inquisitors of heretical depravity.
By the late fifteenth century, inquisitions of heretical depravity had acquired a long history and proved able, in a new age of state control, to become the institutions that continued in many parts of Europe and the Americas until the nineteenth century.
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