By Tim Lambert

The Medieval Inquisition

Inquisition began in the 13th century as a way of dealing with heresy. The Cathars were a religious sect which flourished in Southern France and Northern Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries. In France they were called Albigensians after the town of Albi.

In 1184 Pope Lucius III said bishops should 'make inquisition' in their dioceses for heretics and hand over those who refused to repent to the secular authorities to be punished.

However this measure was not effective so in 1233 Pope Gregory IX appointed Papal inquisitors to combat heresy. The inquisitors were usually Dominican or Franciscan friars. Inquisitors traveled from place to place in search of heretics.

At first heretics were interrogated but not tortured. That changed in 1252 when Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture when interrogating suspected heretics.

Heretics who confessed were often given penances such as pilgrimages (going on a journey), wearing a yellow cross or imprisonment. Unrepentant heretics who refused to confess were handed over to the secular authorities to be burned.

The Medieval Inquisitors mostly operated in southern France and northern Italy. There was no inquisition in the British Isles or in Scandinavia.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was formed in 1480. In Spain at that time there were Jews who had converted to Christianity and Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity). Both groups were suspected of practicing their old religion in secret. Torture was sometimes used to obtain confessions. The Spanish Inquisition also persecuted Protestants.

In 1531 the Portuguese Inquisition was established. The Spanish Inquisition also operated in the Spanish colonies in Central and South America. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in Portugal in 1821 and in Spain in 1834.

In 1542 the Pope established the Roman Inquisition. In 1600 the Roman Inquisition burned to death the great astronomer and philosopher Giordano Bruno. The Roman Inquisition also cruelly persecuted Protestants. Meanwhile, the Inquisition was established in Malta in 1562. It was abolished in 1798 when the French occupied the island.

The last notable action of the Roman Inquisition was in the Papal States in 1858 when they kidnapped a 6 year old Jewish boy from his family and raised him as a Catholic.

However with the 18th century Enlightenment public opinion turned against the inquisitions. The last burning in Portugal was in 1765 and the last execution by the Spanish Inquisition was in 1826. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in 1834.

A history of heresy in the Middle Ages

A history of Spain

A history of France

A history of Italy


Last revised 2020