Medieval Inquisition: a black legend?

Medieval Inquisition: a black legend?

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Considered one of the most shocking features of the Middle Ages, the medieval inquisition has often been defined as a tool of mental regression suppressing intellectual progress. Perceived as the symbol of religious obscurantism and all its excesses, relentlessly persecuting the Cathars, this institution appears to be the object of a real black legend, in particular because of an amalgamation with the Spanish Inquisition of the time. modern. However, this vision comes mainly from the anticlericalism of the Enlightenment of the XVIIIe century and IIIe Republic of the XIXe century. A myth was then shaped and now seems more than ever still at work, while recent historical research reveals a completely different point of view.

The Inquisition takes the place of secular justice

Before approaching the justice of the Inquisition, it is advisable to look at other justices: royal, seigniorial or even that of the people who sometimes do not hesitate to become judge and executioner themselves. From this point of view, the Inquisition can easily be seen as progress. On the one hand by replacing the accusatory procedure with a new so-called inquisitorial investigative procedure, the inquisition presents itself as a rational and methodical justice based on confession, a confession which if it can be obtained through torture must however to be repeated without any constraint three days later. The "question" as it was called was much more regulated than in secular justice where it already took place.

On the other hand, the Inquisition introduced a regular justice, more just and generally less harsh than secular justice. For the king or the lord do not hesitate to condemn heretics themselves and generally to much heavier punishments. Sometimes it's the crowd that takes care of it, making itself a bulwark of faith as in XIIe century in Soisson where rioters lead to the stake of heretics whom the bishop had condemned only to prison. Heresy thus appears to be as much subject to repression by the Church as by medieval society as a whole.

An institution understood and accepted

The medieval inquisition was a terrible tool. She did a lot of harm and brought about a lot of abuse. Nevertheless, it appeared in the Middle Ages as a system accepted by the whole of medieval society. Far from arousing hostility, the populations are favorable to him and even support him, including in the south of France where the fight against the Cathars is taking place. It is important to see the context of a time when the overwhelming majority of the population is religious. Heresy then introduces a rupture in this society for which salvation in the hereafter and de facto preservation of faith appear to be the most important factors, even ahead of the preservation of life. For example, the Cathars denying the oath deeply questioned the feudal society founded precisely on the contract between two men.

The Church is thus seen as within her right to seek to establish a jurisdiction for the struggle against heresies. And the inquisition tribunal can only function with the help of secular powers. Here we find the famous expression of handing over the condemned "to the secular arm", in other words of the temporal authority which applies the sentences of ecclesiastical judgments. Sentences which, contrary to popular belief, appear much lighter than has been said. The medieval inquisition is very far from systematically condemning and even less sending to the stake.

Punishments and punishments, what reality?

It is very difficult to take stock of the medieval inquisition, it is impossible to say how much it led to the stake, however, the latest research reveals a number of occis far lower than what is generally presented. Unspeakable abuses were committed, that is for sure. Let us cite the case of Robert le Bougre, a former converted heretic. Drawing on his experience as a Cathar, he was appointed inquisitor in Burgundy and Champagne in 1233 and ordered dozens of executions leading to a temporary suspension of his office the following year. But this is only to better resume and chain real roundups ending with immense pyres like that of Mont Aimé where, according to the Cistercian chronicler Aubry de Trois-Fontaine, 183 people perished. Robert le Bougre is finally dismissed from his duties as an inquisitor and probably sentenced to life imprisonment. This example is one of those who marked the black legend of the Inquisition, making a terrible abuse a generality far removed from reality. It was also very common for the papacy to restrict the power of its agents or even to crack down on them by condemning them in order to fight against abuses.

If we refer to the Dominican Bernard Gui, celebrated as a cruel and ruthless inquisitor in the novel and then the film The Name of the Rose, he is, on the contrary, a conciliatory man: of the 636 trials he led for 15 years at the Toulouse court, so at the heart of the fight against the Cathar heresy, forty ended with a handing over to the secular arm and therefore the stake, less than 7% of the accused while 30% were acquitted. Author of Inquisitor's Manual (Practica Inquisitionis heretice pravitatis), he condemns the use of torture, arguing that it is more useful to the culprit heretic who will have the faith to resist it than to the innocent who will confess the false. He preaches the rigor of the investigator but also discernment and openness to doubt: "May the love of truth and the pity which must always be in the heart of the judge enlighten him constantly".

Thus the vast majority of sentences on persons consist either of a period of imprisonment or of a pilgrimage, knowing that the Church privileged the financial side and therefore the penalties on property such as confiscations and fines. It is also necessary to wonder about the cases of the sentences not applied as well as the mitigated sentences. It was common for a death row inmate to be imprisoned for life and not burned. In the end, the punishment of the fire turns out to be more exceptional than anything else, for the Church it was admitting its failure to root an individual out of his religious deviance and bring him back into its fold.

The aim of the medieval inquisition is above all to "reconcile" the community by bringing the one who had fallen into error on the one and only true path - that of the Catholic faith -. In doing so, she can be as caring and understanding as she can be ruthless. Thus, it is above all necessary to perceive this institution as a tool of persuasion and coercion rather than of repression.

Origin and evolution of the Inquisition

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Church continually sought to unify Christendom. In the course of this "quest", it transformed - notably from the Gregorian reform - and established itself as an institution endowed with great powers and relatively separate from the rest of society. Contested especially in geographic areas where she wielded quasi-theocratic power, the Church reacted by setting up an exceptional jurisdiction:the medieval inquisition dedicated to hunting down across Europe what she saw as religious deviations.

The medieval inquisition was not born ex nihilo, it draws heavily on previous repressions of those whom the Church defines as heretics, that is, of those who are in error. We can trace its origins back to the 4th century with the Council of Nicea when the first dissidents were condemned. However, it was not until the Council of Tours, chaired by Pope Alexander III in 1163, to see the real foundations of this institution appear, giving the judge the initiative for the prosecution (without any complaint). As a result, Pope Lucius III and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa make heresy a crime of lese majesty, its repression becoming a duty. In 1199, Pope Innocent III in turn assimilated heresy as a crime of lese majesty, but this time divine, thereby removing from the Emperor the fact that he could decide on doctrinal matters. Innocent III then lays down the first rules of the inquisitorial procedure, replacing the accusatory procedure in order to deal with this crime considered out of the ordinary.

The local clergy being generally powerless in the face of the development of heresies, the Pope reacted first by sending representatives without further success. In 1208, his legate Pierre de Castelnau was assassinated, giving Innocent III the opportunity to launch the crusade against the Albigensians. Subsequently, the Cathar dissidents can only continue in hiding but they are still present. It was therefore to continue to hunt them down - both the Cathars and other religious dissidents such as the Vaudois - that Pope Gregory IX issued between 1221 and 1223 a series of letters instituting the Inquisitio hereticae pravitatis (the Inquisition of the heretical depravity).

A formidably efficient machine

We must perceive the inquisitorial tribunal as exceptional: it only reports to the papacy. It therefore acts in complete independence from local courts and established customs. The inquisitors, mainly Dominicans in Languedoc followed by Franciscans in Provence and Italy, are above all laws and are subject only to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff. Their judgment is final as the defendants have no defense and the names of witnesses are kept secret. However, the idea is not to make a necessarily repressive tribunal but above all to continue to flush out heretics in order to judge them and above all to bring them back into the Roman creed.

In some fifty years, the Inquisition was fully established in the south of France, crisscrossing a territory and conducting investigations. It did not take long to spread still effectively across part of Europe. Indeed, it must be understood that the inquisition appears as the bulwark of a system. Ecclesiastical courts allow the Church to defend the faith, to keep control of religion and the clergy but also to have a complicity with secular powers in particular the King of France until becoming an instrument of power (trial of the Templars).

As for his methods of investigation, they were based on Roman law, ie a systematic recourse to writing. All testimonies and confessions were carefully recorded. In this sense, the inquisition constituted a considerable written memory leading to a real listing of dissident populations and using modern archiving techniques with internal index and cross reference systems to better cross-check information. And to collect them, the inquisitors, when they were not going on tour, summoned entire populations and had them appear individually, the refusal leading to excommunication and therefore the banishment of society. They then left a “time of grace” where everyone could come and confess their sins and denounce supposed culprits.

Confessing quickly made it possible to benefit only from an infamous sentence (wearing of a yellow cross and / or a pilgrimage) and to escape the torture which often manifested itself in the form of imprisonment (imprisonment) and the heaviest penalties also leading to the confiscation of property. It should be noted that reductions and communions of sentences were a frequent practice, especially when the confession of the accused appeared sincere. The obstinate heretics and the relapsed (those who return in error and therefore in heresy after having amended themselves), leaving the Church powerless, were handed over to the secular authority which was responsible for leading them to the stake. . This was, however, only an exceptional measure beyond the abuses that the meticulous regulation of the Inquisition failed to prevent.

Height and decline of the Inquisition

The Inquisition was particularly active in the 13th century in the south of France, the Rhone valley as well as in Italy. In the 1230s, it encountered no less difficulties, both in this south where the omnipotence of its agents was poorly accepted and in the north of France where it appeared to be less established and where abuses aroused the hostility of the populations. only bishops and abbots who intervened with the papacy. The latter responded with greater control of the inquisitors in France, thus coming into conflict with them while rivalries were emerging between Dominicans and Franciscans.

But the inquisition ultimately becomes fortified by this crisis, the papacy failing to better control them and torture being legalized in 1256. The institution was then at its peak, but its omnipotence remained ephemeral. From the beginning of the 14th century, the papacy managed to take back the reins of its terrible creation following various complaints related to the zeal of some inquisitors. Clement V after worrying about the conditions of detention in 1312 forced the inquisitors to collaborate with the bishops in their investigations. In 1321, it was John XXII who restricted their powers. In the 15th century, the inquisition lost its independence but also its usefulness in the face of the development and centralization of administrative and judicial institutions which began to supplant it and even to overturn its judgments.

What can we learn from the action of the medieval Inquisition? We cannot measure its impact on heresies with precision, but we can consider that it played an important role if not decisive. If the inquisition dealt a big blow by decimating the clergy of religious dissent, the latter disappeared by themselves over time due to other causes, in particular social, leading to a general defection on the part of the populations when they were lacking. the support of secular powers to hope for a certain sustainability. Conversely, these secular powers made good use of the medieval inquisition, in modern times diverting this exceptional ecclesiastical justice into a formidable and ruthless state institution under the rule of the very Christian kings of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition will not be abolished until 1834. In the Vatican, the Inquisition will give way to the Holy Office and then to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 20th century.


- Laurent Albaret, The Inquisition, rampart of faith ?, Éditions Gallimard, coll. “Découvertes”, Paris, 1998 (6th edition, 2006).

- Jean-Louis Biget, Heresy and Inquisition in the South of France, Éditions Picard, Paris, 2007.

- Jacques Heers, “Inquisition: excesses and forgetfulness”, in Le Moyen Age, une imposture, Éditions Perrin, Paris, 2008.

- Régine Pernoud, "L’index accusateur", in Finishing with the Middle Ages, Éditions du Seuil, coll. Points Histoire, Paris, 1979.

Video: The Inquisition On A Christian Sect. Secret Files of The Inquisition Full Documentary. Timeline


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