June 18, 2004


The Real Inquisition: Investigating the popular myth. (Thomas F. Madden, 6/18/04, National Review)

[H]istorians have long known that the popular view of the Inquisition is a myth. So what is the truth?

To understand the Inquisition we have to remember that the Middle Ages were, well, medieval. We should not expect people in the past to view the world and their place in it the way we do today. (You try living through the Black Death and see how it changes your attitude.) For people who lived during those times, religion was not something one did just at church. It was science, philosophy, politics, identity, and hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community.

The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made it a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training — something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.

The Catholic Church's response to this problem was the Inquisition, first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184. It was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges. From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.

As this new report confirms, most people accused of heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentences suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely left the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Inquisition did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.

During the 13th century the Inquisition became much more formalized in its methods and practices. Highly trained Dominicans answerable to the Pope took over the institution, creating courts that represented the best legal practices in Europe. As royal authority grew during the 14th century and beyond, control over the Inquisition slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings. Instead of one Inquisition there were now many. Despite the prospect of abuse, monarchs like those in Spain and France generally did their best to make certain that their inquisitions remained both efficient and merciful. During the 16th century, when the witch craze swept Europe, it was those areas with the best-developed inquisitions that stopped the hysteria in its tracks. In Spain and Italy, trained inquisitors investigated charges of witches' sabbaths and baby roasting and found them to be baseless. Elsewhere, particularly in Germany, secular or religious courts burned witches by the thousands.

Compared to other medieval secular courts, the Inquisition was positively enlightened.

Trying to derive the truth about the Inquisition from the writings of Protestant and secular propagandists isn't terrinbly different than trying to derive the truth about Judaism from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 18, 2004 2:10 PM

Several conspicuous errors in here, notably that the chastised were 'returned to the community.'


The numbers of those executed by manorial courts is, I agree, 'unknown.' Where are the records?

The Inquisitions did keep good records.

This is the kind of equivocation that the Church is forced to, because it cannot admit what it did.

Somehow, the people enduring the Inquisition did not seem to think it was protecting the integrity of their society, since they revolted massively against it.

It's correct to say the Inquisition used best practice. Like the strappado.

Turns out best practice was indistinguishable from worst practice.

There are, by the way, impartial historians to go to, like Iris Clendennin, who are somewhat more sympathetic to the Inquisitors' problems than, say, Michelet, but whose final judgments are, perhaps for that reason, even harsher.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 18, 2004 6:29 PM

Shall we talk about the conversos, or the singular lack of Jews among Spain's population, or the enduring damage to Spanish society?

Hard to believe that in a society where Catholicism was such a dominant force that the Church was wholly blameless in these travesties.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 18, 2004 7:59 PM


Your conffusion on this issue is undiminished. Pick up any book on Spain and it will date the period of its greatness from 1492.

Posted by: oj at June 18, 2004 8:11 PM

And its end from 1555 or maybe, if you're generous, 1559.

By 1600, the combined kingdoms of Castile and Aragon had less power and influence than Aragon alone had had in 1475.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 18, 2004 8:41 PM

Spain declined because she was corrupted by plundered American gold. It is somewhat analogous to how oil has corrupted Saudi Arabia.

Posted by: Paul Cella at June 19, 2004 7:31 AM


Spain also declined because any innovative thought risked charges of heresy, books were strictly censored when they weren't prohibited outright, and chasing the Jews out deprived them of a vast store of human talent.

The symptoms were graphic, and lasted for centuries. (Wealth and Poverty Among Nations spells the case out very clearly).

You have allowed yourself to be blinded by the glitter of plundered gold propping up an otherwise hollow society.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 19, 2004 9:23 AM

The report states that approximately 1250 sentences of death were handed out by the Spanish Inquisition over a period of 356 years. This is about one-quarter of the 6,000 deaths usually estimated by academic historians.

While I no means want to apologize for the acts of the Inquistion, it helps to put it perspective. The Spanish Inquisition did not kill millions or even 10s of thousands.

I am not a Catholic and am not defending Catholicism. I am simply a Christian who is tired of Atheists who trot out the Inquisition as Exhibit A to rebut Christian condemnation of the Halocaust, the Gulag, or some other secular horror of the 20th century.

Posted by: Gideon at June 19, 2004 11:27 AM


What a modern fanatic you are. Innovative thought can be great when you are building computers or better mousetraps, but do you honestly believe societies march onwards and upwards just because the intellectuals are all thinking new and exciting political and social thoughts? If that were so, Russia would be the most successful nation in history and Switzerland would be living on relief?

At the time of which we are speaking here, there were all kinds of people thinking innovatively in Northern Europe. They were also slaughtering one another en masse.

Paul nailed it. Too much gold and glitter, too little work.

Posted by: Peter B at June 20, 2004 8:05 AM


I am talking specifically about technological innovations. There were better mousetraps then, too.

Unfortunately, after the beginning of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews, none of them were invented in Spain.

And innovations elsewhere were extremely slow to percolate into Spain, due to the rather extreme price to be paid for possessing foreign books.

Before you label me a modern fanatic, perhaps you should find a copy of Wealth and Poverty Among Nations.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 20, 2004 10:27 AM

Maybe somebody somewhere has trotted out the Inquisition to 'rebut Christian condemnation of the Holocaust or the gulag,' but I've never seen it done.

The three events were parallel. In each, an institution claiming moral and ideological rights to legislate for humankind (or, in the Nazi case, Deutschtum, which for them was the same thing) turned to mass murder.

That ought to at least bring into doubt the claims of moral or ideological ascendancy.

For all three.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 21, 2004 8:06 PM

Why? The Church/Christianity is correct. Nazism/Darwinism and Marxism were wrong.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2004 8:25 PM

Claiming to possess absolute truth is what is wrong. On that basis, Nazism, Marxism, and any monotheistic, universalist, salvationist religion are far more alike than different.

And Darwinism no more belongs in that group than does Einsteinism.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 22, 2004 7:44 PM

Physics is a science. Darwinism is a philosophy..

Posted by: oj at June 22, 2004 8:37 PM

Wrong again.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 22, 2004 8:40 PM

Well, deep physics is philosophy to, but it's subject to falsification, unlike Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at June 22, 2004 8:50 PM

Wrong again. I have pointed out many ways in which Darwinism could have been falsified.

Yet each time observations coincided exactly with what Darwinism predicted.

That does not prove Darwinism true, but it makes a hash of your notion Darwinism isn't falsifiable.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 23, 2004 10:20 PM

Wonderful. There is a problem right from the get go:

"Finally, the last is simply false. We see no evidence that there is significant genetic variation in every generation of any species, while the notion that few individuals survive from each generation, never mind so few that we can say they are better adapted than their less mutated brethren, is risible. The problem for Darwinism is that the last subtheory--natural selection--is the thread by which the whole project hangs and it is wrong on its face."

Without the tiniest amount of evidence, you take as completely true that which is far from proven.

You must have missed the article (AP, I think, but I'm not sure) about the Russian boy with a bona fide genetic mutation.

It seems he is well over twice as muscular as any other 7-yr old boy. If that isn't significant genetic variation, then what the heck is?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 24, 2004 8:23 PM

Greater muscularity?

Posted by: oj at June 24, 2004 8:25 PM

Yes--his musculature is distinctly different.

Due to genetic mutation.

Which makes it at least potentially heritable.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 24, 2004 10:49 PM

BTW--here is the link to the story: http://www.freep.com/news/nw/nsuper24_20040624.htm

And the first several paras:

Somewhere in Germany is a baby Superman, with bulging arm and leg muscles. Not yet 5 years old, the Berlin-born child can hold 7-pound weights with arms extended, something many adults cannot do. He has muscles twice the size of other kids his age and half their body fat.

DNA testing showed why: The boy has a genetic mutation that boosts muscle growth.

The discovery, reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine, represents the first documented human case of such a mutation.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 24, 2004 10:56 PM

Here's a better story on it:


But so what?

Posted by: oj at June 24, 2004 11:09 PM

In your previous link you assert, without any evidence, that " We see no evidence that there is significant genetic variation ... "

I see evidence that there is.

And, if you were to bother to look at the significant differences between say, Inuits and Plains Indians, who diverged from a single founder population in roughly 15,000 years, you would see even more evidence.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 25, 2004 6:20 PM

What species are Inuits?

Posted by: oj at June 25, 2004 6:47 PM

At what point would that divergence have ended?

Unless you can identify it, then your original assertion is a classic example of taking as true that which remains to be proven.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 26, 2004 7:28 AM

What divergence?

Posted by: oj at June 26, 2004 9:16 AM

Don't be thick.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 26, 2004 10:18 PM

So we're agreed that they're both still homo sapiens sapiens despite 15,000 of "divergence"?

Posted by: oj at June 26, 2004 11:50 PM


Don't be thick. That wasn't the original question.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 27, 2004 5:12 PM

If there's no speciation there's no meaningful divergence.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2004 5:22 PM

That is just total nonsense.

By that definition there is no continental drift until there is a new continent.

By that definition, a long series of small divergences can't lead up to your mythical "meaningful" divergence. Yet you are completely unable to explain why that is the case.

Which leads to the original point: your saying it is so isn't sufficient to make it so.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 27, 2004 10:56 PM

There is drift, there is not continentalization.

Posted by: oj at June 27, 2004 11:14 PM


Wrong again.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 28, 2004 9:40 PM