The System of the Inquisition in Medieval Europe

by Paweł Kras (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision) Teresa Fazan (Revision)
©2020 Monographs 522 Pages
Open Access


This book reexamines the origins and growth of the medieval inquisition which provided a framework for the large-scale operations against religious dissidents. In the last quarter of the twelfth century, the papacy launched concerted efforts to hunt out heretics, mostly Cathars and Waldensians, and directed operations against them all across Latin Christendom. The bull of Pope Lucius III Ad abolendam of 1184 became a turning point in the formation of the inquisitorial system which made both the clergy and the laity responsible for suppressing any religious dissent. From a comparative perspective, the study analyzes political, social and religious developments which in the High Middle Ages gave birth to the mechanism of repression and religious violence supervised by the papacy and operated by bishops and, starting from the 1230s, papal inquisitors, extraordinary judges delegate staffed mostly by Dominican and Franciscan friars.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Chapter One Approaches to heresy and heretics from the Late Antiquity to the early thirteenth century
  • 1. The early Christian tradition
  • 2. Confronting medieval dissenters
  • 3. Praedicatio verbi Dei
  • 4. Auctoritas et ratio
  • 5. Ordo iuris
  • Chapter Two The Birth of the inquisitorial system
  • 1. New strategies of struggle against heresy
  • 2. Negotium pacis et fidei – the case of Languedoc
  • 3. Officium inquisitionis – Mendicants and the papal inquisition
  • Chapter Three Investigation
  • 1. Inquisitio haereticae pravitatis
  • 2. Modus procedendi
  • 3. Modus inquirendi
  • 4. Interrogatoria
  • 5. Modus absolvendi et puniendi
  • Chapter Four Inquisitorial procedure and the written word
  • 1. Inquisitorial texts
  • 2. Documenting the investigation
  • Chapter Five Penance
  • 1. The structure of ecclesiastical penances
  • 2. Public penance
  • 3. Imprisonment
  • 4. Penitential symbols
  • 5. Pilgrimages
  • 6. Whipping and fasting
  • 7. Fines
  • Chapter Six Secular punishment
  • 1. Secular legislation against heresy
  • 2. Death at the stake
  • 3. The death penalty in numerical perspective
  • 4. The confiscation of property
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


The original Polish book was published in 2006 as a result of research carried out between 1998 and 2005. My interest in the comparative history of religious dissent and inquisition in the Middle Ages was closely associated with my doctoral dissertation on Polish Hussites completed in 1997 and published a year later. As a student of history at the Catholic University of Lublin I was introduced to research on medieval heresy by Professor Urszula Borkowska who encouraged me to write an MA paper on the life and teachings of Master Andrzej Gałka of Dobczyn, a Polish follower of John Wyclif’s doctrine at the fifteenth-century University of Cracow. A separate and extensive chapter of my 1998 book was devoted to the anti-heresy investigations of bishops and papal inquisitors against Polish followers of Hussite doctrine.

My first papers delivered in the late 1990s at Polish and international conferences dealt with the papal inquisition in medieval Poland, its installment, operation procedures, and the recruitment of Dominican friars who staffed officium inquisitionis. The conference organised in 2002 by the Istituto storico domenicano in Rome and devoted to the role of the Dominicans in the medieval inquisition gave me a strong stimulus to pursue comparative research on the religious violence and the mechanism of repression against medieval dissidents. A number of outstanding experts in the field participated in this conference which became a platform for an open debate on the origins of the papal inquisition and the activities of Dominican inquisitors all across Christendom. During the 2002 conference I was offered a unique chance to meet such outstanding scholars as Grado G. Merlo, Alexander Patchovsky, Peter Segl, Werner Maleczek, Ludwig Vones, Peter Biller, Michèle Mulchahey, and Nicole Bériou who not only demonstrated much interest in my studies, but also answered some detailed questions related to my research. Participating in the 2002 conference I also met a couple of historians of my age such as Laurent Albaret, Julien Théry, Christine Caldwell and Klaus-Bernward Springer who pursued their early studies on the medieval inquisition. I have profited so much from the friendships I made at that time.

The successful completion of this book would not be possible without scholarships and research visits in various international institutions, both in Europe and North America. In 1998 I spent two months at the Institut für europäische Geschichte in Mainz. A year later thanks to the scholarship of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation I conducted research in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. In 2002, through the good offices of Professor Jerzy Kłoczowski, I was invited to work in the Library of the École française de Rome and in the Vatican Library. In the same year, I spent three months at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. In 2003, thanks to the grant awarded by the U.S.-Polish Fulbright Commission, I was able to work in several libraries in the USA. I am very grateful to my colleagues from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, in particular Professor Paul Szarmach, Director of the Medieval Institute, and Professor James Palmitessa, for everything they did to make my work in the USA so fruitful. I would also like to thank Professor David T. Murphy, Director of the Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at St Louis University, for inviting me to work in the Vatican Film Library in Saint Louis.

First of all I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Urszula Borkowska, my mentor and friend, who was the first to read the draft of this book. She spent a lot of time reading and discussing fragments of this publication, and its final form was much shaped by her criticism. I am indebted to a number of the foreign scholars who shared with me their extensive knowledge of medieval dissent and inquisition. They also provided me with their publications and source materials. It is hard to mention all of them by name. I am especially indebted to Anne Hudson, Alexander Patschovsky, Peter Segl Richard Kieckhefer, Robert E. Lerner and Christine Caldwell Ames.

As mentioned earlier the present book is an English translation of the Polish study published in 2006 by the John Paul II Catholic University Press. Only some minor changes and corrections have been made. Since 2006 the research on medieval heresy and inquisition has made enormous progress which is well-reflected by several path-breaking books, source editions, and hundreds of papers. This intensive research has shed new light on the rise and dissemination of medieval dissent and the ways it was perceived and tackled by ecclesiastical institutions throughout the Middle Ages. Recent studies have offered new approaches to the study of the concept of heresy, the mechanism of repression of religious dissidents, and the persecuting mentality of churchmen who operated medieval inquisition, both bishops and Mendicant inquisitors. They have also demonstrated the complex process of producing records of heresy trials which remain a key source of knowledge about medieval dissidents and the work of inquisitors. A new book would be required to address recently-raised problems and to discuss these findings, and one day I hope I will be able to produce such a study.

The present English book is published thanks to financial support from the Polish Ministry for Science and Higher Education. I am indebted to Professor Wojciech Kriegseisen, Director of the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, and his deputy, Professor Tomasz Wiślicz, for their initiative to produce an English version of my 2006 book. I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Hanna Zaremska for reviewing this book for publication.

I am very grateful to Magdalena Panz-Sochacka for her hard work to translate this book from Polish into English and Professor Stephen Rowell who meticulously proofread the draft of this book. I owe special thanks to my friends James D. Mixson, Lucy Sackville, and Andrew P. Roach who volunteered to read and correct some fragments of the book.


AC Bolesław Ulanowski (ed.), Acta capitulorum necnon iudiciorum ecclesiasticorum selecta, 3 vols (Cracow, 1894–1918: Monumenta medii aevi historica res gestas Poloniae illustrantia, 13, 16, 18).
AFP Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum
Die Anfänge der Inquisition Peter Segl (ed.), Die Anfänge der Inquisition im Mittelalter. Mit einem Ausblick auf das 20. Jahrhundert und einem Beitrag über religiöse Toleranz im nichtchristlichen Bereich (Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna, 1993: Beyreuther Historische Kolloquien, 7)
Arnold, Inquisition John H. Arnold, Inquisition and Power. Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc (Philadelphia, 2001)
BAV Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana
BF Bullarium Franciscanum
BJ Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Cracow
BOP Bullarium Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum
Borst, Katharer Arno Borst, Die Katharer (Stuttgart, 1953: Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 12)
BRP Bullarum, privilegiorum ac diplomatum Romanorum Pontificum amplissima collectio, 14 vols (Rome, 1739–1744)
BUWr. Biblioteka Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
CCCM Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis
CF Cahiers de Fanjeaux
The Concept of Heresy Willem Lourdaux and Daniël Verhelst (eds), The Concept of Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (Leuven, 1983)
De inquisitione hereticorum Wilhelm Preger (ed.), De inquisitione hereticorum. Der Traktat des David von Augsburg über die Waldensier (Munich, 1878: Abhandlungen der historischen Classe der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 14.2), 204–35.
Directorium Directorium Inquisitorum F. Nicolai Eymerici Ordinis Praedicatorum cum commentariis Francisci Pegnae (Rome, 1587)
Doat Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Collection Doat
Doctrina Doctrina do modo procedendi contra haereticos, in Edmond Martène and Ursin Durand (eds), Thesaurus novus anecdotorum, vol. 5: Opuscula (Paris, 1717), 1795–1822.
Documents Célestin Douais (ed.), Documents pour servir à l’histoire de l’inquisition dans Languedoc, 2 vols (Paris, 1900)
Dondaine, “Le manuel” Antoine Dondaine, “Le manuel de l’Inquisiteur”, AFP 17 (1947), 85–194.
DTC Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 vols (Paris, 1899–1950)
Eymerich, Manuel Nicholas Eymerich and Francesco Peña, Le manuel des inquisiteurs, ed. Louis Sala-Molins (Paris, 2001: Bibliothèque de l’Évolution de l’humanité, 38)
Friedberg Emil Friedberg (ed.), Corpus iuris canonici, 2 vols (Leipzig, 1879–1881)
Fredericq Paul Fredericq (ed.), Corpus documentorum inquisitionis haereticae pravitatis Neerlandicae, 5 vols (Ghent, 1889–1903)
Given, Inquisition James B. Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society. Power, Discipline and Resistance in Languedoc (Ithaca and London, 1997)
Grundmann, Religious Movements Herbert Grundmann, Religious Movements in the Middle Ages, Introduction Robert E. Lerner, trans. Stephen Rowan (Notre Dame, 1995)
Gui, Le livre des sentences Annette Pales-Gobilliard (ed.), Le livre des sentences de l’inquisiteur Bernard Gui, 1308–1323, 2 vols (Paris, 2002: Sources d’histoire médiévale, 30)
Gui, Practica Bernard Gui, Practica inquisitionis haereticae pravitatis, ed. Célestin Douais (Paris, 1886)
HAB Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel
Heresies Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds), Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1991)
sies et sociés Jacques Le Goff (ed.), sie et sociés dans l’Europe pré-industrielle, 11e-18e siécles (Paris and La Haye, 1968: Civilisations et société, 10)
Heresy and Inquisition John H. Arnold and Peter Biller (eds), Heresy and Inquisition in France, 1200-1300 (Manchester, 2016)
Heresy and Literacy Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (eds), Heresy and Literacy, 1000–1530 (Cambridge, 1994, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 23)
Inkwizycja papieska Paweł Kras (ed.), Inkwizycja papieska w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej (Cracow, 2010: Studia i źródła Dominikańskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Krakowie, 7)
Innocenzo III Andrea Sommerlechner (ed.), Innocenzo III – Urbs et Orbis. Atti del Congresso Internazionale Roma, 9-15 settembre 1998, 2 vols (Rome, 2003: Nuovi studi storici, 55. Miscellanea della Società romana di storia patria, 44)
L’Inquisition et pouvoir Gabriel Audisio (ed.), L’Inquisition et pouvoir (Marseille, 2004)
L’inquisizione Agostino Borromeo (ed.), L’inquisizione: atti del Simposio internazionale, Città del Vaticano, 29–31 ottobre 1998 (Città del Vaticano, 2003: Studi e Testi, 417)
Inventer l’hésie Monique Zerner (ed.), Inventer l’hérésie? Discours polémiques et pouvoirs avant l’Inquisition (Nice, 1998: Collection d’études médiévales, 2)
JEH Journal of Ecclesiastical History
Kaeppeli Thomas Kaeppeli, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum Medii Aevi, 3 vols (Rome, 1970–1980); Thomas Kaeppeli and Emilio Panella, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum Medii Aevi, vol. 4 (Rome, 1993)
Kras, Husyci Paweł Kras, Husyci w piętnastowiecznej Polsce (Lublin, 1998)
Kurze, Quellen Dietrich Kurze (ed.), Quellen zur Ketzergeschichte Brandenburgs und Pommerns (Berlin and New York, 1975: Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission zu Berlin, 45)
Lambert, Medieval Heresy Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy. Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Oxford, 1992)
LMA Lexikon des Mittelalters, 9 vols (Munich and Zürich, 1980–1998; CD-ROMAusgabe, 2000)
LTK Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 11 vols (Freiburg, 1993–2001)
Maisonneuve, Études Henri Maisonneuve, Études sur les origines de l’Inquisition (Paris, 1960: L’Église et l’État au moyen âge, 7)
Mansi Giovanni Domenico Mansi (ed.), Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 53 vols (Florence, 1759–1798; repr. Graz, 1961)
Merlo, Eretici e inquisitori Grado Giovanni Merlo, Eretici e inquisitori nella società piemontese del Trecento, con l’edizione dei processi tenuti a Giaveno dall’inquisitore Alberto De Castellario (1335) e nelle Valli di Lanzo dall’inquisitore Tommaso Di Casasco (1373) (Turin, 1977)
MGH. Constitutiones Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Leges, Sectio IV: Constitutiones et acta publica imperatorum et regum, 12 vols (Hanover, 1893–2013)
MGH. Scriptores Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores, 39 vols (Hanover, 1887–2009)
MMAH Monumenta medii aevi historica res gestas Poloniae illustrantia
Moore, The Formation Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Power and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (Oxford, 1987)
Moore, The Birth Robert I. Moore (ed.), The Birth of Popular Heresy (Toronto, Buffalo, and London, 1995)
MOPH Monumenta Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum Historica
MPH Monumenta Poloniae Historica, 6 vols (Lviv and Cracow, 1864–1893; repr. Warsaw, 1960)
Norwich Heresy Trials Norman Tanner (ed.), Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich 1428–1431 (London, 1977: Camden Fourth Series, 20)
Patschovsky, Die Anfänge Alexander Patschovsky (ed.), Die Anfänge einer ständigen Inquisition in Böhmen. Ein Prager Inquisitoren-Handbuch aus der ertsen Hälfte des 14. Jahrhunderts (Berlin and New York, 1975: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters, 3)
Patschovsky, Quellen Alexander Patschovsky (ed.), Quellen zur böhmischen Inquisition im 14. Jahrhundert (Weimar, 1979: Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Quellen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters, 11)
Pegg, The Corruption Mark Gregort Pegg, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245–1246 (Princeton, 2001)
Peters, Inquisition Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989)
PL Jacques-Paul Migne (ed.), Patrologiae cursus completus. Series Latina, 221 vols (Paris, 1844–1855)
Potthast August Potthast (ed.), Regesta Pontificum Romanorum, inde ab anno post Christum natum 1198 ad annum 1304, 2 vols (Berlin, 1874–1875)
Praedicatores, Inquisitores Arturo Palacios-Bernal (ed.), Praedicatores, Inquisitores, vol. 1: The Dominicans and the Mediaeval Inquisition. Acts of the 1st International Seminar on the Dominicans and the Inquisition. Rome, 23–25 February 2002 (Rome, 2004)
Processus inquisitionis Ordo processus Narbonensis (Processus inquisitionis), in Kurt-Victor Selge (ed.), Texte zur Inquisition (Güttersloh, 1967: Texte zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte, 4), 70–6.
Quellen zur Geschichte der Waldenser Alexander Patschovsky and Kurt-Victor Selge (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Waldenser (Güttersloh, 1973: Texte zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte, 11)
Ragg, Ketzer Sascha Ragg, Ketzer und Recht. Die weltliche Ketzergesegebung des Hochmittelalters unter dem Einfluß des römischen und kanonischen Rechts (Hanover, 2006: Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Studien und Texte, 37)
Register Innocenz’ III Othmar Hageneder et al. (eds), Die Register Papst Innocenz’ III, 13 vols (Cologne, Vienna, and Rome, 1964–2014)
Registre Jean Duvernoy (ed.), Le Registre d’Inquisition de Jacques Fournier, éque de Pamiers (1318–1325). Manuscrit no Vat. Latin 4030 de la Bibliothèque Vaticane, 3 vols (Toulouse, 1965)
RHE Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique
Roquebert, Histoire des cathares Michel Roquebert, Histoire des Cathares. Hésie, croisade, inquisition du XIe au XIVe siècle (Paris, 1999)
Russell, Dissent and Reform James B. Russell, Dissent and Reform the Early Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965)
Russell, Religious Dissent James B. Russell, Religious Dissent in the Middle Ages (New York, London, Sydney, and Toronto, 1971)
SCh Sources Chrétiennes
Shannon, Popes Albert C. Shannon, The Popes and Heresy in the Thirteenth Century (Villanova, 1949)
Tanner, Decrees Norman Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols (London, 1990)
Texte zur Inquisition Kurt-Victor Selge (ed.), Texte zur Inquisition (Güttersloh, 1967: Texte zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte, 4)
Texts and the Repression Caterina Bruschi and Peter Biller (eds), Texts and the Repression of the Medieval Heresy (York 2003: Studies in Medieval Theology, 4)
Tractatus de haeresi Tractatus de haeresi pauperum de Lugduno, auctore anonymo, in Edmond Martène and Ursin Durand (eds), Thesaurus novus anecdotorum, vol. 5: Opuscula (Paris, 1717), 1777–94.
TRE Theologische Realenzyklopädie, 35 vols (Berlin and New York, 2003)
Trusen, “Der Inquisitionsprozeß“ Winfried Trusen, “Der Inquisitionsprozeß. Seine historischen Grundlagen und frühen Formen”, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Kanonistische Abteilung 74 (1988), 168–230.
Vicaire, Histoire Marie-Hubert Vicaire, Histoire de saint Dominique, 2 vols (Paris, 1982)

Medieval collections of canon law are cited in the following way:

←18 | 19→


The rise of the popular religious movements of Cathars and Waldensians, perceived as a serious threat to the Roman Church and social order in general, united two former foes, namely Pope Lucius III (1181–1185) and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–1190), who convened to search for common defence strategies at the Council of Verona in 1184. The Ad abolendam decree published on that occasion constituted a redefinition of goals and principles governing the war on heresy. The decree offered systematic and complex solutions to the challenge of religious dissent. For this reason, too, it has become a rudimentary document for scholars researching the structure of inquisition in the Middle Ages. It was the Magna Carta of inquisitorial procedures.1 “In order to destroy the iniquity of various heresies” Pope Lucius III ordered that bishops carry out regular diocesan visitations with a view to tracking down individuals distinguishable from their fellow faithful by their mode of life and customs. All alleged heretics were to be arrested and taken to their local bishop’s court. At the same time, Ad abolendam issued specific regulations to be observed by the secular authorities who were also involved in the struggle against heretics. On the strength of the decree, representatives of the secular arm were required to support anti-heresy initiatives, risking the loss of their position should they fail to act accordingly (X 5.7.9).2

At the time when Ad abolendam was published, heresy had already been identified as a considerable challenge for Western Christianity. Until the mid-twelfth century, heresy had been a rare phenomenon, both ephemeral in nature and limited in geographical scope. The occasional outbreaks of religious dissent had been fruit of either some activity of charismatic preachers, as in the case of Leutard (who died ca 1000), Henry of Lausanne (who died ca 1145), Peter of Bruys (died ca 1139), Tanchelm (who died after 1114), Eudo de l’Étoile (died ←19 | 20→after 1148) or Arnold of Brescia (died ca 1155), surrounded by a following fascinated by their message, or was related to the secret activities of relatively small elite groups (Orléans, Arras, Monteforte).3 This dynamic changed only with the emergence of the dualistic Cathar heresy which gained much popularity, particularly in Languedoc and Lombardy. The origins of Cathar doctrine and the circumstances of its expansion in medieval Europe continues to be a constant source of heated debate in scholarly literature to this day. Setting the wide range of concepts and hypotheses aside, it can be stated that to the surprise of many members of the clergy, Catharism appeared on stage as a fully-fledged organized movement in the 1160s. In the Midi of France in particular, the Cathars created their own religious structures, based on an elite group of itinerant preachers, the “perfect ones,” who proclaimed their teachings and administered sacraments to their followers.4

From the late 1170s onward, another bottom-up movement focused on voluntary poverty, initiated by a Lyons merchant named Valdès, gained ground quickly alongside the Cathars. The Poor of Lyons, also termed the Waldensians after their spiritual leader, manifested themselves with a religious programme addressed to the laity, calling the faithful to a life of poverty and simplicity. The core of their devotion was God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures. Condemned for ←20 | 21→their unsupervised reading of the Bible and usurped preaching authority, they carried on with their activities outside the Roman Church.5 In the course of the thirteenth century, the Waldensians expanded all over Europe, eventually making it to Austria, Bohemia, Silesia, Western Pomerania, and Poland.6

The success of these twelfth-century dissenters, which enjoyed considerable social support and openly questioned traditional devotion, forced the Church authorities to take decisive action. Defence of the Faith and ecclesiastical authority became the most important objective of inquisitorial activity. This duty ←21 | 22→was placed on the shoulders of bishops first, and papal inquisitors later. The medieval Church attributed to herself the exclusive authority to decide on matters of faith and define the boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy. The scope of activity of the Church went beyond the mere here and now. The Roman Church perceived herself as a transcendent being, the mystical body of Christ. While fulfilling the task entrusted to St Peter and the Apostles by Christ, the Roman Church made every possible effort to defend the deposit of Faith contained in the Scriptures and the Apostolic tradition. The concern with the salvation of each Christian was at the heart of the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the Church. The commitment to upholding the belief that salvation might be achieved only within the Church (salus extra Ecclesiam non est) made impossible any tolerance of religious dissidents or departure from orthodoxy defined by the papacy. Heresy undermined the most basic mission of the Roman Church: while proclaiming views contradictory to the teachings of the Church, heretics pulled the faithful away from orthodox faith, identified with the Church doctrine, and led their souls towards eternal damnation. Moreover, in the light of the Patristic tradition, heresy was considered an element of conspiracy of evil forces against Christ and His Church. The demon-like image of heretics, viewed as Satan’s instruments, served to defame dissidents and justify the employment of various measures in defence of the Church.7

In the debate on the treatment of heretics frequent references were made to the words of St Paul who speaks of the inevitable presence of heresy within the Church, “For there must be also heresies: that they also, who are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor 11.19). Regardless of the diverse interpretation models developed in the course of the last decades, heresy was, above all, a religious phenomenon.8 At any rate, this is what medieval popes, bishops, ←22 | 23→theologians and decretalists considered it to be. From the point of view of ecclesiastical doctrine, heresy was an error of Faith (error fidei).9 In the light of a popular medieval definition, a “heretic” was a baptized individual who obstinately proclaimed views contradictory to the Church’s teachings in public. It ought to be stressed that heresy was not tantamount to a protest against the teaching of the Church. It was the obstinacy (pertinacia) with which the errors were proclaimed and the dissenter’s decision to hold on to them in spite of the Church’s admonition that ultimately made a heretic.10 In his De civitate Dei (XVIII, 51), St Augustine was one of the first authors to point out that “those who […] savour anything morbid and depraved, and, on being corrected that they may savour what it wholesome and right, contumaciously resist, and will not amend their pestiferous and deadly dogmas, but persist in defending them, ←23 | 24→become heretics”.11 Following St Augustine, Gratian (C 24.3.31),12 Peter Lombard (Sententiae, IV d 13 a 2 d 25) and St Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae, II–IIae, q. 11) defined heresy in a similar way. In the Middle Ages, a succinct definition of heresy furnished by Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, was among the most popular. It reads, “heresy is an opinion chosen by human perception contrary to the Holy Scripture, publicly avowed and obstinately defended” (De civili dominio, I, 43).13

In canon law heresy was regarded as a serious violation of ecclesiastical regulations, whereas moral teaching viewed it as a grave sin. In the eyes of medieval theologians, who adopted St Augustine’s concept, heresy was above all a manifestation of the weakness of the human mind and will.14 With this assumption, it was widely believed that to oppose heresy, it was necessary to persuade its followers that their views were contradictory to the Divine Truth proclaimed by the Church. Since Divine Truth was revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the tradition of the Church, it was deemed enough to remind heretics of their obligation “to leave the darkness of their errors for the light of faith.” Zealous in her defence of the deposit of the faith, the Church could not be tolerant of any exception and did not grant anyone the authority to discuss the truths of the Christian faith freely.15 Even the public debates of Church representatives with the Cathars ←24 | 25→and the Waldensians had the sole objective of persuading religious dissidents of the authenticity of ecclesiastical doctrine. Similarly, the goal of all twelfth-century anti-heresy measures was the total suppression of heresy. This could be accomplished either through a return of heretics to the Church (conversio), or their extermination (exterminatio).16

Even in the Middle Ages, such methods of dealing with heresy, implemented within the framework of inquisitio haereticae pravitatis, inspired contradictory reactions.17 Certainly, inquisitors were not received warmly by those who had investigations launched into them. These individuals, however, were not the only ones to protest. Some members of the clergy also voiced criticism of the Church officials entrusted with officium inquisitionis, either because of the methods they used or occasional cases of abuse. In the early fourteenth century, a Franciscan friar, Bernard Délicieux accused the Dominican inquisitors from Carcassonne of forging records and using the inquisitorial procedure to obtain money from the targeted suspects. Bernard argued that no Christian, even the most observant and holding orthodox Catholic Faith, could feel safe in the presence of the inquisitorial tribunal. He also claimed that even St Peter and St Paul, had they been summoned by an inquisitorial tribunal, would have been declared heretics.18 His voice was not the only critical one. Similar objections to anti-heresy initiatives implemented by bishops and papal inquisitors required papal interventions. In the early fourteenth century, the citizens of Albi made a complaint to Pope Clement V regarding the excessive use of prison sentences by Bishop Bernard de Castanet, who also kept suspects in jail in scandalous conditions. To verify the truth of the reported allegations, the Pope sent a special commission of cardinals to Languedoc. Their duties included an inspection of the inquisition prisons, which revealed the dramatic fate of prisoners of the inquisition. The cardinals encountered convicts who had been in prison for several years without a proper sentence. The conditions in the prison also terrified the members of the papal ←25 | 26→committee. The prisoners were incarcerated in narrow cells, often without access to light and fresh air.19

The negative legend of the inquisition started to form during the Reformation. Two different historiographical visions emerged because of research carried out in the context of different confessions. The works written in the Catholic milieu stressed the contribution of the inquisition for the defence of the Church against schism. The metrics included the virtue and devotion of papal inquisitors, as those described in Annales Ecclesiastici by Caesarius Baronius (1538–1607), continued by Abraham Bzovius (1567–1637) and Odorico Raynaldi (1595–1671). These scholars represented the official position of the Catholic Church.20 Inquisitors who lost their lives in the service of the Roman Church, such as St Peter of Verona (1206–1252), turned into heroes of hagiographic literature written primarily during the Middle Ages.21

In the period of the Renaissance, the inquisition became a symbol of the backwardness of the medieval Church, a symbol of persecution, which stripped the individual of the right to think independently and express personal views and religious beliefs. The inquisitor was ridiculed by sarcastic remarks intended to reveal his ignorance and poor intelligence. A good example of such a character presentation is the description of Mimo da San Quirico, a Franciscan inquisitor from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Boccaccio upbraided the inquisitor’s hypocrisy and greed, for he “as many others, wanted to be regarded as a holy man, zealous in Christian faith, but that did not prevent him from pursuing not only heretics, but also those whose purses were full of coins.” In other words, the sarcastic characteristic of the inquisitor served to create an image of “a well-meaning man who had more gold than brains.”22 Another object of criticism became the actual legal procedure used in heresy trials. At the time of the famous trial of a ←26 | 27→German humanist, Johann Reuchlin, his friend Crotus Rubeanus (Johann Jäger) wrote a satirical treatise, which was a parody of an inquisitorial interrogation.23

Contrary to official ecclesiastical historiography focusing primarily on the merits of the inquisition for the defence of the purity of the faith against Satan’s spawn, Protestant historians tended to depict the Inquisition, written with a capital letter, as a sinister tribunal that tracked down each and every act of disobedience towards the Church and proceeded in a downright cruel manner.24 The mastermind behind the Protestant vision of medieval history of the Church, with its persecution of witnesses of the Divine Truth (testes veritatis) in the forefront, was Matthias Flacius Illyricus (Matija Vlačić). The publication of his Magdeburg Centuries was particularly important for the formation of the black legend of the Inquisition. Flacius’s work acquired a more developed form in Protestant historiography over the following three centuries. Despite the predominantly negative depiction of the Inquisition and its proceedings, the unquestionable merit of protestant historians was their great effort to collect and publish a great number of sources instrumental for research on medieval inquisition. The publication of the inquisition records of Bernard Gui was one spectacular example. Published by a Dutch historian, Philip van Limborch,25 this edition had long occupied the status of basic reading for historians examining the history of the medieval inquisition.

The bad press of the Inquisition established itself in European literature between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was ultimately fine-tuned by the seventeenth- century defenders of tolerance and freedom of thought, as well as the eighteenth-century philosophers of the Enlightenment. Through a process of “inventing the Inquisition” – in Edward Peters’ words – the inquisitors were portrayed as merciless criminals who suppressed all manifestations of independent reasoning. The inquisition procedure – inquistio haereticae pravitatis – was presented as a centralized high-performing institution that mercilessly ←27 | 28→suppressed each and every symptom of disobedience towards the Church.26 In academic publications and historical novels alike, the black legend of the Inquisition was popularized and, over time, additional elements were joined onto older stories for extra effect. The Spanish Inquisition was regarded as particularly infamous and it became the favourite topic of many academic publications and works of fiction.27 Philip van Limborch’s Historia inquisitionis started the trend. His successors, authors of historical publications focusing on the history of the Inquisition, added visual material to their works. In images, they showed interrogations held before inquisition tribunals, different methods of torturing prisoners and depicted both penitents and the auto-da-fé. These works written during the nineteenth century, along with their iconographic components, contributed significantly to the construction of the myth of “bloody” Inquisition in the common mind.28 Last, but not least, we also ought to take note of Francisco Goya’s series of paintings devoted to the victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

Such a negative vision of the Inquisition dominated historiography until the late nineteenth century. One is haunted still by the images from many popular works on the subject, both in fantasy literature and films. E.g. Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose features the Toulouse inquisitor, Bernard Gui, a man “with cold, grey eyes, capable of fixing the gaze without any expression […] but still able to cast meaningful glances, either concealing his thoughts and passions or expressing them according to his will.”29 While conducting a trial and inquiring into a string of secret murders that had taken place in a gloomy Benedictine abbey Gui discovers some conspiring heresy supporters among the monks, the Dolcinians. In the literary vision of Eco, Gui declares both heretics guilty recurring to tricky questions and torture. He also knew in advance the outcome of the trial. In Polish literature, the black legend of the Inquisition took on a new form in the grim novel written by Jerzy Andrzejewski (Darkness Veils the Earth, 1956), set in Spain between 1485 and 1498. The main character in the story is a young Dominican friar, Diego Manente, who becomes a close collaborator of Tomás de Torquemada. Influenced by this powerful inquisitor, the youth ←28 | 29→renounces his earlier prejudice against the Inquisition, denounces his friends and, ultimately, after Torquemada’s death, assumes inquisitor’s duties.30

The second half of the nineteenth century was the time when brand-new critical source search discredited significant elements of the black legend of the Inquisition. Synthetic dissertations by Charles Molinier,31 Célestin Douais,32 Elphège Vacandard33 or later works by Jean Guiraud34 were all preceded by editions of inquisition sources and a considerable number of monographic studies. The writings of Célestin Douais, who published a manual Practica inquisitonis haereticae pravitatis of Bernard Gui,35 as well as excerpts from the records of the Languedoc inquisition,36 have been considered essential reading for scholars in the field. Jean-Marie Vidal also contributed to a more advanced state of research with his publication of papal correspondence addressed to papal inquisitors and Church leaders in France.37 In North American scholarship, complex research into the history of the inquisition came from the pen of the historian, Henry Charles Lea. His findings were published in two monumental works on the history of medieval inquisition, including the Spanish Inquisition.38 Both works reveal the scholar’s extraordinary erudition and brilliant insight into problem analysis, especially in areas which had either been omitted or neglected previously. While undertaking his research, Lea created a library in Philadelphia where he collected valuable prints and inquisition-related academic literature. It is noteworthy that he never actually set foot in Europe and, therefore, his work ←29 | 30→was based solely on the sources he was able to acquire in old bookshops and at library auctions overseas.39

The work of Henry Charles Lea and Célestin Douais provided existing scholarship with the tools to break free from the black legend of the inquisition, thus paving the way for critical studies on the activities of medieval inquisitors. The research conducted by international historians resulted in a complete dismissal of the historiographic tradition derived from the confessional perspective. This new perspective in research, conducted sine ira et studio brought forth a number of monographs that shed new light on the medieval inquisition. At last, a balanced scholarly debate on that controversial chapter of the past replaced biased works. This change in approach is reflected in the new ecumenical terminology that gradually replaced notions such as “heresy”, “sect” by terms such as “religious movements,” “reform movements” or “religious dissent.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (September)
Heresy Religious violence Heresy trials Inquisitorial registers Medieval Christendom Inquisition
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 522 pp

Biographical notes

Paweł Kras (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision) Teresa Fazan (Revision)

Paweł Kras, professor of medieval history at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and the Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw; Vice-President of the Polish Group of the International Commission for the History and Study of Christianity (CIHEC), author of over 100 publications on religious dissent, tolerance, violence, and reforms of medieval Chrisitianity, including 3 books; editor-in-chief of The Correspondence of John of Capistrano related to Poland and Silesia, 1451–1456 (2018).


Title: The System of the Inquisition in Medieval Europe