The Inquisition was a medieval ecclesiastical court whose purpose was to seek and prosecute heretics. Very hard in its procedures, the Inquisition was defended in the Middle Ages by appealing to biblical practices, which St. Augustine already interpreted as a support for the use of force against heretics.
Although the Inquisition is generally thought of as a single organization, there were, in fact, several inquisitions in most of Europe during the Middle Ages. In practice, the Inquisition operated almost like a franchise of the Catholic Church, with inquisitors being sent to different areas to set up offices in order to eradicate heresy, witchcraft and other perceived irregularities.
The first inquisitorial manifestations were directed at others, supposedly heretical, branches of Christianity. The first Inquisition was created in 1184 by papal bull, and shortly afterward inquisitors were sent to Italy and France to confront the new religious movements.
On the other hand, the Knights Templar, who had long been valuable allies of the Catholic Church, were mercilessly pursued, possibly because of political maneuvering by the French king, who wanted to have his enormous wealth in his hands. The task of pursuing heretics was entrusted to Franciscans and Dominicans. The independent authority of the inquisitors was a frequent cause of friction with the local clergy and the bishops.
The procedure began with the arrival of the inquisitors to a specific locality. A period of grace was granted during which the heretics could freely surrender. After this period, denunciations of any person, including criminals and other heretics, were accepted. Two informants used to be enough to pick up charges. The court then summoned the suspect, interrogated him and tried to obtain the confession necessary for the conviction.
The Inquisitor could not directly accuse but should obtain a confession. A papal bull of 1252 authorized the inquisitors to use torture to obtain confessions. Torture was not understood as a punishment but it was a means of encouraging confession and above all served as an example to others who could receive the same treatment. If an inmate confessed and was repentant, the magistrates applied minor penalties like flogging, fasts, pilgrimages or fines. In the most serious cases, he was forced to wear the ‘sambenito’, with his subsequent social ostracism.
Denial of allegations and persistence in heresy were punishable by life imprisonment or execution, accompanied by total confiscation of property. Since the bloodshed was a sin for the Church, the condemned were handed over to the secular authorities for execution. The accused had no right to counsel, and the sentences could not be appealed.
The witchcraft and the Inquisition are inextricably entwined in the popular imagination, probably due to the presence of terrible texts like the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, but in reality, those accused of witchcraft were a small part of the victims. Those accused of witchcraft used to be women, single, elderly and ugly.