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This article deals with Catholic history between 1134 and 1834. For other uses see Inquisition (disambiguation).
Pedro Berruguete. Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe (1475).
Pedro Berruguete. Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe (1475).

The term Inquisition (Latin: Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis Sanctum Officium) refers broadly to a number of historical movements surrounding the suppresion of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. There were four major movements, starting with the Medieval Inquisition in 1184 and ending with the Spanish Inquisition in 1834.



The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with the eradication of heresies. After Constantine the Great eased the Christians from their onus by issuing the Edict of Milan which sought to make the Roman Empire religiously neutral, and taking initiative to the first ecumenical conference in 325, known as the First Council of Nicea, effecting the local administrative structures of the diverse Christian cults and churches within the Roman Empire to be gathered in an hierarchic organisation situated in Rome, The Vatican. This caused the subordination of the diverse churches in the catholic ecumenic fold (cf. The Purpose of the Roman Curia). The organisational structure was inspired by the dominant Roman imperial hierarchy. Already at the first ecumenic council it was a major controversy. The Arian Controversy is named after the presbyter Arius who lost the controversy. Those who failed to follow the Nicene Creed were proclaimed heretics. The Western Roman Empire was thus able to focus on dealing with heresy, and those whose beliefs or practices deviated sufficiently from the orthodoxy of the councils now became the objects of efforts to bring them into the fold.

Heresies (from Greek haeresis, sect, school of belief) were a problem for the Church from the beginning. Acts 15 recounts the convening of a council in Jerusalem to deal with the heresy of the Judaizers, who had contended with the Jerusalem faction in Asia and especially Galatia. In the subsequent centuries there were the Arians and Manicheans; in the Middle Ages there were the Cathari and Waldenses; and in the Renaissance there were the Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Rosicrucians. Efforts to suppress heresies were initially ad hoc, but in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to combat heresies. Beginning in the 12th century, Church Councils required secular rulers to prosecute heretics.


There were four Inquisitions; in chronological order, they were the Medieval Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition and the Roman Inquisition. One would however be incorrect to presume that these were totally unrelated to each other and that the inquisition was limited to these discrete events.

Medieval Inquisition

Main article: Medieval Inquisition

The first of the Medieval Inquisitions is called the Episcopal Inquisition and was established in the year 1184 by a papal bull, an official letter from the Pope, entitled Ad abolendam; "For the purpose of doing away with". The Inquisition was in response to the growing Catharist heresy in southern France. It is called the "episcopal" because it was administered by local bishops, which in Greek is episcopos. The Episcopal Inquisition was not very effective for many reasons (see Medieval Inquisition).

The Papal Inquisition in the 1230s was in response to the failures of the Episcopal Inquisition and was staffed by professionals, trained specifically for the job as decreed by the Pope. Individuals were chosen from different orders and secular clergy, but primarily they came from the Dominican Order who had a number of traits that made them suitable (see Medieval Inquisition).

Spanish Inquisition

Main article: Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile. It was to a large extent under the control of the Spanish monarch, with only the Inquisitor General appointed by Rome. In its dealings with converted Muslims and Jews and also illuminists, the Spanish Inquisition, with its "auto de fe", represents a particularly notorious period in the history of the Inquisition. This inquisition also gave rise to the Peruvian Inquisition during the Viceroyalty of Peru which ended with its Independence on July 28, and also the Mexican Inquisition, which continued in the Americas until Mexican Independence.

It was abolished in 1834.

Roman Inquisition

Main article: Roman Inquisition

Pope Paul III established, in 1542, a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials, whose task it was to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines. This body, the Congregation of the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, part of the Roman Curia, became the supervisory body of local Inquisitions. The Pope appoints one of the cardinals to preside over the meetings. There are usually ten other cardinals on the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also has an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advise it on specific questions. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," and the first to be "formally heretical" and the second "at least erroneous in faith" in theology. This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until revised and Galileo Galilei to be admonished about his Copernicanism. It was this same body in 1633 that tried Galileo, condemned him for a "grave suspicion of heresy", and banned all his works.

Not all prosecutions of alleged heretics, atheists and other deviations from the Catholic faith were prosecuted by the Inquisition. In some countries, such as France under the ancien régime, atheists and blasphemers could be prosecuted by civilian courts, with the possible penalty of death.

Portuguese Inquisition

The Portuguese Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536 by the King of Portugal, Joao III, as a Portuguese analogue of the more famous Spanish Inquisition.

The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to Portugal's colonial possessions, including Brazil, Cape Verde and Goa, continued as a religious court, investigating and trying cases of breaches of the tenets of orthodox Roman Catholicism until it was abolished in 1821.

Other Inquisitions

Even though the last Inquisition (The Spanish Inquisition) ended in 1834 almost 200 years ago, the word "Inquisition" remains a part of modern vocabulary; even those with no interest in European history associate it with negative meanings.[1] Because of the negative images associated with the Inquisition, the term has taken on a pejorative usage, and is often used to express disapproval, and is often used in a non-neutral manner, and not as a neutral historical descriptor.

  • Some Christian fundamentalist authors like Jack Chick and Alberto Rivera, along with other like-minded authors, believe the Nazi Holocaust was an Inquisition against the Jews undertaken by Hitler, a Catholic, at the behest of the Pope. This interpretation of history is highly controversial and is rejected by professional historians.
  • In modern American politics, United States Senate investigations are often called "Inquisitions" as a means of expressing disapproval of the investigators. For example some people call the Second Red Scare an inquisition.

Derivative works

The Inquisitions have been the subject of many cultural works. Some include:

See also

External Links


  • Edward M. Peters, Inquisition. (University of California Press, 1989). ISBN 0520066308
    • A brief, balanced inquiry, with an especially good section on the 'Myth of the Inquisition'. This is particularly valuable because much of the history available in English of the Inquisition was written in the 19th century by Protestants interested in documenting the dangers of Catholicism or Catholic apologists demonstrating that the Inquisition had been an entirely reasonable judicial body without flaws.
  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0300078803
    • This revised edition of his 1965 original contributes to the understanding of the Spanish Inquisition in its local context.
  • Cecil & Irene Roth, A history of the Marranos, Sepher-Hermon Press, 1974.
  • Simon Whitechapel, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003). ISBN 1840681055
  • William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (TAN Books, 1997). ISBN 0895553260
    • Favorable treatment of inquisitors.
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