Torturing for Christ 394

We often speak of persecutions and cruelties carried out in the name of Christianity. Multitudes of examples are to be found in the history of the medieval Papal Inquisition. Volumes have been written about that terrifying institution, and the chronicles hold an immense fund of horrors. A good case could be made that the Catholic Church is the most terrible institution ever established in human history, in that its intensely cruel and terrifying power of oppression continued for hundred of years. Nazism and Communism, no less cruel and terrifying, were comparatively short-lived in the 20th century. But Communism is still with us, and there is the possibility that it might persist  in parts of the world, or even be spread over all of it, for an unpredictable length of time. And of course Islam, an ideology of oppression and mass murder, has lasted longer than all the active Catholic inquisitions, is still with us, and is spreading at an ever accelerating pace.

But we will concentrate at present on the Roman Catholic Church’s arm of persecution.

On May 1, 2011, we posted The heretics of Languedoc, an outline of the story of the Cathars who were destroyed by the Catholic Church. As a sequel, we have selected these quotations from an essay to be found here.

The Inquisition set up in the Languedoc was not the first Inquisition set up by the Roman Church.. The Inquisition which is the subject of this page was the Medieval Inquisition, established informally by Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century and formalised by later popes. …

The express purpose of this original medieval Inquisition was to discover and eliminate vestiges of Cathar belief left after the Cathar Crusades. …

By the end of the fourteenth century Catharism had been virtually extirpated. Before the Crusade the Languedoc, under the Counts of Toulouse, had been the most civilised land in Europe. People here had preferred simple asceticism to venality and corruption. Learning had been highly valued. Literacy had been widespread, and popular literature had developed earlier than anywhere else in Europe. Religious tolerance had been widely practised. Jews enjoyed ordinary civil rights. The Languedoc had been the home of courtly love, poetry, romance, chivalry and the troubadours. All this was swept away by the Albigensian Crusade and Inquisition.

Procedures were developed over time, evolving from fairly amateur attempts to establish guilt to a sophisticated mechanism that would guarantee guilt. …

From contemporary documents we can trace the development of the torture techniques developed by Dominican Inquisitors. Here for example is an extract from an open letter written around 1285 by the Consuls of Carcassonne to Jean Galand, an Inquisitor at Carcassonne.

Contrary the the practice and custom of your predecessors, you have created a prison called “The Wall”, which would be better called “Hell”. In it you have constructed small cells to inflict pain and to mistreat people using various types of torture. Some cells are so dark and airless that those imprisoned there cannot tell whether it is night or day. They permanently lack air and light. In other cells the miserable prisoners remain in fetters – of either wood or metal – and are unable to move. They excrete and urinate where they are, and cannot lie down except on their backs on the cold earth … In other places in the prison they lack air and light and also food, exept the “bread of adversity, and the water of affliction” which are provided only rarely. Some are placed on the chevelet [an instrument of torture]; many of them have lost the use of their limbs because of the severity of the torture and are rendered entirely powerless … Life for them is an agony, and death a relief. Under these constraints they affirm as true what is false, prefering to die once than to be thus tortured multiple times … they accuse not only themselves but also others who are innocent, in order to escape their suffering in any way … those who so confess reveal afterwards that what they have said to the Brother Inquisitors [Dominicans] is not true, but false, and that they have confessed out of fear of the peril of the moment. To some of those [witnesses] that you cite you promise immunity so that they will more freely denounce others without fear.

From other sources we know that the bread was stale and the water fetid – a diet that often resulted in death within weeks or months. …

The procedure was that Inquisitors would announce their arrival in a town in advance. Everyone was invited to attend and confess their errors. When the Inquisitors arrived “volunteers” were interviewed. If they confessed to relatively minor misdeeds, were prepared to swear fidelity to the Catholic Church, and were willing to provide useful information about others then they were given a small penance and the matter was closed. Some of the consequences of this practice were:

It provided an opportunity for obliging Catholics to betray friends and family, and a virtual obligation for everyone to do so – failure to provide useful information was taken as lack of genuine zeal and commitment to the One True Church.

It provided a formal record of a first offence. This had a salutary effect since a second offence carried the death penalty.

It efficiently filtered out Cathar parfaits [“perfects”] and other “heretics” who were not willing to swear any oath, let alone one of fidelity to the Catholic Church. Anyone who had not volunteered was immediately suspected, and their failure to confess voluntarily was itself evidence against them.

Repentant first offenders who admitted to having been Cathar heretics, when released on licence by the Inquisition were required to:

“… carry from now on and forever two yellow crosses on all their clothes, except their shirts, and one arm shall be two palms long while the other transversal arm shall be a palm and a half long and each shall be three digits wide with one to be worn in front on the chest and the other between the shoulders.”

Victims were required to renew the crosses if they became torn or destroyed by age. These yellow crosses, like the yellow badges of a different shape that the Catholic Church required Jews to wear, were badges of infamy – warning to good Catholics to shun the wearers. These crosses were known in Occitan as “las debanadoras” – reels or winding machines. The idea seems to be that offenders could be “reeled in” by the Inquisition at any time. This was a serious concern since a second accusation meant a second conviction, and a second conviction meant death.

From its begining, the Papal Inquisition worked by ignoring all rules of natural justice. Guilt was assumed from the start. The accused had no right to see the evidence against them, or their accusers. They were not always told what the charges were against them. They had no right to legal counsel, and if exceptionally they were allowed a legal representative then the representative risked being arrested for heresy as well.

People were charged on the say-so of hostile neighbours, known enemies and professional informers who were paid on commission. False accusations, if exposed, were excused if they were the result of “zeal for the Faith”. Guilty verdicts were assured – especially since, in addition to their punishment, half of a guilty person’s property was seized by the Church. The Dominicans soon hit on the idea of digging up and trying dead people, so that they could seize property from their heirs. …

Torture became a favourite method of extracting confessions for offences both real and fabricated. Its use was explicitly sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV in 1252 in his bull ad extirpanda though it had been practiced from the earliest days. Inquisitors and their assistants were permitted to absolve one another for applying torture. Instruments of torture, like crusaders’ weapons, were routinely blessed with holy water.

Torture was applied to obtain whatever confessions were required, and sometimes just to punish people that the Church authorities did not like – people could be and were tortured even after they had confessed. …

These techniques were responsible for the first police state in Europe, where the only thoughts and actions permitted were those approved of by the Roman Church, where no-one could be trusted, and where duty to the totalitarian authority took precedence over all other duties

It is difficult to find any technique of modern totalitarianism that was not pioneered by the Medieval Inquisition

Inquisitors even charged people for the equipment used to execute members of their families

Tortures varied from time to time and place to place, but the following represent the more popular options.

Victims were stripped and bound. The cords were tied around the body and limbs in such a way that they could be tightened, by a windlass if necessary, until they acted like multiple tourniquets. By attaching the cords to a pulley the victim could be hoisted off the ground for hours, then dropped. Whether the victim was pulled up short before the weight touched the floor, or allowed to fall to the floor, the pain was acute. This was the torture of the pulley, also known as squassation and the strappado. John Howard, the prison reformer, found this still in use in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The rack was a favourite for dislocating limbs. …

The victim could be flogged, bathed in scalding water with lime, and have their eyes removed with purpose designed eye-gougers.

Fingernails were pulled out. Grésillons (thumbscrews) were applied to thumbs and big toes until the bones were crushed.

The victim was forced to sit on a spiked iron chair that could be heated by a fire underneath until it glowed red-hot.

Branding irons and red-hot pincers were also used.

The victim’s feet could be placed in a wooden frame called a boot. Wedges were then hammered in until the bones shattered, and the ‘blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance’. Alternatively the feet could be held over an open fire, and literally roasted until the bones fell out; or they could be placed in huge leather boots into which boiling water was poured, or in metal boots into which molten lead was poured.

Since the holy proceedings were conducted for the greater glory of God the instruments of torture were sprinkled with holy water.

Whole families were accused. …

Hearings … were held in secret, generally conducted by men whose identities were concealed. In the Papal States and elsewhere, Dominicans acted as both judges and prosecutors. By papal command they were forbidden to show mercy. There was no appeal. …

No genuine defence could be sustained. For example, if a husband provided an alibi, saying that his wife had been asleep in his arms when she was alleged to have been attending a witches’ sabbat, it would be explained to him that a demon had adopted the form of his wife while she was away….

Spies were employed with the incentive of payment by results. Perjury was pardoned if it was the outcome of ‘zeal for the faith’ – i.e. supporting the prosecution. …

Those who helped the inquisitors were granted the same indulgences as pilgrims to the Holy Land. Any advocates acting for and any witnesses giving evidence on behalf of a suspect laid themselves open to charges of abetting heresy. No one was ever acquitted, a released person always being liable to re-arrest and a condemned person liable to a revised sentence with no retrial, at the discretion of the Inquisitor. … Confessions were virtually guaranteed unless the victim died under torture. Then came the sentence, and execution of the sentence.

The method of execution was most often burning at the stake.

The Church claims that it never killed its victims; it handed them over to the lay authorities to be punished. This was called “relaxing” the condemned heretic. He or she was “handed to the magistrates with a recommendation to mercy and instruction that no blood be shed. The supreme hypocrisy of this was that if the magistrate did not burn the victims on the following day, he was himself liable to be charged with abetting heresy.”

People were executed for failing to fast during Lent, for homosexuality, fornication, explaining scientific discoveries, and even for professional acting. …

The victims were forced to pay for their torture and execution:

The estates of those found guilty were forfeit, after the deduction of expenses. Expenses included the costs of the investigation, torture, trial, imprisonment and execution. The accused bore it all, including wine for the guards, meals for the judges, and travel expenses for the torturer. Victims were even charged for the ropes to bind them and them and the tar and wood to burn them. Generally, after paying these expenses, half of the balance of the estate went to the Inquisitors and half to the Pope, or a temporal lord.

Torture and murder were highly profitable to a church that preaches poverty as a virtue. Why, we ask – expecting no answer – doesn’t universal disgust, if nothing else, deprive it of all its adherents?


This picture illustrates a burning to death of “heretics” by the Spanish Inquisition

Victims of the Inquisition Led to Their Act of Faith


Footnote: It should not be imagined that Protestantism was any more merciful than Catholicism. See our post Calvin: a chapter in the terrible history of Christianity, April 25, 2010.