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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 21:43 GMT 22:43 UK
Vatican 'dispels Inquisition myths'
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

Engraving of the Inquisition at work
The Inquisition reached its peak in the 16th Century
The Vatican has published a new study on the abuses committed by the medieval Inquisition and come to a rather surprising conclusion - that in fact the much feared judges of heresy were not as brutal as previously believed.

According to the 800-page report, the Inquisition that spread fear throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages did not use execution or torture to anything like the extent history would have us believe.

In fact the book's editor, Professor Agostino Borromeo, claims that in Spain only 1.8% of those investigated by the notorious Spanish Inquisition were killed.

Nonetheless, as the report was published, Pope John Paul II apologised once more for the interrogators' excesses, expressing sorrow for "the errors committed in the service of the truth by the recourse to non-Christian methods".

The recourse to torture and the death sentence weren't so frequent as it long has been believed
Professor Agostino Borromeo
But the Pope stopped short of breaking the age-old Vatican rule on not condemning your predecessors. Pope Gregory IX created the Inquisition in 1233 to curb heresy, or denial of truths of the Catholic faith, but he was not mentioned in the Pope's statement.

Hunting heretics

After the Roman Catholic Church consolidated its power across Europe in the 12th and 13th Century, it set up the Inquisition to ensure that heretics did not undermine that authority.

It took the form of a network of ecclesiastical tribunals equipped with judges and investigators.

The punishments meted out for wrongdoers ranged from being forced to visit churches and make pilgrimages, to life imprisonment or execution by burning at the stake.

Vatican report on the Inquisition
The report is the result of six-years of investigation

A key component of the Inquisition was that it did not wait for complaints and accusations to be made, but actively sought out so-called heretics, who included witches, diviners, blasphemers and members of other sects.

The accused did not have the right to face and question their accuser and it was acceptable to take testimony from criminals and excommunicated people.

The Inquisition reached its peak in the 16th Century as it battled the Reformation, but its most famous trial was that of Galileo in 1633, condemned for claiming the earth revolved around the sun.

Death by burning

The Spanish Inquisition which became independent from the Vatican in the 15th Century, carried out some of the most infamous abuses under its "autos da fé" or act of faith, shorthand for death by burning.

They zealously tortured victims, held summary trials, forced conversions and passed death sentences.

If there are many or few cases, it doesn't matter. What's important is you don't say, 'I am right and you are wrong and I burn you'
Thomas Noffke, Waldensian pastor

"There is no doubt that at the start, the planned procedures were applied with an excessive rigour, which in some cases degenerated into true abuses," the Vatican study simply says of this dark period.

But the Vatican report, the product of a six-year investigation, insists that the Inquisition was not as bad as often believed.

Professor Borromeo says for example that for 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain, less than 2% were executed.

He says that often mannequins were burned to represent those tried in absentia and condemned to death and heretics and witches who repented at the last minute were given some sort of relief when they were strangled before being burnt.

Little comfort

But for those connected with victims of the Inquisition, Vatican claims that it was not as bad as thought carry little weight.

Galileo was the Inquisition's most famous victim

Among those targeted by the interrogators were the Waldensians, members of a Protestant sect declared heretical in the 12th Century.

"If there are many or few cases, it doesn't matter. What's important is you don't say, 'I am right and you are wrong and I burn you'," said Thomas Noffke, a US-born Waldensian pastor in Rome.

According to the study, in the Inquisition's heyday Germany killed more male and female witches than anywhere else, with some 25,000 people being put to death.

In Lichtenstein just 300 people were executed for witchcraft, but this amounted to 10% of the tiny state's population.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who was at the news conference where the study was presented, said that the lessons of history never come to an end.

Acknowledging the past was all the more relevant given the continued use of torture in the 21st Century, most notably by US troops against prisoners held in Iraq, he said.

Profile: Pope John Paul II
02 Oct 03  |  Europe
Country profile: Vatican
08 Oct 03  |  Country profiles
Investigating the inquisition
29 Oct 98  |  Europe

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