When Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, those who held dissenting or differing views from the established church were condemned as heretics and excommunicated from church membership. Most of the early church fathers, such as St. Augustine (d. 604), were displeased by any action taken by the state toward heretics, but the clergy generally gave their reluctant approval, stressing that the church abhorred any kind of physical mistreatment of dissenters.

In 906, the Canon Episcopi by Abbot Regino of Prum (d. c. 915) condemned as heretical any belief in witchcraft or in the power of sorcerers to transform people into animals. The consensus of the Christian clergy was that those individuals who believed that they could fly through the air or work evil magic on another person were allowing Satan to deceive them. The clergy was more concerned with stamping out all allegiance to the goddess Diana and any other regional deities, and they regarded as primitive superstition any suggestion that witches possessed any kind of magical powers. In 1000, Deacon Burchard (d. 1025), later archbishop of Worms, published Corrector, which updated Regino's Canon Episcopi and stressed that God alone had the kind of power that the untutored masses were attributing to witches. In 1022 there occurred the first fully attested burning of a heretic, in the city of Orleans.

By the twelfth century, the Cathar sect had become so popular among the people that Pope Innocent III (1160 or 1161–1216) considered it a greater menace to Christianity than the Islamic warriors who pummeled the crusaders and who threatened all of Europe. To satisfy his outrage, he ordered the only Crusade ever launched by Christians against fellow Christians, declaring as heretics the Albigensians, as the Cathars of southern France were known.

The Inquisition came into existence in 1231 with the Excommunicamus of Pope Gregory IX (c. 1170–1241), who at first urged local bishops to become more vigorous in ridding Europe of heretics, then lessened their responsibility for determining orthodoxy by establishing inquisitors under the special jurisdiction of the papacy. The office of inquisitor was entrusted primarily to the Franciscans and the Dominicans, because of their reputation for superior knowledge of theology and their declared freedom from worldly ambition. Each tribunal was ordered to include two inquisitors of equal authority, who would be assisted by notaries, police, and counselors. Because they had the power to excommunicate even members of royal houses, the inquisitors were formidable figures with whom to reckon.

In 1246 Montsegur, the center of Albigensian resistance, fell, and hundreds of Cathars were burned at the stake. The headquarters of the Inquisition was established in Toulouse, and in 1252, Pope Innocent IV (d. 1254) issued a papal bull that placed inquisitors above the law. Another decree within the bull demanded that all civil rulers and all commoners must assist the work of the Inquisition or face excommunication. In 1257, the church officially sanctioned torture as a means of forcing witches, sorcerers, shapeshifters, and other heretics to confess their alliance with Satan.

The inquisitors would stay in a particular location for weeks or months, from which they would bring suit against any person suspected of heresy. Lesser penalties were levied against those who came forward of their own volition and confessed their heresy than against those who ignored the summons and had to be placed on trial. The tribunal allowed a grace period of about a month for the accused to come to them and confess before the heretic would be arrested and brought to trial. The penances and sentences for those who confessed or were found guilty during the trial were pronounced by the inquisitors at a public ceremony known as the sermo generalis or auto-da-fe and might consist of a public whipping, a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, a monetary fine, or the wearing of a cross. The most severe penalty that the inquisitors could pronounce was life imprisonment; therefore, when they turned over a confessed heretic to the civil authorities, it was quite likely that person would be put to death at the stake.

The wealthy and powerful Knights Templar were accused of heretical acts, such as invoking Satan and worshipping demons that appeared as large black cats. In spite of a lengthy trial and 573 witnesses for their defense, the arrested Templars were tortured en masse, burned at the stake, and their order was disbanded by Pope Clement V (c. 1260–1314). In 1313 as he was being burned to death on a scaffold built for the occasion in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, Jacques de Molay (1243–1314), the Knights Templar grand master, recanted the confession produced by torture and proclaimed his innocence to the pope and the king—and he invited them to meet him at heaven's gate. When both dignitaries died soon after de Molay's execution, it seemed to the public at large to be a sign that the grand master had been innocent of the charges of heresy.

With the Albigensian heresy destroyed, the Inquisition began to direct more of its attention toward witches. In 1320 Bernard Gui (c. 1261–1331) published Practica, an influential instructional manual for inquisitors, in which he urged them to pay particular heed to arresting those women who cavorted with the goddess Diana. Four years later, in 1324, Ireland's first witchcraft trial convened when Alice Kyteler was found guilty of consorting with a demon.

Separate from the Inquisition that extended its jurisdiction over all the rest of Europe, in 1478, at the request of King Ferdinand II (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451–1504), papal permission was granted to establish the Spanish Inquisition. More a political, than a religious, weapon, this Inquisition persecuted the Marranos or conversos, those Jews suspected of insincerely converting to Christianity; converts from Islam, similarly thought to be insincere in practicing the Christian faith; and, in the 1520s, those individuals who were believed to have converted to Protestantism. The support of Spain's royal house enabled Tomas de Torquemada (1420–1498) to become the single grand inquisitor whose name has become synonymous with the Inquisition's most cruel acts and excesses. Torquemada is known to have ordered the deaths by torture and burning of thousands of heretics and witches.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) became so angered by the apparent spread of witchcraft in Germany that he issued the papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus and authorized two trusted Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Institoris (Henry Kramer) (1430–1505) and Jakob Sprenger (c. 1435–1495), to stamp out demonology in the Rhineland. In 1486, Kramer and Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum, the "Hammer for Witches," which quickly became the "bible" of heretic and witch hunters. The book earnestly refuted all those who would claim that the works of demons existed only in troubled human minds. Certain angels fell from heaven, and to believe otherwise was to believe contrary to the true faith. And now these fallen angels, these demons, were intent upon destroying the human race. Any persons who consorted with demons and became witches must recant their evil ways or be put to death.

By the late sixteenth century, the power of the Inquisition was beginning to wane. In 1563, Johann Weyer (Weir) (1515–1588), a critic of the Inquisition, managed to publish De praestigus daemonum, in which he argued that while Satan does seek to ensnare and destroy human beings, the charge that accused witches, werewolves, and vampires possessed supernatural powers was false. Such abilities existed only in their minds and imaginations. As if to provide an antidote to Weyer's call for a rational approach to dealing with accusations of witchcraft, in 1580 the respected intellectual Jean Bodin (1530–1596), often referred to as the Aristotle of the sixteenth century, wrote De La demonomanie des sorciers, a book that caused the flames once again to burn high around thousands of heretics' stakes.

With the spread of Protestantism throughout Europe, in 1542 Pope Paul III (1468–1549) established the Congregation of the Inquisition (also known as the Roman Inquisition and the Holy Office), which consisted of six cardinals, including the reformer Gian Pietro Cardinal Carafa (1476–1559). Although their powers extended to the whole church, the Holy Office was less concerned about heresies and false beliefs of church members than they were with misstatements of orthodoxy in the academic writings of its theologians. When Carafa became Pope Paul IV in 1555, he approved the first Index of Forbidden Books (1559) and vigorously sought out any academics who were prompted any thought that offended church doctrine or favored Protestantism.

Although organized witchcraft trials continued to be held throughout Europe, and even the American colonies, until the late seventeenth century, they were most often civil affairs and the Inquisition had little part in such ordeals. However, the Holy Office continued to serve as the instrument by which the papal government regulated church order and doctrine, and it did try and condemn Galileo (1564–1642) in 1633. In 1965, Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) reorganized the Holy Office and renamed it the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition. New York: Random House, 1995.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

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