When I was playing more actively with the Society for Creative Anachronism, I had a Jewish friend with a Spanish persona, circa 1492. He used to joke that, contrary to Monty Python’s claims, he *did*, expect the Spanish Inquisition. . . any day now, in fact.
Thanks, in part, to those Monty Python boys, the Inquisition has gotten a particularly sinister reputation, making it hard to disentangle the reality from the representation of the Inquisition, and to examine how it manifested in different times and places.
The history of the inquisition begins around the 1200’s, with the desire of the Church to seek out and correct heresy, in particular, the Cathars of Southern France. In order to be a heretic, one must be a member of the Catholic Church–Jews, Muslims, etc, are not heretics, and thus are not ordinarily subject to the inquisition. (unless they convert or claim to have done so). When Ferdinand and Isabella instigated the Spanish Inquisition, they focused more on Jews who had converted to Catholicism (conversos) and on Judaizers (those suspected of Jewish sympathies or beliefs).
The use of torture by the various inquisitions was authorized by Pope Innocent IV (scroll down for a pdf of the translated bull) in 1252, following the murder of a papal legate by a group of Cathars, but it requires the inquisitor to be certain of the evidence presented by witnesses against the accused, states that torture should be used only once, and could not cause damage to life or limb. However, inquisitors were known to claim that the next day’s torture was really just a continuation and shouldn’t count as a second session. . .The bull (referred to as Ad extirpanda) also gave local rulers oversight of the inquisition in their territory.
Most inquisitors were drawn from the ranks of the Dominican Order, the so-called Blackfriars. This role gave rise to the apocryphal claim that their name derives from Domini canus, or Hound of the Lord. (In fact, the name comes from Saint Dominic de Guzeman, the founder of the order.) Franciscans were sometimes also involved.
When someone was accused of heresy, that individual would be brought to give testimony, along with whatever witnesses made the claims. If the individual were found to be an unrepentant heretic, he or she would be turned over to the secular courts for justice, which might range from a prison term (most common) to being burned at the stake (rare–but fearsome). A large part of the purpose of punishment was to serve as a deterrent to other potential heretics, hence the most harsh sentences. Their lands and good would be seized, no doubt leading to many false accusations by people hoping to profit from their neighbors’ downfall. Something similar happened in New England’s own witch craze, where the accused often stood to gain materially from the convictions of others.
The Spanish Inquisition, that most dreaded of institutions, may have led to the deaths of 3000-5000 people over the course of its 350 years in existence according to some sources (though they don’t state a source for their numbers). One researcher counted 44,674 trials and only 826 executions. Researcher and author Cullen Murphy gave an Inquisition FAQ on the Huffington Post a couple of years back with some different estimates.
Those who repented of their supposed heresy could escape punishment altogether–but must be wary lest they relapse, and draw a stronger judgement. Remember, the inquisitions, though founded by the church, were under local control, and it was the secular court that imposed punishment. While they were established to root out the supposed threat of heretics drawing souls away from God, these local inquisitions persisted and were often wielded as political rather than religious instruments of control.
The Spanish Inquisition executed its last victim in the nineteenth century, and the Roman Inquisition was officially ended a bit later. The concept of an inquisition as a powerful force rounding up and ferreting out unbelievers moved from the historical usage into a lingering symbol of the abuses of power–especially when the organization exists to destroy intellectual opposition, anyone’s word could be taken as fact, and there is no check on the authority of the few.