Episcopal Inquisition and Papal Inquisition: Finding Heretics


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William & Mary

Episcopal inquisition and papal inquisition were ‘heresy detecting’ tools developed in the High Middle Ages to purify the Christian societies. The identified heretics could face painful fates, such as being burned at the stake. Read on to find out how they decided if someone deserved to be burned alive.

The interior of a church
The Catholic church wanted to revive religion in its own way and stop heretical beliefs from spreading. Thus, they used medieval inquisitions such as episcopal inquisition and papal inquisition. (Image: Sa-nguansak Supong/Shutterstock)

In the High Middle Ages, heresy spread significantly as a response to church reform failures. Two of the main heretic streams were the Cathars and the Waldensians. Their beliefs were sometimes more bound to the Bible than was the Catholic Church’s. However, as it was not in the church’s preferred direction, they were labeled heretics.

The church did not want to lose the battle against them, so they began identifying heretics and trying to lead them back to the ‘right’ path. Episcopal inquisition and papal inquisition were among the weapons used against heretics and were sometimes of real harm to the accused people.

Learn more about heretics and heresy.

Episcopal Inquisition

Episcopal inquisition was a kind of medieval inquisition to find heretics. Unlike what happened in the post-medieval era, the medieval inquisitions were decentralized and had no office to observe them.

In 1184, a papal letter entitled, Ad abolendam, meaning ‘For the purpose of doing away with’, began the inquisitions. Episcopal inquisition was called so, as it was operated by bishops, i.e., episcopus in Latin. Bishops were investigating the beliefs of people before 1184 as well, but with Ad abolendam it turned into a timed and more organized process.

Old fresco in a medieval church.
Ad abolendam started a new process of combatting heresy and making people’s beliefs purely Catholic again. (Image: Markus Gann/Shutterstock)

Bishops were now required to spend a certain amount of time in their dioceses and investigate the beliefs of those living there. Once heretics were identified, bishops had to persuade them to come back to the right path. If they refused, the secular authorities took over and punished them.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Drawbacks of Episcopal Inquisition

Ad abolendam did not specify many points, including punishments. Punishments typically ranged from the confiscation of one’s property to execution by burning at the stake.

Another shortcoming of the system was that in many cases, bishops lived outside their dioceses and could not investigate beliefs. Even when the bishops lived where their people did, they often had too much to do. Investigating beliefs seldom had priority.

The next flaw was that bishops revealed the names of accusers to the accused heretics. Thus, many star witnesses were murdered. As a result of all these flaws, the ‘papal inquisition’ was developed.

Learn more about those who prayed – the monks.

Papal Inquisition

Taking into consideration the inefficiencies of episcopal inquisition, the church created a stronger tool. In the 1230s, a much more efficient and effective form of inquisition was developed, called the papal inquisition.

Jesus Christ in a modern mosaic made with ancient techniques.
Papal inquisition was developed to overcome the flaws of episcopal inquisition and find heretics more easily. (Image: Fausto Renda/Shutterstock)

The name does not imply that popes performed the process or supervised it, instead of bishops. It shows that the professional inquisitors were hired and commissioned by the popes, to investigate and find heretics. The inquisitors performed all over Europe in the religious districts.

The inquisitors were trained and employed to identify heretics more efficiently. They were usually people highly skilled at debate and questioning and highly mobile individuals. Different religious orders joined the movement, especially the Dominican Order.

The Dominican Order

Among the best candidates of papal inquisitors, was the Dominican Order, established to combat heresy. The pioneer of this order was Dominic Guzman, a Castilian Spaniard who died in 1221. He lived around the same time as Francis of Assisi, the pioneer of a similar order called the Franciscans.

Francis of Assisi was the more charismatic of the two, but Dominic Guzman was the more patient, more skilled organizer. Dominicans and Franciscans were both suitable for inquisition, but did not get along that well, and Dominicans outperformed the Franciscans.

Francis of Assisi devoted his life to popularizing a lifestyle that Guzman arrived at independently: vita apostolica, or the ‘apostolic life’. This ideal was built upon the Acts of the Apostles and cherished a life devoted to poverty, begging, and wandering to preach.

Thus, the determined Dominicans became one of the most active groups of inquisitors, without any of the faults found in the episcopal inquisition. What they did is a different story, but this was how they began to do what they did.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement.

Common Questions about Episcopal Inquisition

Q: What was the original purpose of the inquisition?

Medieval inquisitions began with episcopal inquisition to identify heretics. Bishops in 1184 were officially required to investigate individuals’ beliefs and try to convince them back to truth. They were a response to heretic movements that were spreading widely.

Q: What happened during the inquisition?

Initially, episcopal inquisition did not have rules on how the process should be, how the heretics should be punished, and how the bishops should prioritize tasks. However, later inquisitions became more systematic, and torture was also added to the procedures. The punishment was very often imprisonment or death.

Q: Did the Catholic Church burn heretics?

To stop heretic movements spread and popularity, the Catholic Church began a process of identifying heretics, initially by episcopal inquisitions. Upon confirmation of heresy, they could be burned at the stake for punishment.

Q: What started the inquisition?

In 1184, a letter entitled Ad abolendam, meaning ‘For the purpose of doing away with’, began the inquisitions, first by episcopal inquisitions. The process later changed and became more efficient to ensure accurate detection of heretics.

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