Medieval Inquisition Trials, Torture, and Sermons


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

Medieval inquisition trials were held secretly, to ascertain if an accused person was a heretic or not. Once a person was accused, they were detained for at least a few months, regardless of whether they were a heretic or innocent. Although it seems like chaotic cruelty, the system had order and rules. But were the rules of any value?

An image of burning at the stake.
Torture and burning at the stake found their way into inquisitions, despite the rules that controlled them. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

In an attempt to stop the spread of heresy in the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church began trials to identify and punish heretics. The initial movement was the episcopal inquisition. The reformed version without previous flaws was the papal inquisition, in which trained and professional inquisitors tried to identify heretics. Even though torture was not allowed at the beginning, eventually, the inquisitors asked the papacy to allow it.

Torture in Medieval Inquisition Trials

Torture was a part of legal procedures before, but not allowed on inquisitions. However, inquisitors wanted it to be allowed to improve the efficiency of trials. It was allowed, but any torture that led to bloodshed, mutilation, or death was forbidden. The most common torturing tool was a strappado, which could dislocate the arms and legs of the defendant.

In strappado, a rope was tied around the wrists, and the hands were placed behind the person’s back. The rope would be slung over an open beam in the roof and hung down the other side. The person would be hauled off the ground by the arms with the rope behind their back. If the procedure did not lead to dislocation of the shoulders, the inquisitors would hang heavy weights from the legs. In this case, both arms and legs would get dislocated.

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

Even though it may seem the inquisitors were sadists who enjoyed torture and killing, they were not. They were only focused on finding the heretics and force them back to the orthodox beliefs. Executing heretics meant they had failed to convert them back. They also cared a lot about false accusations.

Learn more about heretics and heresy.

Witnesses and False Accusations

Before each trial, at least two witnesses were required to testify against an accused person. They did not want people to falsely accuse an enemy of heresy to give them a hard time. Thus, punishments for false testimony were severe. The false accusers had to wear a special costume with red tongues sewn onto it. They were then put on public display for ridicule, and imprisoned, usually for life.

Giiordano Bruno Statue Campo de' Fiori Rome Italy
Inquisitors were highly concerned about finding real heretics and preventing false accusations. (Image: Bill Perry/Shutterstock)

Another precaution to prevent false accusations was to ask the defendant to name all their enemies and people who disliked them enough to falsely accuse them. If the name of the accuser was in the list of haters, the charge was dismissed, and the defendant was free to go.

In one case, the defendant had named more than 100 people who mortally hated him, and had brought in witnesses to prove how unpopular he was.

Confession Rules and Defendants’ Rights

Legally, a confession obtained under torture was not admissible. The defendants also had the right to have a lawyer. However, if a person confessed under torture and later denied it, they were tortured again.

The other rule was also not so effective, as no lawyer dared ruin their career and lose the right to practice law by defending an accused heretic. However, the outcome of the trial was not always the same.

Learn more about the origins of Scholasticism.

The Possible Outcomes of a Trial

The defendants had to wait a long time before the outcome of the trial was announced since verdicts were declared by inquisitors, not on a case-by-case basis. Though rare, it was still possible to be found innocent. Sometimes they did not have enough evidence to prove heresy, so the person was free to go until further evidence was found and the case reopened.

While the dozens or even hundreds of cases were decided, the defendants could be convicted, could recante, confess to heresy, or be found innocent. The defendants were usually imprisoned while the cases were being analyzed. Then, a sermo generalis was held with the presence of all the town or village people.

Learn more about women in medieval society.

Sermo Generalis: the General Sermon

In this sermon, the inquisitors would read their verdicts and describe the heretical beliefs, loudly hoping no one would believe in them anymore. After a first offense, the penance included having to go on a long pilgrimage, having to wear a yellow cross on the garments for the rest of their life, and similar things.

Rays of sunlight shining into an old cellar.
It usually took months or even years for the inquisitors to publish their verdicts, and all that time, the defendants were kept in prison. (Image: Tunatura/Shutterstock)

Another punishment was lifelong imprisonment. The next punishment was being burned to death for those who refused to recant their heresy, those who had relapsed into heresy, those who had been found guilty for a second time, and those who had even confessed after one conviction. It was illegal for the inquisition to shed blood, but it was legal to hand over the heretics to secular judges who could kill.

Despite all these efforts, heresy spread all over Europe, and the Catholic Church lost its former authority.

Common Questions about Medieval Inquisition Trials

Q: What was inquisition in medieval times?

When religious reforms failed, and heretic movements grew rapidly, the Catholic Church decided to combat them. Medieval inquisition trials were systematic forms of identifying heretics and getting them to confess.

Q: What was the purpose of the medieval inquisition?

Medieval inquisition trials had the purpose of proving that an accused person was a heretic, and identifying others. Hiding information, torture, and imprisoning were allowed.

Q: How many died in the medieval inquisition?

In the 1478 papal bull, from 30,000 to 300,000 people were executed. Medieval inquisition trials had started long ago with the same purpose: identifying heretics.

Q: Who was put on trial during the inquisition?

Since the heretic movements began in the High Middle Ages, inquisitions were performed by the Catholic Church to identify heretics and stop heresy. Whoever was accused of having heretic beliefs was put on medieval inquisition trials to answer questions and confess.

Keep reading
Heresy in the High Middle Ages
The Franciscan Order: What Made Them Unique in the High Middle Ages?
Noble Violence in the Middle Ages; The Church Mediates