The Dominican Order and Other Inquisitions


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

The Dominican Order brought along a refined form of inquisition, with professional inquisitors trained to identify heretics. The founder, Dominic Guzman, was a wandering preacher who believed the ideal apostolic life is full of poverty, begging, and preaching. His followers knew very well how to get confessions from the accused heretics, but their strong debating skills did not soften their brutality in torturing and burning people.

The sculpture of Saint Dominic in the path to the Holy Cave of Montserrat
Dominic Guzman was the pioneer of the Dominican Order that later turned into a perfect inquisition group. (Image: Pilar Andreu Rovira/Shutterstock)

As the heretic beliefs were spreading rapidly across Europe, the Catholic Church began to form movements to stop them. The medieval inquisitions – episcopal and papal inquisitions – were performed to identify heretics, and as they got more professional, the Dominican Order dominated the scene.

A leading heretic stream at the time was the Cathar movement. Dominic Guzman, a Spaniard who lived as a begging and wandering preacher, traveled through southern France in 1203 and 1206. He found out that many of the inhabitants of the region were Cathars, and the Cistercian monks, who tried to stop them, were not popular.

Thus, Guzman decided to find a way to combat heretics on his own.

Learn more about heretics and heresy.

The Formation of the Dominican Order

Around 1207, Guzman gathered followers who also believed in vita apostolica or the ‘apostolic life’. They wanted to lead people back to orthodox Christianity, and away from Cathars. Guzman and his followers kept traveling around the south of France, preaching to people, and debating the Cathars in public at every chance they had.

In 1217, Guzman received papal authorization for a new religious order, the Dominican Order. He then sent two groups of his followers to Paris and Bologna, two of the leading intellectual centers in Europe. These followers were sent to be trained as fighters against heresy.

The Dominican Inquisitors

The papal inquisition looked for good inquisitors, and the educated and experienced Dominicans looked for a way to combat heresy. Thus, the two came together to form a more efficient heresy-detection system. The Dominican inquisitors fit very well into the new bureaucratic standards of the system.

The exterior of the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, a large Baroque Roman Catholic church in the center of Oaxaca.
Fighting heresy slowly got a more systematic bureaucracy, and the trials were documented. (Image: Just Another Photographer/Shutterstock)

Inquisitors spent a long time on their job, keeping closely detailed records of the trials and investigations. The dossiers were mainly used when they wanted to prove a heretic was lying. To historians, these dossiers are a precious and rich source of information about the High Middle Ages. Here, the normal people’s voices can be heard, defending themselves in fear and pain against the accusations. The inquisitors also wrote guidebooks for the newcomers.

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

Getting the Accused to Confess

The papal inquisitors did not explain anything to the detainees, could keep them detained for good, and suspend their trial. When an individual was detained for life, the inquisitors would visit them periodically to persuade them to confess and tell the truth. However, they did not tell the people what to confess to and what would await them after confession.

After a while, people would start confessing to everything and anything to end their imprisonment. In many cases, the detainees would confess to things that the inquisitors had never even heard before.

The name of the accuser was kept from the accused unless the inquisitors suspected the person was falsely accused. However, if the individual could not kill the star witness, defending oneself was very difficult.

They hid all information from the accused that could help them guess who had accused them and what evidence they had. Thus, defending at a trial was sometimes impossible.

Learn more about the people’s crusade.

Inquisitorial Trials

The first step of a trial was gathering information. The inquisitors traveled in pairs to the areas under their observance. Upon arrival, they would tell the priest to announce their presence and gather all the town or village people in the church on a specific day. Absentees were the first suspects.

Looking inside a medieval prison cell. Manacles and torture devices hanging from chains in an underground prison, medieval European castle.
The suspects could be kept in prison for as long as the inquisitors deemed necessary, even forever. (Image: Heather Shimmin/Shutterstock)

After a public sermon, they urged people to confess their own heretical beliefs and activities, and those of others. They promised very merciful penances to those who confessed at this early stage. The condition to receiving the mercy was revealing all one knew about others’ heretical activities too.

Inquisitors could also compel others to answer questions. They would simply walk up to anyone they wanted, and the person had to answer all their questions. Once the information was gathered, the trials would begin behind closed doors. No one was meant to talk about what went on in a trial openly.

Those present at a trial were: the defendant, the inquisitors, a few members of the inquisitors’ staff, and a scribe, who wrote down everything said during the trial. A person might need to wait for months to years before a trial, and if their property had been sequestered by the inquisition, it would remain as such until the defendant was set free.

The Dominican inquisitors took their job very seriously and were not afraid of creating fear or torturing to get the confessions they were after.

Learn more about Aquinas and the problem of Aristotle.

Common Questions about the Dominican Order

Q: What is the difference between Jesuits and Dominicans?

In terms of theological training, the main difference between Jesuits and Dominicans is the teachings on how grace works. The Dominican Order was established to fight heresy, in the first place.

Q: Who is the founder of the Dominican Order?

Dominic Guzman founded the Dominican Order in the 1200s. The original purpose was to fight heretics through identifying them with higher accuracy and quicker than older inquisition movements.

Q: What does the Dominican Order do?

The Dominican Order was established to combat heresy by finding real heretics, preaching, and sermons. They did everything they deemed necessary to make the accused individuals confess.

Q: When did the Dominican Order begin?

The Dominican Order was pioneered by Dominic Guzman, officially on December 22, 1216, in France.

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