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Galileo before the Holy Office Joseph Nicolas Robert Fleury XIX

History of the Court of the Holy Inquisition

Below you can discover the history of the beginnings of the Court of the Holy Inquisition, as well as the relationship this court had with the persecution of witchcraft!

In general, whenever we talk about the persecution of Witchcraft, we indirectly think of the Court of the Holy Inquisition. And it is true that in many of the witchcraft trials, carried out throughout Europe, the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition acted, but these proceedings were not the same throughout Europe.

When was the Court of the Holy Inquisition created?

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The Court of the Holy Inquisition was born in 1163 under the Papacy of Alexander III. The birth of this tribunal followed the Council of Tours, a council that agreed on the persecution and punishment of all those attitudes that were considered heresy in the Catholic Church. In other words, this tribunal was created for the persecution of those lines of thought that attempted against the official thought of the Catholic Church. The first heresies that were persecuted were Catharism and Valdeism.
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Catharism, for example, was a heresy located in the Occitan lands, situated in the south of France. In order to persecute this heresy, the court of the Holy Inquisition, in 1178, was established in Tolosa de Languedoc, now known as Toulouse.

Pedro Berruguete Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto da fe 1495

Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe. Pedro Barruguete (1493-99)

Death by burning

As we have already said, the mission of the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition was to persecute heresies that attempted against the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. In this persecution, when people accused of heresy were found, they were put on trial and, if found guilty, they were accused of death.

One of the most characteristic features of the court of the Holy Inquisition was the death penalty it applied. From 1172, the death penalty was applied by burning at the stake.  All the people accused of heresy were executed to die at the stake.

In the case of the Crown of Aragon, when, in 1198, King Peter I the Catholic knew of this type of execution, he ordered that all those heretics, considered enemies of Christ and, consequently, enemies of the king, should be burnt at the stake. This decree was also adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, in 1224.

Who were those in charge of the court of the Holy Inquisition?

At first, the court of the Holy Inquisition was made up of different people from the Catholic Church. However, in 1231, with the Papal Bull Excommunication, created by Pope Gregory IX, the court of the Holy Inquisition became controlled by the Dominicans and the Franciscans, two orders of the Catholic Church.

The Dominican order was created by Dominic of Guzman at the beginning of the 13th century, while the Franciscan order was founded by Francis of Assisi in 1208.

The Court of the Holy Inquisition and the persecution of witchcraft

Until the 13th century, the Catholic Church believed in the existence of the devil, but believed that the devil was not powerful enough to interact with the environment or people. In other words, the church believed that everything that happened on earth was God’s decision. If different storms destroyed the crops, or if different plagues affected both humans and animals, the church interpreted this as divine punishment for people’s sinful behaviour.

This view, therefore, gradually changed. Different sectors of the Catholic Church began to doubt that everything that affected the population was solely a divine plan. One of the defenders of this new trend was Thomas Aquinas.

In this case, this current defended, already in the 13th century, that the devil had more power than had been thought up until then. Thus, this new current believed that the devil could act on earth, and could also have carnal relations with human beings. Furthermore, they also argued that some of the things that affected people, such as storms or plagues, were not divine punishment, but were the work of the devil himself.

This new current of thought spread within the Catholic Church, and as early as 1258 different inquisitors requested to be able to prosecute cases of witchcraft, but Pope Alexander IV refused.

It was not until 1326 that Pope John XXII, through the bull Super illius specula, allowed the court of the Holy Inquisition to prosecute, condemn and punish the crimes of magic, sorcery and witchcraft as heresy. Thus, it was not until the 14th century that the Court of the Holy Inquisition began to prosecute the crimes of witchcraft. In this case, it was believed that witchcraft was a heresy, presided over by the devil himself, which attempted against Christian unity.

Here you can find more information about the persecution of the crime of witchcraft

Condenados por la Inquisicion Eugenio Lucas Velazquez 1833 1866

Condenados por la Inquisición. Eugenio Lucas Velázquez (1833-66)

The legal bases, of the court of the Holy Inquisition, for the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft

Throughout the history of the Court of the Holy Inquisition, different writings have appeared that have shaped the way in which this court operates. For example, in 1324 the Practia Inquisitionis heretice pravitatis, by Berntat Gui, was published, or in 1376 the Directorium inquisitorum, by Nicolau Eimeric, was published, which established the method of operation of the court of the Holy Inquisition. In addition, these two manuals also established the possibility that human beings and the devil could have carnal relations.

Already in 1484, under the papacy of Innocent VII, the bull Sumi Desiderantes Affectibus was published, a bull that established that witchcraft really existed. In addition, this Pope authorised the German Dominicans Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger to write the work Malleus Maleficarum, which was published in 1486. This last work, which can still be found today, is a manual that provided the inquisitors with theological support and legal advice to be able to instruct witchcraft trials. Furthermore, this manual also established that all those who denied the existence of witchcraft were heretics of the church.

The Malleus Maleficarum, therefore, gave authority and credibility to all the judgements that the court of the Holy Inquisition made against witchcraft.

The court of the Inquisition and the end of the prosecution of witchcraft

Despite the fact that since the 14th century the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft was a fact, we can affirm that within the European spheres, both intellectual and ecclesiastical, there was no real consensus on the existence of the crime of witchcraft.

For example, in 1489 Ulrich Müller, also known as Ulrich Molitor, published the treatise Tractatus de pythonico mulieribus. In this treaty, Müller stated that the powers attributed to people accused of witchcraft were not real. He also argued that people accused of witchcraft were victims of the despair, misery and hatreds of the peasants.

Müller was not alone in criticising the causes of witchcraft. Other personalities, such as the magistrate Andrea Alciati Gianfrancesco, the philosophers Cornelio Agripa and Girolano Cardano, doctors like Antonio Ferrari and Franciscans like Samuel de Cassini, defended that the power attributed to witches was the fruit of popular illusion and imagination .

Despite this lack of consensus, the trials against the crime of witchcraft did not come to a standstill.

Tribunal de la Inquisicion Goya 1812 1819

Tribunal de la Inquisición. Francisco de Goya (1812-19)

The case of the Iberian Peninsula

During the 17th century, specifically in 1610, one of the most famous trials against witchcraft took place in the Iberian Peninsula, the Zugarramurdi trial.

This trial, against different residents of the Navarra’s town of Zugarramurdi, and the Baztan Valley, was conducted by the court of the Holy Inquisition of Logroño. In this process, six of the accused were condemned to die at the stake.

We can therefore say that the Zugarramurdi trial laid the foundations for the end of the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft in the Iberian Peninsula.

As a result of this trial, the inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías, one of the members of the tribunal that judged the events of Zugarramurdi, was against the sentence. This contrariness led the Inquisitor General, Bernardo de Sandoval Rojas, to commission an investigation into the Zugarramurdi trials. This investigation concluded that none of the acts tried could be related to witchcraft and, for this reason, the people who were still imprisoned were released. Furthermore, this investigation established the basis for the Spanish Holy Inquisition to take a stand against the opening of new judicial cases against witchcraft in 1614, which created many angry reactions from many municipalities.

Despite the fact that the Spanish Inquisition positioned itself against the opening of new cases of witchcraft, in the Iberian Peninsula, these processes were not stopped, but the crime of witchcraft continued to be judged through civil courts.

On a European level, the witch-hunting processes were not stopped, and in many cases, it was the courts of the Holy Inquisition that were responsible for judging these crimes.

Here you can find more information about the end of the prosecution of the crime of witchcraft here!

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