Lea's Mediæval Inquisition

THE popular idea of the Inquisition includes hardly more than the memory of its cruelties. It is regarded as an incident of horror in history, like pestilence or massacre, with the addition that its deeds were done in the name of religion. A broad and detailed view of the institution, however, such as these volumes1 contain, must deal with those interests that far transcend this almost physical phase. In its own time, the suffering it inflicted upon heretics was less revolting to the feelings of men; judgment upon it is heavier now, because the world has grown more humane ; to contemporaries its penalties bore a less harsh character. On the other hand, no institution in history throws so many lights upon the character of human error among the high and the low, the learned and the ignorant, the good and the bad; in the development of Western civilization it holds a place so peculiar as to afford some of the most valuable illustrations of the profound social changes of its era. The Church had been the guardian of civilization. In an age of violence, the ecclesiastical courts, the rights of sanctuary, the personal immunities of the servants of religion, were great defenses against brutal and capricious force, and in the monasteries was found the only intellectual life ; as secular progress developed, the place of the Church became of less consequence as the conservator of social principles, and then was witnessed the singular spectacle of the new civilization gradually surpassing, and in the end displacing, that which had its home in the ecclesiastical organization. The system of thought and administration which belonged to the Church remained rigid and obstinate, an impediment of vast resistance in the path of modern progress. The time of the conflict between the old and the new was coeval with the mediæval Inquisition, and this institution was an instrument in the hands of the ancient régime. Its history is of great importance for what it reveals of the temper of the combatants.

One cannot refrain from asking, Why was it that the Church, being the heir of the past and in possession of its accumulations of knowledge, and including in its ranks the best informed and ablest minds of successive centuries, did not itself develop our civilization ? One way of answering the question is to observe what was the element in the Church which the new age found irreconcilable. This was sacerdotalism. The most widespread and vehement protest which it was the office of the Inquisition to eradicate was against those doctrines upon which priesthood was founded. The course of history does not often coincide with that of reason. It is abuse that comes first, and examination comes afterward. The corruption of the clergy had long been in the mouths of those puritans who arise in every religious community ; the vices of the monastic life, the avarice of the Curia, the neglect of the bishops, the sacrifice of all things for advancement in secular power, from the Papacy down, were matters of common report; and in addition to these things, which offended the moral sense, there was the far-reaching doctrine that the Church owned “ the treasure of salvation ” exclusively, and the inevitable result, in such a time, that the guardians of this treasure, the priests, required in exchange for it, or as a condition preliminary to giving it in the sacraments, a money payment. In such a state of affairs, some men who are not of the Church are sure to demand the grounds on which the sacerdotal claim was founded. The cry against clerical corruption in morals will be succeeded by skepticism in regard to the validity of institutions which are so administered; an area of discontent, uncertainty, and expectation of change will be formed, and the minds of men become ripe to receive new doctrines, however strange. This was what happened in those centuries when Protestantism was rising in ever larger groups and with greater force, until, when temporal circumstances were favorable, the Reformation was able to maintain itself. The truth or falsehood of the heresies which sprang up is a matter of little consequence. The object in view, whether known to the persons involved or not, was to destroy the mediæval priest, to discredit the grounds on which he claimed his functions, to abolish sacerdotalism. In this conflict, the Church, notwithstanding the reformers within it who desired to save the system by curing its abuses, remained wedded to the dogmas and the rites out of which, in conjunction, the evil perpetually was generated; and its leadership in civilization was lost.

The strife opened with a curious instance of the extraordinary vitality of thought. In that Albigensian province where civilization was most advanced, the belief that took root and spread was one of the oldest speculations of man. It was that doctrine of the double powers of good and evil in eternal conflict, of the essential corruption of matter, which, with added Pythagorean and Christian elements, was early an object of persecution as the Manichean heresy. It had continued to exist in Asia and had been transported to the Danubian lands, and thence it spread to challenge its old enemy, the Roman Church, in Southern France and the adjacent Latin countries. It was a religion of despair, as it had always been ; but it satisfied the one demand of the time in being anti-sacerdotal. The authority of the priest, with all that it rested upon, — sacraments, masses, relics, the suffrage of saints, tithes and offerings, and the entire body of saving observances, — was swept away ; he became little more than the counselor and comforter of the faithful. The belief spread, as belief often does, rather by contagion than by conviction, and grew so threatening that it seemed not unlikely to drive out Catholicism. It allied itself with national sentiment ; but when Albigensian crusades reduced the country to an appanage of France, it still required years of persecution by the Inquisition to stamp it out, both there and in Italy. The martyrdoms and lesser suffering which were undergone illustrate the commonplace truth that men will die as heroically for one opinion as for another. The popular character of this revolt, and especially that of the parallel Waldensian movement, also brings forward forcibly what the whole history of the time shows, — that social reform begins from below, among the poor and humble, and finds its enemies among those in power, place, and wealth. The success of the repressive measures was complete, and Manicheism was relegated to the limbo called the history of philosophy.

The other great world conceptions which contest the possession of men’s minds with the Christian faith also arose in their turn. Pantheism, in one and another form, and sometimes with the most curious vagaries for its practical conclusions, sprang up in the North of Europe. The doctrines of Illuminism and the general mystical instinct of the Germanic mind were then declared, the fruitful seeds of mediæval heresy and of modern philosophies. Averroism made its way in another quarter, and it offered such new materials for examination, opened such new horizons for speculation, already wearied with the puzzles of the schoolmen, that in a time of mental expansion it necessarily became an important element in the intellectual life of Europe. Christianity itself gave rise to many heresies, — the word being merely a general term for new ideas. The most interesting of these was the belief of the thinkers or dreamers who took refuge from the degeneracy of the established Church in the notion that the time had come when a new revelation was about to be made to the world, a new dispensation which should succeed the Catholic as that had followed the Jewish. Not far removed in spirit from these, whose delusion was the precursor of endless Adventist expectations since then, was the company of Franciscans, who strove to renew the Apostolic ideal by preaching the doctrine of Christ’s poverty, with all its conclusions regarding the duty of Christians to renounce property. Besides such intellectual and pious innovations, one must count also the outbursts of emotional religion which were a marked feature of the time, such as that of the successive bands of Flagellants, who marched in procession, inflicting tortures upon themselves in penance, which was declared to be wrong only because not commanded by the priests. The briefest glance at the manifold forms which the discontent of Europe took shows what a mass of ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, on the one hand, and of metaphysical inquiry, pious aspiration, and spiritual reaction to the simple ideas of the Gospels on the other, was to be met by the Church which had undertaken to bind and loose the minds as well as the souls of men.

The instrument which was to be most effective in preserving for a while the ancient régime was the Inquisition; and, as so often happens in the growth of institutions, it was not planned, but was found, and its characteristics and methods were worked out by experiment. It was easy to preach a crusade, to destroy a province by giving to the invaders absolution, and the spoils besides; but the resource of the crusade could not be used against the poor and scattered members of a sect who were zealous missionaries, and, moreover, the crusading time was already in decadence. The episcopal courts were tried, and the papal legatine court; but in inquiries so difficult as those which concern beliefs, and not acts, especially when methods of procedure were entirely undefined for such novel cases, it is no wonder that these old remedies were unsatisfactory. Then the Dominican order arose, with the special desire to extirpate heresy, and willing to devote itself to the work. The Papacy accepted the plan, and gradually there came to be a body of men familiar with the tenets and the subterfuges of heretics, skilled to question and confuse them, with long records of their communions, with a police of its own, an immunity from opposition or arrest by the secular arm, a fixed type of examination a code of sentences, and an obedient executioner in the State. To form this body was a work of time, but it needed only time to make itself effective. The organization of the inquisitorial court was one from which justice, as it is now understood, was absent; all the defenses which Roman jurisprudence had raised about the accused were overthrown ; the arrested victim was helpless. If one searches for the reasons which made such a court tolerated, there are enough to show that it did not violate the morals of the time. The work in which it was engaged was one in which it had the sympathy of the community; its professed aim was to save men’s souls, not to condemn them, and to extirpate from society the worst enemy of mankind, — that spirit of heresy which was no other than the devil seeking food for damnation. The great stay of the Inquisition, was clearly enough its right of confiscation ; the property of the condemned was booty, and however it was divided, the State, which means the rulers, got a large share, and often the whole. To princes as needy as those of that military and ambitious time, this was no inconsiderable inducement to let the court alone. It was only when confiscations began to disturb business, to render titles insecure, and to depress commerce that measures were taken to restrict the effect of the sentences ; and that this was an important consideration, in the course of time, is easily enough understood when it is remembered that the confession of a heretic might implicate a man dead many years before, cause his condemnation, the consequent forfeiture of his property, already inherited by his children, and possibly transferred by them, as well as the canceling of all debts due from his estate to others. Princes profited by the Inquisition in other ways besides confiscations. They used it occasionally for political ends. By this means the Templars were destroyed, and the vast booty gathered up by the Crown of France. The institution was convenient for the English when they wished to execute Joan of Arc. To persons more humble than princes, too, it was of service for ends other than those of pure religion. In the interminable and rancorous rivalry of the great orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans, it was often resorted to for the purpose of silencing or humiliating the leaders. Whether it was directed against poor and humble peasants of the Alpine valleys, or wandering Cathari of Italy, or independent vassals and wealthy burghers of the southern kingdom, or the minority of the Franciscans who insisted on poverty, or the learned teachers of the schools of France, or the resolute reformers of Germany, or the rich order of the Knights of the Temple, it served powerful worldly interests as often as that cause of simple sacerdotalism which it called pure religion. It was because it was thus allied with the ambitions of rulers, the rivalries of monastic orders, the designs of the Papacy, and was in turn an instrument of gain or warfare, that it had its hold as an institution. It is perhaps worth observing, as a striking indication of how Spain has declined in its civic life, that in that country and Portugal it was hardly known.

But those who would follow the history of the Inquisition will read it at large in these volumes. Here it is admirably treated in all its phases, and with relation to the larger movements of history. The spirit of the work is humane and tolerant. Both virtue and sincerity are unhesitatingly allowed to many of the most famous inquisitors, and the excuse of religious and moral delusion is made for them. For the great examples of the fanatic type of mind, with its resoluteness, intensity, energy, and its capacity for heroic actions, the author has quite sufficient honor: the persecuting is only another form of the missionary spirit, in his eyes, when it is devout; and his condemnation is reserved rather for systems, opinions, and designs than for persons ; his view of history is philosophical. His work stops with the mediæval branch of his subjectHe does not follow it into the better known era of Protestantism, when the institution was revived with such terrible effect as a weapon of the Catholic reaction. Within his limits are many interesting vagaries of human belief, many points of origin from which modern thought began, and several great episodes of history which he treats in detail, such as the Albigensian crusade, the trial of Huss, the fall of the Templars, the career of Joan of Arc, the Calixtine Church of Bohemia, the first outbreak of witchcraft; and he has besides the advantage of an opportunity to draw the portraits of several men of great character and of lasting interest, such as Bernard Délicieux, Jerome of Prague, Joachim of Flora, William of Ockham, Raymond Sully, and Peter the Martyr. Attention is kept fixed upon the general state of Europe, the misery of the population, and the inchoate stirring of the elements of modern civilization. Mr. Lea shows in this survey much reason for his belief that the condition of the people in these centuries was far worse than at any other period of recorded history. The moral degradation of the Church at that time has been made notorious in modern books ; but the wretchedness of the peasantry, plain as it was, is largely a matter of inference. Their emancipation is still far from complete, but in comparison with what the face of Europe exhibited five centuries ago, its look to-day shows almost miraculous change.

It is, therefore, with optimistic reflections that Mr. Tea closes his work ; and it is well that a scholar can end with such words after a close study of what is, perhaps, the most dismaying period of history to one whose interest is in mankind rather than in events. The Christian faith, which affords the highest ideal of life and the purest motives for noble endeavor, was bound in a sacerdotalism which was fruitful only of evil, and promised only its continuance ; the people who were its care were mis. erable and oppressed, as if abandoned by hope of ever emerging from their fate, under priest and noble ; and the Church was engaged in a tremendous effort to make the system that entailed this state of things perpetual. The Inquisition was a deadly instrument in the hands of fanatics, who were sure that they were doing God service. And if one looks at the other side of the picture, there is a confused mass of strange errors, in which the only leaven was the conscience of the poor who led humble lives, and the vitality of the mind which could not forget to think. The heresies of the time, which rose up against the Church, seem to us, for the most part, dreary delusions, insane ravings, impracticable ideals; the element of despair was strong in them, the hold of tradition was but little relaxed, the inheritance of theology from the priesthood was large. The slowness with which the human mind disengages itself from inveterate error is one of the constant lessons of the time. Yet the mistakes, the vagaries, the dreams, are seen to be mental; the important element, the moral purpose, is true. Gradually one sees the chaos take on order, the forces gather and cohere, and, through all, the expansion of thought, the greater freedom of spirit, the slow enlightenment, go on ; at the end the times are ripe for a successful Reformation. The minds of men have been prepared; and, other elements of civilization cooperating in the total progress, there is a place provided where the new ideas can grow and develop according to the force and truth there is in them to mould religious conceptions and civil institutions. This grand movement, involving so many elements, was hidden from the men of the day, as the large course of contemporary events is always concealed from the men who deal with them closely. We can now see how even in that seething and turmoil of war and religion, of thinking and persecuting. of killing and burning for false systems, for fantastic or trivial beliefs, the new age was working itself out, in all the tyranny, the sacrifice, and the wretchedness, as the Revolution was to do at a later day and the industrial democracy is now doing, to a more orderly, more prosperous, more rational constitution of society, in which justice is increasingly done in the world. If there ever were excuse for a hopeless pessimism, it was in those ages. The fact that out of them such a regeneration of the mind and morals of mankind did eventually come is one that may well encourage men, when they survey the worst that remains in the world, to believe that despair is impossible to the thinker.

  1. A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. By HENRY CHARLES LEA. 3 vols. New York : Harper & Bros. 1888.