The Inquisition: Legal and Historical Roots

The nightmare known as the Inquisition is many centuries older than its first use against heretics at the end of the twelfth century. It began with the degradation of the once noble system of Roman justice in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Its corruption proceeded from one source above all others — the accumulation of power in the hands of the emperor. Once it began and the ancient rights and privileges of Romans began to disappear, there was no stopping the process until Roman law, Roman religion, and Roman government spoke with one voice — the emperor’s.

And in the end, the entire concept of individual rights that government and law must respect had been obliterated. Edward Peters, a historian of the Inquisition, put it this way:

With the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus (31 BC — 14 AD), an enormous number of powers came into the hands of the emperor, and the structure of the Republic was transformed... it is clear that the emperor and his servants assumed more and more direct control of legal procedure, at first paralleling surviving courts and procedures, but eventually superseding them. Gradually the sources of law were narrowed down to one — the edict of the emperor.1

Nor was this process limited to the legal sphere. Ancient Rome became the world’s first totalitarian state whose high taxes and pervasive control of human life were upheld by brute, often sadistically cruel force. When this process ended, a new legal officer with extraordinary powers had emerged, the inquisitor. In his hands lay the entire judicial process from beginning to end: investigation, accusation, and conviction. He was policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner rolled into one. To assist him the inquisitor had an army of informers and the power to torture those accused on even the flimsiest of evidence. The effective chains of this totalitarian society grew tighter with every increase of the inquisitor’s power.

This was the characteristic of Roman criminal law when the Empire converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and this was the law that Christian emperors applied to heretics.2

This “conversion” did not change the barbaric and unjust Roman system of justice. Indeed, even the destruction of the Empire did not, although her conquerors replaced Roman justice with their own, often superior systems based on the natural law. The Church did what the shattered Empire could not do — carefully preserve the detailed regulations of the Inquisition and keep its memory alive. When she decided to rule over men’s thoughts and beliefs, there was no greater weapon in her arsenal than the Inquisition.3 It was greater even than the internal crusades she launched against European “heretics” like the Cathars in southern France.

Papal supremacy, corresponding exactly in its effects to the accumulation of imperial power, required the destruction (or submission) of all other spiritual powers. The process to elevate the bishop of one city, Rome, over all other bishops and Christians, was relentless.

Indeed, it has continued to this present day until the Catholic Church, an organization of over one billion souls, speaks through the voice of one man. Starting in the late twelfth century, and continuing for six centuries, that power was guarded by the Inquisition, whose denial of rights, oppression, use of torture and terror exceeds its dark reputation.

The greatest pope of the Dark Ages, Pope Innocent III, articulated with earthshaking clarity the nature of that power when he took the throne in AD 1198. Papal supremacy reached out from the church to encompass the world in a bid for power undreamed of by the Roman emperors the papacy was modeled after.

It is to me that applies the word of the Prophet: I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, that you may uproot and destroy, and that you may build up and plant...

God has established us above peoples and kingdoms. Nothing of what occurs in the Universe must escape the Pope’s notice and control...

He has instituted two high dignities in the world: the papacy which reigns over the souls, and the royalty which dominates the bodies. But the former is very superior to the latter.

As the moon receives its light from the sun, which shines much brighter than the moon, so the royal power draws all its splendour and prestige from the power of the Pope. Christ has not only given Peter ruling power over the Universal Church, but over the whole age. The princes have been given power on earth; the priesthood has been assigned the power on earth as well as in heaven.4

Nor was this a mere empty word, the bombast of a deluded religious leader. This was policy, which the Catholic Encyclopedia approvingly notes that he consistently sought to carry out. “ There was scarcely a country in Europe over which Innocent III did not in some way or other assert the supremacy which he claimed for the papacy.5

And this was the Europe of the Inquisition — the Pope’s Europe.

  • 1. Edward Peters, The Inquisition, The Free Press, New York, 1988, p. 14-15
  • 2. Peters, p. 16-17
  • 3. A very good case could be made that George Orwell’s “thought police” in his famous novel, 1984 , is based on the structure and tactics of the Inquisition, whose records of investigation, trial, and punishment were excellent.
  • 4. DOCUMENTS ET CIVILISATION, de la Préhistoire à nos jours , classiques Hachette, p. 37
  • 5. “Innocent III” (newadvent.org)

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