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Trials and Punishments of the Inquisition

The Inquisition was ruthless in their attempts to rid medieval Europe of heretical teachings. This essay describes the ways they held trials and gave punishments.

The Inquisition in medieval Europe is often thought of as a cruel organization that existed only to hunt down and burn witches and heretics. This is a fairly inaccurate description. While the Inquisition certainly employed such methods as torture and burnings, these were fairly rare circumstances. It is clear that the main purpose of the Inquisition was not to control and frighten the population but to save people from the sinful teachings of heretics and even attempt to save the heretics themselves.

Before any trials or punishments were handed out by the Inquisition, the heretics first had to be found. When in a town an inquisitor would preach on how to spot a heretic, and would then leave it up to the population to either turn themselves in or to name someone they suspected of heresy. People who turned other people in were called denouncers and it required two witnesses to denounce somebody. Those that turned themselves in within a period of time set by the inquisitor (usually several weeks) usually were given little to no punishment and were forgiven. After the set period of time, those who had not come forward were sought out and were held on trial.

Those that were suspected of heresy were asked to come before the Inquisition for questioning. Attendance was not required but those who did not attend were generally treated as guilty. Lawyers were usually not allowed. Where it was allowed there rarely was one because the lawyers representing a person found guilty, they would be punished along with the heretic. The actual trial was quite simple. The accused were asked for names of people who would want them to be taken away. If the denouncers were named then the accused were usually let go. It was seen that the accused was actually innocent and the denouncer just wanted to get rid of them. If the denouncer was not named then it was taken that the accused actually was a heretic. Contrary to the popular belief that heretics were immediately killed and tortured, the accused was offered the chance to confess. Those who did so were let off with less severe punishments. Those who did not were not necessarily killed, but received less harsh punishments.

The punishments for those who confessed to heresy were called penances and would be something like going to a shrine, wearing a yellow cross on clothes or a short term in prison or if in Spain, lashings. The punishments for those who refused to confess were the more serious ones. They could be sent to prison for up to seven years, fined or lashing. At the very least in a case like this the Inquisition would confiscate all of the heretics property. At this point they still did not kill heretics. Their mission to save people from heresy also extended to the heretics themselves, so they still urged the heretics to confess and seek forgiveness.

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  1. chrism

    On February 1, 2010 at 8:46 pm


    Congratulations for being a modern day torture and terrorist apologist.

    ” for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”

    Directorium Inquisitorum, edition of 1578, Book 3, page 137, column 1. Online in the Cornell University Collection.

  2. Neil

    On September 18, 2010 at 12:05 am


    “While the tortures and burnings may seem cruel, it is important to remember that heretics were given many chances to confess and be forgiven before they were killed.”

    Tell me, what difference does this make? The end result is still the forfeiture of ones life. You must have stones of considerable magnitude to attempt to justify this in any way, shape or form. How dare the Catholic Church or any religious institution deem itself worthy of taking the life of even it’s staunchest critic. If there were any justice in the world, the victims of these heinous acts would have marched on the Vatican and burned the fecker to the ground. Your view of these events sir, is nothing short of disgusting

  3. A

    On November 17, 2010 at 3:23 am


    No he clearly has a point. He doesn\’t clearly doesn\’t support the Inquisition, but nonetheless most of the fears were blown out of proportion.

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