It was on April 5th, in the year 1310, that Bernard Gui, on behalf of the city of Toulouse in southern France, opened the solemn proceedings of an 'auto da fé' (literally, an "act of faith") in the great cathedral. On a stage in its centre stood a group of penitent heretics in their distinctive yellow robes of penitence, ready to make public declarations of faith. The Inquisitor delivered his customary sermon followed by the solemn decree of excommunication issued against all who might in any way obstruct the proceedings of the Holy Office. Then the confessions of the penitents were read out to them, one by one, each being asked if he or she accepted it as true. As only those who had confessed were asked, all agreed - no scandalous protestations of innocence were allowed to disrupt the proceedings. Each penitent was then asked to make a declaration of faith and repentance. Finally, each one was brought forward to hear his sentence read out, starting with the least guilty and progressing to the most serious offenders. After all the penitents had heard their sentences there came those who, despite the Inquisitor's efforts, had refused to recant the heresy to which they had confessed. These were "relaxed" from the tender care of the Inquisition - that is, handed over to the civil authorities to be burned alive. To avoid polluting both a holy place and a holy day, the executions took place the next day, in the main square. There, before jeering crowds, the unrepentant heretics were tied to stakes on the pyre, the Inquisitor still calling on them to repent, so that they might save their souls, if not their bodies. As the devouring flames at last died down, the crowd dispersed and Bernard Gui could close the books on a particularly successful heresy hunt: 65 people condemned to life imprisonment and 18 burned, although he normally sent fewer than 10 heretics to be burned at the stake in a typical year, as his records show.
At this time Southern France, like most of Italy and Spain, was in the grip of terror, as the Inquisition strove ruthlessly, implacably, to stamp out all forms of heresy. It began in the 13th century and quickly spread throughout southern Europe. Unlike the later, more famous Spanish Inquisition (which was simply the last phase of this system of persecution, and which persecuted mainly Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity, who were suspected of being insincere in their conversion) its targets were people who were baptized Catholics but were suspected of being even slightly sympathetic to sects whose teachings diverged from the orthodox. In 1208, Pope Innocent III had preached a "Crusade" (known as the Albigensian Crusade) to wipe out one such heretical sect in Languedoc, and this proved to be only the first step in a long and bitter battle against the heresy that was sweeping through Europe. This particular feud culminated in 1233 with the papal Inquisition instigated by Gregory IX to investigate charges of heresy.
Before his arrival in a town or village, the Inquisitor would inform the local authorities of his intended visit, and the population was summoned to hear him preach. He would then issue a "period of grace" of 15 to 30 days, during which time people could come forward, to confess their own faults and, what is more important, to accuse others. It is not difficult to imagine the terror this must have caused, as people wondered if a resentful neighbour might reveal some thoughtless remark or question uttered long ago and now horrifyingly taken to express some sympathy with the heretics. Often people must have informed through pure malice or in an attempt to save their own skins by accusing others. When the allotted period was over, the Inquisitor acted. Once summoned before the Inquisitor, a victim's only hope lay in complete confession, naming others suspected of heresy. He or she was not told who the accuser was, and there was very little chance of an acquittal - once accused guilt was assumed unless there was overwhelming evidence in the victim's favour. Armed with almost infinite authority, exempted from normal regulations, the Inquisitors, chosen for their fervent ardour, operated in complete secrecy until they could bring their victims to confess publicly at an auto da fé. Only those who had confessed but would not retract their heresy - a mere 10 per cent - were burned, but none who entered the dark prisons of the Inquisition ever came out unpunished. In solitude and often in darkness, kept on a diet of bread and water, the prisoner could spend years in gaol before confessing, for time was one of the Inquisitor's chief weapons. Often victims died in prison.
Torture offered the Inquisitor a shortcut after it was authorized in 1252. Though theoretically a victim could be tortured only once, the Inquisitors got round this by calling each further torture session a 'continuation' of the first.
Witnesses who were under suspicion were also allowed to be tortured, as long as this did not cause bleeding or death. Once confessions were obtained, the punishments imposed by the Inquisitor would vary according to the degree of heresy. Minor offences might simply require certain prayers to be said or a pilgrimage to be undertaken. Any of these were infinitely preferable to the punishment for an impenitent heretic, who lost his property as well as his life. The Inquisition could even pursue a man beyond the grave; its long arm reached across frontiers and its memory was everlasting. Only the pope could override its decisions, and even his protests were often ignored, for in some situations, the Inquisition was a law unto itself. Pope Gregory IX probably did not realize what a monster he was creating in the name of Christ and Christian love when he authorized the Inquisition. For, once started, it proved very difficult to stop, being checked only by the gradual growth of religious tolerance in the 17th century. The Inquisition's trial system, however, was to be absorbed into many of Europe's judicial systems, and torture became accepted as a method of obtaining confessions for any crime. The last heretic to be burned by the Inquisition in 1787 was just one in tens of thousands guilty, at worst, of preferring a different form of religion.
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