The Old Testament laid down a simple code for dealing with heretics: they were to be carefully examined; and if three reputable witnesses testified to their having “gone and served other gods,” the heretics were to be led out from the city and “stoned with stones till they die” (Deut. xvii, 25).

If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams … saying, Let us go after other gods … that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death…. If thy brother … or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods … thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shalt thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou … conceal him; but thou shalt surely kill him (Deut. xiii, 1–9)…. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exod. xxii, 18).

According to the Gospel of St. John (xv, 6), Jesus accepted this tradition: “If anyone abide not in me he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither; and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.” Medieval Jewish communities retained the Biblical law of heresy in theory, but rarely practiced it. Maimonides adopted it without reserve.36

The laws of the Greeks made asebeia—failure to worship the gods of the orthodox Hellenic pantheon—a capital crime; it was by such a law that Socrates was put to death. In classic Rome, where the gods were allied with the state in close harmony, heresy and blasphemy were classed with treason, and were punishable with death. Where no accuser could be found to denounce an offender, the Roman judge summoned the suspect and made an inquisitio, or inquiry, into the case; from this procedure the medieval Inquisition took its form and name. The Eastern emperors, applying Roman law in the Byzantine world, inflicted the death penalty upon Manicheans and other heretics. During the Dark Ages in the West, when Christianity was seldom challenged by its own children, tolerance increased, and Leo IX held that excommunication should be the only punishment for heresy.37 In the twelfth century, as heresy spread, some ecclesiastics argued that the excommunication of heretics by the Church should be followed with their banishment or imprisonment by the state.38 The revival of Roman law at Bologna in the twelfth century provided terms, methods, and stimulus for a religious inquisition; and the canon law of heresy was copied word for word from the fifth law of the titleDe haereticis in the Justinian Code.39 Finally, in the thirteenth century, the Church took over the law of its greatest enemy, Frederick II, that heresy should be punished with death.

It was a general assumption of Christians—even of many heretics—that the Church had been established by the Son of God. On this assumption any attack upon the Catholic faith was an offense against God Himself; the contumacious heretic could only be viewed as an agent of Satan, sent to undo the work of Christ; and any man or government that tolerated heresy was serving Lucifer. Feeling herself an inseparable part of the moral and political government of Europe, the Church looked upon heresy precisely as the state looked upon treason: it was an attack upon the foundations of social order. “The civil law,” said Innocent III, “punishes traitors with confiscation of their property, and death…. All the more, then, should we excommunicate, and confiscate the property of, those who are traitors to the faith of Jesus Christ; for it is an infinitely greater sin to offend the divine majesty than to attack the majesty of the sovereign.”40 To ecclesiastical statesmen like Innocent the heretic seemed worse than a Moslem or a Jew; these lived either outside of Christendom, or by an orderly—and equally severe—law within it; the alien enemy was a soldier in open war; the heretic was a traitor within, who undermined the unity of a Christendom engaged in a gigantic conflict with Islam. Furthermore, said the theologians, if every man may interpret the Bible according to his own light (however dim), and make his own individual brand of Christianity, the religion that held up the frail moral code of Europe would soon be shattered into a hundred creeds, and lose its efficacy as a social cement binding natively savage men into a society and a civilization.

Whether because it shared these views without formulating them, or because simple souls naturally fear the different or the strange, or because men enjoy releasing, in the anonymity of the crowd, instincts normally suppressed by individual responsibility, the people themselves, except in southern France and northern Italy, were the most enthusiastic persecutors; “the mob lynched heretics long before the Church began to persecute.”41 The orthodox population complained that the Church was too lenient with heretics.42Sometimes it “snatched sectaries from the hands of protecting priests.”43 “In this country,” wrote a priest of northern France to Innocent III, “the piety of the people is so great that they are always ready to send to the stake not only avowed heretics, but those merely suspected of heresy.”44 In 1114 the bishop of Soissons imprisoned some heretics; while he was away the populace, “fearing that the clergy might be too lenient,” broke into the jail, dragged forth the heretics, and burned them at the stake.45 In 1144 at Liége the mob insisted on burning some heretics whom Bishop Adalbero still hoped to convert.46 When Pierre de Bruys said, “The priests lie when they pretend to make the body of Christ” (in the Eucharist),47 and burned a pile of crosses on Good Friday, the people killed him there and then.48

The state, with some reluctance, joined in persecuting heretics because it feared that government would be impossible without the aid of a Church inculcating a unified religious belief. Moreover, it suspected religious heresy to be a cloak for political radicalism, and was not always wrong.49 Material considerations may have played a part, for religious or political heresy threatened the possessions of Church and state. The public opinion of the upper classes—again excepting Languedoc—demanded the extirpation of heresy at any cost.50 Henry VI of Germany (1194) ordered severe punishment of heretics, and the confiscation of their property; and similar edicts were issued by Otto IV (1210), Louis VIII of France (1226), Florence (1227), and Milan (1228). The most rigorous code of suppression was enacted by Frederick II in 1220–39. Heretics condemned by the Church were to be delivered to the “secular arm”—the local authorities—and burned to death. If they recanted they were to be let off with imprisonment for life. All their property was to be confiscated, their heirs were to be disinherited, their children were to remain ineligible to any position of emolument or dignity unless they atoned for their parents’ sin by denouncing other heretics. The houses of heretics were to be destroyed and never rebuilt.51 The gentle Louis IX placed similar laws among the statutes of France. Indeed it was the kings who disputed with the people the distinction of inaugurating the persecution of heresy. King Robert of France had thirteen heretics burned at Orléans in 1022; this is the first known case of capital punishment of heresy since the secular execution of Priscillian in 385. In 1051 Henry HI of Germany hanged several Manicheans or Cathari at Goslar over the protests of Bishop Wazo of Liége, who argued that excommunication was enough.52 In 1183 Count Philip of Flanders, in collaboration with the archbishop of Reims, “sent to the stake a great many nobles, clerics, knights, peasants, young girls, married women, and widows, whose property they confiscated and shared between them.”53

Normally, before the thirteenth century, inquisition into heresy was left to the bishops. They were hardly inquisitors; they waited for public rumor or clamor to point out the heretics. Summoning them, they found it difficult to elicit confessions by inquiry; loath to use torture, they resorted to trial by ordeal, apparently in the sincere belief that God would work miracles to protect the innocent. St. Bernard approved of this expedient, and an episcopal council at Reims (1157) prescribed it as regular procedure in trials for heresy; but Innocent III forbade it. In 1185 Pope Lucius III, dissatisfied with the negligence of the bishops in pursuing heresy, ordered them to visit their parishes at least once a year, to arrest all suspects, to reckon as guilty any who would not swear full loyalty to the Church (the Cathari refused to take any oaths), and to hand over such recalcitrants to the secular arm. Papal legates were empowered to depose bishops negligent in stamping out heresy.54 Innocent III, in 1215, required all civil authorities, on pain of being themselves indicted for heresy, to swear publicly “to exterminate, from the lands subject to their obedience, all heretics who have been marked out by the Church for animadversio debita—“due punishment.” Any prince who neglected this duty was to be deposed, and the pope would release his subjects from their allegiance.55 “Due punishment” was as yet only banishment and confiscation of goods.56

When Gregory IX mounted the papal throne (1227), he found that despite popular, governmental, and episcopal prosecutions, heresy was growing; all the Balkans, most of Italy, much of France were so turbulent with heresy that the Church, so soon after Innocent’s splendid power, seemed doomed to division and disintegration. As the aged pontiff saw the matter, the Church, simultaneously fighting Frederick and heresy, was engaged in a struggle for survival, and was warranted in adopting the morals and measures of a state of war. Shocked at learning that Bishop Filippo Paternon, whose diocese extended from Pisa to Arezzo, had been converted to Catharism, Gregory appointed a board of inquisitors, headed by a Dominican monk, to sit in Florence and bring the heretics to judgment (1227). This, in effect, was the beginning of the papal inquisition, though formally the inquisitors were to be subject to the local bishop. In 1231 Gregory adopted into the law of the Church Frederick’s legislation of 1224; henceforth Church and state agreed that impenitent heresy was treason, and should be punished with death. The Inquisition was now officially established under the control of the popes.

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