A Companion to Heresy Inquisitions

Inquisitions of heresy have long fascinated both specialists and non-specialists. A Companion to Heresy Inquisitions presents a synthesis of the immense amount of scholarship generated about these institutions in recent years. The volume offers an overview of many of the most significant areas of heresy inquisitions, both medieval and early Modern. The essays in this collection are intended to introduce the reader to disagreements and advances in the field, as well as providing a navigational aid to the wide variety of recent discoveries and controversies in studies of heresy inquisitions.

The table of contents is available, as is often the case these days, at the publisher’s link above.

The purpose of the work is not to detail the gory details of inquisitional doings, but to examine the ‘why’ of the inquisitions.  To that end we read

With the coming of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, inquisitions came to be mocked and vilified as the most fear some weapon of the Roman Church. Polemical writers multiplied their terrors and body counts, stretching them beyond all historical recognition.

And more particularly

This collection is intended to offer a survey of the latest scholarship about inquisitions. Therefore this volume seeks primarily to focus on the origins, machinery, and operations of heresy inquisitions at different periods and in various contexts. In that sense, the chapters will concentrate particularly on the theoretical and administrative side of the inquisitions, rather than focusing on the witnesses interviewed or the “heresies” detected.

Readers then should be forewarned that many of their preconceptions about the Inquisition will be debunked and their viewpoints undermined.  And that’s a good thing.  Because it is a fact that

Scholars have done a mighty service in embedding the institutions in their contexts and, in so doing, demonstrating the absurdity of the literary and popular fixations of the myth of the “Inquisition.”

But why, then, did the Inquisition happen?  After all, there is no pressing necessity for the harsh methods of Inquisition.  So what happened to make ‘satan into satan’ (as it were)?

Heresy inquisitions were not, then, inevitable. Henry Charles Lea, the greatest American historian of inquisitions, saw the Middle Ages as “bloodthirsty.”

The essayist goes on to point out that the ‘bloodthirsty’ image may be a bit of an overstatement, and the situation was much more nuanced.  Indeed

By the high Middle Ages, Christians had been warning each other of the risks and darknesses of “choice” (haeresis) for centuries. As is well known, the sense of the Greek haeresis, meaning the neutral choice among different philosophical schools, transformed in the hands of the earliest Christians, who identified certain doctrines, texts, and customs as heresy in the very process of – and in the service of the process of – claiming others as orthodoxy. The “choice” of such things was to select error, to follow individual stubbornness over community consensus, and to turn from God.

The onslaught of error is the precipitating cause of the inquisition.  This fear of otherness has its roots in Augustine (and even earlier, back into the New Testament itself).  As we are informed

Augustine was the avenue for the earliest, Greek strains of heresiology to enter the medieval West.


As early as the 1st century, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35–c. 107) advised that the poison and corruption of heresy could be avoided by obeying bishops.

The cure, then, was to rid the body of its error.  And that is why inquisitorial procedures came on the scene.  But we still have not arrived at the place where we can understand the ‘why’ of the inquisition’s violence.  To understand that fact, we are informed

As we have seen, some of these spiritual foundations of medieval heresy inquisitions reached back to Christianity’s origins, if not quite so far as the Garden of Eden! But fears of heresy, the relationships between a stubborn individual and an authoritative community, warnings about purgatory and hell, body versus soul, et cetera flowered forth into persecution only in the apt circumstances – of the state, of the church as an institution – of the high Middle Ages.

And more to the point:

Perhaps what changed in the high Middle Ages was simply that Latin churchmen gained an unprecedented amount of confidence and power, in which they finally decided that they could attempt to be as coercive as Augustine’s God – the coercive God whom Christian clerics had long worshipped, but whom they had not, until then, dared to emulate.

I.e., the establishment of the truly authoritative Church (and not just spiritually authoritative, but politically so in no uncertain terms) was the catalyst for the violence of the inquisition.

From this point onward, the Church began to exercise its authority over body and soul.  And used every tool at its disposal to do so.

Although Bernard did not succeed in suppressing Henry at the council of Pisa, the Cistercian monk’s efforts, in fact, reveal the importance of the council as a tool in the defense of orthodoxy against popular heresy.


As the sermons of Ademar reveal, heresy and its repression was one of the major concerns of Western Christendom in the 11th and 12th centuries.

And then, most tellingly

It was inevitable that inquisitorial procedure would be applied to the prosecution of heretics, since purgation was hardly an effective means of countering the spread of heresy.

Mere correction didn’t work to correct error.  Harsher measures were needed.  The remainder of the volume shows in brilliant detail how all of this worked itself out in the history of the Church.

This volume is fascinating, well written, and engaging.  Get it.  Read it.  Absorb it.  Learn from it.  Teach from it.

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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