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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

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Holy Inquisition The civilized world in earlier centuries was by modern standards a savage, brutal, and terrifying place. It is no surprise that offenses against religious laws and customs were especially severely dealt with.
      The medieval Inquisition first came into existence in 1231, when Pope Gregory IX commanded this inquiry into the religious preferences and practices of everyone within his authority. In its early years it was mostly active in northern Italy and southern France.
      In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture to encourage extravagant and satisfactory confessions and valuable denouncements of others from the accused. Peter II of Aragon enhanced the effectiveness and novelty of the public trial-plus-sentence procedure known as the auto-da-fé (“act of the faith”) when he introduced public execution by burning alive at the stake. That process was referred to in official documents of the ecclesiastical courts as “relaxation.” It was witnessed by high church dignitaries and noble personages who applied long in advance for passes to attend such events. Executions were frequently delayed so that prominent guests might be accommodated.
      Specific tortures such as the “strapaddo” and the “rack” were adopted and preferred by the Inquisition, along with methods of execution such as burning, strangling, and hanging, because they did not outwardly produce quantities of blood. This was to comply with a rule that said “Ecclesia non novit sanguinem,” or “The church is untainted with blood.” The fact that these procedures were also more agonizing and prolonged did nothing to detract from their appeal.
      Coming into its fullest and most terrible effect with the appointment of Tomás de Torquemada as Inquisitor-General of the Spanish arm of the Inquisition in 1483, this holy office became inarguably one of the most horrid inventions of our species and was not likely to ever be matched until the blind, mindless mass slaughter of the Holocaust.
      The Spanish Inquisition itself claimed three hundred thousand victims. This distinctly barbarous and terrifying arm of the holy office was established in 1478 by Pope Sixtus IV. In the Spanish version of the process, the accused went through a macabre trial which they seldom survived. In 1827, Juan Antonio Llorente, former secretary of the Inquisition in Spain, revealed the horrid truth of the judicial process that was used to place the accused on the bonfire:  


      Never has a prisoner of the Inquisition seen either the accusation against himself, or any other. No one was ever permitted to know more of his own cause than he could learn of it by the interrogations and accusations to which he was obliged to reply, and from the extracts of the declarations of the witnesses, which were communicated to him, while not only their names were carefully concealed, and every circumstance relating to time, place, and person, by which he might obtain a clue to discover his denouncers, but even if the depositions contained anything favourable to the defence of the prisoner.

      Llorente went on to explain that there were several options open to those who had been convicted and sentenced. To escape the torture which was usually used to extract a final confession——a confession was felt necessary to justify the execution——miscreants could admit to sins they had never even countenanced and win immediate death. In some cases, if the condemned wished to escape the horror of being burned alive, they could confess and then submit to strangulation before their bodies were consumed in the bonfire; when convicted heretics thus opted for a fireside confession, the spectacle was made far less entertaining for the witnesses.
      In only one manner could death be avoided, and it was a fiendish method whereby the Inquisition perpetuated its own existence and obtained fresh fuel for its fires. By choosing to implicate other innocents and condemning them to the authorities, a victim could, under some circumstances, earn a commutation of his or her sentence to a long prison term, loss of property, and expatriation——if the victim survived the dungeon.
      Though in France the Inquisition never attained the ferocity it displayed in neighboring Spain, it was only the border between the countries that protected the accused from the distinct possibility of the physical tortures of the ecclesiastical courts. Just across the Pyrenees, suffering and death were the rewards for the same transgressions.



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