Inquisition/Witch Hunts

To: Jenny
From: Summer
Date: 02 Apr 1997
Time: 12:15:58

Your talk about how most people were a mixture of the old and the new has me wondering about the difference between the Inquisition and the witch hunts. Some feminists would have us believe it was all women who were persecuted and killed but I understand the Inquisition to be much broader, taking out all who believed differently in what the church proclaimed.

In reading about the early Cathers and Templers I am wondering how these people fit in. They obviously did not believe as the established church would have them believe.

I guess I just need to see the whole picture better.

To: Summer
From: Jenny
Date: 06 Apr 1997
Time: 07:46:01

The best analogy I can think of is, the Inquisition was like the House Un-American Activities Committee of the McCarthy Era, while the Witch hunts were like the Satanic Panics of the 1980's.

The Inquisition was an order of the Catholic Church, authorized to seek out and destroy religious dissent and unorthodox beliefs (heresy). Formed in the 13th century, it was part of the Church's increasingly violent suppression of religious discussion. In 1022 the Church began killing heretics, usually by burning them at the stake. Crusades began in the late 11th century, and were accompanied by pogroms against the Jews. The Inquisition appears in the 13th century, and in the early 14th the Church starts to call Crusades against heretics inside Europe, like the Cathars. This trend continued until the Reformation, when the Protestant churches defected from the Catholic Church.

The Witch trials were quite different. Around 1320, periodic panics swept central Europe. Some group of evil-doers was trying to poison the wells, to overthrow the Christian Church, to kill all Christians. The groups "involved" in this conspiracy changed. First it was Jews and lepers, then Jews and Moslems and lepers. Later still, Witches "joined forces" with the Jews. The Witch trials were a direct outgrowth of these rumor panics. (Carlo Ginzburg's _Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbat_ covers this in detail.)

As a side note, there's a lot of confusion about the Inquisition's role in the Witch trials.

The Inquisition did very little Witch hunting. Before the 14th century, the Inquisition was specifically *forbidden* from investigating charges of Witchcraft (Witches were "victims of Pagan superstitions", not heretics who sought to undermine the Church's teachings). From around 1300 - 1500 they did kill Witches, but not very many. As late as 1484, the author of the _Malleus Maleficarum_ complained that he couldn't get his fellow inquisitors to cooperate with his Witch hunts. By 1500 the Inquisition turned its attention to early Protestant groups. During the height of the Burning Times (1550-1650) the Inquisition only existed in two countries: Spain and Italy, both of which had low death tolls. The Spanish Inquisition in fact had the best acquital record, killing far less than 1% of all accused Witches!

So where does the image of the malevolent, Witch hunting inquisitor come from? From a forgery and from a common translation error.

A 19th century forger, Etienne Leon de Lamothe Langon, wrote a book called "The History of the Inquisition in France" in which he claimed that the French Inquisition launched the first massive Witch hunts in southern France in the early 1300's. Centered in Toulousse and Carcasonne, these were lethal affairs where as many as 400 women were killed in one day. Because of this book, for almost 200 years scholars assumed that the rise of the Witch trials must tie into the Cathar persecutions (which occurred in the same area). In 1972, two scholars uncovered Lamothe Langon's forgery, and this profoundly changed our view of the early history of Witch hunting. (I'll skip the details on the forgery -- unless you're interested.) However this forgery continues to have a notable impact on the Neo-Pagan community, which often cites that non-existant "400 in one day" trial.

The second problem is, missing the difference between a "trial by the Inquisition" and "a trial by inquisition." The Inquisition was a branch of the Church. It created a legal procedure, called the inquisitorial procedure, which was adopted by most courts throughout Europe -- both religious courts and non-religious courts. The new type of trial was called "an inquisition" (questioning). Since almost all courts used the inquisitorial system, almost all Witch trials were done "by inquisition." This led many early scholars to erroneously assume that the Inquisition itself was the primary force for Witch hunting. You'll still see this error in later books, though. Rossell Hope Robbins' _The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology_ makes this mistake repeatedly.

Return to Archived Threads