The First Inquisition

By Luke Lancaster

"Catholics called for bloody Inquisitions in an attempt to torture and murder people if they were not Catholic." Some believe in that narrative of history, but they are flat-out wrong. Inquisitions were for the conversion of heretics. Churchmen knowledgeable in the Faith would be sent to heretics in an attempt to show them the errors of their ways. Read on to learn about the first Inquisition against the Albigensian heresy in the Middle Ages and you will recognize that many myths abound.


The roots of the first Inquisition began in the Medieval period. During this time, the secular governments within Europe were mainly Christian. The Christian faith, once persecuted, had become the official religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius in 380 AD. Because of this, the Christian faith became the very fabric of societal life. The local lords in the Medieval period were Christian as well as their subjects. The lands were very unified on this point and desired to keep this unification. To leave the Christian faith and actively persuade others to leave it was considered treason by the secular lords. Such people were rebelling against the authority of the secular lord. So, heresy was a capital offence according to the government, and the lords typically would burn heretics at the stake. Pope Lucian in 1184 AD recognized that such secular lords were not trained in theology, though, and wanted the local bishops to be the ones investigating heresies. For a lord could not decipher heresy as well as a somebody who knew the faith holistically. That way, if somebody did in fact have a heretical belief, they could be reasoned with and brought back into the Church. If that happened, then the heretic’s soul would be saved, and his life as well.

Albigensian Heresy

A major heresy that resulted in the first Inquisition was the Albigensian heresy in the 11th century. This heresy began in the south of France and spread at an alarming rate. They had become especially popular around the town of Albi, and hence, became known as the “Albigensians.” They were also known as the “Cathars,” meaning clean or pure. Based on its doctrine, the group was basically the old Gnostic heresy from the first few centuries of Christendom. Gnosticism had stated that spiritual things were good and were made by a good God; material things, on the other hand, were bad and were made by a bad God. This heresy had morphed into Manicheism, and finally into Albigensianism. The Albigensians or Cathars held to this basic gnostic belief that the soul was good, and the body was bad.

Because of their gnosticism, they believed that Jesus was not a man, but rather some phantom type of creature. He had no physical body, but only a spirit. With no body comes no suffering, so Jesus did not suffer on the cross. This also implied that the communion meal (the Eucharist) could not possibly be the actual Body of Christ, for He never had a body to begin with! The Cathars believed that Jesus had truly taught that spiritual perfection would come through a release of the soul from the body. Such a teaching sounded new to the people, but according to the Cathars, it was only because the Catholic Church had changed Jesus’s message. The Catholic Church was, in all actuality, the creation of Satan. According to the Cathars, only they were the true Church, and only they possessed Jesus’s authentic message. They organized themselves just like the Christian Church, with bishops, priests, and deacons functioning in dioceses. Their priests were called “the perfect.” This heresy threatened to tear society apart.

Reason for the Spread

One would think that the Medieval people would recognize that the Cathars were obviously not the original Church, yet the heresy spread like wildfire. Why? Because the clergy in the south of France were living corrupt lives. They were concerned with power, material goods, etc. The priests could not read or write either. The bishops were not any better, oftentimes living in another diocese! Instead of being concerned with the salvation of souls, they were concerned with owning multiple dioceses (called pluralism). That would allow them to take in the tithes of numerous cities, making them very wealthy. The priests of the Cathars, on the other hand, were living virtuous lives.

The “perfect” lived both virtuous and radical lives. They had no material attachment to the world and fasted regularly. This virtuous living caused numerous people to leave the corrupt, authentic clergy of Christendom, for the virtuous, heretical clergy of the Cathars. The perfect went even farther than that, though. If they were married, they would stop marital relations, for the body was seen as evil. Having relations and bringing forth a child would result in the entrapment of a good soul into an evil body, so it needed to be avoided. With that emphasis, it naturally caused the perfect to believe that suicide would be the highest form of worship - for their good souls would be released from their bad bodies. How the public lay people looked beyond such practices of the Cathar clergy seems odd, but probably attests to just how bad their other option was in the authentic Christian clergy.

First Inquisition

As stated before, the secular lords saw heresy as a capital crime against their authority and put such heretics to death. Pope Gregory IX saw the issue continue to grow and made a bold move to investigate and attempt to convert the Albigensians. In 1231 AD, Pope Gregory IX ordered multiple Papal Inquisitors to go into the south of France. These Inquisitors had authority over baptized Christians who might have embraced heresy. They were not sent to any other group. These Inquisitors were itinerant preachers and did not form some type of “institution.” They had to be over forty years old, possess good morals, and be trained in theology and canon law. The Inquisitors would set up shop in various cities to investigate heresy. These “shops” were permanent tribunals that would decide whether somebody was in fact a heretic.

Once an Inquisitor arrived within a city, they would go to the local church and announce their presence to the baptized Christians. They would offer an edict or period of grace for 15 or 40 days, during which time the people who had embraced heresy could repent and receive a penance. Penances would include practices such as fasting, giving alms, going on a pilgrimage, or wearing a yellow shirt with a cross on it. After that, the Inquisitors accepted accusations of heresy from anybody who claimed to have known a heretic. If there was enough solid evidence, a trial would occur. Everything said and done was written down, for documentation was key for them. The accused heretic could call his own witnesses to deny his heresy, that way a just proceeding could occur. If the Inquisitors felt that the person was concealing their heresy, they could utilize torture to elicit a confession. Torture was only supposed to be used as a last resort, and was only an option, not a requirement. If used, it could only occur *one time*. Compared to the secular courts, who utilized torture frequently, the Inquisitors were rather modest. The torture in fact was not even applied by the Inquisitors during their investigation but would be applied by the secular authorities. This was done to derive the truth. It was not for punishment, but for eliciting confessions. Due to the possibility of a false confession under torture, the confession had to be given again two days later.

If the person was a heretic, the Inquisitors would attempt to convert them. If the Inquisitor could not convert the heretic, then they had failed at their job. The heretic would have to be given over to the state, for heresy was a civil crime. Most of the time, though, it appears that they were converted. According to the famous Inquisitor, Bernard Gee, he had 930 judgments over a 17-year period, but only 42 of them were handed over to the state. This was because the Inquisitors worked very hard to make sure that the secular government did not execute the heretic. Between 1227-1277 AD, around 5,000 Cathari were killed in total (amounting to 100 people per year).

The Catholic code of canon law does not allow Churchmen to administer capital punishment, so the Inquisitors should not be portrayed as craving torture and bloodshed. Such an idea is a myth. Those who are deep in history know the real story of Catholic history - that Inquisitors were brought in to convert - not kill - heretics.