Inquisitions #

The Inquisition is an historical persecution that originated in Southern France around the turn of the 13th Century and lasted about 500 years after spreading throughout Europe including England. Napoleon is credited for putting an end to its bloody ethnic cleansing. It is without a doubt the darkest and bloodiest period of Christian history, making the barbaric antics of Daesh or ISIS look like a Sunday school picnic.

The European inquisitions were an offshoot of the various Crusades designed to retake the Holy Lands from the Muslims. The Crusdaes provided the Popes with large standing armies they eventually used against their own people.

According to Philip Coppens, the Albigensian Crusade is unique in history, as the Pope on March 10, 1208 proclaimed a crusade against a heresy that was present inside Catholic Europe itself. “These heretics are worse than the Saracens!” he proclaimed. In retrospect, the crusade was one of the bloodiest episodes in European history. Indeed, the decades-long persecution of ordinary citizens has often been seen as the event that prepared the way for the birth of Protestantism, as it awakened the ordinary European citizen to the realisation that something was not “quite” right within the papal corridors.

An estimated 200,000 to one million people died during the twenty year campaign, which began in earnest in Béziers in July 1209. After assembling the papal troops, these marched to Béziers, where they ordered that 222 people, suspected of being Cathars, were handed over to them by the citizens of the town. When this was refused, the papal troops decided to attack. One of the crusaders asked their leader, the Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, how to distinguish between the 222 heretics and the thousands of faithful Catholics that lived in the city. “Kill them all,” was the abbot’s alleged reply. “God will recognise his own!” The number of dead that day was between 7000 and 20,000, the latter figure being the one quoted when Arnaud-Amaury reported back to the Pope.

The main focus, however, has always been on the Cathars (from the Greek word meaning “pure”), a name that is normally reserved for the heretics that lived in Southern France and Northern Spain; they were the ones targeted by the Crusade.

With such carnage, it was clear that the other towns (e.g. Narbonne and Carcassonne) offered no resistance and soon, the Southern counts had lost their territories and powers to the King of France and his allies. For these Northern lords, attaining the lands of the Languedoc had always been paramount; their mission had been accomplished.

The main core of their belief was the rejection of the material world, which was seen as a trap imprisoning the soul. All things material were hence seen as evil and to be opposed and rejected. Hence, they built no churches, were largely vegetarian and shared both common possessions and ate common meals. Though it is true that their doctrine had room for Jesus and the Bible, especially the Gospel of John, and that they proclaimed Christ had no real body (if he was the Son of God, how could he have a body of flesh, which was evil?) and hence also died no real death, all of these accommodations should be seen as educational tools so that they could explain to those that had been raised as Christians where both teachings differed.

But in the end, their doctrine was appealing not so much for its core magical rituals, but because the Catholic clergy were corrupt and as materialistic as one could be. Though historians have often underlined that the Perfects were not as perfect as they should have been (e.g. still having sexual intercourse and having children, whereas they were not allowed to by their own rules), it is clear that in general, their house was far more in order than that of the Pope. Philip Coppens: Excerpts - This article appeared in New Dawn, Volume 10, Number 10 (September - October 2008).

Spanish Inquisition #

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong.

The Holy Inquisition of Spain started some 300 years after the French ones when the Christians returned from Northern Spain to push the Moors back into northern Africa. The aim was to genocidally create a monolithic state; to make everyone think alike. The Church leaders thought unity and harmony would best be accomplished by unanimity, conformism and orthodoxy.

The Holy Inquisition was housed in most larger centres, one, the Castile San Jorge in Seville. After it was closed in 1804, it became dilapidated and was finally razed, however, archaeologists unearthed its foundations and built a Museum, understatedly called “Tolerance Interpretation Center”.

Adopting a deliberate low-key approach, it takes you through the various areas of the Castle depicting the dungeons used for jailing and torturing the “heretics”, living spaces for the officials and the interrogation chambers.

The Museum of the Inquisition in Seville introduces its displays with:

Value Judgements, abuses of power, and the victims of abuse have always existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future. This place is part of you. This is part your history.

As part of “Atrocity Tourism” it joins the Holocaust Museums of Poland, and Germany, and Witch Trials of Salem Massachusetts. These Museums, - crucibles of memory, are not highly publicised and not part of the popular tourist traps. They are designed for us to give us an insight to the nature of the past and reflect on the more negative aspects of the human condition – man’s capacity for inhumanity.

In the late fifteenth century, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella was the most powerful kingdom in the world. Besides its colonial possessions in the Americas, Spain had holdings in the Netherlands, and the monarchs had married their children to the heirs of Portugal, England, and the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. Spain responded to the external threat of the Ottoman Empire with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Beyond Spain’s Inquisition, seeking out dissidents in this way would become a feature of modern states, secular as well as religious, in times of national crisis:

“Spain … embarked on a policy that would come to epitomize the fanatical violence inherent in religion. In 1480, with the Ottoman threat at its height, Ferdinand and Isabella had established the Spanish Inquisition. … The Spanish Inquisition did not target Christian heretics but focused on Jews who had converted to Christianity and were believed to have lapsed. In Muslim Spain, Jews had never been subjected to the persecution that was now habitual in the rest of Europe, but as the Crusading armies of the Reconquista advanced down the peninsula in the late fourteenth century, Jews in Aragon and Castile had been dragged to the baptismal font; others had tried to save themselves by voluntary conversion, and some of these conversos (‘con­verts’) became extremely successful in Christian society and inspired considerable resentment.

“There were riots, and converso property was seized, the violence caused by financial and social jealousy as much as by religious allegiance. The monarchs were not personally anti-Semitic but simply wanted to pacify their kingdom, which had been shaken by civil war and now faced the Ottoman threat. Yet the Inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to achieve stability. As often happens when a nation is menaced by an external power, there were paranoid fears of enemies within, in this case of a ‘fifth column’ of lapsed conversos work­ing secretly to undermine the kingdom’s security. The Spanish Inquisi­tion has become a byword for excessive ‘religious’ intolerance, but its violence was caused less by theological than by political considerations.

“Such interference with the religious practice of their subjects was entirely new in Spain, where confessional uniformity had never been a possibility. After centuries of Christians, Jews, and Muslims ’living together’ (convivencia), the monarchs’ initiative met with strong oppo­sition. Yet while there was no public appetite for targeting observant Jews, there was considerable anxiety about the so-called lapsed ‘secret Jews,’ known as New Christians. When the Inquisitors arrived in a dis­trict, ‘apostates’ were promised a pardon if they confessed voluntarily, and ‘Old Christians’ were ordered to report neighbors who refused to eat pork or work on Saturday, the emphasis always on practice and social custom rather than ‘belief.’ Many conversos who were loyal Catholics felt it wise to seize the opportunity of amnesty while the going was good, and this flood of ‘confessions’ convinced both the Inquisitors and the public that the society of clandestine ‘Judaizers’ really existed. Seek­ing our dissidents in this way would not infrequently become a feature of modern states, secular as well as religious, in times of national crisis.

“After the conquest of 1492, the monarchs inherited Granada’s large Jewish community. The fervid patriotism unleashed by the Christian tri­umph led to more hysterical conspiracy fears. Some remembered old tales of Jews helping the Muslim armies when they had arrived in Spain eight hundred years earlier and pressured the monarchs to deport all practicing Jews from Spain. After initial hesitation, on March 31, 1492, the monarchs signed the edict of expulsion, which gave Jews the choice of baptism or deportation. Most chose baptism and, as conversos, were now harassed by the Inquisition, but about eighty thousand crossed the border into Portugal, and fifty thousand took refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Under papal pressure. Ferdinand and Isabella now turned their attention to Spain’s Muslims. In 1499 Granada was split into Chris­tian and Muslim zones, Muslims were required to convert, and by 1501 Granada was officially a kingdom of ‘New Christians.’ But the Muslim converts (Moriscos) were given no instruction in their new faith, and everybody knew that they continued to live, pray, and fast according to the laws of Islam. Indeed, a mufti in Oran in North Africa issued a fatwa permitting Spanish Muslims to conform outwardly to Christianity, and most Spaniards turned a blind eye to Muslim observance. A practical convivencia had been restored.

“The first twenty years of the Spanish Inquisition were undoubtedly the most violent in its long history. There is no reliable documentation of the actual numbers of people killed. Historians once believed that about thirteen thousand conversos were burned during this early period. More recent estimates suggest, however, that most of those who came forward were never brought to trial; that in most cases the death pen­alty was pronounced in absentia over conversos who had fled and were symbolically burned in effigy; and that from 1480 to 1530 only between 1,500 and 2,000 people were actually executed. Nevertheless, this was a tragic and shocking development that broke with centuries of peace­ful coexistence. The experience was devastating for the conversos and proved lamentably counterproductive. Many conversos who had been faithful Catholics when they were detained were so disgusted by their treatment that they reverted to Judaism and became the ‘secret Jews’ that the Inquisition had set out to eliminate.” Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Karen Armstrong Publisher: Anchor A. Knopf Pages: 238-240

Napoleon managed to shut down the Spanish Inquisition in 1804 when he “liberated” Spain and set his brother on the throne.


There are many cases in which entire classes of people were systematically tortured (usually to death) with no desire to acquire information, determine guilt or enact a religious conversion. For example, Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England used burning at the stake to combat the Protestant Reformation. During her five-year reign, from 1553 to 1558, 300 people were burned to death for their religious views. The goal was to strike fear into the hearts of other Protestants [source: Kellaway].

10 Medieval Torture Devices #


The period known as the Middle Ages stands out as one of the most violent eras in history. This epoch, lasting roughly 1,000 years, from the 5th century to the 15th, was a time of great inequality and brutality in much of Europe.

What really sets this time apart is the ghoulish inventiveness that gave rise to a plethora of torture methods. There were many grounds for torture during the Middle Ages – religious fervor and criminal punishment come to mind – but why would a person take the time to invent a device designed to maim?

In his 1975 book “A History of Torture in England,” L.A. Parry attempted to explain this bizarre phenomenon:

”…What strikes us most in considering the mediaeval tortures, is not so much their diabolical barbarity … as the extraordinary variety, and what may be termed the artistic skill, they displayed. They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined the different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expended on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardour of a passion.”

Believe it or not, many quasi-crucifixions were tamer punishments dealt to heretics in the 15th century.

The Brazen Bull was a hollow brass statue crafted to resemble a real bull. Victims we¬re placed inside, usually with their tongues cut out first. The door was shut, sealing them in. Fires would then be lit around the bull. As the victim succumbed to the searing heat inside, he would thrash about and scream in agony. The movements and sounds, muted by the bull’s mass, made the apparatus appear alive, the sounds inside like those of a real bull. This effect created additional amusement for the audience, and served the added benefit of distancing them from the brutality of the torture, since they couldn’t directly see the victim.

Thumbscrews represent a very insidious form of torture. You weren’t likely to die from their use, but they created unendurable agony. The device consisted of three upright metal bars, between which the thumbs were placed. A wooden bar slid down along the metal bars, pressing the thumbs against the bottom. A screw pressed the wood bar downward, crushing the thumbs painfully. The thumbscrews were an elaboration of an earlier device known as the pilliwinks, which could crush all 10 fingers and resembled a nutcracker [source: Parry].

Thumbscrews supposedly originated with the Russian army as a punishment for misbehaving soldiers. A Scottish man brought a set home with him and introduced them to the United Kingdom [Kellaway and Parry].

The rack was used throughout Eu­rope for centuries. It came in many forms, but here’s the basic idea: The victim is tied down while some mechanical device, usually a crank or turning wheel, tightens the ropes, stretching the victim’s body until the joints are dislocated. Continued pressure could cause the limbs to be torn right off. Such torture was known as being “broken on the rack,” “racked,” or “stretched on the rack.” It could be combined with other forms of torture to make things even more painful. In one story, a Christian youth was tied to a wheel and his joints destroyed by the stretching. A fire was lit beneath the wheel, adding to the torture. Eventually, the fire was extinguished by the downpour of blood as the victim’s limbs were torn free [source: Gallonio].

One type of rack was known as the Horse. It was a wooden device that vaguely resembled an actual horse in shape. The victim was tied to a beam on the top (the horse’s “back”), facing up. Pulleys below tightened ropes affixed to the victim’s hands and feet. He or she was stretched until his or her joints dislocated, then left there or slackened and allowed to hang underneath the horse while an inquisitor or judge questioned the victim and tried to get a confession [source: Gallonio]. Torquemada, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition, was known to favor a stretching rack known as a potoro [source: Goldberg & Itzkowitz].

Wheels were adapted to many torturous uses. They could be part of a stretching rack, but medieval torturers were far too creative to leave it at that. Early torturers were fond of tying someone to a large wooden wheel, then pushing it down a rocky hillside. A more elaborate method involved a wheel mounted to an A-frame that allowed it to swing freely. The victim would be tied to the wheel, and then swung across some undesirable thing below – fire was always a good choice, but dragging the victim’s flesh across metal spikes also worked well. The wheel itself could also have spikes mounted on it, so the pain came from all directions. Instead of swinging, the wheel might turn on an axle. The difference was likely immaterial to the victims.

One of the most horrible wheel tortures was akin to crucifixion. The victim would have the bones in all four limbs broken in two places by strikes from an iron bar. Then, the shattered limbs were threaded through the spokes of a large wheel. Finally, the wheel would be attached to the top of a tall wooden pole and left out in the sun for days. The victim might be alive for hours, enduring the agony of his or her mangled arms and legs and the relentless sun, not to mention the attentions of crows [source: Hunt].

Being burned at the stake was usually the last stop for torture victims, because this form of torture was invariably fatal. Conceptually, it’s a very simple process – create a pile of dry wood with a stake at the center to tie the victim to, and then light it. The fire does all the work. It usually took about a half an hour before the victim lost consciousness, but if it was windy and the fire was blowing away from the victim, he or she might have to endure up to two hours of being slowly burned to death [source: Bachrach]. Since the victims had usually been previously tortured with the rack or some other method, the pain must have been unimaginable. Despite the horror of simply being burned at the stake, the torturers of the Inquisition in the Netherlands developed a particularly cruel twist: Prior to being tied to the stake, the victim’s tongue would be sandwiched between two hot iron plates. The scorched and swollen tongue would only allow strange, muffled screams of pain once the burning began, which supposedly added a great deal to the audience’s entertainment.

The cruel irony of the Inquisition’s practice of burning people at the stake was that it happened whether you confessed or not. Once accused of heresy, you would almost certainly be consumed by fire. However, if you confessed, you would be strangled to death before the fire was lit, supposedly sparing you the agony. This practice didn’t die out at the end of the Middle Ages, however. Both women and men accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake in England, France and other locales well into the 17th century.

The pillory remained in use even later than the stake. A pillory is a­ set of two parallel wooden boards clasped together, with holes for the neck and wrists. When opened, the victim places his or her head and arms through the holes. Then the pillory is closed, and the victim can’t possibly escape.

The pillory itself does no harm to the victim, though it’s certainly not comfortable. The entire apparatus was usually placed on a stage in a public place – the entire point was to humiliate and shame the victim for his or her crimes. The crowd would throw objects at the victim, such as rotten vegetables, dead animals or feces. Stones and other blunt objects were thrown as well, which could result in painful injuries or death.

While a spell in the pillory often only lasted an hour or two, usually during the busiest times of day, its effect really depended on the nature of the crime and the mood of the crowd. Four English men who had falsely accused others of crimes to get the reward (sending innocents to the hangman’s noose) were beaten to death by the crowd. Others who won the crowd’s favor by refusing to pay unjust taxes or mocking government officials were showered with flowers or rescued from the pillory outright [source: Kellaway]. For lesser crimes, the victim might instead be placed in stocks, leg irons that restrained the ankles. While the goal of public humiliation was the same, the stocks allowed victims to protect themselves from thrown objects.

Sometimes, the vengeful crowd was the least of the victim’s concerns. The pillory could be accompanied by other punishments, such as flogging or mutilation. British authorities favored branding the face with a mark of shame, such cutting off one or both ears, or slicing the nose lengthwise [sources: Farrington and Parry].

The Iron Maiden is a device so fiendish it was once thought to be fictional. It’s an upright sarcophagus with spikes on the inner surfac­es. Double doors open on the front, allowing entrance for the victim. In one example, eight spikes protruded from one door, 13 from the other. Once the victim was inside, the doors were closed. There, the strategically placed spikes would pierce several vital organs. However, they were relatively short spikes, so the wounds wouldn’t be instantly fatal. Instead, the victim would linger and bleed to death over several hours [source: Kellaway]. To add to the abject horror of it all, two spikes were positioned specifically to penetrate the eyes.

In the 1800s, researchers found one in a castle in Nuremberg, Germany, and documented proof of its use later surfaced [source: Innes]. For this reason, this device is sometimes known as the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg [source: Farrington]. Other names included The Virgin and, in German, Jungfer. A variation found in Spain was made to look like the Virgin Mary, and had machinery that, when manipulated, caused her to “hug” the victim close to her spikes [source: Innes].

The Scavenger’s Daughter was invented by, and named after, a Brit named Skevington. It is alternately referred to as Skeffington’s gyves. The apparatus consists of a hoop of iron with a hinge in the middle. The victim was forced to crouch on one half of the hoop while the other half was pivoted and placed over his back. (Imagine being placed into a giant set of iron dentures.) The torturer would use a screw to tighten the hinge, crushing the victim further and further into his involuntary crouch. Eventually, ribs and breastbone would crack and the spine could be dislocated. Sometimes the compression was so great that blood would gush from the fingertips and face [source: Parry]. This tool was used against people accused of high treason during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England[source: Innes].

The Breast Ripper

Torturers seemed to reserve special horrors for women. Surprisingly, few torturers had­ any reservations about torturing women – in fact, women-only tortures often seemed especially cruel and were designed to destroy specific aspects of femininity. In medieval England, differing torture practices were virtually codified: male criminals were hanged, while women faced the “drowning pits” [source: Parry].

The practice of torturing women sexually extends back to Roman times (and surely even before then). Female victims were given to soldiers to be raped, or sent to brothels. They might be tied up or paraded through public streets naked. These public humiliations were sometimes followed by bizarre sexual mutilations. Torturers had a strange fixation on breasts, which were burned, branded or simply amputated. Worst of all was a device known as the Breast Ripper. It was a metal claw that pierced the flesh of the breast. The victim was tied to a wall, and then the claw pulled forcibly away, shredding the breast to pieces [source: Medieval Times & Castles]. It was used as both a method of punishment and interrogation – to mark the breasts of unmarried mothers and mutilate women convicted of heresy, adultery and a host of other crimes.

Pear of Anquish

It’s unlikely, but if there could be anythi­ng worse than the Breast Ripper, it is surely the Pear of Anguish. This was a pear-shaped device, with the body of the pear made up of four metal “leaves” joined by a hinge at its top, and a key or crank on one end. The pear was inserted into the vagina, anus or throat, depending on the nature of the crime committed: The oral device was reserved for heretics, while the anal and vaginal pears were used on homosexuals and witches, respectively. Turning the key opened the leaves, causing massive internal damage [source: Medieval Times & Castles]. The device was rarely fatal, but other methods of torture would usually follow.