Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
In the church of Rome, a tribunal, in several Roman Catholic countries, erected by the popes for the examination and punishment of heretics. This court was founded in the twelfth century, under the patronage of pope Innocent, who issued out orders to excite the Catholic princes and people to extirpate heretics, to search into their number and quality, and to transmit a faithful account thereof to Rome. Hence they were called inquisitors, and gave birth to this formidable tribunal, call the Inquisition. That nothing might be wanting to render this spiritual court formidable and tremendous, the Roman pontiffs persuaded the European princes, and more especially the emperor Frederick II. and Lewis IX. king of France, not only to enact the most barbarous laws against heretics, and to commit to the flames, by the ministry of public justice, those who were pronounced such by the inquisitors, but also to maintain the inquisitors in their office, and grant them their protection in the most open and solemn manner. The edicts to this purpose issued out by Frederick II. are well known; edicts sufficient to have excited the greatest horror, and which rendered the most illustrious piety and virtue incapable of saving from the cruellest death such as had the misfortune to be disagreeable to the inquisitors.
These abominable laws were not, however, sufficient to restrain the just indignation of the people against those inhuman judges, whose barbarity was accompanied with superstition and arrogance, with a spirit of suspicion and perfidy; nay, even with temerity and imprudence. Accordingly, they were insulted by the multitude in many places, were driven in an ignominious manner out of some cities, and were put to death in others; and Conrad, of Marpurg, the first German inquisitor who derived his commission from Gregory IX. was one of the many victims that were sacrificed on this occasion to the vengeance of the public, which his incredible barbarities had raised to a dreadful degree of vehemence and fury. This diabolical tribunal takes cognizance of heresy, Judaism, Mahometanism, sodomy, and polygamy; and the people stand in so much fear of it, that parents deliver up their children, husbands their wives, and masters their servants, to its officers, without daring in the least to murmur. The prisoners are kept for a long time, till they themselves turn their own accusers, and declare the cause of their imprisonment, for which they are neither told their crime, nor confronted with witnesses.
As soon as they are imprisoned, their friends go into mourning, and speak of them as dead, not daring to solicit their pardon, lest they should be brought in as accomplices. When there is no shadow of proof against the pretended criminal, he is discharged, after suffering the most cruel tortures, a tedious and dreadful imprisonment, and the loss of the greatest part of his effects. The sentence against prisoners is pronounced publicly, and with extraordinary solemnity. In Portugal they erect a theatre capable of holding three thousand persons, in which they place a rich altar, and raise seats on each side, in the form of an amphitheatre. There the prisoners are placed, and over against them is a high chair, whither they are called one by one to hear their doom from one of the inquisitors. These unhappy persons know what they are to suffer by the clothes they wear that day; those who appear in their own clothes are discharged on paying a fine; those who have a santo benito, or strait yellow coat without sleeves, charged with St. Andrew's cross, have their lives, but forfeit all their effects; those who have the resemblance of flames made of red serge sewed upon their santo benito, without any cross, are pardoned, but threatened to be burnt if ever they relapse; but, those who, besides those flames, have on their santo benito their own picture surrounded with devils, are condemned to expire in the flames.
The inquisitors, who are ecclesiastics, do not pronounce the sentence of death, but form and read an act, in which they say, that the criminal, being convicted of such a crime, by his own confession, is with much reluctance, delivered to the secular power, to be punished according to his demerits: and this writing they give to the seven judges, who attend at the right side of the altar, and immediately pass sentence. For the conclusion of this horrid scene, see ACT OF FAITH. We rejoice however, to hear, that in many Roman Catholic countries, the inquisition is not shut. May the God of mercy and love prevent its ever being employed again!
See Baker's History of the Inquisition; and Limborch's History of the Inquisition, translated by Chandler; a View of the Inquisition in Portugal in Geddes's Tracts; Lavalle's History of the Inquisition.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Inquisition'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/i/inquisition.html. 1802.