On executions for heresy

Christine Caldwell Ames says inquisitions killed fewer people than we think – but they did kill people.



Christine Caldwell Ames says inquisitions killed fewer people than we think – but they did kill people.


The myths of the inquisition have certainly tended to exaggerate the numbers of people killed. What I think is important is to acknowledge very simply that medieval inquisitions, and Spanish and Roman ones, they executed people. They simply did, and this is something to be confronted very plainly. They executed people for what inquisitors thought were very good reasons – that is, the person was damned, this was someone who was damned, someone for whom hellfire was the outcome, and that therefore one sent him or off to God as quickly as possible.

But most people weren’t executed in medieval inquisitions because most people recanted. They confessed. And so I think something else that is of interest for us as moderns is, again, to ask, for what are we willing to die? Even most people who espoused, or were believed to have espoused, some form of heresy in the Middle Ages, they weren’t so committed to it that they were willing to die for it. Again, medieval inquisitors gave them many opportunities, many avenues to come back. And most people chose to come back, which I don’t think should surprise us. But, that said, we are left with, as we estimate, about 10 per cent of the people who appeared before medieval inquisitors were in fact executed. Executed for a refusal to admit their wrongdoing, or executed for a return to a heresy that had been given up.

And something else that sometimes people dwell upon – wrongly, I think – they dwell upon the fact that inquisitors were not themselves responsible for executions, that inquisitors handed people over to the secular arm. But in many ways, this was a fiction. Inquisitors were present at executions, they crafted very detailed explanations for why the person deserved to be executed. And so even though the number is much smaller than we have long thought and that the myth said that it was, it happened. And that’s something to be confronted and understood.