What can be said about the relative severity or leniency of inquisitorial justice? What was the outcome in the thousands of trials recorded in the appendices to this essay? Despite popular notion’s to the contrary, only a very small percentage of cases concluded with capital punishment. Canon law prescribed that only the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church, those who had suffered previous convictions for formal heresy, or those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes were liable to the death penalty.

The available figures on the numbers of those handed over by the Inquisition to the secular arm suggest that the executed were relatively few. Only four of the first thousand defendants who appeared before the tribunal of Aquileia-Concordia (1551-1647) were put to death. A tentative calculation for Venice has counted 14 executions between 1553 and 1588, plus 4 deaths occurring in prison and 4 extraditions to deaths in Rome between 1555 and 1593. Only 12 executions for heresy have been counted for Malon during the second half of the 16th century (but on the basis of incomplete documentation), and only one, in 1567, for the religious heresy in Modena; and of the more than two hundred sentences (several involving more than one defendant) contained in the Trinity College manuscripts mentioned above, for parts of the years 1580-1582, only four called for condemnations to the stake.

In his studies of the Friuli witchcraft trials, Carlo Ginzburg encountered neither the use of torture in the proceedings nor a single execution; in fact, only rarely was a case brought to a conclusion. The names of 97 victims of the Holy Office in the city of Rome for the period 1542-1761 have been extracted from the records of the archconfraternity, whose function it was to accompany the condemned to their deaths. As for Spanish inquisitorial courts, they executed approximately 820 people between roughly 1540 and 1700, out of a total of more than 44,000 cases, for a rate of 1.9 percent.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)


Apart from Bologna (which saw seven protestants and saw one of the four executions on this list), protestants appear rarely in the figures from central and southern Italy: a conventicle of five women who celebrated their own communion at Ancona provided the only significant episode. From Tuscany southward, magic was the most common charge. Naples at self-reported only one sentence against a female Judaizer. Taken all in all, these documents add up to a tantalizing snapshot of the general activities of the Roman Inquisition moment when the holy office of the Venetian Republic resembled of those throughout northern Italy in their preoccupation with protestant heresies, while those in the duchies of the Po valley or Tuscany were already turning to the prosecution of illicit magic as their chief concern.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, where as the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. The nature of what was considered “heresy” in each system reflects these original concerns. In northern and central Italy, “Lutheranism “overwhelmingly dominated the first generation of inquisitorial activity, lasting until the 1580s. The venetian records offer a truly remarkable example: over its first 35 years (1547-1582) this holy office tried more than 700 “Lutherans” among its first 1,200 cases- plus 36 Anabaptists, 68 cases of “heresy in general,” 20 of eating meat during Lent, and almost 90 concerned with possession or reading of prohibited books. Approximately 80 percent of these early cases, therefore, concern protestant or crypto-protestant behavior. In the Venetian Terrafirma, Aquileia-Concordia showed a similar concentration on such offenses during its first 38 years (1557-1595); of its initial 380 cases, 200 or four suspected product to Paris sees and 74 for consuming meat during Lent (A possible indication of northern influences at work). In this rural area of low literacy there were only 12 cases of prohibited books. Again, over 75 percent of these cases may have involved Protestant sympathies. […]

In the Spanish portions of southern Italy our statistics suggest a different meaning in the holy office’s concern with heretics. Although a sizable share of the earliest preserved cases from Naples maybe classified as heresy trials, if you deal with protestants; in fact, through 1620 accused Mohammedans outnumbered reputed protestants by more than five to one. The diligent Spanish inquisitors uncovered large numbers of Protestants, but here too these were numerically swamped by the followers of Islam. Before 1560, the Sicilian Holy office tried more than 50 Protestants (more than any other tribunal in the Spanish system) and only eleven Moslems; but between 1560 and 1615, they judged nearly four Moslems for every protestant (471 and 138 respectively).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Despite the common underpinning of both Spanish and Italian tribunals in common law, there were serious doctrinal and judicial discrepancies between them, in addition to the well-known organizational differences.

In Spanish practice, sequestration of property occurred at the moment of arrest, followed by confiscation in the event of conviction; in Italy property of defendants usually survived even the admission of guilt in the case of penitent heretics, with the exception of funds exacted to sustain them in prison during the trial. In Spanish law, consultors attached to the courts saw trial proceedings in their entirety, including the names of the prosecution witnesses, before delivering their opinions; these names were withheld in the Italian tribunals. Under the Spanish, the confession of a minor was null and void without the presence of a special defense official, the curatore, but this figure seems to have been absent from Italian practice. In Italian usage a defense attorney was mandatory, if requested, even to an offender who had admitted his crime, but was withheld in such a case in Spanish courts. The Inquisition in the Roman system regularly prosecuted polygamy, viewing this as a heresy against the sacrament of matrimony. Spanish inquisitors, on the other hand, questioned their jurisdiction over bigamists, tending to conceive the offense as carnally motivated, rather than heretical. They felt, consequently, that it fell to the authority of the secular courts.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

In Italy (as in Spain), the rubric of “magic” rarely involved witchcraft and apostasy to the Devil; and even when it did, the Italian Inquisitors, unlike secular judges, rarely punished the crime with death. […]

What can be said about the relative severity or leniency of inquisitorial justice? What was the outcome in the thousands of trials recorded in the appendices to this essay? Despite popular notions to the contrary, only a very small percentage of cases ended with capital punishment…In his studies of the Friuli witchcraft trials, Carlo Ginzburg encountered neither the use of torture in the proceedings nor a single execution; in fact, only rarely was a case brought to a conclusion.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, whereas the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. […]

Wherever one turns, therefore, it appears that Italian Inquisitors were becoming preoccupied with superstitious magic and witchcraft well before 1600 – unlike their Spanish counterparts, who held barely 2 percent of their pre-1615 trials for such offenses. In the seventeenth century this Italian concern with magicians and witches persisted, while the attention that needed to be devoted to heretics continued to diminish. Illicit magic alone constituted over 40 percent of all cases both at Venice and in the Friuli and for close to 40 percent in Naples. Even in Sicily, where it accounted for only 25 percent Holy Office activity after 1615, illicit magic was the largest single category and the 310 trials for this offense were the largest total from any of the twenty Spanish tribunals during this period. After 1600, prosecution of magicians dominated the business of the Italian inquisitions, far more dramatically than it ever did in any part of the Spanish system: in the nine Castilian tribunals, for example, “superstition” accounted for only 12 percent of the 6,240 trials held between 1615-1700. As late as the decade 1701-1710, illicit magic accounted for 69 percent of all Venetian inquisitorial cases and 61 percent of those at Naples.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

The Sicilian Inquisition was of course not a Roman tribunal at all, but the Venetian Holy Office also differed from other branches of the Roman system. The most important peculiarity (not unique to Venice, however,) was the requirement that lay representatives of the Serenissima, known as the Savii sopra Eresia, should sit alongside the clerical members of this tribunal. Venice imposed other special rules as well, such as the requirement that all Inquisitors must be Venetian citizens; the inadmissibility of denunciations and testimony forwarded by courts outside the dominion; and the prohibition against the confiscation of a convicted heretic’s property.Perhaps the most serious Venetian infringement on ordinary inquisitorial procedure was the extent of competition from local secular courts, which claimed jurisdiction in many cases involving such offenses as bigamy, blasphemy, perjury to the Inquisition, and some forms of suspected witchcraft.

E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries”. The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (1986)

The Supreme Congregation in Rome watched over the provincial tribunals, enforced the observance of what was for the times an essentially moderate code of law, and maintained uniformity of practice. While moral justice was impossible, given the presupposition of the Church that it had the right, even the duty, to prosecute those who differed in their religious beliefs, legal justice in terms of the jurisprudence of early modern Europe was indeed dispensed by the Roman Inquisition.

In trials conducted under its jurisdiction loose allegations were not permitted and accusers made their depositions under oath. To forestall charges stemming from personal animosities, since the names of prosecution witnesses were concealed, defendants were asked in advance to provide the names of individuals whom they considered their enemies. The records of the trial proceedings were provided to prisoners and to their lawyers in writing (with the names of the deponents deleted) and an appropriate interval, varying from several days to a few weeks, allowed for the preparation of counter arguments and the summoning of friendly witnesses. Judicial torture, which was carefully circumscribed, might be applied only after the defense had made its case and where the indicia, the evidence, was compelling. No properly conducted inquisitorial trial commenced with the rigoroso examine. The local bishop or his vicar, duly constituted members of a provincial inquisitorial court, had to concur in the decision and be present during the questioning.

Particularly in witchcraft proceedings, these and many other safeguards were in effect. Physicians were consulted to establish the corpus delicti, specifically to determine whether an illness or death might have had a natural cause before jumping to the assumption that a maleficium had been perpetrated. The search for the Devil’s mark was unknown in the inquisitorial process, and the failure on the part of the accused to evince emotion or shed tears during the interrogation was considered of scant significance. Alleged participants at Sabbats were not allowed to implicate their accomplices, and the testimony of witnesses who suffered from poor reputations could not lead to the torture of the defendant. In serious cases, sentences pronounced by provincial tribunals were scrutinized by the Congregation of the Inquisition in Rome and implausible confessions which contradicted the defendant’s testimony during the trial were deemed invalid. No witch was ever sent to the stake as a first offender if she showed the signs of repentance. Even in the extreme case of witches convicted of having caused a fatal injury, it was only Gregory XV, in 1623, in opposition to the prevailing tradition, who attempted to have the death sentence invoked. Relatively few encounters with the Inquisition ended at the stake. This was a fate reserved for the relapsed, the impenitent, and those convicted of attempting to overturn a few central doctrines of the Church. But even in these cases lesser forms of punishment often prevailed.

I suggest further that many aspects of modern criminal law were already in place in rudimentary form or were being introduced in the tribunals of the Roman Inquisition in the sixteenth century. The arraigned had the benefit of a defense attorney, including “public defenders” appointed by the court for the indigent, at a time when this figure did not exist in English law and was being relegated to a secondary role in civil French and imperial codes; confessions obtained extrajudicially were invalid; appeals could be and regularly were made to a higher court, namely the Supreme Congregation in Rome itself; first offenders were dealt with infinitely more leniently than recidivists. Imprisonment as a punishment, rather than merely for the purpose of custody during the trial, was introduced by the Inquisition, a consequence of the canonical prohibition against shedding blood, long before it was adopted by civil authorities at the close of the sixteenth century. Before that time, when pronouncing final judgment, secular courts could only choose from among several extreme alternatives. A sentence to life imprisonment (carcere perpetuo) by the Holy Office meant, as it does today, parole after a few years, generally three, subject to good behavior; but commutations after even briefer periods are frequently encountered. And house arrest, joined to work release programs and community service, was a common form of penal practice pursued by the Inquisition in its day. Although abuses occurred at the level of the provincial courts, where the local officials were often overworked, undertrained, and even, occasionally, poorly motivated and unsuited for the task at hand, Rome intervened time and again to enforce acceptable procedure and punish negligent and ignorant judges. The flagrant abuses which beset even the supreme tribunal when Cardinal Carafa, the future Paul IV, was its dominant member, and during his reign as pope, 1555-1559, present a notable aberration in the history of the institution.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

But it will at once be said, what of Galileo? Does not his case show the anti-scientific temper of churchmen? Nearly half a century ago, Cardinal Newman in his Apologia characteristically observed that this very case sufficed to prove that the Church did not set herself against scientific progress, for this is the “one stock argument” to the contrary, “the exception which proves the rule.” Commenting upon the Galileo incident, Professor Augustus de Morgan, in his article on the Motion of the Earth in the English Encyclopedia, has expressed exactly the same conclusion. He is an authority not likely to be suspected of Catholic sympathy. He says:

“The Papal power must upon the whole have been moderately used in matters of philosophy, if we may judge by the great stress laid on this one case of Galileo. It is the standing proof that an authority which has lasted a thousand years was all the time occupied in checking the progress of thought(!) There are certainly one or two other instances, but those who make most of the outcry do not know them.”

There is no doubt that Galileo was prosecuted by the Roman inquisition on account of his astronomical teachings. We would be the last to deny that this was a deplorable mistake made by persons in ecclesiastical authority, who endeavored to make a Church tribunal the judge of scientific truth, a function altogether alien to its character which it was not competent to exercise. The fact that this was practically the only time that this was done serves to show that it was an unfortunate incident, but not a policy. The mistake has been to conclude that this was a typical case–one of many, more flagrant than the others. This single incident has indeed made it impossible that anything of the same kind should ever occur again. It was rather because of the way in which Galileo urged his truths than because of the truths themselves that he was condemned. Even Professor Huxley, in a letter to Professor St. George Mivart, November 12th, 1885, said: “I gave some attention to the case of Galileo when I was in Italy, and I arrived at the conclusion that the Pope and the College of Cardinals had rather the best of it.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Intolerance and prejudice is, moreover, not confined to religious organizations. The same spirit that burned Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno for the heresies of science, led the atheist “liberal” mob of Paris to send to the scaffold the great chemist Lavoisier, with the sneer that “the republic has no need of savants.” The same spirit that leads the orthodox Gladstone to reject natural selection because it “relieves God of the labor of creation,” causes the heterodox Haeckel to condemn Weismann’s theories of heredity, not because they are at variance with facts, but because such questions are settled once for all by the great philosophic dictum (his own) “of monism.”

This very natural ultra-conservative mood of scientists is well illustrated by a passage from Galileo’s life, in which he himself describes in a letter to Kepler, the great mathematician and astronomer of his time, the reception that his new invention, the telescope, met with from distinguished men of science, their colleagues of the moment. The Italian astronomer encountered the well-known tendency of men to reason from what they already know, that certain advances in knowledge are impossible or absurd. The favorite expression is that the thoughts suggested by some new discovery are illogical. Men have always reasoned thus, and apparently they always will. Knowledge that they learn before they are forty constitutes, consciously or unconsciously, for them the possible sum of human knowledge, and they can only think that apparent progress that contradicts their previous convictions must be founded on false premises or faulty observation. We cannot help sympathizing with Galileo, though it must be a consolation for others who are struggling to have ideas of theirs adopted, to read the words addressed to his great contemporary and sympathetic fellow worker by the Italian astronomer.

“What wilt thou say,” he writes, “of the first teachers at the University at Padua, who when I offered to them the opportunity, would look neither at the planets nor the moon through the telescope? This sort of men look on philosophy as a book like the AEneid or Odyssey, and believe the truth is to be sought not in the world of nature, but only in comparison of texts. How wouldst thou have laughed, when at Pisa the leading Professor of the University there endeavored, in the presence of the Grand Duke, to tear away the new planets from Heaven with logical arguments, like magical exorcisms!”

This gives the key to the real explanation of the Galileo incident better than would a whole volume of explanation of it. It is now realized that very few of those who have been most ready to quote the example of Galileo’s condemnation as an argument for Church intolerance in the matter of science, know anything at all about the details of his case. The bitter intolerance of many men of science of his time, including even that supposed apostle of the experimental method–Bacon–to the Copernican system, is an important but ignored phase of the case of Galileo, as it came before the Roman inquisition. The peculiar position occupied by Galileo caused Prof. Huxley, writing to Prof. St. George Mivart, November 12th, 1885, to say that, after looking into the case of Galileo when he was in Italy, he had arrived at the conclusion “that the Pope and the College of Cardinals had rather the best of it.” In our own time, M. Bertrand, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, declared that “the great lesson for those who would wish to oppose reason with violence was clearly to be read in Galileo’s story, and the scandal of his condemnation was learned without any profound sorrow to Galileo himself; and his long life, considered as a whole, must be looked upon as the most serene and enviable in the history of science.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)