The stake, incarceration, and the triremes are those dramatic forms of penal procedure which are generally associated with inquisitorial practice. But a survey of the thousands of surviving sentences suggests that in actual fact milder forms of punishment prevailed. Most frequently encountered are public humiliation in the form of abjurations read on the cathedral steps on Sundays and feast days before the throngs of churchgoers, and salutary penances, fines or service for the benefit of charitable establishments, and a seemingly endless cycle of prayers and devotions to be performed over many months or years. […]

Despite popular notions to the contrary only a small percentage of cases concluded with capital punishment. The penalty of death by burning at the stake was reserved for three principal categories of offenders: the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church; the relapsed, those who had suffered a previous sentence for formal heresy; and individuals convicted of attempting to overturn such central doctrines of the Church as the Virgin Birth and the full divinity of Christ… if this is still not a pleasant picture, it is also not the unfettered violence which we may have been led to assume. To the very end every attempt was made to persuade impenitent heretics to reflect, to admit to the errors of their acts and teachings and seek reconciliation with the Church. From Giordano Bruno to the most modest prisoner in a provincial cell, it was the policy of the holy office to assail the condemned with the expectations of “learned, religious and pious” men hoping to extract a last-minute conversion.

In conclusion, although capricious arbitrary decisions, misuse of authority, and wanton abuse of human rights occurred, they were not an integral part of inquisitorial procedure, nor tolerated by the Holy Office. […]

It is impossible to condone coercion, the stake, and the other horrors perpetrated in the name of religion during the Reformation era. They were employed not only by the Inquisition but by virtually all other judicial bodies in Europe. In the 16th century they were an unquestioned part of legal proceedings. But I believe that future research will show that they were used less frequently, with greater moderation, and with a higher regard for human rights and life in the tribunals of the holy office than elsewhere. Skepticism and incredulity in regards to witchcraft invaded Roman legal circles between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries at a time when the land north of the Pyrenees and the Alps remained in the grip of witch-hunting mania. It was a modest step toward sanity, and a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark tunnel.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)


The church claimed a higher standard of behavior from ecclesiastics than from laymen. Consequently, the former incurred heavier penalties, which frequently took the form of galley sentences… many of those condemned to the galleys survived and returned to their homes, although for churchman the stigma attached to galley service would bar them from again officiating at the altar. Those who could demonstrate medically that they had become physically unfit for the oar had their sentences commuted to a lesser punishment. Even short-term hardship leaves to attend to family problems at home seem not to have been unheard of events.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Could not inquisitors have attempted to suppress or distort information so that their activity would remain hidden from contemporaries and posterity alike? On the contrary, it was strict Holy Office practice to preserve detailed records of all its proceedings from the first summons to the final sentencing. The insistence on the meticulous recording of every word ordered during the trial was intended to discourage the inclination to ask leading questions which would suggest to the accused how they should reply. A permanent member of every inquisitorial court was the notary, who took down in writing every question and every answer, including the exclamations of pain emitted by the victims of torture. Inquisitors did not feel that they had anything to hide. By bringing renegade Christians to punishment-but above all to reconciliation with the Church, they were redeeming offenses committed against God and saving souls for eternal life. […]

This is not to say that inquisitorial worked in public; far from it. Each official took a solemn vow of secrecy, conducted interrogations in strict privacy, and jealously guarded the records of trial proceedings. There were several reasons for this. Witnesses for the prosecution remained anonymous, since they had to be protected from possible retaliation by the family and friends of the accused, not an unknown occurrence. Moreover, once a defendant to name his accomplices, the holy office might have to move swiftly to bring them into custody. Its effectiveness would have been seriously impaired if word of their incrimination leaked out to them before they could be apprehended. And, finally, a reason which may seem unexpected, the reputation of the accused had to be protected.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

Magic, as we have seen, was by far the single largest heretical category handled by the inquisitions of Italy after the first waves of Protestantism had abated. But it was certainly not the only type of offense. Other significant categories showed considerable variation from place to place. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, for example, where the prosecution of Judaizers continued at a high rate down to 1700, the Italian tribunals were much less preoccupied with this offense. […]

In the Spanish system, the single largest category of offenses, accounting for about 28 percent of its total activity, was the loosely defined cluster of doctrinal errors which had been labeled as proposiciones hereticas (including heretical blasphemy and many other crimes, such as the belief that sexual intercourse between married individuals was not sinful).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

My eyes immediately fell on the word tobacco, a subject not obviously connected with the previous long discussion on the duties of an inquisitor. Our author was attempting to answer what to us may seem to be a preposterous question, but which, as I later discovered, was of some urgency in the seventeenth century, namely whether it was sinful for priests to consume tobacco in a church or its immediate confines in whatever form: “. . . that is either solid, or chewed in small pieces, or taken as a powder through the mouth or nose, or inhaled as smoke by means of tubelets…” This was the first of many questions raised by Neri dealing with the permissibility of the use of tobacco, questions prompted principally by Urban VIII’s prohibition, “Cum Ecclesiae,” dated 30 January 1642, directed against the wholesale consumption of tobacco in churches under the jurisdiction of the archbishopric of Seville. This was an abuse which had been apparently committed even during the performance of divine services by parishioners of both sexes blowing out acrid fumes to every corner of the holy edifices, while priests themselves performed their liturgical duties before the altar in vestments befouled by tobacco juice and spittle. […]

It was the inordinate, immoderate consumption of tobacco before the Mass, especially when indulged in by a priest who was inexperienced in its use, that Neri found reprehensible and incompatible with the reverence due to the holy sacrament. And he paints an unedifying picture of a priest who has been indulging to excess, jittery, sneezing, expectorating, and blowing his nose, tears streaming from his eyes, staggering in a semi-stupor to the altar.

How can we place Neri’s chapter twenty-six, his disquisition on tobacco, in some sort of historical context? Clearly, it should be seen as part of the program of the Counter-Reformation church to introduce a heightened decorum into religious services. The fact appears to be that the consumption of tobacco by clergy and laity alike during the celebration of the Mass had become widespread on both sides of the Atlantic from the late sixteenth century on. A series of provincial synods in Mexico and Peru beginning in the mid-1570s forbade the use of tobacco by priests about to celebrate Mass or by the faithful who were intent on receiving the holy sacrament. But these prohibitions seem to have served little…

But the nuisance had reached the seat of Catholicism itself. Eight years after Urban VIII’s action against Seville, his successor, Innocent X, had to issue a similar sweeping prohibition for St. Peter’s, to preserve unsullied from the expectorating of the faithful the beautiful new marble floors with which the church had been adorned. While a series of papal and episcopal pronouncements for the rest of the century attempted to suppress the clerical consumption of tobacco during or immediately preceding divine services, theologians debated, as we have seen, what one authority described as “one of the most celebrated questions of our day,” whether the use of tobacco before divine services constituted abrogation of ecclesiastical fasting and voided participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

John Tedeschi, “Literary Piracy in Seventeenth-Century Florence: Giovanni Battista Neri’s “De iudice S. inquisitionis opusculum”. Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1987), pp. 107-118

The subjects of this essay are the judicial and penal systems of the Roman Inquisition, the institution which was established on ancient foundations in mid-sixteenth century Italy as a response to the Protestant challenge in that country. It is not to be confused with the medieval Inquisition which came into being early in the thirteenth century (and of which it was a continuation), or with the Spanish tribunal founded in 1478, which had a separate history. […]

With the Bull Licet ab Initio, July 1542, the pope was not creating a brand new institution ex nihilo, for inquisitors had, of course, operated in the Middle Ages. Like other sixteenth-century monarchs, he reshaped a previously existing governmental function as part of a program to centralize authority. The defense of the face was placed in the hands of a commission of cardinals invested with sweeping authority in the pursuit of heresy – the future Congregation of the Inquisition – whose assignment included the appointment of provincial inquisitors (always members of the Dominican and Franciscan orders), and the coordination and to supervision of their efforts. Previously this had been a responsibility of the generals and provincials of the two orders, who, however, continued to serve as channels through which recommendations to fill empty positions reached the Congregation, sometimes through appeals to the cardinal protector of the orders. The authority vested in inquisitors was to be understood as emanating directly from the pope. […]

The uprooting of heresy, previously vested in both bishops and inquisitors, now became principally the burden of the inquisitorial courts. Problems which had been caused by overlapping spheres of activity were greatly reduced, if not totally eliminated, with the bishop retaining responsibility to proceed against heretics in localities without inquisitorial court. The inquisitorial tribunals gained precedence over all other tribunals, lay and ecclesiastical alike.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

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)