Joan of ArcEdit

Main article: Trial of Joan of Arc

In the spring of 1429 during the Hundred Years’ War, in obedience to what she said was the command of God, Joan inspired the Dauphin’s armies in a series of stunning military victories which lifted the siege of Orleans and destroyed a large percentage of the remaining English forces at the battle of Patay. A series of military setbacks eventually led to her capture in the Spring of 1430 by the Burgundians, who were allied with the English. They delivered her to them for 10,000 livres. In December of that same year she was transferred to Rouen, the military headquarters and administrative capital in France of King Henry VI of England, and placed on trial for heresy before a Church court headed by Bishop Pierre Cauchon, a supporter of the English.

The trial was politically motivated.[5]Cauchon, although a native of France, had served in the English government since 1418,[13] and he was therefore hostile to a woman who had worked for the opposing side. The same was true of the other tribunal members.[14]Ascribing a diabolic origin to her victories would be an effective way to ruin her reputation and bolster the morale of English troops. Thus the decision to involve the Inquisition, which did not initiate the trial and in fact showed a reluctance throughout its duration.[15] Seventy charges were brought against her, including accusations of heresy and dressing as a male (i.e., wearing soldiers’ clothing and armor). Eyewitnesses later said that Joan had told them she was wearing this clothing and keeping it “firmly laced and tied together” because the tunic could be tied to the long boots to keep her guards from pulling her clothing off during their occasional attempts to rape her.[16] Joan was first condemned to life imprisonment and the deputy-inquisitor, Jean Le Maitre (whom the eyewitness said only attended because of threats from the English) obtained from her assurances of relinquishing her male clothes. However, after four days, during which she was said to have been subjected to attempted rape by English soldiers, she put her soldier’s clothing back on because (according to the eyewitnesses) she needed protection against rape.[16] Cauchon declared her a relapsed heretic, and she was burned at the stake two days later on 30 May 1431.[17]

In 1455, a petition by Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle led to a re-trial designed to investigate the dubious circumstances which led to Joan’s execution.[18] The Inquisitor-General of France was put in charge of the new trial, which opened in Notre Dame de Paris on 7 November 1455.[18] After analyzing all the proceedings, including Joan’s answers to the allegations and the testimony of 115 witnesses who were called to testify during the appellate process,[19] the inquisitor overturned her condemnation on 7 July 1456.[20] Joan of Arc was eventually canonized in 1920.

Historian Edward Peters identifies a number of illegalities in Joan’s first trial in which she had been convicted.[5]

Inquisition procedureEdit

The papal inquisition developed a number of procedures to discover and prosecute heretics. These codes and procedures detailed how an inquisitorial court was to function. If the accused renounced their heresy and returned to the Church, forgiveness was granted and a penance was imposed. If the accused upheld their heresy, they were excommunicated and turned over to secular authorities. The penalties for heresy, though not as severe as the secular courts of Europe at the time, were codified within the ecclesiastic courts as well (e.g. confiscation of property, turning heretics over to the secular courts for punishment).[21]Additionally, the various “key terms” of the inquisitorial courts were defined at this time, including, for example, “heretics,” “believers,” “those suspect of heresy,” “those simply suspected,” “those vehemently suspected,” and “those most vehemently suspected”.[22]


Legally, there had to be at least two witnesses, although conscientious judges rarely contented themselves with that number.[7]

First, the townspeople would be gathered in a public place. Although attendance was voluntary, those who failed to show would automatically be suspect, so most would come. The inquisitors would provide an opportunity for anyone to step forward and denounce themselves in exchange for easy punishment. As part of this bargain they would need to inform on other heretics.


The inquisitorial trial generally favored the prosecution (the Church). Confessing ‘in full’ was the best hope of receiving a lighter punishment – but with little hope of escaping at least some punishment. And a ‘full’ confession was one which implicated others, including other family members. It was acceptable to take testimony from criminals, persons of bad reputation, excommunicated people, and convicted heretics. The inquisitor could keep a defendant in prison for years before the trial to obtain new information, and could return them to prison if he felt that the witness had not fully confessed.

Despite the unfairness of the procedures, the inquisitors did provide some rights to the defendant. At the beginning of the trial, defendants were invited to name those who had “mortal hatred” against them. If the accusers were among those named, the defendant was set free and the charges dismissed; the accusers would face life imprisonment. This option was meant to keep the inquisition from becoming involved in local grudges. Early legal consultations on conducting inquisition stress that it is better that the guilty go free than that the innocent be punished. Gregory IX urged Conrad of Marburg: “ut puniatur sic temeritas perversorum quod innocentiae puritas non laedatur” — i.e., “not to punish the wicked so as to hurt the innocent”.[7]


Like the inquisitorial process itself, torture was an ancient Roman legal practice commonly used in secular courts. On May 15, 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull entitled Ad extirpanda, which authorized the limited use of torture by inquisitors. Much of the brutality commonly associated with the Inquisition was actually previously common in secular courts, but prohibited under the Inquisition, including torture methods that resulted in bloodshed, miscarriages, mutilation or death. Also, torture could be performed only once, and for a limited duration.

In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. According to the governor general of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, recent studies “seem to indicate” that “torture and the death penalty were not applied with the pitiless rigor” often ascribed to the Inquisition.[11] Other methods such as threats and imprisonment seem to have proven more effective.


A council in Tours in 1164, presided over by Pope Alexander III, ordered the confiscation of a heretics goods. Of 5,400 people interrogated in Toulouse between 1245–1246, 184 received penitential yellow crosses, 23 were imprisoned for life, and none were sent to the stake.[23]

The most extreme penalty available in antiheretical proceedings was reserved for relapsed or stubborn heretics. The unrepentant and apostates could be “relaxed” to secular authority, however, opening the convicted to the possibility of various corporal punishments, up to and including being burned at the stake. Execution was neither performed by the Church, nor was it a sentence available to the officials involved in the inquisition, who, as clerics, were forbidden to kill. The accused also faced the possibility that his or her property might be confiscated. In some cases, accusers may have been motivated by a desire to take the property of the accused, though this is a difficult assertion to prove in the majority of areas where the inquisition was active, as the inquisition had several layers of oversight built into its framework in a specific attempt to limit prosecutorial misconduct.

The inquisitors generally preferred not to hand over heretics to the secular arm for execution if they could persuade the heretic to repent: Ecclesia non novit sanguinem. For example, under Bernard Gui, a famous inquisitor working in the area of Carcassonne (in modern France), out of over 900 guilty verdicts in fifteen years of office, 42 people ended up executed.


The inquisitions in combination with the brutal Albigensian Crusade were very successful in eliminating the Cathar movement. When they started, the other sects were quite strong and growing, but by the 14th century the Waldensians had been driven underground and the Cathars had been slaughtered en masse or forced to recant. Some residents of the Pays Cathare identify themselves as Cathars even today. They claim to be descended from the Cathars of the Middle Ages. However, the delivering of the consolamentum, on which historical Catharism was based, required a linear succession by a bon homme in good standing. It is believed that one of the last known bons hommes, Guillaume Belibaste, was burned in 1321.


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