The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with exposing, punishing and eradicating religious heresies. It derived its name from the Latin verb inquiro (inquire into). Heresies (from the Latin haeresis, sect, school of belief) were a problem throughout the history of the church. In the early centuries there were the Arians and Manicheans; in the Middle Ages there were the Cathari and Waldenses; and in the Renaissance there were the Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Rosicrucians. Because witchcraft became to be viewed as a heresy, it too fell within the purview of the Inquisition.
Efforts to suppress heresies were initially ad hoc, but abuses by various local Inquisitions led to reform and regulation by Rome so that a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, Church Councils required secular rulers to prosecute heretics. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX published a decree which called for life imprisonment with salutary penance for the heretic who had confessed and repented and capital punishment for those who persisted. The secular authorities were to carry out the execution. Pope Gregory relieved the bishops and archbishops of the obligation of conducting Inquisitorial proceedings, and made this the duty of the Dominican Order, though many inquisitors were members of other orders such as the Franciscans, or came from the secular clergy. By the end of the decade the Inquisition had become a general institution in all lands under the overview of the Pope, and by the end of the 13th century the Inquisition in each region had evolved a bureaucracy to help in carrying out its function.
At the end of the 15th century, under Ferdinand and Isabel, the Spanish inquisition became independent of Rome. By its dealings with converted Moslems and Jews, the Spanish Inquisition, with its notorious autos-da-fés, has become notorious. In northern Europe however, the Inquisition was considerably more benign: in England it was never instituted, and in the Scandinavian countries it had hardly any impact.
Click on the images to enlarge in a new browser window.
Links (in red) also open new browser windows.