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Many people complain that courts turn too many criminals loose because of technicalities.
For example, the police search a house
without a warrant, or the police get a confession without explaining
the right to silence. And as a result, someone who might be a
burglar or a murderer goes free.
One of the best ways to see this is to look at a world where these protections didn't exist. In the Middle Ages in Europe, investigators brutally hunted down people they thought might be witches and heretics - those who oppose an established religion. People were secretly accused and had no protections at all. Many thousands of people were imprisoned or even burned alive.
These events left a scar on Western European history that affects us even today.
And they may provide lessons for our own
In Greece and the Middle East, people
had split away from the Catholic Church to form the Orthodox Church,
and Muslims controlled all of North Africa. But in most of Europe,
the pope in the Vatican remained the undisputed religious leader.
Heresies did not seem a large problem. The church tolerated some
small groups with opposing views. Others were suppressed by local
bishops or even angry mobs.
No one feared a heresy when only a handful practiced it, but now thousands were following a belief called Catharism or Albigensianism. Cathars believed in a strong division between good and evil. They thought a good God created our souls, but a bad God imprisoned our souls inside bodies. They believed physical bodies were always evil.
The leading Cathars, who called themselves "perfects,"
tried to live without property, marriage, or sex. Some of them
became so extreme that they gave up food and starved to death.
Church leaders felt something stronger
had to be done.
He set up a system of special religious courts called the Inquisition. Gregory authorized the leaders of the Dominican religious order to send out friars to find and question heretics.
Bernard Gui, an inquisitor in France described the purpose of the Inquisition this way:
Those who refused to recant, which means give up their heresy, were burned alive. The Inquisition completely wiped out the Cathars over the next 200 years. And the religious courts became a permanent system of religious control.
The Inquisition dominated the thinking
of much of Europe until the
Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.
For example, an inquisitor might ask,
No lawyers were allowed, because it was considered heresy to defend a heretic.
The only possible escape was
to recant as quickly as possible and name the names of other
The families of those sent to prison or
to the stake lost their property.
After completely wiping out the Cathar heresy, the Inquisition
spread to other parts of Europe. Inquisitors hunted down people
accused of witchcraft, scholars who read banned books, and Jews who
had converted to Catholicism but still secretly practiced Judaism.
In Spain, the Inquisition made almost no
headway for two centuries. Spain had been conquered by Muslims and
largely reconquered by Christians in the 1200s. As a result, Spain
was religiously heterogeneous, and a tolerance had developed so
Muslims, Christians, and Jews could live together in relative peace.
Spain saw the rise of a form of the
Inquisition more ruthless and disruptive than anywhere else in
To take part in business and government,
many of them had been forced to convert to Christianity. In fact,
the converts, or conversos in Spanish, made up a large part
of the wealthy and influential class of Spain. This produced
jealousy and anti-Semitic prejudice in many Spaniards. In the 1400s,
rumors spread that most conversos continued to practice their Jewish
beliefs. Anti-converso riots erupted in Toledo and other cities.
But the rioting was upsetting their
unified kingdom. The king and queen decided to act. Instead of
attacking the rioters who were causing religious bigotry, however,
they decided to attack the conversos. Pope Sixtus IV gave the
Spanish rulers permission to set up their own Inquisition. In Spain,
the search for heretics was to be controlled by the crown, not the
Within 10 years, over 2,000 people had
been burned at the stake, with another 15,000 suffering other
Crowds would gather in a public square, often facing a cathedral. In the center of the square, there were a dozen wooden stakes where the heretics were to be burned. A bishop came out and shouted out the names of the condemned. Then the heretics were led out, wearing black robes decorated with red demons and flames.
Officials of the government tied them to the stake.
Anyone who repented would be strangled to death before the fires were lit. Most, however, stood silent or defiant.
The fires were lit, and the square
echoed with the screams of the heretics and cheers from the crowd.
These attacks and expulsions against
Spanish Jews paralyzed all of Spanish commerce. A hundred years
later, the same resentment and fury turned against the Muslim
population. Spain never recovered as a commercial power.
The new Protestant religions were protected by,
A single Europe had come apart.
The church has had to reconsider its past actions. In recent times, Pope John Paul II had a church commission review what was perhaps its best known Inquisition case.
The commission decided that the church
was wrong when it punished Galileo in 1633 for declaring that the
Earth was not the center of the universe.