Dominicans Became Dreaded Inquisitors

Dan Graves, MSL

Dominicans Became Dreaded Inquisitors

Two of the darkest blots on Christian history are the witch hunts of Medieval Europe and the Inquisition--and the former employed the apparatus of the latter. No one knows for sure how many people suffered at the hands of the Inquisition. Thousands did. To most churchmen and governments it seemed self-evident that orthodoxy must be preserved, whatever the price.

Although Alexander III, Lucius III and Innocent III each made moves toward Inquisition, it was Gregory IX who instituted the machinery in 1227. In that year, he appointed a board of inquisitors to sit against heresy in Florence. Shortly afterward, he expanded the operation. This was inevitable, given the authoritarian nature of the Medieval church and the ferment of the times. Heresy was rife in Italy, France and the Balkans.

By 1231 Gregory had issued formal rules. As he envisioned the Inquisition, it would be for the salvation, coercion and punishment of erring Catholics only. Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians were not to be touched. The Inquisition would inquire into the spread of heresy, summon suspected heretics before tribunals, and punish infidelity so as to convert and save souls. It was aimed primarily at the growing numbers of Waldenses and Albigensians. Torture would be allowed, as it had been under Roman law. As his inquisitor in France, Gregory appointed the brutal Robert le Bougre, former heretic. He once had 180 individuals burned at the stake in one day and performed so many other atrocities that he was finally recalled and imprisoned.

On this date, April 20, 1233*, by papal bull, Gregory placed the operation of the Inquisition into the hands of the Dominicans. The Dominicans were the obvious choice for the role. Recognized by the church in 1220, the order's mission was to teach and preach: to employ the power of reason in support of faith. It is no coincidence that scholars like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, saintly and learned, were Dominicans. Dominic had made a point of winning heretics by the force of his holy life and persuasive preaching.

The methods employed by his order were not so gentle. They included torture and execution, usually by burning. Although the instructions for interrogation limited the use of torture, the tendency was to exceed them. Many Dominicans never participated in the Inquisition. Others were mild in their measures. Some resigned rather than continue the brutal work. Nonetheless the good name of the Dominicans was forever stained by their participation in this cruel activity. Before long the order became popularly known as Domini canes, Latin for "God's dogs."

*Some historians say 1232.


  1. "Dominic, St." and "Dominican Order." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  2. Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
  3. Hendrickson, Ford. Martyrs and Witnesses. Detroit: Protestant Missionary Pub. Co., 1917.
  4. Mandonnet, P. "Dominicans." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  5. Nigg, Walter. Warriors of God; the great religious orders and their founders. New York, Knopf, 1959.
  6. O'Connor, John B. "Dominic, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

Last updated April, 2007.

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