May be said to have arisen in the 12th century during the ravages of the anti-social sect, the Albigenses, whose doctrines and practises would have destroyed any community. The ordinary episcopal powers were unable to cope with the evil, while the populace took the matter into their own hands and put many of the heretics to death. The remedy for these evils on both sides was the establishment of a special tribunal, the Papal, or Roman Inquisition (1230, final form). It was a system of ecclesiastical courts for trying and punishing heresy, with jurisdiction over Catholics and fallen away Catholics alone.
In many points of its procedure, it was far in advance of the times and represented more the modern than the medieval courts. The reformation of the heretic was first sought; by admonitions or slight punishments the heretic was urged to give up his heresy. Many did. Only the relapsed or contumelious heretics were at length found guilty of heresy. The Church‘s part ended here; the condemned were turned over to the civil government for the punishment provided in the civil law.
The fact that the secular law prescribed death must be accepted with the realization that in the eyes of the people and the governments of those days, heresy was anarchy and high treason, and such it was in the then constitution of society. It must also be borne in mind that the criminal codes of the times were more cruel than those of our day. Leniency in criminal codes is of very recent origin; the criminal codes of France and England had about one hundred capital offenses down to the time of the French Revolution.
Like all institutions that have a human character abuses were bound to creep in. Most of these abuses occurred in the Spanish Inquisition. But even these have been grossly exaggerated. In Spain the evil was in large measure due to the great influence which the civil power had in the administration of the Inquisition. The Inquisition has been made a bugbear for Protestants. There were faults in its workings, such must be expected, but it did tremendous good in saving the Latin Countries from anarchy. There have been few things in history about which more falsehood has been written. The methods of the Inquisition must be judged in the light of its own times and not in view of modern ideas.