On punishment

Christine Caldwell Ames describes what the inquisitions did to people – and why.



Christine Caldwell Ames describes what the inquisitions did to people – and why.


The punishments of the medieval inquisition were fascinatingly similar to the punishments that we see be deployed in monasteries, actually, some of the same ones. The flogging of a person, something that was used very commonly in monastic communities, is then used for heretics who have confessed their crime but then want to return to the church. This included public beating, by the way; heretics could be flogged at a church during Mass as part of a procession – again, very much part of a welcoming back into the community. They could do fasts, they could do prayers, that is, a sort of exaggeration of what any sinner might do after having confessed to sin.

One of the most notorious and in some ways strange punishments that we see for medieval heretics is the wearing of a yellow cloth cross on clothing. And this is fascinating for lots of reasons. Inquisitors are very, very specific and particular: it has to be visible, it has to be clean, it can’t rip off, it has to be replaced. And this seems to harken back to a couple of interrelated things. It harkens back to the idea that religiously different people wear different clothing in the Middle Ages, that is, monastic habits, distinct monastic habits. It also is harkening back more specifically to the idea of the crusader, who is marked with a cross to go fight as a penitent.  

And what’s interesting is that it’s the wearing of crosses that former heretics seem to be especially vexed by. And the reason why is because it prevents them from being welcomed back into their communities. That is, we know that people who wore these crosses could be excluded. And so we have inquisitors also issuing warnings, reminders, urges to communities to say, whether someone is wearing a cross, someone is being punished in some other way publicly, you have to welcome them back, because that was the entire point of the process.

Interviewer: Any other gory ones? Spanish Inquisition?

Christine Caldwell Ames: Well I was just re-reading, actually, Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum”, which of course has a list of wonderful punishments by the Spanish Inquisition. But one of the most important things to keep in mind about the punishments that we see – as well as actually torture itself, which of course is deployed regularly by medieval inquisitions, by the Spanish Inquisition, by the Roman Inquisition – is that it is a particular understanding of the role that the body plays in guiding belief. And it’s something that I do think, perhaps, we moderns can’t quite appreciate in the same way, that the body is a tool to change the mind and to shape the soul.

And so we don’t actually see a lot of gory punishments – that’s something that I think is credited, perhaps, more to the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition, credited to someone like Poe, and “The Pit and The Pendulum”. But we do absolutely have this sense that, as inquisitors will say, that pain brings understanding. It brings understanding before one has confessed to heresy; after one has confessed to heresy, pain is what helps the soul recuperate and atone for the sin of heresy.