We talk a lot about diversity in the modern age. Prime Minister Trudeau says that diversity is our strength and while I’d say that’s an incomplete and naïve portrait of what truly makes Canada a great country, there’s still some merit to his well rehearsed and derivative catch phrase. But diversity is something that we enjoy because we can fall back on so many other things that allow us to still function as a society.
The people of the middle ages did not have these same things. Civilization, at that time, was in its infancy and quite fragile as a result. Let’s look at one pillar of a stable civilization: agriculture, to get a sense of what I mean. So agriculture means food production or farming. In the middle ages, a bad string of weather or drought meant starvation for many. That kind of thing is virtually unheard of in modern developed countries because we have agricultural methods and genetically modified crops that are hardy enough to survive most of what you can throw at them. In spite of the fact that we don’t get along as a society and seem to be growing more and more polarized, that doesn’t inhibit our welfare as much as it would have for our ancestors because we have inherited technology, advanced health-care methods, affordable energy sources, and manufacturing methods that give us access to material wealth that only our richest ancestors could access. Simply put, we’re spoiled enough that the luxury of diversity isn’t going to create catastrophe for us. But they couldn’t rely on those things because life and civilization were so much more fragile, people had to work together in a very harmonious way for any hope of survival and stability. They had to rally around a unified vision for how to live life and band together in spite of personal differences and in the European nations in which the inquisition was a normal part of society, that unifying force was Christianity. It gave them a moral, spiritual, and cultural framework to use as a focal point for the harmony that they needed to work together.
It’s how they framed their cultural and national identity. They were bonded together as nation states because of this common denominator and the unifying quality of the Church. This meant that their laws as well as their status as members of a state had a lot to do with their fidelity to those common beliefs because to stray from them meant to disrupt the harmony that was so desperately needed for prosperity. This meant that to depart from the Christian faith was to depart from that single vision that was, arguably, needed to uphold some semblance of civilization and because it was so vital, apostasy from that common vision was often treated like treason.
So because Christianity was so vital to their stability as a society, laws, which varied from place to place, were established that treated heresy quite severely. Heresies were ideas and beliefs that were contrary to the teachings of the Church which were publicly declared and adamantly defended. This was, in the case of the inquisition, only applicable to Christians. The inquisition wasn’t setup to judge pagans, or Jews, or Muslims. We often have this misconception that non-Christians were rounded up and tortured on a regular basis and that’s actually just not true and if it did happen it was in contradiction of what the inquisition was established to be and do. So this idea that witch burnings were a common thing is a complete myth. In fact, the inquisition treated accusations of witchcraft as foolish superstitions. Because these laws concerning heresy as a threat to that unified vision and, therefore society, existed there was a big challenge because the laws were judged and enforced by secular courts and authorities. So imagine a local lord or magistrate reviewing a case of heresy. The problem was, they weren’t theological experts and could easily be pressured into condemning someone as a heretic unfairly.
And this is why the inquisition was established. To prevent that exact kind of thing from happening. In cases of heresy, the authorities needed theological experts that examine the publicly confessed beliefs of the accused. The inquisition existed to protect people from unjust persecution by ignorant and uninformed authorities.