For what, exactly, was Galileo threatened with torture?

Everyone agrees that Galileo was threatened with torture by the Catholic Church during his 1633 trial, in which he was accused of defending Copernicanism. This trial culminated with his being forced to recant and abjure Copernicanism.

My understanding was that he was forced to recant under threat of torture. That is, I had assumed that the Church said, in effect, “Recant, or we’ll torture you.” I tried to edit the Wikipedia page to reflect this, but other editors read the sources differently.

The alternative interpretation is that the Church said, in effect, “Admit that you defended Copernicanism, or we’ll torture you.” Galileo had earlier been ordered not to defend Copernicanism. He claimed that he hadn’t defended this theory, only presented it for study. It’s plausible that the church just wanted him to admit that he had defended Copernicanism, not just presented it, and that they only threatened torture to get him to admit it.

Once this interpretation was pointed out to me, I realized that it is at least consistent with my source material. But my source material is just what I can read of the following two books using Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature. The books I’ve been looking at are by Finocchiaro and by Gingerich. But my interpretation also seem consistent with these books. As far as I can tell, they only say that he was told to “tell the truth”. But does this mean, “Admit that Copernicanism is wrong”? Or does it mean, “Admit that you defended it”?

So, does anyone know exactly what the nature of the threat of torture was? Was it “Recant, or we’ll torture you”? Or was it “Admit that you defended Copernicanism, or we’ll torture you.”

Some article I read years ago said that what was going on was this- there was a cult/group that pushed some sort of astrological hokum that ran counter to the church’s official word. The church of the time, in reaction to dissent, made any discussion of Copernican theory (contrary to the party line) a heresy. Galileo was some scientist focussed on scientific truth, and could not care less about esoteric debates over mystical topics. Unfortunately, to the hard-line factions of the church, he was een as giving aid and comfort to the enemy by giving scientific backing to their side of the debate. He was ordered not to push the point about Copernicus, so instead of scientific fact he took the passive-aggressive approach and pubished a “fair-and-balanced” dialog between the helio-centric intellectual and a simpleton pushing the church’s point of view.

Think of it as the equivalent of today having a debate about global warming and freedom fries.

He had quite a few defenders in the church, especially among the intellectuals, so in fact he was let off easy, considering that basically he taunted the powers that be.

You probably already knew that, FWIW, Pope John Paul II apologized for Galileo’s treatment in a 1992 speech:


It was a hollow threat anyway. Galileo was “shown the instruments of torture,” presumably in a vain attempt to rattle him before he went to trial. Because of his quite advanced age at the time, it would have been illegal (by the Church’s own laws) to actually torture him. Probably Galileo was aware of this fact. There was no torture, and there was never going to be any.

There was also no real question, at the trial, about what Galileo believed or what he had written. The issue was whether there was anything illegal about it. At the outset of the trial Galileo argued that he stayed within the letter of the law; by the end he was persuaded to admit that he had not. He was not accused of heresy, he was accused of disobeying Cardinal Bellarmine’s personal order, given several years before, that Galileo, specifically, should not promote the heliocentric theory. His guilt or innocence turned on the precise wording of that order (records of which existed in two different versions), and the precise wording and format of the text that Galileo had published. This was a relatively trivial crime, and Galileo’s punishment was accordingly lenient (by the standards of the time).

In any case, when he published the work for which he was arrested (the Dialog), Galileo was under the impression that he had the current Pope’s personal position to publish: that Bellarmine’s gag order had, in effect, been lifted. It appears that right after the book went on sale, the Pope abruptly changed his position and had Galileo arrested. It may have been because Pope Urban found some aspect of the way Galileo expressed himself to be personally offensive, or (much more likely in my opinion) it may have been due to a power shifts in behind-the-scenes Vatican politics (which were in a very volatile state at the time) which led Pope Urban to feel the need to put on a show trial to divert attention away from his own shrtcomings (in teh eyes of his opponents within the Curia). Urban had the reputation of being a very liberal, modernizing Pope, but at this moment he needed to appease his more conservative opposition who were growing in influence due to external circumstances (a string of Protestant victories in the Thirty Years War, that was currently raging in northern Europe). Galileo happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The notion that the Church hierarchy was implacably opposed to the heliocentric theory is a myth. There were elements in the church that objected to it, but they were never in control, and Pope Urban was opposed to them. However, at the time of the publication of Galileo’s Dialog, he was probably in a situation where he had a pressing political need to placate them. Galileo was a patsy.

The whole “showing the instruments of torture” thing has been blown out of proportion by those who want to depict the Galileo affair, for propaganda purposes, as part of an epic struggle between science and religious superstition. It was nothing of the kind. It was either the result of Pope Urban throwing an irrational tantrum, or, more likely, a bit of squalid political gamesmanship that had very little to do with the Church hierarchy’s attitude to Copernicanism (which, rather than being implacable opposition, was more like mild scepticism coupled with bureaucratic resistance to change).

This bears almost no resemblance to what is actually known to have happened.

If I remember right it didn’t help that Galileo put a lot of stock into his tide theory as his big piece of evidence.(As I remember it that theory makes predictions like there’s only 1 tide a day, it’s at the same time every day and it’s the same height. IE it gets nearly every observable fact about the tides wrong. Even Einstein pointed out the Galileo was ignoring the evidence when it came to his tide theory.)

Well, it is true that his tide theory was false (and that Kepler had already put forward a better one, that Galileo treated with derision), but I do not think that had much to do with why he got put on trial. The fact is that, at the relevant time, the available evidence and arguments in favor of heliocentrism were very weak, and the arguments against a moving Earth looked pretty strong. In his Dialog, in fact, Galileo did a great deal to undermine the latter arguments, but at the time of his arrest, the book had just appeared so its impact had not yet been felt. His arguments about the nature of motion quite effectively refuted any arguments to the effect that the Earth must be (or clearly is) still, and in the process they laid down the basis of modern physics. However, to show that the Earth could be moving is not to show that it actually is moving. The tides theory is supposed to show that, but, as you say, it does not actually fit even the basic facts about tides known at the time. (I doubt whether the Holy Office cared, though.)

In fact, there was not really a strong empirical case in favor of heliocentrism until Kepler completed and published his Rudolphine Tables, several years later, and until they had proven to be able to predict the motions of the planets far more accurately than any form of Geocentric had ever been able to mange. (Not that tables based on the Geocentric/Ptolemaic system were by any means hopeless in that regard, but Kepler’s heliocentrically based ones soon showed themselves to be unequivocally better). At the time Galileo first published the Dialog, a rational, impartial observer would have been perfectly justified in rejecting heliocentrism (and most of them did).

I’m just asking about the narrow question of the nature of the torture threat, not the surrounding circumstances of the trial.

The sentence against Galileo said that he was to be “threatened with torture”. I take this to mean that he was told “We’ll torture you if you don’t do X” for some value of X. My question is, What did X equal? Was it “recant”, “admit that you defended heliocentrism”, “cooperate with these proceedings”, or something else?

When you say that they were just trying to “rattle him”, do you mean to say that they didn’t tell him what he had to do to avoid torture? Are you saying that they just made sure that he was in the same room with the torture-instruments at some point, but that no verbal threat was made?

Do you have a cite to back this up? I can’t even find a reputable cite (referring to original sources) saying that he was ever “shown the instruments of torture”. The original sources I’ve found only say that he was to be “threatened with torture”. This to me implies that there was a verbal threat of torture. What was the nature of this verbal threat? Or, if there was no verbal threat (just a display of instruments), what evidence documents this?

Galileo wasn’t just accused of disobeying orders. He was also accused of being “vehemently suspect of heresy”, which was something short of full-blown “formal heresy”.

You are saying he was sentenced to be threatened? That sounds most implausible and I am pretty sure it is wrong. Indeed, it hardly seems conceivable that an official sentence would contain a threat to do something illegal. I do not have the relevant books to hand at the moment, but, as I remember, the threat of torture came either just before the trial commenced, or sometime during it. I think before, but I am not quite sure. It is significant because, by all accounts, Galileo went into trial fairly confident and defiant, defending himself vigorously, but about half way through his demeanor changed and he eventually pled guilty. Possibly this was a result of the threat of torture being made part way through, but I don’t think so. IIRC what turned the tide was simply a long private talk he had with one of the prosecutor/judges. We do not know what was said, but the best guess I have heard is that he was told he had better take the fall for the relatively minor offence with which he was charged or else things might get a lot more nasty, not just for him but for his friends within the Vatican, including, possibly, even Pope Urban himself, who were actually doing their best to keep the whole matter a low key as possible. If the threat of torture came before the trial, as I think it did, it was clearly ineffective (suggesting Galileo knew that there was no way they were actually going to torture him).

We don’t know what they told him. It is important to realize that a lot of the records pertaining to the trial are unavailable, sealed at the time and very likely destroyed or irretrievably lost since. (Probably inadvertently lost when Napoleon invaded Italy and carted away a bunch of stuff from the Vatican. It was eventually given back, but much got damaged or jumbled up so stuff can’t be found, in the process.) Furthermore much of the most crucial stuff that went down was probably private conversations that were never recorded. Because of that we have to rely on inference and educated guesswork based on the rather meager evidence we do have, which can lead to different historians giving very different seeming accounts. As I tried to convey before, the impression that I get from what I have read is that the threat of torture, although it was made at one point, was not actually a very big deal because it was an idle threat, and Galileo probably knew it was an idle threat.

I don’t have a cite now, but the phrase “shown the instruments of torture” stuck in my mind, so I am fairly sure it is right, and my impression is that it is a fairly direct translation of whatever is actually in the records. Possibly it was ordered but never actually happened. Anyway, I think that “showing the instruments” certainly amounts to a threat. Possibly nothing was said at all: a threat does not have to be verbal. If you march a prisoner down to the torture chamber and give him a good look at what is available, that could be plenty enough to throw a good scare into him, at least into a lesser man than Galileo. It may be that the point of the exercise was to frighten the prisoner into being honest and respectful during trial, and perhaps it might even scare a confession out of him. For all I know, “showing the instruments of torture” may have been standard practice before trials of this type. It would make a certain amount of sense.

I don’t see how being "vehemently suspected” of a crime can actually be a crime, even from the admittedly sometimes twisted perspective of the Inquisition. In any case, one of the weirdest aspects of the whole affair is that heliocentrism was not even considered heretical until Galileo (back in 1616) more or less insisted that the Holy Office give a formal ruling on the matter. The powers that were did not much want to make matters of science into matters of official dogma (St Augustine had warned strongly against this centuries before), but they were pushed into it reluctantly. This, I think, is another strong hint that what really got Galileo into trouble was poor political judgement and bad timing.

See page 119 of Gingerich’s book. (You can see the page by using Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book” feature to search for the word “torture”.) That page contains the original and an English translation of an excerpt from the 1633 sentence entered against Galileo in the Book of Decrees.

Here is an excerpt of the excerpt:

(Emphasis added.)

The crime was called “vehement suspicion of heresy”. (Calling it “being vehemently suspect of heresy” was a misrecollection on my part.) I agree that the phrase is confusing, but see pp. 14–15 of Finocchiaro:

(This is from page 15. I was able to read this at Amazon by searching in Finocchiaro’s book for “heresy”.)

How are you getting from that that the threat of torture was part of the sentence? It seems pretty clearly to be an order saying that a threat of torture was an allowable part of the interrogation procedure, to be followed by a sentence of imprisonment (presumably if a determination of guilt was made). This makes sense, and is in fact what happened.

Your interpretation, that the threat of torture was part of the sentence, makes no sense, is not what happened, and is not implied by your quote.

Do you agree that the quote is a quote from the 1633 sentence entered against Galileo in the Book of Decrees?

If so, do you agree that the sentence entered against Galileo was read by him prior to an interrogation?

I’m not sure where you are getting that threatening torture was merely allowable, and not in fact ordered. Be that as it may, Gingerich (p. 118) says that Galileo was also threatened with torture during the interrogation itself, so the “even threatened with torture” part of the sentence was in fact carried out.

ETA: But it is besides the point whether a threat of torture appeared in a sentence. Gingerich says that Galileo was threatened with torture during an interrogation. My question in the OP only depends on this being true.

I’m not super informed on this issue but I tend to think if someone has found two books they find informative on it they should probably buy those two books instead of using the small preview afforded by; there’s a lot of important context you miss by just reading selected passages.

In general I agree. I may indeed buy the Finocchiaro book.

But I doubt that my question is answered by any of the missing context. I was able to read all pages preceding, including, and following, every appearance of the word “torture” in the Gingerich book, and nearly so in the Finocchiaro book.

Se also this: Has an article about the politics behind the charges and trial.

This author states that it was all a later embellishment.
“Gaileo was never tortured by the Inquisition. The pope alone, in his official statement, said that Galileo should be made to abjure under threat of torture; yet this was never part of the judges’ sentence and Galileo was never … shown the instruments of torture.”

Interesting. This author (Birkett) seems to flatly contradict Gingerich. The caption to Figure 14.6 (p. 119) of Gingerich’s book reads

The excerpt from the Book of Decrees shown in Figure 14.6 is then translated as reading

I don’t see how to reconcile this with Birkett’s claim that no threat of torture appeared in the judges’ sentence. Perhaps the “sentencing” recorded in the Book of Decrees and the “judges’ sentence” are two different sentences.

It took the catholic church 500 years, to say how sorry they were for house imprisoning Gaileo. Gaileo did not need to see Instruments of torture to know they were available? and readly used by the catholic church to get people to recant.
That was Torture in itself, Mental Torture, of the sort still used to this very day.
Mental torture, as in ‘Hell’; will be a persons abode if he does not recant of his Sins.:rolleyes:

If “sentence” means here what “sentence” means in modern English, i.e., a punishment that is applied after a finding of guilt, then no, I am not inclined to believe it. That appears to be a decree about how the pre-trial interrogation should be conducted. If your book appears to say that this is his sentence, then I strongly suspect that either the author is confused, or you are.

However, we appear to be in a world where “suspicion” does not mean suspicion, so perhaps, in what you are reading, “sentence” does not mean sentence either (and your confusion is understandable).

I am not denying that he was threatened with torture. However, it does not follow that that threat was coupled with some sort of ultimatum, as you seem to think. That is not typically what torture is used for anyway. It is typically used to loosen someone’s tongue to get information or a confession out of them. Simply scaring someone, without actually hurting them, is also a common and effective means of achieving such a result. It is not supposed to be a way to obtain a lying confession of guilt. It is supposed to be a way to get them to tell the truth (which might amount to a truthful confession). No doubt torture and threat of torture can deliberately be used in order to get someone to make a false confession or recantation (or provide other false information), but I see no reason to think that that is the case here.

As I have been saying, and as you cite Gingerich as saying, the threat was made as part of his interrogation. Interrogation of prisoners typically takes place before their trial, and is carried out in order to obtain either a confession or information that is likely to be of use to the prosecution.

The straightforward answer to your original question is that we don’t know what he was told when being threatened, and probably have no way of discovering it, but there is little reason to think that either of the alternative scenarios you present in your OP is the correct one. They did not need to get a confession of guilt out of him. What he had done was a matter of clear public record. The only disputable issue was whether it amounted to any sort of crime. They also hardly needed threats of torture in order to get him to stop promoting heliocentrism any further. After all, Bellarmine’s order, delivered without any particularly dire threats, had quite effectively shut him up about the subject for the 16 years from 1616 to 1632. He only published because he (wrongly) thought that Urban had de facto rescinded (or, at least, would countenance a very liberal interpretation of) Bellarmine’s order.

As the whole thing was really a show trial anyway, the threat of torture may have been designed mainly to impress Urban’s enemies and convince them that he was tough on heresy. They might not have cared much about its effect, if any, on Galileo.

IIRC — sorry, no cite — back in the Good Old Days torture for the purpose of interrogation (as opposed to punishment or execution) commonly had three stages. First, the potential victim was shown the instruments. If that did not have the desired effect, he/she was told in graphic detail what each instrument would do to his/her body. Only if he/she remained obdurate would the actual torture be applied.

Human nature being what it is, I suspect that application was necessary somewhat less than half the time. Which is not to say that the Lord High Executioner wasn’t above a playful tweak of the thumbscrew. Just between friends, you know.

Gingerich’s credentials look very good, so it is much more likely that I am confused than that he is. Have you looked at pp. 117–119 of his book? I’m especially curious to know what you make of the caption to Figure 14.6 on p. 119.