d) The Inquisition But what of the Inquisition? For many, the “Inquisition” and the “Burning Times” are virtually synonymous. The myth of the witch-hunting inquisition was built on several assumptions and mistakes, all of which have been overturned in the last twenty-five years. First, the myth was the logical extension of 19th century history, which blamed the persecutions on the Catholic Church. If the Church attacked witches, surely the Inquisition would be the hammer She wielded.
Second, a common translation error muddied the waters. Many records simply said that a witch was tried “by inquisition”. Some writers assumed that this meant “the” Inquisition. And in some cases it did. But an “inquisition” was also the name of a type of trial used by almost all courts in Europe at the time. Later, when historians examined the records in greater detail, they found that the majority did not involve the Inquisition, merely an inquisition. Today most historians are careful about this, but older and more popular texts (such as Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology) still have the Inquisition killing witches in times and places where it did not even exist.
Third, the only witch-hunting manual most people have seen was written by an inquisitor. In the 1970’s, when feminist and Neo-Pagan authors turned their attention to the witch trials, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was the only manual readily available in translation. Authors naively assumed that the book painted an accurate picture of how the Inquisition tried witches. Heinrich Kramer, the text’s demented author, was held up as a typical inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the Church’s “official” position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately rejected the legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself just a few years after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial ones, resorted to the Malleus.
As more research was done and historians became more sensitive to the “an inquisition/the Inquisition” error, the inquisitorial witch-hunter began to look like a rare bird. Lamothe-Langon’s trials were the last great piece of “evidence”, and when they fell, scholars re-examined the Inquisition’s role in the Burning Times. What they found was quite startling. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV explicitly refused to allow the Inquisition from investigating charges of witchcraft: “The Inquisitors, deputed to investigate heresy, must not intrude into investigations of divination or sorcery without knowledge of manifest heresy involved.” The gloss on this passage explained what “manifest heresy” meant: “praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, to elicit responses from them… or if [the witches] associate themselves publicly with heretics.” In other words, in the 13th century the Church did not consider witches heretics or members of a rival religion.