Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Catholic

Torture during the inquisitions of the 12-14th centuries.

There is little evidence of much inquisition-inflicted torture outside those directly related to the conditions of imprisonment in 13/14th century.

The papal bull Ad exterpanda restricted torture in its same authorization of it: no breaking bones. It doesn’t say what one should do, but emphasizes imprisonment. The unstated concomitant tortures of prison were variously hunger, disease, cold, close confinement and shackling.

In fact the most famous of inquisitors and author of key inquisition manuals, Bernardo Gui, explicitly states in the early 14th c in his Practica inquisitionis that imprisonment is the most effective method for extracting confession. A review of Gui’s registers the Liber sententiarum, which are fairly detailed, shows imprisonment being highly varied in type (from a style of short house arrest to multi-year). Gui also suggests psychological techniques such as threats against family and friends being discovered as heretics, or threats they will be ‘outed’ by family and friends, all driving to the ‘relief’ of confession, ‘relief’ that the worst punishment for everyone in your social circle has been avoided.

Although we should generally dismiss the view that torture such as the ‘rack’ or ‘flaying’ or other such dramatic ideas for this period of inquisition for lack of evidence, or rather misinterpretation of the use of the word ‘torture’ found in sources, we should see clearly the totality of the consequences of imprisonment mentioned above. The best source on this is James Given’s Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc (Cornell, 1997), in particular chapter ‘Inquisitor’s Techniques’.

Below is the letter from the consuls of Carcassonne complaining about the local inquisitor Jean Galand at the end of the 13th century, 50 years on since the establishment of the first real inquisitions at Toulouse. This is wholly taken from Given’s book above, and he suggests there is perhaps some exaggeration in it:

We feel ourselves aggrieved in that you, contrary to the use and custom observed by your predecessors in the inquisition, have made a new prison, called the mur. Truly this could be called with good cause a hell. For in it you have constructed little cells for the purpose of tormenting and torturing people. Some of these cells are dark and airless, so the those lodged there cannot tell if it is day or night, and they are continuously deprived of air and light. In other cells there are kept miserable wretches laden with shackles, some of wood, some of iron. Nor can they lie down except on the frigid ground. They have endured torments like these day and night for a long time. In other miserable places in the prison, not only is there no light or air, but food is rarely distributed, and then only bread and water.

Many prisoners have been put in similar situations, in which several, because of severity of their tortures, have lost limbs and have been completely incapacitated. Many, because of the unbearable conditions and their great suffering, have died a most cruel death. In these prisons there is constantly heard an immense wailing, weeping, groaning, and gnashing of teeth. What more can one say? For these prisoners life is a torment and death a comfort. And thus coerced they say that what is false is true, choosing to die once rather than endure more torture. As a result of these false and coerced confessions not only do those making the confessions perish, but so do the innocent people named by them […]

In this we can see the use of the verb ‘torture’ in its abstracted, descriptive sense. This use has been co-opted into historiographical narrative about medieval inquisition as a capital-t ‘Torture’, divorcing it from context. It has thus been merged with our understanding of medieval secular torture and punishment which did involve various (famous) forms of corporal torture.

At the same time, we can see this as skillful use of the concept of ‘torture-that-isn’t-really-torture’ by ecclesiastics; it allowed claims by popes, legates, inquisitors that it was simply ‘imprisonment’ and that the conditions of imprisonment were the fault of the imprisoned: they inflict it upon themselves. This is a more subtle view, but makes clearer our understanding of the relationship between Christian notions of sin and punishment within an ethic of self-punishment that are distinctly medieval, and which we live with today.

The Irish Republican Army:


Basically, Britain ruled Ireland like a colony – like they ruled in America or in India. The Irish didn’t like this but it was much harder for them to win their independence due to Britain being right the fuck there. There were also many loyalists in Ireland, further muddying the situation, as well as Irish men in the British army fighting against the IRA.

irish-republican-army-leaders (1)

Initially Britain decided to give them representation in parliament instead of their independence, like what N. Ireland has now. That gave rise to a conflict within the IRA, with some of the rebels wanting to end the war and accept the offer of being represented in the legislature, and some of the rebels wanting to continue to fight until Britain gave them complete independence. The separatist faction of the IRA tended to be socialists who wanted independence from England so they could make significant changes to the political and economic workings of Ireland. The others were not exactly loyalists but were capitalists who thought that home rule would be good enough to turn things around without seizing the means of production from private owners and whatnot.

Somewhere along the line, religion came into it, with England being an officially Protestant nation and Ireland being officially Catholic.


So now you had Protestants being attacked in the Republic, Catholics being attacked in the North, the IRA blowing up everything British on both sides of the line, an argument within the IRA about socialism vs. capitalism leading to them to split into to the National Army (the official standing army of the Republic of Ireland) and the irregulars and thereafter into several different factions, with the British army trying to suppress all of the above from all directions.


The West Bank situation might be pretty comparable to this in about 20 or 30 years. Currently Israel is trying to settle loyalist families in the area, displacing the Palestinians. Eventually they might reach an uneasy peace with Palestinians and Israeli living side-by-side but still hating each other. Eventually the Palestinians start to want independence but Israel is reluctant to give up the tax income that the area represents so they offer the Palestinians self-government as long as they continue to pay taxes. Some Palestinians are OK with this, but some want to evict the Israelis entirely, who they see as the cause of the Palestinians’ suffering, and seize their land and incomes and distribute them among the Palestinians as reparations… do you see where this is going?

Münster Rebellion

How an end-of-the-world prophecy caused the creation of a polygamistic, proto-Communist city-state in Münster during the 1530s; or, the story of the Münster Rebellion.

This image of Erhard Schoen shows the first major attack on the city Pentecost 1534,

This image of Erhard Schoen shows the first major attack on the city Pentecost 1534.

In 1534, a group of Anabaptists took control of the city of Münster and created a theocratic Anabaptist state. It is also my favourite ‘end of the world prophecy’ event in history.

Anabaptists, whose main theological similarity is a belief in adult baptism (as a child cannot enter a covenant), generally predate the ‘typical’ start date for the Protestant Reformation: Luther nailing his 95 Theses up to a door in 1520. However, Melchior Hoffman, leader of the Melchiorites that took over Münster, was directly inspired by Luther to take up preaching. He was notable for his decidedly metaphorical interpretation of the Eucharist, and officially became an Anabaptist sometime in the early 1530s (although he later renounced his Anabaptism). He proclaimed in 1526 that 1533 would be the year of the return of Jesus Christ, in his commentary on the Book of Daniel (Das XII Capitel des propheten Danielis aussgelegt). Unsurprisingly, this caused not insignificant social unrest, even in the extremely radical city of Strassbourg, and he was imprisoned.


Hoffman’s eschatology involved a few components that are key for understanding the Rebellion (all derived from Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, page 528ff:

  1. The battle would be a decidedly Earthly one, with certain rulers acting for the ‘true’ Church and protecting them, and others attempting to destroy them
  2. That Strassbourg, the site of Hoffman’s 1533 arrest, would be the seat of the ‘good’ side of the Battle.
  3. That specific cities (following Hans Hut) would align on different sides, not specific regions
  4. That Hoffman was himself Elijah, the announcer of Jesus’ return
  5. That there would be a 3.5 year period of tribulation or battle between these forces
  6. That two holy rulers (Joseph and Solomon) would work together to create a holy theocracy
  7. Beginning in 1530, he believed that during the 3.5 year period of war, the Christians would no longer be passive victims, but powerful actors in the end days.

   Jan Matthys

With this in mind, a Melchiorite named Jan Matthys decided to take control of Münster, deciding it was clearly part of Hoffman’s theology of the end times. However, he was quickly killed, as having decided that God was on his side, he went forth on a sally with only 30 other men and was immediately killed by besieging forces. He was replaced as ruler by John (Jan) of Leiden. Münster’s main theologian, Bernard Rothmann, decided two very important things:

  1. That Jesus’ reign would not come to pass until David (John of Leiden) created an early Kingdom;
  2. The 3.5 years of grace (not Hoffman’s war) had ended, and it was time to conquer the unfaithful.
Cages of the leaders of the Münster Rebellion at the steeple of St. Lambert's Church

Cages of the leaders of the Münster Rebellion at the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church

John of Leiden, thus empowered, created a polygamist theocracy, complete with book-burning and forced redistributed of communal property. However, Münster fell shortly thereafter, and John of Leiden and his compatriots were executed and their bodies were hung, in cages, from a church steeple.

These cages are still visible, but the bones have been removed.


The only known photograph of Mother Tereza (real name Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu) in her youth c. 1930


My favorite story about Mother Teresa is that often when people could join the Sisters of Charity and minister among the needy in Calcutta she would reply, “Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. … You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.” I think that’s just beautiful.