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The Medieval Inquisition in Naples

"Medieval inquisition" refers to the institution set up by Pope Lucius III within the Roman Catholic Church in 1184  to deal with heresy. In what follows I cover the period from that date up through the mid-1300s, times that included the beginning of the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, the reign of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, and the subsequent Angevin dynasty in southern Italy. Before that change of dynasties, the city of Naples was within the Kingdom of Sicily (the capital was Palermo). The term "Kingdom of Naples" was not used until well beyond the period under discussion. I shall try to distinguish carefully between the city of "Naples" and the "Kingdom of Sicily."

It was not the intent of the Inquisition to deal with members of religious faiths perceived by Christian Europe as "foreign," such as Jews or Muslims (exception: during the early Angevin reign, the Inquisition went on a campaign in southern Italy to convert Jews. See text.). (The general mistreatment of Jews in medieval Europe is beyond the scope of this entry except where it overlaps with the history of the Inquisition.) As for Muslims, you could wage wars against them (as in the Crusades), but that was an external affair (exception: the Muslims in Lucera. See text); thus, at least in theory, neither Jew nor Muslim could be punished simply for being infideles. Heretics, however, were internal. They were Christians who deviated from the "true" faith and who threatened the order of things, the fabric of the Holy Roman Empire, itself. Heretics were to be dealt with judicially within the dual Christian/State system; first by the church to determine guilt, and then by civil authorities for punishment.

Pope Innocent III          
Pope Innocent IIIAfter centuries of oblivion, a reminder of the Medieval Inquisition has been reopened in Naples on the premises of the old Dominican monastery annexed to the church. The entrance is on a narrow alley that angles over from Piazzetta Casanova on via San Sebastiano to pass between the back of the music conservatory and the back of the entire San Domenico Maggiore complex. At that point, the monastic premises contained the Inquisition Chamber. A local newspaper, on the occasion of the reopening of the premises, scoffed at the notion that Naples had ever "rejected" the Inquisition. The writer then made the comment that "for centuries, starting in 1233 thousands of persons [heretics] passed through the chamber." The article is accompanied by pictures of medieval torture. At least as far as the Medieval Inquisition is concerned, the matter is not so cut and dried.

First, it is true, in spite of what the journalist may think, that the city of Naples (and thus the entire Spanish vicerealm of Naples) rejected at least one Inquisition. That was in 1547; the affair involved the particularly severe Spanish Inquisition. (Read about that episode here.) There was, however, an earlier one, what historians term the Medieval Inquisition, proclaimed in 1184 by Pope Lucius III to suppress the growing Catharist and Albigensian heresies in southern France. It was the first step in what eventually turned into the Albigensian Crusade—i.e., a war declared by powerful Pope Innocent III*1 (image, above) to eliminate those heresies in the Languedoc region of France. In 1199, almost at the beginning of his reign, Innocent had written:
  The civil law punishes traitors with the confiscation of their property and death; it is only out of kindness that the lives of their children are spared. All the more then should we excommunicate and confiscate the property of those who are traitors to the faith of Jesus Christ; for it is an infinitely greater sin to offend the divine majesty than to attack the majesty of the sovereign. (cited in Vanandard, p.66)

The Albigensian Crusade lasted from 1209 to 1229 and was "successful" at the cost of about one million lives.*2 During that period (in 1215), Innocent convoked the Fourth Lateran Council; it declared all heretics excommunicated, and delivered them over to the state to receive due punishment, generally banishment and confiscation of property, but also death. Beginning in the 1230s, Pope Gregory IX then favored the Dominican Order as tools of the Inquisition; the Dominicans were mendicants and accustomed to travel, and they had a reputation as enemies of heresy.

Frederick II (statue, facade,     
Royal Palace, Naples.)
That order had a strong presence in the city of Naples, centered on the large church and monastery of San Domenico Maggiore; the premises had earlier been Benedictine but passed to the Dominicans in 1221. At that time—a year earlier—the King of Sicily, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, had become the new Holy Roman Emperor. He has come down to us as one of the most able and powerful rulers of the Middle Ages as well as one of the great antagonists of the Papacy. He was termed a "heretic" by the pope, and Frederick, in turn, called the pope the "anti-Christ." Frederick was ex-communicated at least three times. One might then plausibly think that at least in southern Italy heretics would be safe; after all, Frederick had a reputation as a religious pluralist (indeed, on various occasions in his life, he employed a Muslim army!). Much of that reputation, however, is based on Frederick's later career. When he came to power, he did so with the backing of Innocent III.

In return for that papal support, Frederick, among other things, issued in 1220 a decree against heretics, one that allowed religious authorities to see to the enforcement of such decrees in Italy. His imperial law of that year was in accordance with the Lateran Council of 1215 and "condemned heretics to every form of banishment, to perpetual infamy, together with the confiscation of their property, and the annulment of all their civil acts and powers" (cited in Vanandard, p. 107). He also enacted at Ravenna in 1227 another imperial law condemning heretics to death. Gregory IX (pope from 1227-1241) denounced the heretics he said were swarming through Frederick's kingdom of Sicily, especially in the cities of Aversa and Naples and urged Frederick to prosecute them with vigor. Frederick responded in his own Constitution of Melfi (from 1231). It is a document still seen as having been centuries ahead of its time, one that set civil law above ecclesiastical law. That may be true, but it did contain a declaration against heresy. Maybe Fredrick was trying to continue his balancing act with the Papacy, but the Constitution of Melfi did establish the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Sicily, including the city of Naples. It was, however, a State Inquisition. (As strange as it sounds, it was indeed a secular mechanism, run by Frederick's civil servants and not by the Dominican order.)

One source (Ullman, cited in Dolan, below) has said, "Whilst faith and religion are nowadays matters of private opinion, at that time they were issues of public law, of public concern and public interest." Another (Journet, cited in Dolan) has said, "Heresy loomed up unexpectedly as something anarchic, something capable of destroying the whole political and social structure from within. It amounted to a crime against public safety." That is the spirit in which Frederick's relation to "heresy" should be understood. His own Constitution of Melfi condemned heresy, sacrilege, treason, usury, and counterfeiting as structural crimes against the state. He may truly have been (or, at least, would become later in life) a religious pluralist, but if you were a "heretic," in that you questioned the accepted ecclesiastical order of things, you were questioning authority and potentially undermining the social fabric of the state. Again, "heresy" refers to "wrong" Christians and not to Jews or Muslims. Muslims were more than tolerated in the Kingdom of Sicily under Frederick II, and Jews retained their status as Servi camerae regis [servants of the royal chamber], (which meant that they were second-class but protected servants of the Crown).

Amabile (p.44), however, makes the interesting point that for Frederick there may have been no difference (!) between heresy and sedition. (Indeed, in 1246 Frederick specified in a decree that clerics who agitated against him were liable to be burned). Amabile also notes that as far as the early Dominican presence in Naples is concerned, there is very little documentation. In short, the idea that from 1233 onward, the premises of San Domenico Maggiore were a torture chamber run by monks who then turned over their "heretic" victims to Frederick for punishment—well, that cannot be substantiated. Also, there were no large bodies of heretics in the south such as the Albigensians and Catharists in the north of Italy and southern France; thus, in Frederick's Kingdom of Sicily there was never such a thing as the spectacle of mass burnings of heretics that had occurred in the Albigensian Crusade. In any event, Frederick was not a heretic hunter. This is not to say that he was a "nice guy." He was not, but he ran his own State Inquisition against all enemies, secular and ecclesiastical, and he could be quite cruel and ruthless in dealing with them

When Frederick passed from the scene in 1250, there was about a 15-year period during which the "Inquisition was silent" (Amabile, p. 50). The period covered a very violent change of dynasties, a series of battles with Frederick's heirs on one side and the French House of Anjou on the other. The latter (supported by the Papacy) won and took over the Kingdom of Sicily. In the words of one source (Starr 1946): "The transition from Hohenstaufen to Angevin rule marked a momentous and retrogressive [emphasis added] change in the history of southern Italy." The Angevins were dependent on the good will of the Papacy (which had helped them take over the kingdom in the first place); thus, they now caved in to the demands of the Pope and instituted the ecclesiastical Inquisition in the Kingdom of Naples with the arrival of Charles I of Anjou in Naples in 1268.

While the Dominican Inquisitors in Naples, as elsewhere, were concerned with Christian heretics, they were now equally enthusiastic about converting Jews. The Inquisition thus instigated a campaign to convert the Jews of southern Italy. This campaign included the reconversion of "relapsed Jews" and compelled Jews to inform on converts who had returned in secret to the synagogue. It also included the searching of Jewish homes to seize hallowed liturgical books such as the Talmud, a ban on the building of new synagogues, and the imposition of the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council that Jews must identify themselves by a yellow badge.

It is worth noting that the Angevin kings were not enthusiastic about certain Dominican practices such as rewarding Jews who converted with tax-exemption for life. This meant that otherwise taxable land was removed from the royal tax-base; collectively, the loss of revenue to the state was considerable, hardly something to please a monarch. How many Jews converted? Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but sources converge on a figure of about 8,000 in southern Italy as a whole. By 1293, forced conversion by the Inquisition had largely succeeded in that most Jewish communities in southern Italy had either disappeared (in smaller towns) or been greatly reduced in larger places such as Naples or Salerno. The Inquisition also had a hand at the still sizable Muslim colony in Lucera, remnants of the Muslim army of Frederick II. Conversion to Christianity was rendered moot when the armies of Charles II of Naples simply descended on the colony in 1300 and destroyed it. The population was either killed or exiled.

The Angevin rulers then, however, seem to have become more concerned with consolidating their hold on the kingdom than in pursuing heretics. They had been through a very shaky period (including the loss of Sicily in the 1280s as a result of an episode known as the Sicilian Vespers). The 1300s came at the end of the great Guelph-Ghibelline controversy, which pitted, respectively, the Papacy against the princes of the empire. The century included the bizarre removal of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon in France between 1309-1378; there were episodes of extreme hostility within the Angevin aristocracy, itself, as well as between the House of Anjou and the Popes in Avignon and/or anti-Popes (and even anti-anti-Popes!) elsewhere. Charges of "heresy" flew back and forth among the various popes and princes such that the Inquisition was more of a political than a religious tool. Importantly, however, in Italy we also find the likes of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch and the beginnings of the intellectual and literary currents we now call "Humanism." In the city of Naples and in the kingdom at large, the 1300s included a sort of Golden Age under Robert the Wise, who at least tolerated, in spite of papal cajoling, some heresies. (These included the so-called "Franciscan heretics"—those who proclaimed that since Christ had possessed nothing, we should follow His example. While some of those heretics were burned in Avignon, the kingdom of southern Italy had a reputation as a place where they could hide out.) Generally, the Church lost much moral authority during the period, and newly national sentiments in Europe worked against a central supranational ecclesiastical authority. The princes of Europe, thus, would no longer respond, say, in 1350 as they had in 1200 to ecclesiastical decrees to root out heretics. In the Kingdom of Sicily/Naples, itself, the stage was being set for a takeover in the 1400s of the entire kingdom by the same Aragonese who had taken Sicily from the Angevins in the 1280s.
By definition, something called the "Medieval Inquisition" ceases when the Middle Ages cease. That seems to have been in the 1300s, when what we call the "Renaissance" began. Dates are very fluid, so perhaps it is helpful to think of the transition as one of a slow shift of cultural identity. That is, if you had asked someone in Europe in 1000 or 1100 or even 1200 "What are you?," the first response, most likely, would have been, "I'm a Christian" (or Jew or Muslim); thus, the identification of self is linked to an overriding ecclesiastical allegiance. That defines the Middle Ages. The minute people started to say that they were French or Sicilian (meaning the Kingdom of Sicily) then they were identifying themselves with the new concept of nation states, with new concepts of humanism and of national language and literature. In other words, one's sense of who one is has shifted from the ecclesiastical to the secular. It is no longer the Middle Ages. In the Kingdom of Sicily, that started to happen relatively early—in the reign of Frederick II.

Somewhere in the mid-late-1300s, then, the Inquisition that we term "medieval" can be said to have gone into abeyance in the kingdom. The Inquisition would return with renewed vigor as the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s and be important in the Spanish Empire, true, but with little effect in the vicerealm of Naples.

[For a dynastic time line, click here.]


*1. There were ten Popes from Lucius III through 1250, the year in which Emperor Frederick II died. Of those, Innocent III was the most important: he served 18 years, was responsible for the Albigensian Crusade, the Fourth Lateran Council and, importantly, the fratricidal Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), the justification for which was that Muslims were heretics and not simply followers of an "alien" faith—thus, the Holy Lands could be seized. ^up

*2. Even by more recent standards of slaughter, the Albigensian Crusade was ferocious. It destroyed the old Occitan culture and language (in modern terms, called "Provençal") and has given us the infamous expression, loosely rendered as "Kill everyone. God will sort it out." A Papal legate, when asked by a Crusader how to distinguish heretics from true Catholics, is said to have answered: "Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" – "Kill them all! The Lord knows which ones are his".


Amabile, Luigi. Il santo Officio della Inquisizione in Napoli, S. Lapi, Città di Castello 1892. [There is also a photostatic reprint published by Rubbettino. Soveria Mannelli (prov. of Catanzaro). 1987.
—Dolan, John P. "A Note on Emperor Frederick II and Jewish Tolerance" in Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jul., 1960), pp. 165-174.
Journet, Charles. The Church of the Word Incarnate, vol. 1, p. 240. New York. 1955.
Kelly, Samantha. The new Solomon: Robert of Naples (1309-1343) and fourteenth-century kingship. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. 2003.
—Starr, Joshua. "The Mass Conversion of Jews in Southern Italy (1290-1293)" in Speculum,Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1946), pp. 203-211. Published by: Medieval Academy of America.
—Ullman, Walter. The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages. New York 1953, p. 448.
Vanandard, E. The Inquisition, A Critical and Historical Study of the Coercive Power of the Church. Longmans, Green, and Co. New York, 1908.
Voltmer, Ernest. entry: "Guelphs" in The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, vol. 2. Gaius-Proxies,  gen. ed. Philippe Levillain. Routledge. NY, 2002.

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