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A History of Freedom of Thought by J. B. Bury

As developed for the destruction of heresy


[62]

formal plea for mercy could not be entertained by the civil power; it had no choice but to inflict death; if it did otherwise, it was a promoter of heresy. All princes and officials, according to the Canon Law, must punish duly and promptly heretics handed over to them by the Inquisition, under pain of excommunication. It is to be noted that the number of deaths at the stake has been much over-estimated by popular imagination; but the sum of suffering caused by the methods of the system and the punishments that fell short of death can hardly be exaggerated.

The legal processes employed by the Church in these persecutions exercised a corrupting influence on the criminal jurisprudence of the Continent. Lea, the historian of the Inquisition, observes: "Of all the curses which the Inquisition brought in its train, this perhaps was the greatest--that, until the closing years of the eighteenth century, throughout the greater part of Europe, the inquisitorial process, as developed for the destruction of heresy, became the customary method of dealing with all who were under any accusation."

The Inquisitors who, as Gibbon says, "defended nonsense by cruelties," are often regarded as monsters. It may be said for them and for the kings who did their will that

[63] they were not a bit worse than the priests and monarchs of primitive ages who sacrificed human beings to their deities. The

Greek king, Agamemnon, who immolated his daughter Iphigenia to obtain favourable winds from the gods, was perhaps a most affectionate father, and the seer who advised him to do so may have been a man of high integrity. They acted according to their beliefs. And so in the Middle Ages and afterwards men of kindly temper and the purest zeal for morality were absolutely devoid of mercy where heresy was suspected. Hatred of heresy was a sort of infectious germ, generated by the doctrine of exclusive salvation.

It has been observed that this dogma also injured the sense of truth. As man's eternal fate was at stake, it seemed plainly legitimate or rather imperative to use any means to enforce the true belief--even falsehood and imposture. There was no scruple about the invention of miracles or any fictions that were edifying. A disinterested appreciation of truth will not begin to prevail till the seventeenth century.

While this principle, with the associated doctrines of sin, hell, and the last judgment, led to such consequences, there were other doctrines and implications in Christianity which, forming a solid rampart against the

[64] advance of knowledge, blocked the paths of science in the Middle Ages, and obstructed its progress till the latter half of the nineteenth century. In every important field of scientific research, the ground was occupied by false views which the Church declared to be true on the infallible authority of the Bible. The Jewish account of Creation and the Fall of Man, inextricably bound up with the Christian theory of Redemption, excluded from free inquiry geology, zoology, and anthropology. The literal interpretation of the Bible involved the truth that the sun revolves round the earth. The Church condemned the theory of the antipodes. One of the charges against Servetus (who was burned in the sixteenth century; see below, p. 79) was that he believed the statement of a Greek geographer that Judea is a wretched barren country in spite of the fact that the Bible describes it as a land flowing with milk and honey. The Greek physician Hippocrates had based the study of medicine and disease on experience and methodical research. In the Middle Ages men relapsed to the primitive notions of a barbarous age. Bodily ailments were ascribed to occult agencies--the malice of the Devil or the wrath of God. St. Augustine said that the diseases of Christians were caused by demons,


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