Trials for heresy and witchcraft...

Doing a little research on this topic for my Saga and wondering if anyone can confirm/clarify a few points...

In the era around 1221 am I right in thinking that heresy trials would be presided over by the local bishop or appointed representative? Also what role would prosecuting and defending advocates and jurors have?

(double post)

To burn the accused.

I'm no authority, but here's how I remember it from the classes I took...

It would be entirely a church matter (as opposed to Common Law), so yes, some church official would preside- the more scandalous the matter, the more prestigious the official- unless they didn't want to get involved personally (perhaps if a noble was involved?)

Remember that around this time the Church had a LOT of RL problems, in the form of corruption, lack of reliable personnel, and an all-too-common loss of the greater goal. A long era of allowing anyone into the clerisy, with no screening and little oversight, coupled with a period of general suffering among the populous, and generations of such, led to many seeing the Church not as a holy calling, but a gravy train, a license to sin. Many could barely speak latin, had a weak grasp of doctrine, and the wide variety of corruption (see "cloth of gold", "butter towers", and any of the 7 deadly sins) led to such counter-movements as the Albigensians and various pauper sects. However, they did learn to cover their butts, and keep what little power/position they could claw up. (And even the good ones found themselves caught up in this morass, to their horror.)

Anyway, Politics played a huge role in who was in charge, and why, and who was accused and why. And that's Politics both internal to the Church, and external with regard to relations with the Nobles. So when we say "The Prosecution", often we are also saying "The Catholic Church" as a whole.

There was no Bill of Rights, so an attorney for the Defense was often non-existent or flat-out denied, or a purely perfunctory role, just someone acting as moral support while the drama went on its predictable course. Often, the Defense and the Prosecution were essentially one and the same, both assuming Guilt and working together toward a confession. Since it wasn't a common law issue, the presiding judge/bishop/cardinal/whoever, to a large extent, could make up the rules as they went along. Too much fun, really.

However, often noted scholars who were sympathetic to the Defendant would stand in as Defense, tho' sometimes at their own peril- too aggressive a defense could result in the defending advocate being charged with the same heresy!

Jurors, if any, were often "buddies of the church"- hand selected by the prosecution/judge/church because of their views and/or subservience to the Judge. Sometimes they were under scrutiny as much as anyone, for they found against the judge's opinion, that would "go down on their permanant record"- and that was a scary proposition. Last thing you wanted was to be associated with being soft on heresy, even if you were the counsel for the defense.

The defense, therefore, often did not try to defend the beliefs of the accused, but to "re-explain" them in a more acceptable light. That is, the defendant had to back out of their position without admitting it was heretical in the first place - "it was all a misunderstanding!"

Judges and jurors were, as a rule, not overly understanding of such.

I believe witch trials didn't really occur until the 15th century. As for heresies, they were relatively common, especially among theologians, and you usually had the option of recanting. Sometimes an heresy would even get enshrined in canon. It's only if you were actively preaching "dangerous" heresies that the Church would really strive to take you down.

Proper "witch-trials" were few and far between by this time. The closest thing to a trial for heresy at this time would be the trials held in the Languedoc during the albigensian crusade. Noteworthy is that the majority of people executed during the crusade were not tried. The below is more representative of the other, scattered instances of trials of heresy.

It's also worth to point out that the trials for heresy were a lot less brutal than is commonly thought of. Also worth to point out is that medieval judicial praxis is something that differs from modern judicial praxis in many ways. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval courts were, more often than not, an institution held hostage by political ambitions. They strived for justice in the same way that modern courts do today, i.e. they have the same "ideal", even though corruption would be a bit more prevalent in both common- and canon-cases. The difference lies primarily in what one makes the words "just" and "fair" to mean, and the medieval paradigm has some interesting differences here.

First of all we should ask ourselves why the phenomenon of "confession" is such an obsession for medieval courts, both common and canon. Hundreds of persons get convicted in modern courts through material evidence and never confess to anything. The answer is that, in a medieval court of law, confession is the only way a person can be legally sentenced without an eye-whitness. An eye-witness seeing the accused in flagrante delicto was a requirement for determining guilt, after which factual evidence could be admitted to further implicate the accused. By medieval standards, our way of proclaiming persons guilty based solely on factual evidence would seem barbaric. There are even stories of people seeing the accused leaving the house of a murdered woman with a bloody knife and the accused still being aquitted, as there was nobody there to actually see the woman being murdered.

Another interesting thing to point out is that no court of the church, technically, executed anyone during this period, in contrast to the witch-trials of later times. A trial for heresy was a purely church-affair, and the church had no way of punishing a person with capital punishment for denying a matter of doctrine. If a person was found "guilty and unrepentant", the person would then be handed over to the local authorities (most often a local lord enforcing the kings law by common court) for sentencing. Because the religion of a certain region was not a matter of personal choice (no, your religion and choice of worship was not your own business. Jews and other religious groups often had special provisions.), but a matter of decree by the king, being found guilty and unrepentant of not following the decreed religion was treason, a direct act of insubordination to the king. As such, the act was punished severely, most often by beheading, but occasionally by drowning. Burnings occured, but chiefly of the body after execution as a way of further disgrace (cf. peoples heads being displayed on pikes or castle walls etc.)

Moreover, the aim of the prosecutor in a trial for heresy was not a verdict of guilty. That is thinking in modern judicial terms. The aim of the church prosecutor was to 1) determine if the charges brought against the accused were correct and 2) if they were, to save the accuseds soul by repentance. The accused was not totally left without safeguards either. For instance, before a trial of heresy was started, the accused was posed the question if he could think of anyone who would hold "mortal enmity" towards him. If so, the accused submitted the list to the court. If there were no witnesses/accusors that weren't on the list, the case would be dropped, and the majority of canon-court cases were actually dropped in this stage. This was because the pope feared that canon-courts would otherwise be quickly embroiled in domestic disputes and sometimes cross into the jurisdictive territory of common-courts.

Another popular myth is confession under torture. Torture could, even though it was relatively uncommon, be used as a way of furthering a canon-case. Torture was used as a way of enlightening the accused as to an insight into what would await the fallen soul in hell. No confession or repentance given by the accused during torture was admissable in court. Remember, the aim was to save the accuseds soul, and for that the accused had to confess and repent of his own free will. A confession/repentance under duress of torture wouldn't bring the case forward one bit. Striving for a confession under torture would make no sense to a medieval clergyman! After the session of torture (which the prosecutor, btw, had to have approved by the bishop before enaction), the person had to be given time to recuperate properly to stand trial (as such, torture was an extremely time-consuming course of action, and as such was not a popular way of prosecuting a case for bishops who, on the whole, really had better things to do with their time). The accused would then be asked again if he truly did confess and repent his sins. If he didn't he would be turned over to the authorities.

If, however, he did confess, the church would sentence him. The punishments could vary from fines, to pilgrimages, to joining the crusades (if there were any) or tutoring by monks.

Hope this helps a bit.

If you are interested in the above, the following link may be interesting to you:

It contains the notes of a notary present at several inquisitorial proceedings ca 1300-1350.

(Is that what you meant? Think so.)

Interesting, and thanks!

However, I would suggest that the workings above are how things might have been "supposed to work"- stories (especially the juicy ones) are full of more self-serving and less idealistic examples of the actual grinding of "justice". Further, it is a recognized fact that the standards for the clericy around this period had dropped considerably, and many men unworthy of the position had found their way into power within the church.

Today, we have what we consider very high standards for justice. But high standards do not prevent gross miscarriages of same, for any of a variety of reasons. I would only think that in medieval times, parallel reasons combined with weak men could corrupt the best of processes at one time or another.

You are absolutely right in all three of your assertions. I fully agree.