Putting the Inquisition on Trial


An odd little shrine to this village’s favorite son stands in the cobblestoned piazza outside the Domenico Scandella Social Center. It depicts a wheel of cheese, minus one slice. Water trickles through tiny holes in the cheese. The water is supposed to represent worms.

There is no inscription, but any villager can explain: Domenico Scandella was a verbose and stubborn 16th century miller with dangerous ideas. In a dramatic showdown with his interrogators, he insisted that the universe evolved “just as cheese is made out of milk--and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels . . . and among [them] was God.”

For this, Scandella was tortured and burned at the stake--one of tens of thousands of accused heretics, blasphemers, witches, false mystics, devil worshipers, Protestants and lapsed converts from Judaism ferreted out and condemned for their beliefs by the Roman Catholic tribunals of the Inquisition.

With its call for an “examination of conscience” on the eve of Christianity’s third millennium, the Vatican has opened most of its central archives on the Roman Inquisition to give scholars a clearer picture of these persecutions in medieval and early modern Europe.


The opening is a windfall for historians--documents covering 3 1/2 centuries of heresy trials, theological controversies and book bannings--as well as a test of the growing body of revisionist thinking that the Inquisition wasn’t so bad after all. The Inquisition and the church’s Index of Forbidden Books have been studied extensively from records in Italian provincial archives, but until now much has remained hidden in secret Vatican files in Rome.

The miller’s tale, first gleaned from provincial records 22 years ago, is a sample of the discoveries that may be in store. People here were stunned at first by the sudden unearthing of a scandalous, forgotten past, but eventually embraced the miller as a freethinking hero.

“We have overcome the years of aversion to this person,” said Father Giacinto Biscontin, a Catholic priest with the unusual role of host to periodic church gatherings in a heretic’s honor. “Now he is part of our history. We have no problem with that.”

The reconciliation of this village with its past is, in a peculiar way, the kind of “purification” that Pope John Paul II is demanding of his entire flock. In the countdown to 2000, he has voiced regret over Catholics’ role in the slave trade and their passivity during the Nazi slaughter of Jews. He has admitted that Galileo was wrongly censured by the Inquisition for asserting that Earth was not the center of the universe.


“The church,” the pope says repeatedly, “has no fear of historical truth.”

How Far to Go?

And yet, how far can the church go in “regretting” its own thought police? The Inquisition, after all, was authorized and led by previous popes to suppress heresy, and it still operates today under a different name--the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--occasionally excommunicating an outspoken priest or barring a rebel theologian from teaching.

An answer could come this fall when John Paul addresses a congress of eminent scholars summoned to the Vatican to put the Inquisition itself on trial. It will be the Holy See’s first critical look at its record of repression.


Debate over the Inquisition’s methods is nearly as old as the institution itself, which dates to 1233. Holy inquisitors for centuries had papal blessing to torture any accused heretic into confessing, and their cruelty became a standard by which later atrocities were measured.

The Spanish Inquisition, set up in 1478 by that nation’s monarchs with a nod from Pope Sixtus IV, grew so zealous that the Vatican often condemned its excesses. Yet the Roman Inquisition, founded in 1542 as a Vatican agency to counter the Protestant Reformation, also sent heretics to die by garroting or to burn at the stake until 1727. Such horrors faded with the Enlightenment as popes and civil rulers grew more tolerant of religious dissent.

Many historians have softened toward the Inquisition in recent decades, arguing that uniformity of religious belief was needed to curb anarchy in medieval Europe. Their studies show that torture was used sparingly and that less than 2% of the Inquisition’s known suspects were executed. Any defendant, they note, could have an attorney, a right not yet introduced in secular courts.

“It was actually a very progressive tribunal and dispensed a very high level of law in 16th century terms,” said John Tedeschi, professor emeritus of church history at the University of Wisconsin.


The Vatican hopes that the Roman Inquisition’s newly opened archives will bolster that view. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Inquisition’s successor agency, said the opening reflects that body’s “confidence in the face of any critical and serious investigation.”

But some scholars say they believe that the decision was forced by the pope on a reluctant Vatican bureaucracy and must be read as a rebuke of the past.

“The Inquisition remains shameful, no doubt about that,” said Carlo Ginzburg, one of Italy’s premier historians and a professor of Italian Renaissance studies at UCLA. “The opening of the archives is deeply symbolic because it implies the idea of rejecting, turning the page of a long chapter of the church’s history and trying to clean its image.”

Ratzinger credits Ginzburg, a Jew and self-professed atheist, with provoking a decisive Vatican debate over the archives with his 1979 letter urging the pope to unlock them.


The Vatican reacted with characteristic speed: Twelve years later it began granting unpublicized access to selected scholars. Only in January did it announce the formal opening to “qualified researchers” of any religious belief who are affiliated with universities.

Archivists caution that many files were lost after Napoleon’s troops carted them to Paris in 1810. And all files after 1903 remain off limits--a can of worms that will stay unopened to avoid aggravating such disputes as abortion, clerical celibacy and papal infallibility that divide Catholics today.

Still, that leaves about 4,500 volumes suddenly available for scrutiny in a small Vatican reading room with outlets for laptops.

“Centuries after these events, we are being offered ringside seats at some of history’s critical turning points,” said a commentary in Inside the Vatican, an independent magazine. “We will be able to peek at the minutes of key Vatican meetings when decisions were taken to prosecute or not prosecute.”


The potential for discovery is wide open. Little is known, for example, about the workings of the Index, the Inquisition branch that until 1966 decreed which books were to be burned as heretical and which Catholics excommunicated for possessing them.

Gigliola Gragnito, professor of early modern history at Italy’s University of Parma, said her reading of the newly opened archives has turned up a surprising volume of mail to the Index voicing popular resistance to its 1596 ban on Italian translations of the New Testament.

Scholars arguing that the Vatican fostered anti-Semitism--a hot issue in today’s debate over responsibility for the Holocaust--say they will look for archives detailing the Inquisition’s orders to burn the Talmud and evict Jews from the Papal States.

Trials of the Heretics


But it’s the drama of the interrogation, the exchange between inquisitor and heretic, that holds the most fascination for students of that era and casual readers of history. The newly opened archives are said to offer complete transcripts of previously unreported trials.

And it’s the mind of the lowly heretic that most fascinates Ginzburg. His research in provincial archives has revealed an insular world of pagan peasant beliefs that was every bit as subversive of Catholic authority as were the writings of Martin Luther that sparked the Reformation.

The trial of the heretic Scandella, disclosed in Ginzburg’s 1976 book, “The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller,” is a case in point.

Born here in 1532, in the early days of printing, the self-educated miller, nicknamed Menocchio, was a practicing Catholic who served as administrator of the local church. But he was influenced less by Sunday homilies than by the books he devoured and the oral culture of ancient folklore.


For example, in a text by an Augustinian monk, Scandella had read that the universe began as “a great and inchoate matter.” But in confessions to the inquisitors, he twisted this concept beyond recognition into one holding that all life--and God himself--evolved like rotting cheese. He was influenced, Ginzburg believes, by an ancient myth that the world rose from a milky, curdling sea.

“It was not the book as such,” the historian said, “but the encounter between the printed page and oral culture that formed an explosive mixture in Menocchio’s head” and inspired a cosmology all his own.

Unfortunately for Scandella, he was expanding his mind and loosening his tongue just as the Vatican was trying to stamp out the Reformation. The inquisitors refused to believe that this man, who insisted that all faiths were equal before God and who railed against clerical privilege, had not been brainwashed by some Protestant sect.

Demanding names of accomplices, they tortured him on a strappado--hoisting him to the ceiling by a rope, then suddenly dropping him part way to the floor. But he kept insisting, “My opinions came out of my own head.”


He was found guilty of voicing heretical opinions “not only with men of religion, but also with simple and ignorant people,” undermining their loyalty to the church. Pope Clement VIII was alarmed by the case and sent the miller, then 67 and ailing, to the stake.

Scandella’s simple white church still stands here in the wine-growing hills of Friuli, an hour’s drive northeast of Venice. But the village had lost all memory of the miller until Ginzburg came across the trial records in nearby Udine and published his book.

“It hit like a bombshell,” said Marco Scandella, a retired bricklayer and presumed descendant of the miller. “Such a history was never suspected.”

Aldo Colonello, a local schoolteacher, said he believes that he knows why the village had forgotten. Scandella, he noted, was a popular, trusted citizen whose opinions were tolerated until the parish priest, who had quarreled with the miller over church funds and was suspected of trying to seduce his daughter, denounced him to the Inquisition. By then, no one dared defend him.


“Everyone here lost,” Colonello said. “Menocchio lost, the local church lost, the village lost. The case had escaped the community’s control. After the execution, the priest left town. To heal their discomfort, the others simply removed Menocchio from their memory.”

Centuries later, as villagers were absorbing Ginzburg’s careful reconstruction, debate arose over the name of a new social center that would cater to the sick and the elderly and provide a community library and conference center.

Versatile Cult Hero

Colonello suggested naming it for Scandella. The miller had also been a teacher and violinist at festivals, he noted, “so he was representative of the whole community.” Some villagers opposed honoring such a notorious figure, but a majority professed admiration, and his name was adopted.


In return, Scandella has given the village a colorful identity and a versatile cult hero whose story is taught in schools and acted out in plays across northeastern Italy.

To some in this prosperous region chafing at Rome’s political control, Scandella symbolizes defiance of distant authority. To others, his religious tolerance is a lesson of how Italy should treat immigrants from Asia and Africa.

“He had the courage to criticize,” said Mayor Nevio Alzetta, “and maybe that’s what enthralls the common people.”

Just as important, the mayor added, is the local self-examination Scandella’s story has inspired. The social center has published 30 works of local historical research and expanded its library to 25,000 volumes, a remarkable collection for a village of 4,500 people.


As they plan festivities next year marking the 400th anniversary of Scandella’s death, people here don’t seem to care whether the Vatican regrets his persecution as long as it bares all the facts. The prevailing sentiment is, “OK, so he was a heretic, but he was our heretic.”

“Of course it was unjust what they did to him, but for those days it was inevitable,” said Gina Morandini, who runs the local Textile Artists Assn. “He was too far ahead of his time.”