And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels
of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received
of my Father. Revelations 2:27
Up to the fifth century AD Christians seem to have an inkling
that there was something morally questionable about torture and
killing. Christian torturers and executioners generally delayed
their own baptism until just before death. The Church assured
them that any sins of which they might have been guilty were thus
washed away, and no lasting harm was done to their immortal souls.
For the next thousand years and more, when Christianity was at
the height of its power, the Church regarded brutality and killing
as perfectly acceptable, and no such precautions were thought
necessary. Mutilation, branding and flogging were commonplace.
The Church found it acceptable for people to be flogged for the
most trivial offences, even for things that are not now considered
offences at all. Amongst them were vagrancy, drunkenness, drinking
on a Sunday, having an illegitimate baby, even for contracting
Torture had been used as punishment and as a method of eliciting
information in ancient times, but thinkers like Seneca and Cicero
had recognised both its injustice and its futility as a means
of discovering the truth. Such ideas did not impress Christians,
and as we shall see (The Inquisition page 364) the Church was
responsible for introducing torture into almost all European penal
systems, without any of the original roman safeguards. .
In England the provisions of Magna Carta (which had been denounced
by the Church) had been interpreted as representing torture to
be abhorrent to the principle of English freedom, and the Common
Law did not permit its use . When two Inquisitors were sent to
England in 1310 to extract confessions from Knights Templars,
they insisted on using torture . The king allowed some torture
to be applied "according to ecclesiastical law", but
apparently not enough to satisfy the Inquisitors. The Pope wrote
to the King:
We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of
your land; but no state can override Cannon Law, Our Law; therefore
I command you at once to submit these men to torture...Withdraw
your prohibition and we grant you remission of sins
(Letter from Pope Clement V to King Edward II of England. Regestum
Clementis Papae V, nunc primum editum cura et studio Monachorum
Ordinis S. Benedicti, (Rome, 1885-92) year 5, no. 6670, pp 84-6.
. The English translation is quoted from G. G. Coulton, Medieval
Panorama, (CUP, 1947) p 380. Clement was asking for the Templars
to be taken to Ponthieu, in Edward's French territories, where
the Inquisitors could work normally. It seems likely that the
Inquisitors could not get the results they wanted in England because
the civil authorities were insisting that the rules be followed,
and that the tortures applied should not cause permanent injury
or violent effusion of blood. These rules were routinely ignored
in France, and nearly all French Templars either died under torture
or else confessed to charges put to them. For a full account of
this whole sad business see Barber, The Trial of the Templars,
especially pp 197-199. )
In the seventeenth century James Felton defied Archbishop Laud's
threats of torture on the rack and the matter was referred to
the courts. As a result the common law was confirmed and torture
was definitively declared to be unlawful in England. In 1689 the
Bill of Rights explicitly prohibited its use, so now it was banned
by statute as well.
Elsewhere, torture was a favourite method of extracting confessions
for offences both real and fabricated. Its use was explicitly
sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV in 1252 in his bull ad extirpanda.
Inquisitors and their assistants were permitted to absolve one
another for applying torture. It was applied liberally to obtain
whatever confessions were required, and sometimes just to punish
people that the Church authorities did not like.
The voices raised against the use of torture were all secular.
Early critics like Juan Luis Vives, Johann Graefe and Montaigne
were regarded by the Church as its enemies. In 1740 Frederick
the Great abolished torture in Prussia and around the same time
Voltaire lent his voice to opposing the use of torture in France,
where Churchmen were still intent on torturing and killing people
for trivial offences like those of the Chevalier de la Barre).Despite
the opposition of the Churches, secular powers succeeded in abolishing
torture: in Italy in 1786, in France in 1789, in Spain in 1812,
and so on. The use of torture by Inquisitors was nominally banned
by Pope Pius VII in 1816, but a blind papal eye was turned to
its continued use for another twenty years or so.
Paschal I (pope 817-824) blinded his opponents before beheading
them. He was made a saint. Hadrian III (pope 884-885) was also
keen on blinding his political opponents and once had a woman
whipped naked through the streets of Rome. He too is now a saint.
Over the centuries the Roman Church tortured, flogged, branded,
and killed countless thousands of people, many of them for crimes
which no longer exist. Mutilation was a common punishment throughout
Christendom. For example a Crusader who struck another and drew
blood was liable to have a hand chopped off. Other offenders suffered
the removal of limbs, or of the nose, ears, lips, tongue, or genitals.
Branding was used to disfigure bodies, arms, hands, cheeks and
foreheads. Penitent heretics were branded with a cross. A fray-maker
in church might expect to be branded with the letter F, and a
blasphemer with the letter B.
Bishops' courts in England passed sentences of whipping and
branding even on their own clerics. The great English saint Thomas
Becket was one of many who had recourse to the branding iron .
For many centuries Christian missionaries secured conversions
by offering a choice between adopting the Christian religion and
instant death. By the late Middle Ages this was seen to be a little
harsh. Christian missionaries now routinely used torture to secure
converts and to punish those who did not live up to requirements.
Such practices had been assumed to have been abandoned during
the Enlightenment, at least by Protestants, but a flurry of cases
were exposed in Victorian times. In 1880 it was disclosed that
a Free Church of Scotland mission to Nyasaland maintained a pit
prison in which a man had died after receiving two hundred lashes.
It turned out to be common for people to be given a hundred lashes,
and sometimes salt was rubbed into their open wounds. A few years
later a Nigerian woman died having had red pepper rubbed into
her wounds after a beating. Such cases caused a scandal among
European sceptics. Churches became more cautious about their methods,
but such techniques may well have been used into the twentieth
While the Church held sway, it supported all manner of absurdity
and horror. It was the custom for Christian teachers to punish
a servant lad when a royal pupil had misbehaved. (This is the
origin of the term whipping boy.) As long as someone suffered,
justice was somehow thought to have been done. Such an inequitable
concept was comfortably accommodated within the Church. Corporal
punishment has always featured strongly in Church Schools until
recent times, but it was not confined only to schools. When society
shared common Christian mores corporal punishment was widespread:
it was practised extensively in Christian seminaries, monasteries,
convents, orphanages, mental hospitals, armies, navies, prisons,
and homes. Sentences of corporal punishment were handed down by
courts in England until 1946. Birching was practised in British
prisons until 1968.
For more than a thousand years Christianity set the standards.
During that time many suffered physical abuse. Prisoners were
tortured in Bishops' torture chambers. Noses were split, ears
cropped, tongues bored, backs whipped, foreheads and cheeks branded,
limbs crushed or cut off. And it was not only prisoners who suffered.
Slaves were thrashed to death. Uncooperative potential converts
were physically coerced. The insane were tortured by monks and
nuns. Christian parents beat their children. Christian Schoolmasters
beat their pupils. Christian husbands beat their wives. Canon
law specifically permitted wife-beating, so it took place at level
of society. All this has changed through the gradual adoption
of secular ideas, and the Churches have now ceased to oppose such
changes. Now we learn from the mainstream Churches that Jesus
has always been against all kinds of beastly behaviour, and that
the correct Christian view is similar to that of modern liberal