There were several official Inquisitions that were set up by the Catholic Church from the 12th century onward to deal with various heresies. In the 1230s the Church had found that while secular leaders could be relied on should force be necessary, the Albigensian Crusade hadn’t actually done much to rid the countryside of Catharism. It didn’t help that these close-knit communities had very little reason to open up to strange churchmen and tended to be unwilling to expose the Cathars among them, at least until Pope Gregory IX set up the first Papal Inquisition.
This was run primarily by the Dominican Order. The inquisitors would travel around the countryside in pairs, giving the towns they went to very little notice of their arrival. They gave the inhabitants a short period of time in which to come forward, repent if they themselves were heretics, and denounce any Cathars or those who harbored them in the town. Accusations were made in secret and any who came forward were required to swear an oath of faith to the Catholic Church.*
[The Agitator of Languedoc, Jean-Paul Laurens, 1887, source: Wikimedia Commons]
[The Cathar Cross, image created by R Neil Marshman, June 2006]
[source: Wikimedia Commons]
*This was intended to weed out any Cathars who were concealing that fact in order to accuse somebody else, as they would refuse to swear any oath, let alone one to the Catholic Church.
**The portrayal of how commonly torture was actually used against those accused of heresy is rather predictably correlated with the agenda and biases of the person talking about it. I don’t claim to be innocent of this either. I will, however, point out that the use of torture at this time was only slightly less unusual than witch hunts and witch burning. (Hint: There wasn’t any hysteria over witches in Europe until a few centuries later.) The Inquisition’s rather liberal use of it was the dramatic exception, not the rule.
Barber, Malcolm. The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320. London: Routledge, 1993.
Stephenson, Carl and Bryce Lyon. Mediaeval History: Europe from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Excerpts from Bernard Gui's Inquisitor's Manual (written early 14th century)
Inquisitorial Technique - Internet History Sourcebooks Project
On the Albigensians - Internet History Sourcebooks Project
On the Beguins or Beguines - Internet History Sourcebooks Project
The Medieval Inquisition in Languedoc - Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in Languedoc
Catharism - Wikipedia
Medieval Inquisition - Wikipedia
Bernard Gui - Wikipedia
Bernard Délicieux - Wikipedia