The BBC is broadcasting a new TV series based on The Name of the Rose – a fantastic novel by the late Italian author Umberto Eco. It tells the story of a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, who visits an isolated abbey with his young assistant Adso only to discover a series of grisly murders unfolding.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the Pope’s holy inquisitor Bernardo Gui – who once tried to put William on trial for heresy. Needless to say, the deaths continue but William discovers the strange cause. Bernardo is more about exercising his authority than revealing the truth and his heavy handed cruelty leads to him being lynched by local peasants.
Some of you may remember that back in 1986, there was a movie version of The Name of the Rose with Sean Connery as William and a very young Christian Slater as Adso. Bernardo Gui was played very convincingly by F. Murray Abraham. So much so that it’s worth pointing out that this inquisitor was a real person.
Bernardo lived between 1262 and 1331 and like many inquisitors was a member of the Dominican order. This very severe organisation of friars was tasked with rooting out what the all-powerful Catholic church regarded as heresy. And by heresy, that was any religious belief – particularly within Christianity – that undermined the legitimacy and authority of the Vatican.
To be declared a heretic was a death sentence. And the form of capital punishment preferred by inquisitors was burning at the stake. The reason being that Catholics hoped that on Judgement Day they would rise bodily to be resurrected and taken into heaven by a merciful God. If your body had been burnt to ashes – well, that might be a problem come the big day.
Inquisitors operated under the authority of the Pope in what came to be known as the Holy Inquisition. Bernardo Gui was typical of your average medieval inquisitor – well educated; brilliant at public speaking; a sharp mind and determined.
There have been attempts in recent years – often from Catholic sources – to tell us that the Inquisition wasn’t really that cruel and bloodthirsty. But a cursory look at the real life story of Bernardo will disabuse you of that notion. He was sent into France to deal with the Cathar heresy, which threatened to overturn the Catholic church in the south of the country.
He was merciless towards Jews who refused to convert to Christianity burning their holy books in public and spreading the usual lies about Jewish people poisoning wells and generally scheming against their neighbours.
Bernardo Gui was also carrying out his ruthless activities at the same time that the French king was crushing the Knights Templar – using accusations of heresy and sodomy. Along with the Cathars, the leadership of the Knights Templar were also tied to wooden stakes and burnt to death.
READ MORE: Where to find the Knights Templar today
There were other famous inquisitors during the medieval period. Konrad von Marburg (1180 to 1233) was one of the first grand inquisitors operating in what is now Germany. Unfortunately for him, he took on a local prince accusing him of heresy and shortly afterwards, Konrad was cut to pieces by a group of knights – in very suspicious circumstances.
Tomás de Torquemada (1420 to 1498) is probably the most famous inquisitor – the head of the notorious Spanish Inquisition. At a time when Spain was being formed out of kingdoms that had previously been Christian and Muslim – Torquemada set about destroying both Islam and Judaism in Spain forcing people to convert to Catholicism, leave the country or die.