Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: ON THE PUNISHMENT OF HERETICS. - An Essay on Crimes and Punishments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER III.: ON THE PUNISHMENT OF HERETICS. - Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments 
An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. By the Marquis Beccaria of Milan. With a Commentary by M. de Voltaire. A New Edition Corrected. (Albany: W.C. Little & Co., 1872).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
ON THE PUNISHMENT OF HERETICS.
The denunciation of death to those who, in certain dogmas, differed from the established church, was peculiarly the act of tyranny. No Christian emperor, before the tyrant Maximus, ever thought of condemning a man to punishment merely for points of controversy. It is true, indeed, that two Spanish bishops pursued to death the Priscilianists under Maximus; but it is also true, that this tyrant was willing to gratify the reigning party with the blood of heretics. Barbarity and justice were to him indifferent. Jealous of Theodosius, a Spaniard like himself, he endeavoured to deprive him of the empire of the East, as he had already obtained that of the West. Theodosius was hated for his cruelties; but he had found the means of gaining to his party the heads of the church. Maximus was willing to display the same zeal, and to attach the Spanish bishops to his faction. He flattered both the old and the new religion; he was as treacherous as inhuman, as indeed were all those who at that time either pretended to, or obtained empire. That vast part of the world was then governed like Algiers at present. Emperors were created and dethroned by the military power, and were often chosen from among nations that were reputed barbarous. Theodosius opposed to his competitor other barbarians from Scythia. He filled the army with Goths, and surprised Alaric the conqueror of Rome. In this horrible confusion, each endeavoured to strengthen his party by every means in his power.
Maximus having caused the Emperor Gratian, the colleague of Theodosius, to be assassinated at Lyons, meditated the destruction of Valentinian the second, who, during his infancy, had been made successor to Gratian. He assembled at Treves a powerful army, composed of Gauls and Germans. He caused troops to be levied in Spain, when two Spanish bishops, Idacio and Ithacus, or Itacius, both men of credit, came and demanded of him the blood of Priscilian, and all his adherents, who were of opinion, that souls were emanations from God; that the Trinity did not contain three hypostases; and moreover, they carried their sacrilege so far as to fast on Sundays. Maximus, half Pagan, and half Christian, soon perceived the enormity of these crimes. The holy bishops, Idacio and Itacius, obtained leave to torture Priscilian and his accomplices before they were put to death. They were both present, that things might be done according to order, and they returned blessing God, and numbering Maximus, the defender of the faith, among the saints. But Maximus being afterward defeated by Theodosius, and assassinated at the feet of his conqueror, had not the good fortune to be canonized.
It is proper to observe, that Saint Martin, bishop of Tours, who was really a good man, solicited the pardon of Priscilian; but being himself accused of heresy by the bishops, he returned to Tours, for fear of the torture at Treves.
As to Priscilian, he had the consolation, after he was hanged, of being honoured by his sect as a martyr. His feast was celebrated, and would be celebrated still, if there were any Priscilianists remaining.
This example made the entire church tremble; but it was soon after imitated and surpassed. Priscilianists had been put to death by the sword, the halter, and by lapidation. A young lady of quality, suspected to have fasted on a Sunday, was at Bourdeaux only stoned to death. These punishments appeared too mild; it was proved that God required that heretics should be roasted alive. The peremptory argument, in support of this opinion was, that God punishes them in that manner in the next world, and that every prince, or his representative, even down to a petty constable, is the image of God in this sublunary world.
On this principle it was, that all over Europe they burnt witches and sorcerers, who were manifestly under the empire of the devil; and also heterodox Christians, which were deemed still more criminal and dangerous.
It is not certainly known, what was the crime of those priests who were burnt at Orleans in the presence of king Robert and his wife Constantia, in the year 1022. How indeed should it be known? there being, at that time, but a small number of clerks and monks that could write. All we certainly know is, that Robert and his wife feasted their eyes with this abominable spectacle. One of the sectaries had been confessor to her majesty, who thought she could not better repair the misfortune of having confessed to a heretic, than by seeing him devoured by the flames.
Custom becomes law; from that period to the present time, a space of more than seven hundred years, the church hath continued to burn those that are guilty, or supposed guilty, of an error in opinion.