Inquisition: The Counter-Reformation of the Sith, Part I

Inquisition: The Counter-Reformation of the Sith, Part I


This essay serves as a requiem for the chief villain of Star Wars: Rebels, season one.

A major scoop that hit during 2013’s New York Comic Con was the introduction of the Inquisitor. As the concept for Rebels was first bantered about, there was always this singular question surrounding who the new heroes would battle. Would they most likely encounter Darth Vader — an enticing, yet wholly problematic proposition, given his sacrosanct position in pop culture? After all, unless this new cast was meant to lose their heads within the pilot episode, running from Vader’s grasp for five or six seasons would cheapen the character in most eyes. Someone else, particularly one capable of tangling with a Jedi or two, was meant to step into the fray. That void, I immediately felt, was filled by a historical reference most appropriate to the state of the galaxy, the nature of Palpatine’s sense of strategy, and also given what was witnessed in The Clone Wars previously — an inquisition targeting the Light Side of the Force. As Palpatine’s alter ego Darth Sidious once established in an earlier time, referring to Force-sensitive children soon to be cultivated by the Jedi Order:

…The natural talent these children possess is too great to be wasted by the Jedi. I foresee an army of Force-talented spies in my service, trained in the Dark Side to peer into every corner of the galaxy from afar…and my enemies will be helpless against such vision.

That moment on Mustafar during The Clone Wars’ episode entitled “Children of the Force” served to presciently guide a new era in Star Wars animated TV unbeknownst to producer and viewer alike. Though adept with one or two lightsabers, Palpatine’s primary weapons have always been everything and everyone else. Converting the Force’s favorite son, akin to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s version of Faust, would not be enough to successfully defeat his enemies and assume hegemony over the galaxy. Though not deviating from the Darth Bane-established rule of two, Palpatine understood that Force-sensitive allies, ill-equipped to challenge him, but filled enough with Dark Side abilities to mitigate low-level light side operatives, would be useful. Though the children we see onscreen were eventually rescued by the one who would later provide our Rebels’ antagonist his marching orders, the seeds we were not privy to have fully bloomed almost two decades later — ready to continue the inquisition against the religion that had now been deemed heretical.

As a series that often draws upon our own earthbound history for grounding, using the inquisition as the foundation for villainy is equally apropos and problematic. There is often a collective consciousness surrounding the inquisitors of Europe’s Catholic past that may align with the aura of our new antagonist. However, throughout much of the Catholic Church’s history, inquisitors could be relatively benign (“Inquisition,” 2014).

Inquisition history is often divided into three phases: the sometimes mild Medieval and Roman Inquisitions — the latter of which was founded upon the schism instigated by Martin Luther, and who famously persecuted Galileo Galilei for defying the conventional Ptolemaic and Aristotelian views of the physical world, officially endorsed by the Church — with the middle phase belonging to the infamously violent Spanish Inquisition (“Inquisition,” 2014) (Ellerbe, 1995).

The first iteration arose from 13th century northern Italy and southern France, under the purview of Pope Gregory IX, to combat the many iconoclastic organizations challenging church doctrine and legitimacy. The inquisitors, from the Latin inquiro, meaning one who “inquires into,” were essentially specially trained judges with the permission of the Pope to deal with offenses against the faith. Highly educated in church doctrine and theology, Dominicans and Franciscans were often tapped for the inquisition because they already retained the requisite knowledge and detachment from secularism administration deemed necessary (“Inquisition,” 2014) (“Johann Tetzel,” 2014). Though initially tasked with stamping out any heretical uprisings within a court in which the threat of torture and death could be used as a persuasive tool, inquisitors were not given authority to torture until 1252 by Pope Innocent IV (“Inquisition,” 2014). Most likely, upon the sermo generalis where sentencing was pronounced, persons found guilty in an inquisitor’s court were condemned to pray, they could be imprisoned, or for severe cases turned to secular authorities where a death sentence would be meted out. Torture, when deemed necessary in extreme cases, was only used to gather a confession, but was highly discouraged as one couldn’t trust the information often drawn under duress (Ellerbe, 1995). That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, however. Helen Ellerbe (1995), in The Dark Side of Christian History, writes that, by 1262, inquisitors were given the freedom to absolve themselves from the crime of bloodshed, which means that if a victim’s neck was broken under their care, it was explained as having been caused by the Devil (p. 83). Dressed in all-black, inquisitors sought to draw out confessions from varied devices, often with the motto, “Glory be only to God” affixed. The infamous rack, tearing limb from trunk, stocks used for foot roasting (hilariously applied to droid feet in 1983’s Return of the Jedi), water torture methods, and even gibbets — cages suspended in the air where people could die from exposure (also featured in The Clone Wars episode “Escape from Kadavo”) — were also used (“The Horrors of the Church and its Holy Inquisition”). A particularly grisly practice was the dreaded dish of mice, which was turned upside down upon the victim’s naked stomach, after which a fire was applied to the dish, and the mice would claw, bite, and dig into the subject’s flesh in their attempt to flee the heat. Though prior to this self-absolution from bloodshed, burning at the stake — afforded the victim during the auto-da-fé, or ritual of public penance — became a common means for extreme cases of heresy, or for those who refused to confess. Justification for capital burning was derived from an interpretation of John 15:6, which states, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (Ellerbe, p. 82).

The inflammatory reputation often associated with the inquisition largely stems from its Spanish iteration. During its early period, up to 1530, inquisitors sought to snuff out converted Jews who feigned fealty to the church. Deputized in defense of ecclesiastical rules and procedures, inquisitors were to be at least 40 years old, of maintaining an incontrovertible reputation, documentable sagacity, and conversant in Catholic theology and canon law. In less than a year, they were already known for their cruelty — the office of the Pope logged cases of unjust imprisonment, torture, and seizing the property of the executed. No one was more vile, however, than Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, the very official who pushed the monarchy to expel all Jews from the beginning (Telushkin, J., 1991) (“Inquisition,” 2014). Within Star Wars: Rebels, the Inquisitor character appears to draw from elements of both the Medieval and Spanish traditions. Elegantly voiced by Jason Isaacs, and accompanied by the quasi-religious dulcet baritones from Kiner’s choir, the Inquisitor is granted the authority by Darth Sidious, communicated via Darth Vader, to “hunt down” a new threat from “children of the Force,” potentially guided by surviving Jedi, “…who would train them…” As the Sith have all but completely driven the Jedi from the galaxy, deeming discussion of their lot an act of treason against the Empire, the Dark Side has become the official “state religion” for the galaxy of Force users.

Part II will flesh out the Spanish Inquisition’s de Torquemada, serving as a role model for Isaac’s Inquisitor character.

Contact Adjua at and on Twitter @Adjua_Adama

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  1. Melinda
    May 14, 2015 at 06:31 Reply

    Absolutely fantastic, Adjua! 🙂 I already was slightly familiar with the Spanish Inquisition. Honestly, however, I never really thought about the connection to the Inquisitor nor even considered Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine’s approach to carry out an ‘inquisition-like’ approach to ruling the galaxy. The insight I get from your — and everyone’s here at CWK — blogs keeps Star Wars fresh. 🙂 I truly enjoy reading/hearing others’ take on the Saga and how it connects to history and real life. Thank you. 🙂

    I can’t wait for part two!

    MTFBWY 🙂

  2. Inquisition: The Counter-Reformation of the Sith, Part II | Coffee With Kenobi
    October 17, 2016 at 12:38 Reply

    […] Be aware: This article is a continuation of Part I, which can be found here. […]

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I am a high school history teacher with a Master's in Technology Use in Education, and I have also spent time teaching CompTIA A+ and Network+ courses to high school students. Recently, for five years, I coordinated my school's AVID chapter, training students for the rigors of college. I am also a commercial-rated and instrument-rated pilot, for single and multi-engine aircraft, and I have been flying since 2008. Presently, I am working on flight instructor ratings in my spare time. Finally, I am a fitness enthusiast and a former teenage division bodybuilder. I've been conditioning since age 7, and I also hold a dan ranking in Yoseikan Aikido and Kobudo.

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