When it comes to bad record-keepers, no one expects the Roman Inquisition — but that's exactly what one historian discovered while trying to resolve a centuries-old controversy over the trials of Galileo.
The Roman Catholic Church's second trial of the famed Italian astronomer has come to symbolize a pivotal culture clash between science and religion. But a broad examination of 50 years’ worth of records suggests the Roman Inquisition viewed the case more as an ordinary legal dispute than a world-changing philosophical conflict.
The study also showed that the Inquisition's records often carelessly left out crucial information.
That understanding helps reconcile an apparent contradiction in the records on Galileo's trial, said Thomas Mayer, a historian at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
"The notion that Galileo's trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead," Mayer told LiveScience. "Anyone who works seriously on Galileo doesn't accept that interpretation anymore."
Galileo Galilei had argued in favor of the heliocentric model developed by Copernicus that shows the Earth going around the sun, rather than the geocentric view placing Earth at the center of everything. He ended up recanting the heliocentric view when summoned to Rome for the second trial in 1632-33.
Records riddled with holes
The Roman Inquisition began in 1542 — 22 years before Galileo's birth — as part of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation against the spread of Protestantism, but it represented a less harsh affair than the previously established Spanish Inquisition.
Galileo's first trial ended with the Inquisition issuing a formal order, called a precept, in 1616 demanding he stop teaching or defending the heliocentric model. His decision to ignore the precept ultimately led to the second trial 15 years later.
But some people have argued that Galileo never actually received the precept from the Inquisition. By their logic, the astronomer misunderstood the formal order as a mere rap on the knuckles.
A few scholars have even tried to suggest that the Inquisition forged the precept during the second trial of 1632 to better incriminate Galileo. They point to a record of an official Inquisition meeting on March 3, 1616, that merely mentions Galileo being warned rather than having received a precept.
Yet Galileo's dossier and other documents reveal that the Inquisition operated as a human organization prone to careless errors and bureaucratic sloppiness, rather than as a monolithic, omnipotent organization conspiring to bring down the astronomer. That provides perhaps the best evidence that conspiracy-seekers had it wrong, Mayer said. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]
Mayer found many Inquisition meeting records to be incredibly messy. Notes often ended up scribbled in the margins or crammed in at the end.
More than a warning
It is possible the notary recording the meeting did not bother to actually record the precept, describing it as a warning instead, Mayer said.
However, at least five other documents actually mention the precept. They include Pope Paul V's order concerning the precept; a dated record of the precept being issued; legal briefs and summaries from Galileo's 1632 trial; and the document that pronounces Galileo's sentence.
These documents again reflect careless note-taking, given that they can't even agree on the exact wording of the precept, Mayer pointed out. But he added that they all have historical consistency in mentioning the precept's existence.
Another old scholarly theory has suggested the precept given to Galileo was a unique and unlawful order that specifically targeted Galileo to muzzle him.
But Mayer cautions against that theory as well. He found examples of more than 200 precepts given out in Inquisition decrees from the late 1590s to 1640.
"The idea that this was unique is not true," Mayer told LiveScience. "They were a very familiar device – many of which are incompletely recorded in the registers."
When Galileo appeared before the Inquisition at his second trial in 1632, the inquisitors focused largely on his crime of ignoring the earlier precept. They did not harp on how the heliocentric model went against biblical teaching.
"Whoever [raised the issue of the earlier precept] was doing it in very narrow legal terms," Mayer said. "The reason is they were trying to give Galileo an out."
Galileo could have negotiated a settlement – a common occurrence in the Inquisition records, and one that would have been relatively easy for him considering the narrow terms of the charges, Mayer said.
Instead, Galileo "didn't know the rules and deliberately kept himself ignorant of them," according to Mayer.
The astronomer clumsily tried to claim he had merely received a warning, before contradicting himself by stating, "I do not claim not to have in any way violated that precept." He dug himself into an even deeper hole by then quoting the strong form of the precept during his arguments.
"When push came to shove in the second part of trial, he made every imaginable mistake," Mayer said. "A lawyer could have told him not to do that."
The study of the precept comes as part of a much larger project aimed at understanding the Roman Inquisition as "human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts," according to Mayer.
He hopes that his recent study, detailed in the September issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, can help cool down unnecessary heat between modern science and religion.
"The problem is just misconceived," Mayer said. "What I'm trying to do is get at the legal dimension of what happened."
That may be an uphill battle. Galileo represents an incredibly powerful symbol today as one of history's most revered thinkers, and everyone wants a piece of him.
In the eyes of secular Europeans, he ranks as "a myth bigger than George Washington," alongside Charles the Great, Mayer noted. The Roman Catholic Church has also attempted to "rehabilitate" Galileo's image by reclaiming him as a man of faith.
Even creationists have hailed Galileo as an example of a man ahead of his time – implying that their views on the creation of life are in a similar position.
"Poor Galileo is in the crosshairs," Mayer concluded.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.