The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors

June 30, 2011

If there is anything more disturbing than injustice perpetrated by fanaticism, it is the attempts by fanatics to excuse their abuse of power. In this compelling study of medieval inquisitors in Europe from the 11th to 14th centuries, Karen Sullivan attempts to comprehend the reasons why well-meaning people might believe that torture and death serve a higher purpose.

Sullivan begins her book with a chilling account of the medieval inquisitor at work, riding into town, preaching to the assembled congregation, rounding up heretics, receiving their confessions, and then handing the guilty over to the secular authorities to be imprisoned or, more often than not, burned alive. Townspeople were encouraged to testify in secret against their neighbours, while the accused, not knowing their accusers or the charges against them, were unable to defend themselves. Like the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era in the US, every denial was construed as deception and every claim of innocence was taken as proof of guilt.

The book comprises seven case studies, including: Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), leading light of the Cistercian movement; Dominic Guzmán (1170-1221), the founder of the Dominican order of friars; and Bernard Gui (1261-1331), who appears as a truly frightening character in Umberto Eco's 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose. According to Sullivan, even allowing for novelistic invention, Eco's portrait of Gui as an inquisitor who enjoyed performing before audiences of terrified onlookers is not far off the mark.

As a literary historian, Sullivan uses contemporary records and biographies to piece together the "inner lives" of these inquisitors and how they explained their work to themselves and others. Making a binary distinction between the religious ideals of "charity" and "zeal", Sullivan argues that most of the inquisitors struggled to reconcile their duty to love all humankind with their duty to protect ordinary people from the ill effects of heresy. For many, the zeal of prosecution proved more stimulating than the charity of forgiveness.

Conrad of Marburg (1180/90-1233), appointed by Pope Gregory IX and arguably the first official inquisitor, had an "enthusiasm for burning countless suspected heretics after what appear to have been only perfunctory trials". According to his penitential framework of belief, an accused who was not guilty of heresy would still be guilty of something, since all humans were sinners. Conrad's brutal treatment of Princess Elizabeth of Hungary, whom he beat regularly into submission while isolating her from her children and friends, was justified by his desire to help her find freedom through obedience and joy through patience. A prototype of Patient Griselda, Elizabeth apparently endured and even welcomed her punishments as taking her closer to God.

It is reassuring to know that the inquisitors did not always carry hegemonic opinion with them. Having overreached himself with the zealous pursuit of heretics into the higher echelons of the nobility, Conrad was himself tried in court and subsequently assassinated. Alone among the seven cases presented here, Bernard Délicieux (1260-1319/20) turned his zeal towards an active campaign against inquisitions, arguing that heretics do not pre-exist inquisition but are, as we might now say, a discursive construct of that very process.

Sullivan writes as a dispassionate narrator who withholds judgement, and to some extent she succeeds in showing us that the world of the medieval inquisitors was morally more complex than we might think. But her final equivocation over the roles of aggressor and victim underplays the massive power imbalance between inquisitors and heretics, which allowed inquisitors to use their institutional and spiritual authority to torment others in the belief that God was on their side.

The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors

By Karen Sullivan. University of Chicago Press. 312pp, £29.00. ISBN 9780226781679. Published 25 March 2011

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