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INQUISITION: INTRODUCTION

by David Burr

When medieval people used the word "inquisition," they were referring to a judicial technique, not an organization. There was , in fact, no such thing as "the Inquisition" in the sense of an impersonal organization with a chain of command. Instead there were "inquisitors of heretical depravity," individuals assigned by the pope to inquire into heresy in specific areas. They were called such because they applied a judicial technique known as inquisitio, which could be translated as "inquiry" or "inquest." In this process, which was already widely used by secular rulers (Henry II used it extensively in England in the twelfth century), an official inquirer called for information on a specific subject from anyone who felt he or she had something to offer. This information was treated as confidential. The inquirer, aided by competent consultants, then weighed the evidence and determined whether there was reason for action. This procedure stood in stark contrast to the Roman law practice normally used in ecclesiastical courts, in which, unless the judge could proceed on clear, personal knowledge that the defendant was guilty, judicial process had to be based on an accusation by a third party who was punishable if the accusation was not proved, and in which the defendant could confront witnesses.

By the end of the thirteenth century most areas of continental Europe had been assigned inquisitors. The overwhelming majority were Franciscans or Dominicans, since members of these two orders were seen as pious, educated and highly mobile. Inquisitors worked in cooperation with the local bishops. Sentence was often passed in the name of both . The overwhelming majority of sentences seem to have consisted of penances like wearing a cross sewn on one's clothes, going on pilgrimage, etc. The inqusitor's goal was not primarily to punish the guilty but to identify them, get them to confess their sins and repent, and restore them to the fold. Only around ten percent or less of the cases resulted in execution, a punishment normally reserved for obstinate heretics (those who refused to repent and be reconciled) and lapsed heretics (those who repented and were reconciled at one time but then fell back into error).

New inquisitors needed guidance, and the need was met by a series of manuals written in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries by old hands. The most famous of these is the one by Bernard Gui, a Dominican who spent close to a quarter-century conducting investigations. Born around 1261, probably of lesser nobility, he joined the order in 1279. He received a good education and served as prior in a series of southern French convents before being appointed an inquisitor in 1307. He remained such, with his base of operations at Toulouse, until 1324, when he was rewarded with a bishopric. During that period he passed sentence on 930 people that we know of. The sentences passed on them add up to a total of 394 pages in a very large book.

Gui's manual, actually entitled Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis (The Conduct of Inquiry Concerning Heretical Depravity), was finished in 1323 or 1324, but he seems to have worked on it off and on throughout the latter part of his career. It is divided into five parts, the first three of which deal with procedure. The fourth presents a series of documents (papal bulls, etc.) which define the inqusitior's authority. In the fifth and most interesting part Gui takes his readers on a tour of contemporary heresy.

The part translated here deals with the Beguins. In order to understand who they were it is necessary to understand two important aspects of thirteenth-century history. On the one hand, this period witnessed the creation and enormous growth of the Franciscan Order, and a remarkable division in that order between the so-called spirituals, who insisted on observing the strict poverty practiced by Francis of Assisi himself, and what we now call the community, those willing to settle for a more moderate observance which would enable Franciscans to perform the many functions given them by the church. This quarrel was in some ways as old as the order itself, but we find two identifiable factions emerging only in the 1270s. By the late 1270s some Italian spirituals were being imprisoned by leaders of the order. In 1283 the battle claimed its first victim in southern France when Peter John Olivi, a leading spokesman for the spirituals, was censured; 1but by the end of the decade the Italian spirituals had been released from prison and Olivi had been rehabilitated.

Serious trouble occurred in the first decade of the fourteenth century, with large numbers of Italian and southern French spirituals being disciplined by the order. In 1312 Pope Clement V tried to mediate a compromise, but the battle soon heated up again, and the frustrated spirituals eventually tried to solve their problem by forcibly seizing a series of convents and holding them as their own turf. In 1317 the new pope, John XXII, decided to settle the problem by throwing his support entirely behind the community. He told the Spirituals to conform or face the consequences. When some refused, he identified them as heretics and turned the inquisition loose on them. By 1318 recalcitrant spirituals were being sent to the stake.

John's task was made more difficult by the fact that the spirituals had formed close ties with what we now call the beguins, a group of pious priests and laypersons in many southern French towns, and that brings us to the second aspect of thirteenth-century history. It was a period of tremendous religious enthusiasm among the laity, often accompanied by belief that a new age was dawning. Religious movements seemed increasingly self-propelled, moving without any obvious encouragement from (or control by) the ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of them was a group in southern France called beguins. That was rather scary for the church. As the papacy became sensitive to the threat involved in this situation, it raised the stakes by identifying disobedience with heresy and by encouraging drastic remedies against it. As a result, a number of people who had hitherto thought of themselves as loyal sons of the Holy Father found themselves forced to choose between their own deeply felt ideals and obedience to Rome.

The pope's attack on the spiritual Franciscans presented beguins with just such a dilemma, and many solved it by continuing to support the spirituals. These beguins were often members of the Third Order of Saint Francis and they held the poor, disciplined spirituals in special veneration. They worshipped Olivi as a saint, and every year on the anniversary of his death crowds of pilgrims flocked to his grave at Narbonne. When the spirituals were condemned, the beguins found it impossible to accept that decision. By 1319 they themselves were being prosecuted and burned, yet in a remarkable demonstration of what one might term either fanaticism or heroism they continued to harbor fugitive Spirituals and even organized an underground railroad which smuggled them through Majorca to Sicily. Eventually the southern French beguins were crushed, but it took the church two decades to do it.

What gave them the courage to continue? If we could answer that one, we would also be able to explain the tenacity of modern groups like the Branch Davidians. There are some things we can say, though. For one thing, Olivi had provided them with a set of apocalyptic expectations that made perfect sense of what was happening to them. He had seen Saint Francis as the inaugurator of a new , more spiritual age. This new age was opposed by carnal Christians, and the latter would capture the highest positions of leadership in the church. Soon - very soon - the mystical Antichrist would lead the ecclesiastical hierarchy in a desperate attempt to wipe out those poor, spiritual Christians who served as the advanced guard of the new dispensation. The result would be persecution, but it could be endured in the knowledge that eventually the carnal church would be defeated and a new, spiritual church would be born. Thus , like a beleaguered cell of early twentieth-century Marxists ,the beguins could bear their suffering secure in the knowledge that history was on their side.

Of course there was more than religious belief involved. In reading the interrogations of individual beguins, note the case of Alarassi Biasse, a woman on her way to the stake for running what became a collection point on the escape route to Sicily. She lived near the coast, and fugitive Spirituals hid in her home until they could be conveyed by boat to Majorca. In her process she confesses to harboring six, but there were probably more. Why did she do it? Was she motivated by a strong belief? In the process she desperately wants to stay alive, says she repents, and tries to cooperate with the inquisitors as fully as possible. We suddenly discover that, she is Olivi's niece, and of the first two Spirituals to arrive at her door one was her cousin. Suddenly a new set of possibilities emerges. When I first read Alarassi's process, I was reminded of a respectable couple I met not long ago who were embarassed, even appalled by the fact that they had been harboring an illegal alien in their home for over a year. They had been law-abiding people with no strong convictions about Latin American politics, but once faced with a concrete political refugee who needed protection they saw no alternative except to provide it. And once they provided it they began to develop opinions on Latin America. I'm also reminded of what I 've read about Italian peasants who harbored downed Allied airmen during World War II. In many cases they initially acted , not from any allegiance to the Allied cause, but from compassion, a sense that this particular poor, defenseless individual was being pursued by a powerful institution and needed all the help he could get. But what happened when another airman showed up, and then another, and the Germans kept coming to search the barn, upsetting the cows and scaring the children? At what point did they stop thinking of themselves as compassionate neutrals and start thinking of themselves as partisans?

The actual trial records included here are what we call verbal processes, records of the interrogations made by a notary. These and the sentences pronounced at the end of the inquiry provide us with most of what we know about inquisitorial procedure. The ones translated here are from investigations that took place in the 1320s.

Modern writers do not treat the inquisitors gently - Bernard Gui in the film version of The Name of the Rose is simply a fanatic, and Umberto Eco doesn't treat him much better in the novel - yet their preoccupations are more familiar than we care to admit. They want what interrogators always want in such situations. They could be FBI agents tracking down a ring of domestic terrorists, or CIA agents trying to unravel an international espionage system. They want confessions, but they want a great deal more. They need information. There's a conspiracy out there and they want to know about it. The defendant recognizes that little is gained by simply implicating oneself. Genuine confession involves contrition and cooperation, and that means naming names. Thus we find the defendants doing what defendants do in all ages. They provide the requisite information but try to limit disclosure as much as possible, naming if possible only those accomplices they assume are already known to the authorities. As for themselves, they readily admit to less serious actions and to actions about which they suspect the inquisitor already knows, but are less forthcoming about other matters.

The inquisitors anticipate all this and have prepared a set of questions designed to prevent evasion. These questions serve as the filter through which what we know of the heretics must pass. They represent, not the heresy itself, but the inquisitor's'working assumptions about it. Rarely does the suspect gain enough control of the process to answer questions the inquisitor has not thought to ask. Rarely does the suspect state beliefs in any terms other than those assumed by the inquisitor's question. Thus those who want to know about the Beguins must also learn a great deal about the inquisitors, for they will inevitably be looking at the former through the latter's eyes, and they had better not do so credulously.

The documents included here were all translated by David Burr. All but the LodĀve and Na Prous Bonnet processes are reproduced in their entirety. The former is complete up to the point where I stopped, but it goes on to cover other people. The Prous process is slightly abridged, but a complete version is available on request.


Text by David Burr [olivi@mail.vt.edu]. See his home page. He indicated that the translations are available for educational use. He intends to expand the number of translations, so keep a note of his home page.

Paul Halsall Jan 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu