Becoming Ethnographic: Reading Inquisitorial Authority in The Hammer of Witches

Becoming Ethnographic: Reading Inquisitorial Authority in The Hammer of Witches

Biddick, Kathleen

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)


What kind of complicit relationships to “evidence” and to “truth” might contemporary microhistories of inquisitorial archives enjoy with late medieval/early modern inquisitorial discourse? What do Carlo Ginzburg and Guido Ruggiero have to do with the Inquisitors of Modena and Venice, what has Bishop Jacques Fournier to do with Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie and Georges Duby? My essay poses these questions for the problems they raise about engendering and sexualizing authority and authorization both in late medieval inquisitorial practices and in contemporary disciplinarities of so-called “premodern” studies.

The authority of recent work by such microhistorians as Ginzburg, Ruggiero, Ladurie, and Duby rests on their research in inquisitorial archives, on their “having been there,” on their work in the “field” of the archive. The archive functions like a good native-informant. Ginzburg has insisted on the “intrinsic dialogic” nature of inquisitorial trial transcripts, Ladurie on their “direct testimony,” Ruggiero on their capacity as records to “speak from the past” for the “storyteller” of today; Duby hears in them the “sound of the authentic female voice” of the Middle Ages. The Inquisitorial archive offers, too, just like the field, exotic, sensuous pleasures that exceed the documents themselves. These collections dazzle like Eldorado: “When I was admitted for the first time to the large room which housed in perfect order nearly two thousand inquisitorial trials, I felt the sudden thrill of discovering an unexplored gold mine.”

But what if the microhistorians’ experience of “having been there” should turn out, with critical scrutiny, to be no authority at all but rather the pre-emption of the authority of the inquisitor? Where did the authority of the inquisitor come from? There is more to these questions than the thrill of vertigo. The discipline of ethnography/anthropology, upon which microhistorians eagerly draw, has over the past decade subjected its organizing tropes of the fieldworker, the practice of “having been there,” to a historical critique of page 22 representation.

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