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Learning by Doing: Coping with Inquisitors in Medieval Languedoc

Learning by Doing: Coping with Inquisitors in Medieval Languedoc

By James Given

Published Online (2010)

Introduction: The twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a period of great development in the institutions of governance in medieval Europe. The amateurish and ad hoc governing practices of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries gave way to ever more professionalized and bureaucratic ways of doing things. The overwhelming mass of archival documents bearing witness to this is matched by the extensive historical literature on the subject. The evidence we have, however, gives us a one-sided impression of this phenomenon.

What we have is a bureaucrat’s vision of governing. Such a vision is necessarily reductionist. Bureaucrats have to fit the complex, ever-changing, messy stuff of reality into easily comprehended patterns that appear to be orderly and amenable to systematic intervention. Some sources, however, do allow us glimpses of how the governed “received” the efforts of their rulers. Among these is the rich mass of documentation relating to the inquisition of heretical depravity in Languedoc in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This vision of governance is something of a mirage. How the complex, ever-changing, messy stuff of reality responded to the efforts to govern it is not given much prominence in such a vision. How the actions of the governed shaped the process and results of governance is often mysterious. This is especially true in the case of the European middle ages. The great mass of the governed were illiterate, and hence voiceless. Their reactions to the efforts of their rulers have to be read through the records produced by those same rulers, who were not necessarily interested in saying much about what we are interested in. The fact that the governed also often tried to hid their efforts from their masters makes the problem even more difficult.

Some sources, however, do allow us glimpses of how the governed “received” the efforts of their rulers. Among these is the rich mass of documentation relating to the inquisition of heretical depravity in Languedoc in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This material, spanning a period of well over a century, lets us to see how reactions to the inquisitors changed over time. The evidence shows a distinct pattern of learning and adjustment by the people of Languedoc. When the inquisition was first founded, its procedures and personnel were in a state of flux. It was a new, unpredictable player in the political arena. How best to deal with it was anything but clear. What we see is an often flailing pattern of responses that betrays confusion, an often astonishing naïveté, and resort to large-scale defiance and open violence, much of it counterproductive. As the inquisition perfected its processes and became a regular part of the socio-political landscape, however, people learned how to adjust to it. Responses to it became more sophisticated — and perhaps more effective. Some people, including those who had passed through the investigatory and punitive machinery of the inquisitors, learned how to “colonize” the inquisition, using it to accomplish their own ends.

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