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Inquisition and the Prosecution of Heresy: Misconceptions and Abuses

  • Henry Ansgar Kelly (a1)


The year 1988 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of H. C. Lea's A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. I would like to get the next century off to a good start by renaming his enterprise “A History of the Criminal Prosecution of Heretics in the Middle Ages.” The term inquisition has been widely misunderstood and misused by historians. There are two distinct abuses, one upper-case and the other lower-case.



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1. An earlier form of the present essay was delivered as a paper at a symposium oiganized by Edward Peters to mark the centenary of Lea's work, as part of the program of the Medieval Academy of America meeting held at the University of Pennsylvania, 7 April 1988. I should note that in my Citation of medieval Latin (which was spelled and pronounced like the vernacular), I use e rather than the classical diphthong ae, in order to be more authentic and also to discourage the classical pronunciation of postclassical texts; for the same reasons I use j rather than consonantal i. See my “Lawyer's Latin: Loquenda ut vulgus?” Journal of Legal Education 38 (1988): 195207, esp. 200–201. I also follow the convention of French and English historians of thirteenth-century heresy in translating proper names into the modern vernacular; for example, I render Johannes Andree as “John Andrew” (not “John of Andrew”) rather than using the classicized form “lohannes Andreae” or a medieval vernacular form.

2. Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3 vols. (New York, 1888). Consider, for example, this passage: “The organization of the Inquisition was simple, yet effective.… The inquisitor wore the simple habits of his Order… His principal scene of activity was in the recesses of the dreaded Holy Office, whence he issued his commands and decided the fate of whole populations in a silence and secrecy which impressed upon the people a mysterious awe a thousand times more potent than the external magnificence of the bishop. Every detail in the Inquisition was intended for work and not for show” (1:369).

3. Dossat, Yves, “Inquisition,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 16 vols. (New York, 1967), 7:535541.

4. Beste, Ulric, “Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation for the,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 4:944–96.

5. See Peters, Edward, Inquisition (New York, 1988), pp. 105121.

6. Ibid., pp. 1–7, 122–315; Kieckhefer, Richard, Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany (Philadelphia, 1979), pp. 37.Hamilton, Bernard, The Medieval Inquisition (New York, 1981), p. 9, agrees with Kieckhefer's analysis, but not with his advice to abandon “the Inquisition” as a generic term to describe the work of medieval heresy tribunals.

7. Dossat, , “Inquisition,” pp. 535536.

8. Dossat, Yves, Les crises de l'Inquisition toulousaine an xiii e siècle (1233–1273) (Bordeaux, 1959), p. 107.

9. See Lea, , History, 1:310. See Decretales Gregorii IX 5.1.24, Qualzter et quando no. 2, ed. Friedberg, Emil, Corpus iuris canonici, 2 vols. (18791881; reprint, Graz, 1959), 2:745747. Hereafter, I will use the standard abbreviation X to refer to the Decretales. An early version of this decretal was issued in 1206, and it was also partially incorporated into Gregory IX's collection: X 5.1.17 Qualiter et quando no 1. (see n. 35 below). A still earlier decretal of Innocent III's, listing the three forms of procedure, deals with simony, namely Licet Heli (X 5.3.31), issued in 1199.

10. I intend to deal with these matters at greater length in a later study. For the time being, let me simply note that the trial records speak for themselves: accusations and denunciations are very scarce and inquisitions are the rule. For a rare example of a denunciation, from the year 1321 in the diocese of Rochester, see Registrum Hamonis Hethe, Diocesis Roffensis, A.D 1319–1352, ed. Johnson, Charles (Oxford, 1948), p. 218.

11. Kelly, H. A., Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), pp. 168173;idem, Canon Law and the Archpriest of Hita (Binghamton, N.Y., 1984), pp. 51–54, 57–58, 91, 173.

12. Kelly, H. A., The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII (Stanford, 1976);idem, “English Kings and the Fear of Sorcery,” Mediaeval Studies 39 (1977): 206–238.

13. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. (1989), gives the earliest instance of the restricted use of “tenure” as occurring in Vladimir Nabokov's 1957 novel Pnin. See my “Chaucer and, Shakespeare on Tragedy,” Leeds Studies in English 20 (1989), where I argue that the same phenomenon can be observed in the word “tragedy,” which is often used elliptically for “great tragedy.”

14. Richard Kieckhefer, review of Patschovsky, A., Quellen zur bömische Inquisition im 14. Jahrhundert (1979), in Speculum 56 (1981): 899901. For a typical listing of these alleged special inquisitorial powers, see Given, James, “The Inquisitors of Languedoc and the Medieval Technology of Power,” American Historical Review 94 (1989): 336359, esp. 339.

15. Lea, , History, 1:364.

16. Ibid.

17. Hamilton, , Medieval Inquisition, p. 10.

18. See especially Maisonneuve's, Etudes sur les origines de l'Inquisition (Paris, 1960), pp. 287356.

19. See Alexander's bull Cupierites in Frédéricq, Paul, Corpus documentorum inquisitionis haereticae pravitatis neerlandicae, vol. 1 (Ghent, 1889), pp. 123124 no. 130.

20. Sexi 5.2.20 Statuta (Friedberg 2:1078). An earlier use in a nonheresy case can be found in Gregory IX's decretal Olim (X 5.1.26; Friedberg 2:747).

21. See Lefebvre, Charles, “Les origines romaines de la procedure sommaire aux XII et XIII s.,” Ephemerides iuris canonici 12 (1956): 149197, esp. 191–192.

22. Clementines 2.1.2 Dispendiosam, AD. 1312, and 5.11.2 Sepe, AD. 1314 (Friedberg 2:1145, 1200).

23. Council of Narbonne, chap. 22 (Mansi, , Concilia, 23:362); this is also the claim of the Processus inquisitionis, ed. Tardif, A. and Balme, F., “Document pour l'histoire de processus per lnquisitionem et de l'inquisitio heretice pravitatis,” Nouvelle revue hstorique 7 (1883): 669678, p. 673, where the authoriiation of Gregory IX and Innocent IV is alleged. Dossat attributes the manual to the Dominicans Bernard Caux and John Saint-Pierre, inquisitors at Toulouse since 1245 and at Carcassonne as well since September 1248, dating it to the end of 1248 or beginning of 1249 (Crises, p.167). It is listed as Manual number two by Dondaine, Antoine, “Le manuel de l'inquisiteur (1230–1330),” Archivum fratrum praedicatorum 17 (1947): 85194, esp. 97–101, and said to be unquestionably the work of the inquisitors of Narbonne, the Dominicans William Raymond and Peter Durant (Dossat maintains that this is a mistaken judgment). It is reprinted by Selge, Kurt-Victor, Texte zur Inquisition (Gütersloh, 1967), pp. 7076, using Dondaine's title, Ordo processus Narbonnensis, with no reference to Dossat's rival attribution.

24. Sext 5.2.200 (Friedberg 2:1078);Lea, , History, 1:438.

25. Corpus juris canonici, 3 vols. (1582; reprint, Lyons, 1606), 3:1:645, note to Sext 5.2.20, referring to Repertorium inquisitorum (1575; reprint, Venice, 1588), pp. 360361. The 1494 edition of this work, compiled by Michael Albert, J.U.D., of Valencia, was titled Repertorium perutile de pravitate hereticorum et apostatarum. The discussion in question is on Sig. Biiir v, in the entry Nomina.

26. See Andrew's, JohnNovella (finished in 1338) on X 5.41.6 (1581, reprint, Turin, 1963), 5:161 no. 3, citing Huguccio, , referring to Gratian, Decretum Circumcelliones (Friedberg 1:928929). See my Canon Law and the Archpriest of Hita, pp. 110111, 184185.

27. See Clem. 5.3.1 Multorum querela (Friedberg 2:11811182).

28. X 5.7.11 Si adversus (Friedberg 2:783784). Even Peters alleges that heresy defendants were restricted in their use of lawyers (Inquisition, p. 67). Hamilton first says, rightly, that defendants could use lawyers (p. 44), but then he says that they were not allowed in certain conditions (p. 45). The latter may have been true in practice, but it contravened the ordo juris.

29. See Mellinkoff, David, The Conscience of a Lawyer (St. Paul, 1973), pp. 4762.

30. Vidal, J. M., Bullaire de l'tnquisition française au xive siècle et jusqu'à la fin do grand schisme (Paris, 1913).

31. X 5.28.53 (Friedberg 2:432).

32. Sext 5.2.18 Ut inquisitionis (Friedberg 2:1077);Vidal, , Bullaire, pp. lxxii–lxxiii.

33. X 5.3.31, repeated and clarified in Per tuas, AD. 1204, X 5.3.32 (Friedberg 2:760–762). The admission of infames and criminosi to testify against those who have left the faith antedates Innocent's invention of the inquisition; it is stated as permissible by Gratian in his dictum before Alieni erroris (Friedberg 1:488). I should note that the rubric to canon 23 as Friedberg puts it, Infames hereticos accusare non possunt (“The infamous cannot accuse heretics”), belies Gratian's meaning; the older edition of the Corpus jouris canonici cited above (n. 25), 1:691, gives a correct rubric: Infames et haeretici homines bonae famae accusare non possunt (“The infamous and heretics cannot accuse men of good fame”).

34. In some cases there was a promovens who initiated and prosecuted the charges; examples can be found in the Rochester register (n. 10 above), pp. 479, 615, 784, 941, 1075 (compare 956). Eventually, there emerged two different kinds of promotor: an ad hoc assistant to the judge appointed in a specific case, called promotor judicis officii, who helped to formulate charges; and a permanent promotor who acted like an independent prosecuting attorney. For the former, see my “English Kings and the Fear of Sorcery,” p. 225 n. 75, and my Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII, pp. 23, 80, 89–90; for an example of the latter, see Vidal, , Bullaire, p. 498.

35. Innocent III, Qualiter et quando no. I (see n. 9 above), a passage omitted by Raymund of Pennafort from X 5.1.17 but repeated in Quatiter et quando no. 2 (X 5.1.24; Friedberg 2:738, 746).

36. X 5.7.15 Excommunicamus no. 2 (Friedburg 2:789). For the text of the whole letter, dated February 1231, see Selge, , Texte zur Inquisitton, pp. 4142, who takes it from Auvray, Lucien, Les registres de Cregoire IX, vol. 1 (Paris, 1896), no. 539. Friedberg gives only Raynaldi's date of 1229. This decretal declares “believers in the errors of heretics” to be themselves heretics, in contrast with the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council, Excommunicamus no. I (X 5.7.13), par. 5, where “believers of heretics” (this can be interpreted either as believers in the good character of heretics or believers in the good character of their teachings) are included in the lesser category of supporters of heretics. However, in a still earlier decretal, Lucius III's Ad abolendarm (A.D. 1184), excommunication is decreed against the wrong thinker (aliter sentiens) as well as against the wrong teacher (Friedberg 2:780).

37. X 5.3.33 Sicut and 34 Tua nos (Friedberg 2:762763), and see Kuttner, Stephen, “Ecclesia de occultis non iudicat,” Acta congressus iuridici internationalis … 1934, vol. 3 (Rome, 1936). pp. 225246. Compare John Andrew, Novella on X 2.18.2 Cum super (2:108A nos. 4–5), who concludes: “Nulla ergo equitas potest movere judicem ut reum interroget de occultis. Equitate autem deticiente non est locus interrogationi judiciali.” X 5.1.21 Inquisitionis negotium (Friedberg 2:741742). I deal with this question at length in “The Inquisitorial Prosecution of Secret Crimes,” forthcoming in the proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, held at the University of California, San Diego, in August of 1988, to be published in the Subsidia series of the Vatican Library's Monumentaiuris canonici.

38. Council of Narbonne, chap. 27.

39. Ibid., chaps. 23 and 29.

40. Manual 5, Vatican tat. MS 3978, fols. 17–38: chap. 9 (fol. 32). See Dondaine, , “Le manuel de l'inquisiteur (1230–1330),” pp. 106107, 141146. For the dating, see Dossat, , Crises, p. 199.

41. Manual 5, chap. 23 (fols. 35–36v).

42. Ibid., chap. 4 (fols. 25v-26).

43. Douais, Cétestin, ed., Documents pour servir à l'histoire de l'Inquisition dans le Languedoc, 2 vols. (Paris, 1900), 2:115301.

44. Manual 6: Doctrina de modo procedendi contra hereticos, ed. Edmund Martè, Thesaurus novorum anecdotorum, vol. 5 (1717; reprint, New York, 1968), pp. 17951814. See Dossat, , Crises, pp. 202204.

45. See, for example, Barber, Malcolm, The Trial of the Templars (Cambridge, 1978). For Philip's letter, see Vie, Claude de and Vaissette, Joseph, rev. Milinier, Auguste et al. , Histoire generale de Languedoc, 16 vols. (Toulouse, 18721904), 10:273274. Philip's letter of 5 September 1298 supporting Boniface VIll's Ut inquisitionis (Sext 5.2.18), ibid., cols. 276–278, should not be taken as rescinding the 1291 cautions on due process.

46. Tanon, L., Histoire des tribunaux de l'Inquisition en France (Paris, 1893), p. 348 n. 1.Duvernoy, Jean, Le registre d'inquisition de Jacques Fournier, évêque de Pamiers (1318–1325), 3 vols. (Toulouse, 1965; a pamphlet of corrections was issued in 1972): see 1:40 for the formula used in the first recorded case, 9 August 1319. The Dominican vice-inquisitor is noted as assisting at the bishop's proceedings.

47. Sext 5.1.1 Postquam (Friedberg 2:1069).Andrew, John, in the Glossa ordiriaria, on the word postquam, Corpus juris canonici, 3:609610, states explicitly that the opinions of Hostiensis are corrected by this decretal and the next. For Hostiensis on the failure to present charges, see his Commentaria to X 5.1.24 (1581; reprint, Turin, 1965), 5:11A no. 15.

48. Sext 5.1.2 Si is (Friedberg 2:1069) See Hostiensison X 5.1.17, Commentaria, 5:5A-6 nos. 4–6. The canonists held that ordinary judges already had the power to proceed without establishing infamy; see John Andrew's gloss on this decretal at the word fuerat (col. 610), and see his Novella on X 5.1.25 (5:15A no. 10).

49. Duvernoy, , Registre, 2:204, case of Arnaud Tesseyre. Later, after becoming Pope Benedict XII, Fournier accepted the appeal of a man who was denied the copy of the inquisitorial process held against him in his absence (Vidal, , Bullaire, p. 44).

50. Vidal, , Bullaire, pp. 7783.

51. Doncoeur, Paul and Lanhers, Yvonne, eds., Instrument public des sentences porthés les 24 et 30 ma 1431 par Pierre Cauchon et Jean le Maître, O.P., contre Jeanne la Pucelle (Paris, 1954); and Tisset, Pierre, ed. (with Yvonne Lahers), Procès de condemnation de Jeanne d'Arc, 3 vols. (Paris, 19601971). I follow the traditional vocabulary in considering the brief proceedings in which Joan was condemned as relapsed on 30 May to be part of the original trial.

52. Duparc, Pierre, ed., Procès en nullité de la condemnation de Jeanne d'Arc, 4 vols to date (Paris, 19771986), 1:111150 (modern French translation, 3:103–144).

53. Ibid., 2:266–317: Opinio domini Johannis de Montigny, decretorum doctoris; see esp. pp. 293–294. Duparc is preparing a fifth volume which will contain a commentary on the consultations.

54. I give details in the essay mentioned in n. 37 above.


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