Robert Lerner

title.none: Given, Inquisition and Medieval Society (Lerner)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.002 98.09.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Lerner, Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Given, James B. Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, & Resistance in Languedoc. . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 255. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-43358-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.02

Given, James B. Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, & Resistance in Languedoc. . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii, 255. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-43358-4.

Reviewed by:

Robert Lerner
Northwestern University

This is a powerful book about power. Drawing on a relative wealth of documentation, Given wants to understand how a small number of inquisitors managed to police the large area of Languedoc between roughly 1275 to 1325 with such success that they managed for practical purposes to extirpate all the heresies of the region. Beyond that he wants to see how his story fits into the larger picture of the history of power and domination.

Given is particularly successful in the first of his three main sections: "The Inquisitors and their Techniques." His account here will be required reading for historians of inquisitorial institutions and is intrinsically fascinating. The research is based on several inquisitorial handbooks, as well as three of the largest surviving repositories of inquisitorial trial records: Bernard Gui's Liber sententiarum, Jacques Fournier's register, and the pertinent volumes of the Collection Doat. We learn first that inquisitors were pioneers in the searchability of data. Gui and his like needed to refer to records continually for such purposes as checking whether a suspect had ever been tried before or trapping him with his previous testimony or that of another. Accordingly they ordered the frequent recopying of records to ensure against loss, and they sought to make the data in their records retrievable by means of finding devices. Given has examined directly the fourteenth-century codex of Gui's Liber sententiarum and found that it opens with a sophisticated index and is laden with headings, markings, and marginalia offering cross-references. We are a long way from Yahoo! yet heading in that direction.

The remainder of Given's first section is equally original and informative. His substantial data base allows him to offer a range of information and statistics concerning prosecutorial strategies and the varieties of inquisitorial punishments. We learn, for example, that inquisitors preferred long periods of incarceration to torture as a means for gaining confessions: out of sixty-nine trials presided over by Jacques Fournier in which suspects recanted, it took an average of 139 days between the opening of the trial and the time of recantation. Two Waldensians rotted in prison for almost two years before Fournier gave up and turned them over to the secular arm. Imprisonment was also the favored form of punishment: of 502 sentences handed down by Bernard Gui to living and present persons (sentences were also accorded to the dead or in absentia) 61% were to perpetual imprisonment. Although the high percentage of life imprisonments sounds dreadfully severe, Given's data reveal that many of the once imprisoned (statistics are not possible) were granted commutations.

Section 2, "Responses to the Inquisitors," is more problematic. Here Given addresses modes of resistance with plentiful reference to specific examples but with what I take to be two grave methodological flaws: his implicit assumptions that the resistance patterns of all the heresies of the region were the same and that ideology is irrelevant. Had Given called this section "Responses to the Inquisitors among the Cathars" his account would have been more tenable since his examples are overwhelmingly Cathar cases. But even then it would have been useful to point out that late Catharism was so ideologically diffuse that there was evidently little shared doctrine on which to base effective proselytizing or collective resistance. In sharp contrast was the heresy of the Spiritual Franciscans and Beguins, based on the teachings of a single theologian, Peter Olivi. As Given neglects to consider, the Spirituals and Beguins met frequently to listen to readings of Olivi's works that provided a compelling narrative of salvational history. Since Olivi taught that a persecuted vanguard was certain to triumph, it is perhaps not surprising that the record of Beguin resistance is entirely different from that of the Cathars. Given states that "in general, resistance efforts organized around kinship ties were rather modest affairs" (p. 121), but if true of the Cathars this was not true of the Beguins. Similarly, it is entirely untrue to say with reference to all heresies equally that "support networks shrank" (p. 105), or that "fugitives did not get very far" (p. 108): evidence exists to show that Beguins organized clandestine shelters and underground railways; many fled "ultra mare," in some cases as far as Sicily.

Given considers "The Social and Political Context" in section 3. Here he argues plausibly that a late-medieval shift from vertical social ties between lords and clients to horizontal ones within status groups helped inquisitors prey upon the more disadvantaged. (Again I think this argument works best for the Cathars). He also proposes that overlapping or competing jurisdictions, favoritisms, and the shifting whims of rulers impeded the efficiency of institutionalized coercion -- an argument with which no one can quarrel. Much of the first chapter of section 3 (concerning "social strains" that helped inquisitors) is speculative, but when Given speculates he says so.

The book's conclusions do more than sum up; they draw appropriately on the body of findings to place the test case within the larger picture. For Given the inquisitors of Languedoc are noteworthy for standing at the forefront of the late-medieval move toward "the organization of the ruled by the rulers." Granted the obvious constraints, they were probably as efficient in the exercise of power as any medieval governmental group. On the other hand, they were only duffers in view of modern accomplishments in "correction" that aim to enforce the "normalization" of society (see Foucault et al.), for they concerned themselves only with small numbers and their efforts succeeded less in "normalizing" their victims than in forcing them to become outcasts similar to lepers and Jews.

I am expected to say that Given is up to date on the recent social science literature. So far as I can tell he is, but I am dubious as to whether the reading of a James C. Scott or Perry Anderson has really enriched his understanding of his material and I do not find it particularly helpful to be fed clumsy rubrics such as "public transcript," "infrapolitics of subordinate groups," or "parcelization of sovereignty" for concepts that are easily intelligible without them. To my mind it would have been greatly preferable for the author to have saved his time for reading more on the Beguins or anything at all on inquisitorial campaigns in other regions for the purpose of offering some comparisons and perhaps firmer generalizations. Nevertheless I do not wish to create the impression that the social science trappings render the book difficult to digest; actually Given is very lucid and the occasional lingo is always paraphrased.

Given's favored model for understanding the actions of inquisitors comes not from the recent theoretical literature but from Gramsci. That is, he views his subjects as working to preserve "hegemony" or "the existing distribution of power and authority." It is true that he concedes in his conclusions something rather different -- there he acknowledges that the inquisitors themselves would have said they were better described by Foucault than Gramsci, that they were therapists who were correcting and normalizing by saving souls and reconciling sinners to the Church. But in the body of his analysis Given consistently portrays them as "agents of an outraged ruling block." Evidently the alternatives are not mutually exclusive -- the inquisitors could have said one thing and accomplished another, or they could have accomplished different things at the same time.

Yet I find that in his preference for Gramsci, Given sometimes teeters on the simplistic. For example, he wants to interpret inquisitorial punishments as "a species of theater," designed to maintain power by intimidation. But here he does not respond to the obvious objection that if the favorite punishment was imprisonment the inquisitors thereby put aside their better chance for continuous theater -- making their victims wear humiliating signs of infamy. Then too, although public burnings were surely the most spectacular form of theater, Given's own statistics reveal that these occurred rarely -- in the sample he offers only 8% of all cases. Without liking the inquisitors any better for it, I am thus more willing to accept that their actions were guided primarily by their stated goals. I presume that they favored imprisonment because they understood this to be the best penance for heretical depravity in the eyes of God, and I presume that they gauged their own success by a low count of public burnings because burnings meant failure to retrieve souls.

Finally, to say that the inquisitors of Languedoc were acting consciously or unconsciously in behalf of a single "ruling block" contradicts evidence that in some cases they were undermining the authority of alternative ruling blocks. Despite his interest in politics Given never considers how leading members of the royal houses of Aragon and Majorca as well as their familiars (most dramatically Arnold of Villanova) aided and abetted the victims of the inquisitors, and he neglects to notice the pained cry of the Dominican Raymond Barrau that in 1315 the entire governing class of Béziers supported the Beguin heretics ("dominus episcopus predictus et officiales sui. . . sustinebant beguinos et fratres predictos spirituales. . . quos dicebant sanctos Dei et fundamentum ecclesie Dei, sic quod tota civitas Bitterrensis sequebatur eos"). Who knows what might have happened in the struggle of competing blocks had Cardinal Napoleone Orsini, the patron of Ubertino da Casale and Angelo Clareno, succeeded Clement V instead of Jacques Duèse?

But I aim at discussion, not hegemony. This book, with the exceptions noted, is expertly researched; it is also frequently insightful and wonderfully discussable. I welcome it with enthusiasm.