Frances Andrews

title.none: Shahar, Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect (Frances Andrews )

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.011 02.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frances Andrews , University of St Andrews,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Shahar, Shulamith. Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect: Agnes and Huguette the Waldensians. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xx, 184. ISBN: 0-85115-815-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.11

Shahar, Shulamith. Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect: Agnes and Huguette the Waldensians. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xx, 184. ISBN: 0-85115-815-3.

Reviewed by:

Frances Andrews
University of St Andrews

Agnes Franco and Huguette de la Co^te were Waldensian women arrested and imprisoned by the bishop-inquisitor Jacques Fournier in August 1319 and burnt at the stake in 1320 and 1321. Two men were arrested at the same time, Raymond de la Co^te and Huguette's husband, Jean of Vienne, but others from their small group in Pamiers got away. The relations between these individuals are revealed in the records of their interrogations in Fournier's register, one of the most famous extant documents of the medieval inquisition, perhaps because Fournier asked questions which other inquisitors did not, but also undoubtedly because he later became pope as Benedict XII from 1334.

The Waldensians or Poor of Lyons have been the subject of extensive scholarship since at least the 1960s, when major editions of sources began to be widely available and Shahar makes dependable use of this literature, combining the contrasting techniques of micro-history and textbook writing to give an account of two women's experiences and beliefs within the context of the wider history of Waldensian women. As she herself acknowledges, Peter Biller is the only previous historian to have paid extensive attention to female Waldensians and this study owes a great deal to his pioneering work.

Shahar sets out to examine the position of women both within the sect and within the context of the "general society" from which they were "doubly marginalised as both women and as heretics" (p. xiii). She examines their treatment by the inquisition and explores the extent to which they developed a distinctive self-identity. The problem of their status in the sect is perhaps inevitably framed in terms of their relationship with the men. As she notes, gender equality within the movement was more or less assumed by historians until Merlo's article on the subject in 1991.[1] Indeed it was not infrequently used as an explanation for the success of the Waldensians because of a perceived contrast with the more restricted opportunities available to women in the Catholic church. Shahar's analysis confirms the limitations of this approach. The women were not 'equals' since they did not celebrate the Eucharist and, from as early as the second decade of the thirteenth century, the Sisters were subject to the Brothers in "essentially the same hierarchy and gender roles. . .as between the nuns and the monks or canons in the Catholic church" (p. 65). At the level of their followers or 'Believers' however, there was what the author terms "a certain blurring of the women's otherness," a "neutralization of the standard gender roles" (p. 65), a suggestion which is worthy of further exploration.

The core of this study is the record of the interrogations of the two women, Agnes and Huguette. These are presented in translation in an appendix which will be of great use in undergraduate teaching on the subject of heresy and gender. In her discussion, the author adds details from other cases in the register which convey both the deep conviction of the condemned and a fleeting sense of the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the inquisition in Pamiers: thus one observer was overheard by another customer in an inn affirming that "when Raymond was at the stake and the ropes binding his arms had burned away, he folded his hands together, raised them to heaven as if in prayer and entrusted his soul to God" (p. ix). The onlooker concluded that such a man could not be a heretic, a bold assertion that was to contribute to his own summonsing to the inquisitor's court.

Raymond's account of the sect was used by Bernard Gui in his manual for inquisitors and modern historians have frequently followed Gui's example, constructing an account of Waldensianism from the record of this and other interrogations by Fournier. Shahar shifts the focus from Raymond to the women arrested alongside him. This is a welcome move, particularly in view of the scarcity of documented Waldensian women, and Shahar is well placed to provide a broader context for this material and explore the wider implications for the history of women. Yet it must be acknowledged that Raymond, having been educated by the Franciscans in Montpellier, had far more to say for himself. As Shahar makes clear, the inquisitors recognised this, interrogating him 24 times, while Huguette, the more active of the two women, was questioned just ten times and Agnes only five.

The relative lack of direct sources for the women perhaps explains why much of this short book depends on comparisons fairly remote from the Waldensians of the 1320s, even down to the experience of the Shakers in eighteenth-century Britain and America. Nonetheless the reader acquires a rare sense of access to the feelings and responses of both Waldensian Brothers and Sisters and 'Believers'. This has its dangers and Shahar does warn of the problems of relying on inquisition records constructed by the enemy. She also notes the uniqueness of these records, so that they cannot be seen as representative of all female Waldensians. But she uses them to show the stages by which the victims moved from defensive lying in the hope of escape (not frequent, but not impossible), to frank admission of deviant belief. It is a pattern not unfamiliar from other inquisition records, and the scepticism of some historians will be equally familiar to the author.

It is a pity that a large number of irritating errors of punctuation and translation have slipped through. Modern pressures on publishers' costs seem to mean that few volumes are free of minor inconsistencies (such as the use of Plaisance on p. 39 and Piacenza on p. 80, both referring to the same north Italian city), but the translator has produced quite a few oddities which ought to have been picked up (eg.: "for the crime of the [sic] refusing to swear" p.80). This is nonetheless a book which should be very useful in furthering discussions of gender and medieval heresy and let us hope that a corrected, paperback edition will follow shortly.


1. G.G. Merlo, "Sulle 'misere donnicciuole' che predicavano," Identita` Valdese nella storia e nella storiografia, Valdesi e Valdismi medievali II (Turin, 1991) 92-112.