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21.01.04 Moore, Inquisition and its Organisation in Italy

The Medieval Review

21.01.04 Moore, Inquisition and its Organisation in Italy


Books on the medieval Inquisition, as Jill Moore points out in her introduction, generally focus either on the development of inquisitio as a new form of trial, or on the information about medieval heresies that can be extracted from inquisitorial sources. Inquisition and its Organisation in Italy takes, however, a different and original route, by focusing on the practical organisation of the Inquisition in Italy in the period 1250-1350, when it assumed the shape it would keep having until the Catholic Reformation. The development of an institutional structure for the activities undertaken by inquisitors and their supporting personnel is analysed here not only through programmatic sources such as papal constitutions and inquisitorial manuals, but much more so through the lens of sources shedding light on what happened in practice. These consist in a variety of documents including court cases, acts of Mendicant provincial chapters, inquisitorial seals and, what is probably the most interesting, seventeen sets of inquisitorial financial registers from the Vatican Archive. Altogether, the sources cover a large part of communal Italy, although the different conservation histories of local institutions mean that areas such as Bologna, Florence, Orvieto, the March of Treviso, and south-western Piedmont have preserved many more valuable documents on the proceeding of the Inquisition. The wealth of sources of these regions and cities is of course reflected in the book.

At the core of this work we find the discussion of two main historiographical questions, to which the author manages to give detailed and convincing answers. The first deals with the functioning of the medieval Italian Inquisition as an institution. Previous scholarship, and in particular an influential article by R. Kieckhefer (1995), had denied the possibility of speaking of the medieval Inquisition as a proper institution. A collection of unconnected individuals all working to suppress heresy by judicial means, but without any continuity in bureaucratic functions, has been proposed as a better description of this phenomenon. The author, whilst recognising the seminal value of previous contributions as essential to fostering the debate on the organisational nature of the medieval Inquisition, rejects these views, at least with regards to communal Italy. Closely connected to the first question, the second question explored in the book is that of the relationship of the inquisitors and their staff with other authorities present in the territory in which they operated, such as communal élites, bishops, and the leaders of the Mendicant Orders. The author points out that for the Inquisition to develop into a full-fledged institution, as she claims it did, it was necessary for it to establish profound links with all these sources of power and become deeply embedded in the social fabric of the Italian communes. Previously influential views of the Inquisition as a secretive and all-powerful organisation acting independently and undisturbed, such as those popularized by the work of Henry Lea, are therefore challenged in this reconstruction.

The starting point of the discussion of these interconnected issues are the provisions taken by pope Innocent IV between 1252 and 1254 to give a legal, organisational and financial framework to the Inquisition. Chapter 1 is devoted to the description of previous efforts against heresy undertaken by the papacy, local bishops, and communal authorities, culminating in the analysis of the turning point represented by papal provisions from the 1250s. The constitution Ad extirpanda of 1252 is recognised as the document in which a fully developed attempt to establish a partnership between inquisitors, civic powers, and bishops was made by distributing different roles in the fight against heresy. The subsequent division of inquisitorial competences in Italy between the Dominican and the Franciscan orders (assigning the province of Lombardia to the former and that of Tuscia to the latter), in 1254, completed the framework within which inquisitors and cooperating powers would act to pursue heresy and other forms of spiritual crimes. The criteria established by Kieckhefer as a way to define an organisation as an institution are met by these provisions: Innocent IV established a system in which, thanks to the collaboration between the aforementioned powers, continuous fulfilment of bureaucratical functions and a supervision system based on hierarchy were present. The author however is not content with the programmatic descriptions provided by these papal constitutions, and sets out to explore whether things were actually like this in practice, a quest to which she devotes the rest of her book.

Chapter 2 analyses the administrative problems faced by inquisitors starting their tenure in a new town to show how, despite the many pressures from bishops, popes, andpodestà,they could also count on the cooperation of local authorities to settle down more speedily. Moreover, despite the local differences in working and living conditions (due to diverse political allegiances, varying levels of collaboration of the population and, at a more basic level, geographical dissimilarities between Italian regions), the author offers some examples of how inquisitors helped each other at the start of their tenures. This is proposed as a sign of a growing institutional identity. Chapters 3 to 6 examine the activities and the career paths of the supporting personnel of the inquisitors: the roles analysed are those of the inquisitorial notaries, the nuncii (sworn officers tasked with announcing all stages of legal processes to the public), the familiares (a loosely defined category including jailers, bankers, servants, spies and people who supported the work of the inquisitor in other capacities), and finally vicars and socii (his closest clerical assistants). The main finding is that, as proposed by Ad extirpanda, bureaucratical stability was a reality within the Inquisition. Many of these staff members can be proven to have worked for successive inquisitors and even to have provided administrative continuity in the interregnum between their appointments. In the case of lay staff members, moreover, the author shows it was not uncommon for them to be "servants of two masters" (135): that is, many of them had either worked in the past, or were still working, for other local authorities such as the bishop of the commune. This ensured their high level of competence in dealing with local specificities, as well as the integration of the Inquisition within communal society. The analysis of role of the nuncii,which reflected the same requirements for the publicity of legal processes that were found in civic administration, shows this feature in a particularly striking way. The book points also to differences between the Franciscan and the Dominican orders in their practices of hiring supporting staff. The Friars Minor seem to have relied less on a close relationship with civic authorities, and tended to hire a larger group of aides (possibly because of their restrictions concerning the handling of money). The Preachers, on the other hand, generally had smaller core teams, which included a higher number of qualified staff, and established tighter relationships with the communes where they worked. In both orders, however, personnel were generally chosen among literate and mature individuals who had already accumulated experience in the administration. This is particularly relevant in the analysis of the roles of vicars and socii, who in the past had often been considered future inquisitors in training. The author shows that, on the contrary, they were generally already experienced friars who rarely progressed to higher roles in the Inquisition. Thecursus honorum of this institution was rather based on prior academic or administrative merits.

The last two chapters turn to a more in-depth examination of the relationship between inquisitors and their religious orders (chapter 7) and urban political and ecclesiastical élites (chapter 8). Again, the author underlines that, although relationships were often uneasy because of competing priorities and the unclear definition of roles assigned to each of these agents, the Inquisition could not have carried out its work without some degree of integration within these other vital structures of communal society. With regards to the Mendicant orders, furthermore, the author shows that a large proportion of friars were involved in some capacity in inquisitorial activities, since inquisitors often relied on local convents for all sorts of services and resources. In exchange, the latter were increasingly expected to contribute to the wellbeing of their orders through donations deriving from the widespread confiscation of properties of condemned heretics.

To conclude, this book shows very convincingly that the medieval Inquisition, in Italy, was a proper institution, despite local differences in its organisation; the interdependence between it and other authoritative organisations, far from being a weakness, became functional for its successful development between the 13th and 14th centuries.Inquisition and its Organisation in Italy paves therefore many new avenues for the exploration of the daily business of the medieval inquisition, and will be useful also for scholars working on other aspects of the communal society. Even when the work relies heavily on the conclusions of prior Italian scholarship on the subject (e.g. when it comes to the relationship between inquisitors and podestà, doges or bishops), it helpfully systematises the results of these works, often based on single regional cases, by extending their conclusions to other areas of the Italian peninsula. A minor complaint regards the rendering of Latin or vernacular Italian proper names, which is not always consistent. Next to Italianised names such as Jacopo, Mino or Pace we find latinised transcriptions such as Symon instead of Simone (107); at pp. 237-238 we find at a short distance the inconsistent wordings March of Treviso and Marca Trevigiana. This very minor flaw, however, does not affect at all the overall quality of the book.​