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Mar 3, 2005 10:13 pm


Inquisitorial Historiography



Christine Caldwell Ames' article in the latest AHR [AHA membership required] tackles a very interesting question of disciplinary boundary and historical self-definition:

The Catholic Church's recent frank apologies for inquisition—its blunt assertion that the office"sull[ied] ... the face of the church"—have reversed centuries of defensiveness that likewise sprang from sixteenth-century, interconfessional polemic. They have also detached medieval inquisitions from the religious moorings constructed carefully throughout the premodern period. This self-reflection, the admission of"errors," approximates, ironically, a venerable Protestant charge that inquisitors were ignorant of the"true" Christian message. It gestures, then, toward the very dynamic that underlay inquisitions, as well as reactions to them, in the Middle Ages: the elusiveness of truth, its fluid congress with error, and the instability of religion itself.

Yet the endurance of inquisition's"irreligious" reputation in historiography indicates that this matter does not merely affect scholars of medieval Europe or persons with confessional loyalties. That dynamic of instability raises for all historians, regardless of specialization or background, a problem of historical construction. For inquisition's claimed and controversial juxtaposition of repression and piety, and interpretations of it, ask us broader questions: What is"religious"? How do we align our definitions with those of the persons we study? Where do we draw the disciplinary boundaries of"religious history"? Historians have been traditionally reluctant to consider inquisition—this persecution of suspected religious deviants through methods that included violence—as a project of belief. ... And this reluctance to link persecution and belief is instructive, as that continuity betrayed historians' assumptions about the content and character of"religion." Inquisition has long appeared not only"irreligious" but also, therefore, beyond the history of religion. [paras. 2-3]
She cites Foucault as a component of the discontinuity, one of many scholars who"have placed religious violence and the repression of religious minorities under the rubrics of power, authority, society, and politics" [para. 4] rather than theology. Part of that scholarship depends on denying the evidence of the sources:
The segregation of inquisition and belief has resulted perhaps from the presumption that sincere belief cannot coexist with (let alone produce) such repression. In the dark light diffused by the dominant historiographical vision of a"persecuting society," any religious rhetoric present in our sources may seem cheap, strategic veneer to be polished away in order to discover the"real" rationales for repression and violence. [para. 7]
Ames herself believes that an authentic reexamination and reconstruction of the mentalité of the medieval churchmen and laity involved will produce an understanding of the authentically religious roots of the inquistorial movements and the theological role which inquisitorial violence played. [paras. 9-10]

It is a bit surprising to me that she has to make this argument: I've been teaching the Inquisition as an authentic act of faith in my World and Western surveys since the beginning (granted, that's only six years ago), and I'm sure I must have gotten the idea from somewhere. There is a great deal to say about the Catholic Church's will to maintain power, but since the theology of Roman Catholicism includes the idea of the Church as a (the) conduit to the divine, most of the anti-institutional heresies (including individual mystics) pursued by the inquisitions seemed to have a perfectly sound theological foundation, as well as a power dynamic. The Inquisitions' insistence on investigation and renunciation of error, rather than simple eliminationism or excommunication, has always struck me as evidence that faith, and the desire to protect and instill faith, played a strong role in its activities.

Ames' argument supports this view, distinguishing between sin and crime, and presenting the inquisition as more of a personal journey than adminstrative procedure:

Contrition should manifest itself in a confession that was more sacramental than juridical, a beginning of reconciliation rather than an end to investigation. To inquisitors," confession" in the modern, legal sense (that is, admitting an action) was inefficacious; a confession without apparent contrition and an abjuration of heresy meant recalcitrance, and the consequent ejection from inquisition's office of repentance. [para. 13]
Even the punishments, which are more properly considered penance than penalty, had roots in the community of faith:
The most serious penances assigned by inquisitors, flogging and imprisonment, were an importation to laypeople of monastic practice and of its conviction that bodily suffering both atoned for past sins and trained the soul to shun future ones. This flogging of heretics was explicitly liturgical and penitential; parish priests were to perform the beatings during masses and processions, praying that God welcome again one who had turned from his church through sin. [para 15]
It was the Reformation, drawing on the humanism of the Renaissance and the political diversity of Europe, which redefined inquisition as"irreligious" but the idea of freedom of faith really doesn't develop clearly until the Enlightenment (and yes, I know all these ephochal terms are ontologically sloppy, but they'll do for now). Ames' argument is that the separation of inquisition from theology has to do with our own spiritual/political milieu. The really interesting twist in her argument comes in the examination of anti-inquistorial violence in the 13-14th centuries (a hotbed of heresy, including the Albigensians) which was cast in very similar terms to the inquisitions themselves: protection of the community of faith (and they firmly believed themselves to be good Catholics, not heretics) from dangerous and evil ideas:
Bernard Déicieux's sermons, then, adopted exactly the themes and strategies that inquisition had long used publicly to justify itself and to cultivate the agreement that its tasks were holy works, the reconciliation of sinners, the establishment on earth of God's own justice. ... Violence against inquisition could thus constitute a thoughtful, righteous usurpation by laypeople of the inquisitorial office and of its putatively divine mandate to correct the errant and to punish the incorrigible [paras. 30-31]
Ames concludes with some thoughts on the reintegration of faith into our understanding of power and on the unstable nature of"religion" which means that scholars need to examine contexts and contradictions and"shocking" aspects of religious history with care and an open mind (including a warning about falling into the teleological trap of narratives of progress).

Very interesting stuff. I'm reminded of the discussion of the meanings of jihad....


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