Putting the question
With all the brouhaha about the recent revelations about torture, I thought it might be instructive to reflect on a chunk of the book The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt against the Inquisition in the last days of the Cathars, written by Stephen O’Shea, and published by Profile Books Ltd. in 2011.
Here’s the overview of the book from the Barnes and Noble listing:
In 1300, the French region of Languedoc had been cowed under the authority of both Rome and France since Pope Innocent III ‘s Albigensian Crusade nearly a century earlier. That crusade almost wiped out the Cathars, a group of heretical Christians whose beliefs threatened the authority of the Catholic Church. But decades of harrowing repression-enforced by the ruthless Pope Boniface VIII , the Machiavellian French King Philip the Fair of France, and the pitiless grand inquisitor of Toulouse, Bernard Gui (the villain in The Name of the Rose)-had bred resentment. In the city of Carcassonne, anger at the abuses of the Inquisition reached a boiling point and a great orator and fearless rebel emerged to unite the resistance among Cathar and Catholic alike. The people rose up, led by the charismatic Franciscan friar Bernard Délicieux and for a time reclaimed control of their lives and communities. Having written the acclaimed chronicle of the Cathars The Perfect Heresy, Stephen O’Shea returns to the medieval world to chronicle a rare and remarkable story of personal courage and principle standing up to power, amidst the last vestiges of the endlessly fascinating Cathar world.
Here’s the author’s biography.
An index on his website has a list of his books as well as links to other articles and reviews he has written. And he has a blog: http://stephenosheablog.blogspot.com
Remember when your parents used to pile you and your siblings into the car for a long trip and hand you a stack of MadLibs?
The excerpt I’ll give you is similar in nature.
Call it a MadLib for grown-ups about our national madness.
There won’t be any blanks, of course, but you can play along by substituting words as you think suitable.
Much is been imagined about inquisitorial practice as a sort of malevolent and centralized medieval Department of Homeland Security. In reality, there was no unified inquisition, just individual appointments in certain jurisdictions for varying periods of time. The phantasmagoric “Inquisition” was much of its existence to 19th-century liberal historians whose ideological repugnance toward the practice also informed the work of history painter Jean-Paul Laurens. That inquisition subsequently bleached memorably into popular culture– for example, as both foolish broad comedy (Monty Python) or literary villainy (The Name of the Rose)–only makes clarification more necessary.
At the outset, the rise of heresies in the 11th and 12th centuries– or, rather, the detection then definition of these heresies–put the men of the Church in a quandary as to how to handle forming its own opinion about man’s relation to the divine. When persuasion proved in effective in bringing people back to orthodoxy, which itself was constantly undergoing modification and renovation, Rome looked back to old Rome, to the Empire and institutions of which the Catholic Church came to feel itself the inheritor. Perusal of this authoritarian past focused on the inquisitio, a procedure by which the empires legists hunted down those who were thought treasonous, disloyal, or guilty of some form of classical lese-majeste. The investigator in old Imperial Rome– the inquisitor – searched for evidence, collected testimony, extracted (or didn’t) confession, passed judgment, and in some cases carried out the sentence. There were no adversarial proceedings, no real opportunity for mounting an effective defense or bringing down a prosecutorial argument. In effect, the plaintiff was the imperial state and now, a millennium later, it would be the Imperial Church. A streamlined, rationalized method of repression hereto for far into the medieval mind, an inquisition, or the Holy Office as it came to be called by its supporters, held out many attractions in the changing circumstances of the late 12th century.
The times called for the lawyerly, given the explosive growth of different and competing bureaucracies and courts in the High Middle Ages. States and institutions were aborning, needing to define themselves and their place in the world. The sheer number of heretics had become a major problem, A threat to the worldview of a Christian commonwealth ruled from Rome. And the times were turning toward persecution, not only by the Church but also by agents of kings and their barons. This “formation of a persecuting society” was a deliberate, conscious choice driven by social change and the entry of new actors, particularly literate lay bureaucrats, into the arena of power. The church was far from immune to those currents of thought. A “Christianity of fear” pervaded the period. As one example, the notion of Purgatory, perfected in the 13th century, changed from a sort of benign cotton-cloudy waiting room for souls still sullied by minor sins to a place of unspeakable physical and spiritual torment rivaled only by Hell itself. As a French historian writes: “burdened with the weight of oriental apocalyptic literature, a literature full of fires, tortures, sound and fury; defined by Augustine as the size of punishments more painful than any earthly pain; and given its finishing touches by a church that dispensed salvation but only in fear and trembling, Purgatory had already veered in the direction of Hell.” The thought experiment of Hell itself had been heightened during the same period into a horror show so vivid and terrifying as to stand as impressive testament to the demons resident in the human psyche. Humbert of Romans, whose biography of Dominic became the officially sanctioned life story of the saint, also penned a work in praise of the utility of hell, entitled On The Gift of Fear.
The time was propitious for inquisition, which is not at all to say that papal fiat could make it arise full-blown. A late 12-century Pope issued a bull enjoining bishops to become inquistors, but many lacked the expertise, willingness, revenue, or stomach to launch open-throated campaigns of heretic termination. Further, the idea was a novelty, so it can hardly be expected that these episcopal inquisitions could suddenly Christianize what was a practice from antiquity. Time was needed to make the adjustment, to lay this sacerdotal groundwork, to find the necessary rationalizations.
Some of these last arose from the belief in the Pope’s firm hand on the tiller of Christendom. In the first 15 years of the 13th-century, with the pontificate of Innocent III, a brilliant man inbued with a sense of papal supremacy and capable of organization on a grand scale– as shown in the legislative overdrive of the Fourth Lutheran Council of 1215 – heresy at first proved resistant to argument. The Church’s second rejoinder came as a brutal recourse to arms, as the unfortunates of Lavaur and other Languedoc towns were to learn to their sorrow. Innocent approved of the innovative founders of the mendicant orders: He dreamed Francis would rejuvenate the Church, and he appointed Dominic to debate the Cathars prior to launching the Albigensian Crusade. While the latter’s mission bore little fruit in the short term, the long-term bequest of Dominic’s actions provided the Church, and future popes, with a cadre of Dominican friars ideally suited to undertake the third, and final, response to heresy; systematic, painstaking inquisition. It was from the Dominicans rather than the Franciscans that the greater number of inquisitors came. Through them and their police work the Church would prevail. The word had been tried first, then the sword– it was now to turn of the law.
The Dominicans were the Order of Friar Preachers, and they melded that location into their new assignment as inquisitors. At the onset of an inquisitio generalis (or fact-finding inquisition) in the early days after Gregory IX’s letter, the inquisitor and his scribes, notaries, and servants would leave the Cite of Carcassonne and descend on the village they had targeted. First a sermon would be delivered to the assembled populace, in which the inquisitor took care to explain through exempla — parables about animals were a medieval favorite – why Cathars were wolves in sheep’s clothing, why heresy was the worst crime of all, and how tolerating heretics of any description, whether Cathars or Waldenses, in the midst of a community endangered everyone’s eternal soul. For the problem, especially recognized in Dominican literature, lay precisely in perception. The people of Languedoc, whether orthodox or not, could plainly perceive that the Cathar clergy, the ascetic, gentle, pacific (or perfected heretics – the Perfect, as they were termed by their enemies) had all the trappings of holiness. The preacher/inquistor faced an uphill battle in what amounted to convincing people not to believe what they could see with their own eyes. He had to establish the idea of a counterfeit holiness, condemning all who tolerated it to the fire and brimstone that often came as the stem-winding finale of these initial sermon.
The villagers were informed that they enjoyed a grace period of a few days before they or any of their neighbors, kinsman, or other acquaintances had ever given material or spiritual support of any kind whatsoever to the Good Men and Women. It was a crime to withhold any information germane to the eradication of heresy. And if they, or any people they knew, were Cathar believers, they had to recant their heresy and endure penance before being welcomed back into the bosom of the Church. Depositions were taken confidentially– no one but the inquisitor ever knew who said what about whom. Further, should the inquisitor receive at least two credible depositions about someone believing in, supporting, or giving comfort to the Good Men and Women, charges could be laid. They created mala fama, the infamy necessary for investigation. Derived from old Rome, the notion held that a person’s own reputation (fama) functioned as his accuser, exempting him from normal legal protection. A powerful and pliable tool of coercion, inquisitors came to use just general public notoriety, rather than denunciations or confessions, to start a proceeding against someone. In all cases, the accused never knew who his accusers were.
One can imagine how these sermon’s listeners felt on returning home for whispered discussions over whether to cooperate. Would they be denounced, and by whom? By one of their enemies, with whom they had had a land or livestock dispute years back? If innocent, would they be falsely accused? Should they settle old scores by accusing someone falsely before he accuse them? Did they really have to squeal on heretical neighbors and kin whom they liked? The inquisitor’s sermon, in short, contained a recipe for tearing village life apart, the customary friction of antipathy and affinity within a living community giving way to a deadening, dread-filled atmosphere of revenge and betrayal. This indeed was a Christianity of fear, in practice as well as an theory.
The inquisitor, for his part, gauged if the town was going to be a tough nut to crack. The first collaborators might arrive quickly, under the cover of night and to avoid neighborly scrutiny; some brave villages observed an omertà that took years to grind it down. Further on in the 13th century, the inquisitor or was able to examine records of past inquisitions held in the locality. These were carefully guarded and bound registers, containing scores of transcripts of interrogations and sentences handed down. Fairly uncharacteristically for document-keeping practice of the era, the registers were systematically organized, cross-referencing individuals and allowing archival retrieval of damning detail that might otherwise have been lost or forgotten. They giving years earlier. Not unsurprisingly, an inquisition register first brought la rage Carconnaise to a boil.
Further reading for the visiting Dominican investigator were materials concerning in itself. At the Council of Tarragona in 1242, the assembled pellets spelled out an entire taxonomy of dissent, yet another testament to psychology, this time to the minds capability to create neat hierarchical mountains out of complex human molehills. One can almost see the lips of the novice inquisitor mouthing the different categories as he rehearsed the checklist:”heretics,””believers,””suspects” – acting “simply,””vehemently,” or “most vehemently”– along with”concealers,””hiders,””receivers,””defenders,” and “favorers.”
The Dominican likely also would have possessed an example of a supremely peculiar self-help genre, the inquisitor’s manual. The first was written in Carcassonne in 1248. These manuals compiled admonitions, tip sheets, descriptions of different forms of heresy, and tactics of interrogation. Years of questioning people with something to hide had given the authors of these manuals insights into the dodging and weaving tactics developed by heretics and their sympathizers. Nicholas Eymerich, a Dominican of the 14th century, listed 10 different techniques of evasiveness that the exasperated inquisitors should be on the lookout for when questioning heretics. They ranged from artful casuistry to blatant excuse making:
The third wave of evading a question or misleading a questioner is through redirecting the question. For example, if it is asked: “Do you believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son?” He replies,”And what do you believe?””…
The eight way of evading a question as to feign illness. For example, if someone is interrogated concerning his faith, and the questions having multiplied to the point that he perceives he cannot avoid being caught out in his heresy and error, he says: “I am very weak in the head and I cannot endure any more. In the name of God, please let me go now.” Or he says,”Pain has overcome me. Please, for the sake of God, let me lie down.” Thus they conduct themselves with respect to another feigned illness. They frequently use this mode of conduct when they see that they are to be tortured, saying that they are sick, and that they will die if they are tortured, and women frequently say that they’re suffering from their female troubles, so that they can escape torture for a time.”
There were heretical Christians, particularly the Waldenses, who believed that capital punishment was prohibited under any circumstance, no matter what the claim of legitimacy might be. Any qualms that Dominican inquisitors, as followers of Jesus Christ, might feel in condemning people to death were countered in Dominican literature. The orders saintly founder, Dominic, came to be seen above all else as an inquisitor, even though he died a full decade before Gregory IX declared judicial war on heresy.
Many saints, particularly those who founded orders, were subject to what might be termed sedimentary hagiography– layers of successful biographies ascribing miracles or modes of exemplary conduct to the subject long after his or her death. These are often added with a specific agenda in mind. The technique was by no means confined to Christianity: For instance, the hadith, or tales of Mohammad’s life appearing nowhere in the Quran, have guided and shaped Islamic piety and practice for centuries. The student Dominic is reputed to have said on his deathbed that he would be far more useful to the brothers dead than alive.
Dominic’s transformation from compassionate preacher to merciless inquisitor was affected within a few generations of his death in 1222. The Miracle of Fire at Fanjeaux became in later biographies a judicial proceeding in a neighboring town called Montréal, and, in this telling, the document that refused to burn was in all probability an inquisition register. The humane and flawed holy man that Dominic must have been in reality (his first biographer had him admitting to preferring to conversation of younger women to that of older ones) became idealized as a persecutor.
At the hands of Inquisition apologists, God received the same treatment. In one of the more unusual roles assigned to Jesus Christ by his flock, the protean preacher of peace in the New Testament came garbed in the robes of an avenger. He had arrived on earth to persecute. Much use was made of the many violent, vengeful passages in the Old Testament, with their far fewer counterparts in the Christian scriptures also deployed for full homiletic effect. And God was not only cruel, he was sadistic. The greatest torment of Hell was not the boundless and eternal physical agony but the sound of God’s spiteful mockery and malicious cackling at the sight of such suffering.
A radical Dominican thinker of the mid 13th-century, Moneta of Cremona, went so far as to say that a true way to imitate God was to kill. His logic, based on the behavior of God in the Old Testament, ran something like this: God does not sin, God kills, therefore killing is not a sin. In some ways, this bald reversal of the Sixth of the Ten Commandments was nothing new, for churchmen throughout the 12th and 13th centuries–the heyday of the Crusades– had meandered far into sophistry in their attempts to reconcile their Savior’s message of nonviolence and the notion of holy war. The great 12th-century Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux had famously opined that the killing of an infidel was not the killing of a man but the killing of evil. What was new in Moneta’s formulation was that God, far from forgiving the regrettably necessary recourse to violence, instead stood cheering on the sidelines, seeing his own image in the tortures and killers. Moneta’s inquisitor differs from Dostoevsky’s, whose Grand Inquisitor has no need of — indeed, despises — Jesus Christ; but the Dominicans’ may be more pernicious in that Jesus is fully in favor of persecution. The poor wretch moldering in the dank cell of an inquisition prison thus has no higher authority to him for for succor. He was utterly alone, damned by God who was laughing at him.
Thus the inquisitor visiting a village in Languedoc went to work armed with a clear conscience, a good deal of practical advice from his predecessors, and the certitude that he was performing a sacred duty. After days, perhaps weeks, of taking depositions from all and sundry, those fingered as heretics would be haled before him for detailed and robust questioning.
By the middle of the 13th century, the use of torture had been papally approved. Torture in its many forms, what today’s boosters of the practice call “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what their medieval counterparts called
“putting the question,” began to play a greater role in eliciting information from those under a cloud of suspicion….
Who is our modern day Bernard Délicieux?