Inquisitors Between Two Worlds Jean-Paul Rehr, Université Lumière Lyon 2/CIHAM

[Note: this is the original English version of an article translated to French for Raison Présente to 

appear in Winter 2019-20. Citations should refer to the French version.] 

i. The Problem of Inquisition in History 

“The Inquisition is a subject of so particular a nature, that any one who attempts to write upon it 

with impartiality, will find he has undertaken a very difficult province.” So begins the section on 

Inquisition in the handsomely illustrated eighteenth-century international bestseller, Cérémonies et 

coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde by the Protestants Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard (in Amsterdam, fleeing the French counter-reformation). In their attempts to “objectively” present world religions, in what is in effect one of the earliest of works of comparative religion, they struggled with the 500-year history of Catholic Inquisitions. 250 years later, the historian Edward Peters remarked in his majesterial Inquisition (1989) that the task was no easier for the modern historian, as the myth and history of inquisition “are closely intertwined, and to extricate one from the other is to touch something that still resonates in modern conciousness and emotion; it also raises the charge that the historian is simply creating an uncomfortable new myth to replace the old”. 

The Inquisition has come to represent the depths of unhinged religious fanaticism: a holy 

figures who commits “vile and unjust actions” through “tyrannical proceedings”, including torture and 

execution. This image has taken many ideological forms: it was originally cast in confessional terms, as 

an example for Protestants of everything that was wrong with the “Papists” of the Holy Roman Church. 

Since the early twentieth century, it has been seen as a problem of religious fanaticism in general that 

held back the progress of humanity’s progress in knowledge and science. Despite these polemics, 

social historians of the medieval and early modern periods have returned to the sources to shed light on 

the origins of the Inquisition. The answers have been found in the “reintegration” the two spheres of 

activity which modern Western political discourse since the Enlightenment has atttempted to separate: 

religion and politics (to be clear: no one would have understood this separation of spheres before the 

eighteenth century). So it is that we see that the early modern Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions 

(which targeted lapsed converted Jews and Muslims, and sought out Protestantism) worked at the 

forefront of the attempts of Catholic monarchs to pacify their nascent nation states. The extension of 

those inquisitions into the “New World” (South and Central America) were colonial operations which 

evolved from investigating heresy among Christians to enforcing morality and overseeing the 

conversion of aboriginal populations. The Roman Inquisition was not formed to root out “new ideas” 

like those of Galileo, but was instituted as a defence against the existential threat Protestantism posed 

to the Papal State. None of this of course is to relativise or minimise the physical, psychological, or 

social brutality caused in the name of Inquisition. But if these Inquisitions are now well understood as 

formal Church offices ideologically inseparable from early modern state-building of Catholic leaders, 

the term “religious fanaticism” begins to seem less diagnostic and more a facile, dismissive phrase that 

obscures our understanding. Those accused of and interrogated for heresies, from Galileo down to the 

individuals far away from the center of power like Menocchio the miller in the Venetian Fruili 

(Ginzburg, 1980), were caught in their machinations. 

Historians use the term “formal offices” to describe these Inquisitions because they were 

centralized, permanent establishments within the Church to suit their modern ambitions. Their 

medieval forebears, however, were distinctly ad hoc commissions authorized directly by the Pope.

Thus the first inquisitions, those in the Toulousain in the 1230s, were delegated to new mendicant 

orders of Dominicans and Franciscans case by case, as part of their pastoral care duties.

If medieval historians are in general agreement on the constitution of these earliest inquisitions, 

the same cannot be said about its origins. The current debate among historians is not about technical 

origins: the first inquisitions into heretical depravity (inquisitio heretice pravitatis) were established by 

Pope Gregory IX. It was a modification of the existing inquisitio, a form of trial resurrected from old 

Roman law in the twefth century as a method of investigating and prosecuting infractions of Church 

law by clerics and the basis of most legal systems in continental Europe today. The inquisitio heretice 

pravitatis replaced the protections of the regular inquisitio: witnesses became confessants whose own 

admissions risked self-incrimination for heresy; witnesses were denied legal counsel and jailed if they 

refused to testify (confess); they were not allowed to hear the accusations which may have been 

levelled against them, if any had been. 

Historiography tells us that the first inquisitions were invented to extirpate the heresy of the 

Cathars. The Cathars were a sect of dualist Christians, who, like the ancient Manicheans, believed that 

God created the spiritual world and the Devil created the material world. Moreover, they posed an 

1 A note on terminology: in French « Inquisition » is frequently used to describe the institution from its beginnings. The 

preference of this essay is to use « Inquisition » for the formally organised Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese Inquisitions, and « inquisition » for those of the thirteenth century. 2 These are separate again from “episcopal inquisitions”: bishops were obligated to maintain the “spiritual health” of the 

lay flock and investigate abuses by clerics. Emmanuel Leory Ladurie’s bestselling study Montaillou. Un village occitan (1977) derived from one such inquisition by the bishop of Pamiers Jacques Fornier (the future Pope Benoît XI.) 

existential threat to the Roman Church, rejecting the sacraments of baptism, marriage, and resurrection 

with Christ and replacing them with their own rituals. They could be found across Europe in the twelfth 

century, from Germany to Northern Italy, but were most vexatious in the lands of the Count of 

Toulouse, Raimon VI: there, Catholic Churches were emptied of believers as the heretics constructed a 

counter-church with its own bishops and priests (the « parfaits ») like “foxes in the vineyards of the 

lord”. After attempts to convert the heretical Cathar population back to Catholicism through preaching 

missions – including Saint Dominic (de Guzmán), who eventually founded the Order of Preachers at 

Toulouse (the eponymous “Dominicans”) – the threat of the “heretics of the count of Toulouse” for the 

Christan soul was deemed so great that a crusade was called by Pope Innocent III. Thus in 1209, a 

crusading army, with the approval of the French king Philip II Augustus, decended on the south west to 

conduct a holy war against the heretics and their noble supporters. By the time the Treaty of Paris was 

signed by 30 years later in 1229 between Raimond VII and the French king Louis IX, several kings and 

thousands upon thousands of combatants, non-combatants, and heretics had died, and numerous 

Cathar-supporting nobles (“faidits”) had been displaced from their territories by nobility from the Ile de 

France. The treaty obligated the count of Toulouse to exterpate the remnants of the Cathar heresy from 

his lands. After several years of failing to adequately deal with the heresy, Pope Gregory IX authorized 

Dominicans around 1233 to begin conducting inquisitions to finally root out the Cathar pestilence. 

The problem for the study of inquisition is that the Cathars did not exist. 

ii. An inquisition, 1245-46 (Part I) 

Among the most precious manuscripts kept in the vaults below the Bibiothèque municipale de 

Toulouse is Ms. 609, entitled Interrogatoires subis par des hérétiques albigeois par-devant frère 

Bernard de Caux, inquisiteur, de 1245 à 1253. This manuscript of 254 folios contains the registry of 

depositions made at Toulouse before the Dominicans Bernard de Caux and Jean de Saint-Pierre. The 

manuscript is almost entirely composed of depositions from an inquisition conducted between May 

1245 and August 1246. Over those fourteen months, more than 5,500 inhabitants of 106 towns and 

villages of the Lauragais – the region between Toulouse and Carcassonne – travelled by foot, horse, or 

cart to “depose about themselves and others, living or dead, regarding the crimes of heresy”. They 

reflected three generations of society including knights and ladies, weavers and stone masons, money 

changers and scribes, carbon makers and cow farmers, who recounted memories going back as far as 

the 1180s. 

It is the largest known single inquisition of the medieval period: writing a history of his order 

two generations later, the Dominican inquisitor Bernardo Gui (the inquisitor and anti-detective to the 

Franciscan William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), lauded Bernardo de Caux 

as the “hammer of heretics” (a holy man so filled with God, Gui claimed, that when his body was 

exhumed for translation to its final resting place, decades after his death, it was found perfectly 

preserved). The registry in Ms. 609 is a copy of volumes four and five of at least ten original volumes 

(according to the copyist’s margin notes), made for inquisitors at Narbonne some ten years later. Over 

the centuries, the registry passed into Dominican archives at Toulouse and eventually into the Toulouse 

manuscript collection. 

The theory of the dualist, pan-European Cathars, and their role as the raison d’être of the first 

inquisitions, was proposed by the Strasbourg theologian Charles Schmidt in his Histoire et doctrine de 

la secte des Cathares ou Albigeois (1848). Schmidt decided on the name « Cathar » found in the 

reports of heresy found at Cologne, as he believed, as many historians still do, that the heretics of the 

Rhineland in the 1140s were the same ones who provoked the Albigensian Crusades 60 years later. 

The theory was already a generation old and entrenched as historical fact when Ms. 609 was catalogued 

as evidence of the Cathars. According to the influential Célestin Douais, abbot and professor of religion 

at the Institut Catholique de Toulouse, the registry reflected an « enquete sur l’état religieux du pays » 

revealing evidence of the Cathars and their heresies. Douais’ opinion, and the research methods by 

which he formed it one hundred and thirty years ago, have been shared by most historians of the “great 

heresy” of the Middle Ages. 

This is not to say that Catharism had been widely studied by trained historians. The study of the 

Cathars, up until about 50 years ago, was the domain of scholars of Christian religion and theology, 

frequently clerics like Douais, their students, or those interested in the precise nature and orgins of 

Cathar dualism. By the 1960s, medieval heresy became part of the general historiographic interest in 

“daily life” of “common people”, reflected in great part in the post-war influence of the great French 

Annales school of history (including Fernard Braudel, Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff). It was 

matched by public interest provoked by books such as Zoé Oldenbourg’s Le Bûcher de Montségur 

(1959) and the five-hour docudrama « Les Cathares – La Croisade et L’Inquisition » (1966) broadcast 

on national television. The public interest in the Cathars continued to be fed by the amateur savants 

locaux of the south west: the lawyer Jean Duvernoy and the journalist Michel Roquebert. 

Ms. 609 and the handful of other inquisition registers are exceptional in that they are the only 

direct witness of “daily life” from the medieval period up through the late thirteenth century; medieval 

historians depend for the large part on ecclesiastical chronicles, and charters, legislation, and other 

legal documentation (of monarchs, nobility and the Church). By the 1980s, students of the Annales 

historians began to deploy the Annales methodologies to interrogate these deeply biased medieval 

sources to reveal the broader mentalités and social life.3 Monique Zerner, a student of Georges Duby, 

together with other historians such as Jacques Chiffoleau and Jean-Louis Biget, recognized that they 

were asking the same questions about the sources of our understanding of medieval heresy. The 

resulting collections, Inventer l’hérésie?: discours polémiques et pouvoirs avant l’Inquisition (1998) 

and L’Histoire du Catharisme en discussion: le ‘Concile’ de Saint-Félix, 1167 (2001), set forth several 

arguments. The former identified that the sources for our understanding of the “Cathar” heresy in the 

lands of the count of Toulouse before the Albigensian Crusade could not be taken as objective reports 

on heresy. Moreover, the researchers demonstrated the key role the Cistercian order played in the 

century-long demonization of supposed heresy, and those lords from Carcassonne to Toulouse accused 

of supporting and protecting it. The latter work undermined the foundations used to support the 

authenticity of a document key for historians in substantiating the existence of a Cathar Church tied to 

heretics in the Balkans; it is now considered by many to be a likely forgery.

While Zerner and her collegues were investigating anti-heresy polemics before the appearance 

of the Crusades and the first inquisitions, Mark Gregory Pegg at Princeton University was conducting 

research on the depositions in Ms. 609.5 Although they operated without knowledge of each other, they 

shared a methodological similiarity. Here Pegg set aside the ecclessiastical polemics and probed the 

depositions in the registry as historical anthropologist. The resulting insights, although now obvious, 

were radical. To illustrate, let us take a typical passage from the depositions like that of Arnaud Garnier 

of le Mas-Saintes-Puelles, the first in the manuscript, where he tells of an event: 

Item. He saw, in the place called “Oliver”, Bernard de Maireville and his companion, heretics. He 

saw there with the aforesaid heretics Garnier, father of the witness; Guilhem Vital; Guilhem 

Barbas; Jordanet del Mas; and many others whom he did not recall. And everyone and the witness 

adored the aforesaid heretics there. This was about seven years ago. 

After enumerating a few events, the deposition, like virtually all confessions, ends with a summary of 

heretical “beliefs”: 

He said that he believed heretics to be good men, to have good faith, and to be true and friends of 

God. He heard the heretics say that God did not make visible things however the witness did not 

3 Ladurie’s Montaillou was a direct product of the Annales methodologies. 4 R.I. Moore, 2017, Hérétiques: résistances et répression dans l’Occident médiéval, Paris, Belin. 5 Mark Gregory Pegg, 2001, The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246, Princeton, Princeton 

University Press. Traduction en français par Julien Théry sous press. 

believe the aforesaid error. Of baptism, the holy Host, matrimony, and resurrection of the flesh, 

he did not hear the heretics speak. 

The first (now obvious) insight is that there is no mention of “Cathar” among the near 6000 

depositions from those people who supposedly lived among them in that “citadel of heresy” of the 

Lauragais (and the term « Cathar » appears nowhere in any document from the Midi in the period). 

More substantially, however, is that there is no mention of “parfaits”, nor indications of them. What we 

do see is an ever-changing list of men and women, the “bons hommes” (boni homines) and “bonnes 

femmes” (bonae feminae), from child to senior, who at times had a certain holy aspect to them within 

their communities. The adults’ roles varied from counsellors, to arbitrators, to giving a form of 

preaching, and administering certain rituals or rites to the terminally ill. Despite numerous claims of 

“wandering heretical preachers”, most bons hommes stayed in their villages until the first inquisitions 

forced them into lives of itinerants seeking cover and protection. 

A careful reading of the depositions according to dates of memories shows that any formal 

“structure” the bons hommes organised into, of which there is minor evidence at best, came under the 

pressure of obliteration by war and inquisition. So, too, the content of what the bons hommes 

“preached”: it is only the memories of the 1230s which begin to show that some bons hommes “were 

heard speaking” of the sacraments – baptism, marriage, resurrection – and dualism. A number of 

depositions recount that the only time the witness heard discussion of dualism was by the priests of the 

Catholic Church themselves. The evidence from the depositions like those of Arnaud Garnier, where 

surely inquisitors would have pressed for any evidence of heresy, shows that there was no consistency 

in any message from any bons hommes about sacraments. It may very well be that the only ones who 

cared about sacraments were the inquisitors. One should remember that it was only just a generation 

before this inquisition that Pope Innocent III called the fourth Lateran Council which established many 

of the canons which produced the modern Catholic priesthood (many villages didn’t even have their 

own priest), from their formal training to their moral policing, and obligated the lay population to 

follow the sacraments, including attending confession at least once per year. 

The problem identified by Pegg is this: religious historians have constructed Cathars out of the 

bons hommes and bonnes femmes based on a selective reading of inquisitorial evidence generally 

derived (a) from hostile ecclesiastical writers and (b) shaped by nineteenth-century scholarly theories 

of how a religion should be structured. The evidence closest to the lived experience, the inquisitorial 

registries, must thus be read carefully to separate the facts of the real existence of the witnesses from 

what inquisitors where doing when they were asking their questions and recording answers in terms of 

Catholic heresies. For Pegg this becomes doubly difficult, arguing that “what transformed these 

individuals into heretics, what turned the accusation into actuality, was the violence of the Albigensian 

Crusade and the persecution of the early inquisitors”. 

III. An inquisition, 1245-46 (Part II) 

The above is the context in which my own research on Ms. 609 and “the great inquisition” 

operates. Anyone would be forgiven for feeling lost in these arguments. The “Cathar debate” itself 

suffers from a confusion of methodologies, rooted, as we’ve seen, in a selective reading of sources. 

Nowhere is this more evident than the studies that use Ms. 609 – most studies that have referred to it 

have depended on reports, on fragmentary transcription, or even less frequently on having worked with 

the actual manuscript (Pegg being the notable exception). The effect is a deeply-rooted selection bias 

that acts as a feedback loop: one finds in the registry precisely what one was looking for, and then 

states that is all it contains.6 For this reason I embarked on editing Ms. 609 in full as a “digital edition” 

(hosted by the CNRS at What makes a digital edition unique 

is the ability to treat the registry as both a text and a database at the same time. All aspects of the 

content of every deposition have been encoded for transparency: people and relations, places, dates, 

“heretical acts”, and events are encoded and connected so that one can investigate the depositions from 

different perspectives. This method effectively exposes the work habits of the inquisitors Bernard de 

Caux and Jean de Saint-Pierre. 

The formularies of the first inquisitors becomes evident after reading only a few depositions, 

one every historian remarks on: each deposition is composed of stories of individual “events”, virtually 

all structured according to the same pattern. Returning to the confession of Arnaud Garnier above, we 

find: a place where a heretical event occurred (“Olivier”); the actors, being the “heretics” and the others 

implicated with them (including the witness); and heretical action (“adorer”); and a date. Historians 

have been quick to comment on the spare, dry, repetitive quality of the formularies and have proposed 

reasons for it. Some have considered whether the inquisitors were simply uninterested in details; others 

consider it a function of how evident the Cathar heresy must have been; and still others attribute it to 

practical necessity: the inquisitors had to process thousands of witnesses, a workload that could only be 

managed by effectively reducing the depositions to “checklists”. Several historians have remarked on 

the fact the two inquisitors left a lot of leads unexplored – people associated with bons hommes and 

6 Jean-Paul Rehr, 2019, « Re-Mapping the “Great Inquisition” of 1245-46: The Case of Mas-Saintes-Puelles and Saint- 

Martin-Lalande », Online Journal of Humanities 5, 1, pp. 1–53. 

“heresies” who appear in single mention – a further cost of the speed at which the inquisitors had to 

operate. After encoding and connecting the people, events, and dates of the individual “events”, that is 

looking at the inquisition in its entirety, a pattern emerges: (a) the same stories are repeated across 

depositions incriminating (b) small groups of people in each village. Understanding who these groups 

of people were requires us to rebuild the context, the lives as lived by the villlagers incriminated in the 

deposition – this detail is not found in the Cistercian polemics, nor the anti-heresy tracts written by 

scholastics of the period. Historians have paid attention only to certain famous seigneurie in the 

registry, stating the inquisitors’ focus was on them for their famous adhesion to the Cathars. In fact, 

nobility fall into second, if not third place, in inquisitor interest; their place in historiography is the 

creation of historians who have chosen to make nobility central to a Cathar narrative (a fact convenient 

to marketing the “Cathar Castles”). 

Here we can be served by documents little used by historians of heresy, but which are valuable 

for the social data they contain: charters and oaths. In the Trésor de chartes at the Archives nationales 

in Paris are found a series of oaths made in villages across the Lauragais 1243, right after the failed 

rebellion of count Raimund VII and other nobles against Louis IX. These oaths were made to Louis IX 

in each village by nobles, consuls, and bons hommes. They swore to council their count Raimund 

against further rebellion, to be loyal to the King in war against their count, and to support the Church 

against heresy. The names of the village consuls in the oaths (the consuls whose seals affirmed the 

oaths!) are those families found at the center of the accusations in the villages of the Lauragais. 

When the depositions are reinspected, it becomes clear that the incriminations of consuls are not 

an effect of their personal adhesion to heresy. Arnaud Garnier’s confession, connected to others in the 

village, reflect the guiding hand of the inquisitors searching for specific information on very specific 

people according to a criteria that is beyond personal adherence to “heresy”, one which clearly centers 

on consular families. This criteria allowed inquisitors to pass over many names evidently connected to 

“heresy”. This criteria is why the largest known inquisition of the Middle Ages could be performed 

over such a vast territory so quickly. 

Much research must still be done to understand “the great inquisition” of 1245-46, retrieving it 

from the myths of Cathars. What role did the village consuls play that made them the subject of 

inquisitors, those same consuls who swore oaths just two years before to Louis XI, the Capetian 

defender of the Christian faith, and against their own lord Count of Toulouse? How should we 

understand the appearance of the bons hommes, the “heretics” of depositions, on the aforementioned 

oaths to combat heresy? Most of the stories in the depositions date 5-15 years beforehand, and, 

according to the depositions, already confessed to other inquisitors and “forgiven” – what were 

inquisitors looking for? Finally, after years of resistance, why did Raimund VII finally agree to this 

widespread inquisition across his lands that seems to have targeted the consuls? These questions lead 

us again to that artificial modern boundary between religion and politics. Notwithstanding these 

inquisitors’ true belief and declared interest in the salvation of individual souls and their preparation for 

meeting an invisible God, they clearly acted in concert with, and reshaped, the material, visible world. 

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