Repression and Power

It was, the annalist of the city Worms tells us, the year of Our Lord 1231:

There came by divine permission a miserable plague and most harsh sentence. For indeed there came a certain friar called Conrad Dors, and he was completely illiterate and of the Order of Preachers, and he brought with him a certain secular man named John who was one-eyed and maimed, and in truth utterly vile. These two, beginning … firstly among the poor, said that they knew who were heretics; and they began to burn them, those who confessed their guilt and refused to leave their sect. … And they condemned many who, in the hour of their death, called out with all their heart to our Lord Jesus Christ, and even in the fire strongly cried out, begging for the help of the holy Mother of God and all the saints.

Conrad Dors and John were then joined by Conrad of Marburg, a priest who had been the famously harsh confessor of St Elizabeth of Hungary (1217-1231) until her recent death. Led now by this second Conrad, and backed by papal authority, the trio continued their work:

In truth, those who confessed to heresy, as many innocent people did to stay alive, had the hair shaved from their heads above the ears, and they had to go around like this for as long as it pleased [the inquisitors]. Those who, in truth, refused [to confess] were burnt. And their will prevailed everywhere, because brother Conrad was a literate man and especially eloquent.

All three inquisitors were, the chronicler said, ‘imperfect judges and without mercy’, whose reported boast was that ‘We would burn a hundred innocent people amongst whom there is one guilty’. And burn them they did.

These events in medieval Germany, in the archdiocese of Mainz, are possibly the earliest example of inquisition into heresy in the middle ages. Other accounts of Conrad of Marburg’s activities stress that practically nobody could escape his clutches, as freedom could be gained only through confessing to heresy, and moreover by implicating others. This fits well with a certain picture of the period: zealous inquisitors pursue hapless victims, prosecute indiscriminately, force confessions, and sentence as many as possible to death. Brutal, implacable, illogical: the dark side to an ‘age of faith’. Such a time, one might well imagine, was doubtless not only characterized by this unbending demand for religious conformity, but also hostile to any cultural deviation, cared little for individual liberty, and ruthlessly enforced strict sexual and social norms. A more repressive society could scarcely be imagined.

However, before embracing too readily this popular image of medieval repression, we should look a little closer at the events around Mainz. The chronicle cited above was written around the time of the persecutions by an anonymous cleric, and it quite clearly deplores Conrad’s actions. Moreover, the archbishop of Mainz wrote to the pope about Conrad’s actions in very negative terms, stating that he himself had warned Conrad ‘to proceed in so great a matter with more moderation and discretion, but he refused’. Conrad accused various powerful noblemen of heresy, but when the case was brought before a synod of bishops and nobles at Mainz in 1233, the charges were dismissed. Three days later, Conrad was murdered, and similar fates overtook Conrad Dors and John. The pope initially wrote of Conrad as a martyr, but unlike some later murdered inquisitors, he was not canonized, probably because of the extent of his infamy. Indeed, at a church council a year after his death, one bishop ‘burst out in these words, saying “Master Conrad von Marburg deserves to be dug up and burnt as a heretic”’. Conrad may have had papal blessing, but that did not mean that the Church as a whole welcomed his actions, nor that every ecclesiastic agreed with his views or methods, nor that the secular powers in his society supported them. As a conclusion to the ‘plague’, the Worms chronicler reports, a papal nuncio announced that in future, ‘in such matters that touch upon inquisition of heretics, the succession and laws of the holy father and sacred scripture are firmly observed, now and in perpetuity’. Indiscriminate persecution was to be replaced by the methodical application of law.

What was purely black now perhaps appears more confusingly grey. The picture of a dark Middle Ages remains common today, particularly in popular culture, but also affecting some historical scholarship. The image has, however, a certain history. It was forged particularly after the convulsions of the Reformation. Protestant historians, from the sixteenth century onward, sought roots for their reforms in the heresies of earlier periods, and hence associated their contemporary struggles with past persecution, depicting an all-powerful and highly repressive Catholic church. Elements of this viewpoint continued to inform the foundational histories of medieval repression written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recent work however, in part informed by a greater sympathy toward medieval Catholicism, has sought to revise the image. Historians have stressed the heterogeneous nature of the medieval Church, argued that a degree of religious toleration can be identified in medieval intellectual thought, and – where repression is unarguably present – emphasized the extent to which medieval people saw heresies and other deviations as a profound threat to their society and salvation, and hence acted accordingly. Inquisitors, in this light, are less repressive zealots and more educated ecclesiastics working methodically in an attempt to save the souls of their flock.

Such revisions are important. The activities of Conrad of Marburg cannot and should not be taken as representative, tarring the whole medieval Church with the same brush. At the same time however, Conrad’s reign of terror did occur, people were killed for perceived transgressions against the faith, and this was not the only occasion when a cleric led a period of fevered persecution against heterodoxy. Moreover, in substituting the rule of canon law for Conrad’s zealotry, the papacy did not bestow a regime of benign religious pluralism upon Germany, but replaced unrestrained religious violence with a more subtle – but arguably more powerful – framework of doctrinal policing. The lurid picture that Protestant reformers painted of the medieval Church should be abandoned. But that does not necessarily mean that we should hang in its stead a pallid watercolour of tolerance and freedom. Something that captures a more complex shadowing of dark and light is needed.

The Development of Repression

R. I. Moore has developed an influential argument that, over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, persecution of certain groups – heretics, Jews, lepers and others – became habitual and institutionalized in medieval society. This was not because of any objective changes within those persecuted groups themselves; they were no more of a ‘threat’ to Christianity than they had ever been. The ‘formation of a persecuting society’, as Moore put it, had two interlinked causes. One was the development of nascent state bureaucracies, capable of institutionalizing repression. The other was the rise of the litterati, a self-conscious class of educated churchmen and administrators (who largely ran the bureaucracies) who rhetorically demonized as a collective group those they deemed ‘outsiders’, as a means of bolstering their own elite legitimacy. 

Moore’s theory of the rise of the litterati may not tell the whole tale: one notes that whilst Conrad of Marburg’s power is partially ascribed by the Worms chronicler to his literacy, Conrad Dors was described as ‘totally illiterate’. However, the words used in that description – laicus totalis – points to the way in which clerical conceptions of the laity and their intellectual abilities informed cultural and religious changes. Eleventh- and early twelfth-century sources depicting outbreaks of heresy tend to represent the laity as a rather simple, undifferentiated group: either credulous sheep easily seduced by the gilded tongue of the heresiarch, or devout believers wreaking righteous violence against the heretical sect. If such latter accounts sometimes depict a degree of reality, lay hostility toward heresy sprang not from innate antipathy to religious heterogeneity, but from attitudes taught by the Church in precisely this period – and taught, most particularly, to secular authorities. The Church’s first weapons against heresy, and indeed against other groups, were words. In twelfth-century Languedoc, when the Cathar heresy held sway, the initial reaction was to send powerful orthodox preachers to the area, Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) being the most famous of their number. In sermon collections, and in polemical texts that informed preachers, twelfth-century theologians propounded a theory of ecclesiastical dominion that encompassed not only Christianity itself, but also claimed a kind of governance over Judaism, and declared Islam to be a form of Christian heresy. Such ideas entered canon law in the thirteenth century, particularly under Innocent IV (1243-1254). Abstract argument was moreover supplemented with rhetoric. A variety of tropes depicting heretics became common: heretics were mad and deluded, and their heresy spread like a cancer or disease; heresy was a poison, insidious in its workings; behind a veil of false piety, the worst sexual and spiritual transgressions were committed. For example, heretics were accused of holding secret orgies at which children were murdered and the devil kissed on the anus – a charge made in whole or part at various times and places across the middle ages, including in one chronicler’s report of those persecuted by Conrad of Marburg.

These fantasies of evil formed a necessary preparation for the violence that followed. Rhetorics of demonization worked to make people fear those they deemed outsiders, and hence to place them beyond the bonds of community. The hostile imagery bleeds over from one group to another: there is an obvious similarity between stories of heretical orgies and child-slaying, and the fantasies (also born in the twelfth century) of Jewish ritual murder of children; and in the fifteenth century, witchcraft too began in some areas to be associated with child murder. Heresy was a poison; Jews and lepers were feared as poisoners (particularly in 1321, when a well-poisoning plot was ‘discovered’ in France, the lepers supposedly paid by the Jews to administer the poison). Fear of sexual pollution – between Jews and Christians, between lepers and the healthy, between prostitutes and their clients, between sodomites and other men – was a recurrent theme. Heresy, Judaism, witchcraft, sodomy; at certain points the supposed threat was conflated, particularly in the fifteenth century, perhaps most ludicrously when certain commentators alleged that Host-desecrating Jews were joining forces with Hussite heretics. At some level, the rhetoric suggested, these transgressors were linked, conjoined in one Satanic plot to attack Christendom.

The Church did not dispense only rhetoric, however, but also law. One can track the institutionalization of repression via certain legislative milestones. Responses to heresy in the eleventh century were essentially localized and specific, in both conception and practice. One bishop might write to another, asking what to do about a particular group of heretics troubling his diocese, but there was little sense of a ‘Church policy’; indeed, it was precisely the lack of one that prompted the search for advice. Actions thus varied from withdrawing communion but tolerating for a while the presence of heresy (advice given by Bishop Wazo of Liège around 1048), to debating with the dissenters (as at Arras in 1025), to summary execution, apparently at the hands of the laity (Monforte, around 1028). Things changed, however, in the later twelfth century. At the Third Lateran Council (1179) various named heretical groups were anathematized, using measures designed to enlist the aid of local secular powers against them. The papal bulls Ad abolendam (1184) and Vergentis in senium (1199) established, respectively, that the laity had to co-operate with the Church in pursuing heretics, and that heresy was in itself a kind of treason, and hence a threat to secular as well as ecclesiastical authority. Later glosses on Ad abolendam took Jesus’s words to John as instruction on what ‘condign punishment’ should be meted out to heretics: ‘If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned’ (John 15: 6). The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 framed its opening definition of Christian faith with a lengthy condemnation of heresy and introduced measures symbolically separating Jewish people from the Christian communities within which they lived. Lateran IV’s measures regarding heretics, Jews, and the formal requirements for orthodox Christian practice (such as annual attendance at confession), were expounded and expanded in diocesan councils across Europe over the following decades and into the fourteenth century.

Measures specifically regarding religious dissent developed in the mid-thirteenth century, most notably inquisition. Inquisition against heresy first appeared in the early 1230s, making use of a new legal procedure (inquisitio) developed during the first years of Innocent III’s papacy and formalised at the Fourth Lateran Council. The first inquisitions were, like Conrad of Marburg’s efforts, ill-disciplined and unfocussed. But more refinements soon appeared. The influential canon lawyer Raymond de Peñafort (d. 1275) provided detailed definitions of heretical transgression at the council of Tarragona in 1242, the councils of Narbonne (1243) and Béziers (1246) added further instructions, the first proper inquisition manual was written around 1248, and in 1252 the bull Ad extirpanda gave papal blessing to the use of torture. In the early 1320s the famous Dominican inquisitor Bernard Gui compiled his Practica inquisitionis, which, along with the later manual by Nicholas Eymerich, formed the template for inquisitorial activities for several centuries to come. Papal inquisitors initially directed their efforts against Cathar and Waldensian heretics, principally in southern France, parts of Germany, and northern Italy. But over the following centuries, the gaze of the inquisitorial eye wandered over a wider field, suppressing the Spiritual Franciscans, harrassing the Béguines (lay people, particularly women, who spontaneously adopted a quasi-monastic lifestyle), famously eradicating the Templars, arguably inventing and then persecuting the so-called ‘Free Spirits’ in fourteenth-century Germany, and by the fifteenth century directing some of its attentions to witchcraft, whilst continuing to pursue the surviving Waldensians in Germany and Piedmont. The occasional Jew, sodomite, and mystic was also caught up and interrogated. At the very end of the fifteenth century, the separate, state-sponsored Spanish Inquisition began its work against the suspect Jewish and Islamic conversos of the Iberian peninsula.

This crescendo of dates and practices may mislead a little, through depicting a programmatic ascent of repression. The developments were not planned that way: there was no long-term scheme to produce a persecuting society, the papacy only intermittently took the lead in directing what took place in its name, and the Church remained a heterogeneous entity throughout those centuries, sometimes embracing in one area that which it prosecuted in another. Although torture was allowed (as in secular law), its use was fairly limited before the fifteenth century, not least because canonists were well aware that it could produce false confessions. There was no central institution of repression: ‘The Inquisition’, as a permanent papal office, was established only in the sixteenth century. Medieval inquisitors did however collaborate in their task, collate the extensive trial records that they kept, and write manuals outlining the job that they shared. Many, but not all, were drawn from the Dominican order, though inquisition into heresy was only one of their monastic tasks  (Bernard Gui, for example, spent much of his time writing histories of his Order). At the same time, however, other mechanisms of persecution existed beyond papal inquisition: bishops could and did use inquisitio against heretics in their dioceses for example, and moreover there were episcopal and archdeaconal parochial visitations that sometimes prosecuted various ‘abuses’ against the faith, from sexual transgression to the use of magic. Moreover, the particular instances of repression could have wider reverberations beyond the punishment of the few. Once again we may wonder whether we are looking at something clearly black-and-white, or cast in various shades of grey. It is legitimate to ask, how repressive was the medieval Church? But the question might be put slightly differently: what kind of power did the Church wield over the currents of faith?

Mechanisms of Persecution

The most dramatic weapon in the Church’s armoury was crusade, wielded first against Islam in the East, but also, from the thirteenth century, within Europe against heretical regions. The attempts to subdue Languedoc between 1209 and 1229, and the crusades called against the Hussites in fifteenth-century Bohemia, were brutal attempts at repression, involving the crudest use of force and intermittently fed by feverish religious zealotry. But crusade was a blunt implement. It bludgeoned Languedoc into the loss of its political liberty (the region passing into French rule after the death of Raymond VII of Toulouse); heresy, however, was not eradicated by such measures, only displaced from the courts and towns to the woods and mountains. After the years of crusade, the Cathars drew upon their supporters in the lay population for immediate sustenance, and their loose institutional connections with Italy for spiritual support. It took the more subtle tool of inquisition to eradicate the heresy – in the main by the middle of the century, but with some remnants hanging on well into the fourteenth century (the Waldensian heresy also endured in southern Europe up to the Reformation). 

What inquisition did that crusade did not was to fray and eventually rend the social fabric that supported the heretical sect. When they entered an area, inquisitors preached to the people and offered them a choice: come forward of your own free will in the next fortnight, seek forgiveness for your heretical sins, and your punishment will be a light penance. But wait longer – to be cited or arrested by the inquisitors – and the punishment would be that much stronger. And when one appeared before an inquisitor, one had to name names. In stark contrast to the annual confession that Christians were enjoined to make to their parish priests, inquisitorial confession pointed outward as well as inward. Admitting one’s own guilt was insufficient: the actions of others must be noted, enumerated, detailed. Such a system undermines the trust upon which community depends, particularly when that community is attempting to evade detection. Quite quickly, in the mid-thirteenth century, we find moments in the inquisitorial record of neighbours threatening or beseeching other neighbours to keep quiet about their joint activities. There is later evidence that some people used the presence of inquisitors to settle feuds, informing (whether truly or falsely) on their neighbouring enemies. Through this subtle mixture of threats and entreaties, inquisition corroded the solidarity of heretical support. On occasions, spies were used, and by the fourteenth century, inquisitors had become adept at coercing and tricking confessions from suspects. Inquisition, from the mid-thirteenth century, turned its archive of confessions into a powerful weapon that could be collated, cross-referenced, and consulted by different inquisitors over decades, using the inscription of a past transgression to catch people out many years later.

What must also be noted about both crusade and inquisition, however, is their limited nature. A crusade was essentially a war, and wars must at some point end. The Albigensian Crusade itself did not comprise twenty years of continuous violence, but a string of vicious conflicts spread unevenly over those two decades. Inquisition, as noted above, was not a permanent tribunal, but a particular task for a certain time and place. In the mid-thirteenth century, its reach was broad, covering much of southern France and elsewhere, and over the space of just a few years brought at least eight thousand people, and perhaps five times that many, to interrogation and sentence. But later inquisitions encompassed much smaller numbers – in the hundreds rather than the thousands – and inquisitors always operated for specific periods of time. When English bishops employed inquisitio against heresy in fifteenth-century England, the numbers questioned were still lower, and its use even more sporadic. Both weapons of repression also depended very much upon secular support for their effective operation – and such support was not always forthcoming. The French monarchy refused to involve itself in the crusade against the south until the final years of that conflict, and much of the legislation passed immediately following the Treaty of Paris (1229) was directed toward trying to force the nobility to act against heretics they had previously ignored or supported. In theory, inquisitors enjoyed wide-ranging and extraordinary powers, but in practice, without local secular support, their task was at least rendered difficult, and in the worst cases they themselves were endangered. We have seen above the fate of Conrad and his assistants; they were not the only inquisitors murdered by opponents, the same outcome befalling Guillaume Arnaud in 1242 and Peter of Verona in 1252. Lower level intimidation, harrassment and collective resistances were experienced by inquisitors in France, Italy and Germany at various times.

With regard to the fight against heresy, one might say that we can identify a persecuting society at certain times and in certain places – mid-thirteenth-century Languedoc and the Italian city states slightly later that century (eradicating Catharism), parts of Germany in the fourteenth century (primarily against Waldensians and supposed ‘Free Spirits’), England somewhat intermittently in the fifteenth century (against Lollardy). One could say similarly of anti-semitic repression: intermittent periods of violence (to mention just a few: Germany and elsewhere in 1095-6, England sporadically in the mid-to-late twelfth century, Germany in the 1290s, France in 1320-1, Spain in the 1390s, Germany once again in the early fifteenth century), stitched together by a slew of anti-Jewish ecclesiastical legislation passed across Europe particularly in the thirteenth century but reiterated cyclically thereafter. Recent studies have however emphasized less the constant and pathological nature of anti-Judaism and more the ways in which repressive violence against Jews was used as a political tool by various groups, from the barons struggling with the English crown in the thirteenth century (leading up to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290) to popular political protest against taxation in fourteenth-century France. It is notable also that anti-Jewish attitudes continued to perform some kind of cultural ‘work’ in late medieval England – in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for example, and in various mystery plays – when the putative targets of this hatred had been absent from those shores for over a century. Such hatred, disconnected from its supposed target, was clearly being used for particular purposes. For most of our period, the same point could be made of witchcraft prosecutions: rare in any case in the earlier centuries, many cases were linked to plots against powerful figures, and were essentially part of a particular political struggle, even by the fifteenth century when the famous Malleus maleficarum was composed. Indeed, the Malleus itself was written by Heinrich Institoris not as an embodiment of current attitudes and policy toward witchcraft, but in an attempt to reshape them – Heinrich having earlier been laughed out of court by the authorities at Innsbruck when he tried to persuade the authorities to prosecute the many witches he believed lurked there.

Thus our opening example of repression at Mainz is, in one sense, more representative than I initially suggested: Conrad terrorized a particular area for a period of time, but the repression was conducted in politically fraught circumstances that eventually curtailed activities. There were ways in which people, individually or collectively, could resist such powers. Those interrogated by inquisitors sometimes attempted, for example, to name as accomplices only those who were already dead. Early in the years of inquisitorial deployment, various towns briefly succeeded in expelling the inquisitors from their walls. On several occasions, groups tried to steal or destroy inquisitors’ documentary records. By the early fourteenth century, Cathar supporters tended to want to meet with the perfecti only in twos or threes, in the hope that a limited number of potential witnesses could be shrugged off more easily should the inquisitors come calling. The Franciscan preacher Bernard Délicieux famously led a popular and legal revolt against inquisition in southern France. He was admittedly unsuccessful – and later sentenced for witchcraft – but the fact that he was able to attempt it, and with some degree of support, illustrates that inquisitors did not possess absolute power. Thus in various ways the mechanisms of repression were prey to the vicissitudes of local politics and attitudes. One might say that the ideology was willing, but the state apparatus was, if not weak, then at best unstable. The exercise of power in these modes never possessed sufficient material resources and political support to become truly institutional or regularised. Secular opinion could be mobilized to create and expel ‘outsiders’ at certain times and places, but not continuously, and not always to the point of prompting violent or legal actions against them. Repression was always located, not endemic.

What, then, of the more subtle tools of repression? One could make some similar points about preaching. The most pointedly effective sermon campaigns against ‘outsiders’ – the anti-Jewish propaganda preached by Vincent Ferrer (c. 1350-1419) in late fourteenth-century Spain for example, or Bernardino da Siena’s (1380-1444) denunciations of sodomy and witchcraft (among other things) in fifteenth-century Italian cities – were once again specific and located, notable precisely because they were not being repeated identically across Europe, and because the individual preachers were remarkably effective at rousing their audiences. And as much as the rhetorics of repression tended to link together the supposed enemies of Christendom into one collective threat, this did not mean that every attitude was similarly channelled. One finds, for example, at Basel in the first decade of the fifteenth century a Dominican theologian called Heinrich of Rheinfelden playing a key role in persecuting the Beguine communities in that city (who were themselves defended, unsuccessfully, by the local Franciscans). The same Heinrich was, in 1416, investigated by city authorities for making ‘sodomitic’ advances to lay workers at the Dominican monastery. He was, however, successfully defended by his order. Heresy and sodomy come together in these events, but far from in the expected mode of concatenation. The rhetoric of the ‘many-headed beast’ was a useful amplification of any individual threat, but it did not mean that all medieval clerics – let alone the laity – thought that Jews, heretics, lepers, homosexuals and others were continuously plotting in concert. If they had, they would scarcely have allowed any Jewish communities to live alongside them at any point; and would certainly not have given alms to the many leper houses that developed in the later middle ages. Even heretics could be seen in a different light, and preachers’ denunciations of their crimes questioned by a lay audience. One finds for example various occasions of lay people, not notably connected to the Waldensian ‘sect’, nonetheless decrying the execution of a Waldensian preacher, believing such a figure to be clearly living a holy life and undeserving of this fate.

So the Church’s more lurid propaganda did not always have a direct effect. Lay audiences, both popular and elite, could sometimes be swayed into repressive action by a zealous preacher, but were also capable of ignoring or even rejecting such a message. Nor did every cleric preach from the same script: the Church hierarchy sought a unified Christendom in doctrine and attitudes, but in practice Christianity varied quite widely across Europe, and different strands of Christianity embodied divergent attitudes. That the Franciscans in Basel attempted to defend the Beguine community from Dominican attack provides just one example among many of the tensions that could arise between different modes of Christian life, and the diversity such tension could foster. Such diversity was not, however, unlimited; and noting that the house of the medieval Church had many mansions does not imply that the main edifice did not exist. It did, and it took power and authority to construct it. The cruder efforts at repression do not represent in full the complex nature of those powers.

Productions of Orthodoxy

As we have seen, when people admitted their guilt, Conrad of Marburg and his associates had their heads shaved. Another source makes clear the purpose: having confessed, this was ‘a sign of penance’ forced upon the recipient. Guilt, confession and penance focus upon the individual, and are part of a wider penitential system amplified by the papacy in the thirteenth century. At annual confession (as enjoined by Lateran IV) a lay person’s confessor would assign to them a suitable penance, tailoured to the sin and to the sinner’s ability to perform it. The usual penances were repetitions of the Paternoster and Ave Maria prayers, making fasts, giving alms, and going on pilgrimage. Such practices were usually described as ‘private’ penances, not meaning that they were secret, but that their effects were directed inward, to the individual alone. The kind of penance imposed by Conrad, however, was of a different order: visibly public and an attempt to inculcate public shame as much as private contrition. This form of penance became a key feature in the use of inquisition against heresy, though not quite in the brutal form deployed in Mainz. Inquisitors were able to impose various penances upon those they found guilty, including long periods of imprisonment, pilgrimage to distant shrines (the pilgrim had to bring back letters proving that he or she had indeed travelled there), and hefty fines and the confiscation of property. The most common penance, however, was the imposition of crosses: two yellow ones, stitched front and back to the person’s clothing, to be worn at all times for a set period – a year, two years, a decade, for life. Inquisitors are famous for having people burnt to death, and in one sense rightly so: those who ‘relapsed’ into heresy, or who ‘obstinately’ persisted in their heresy, were sent to the stake, as the Church ‘relinquished’ the care of their soul (and set out a stark warning to others). But the death sentence was, after the Albigensian crusade and the fall of the last Cathar castles in the 1240s, a relatively rare occurrence. The sentences handed down by Bernard Gui survive for us today: from over six hundred judgments, forty-one people were sent to the stake. Many more – either immediately, or after a period of imprisonment – were to wear the yellow crosses.

Burning people to death is clearly a form of repression. It silences them most effectively, and terrorizes their immediate supporters. But marking people out with crosses is a rather different kind of act. Not ‘kinder’ – that is not what is at issue – but more complex, and more clearly directed outward to the society at large, as a sign to be read. Throughout the later middle ages, papal inquisitors handed out such sentences, and in England too, bishops prosecuting Lollardy had those they convicted parade to church and market, sometimes carrying bundles of faggots or other penitential signs to indicate their guilt. Making transgressive bodies publicly legible is also a feature elsewhere: Jews were to wear distinguishing badges on their clothing, lepers had to carry a bell announcing their presence, and by the fourteenth century prostitutes were frequently ordered to dress in particular kinds of clothing such as striped hoods to mark them out. Such signs can be seen as a way of making visible ‘outsiders’ and thus dividing them from social embrace. But punishments of this kind had a further application which complicates the neat anthropological division of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’. Across Europe, church courts regularly sentenced people to public penances, most often for sexual sins such as fornication or adultery. Usually the guilty men and women would be beaten around the marketplace and the church, sometimes wearing only shifts and carrying a white stick or candle. Such spectacles would have been common within the medieval parish. Hence the marking out of heretics, Jews, prostitutes and lepers, and the harsher public penances enacted upon those guilty of heresy or other crimes, form part of a continuum with other regulatory aspects of communal life.

What this points to firstly is that whilst the Church’s cultural weapons against heresy and other transgressions might only have gained active support on particular occasions, there was a much wider, more quiescent acceptance of the world-picture of transgressive sin, communal exclusion, and hierarchical policing upon which they rested. Repression in this sense was largely the norm, and extended well beyond the dramatic matters of burning heretics or executing sodomites. Moreover, it has been pointed out that the development of the legal process of inquisitio was initially directed toward policing sexual sin (firstly among the clergy, but then more broadly). The twelfth century had seen the concept of sin becoming more aligned with that of crime, thus justifying the use of coercion in its treatment. Lateran IV’s introduction of inquisitio allowed clerics to operate ex officio and search out crimes – such as sexual immorality within the parish – in the absence of any particular accuser. As Richard Fraher puts it, these developments see the formation of a prosecuting society as much as a persecuting one. The Church itself did not do all the prosecuting: major sexual offences, including sodomy, were frequently punished by secular authorities in Germany and northern Italy. But such matters were nonetheless strongly influenced by clerical concepts and rhetoric.

The developments over the period 1150-1350 – the consolidation of Moore’s ‘Persecuting Society’ – did not concern only heresy, nor even the broader repression of ‘outsiders’. An important background context was the slow crescendo of papal claims to authority, reaching pre-eminence under Innocent III, and the accompanying shifts in relationship between Church and secular power in each European kingdom. The literate elite were part and parcel of these developments, their claim to intellectual and cultural authority underpinning the changes they sought. But two key elements lay at the heart of the shift described here, and they may prompt us to consider how power is not simply repressive, silencing speech and eradicating action, but also productive – inculcating new ways of thinking, seeing, talking and behaving. The first element was a change in juridical procedure, epitomized in Innocent III’s development of inquisitio. Inquisition, whether into heresy or clerical concubinage or lay sexual transgressions or witchcraft, provided the Church with a far more hierarchical mechanism of legislative governance than the preceding procedures of accusatio and denunciatio or the trial by ordeal. The ability to act ex officio without local community support, the active use of bureaucratic documentation, and the increasingly cunning techniques for extracting confession, made inquisition into a powerful but also delicate tool. It tackled those it governed as individuals, rather than collectivities, and inserted them into the textual machinery of governance. And here it is linked to the second element: the changed scope of the cura animarum. The Church’s interest in the spiritual lives of the laity grew over the course of the twelfth century, and entered canonical legislation particularly in the thirteenth. The universal requirement for annual confession, the provision of good parochial ministering, the expansion of preaching directed toward reforming a lay audience, all indicate a change in how the ecclesiastical elite viewed their flock. Reports of heresy in the eleventh and early twelfth century had tended to present the laity as a rather passive, easily swayed ‘lump’ corrupted by the small ‘leaven’ of the heresiarch. The use of inquisition however met that ‘lump’ in its individual components, interrogated them, and found that the laity were more varied and complex in their transgressive behaviour than previously thought. This was the sharp end of a wider shift in the attempt to bring greater, more detailed, and more individually tailored spiritual discipline to the people. Lay conduct – economic, sexual, spiritual – was to be policed as never before. At certain times of repression – in thirteenth-century Languedoc and in early fifteenth-century England for example – the Church attempted to limit not only the activities of heretical proselytisers, but to proscribe lay discussion of the Christian faith or the dissemination of vernacular religious literature. Behaviour that might at one point have been thought simple laxity or a minor transgression could, in the later middle ages, take on a more sinister hue. Blaspheming, for instance, was long decryed by ecclesiastical authors, but by the fifteenth century it had in some places become not merely a bad habit for which one’s parishioners should be chided, but a matter of criminal legislation and even inquisitorial prosecution. The scope of how one could transgress had changed.

Thus the development of repression did not only silence and oppress. Over the high and later middle ages, it also helped to produce a new sense of what a lay person was and should be. The persecution of different ‘outsiders’ brought with it further productive effects, forging and mapping orthodoxy in different ways for different times and places. One chronicler, recounting more approvingly Conrad of Marburg’s activities, lists the ‘errors’ of those he persecuted. Some are stereotypes of heretical behaviour – kissing the devil ‘in the worst possible way’ (probably on the anus). But others are more interestingly mundane: people who disparaged ecclesiastical authority, people who ignored clerical rules against consanguinity, people who worked on Feast Days and ate meat on Good Friday. Such sins were surely not limited to members of any identifiable heretical ‘sect’, but were rather endemic faults within the laity. The chronicler’s report on such ‘crimes’ was part of a wider attempt at reforming secular life, depicting what might be seen as laxity or doubt as a major transgression against the faith. A similar process was at work in other fields: anti-semitic tales of Host-desecration were used to bolster belief in, and emphasize the importance of, the miracle of transubstantiation. The grotesque display of leprosy provided a chastening example of how (sexual) sin wrote upon the body, thus encouraging people to confession and penance. Persecuting Waldensians stressed the clerical ownership of preaching, chasing so-called Free Spirits mapped the right and wrong ways of attempting mysticial communion, prosecuting Lollards bolstered the sacraments and the cult of saints (and provided the Lancastrian regime with a helpful bogeyman against which it could shore up its own legitimacy). The witch trials of the fifteenth-century – which were nothing like on the scale of early-modern witch-crazes, albeit more common than in the preceding centuries – were fuelled by a belief in diabolism on the part of the prosecuting authorities rather than the general populace. For authors of witch-prosecuting manuals such as Heinrich Institoris or Johannes Nider, belief in demons bolstered belief in God and belief in the necessity of ecclesiastical authority to lead moral reform in this unsettled period. The diabolical excesses of witches were a great way to counter doubt and anticlericalism.

Europe did become a persecuting society, but persecution was mostly limited to particular times and places, often when linked to other political disputes. The medieval Church and secular rulers never possessed the kind of state apparatus that sustained a modern persecuting society such as Stalinist Russia, the German Democratic Republic in the later twentieth century, or North Korea at the current time of writing. Nor was the link between religious identity and national governance ever as close as that produced by the bloody upheavals of the Reformation and counter-Reformation. Although the great convulsions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did produce more abstract discussion of toleration, in practical terms there was a greater willingness and opportunity to repress religious difference after the Reformation than before it. Nor was medieval Europe solely a persecuting society: the machinery of repression was always one part of a larger mechanism for producing and refining orthodox identities. At the same time, however, in the lurid stories it told to encourage fear of ‘outsiders’, in the conflation of sodomy with heresy and witchcraft with diabolism, and in the development of inquisitorial procedures, it laid the groundwork for the darkness of later ages.


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