The Genesis of Inquisition Procedures and the Truth-Claims of Inquisition Records: the Inquisition Registers of Languedoc, 1235-1244

This is a major Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, situated in the Department of History, University of York, and running for five years, from May 2014 until April 2019. The research team consists of Professor Peter Biller, Dr Lucy Sackville, and Dr Shelagh Sneddon. The project focuses on four mainly unedited inquisition registers that were produced during the earliest years of inquisition in Languedoc, 1235-44, producing an edition and English translation of these, together with technical apparatus.

The two essential aims of the project are to elucidate the development of inquisition procedures in its earliest decade, and to ask questions about how those procedures shaped the information collected.  Inquisitors’ records of their interrogations have long been seen as fascinating. In the tape–recording view of them, they preserve the voices of ordinary people from the past, as seen most famously in Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie’s use of later inquisition records to write a vivid account of a village’s inhabitants in his Montaillou. They have also been seen as problematic. There is an obvious and common sense way in which we need to question these inquisition records, as we do all legal records. How do they relate to real events and scenes? How have witnesses’s remembered, what was their angle of view? How has their language been distorted by officialese?

Contact details

Department of History
University of York
YO10 5DD


Project team

Prof Pete Biller
Dr Lucy Sackville
Dr Shelagh Sneddon

Recently a less obvious and more fundamental question has emerged. Some scholars have been suggesting that the medieval Church, via the inquisition tribunal especially, conjured up heretical sects. If they are correct, these inquisition trials were the fraught meeting-point of real people and a monstrous fraud wrought by the medieval Church.

The spotlight therefore turns onto the records of these interrogations, and in particular the earliest years of inquisition in Languedoc. What sorts of men were the first inquisitors, what the outlook and experience they brought to this task? How did their ways of going about the jobs emerge and develop in these earliest years? And what was the relationship between the record of apparent statements by witnesses, and their real opinions and actions? There has been one large roadblock here, hampering the discussion of these questions: the lack of full and systematic editions of the records from the first decade of inquisition in Languedoc.

Over its five years our project is therefore producing a meticulous edition of most of the earliest registers. This will be accompanied by a translation into English, and extensive and detailed annotation. This will generate and systematically present data for the study of the inquisitors and their scribes and assistants, their procedures, the people interrogated about heresy, and the thought world of Languedoc in this period.

The fact that the registers being edited are seventeenth-century copies also leads us into the seventeenth century and the broader contexts of their copying in early modern France: the rise of scientific historical scholarship and preoccupation with medieval history. Interest in religious toleration in this period led to investigation of medieval inquisition, and this thread connects our project not only with the later seventeenth century, but also leads towards the theme of multiplicity of faiths and coercion in our own times.