Inquisitors and Heretics in the High Middle Ages

Tutor: Lucy Sackville (tutor for 2018-19 / Pete Biller

Module type: Special Subject

Module Code: HIS00053H

High medieval Europe saw a resurgence in the popularity of ‘heretical’ ideas. Two groups in particular were the main focus of ecclesiastical attention: Waldensianism, a religious movement founded around 1170 within the Church, which spread and survived until the Reformation, and ‘Catharism’, a dualist religion whose character and origin are disputed, and which is most famous for its hold on Languedoc, where it was wiped out around 1320. At the same time, there were efforts to contain, control, and, increasingly, repress support for these movements. Those measures found their most effective expression with the establishment of inquisition in the thirteenth century, which in turn laid the foundations for a technology of power that would last well beyond the medieval period.

The module will examine this history through chronicles, letters, and polemical treatises and, after the foundation of inquisition in the 1230s, through inquisition documents. These latter include not only records of interrogations and the sentences handed down, but also inquisitors’ ‘how to’ manuals. Together, these records allow us to investigate why heretical ideas were popular, why heretics were supported in communities, and how religious dissent and religious intolerance acted upon each other. The pursuit of these topics in the original records goes hand in hand with the hard-fought debate over how to properly understand the relationship between heresy and inquisition, a debate that has been ongoing since the medieval period, between historians of various denominations, ideologies, and schools of scholarship.

Seminar topics are likely to include the following:

    • Historians and heresy
    • Texts and heresy
    • The re-emergence of heresy in the west
    • Origin stories and interpretations
    • St Bernard of Clairvaux and the council of St Félix
    • Valdes and early Waldensianism
    • Crusade and propaganda
    • Repression: law and authority
    • Waldensianism from condemnation to the 1260s
    • Legal definitions and witness statements
    •  ‘Catharism’ in early inquisition records
    • Secret books and ‘Cathar’ ritual
    • Strict machine: inquisition established
    • Stereotypes of heresy and gender
    • Waldensianism around 1300
    • Opposition to inquisition
    • Montaillou



For more information, please visit the module catalogue.