Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc

Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc

Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc

Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc


James B. Given analyzes the inquisition in one French region in order to develop a sociology of medieval politics. Established in the early thirteenth century to combat widespread popular heresy, inquisitorial tribunals identified, prosecuted, and punished heretics and their supporters. The inquisition in Languedoc was the best documented of these tribunals because the inquisitors aggressively used the developing techniques of writing and record keeping to build cases and extract confessions.

Using a Marxist and Foucauldian approach, Given focuses on three inquiries: what techniques of investigation, interrogation, and punishment the inquisitors worked out in the course of their struggle against heresy; how the people of Languedoc responded to the activities of the inquisitors; and what aspects of social organization in Languedoc either facilitated or constrained the work of the inquisitors. Punishments not only inflicted suffering and humiliation on those condemned, he argues, but also served as theatrical instruction for the rest of society about the terrible price of transgression. Through a careful pursuit of these inquires, Given elucidates medieval society's contribution to the modern apparatus of power.


Few subjects of medieval history arouse as much passion as the inquisition of heretical depravity. Polemicists, propagandists, novelists, and historians—amateur and professional—have all tried their hands at this topic. For several centuries monographs, treatises, diatribes, and apologies have spilled from the presses. The 1983 edition of Vekené's Bibliotheca bibliographica historiae Sanctae Inquisitionis, the fundamental guide to the literature of all the inquisitions, both medieval and early modern, lists 4,808 titles. The fascination of the subject for writers of all stripes has itself become the subject of scholarly study. Edward Peters's Inquisition (1988) brilliantly outlines the ways in which the history of the inquisition has been created, reshaped, reinvented, falsified, and mythologized by generations of writers pursuing agendas that have ranged from the scientific to the romantic and from the scholarly to the perverse.

Given this abundance, the reader might well wonder what could justify yet another work on the inquisition of the Middle Ages, especially one that restricts itself to the region of southern France known as Languedoc. My justification for returning to such an oft-studied subject is that it gives us an unusual opportunity to construct a case study of the sociology of medieval politics.


Among the most important aspects of European history in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period was the progressive elaboration of ever more powerful political organizations and the development of more coherent, intrusive, and coercive forms of governance. These phenomena have often been discussed. Library shelves contain an imposing array of books devoted to the histories of the proto-states of medieval Europe, to their administrative and financial histories, and to the legal-juridical apparatuses they devised to justify and rationalize their authority.

Yet much of this scholarship has a strangely bloodless feel to it. We know a great deal about the ways in which medieval rulers and administrators organized themselves, kept their records, and justified their authority to one another and to their subjects. However, our picture of the actual process of governance in this critical period when the first lineaments of European states were being hammered . . .

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