Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc

Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc

Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc

Inquisition and Power: Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc


What should historians do with the words of the dead? Inquisition and Power reformulates the historiography of heresy and the inquisition by focusing on depositions taken from the Cathars, a religious sect that opposed the Catholic church and took root in southern France during the twelfth century. Despite the fact that these depositions were spoken in the vernacular, but recorded in Latin in the third person and rewritten in the past tense, historians have often taken these accounts as verbatim transcriptions of personal testimony. This belief has prompted some historians, including E. Le Roy Ladurie, to go so far as to retranslate the testimonies into the first-person. These testimonies have been a long source of controversy for historians and scholars of the Middle Ages.

Arnold enters current theoretical debates about subjectivity and the nature of power to develop reading strategies that will permit a more nuanced reinterpretation of these documents of interrogation. Rather than seeking to recover the true voice of the Cathars from behind the inquisitor's framework, this book shows how the historian is better served by analyzing texts as sites of competing discourses that construct and position a variety of subjectivities. In this critically informed history, Arnold suggests that what we do with the voices of history in fact has as much to do with ourselves as with those we seek to 'rescue' from the silences of past.


When I was admitted for the first time to the large room which housed in
perfect order nearly two thousand inquisitorial trials, I felt the sudden
thrill of discovering an unexplored goldmine.

— Carlo Ginzburg, “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist”

Studying consumers through the eyes of market researchers is a little like
studying heretics through the eyes of inquisitors: it can be a useful and
indeed indispensable practice, given the paucity of direct testimony about
popular consciousness — but we cannot pretend … that the statements
constitute the clear and unmediated voice of the people. We cannot
pretend that the inquisitors have vanished from the scene without a trace.

—T. J. Jackson Lears, “Making Fun of Popular Culture”

We begin with the essence of HISTORY: with stories and with death. in the summer of 1273, Bernard de Revel was brought from prison in Toulouse into the presence of the inquisitors Ranulphe de Plassac and Pons de Parnac, to “correct himself” and to add to some previous confession now lost to the historical record. Under questioning, Bernard said a number of things about his contact with Catharism. He confessed that twenty-five years earlier he had met the heretics Raymond David and Bernard Rastel and had ritually “adored” them as they had taught him, by bending his knees before them and saying “bless.” He admitted that Raymond David and another heretic had stayed for a few days at his house, where his late wife, Pagèsa, his servant Grass, and his children Bernarde and Pons were present. However, he added, at that time his daughter was only a girl of about eleven years, and his son a boy of eight, and although the children knew that the heretics were in the house, they were ignorant of “the sort of men” they were. Bernard also spoke of other things he had heard, of how, early in 1244, a “friend of the heretics” named Bertrand Alamans had clandestinely visited a captured Cathar deacon in order that the imprisoned heretic could write the name of his chosen successor on a wax . . .

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