The Inquisitorial Origins of Literary Debate

By Sullivan, Karen | The Romanic Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

The Inquisitorial Origins of Literary Debate


Sullivan, Karen, The Romanic Review


While common conceptions of encounters between Catholic clergy and heretics

during the Middle Ages are often limited to the in camera interrogations and

auto-da-fes of the Inquisition, in twelfth-century Languedoc Catholics and

heretics not infrequently confronted each other in public debates. In 1165,

for example, the bishop of AN and a group of Cathar heretics met at Lombers

to argue the validity of their respective religions before nearly the entire

populations of the two towns.(1) In 1190, representatives of the Church and

Waldensians engaged in a similar debate near Narbonne.(2) Even in 1207, on

the eve of the Albigensian crusade, Saint Dominic and some Cathar heretics

spent two weeks disputing at Montreal.(3) On each occasion, the orthodox and

heterodox camps comported themselves like contestants in a trial, agreeing

upon the judge who would deliberate between them, swearing to respect the

verdict of this magistrate, and taking turns presenting their case before

him. The records of the Narbonne debate affirm, "As they replied to each

charge, the argument was pursued at length, now by one side, now by the

other, and many Biblical texts were advanced by each parry" (212). This

resemblance between these debates and early medieval judicial proceedings

appears most clearly in the chronicles of the dispute at Montreal, where

Dominic tosses the list of authorities upon which he was relying into a fire

to see whether God would permit the parchment to burn. For Dominic and,

apparently, for his heretical opponents as well, the debate was a iudicium

dei where God was expected to designate the truthful party either by enabling

the arguments of one side to confound those of the other or by producing a

miracle, such as the refusal of the flames to consume a text. The records of

these debates suggest that both the Catholics and the heretics who entered

into them were confident that these public disputes would make manifest to

all the righteousness of their respective causes.

While the Catholic clerics who recorded these debates invariably depicted

Church representatives as vanquishing their heretical opponents, their

thirteenth and fourteenth-century successors shared neither their assurance

of victory nor their enthusiasm for public debate. The Dominican Bernard Gui

warns his fellow inquisitors of wily heretics who have hidden their beliefs

under double entendres and have thus escaped the Inquisition's grasp.(4) He

complains, "The result of this is that men of learning are thrown into

confusion by them, and those heretics, glorying therein, are further

encouraged by observing how they thus elude learned men" (377). He protests

that the orthodox laity are weakened in their faith "by observing that

learned men are thus mocked by low and uncouth persons" (377). As confident

as the founder of Bernard's order may have been that Catholicism would be

advanced through public debate with heretics, Bernard himself advises, "It is

not expedient to dispute in matters of faith against such astute heretics in

the presence of laymen" (378). Indeed, with the creation of the Inquisition

in 1231, clerics ceased to spar with heretics in public before impartial

judges and became instead both prosecutor and judge of the heretics with whom

they interacted. The dialogue shifted definitively from a battle between two

contestants before a third party to an inquest of one party by the other. The

problem, as Catholic clerics now saw it, was not how to bring truth to reveal

itself before the public but how to bring individuals who did not acknowledge

an already revealed truth to submit to it. …

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