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The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors

The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors

by Karen Sullivan

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There have been numerous studies in recent decades of the medieval inquisitions, most emphasizing larger social and political circumstances and neglecting the role of the inquisitors themselves. In this volume, Karen Sullivan sheds much-needed light on these individuals and reveals that they had choices—both the choice of whether to play a part in the


There have been numerous studies in recent decades of the medieval inquisitions, most emphasizing larger social and political circumstances and neglecting the role of the inquisitors themselves. In this volume, Karen Sullivan sheds much-needed light on these individuals and reveals that they had choices—both the choice of whether to play a part in the orthodox repression of heresy and, more frequently, the choice of whether to approach heretics with zeal or with charity.


In successive chapters on key figures in the Middle Ages—Bernard of Clairvaux, Dominic Guzmán, Conrad of Marburg, Peter of Verona, Bernard Gui, Bernard Délicieux, and Nicholas Eymerich—Sullivan shows that it is possible to discern each inquisitor making personal, moral choices as to what course of action he would take. All medieval clerics recognized that the church should first attempt to correct heretics through repeated admonitions and that, if these admonitions failed, it should then move toward excluding them from society. Yet more charitable clerics preferred to wait for conversion, while zealous clerics preferred not to delay too long before sending heretics to the stake. By considering not the external prosecution of heretics during the Middles Ages, but the internal motivations of the preachers and inquisitors who pursued them, as represented in their writings and in those of their peers, The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors explores how it is that the most idealistic of purposes can lead to the justification of such dark ends.

Editorial Reviews


“Filled with analysis that illumines the individuality of each inquisitor, this book ranks among the finest studies of the medieval inquisition. Highly recommended.”

— W. L. Pitts Jr., Baylor University

Brian Stock
“Karen Sullivan’s book is a major contribution to the literary history of the inquisition. She has carefully read the self-portraits that six inquisitors have left us in their writings concerning their motivations, inner spiritual lives, and religious commitments. She offers her readers (who need not be specialists in the Middle Ages) a useful complement to the literature on the inquisition that emphasizes the role of social, economic, ecclesiological, or historical factors. There are moments when her book reads like a good novel—an extension of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. She also gives her readers an accurate and sensitive interpretation of the sermons, manuals, and autobiographical writings of the inquisitors themselves, moving in turn through the rich but troubled lives of Dominic Guzmán, Conrad of Marburg, Peter of Verona, Bernard Gui, Bernard Délicieux, and Nicholas Eymerich.”

R. Howard Bloch
“In a stunning example of the New Humanism, Karen Sullivan manages with consummate tact and resourcefulness to get inside the head of medieval inquisitors and their victims. Inner Lives is relevant to contemporary considerations of religious intolerance, techniques of interrogation, and torture. From the well known case of Saint Bernard’s pursuit of Abelard, to the fascinating stories of lesser known zealots and resistants, we enter the inquisitor’s chamber with the vividness and intelligence of Karen Sullivan’s earlier work on Joan of Arc. A must-read for anyone interested in the place where religion meets the long arms of social and political practice.”

R. I. Moore
“In focusing on the inquisitors’ and their predecessors’ own understanding of the nature and motivation of their work rather than on their institutional and cultural contexts, Sullivan offers an original and stimulating contrast to most current approaches in the field. Its clarity, vividness, and straightforwardness in approach make The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors an excellent general introduction to the subject and a valuable addition to the literature.”

Choice - W. L. Pitts Jr.
“Filled with analysis that illumines the individuality of each inquisitor, this book ranks among the finest studies of the medieval inquisition. Highly recommended.”
Parergon - Lola Sharon Davidson
“A lively and readable book. [Sullivan’s] exploration of her subjects’ beliefs and their epistemic context is intelligent, sensitive, and balanced. This book is essential reading for anyone striving to understand the medieval position on heresy, though it is to be hoped that its audience will extend far further.”
Times Higher Education
"A compelling study of medieval inquisitors in Europe from the 11th to the 14th centuries."
Journal of Religion
"Eloquent and innovative."

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University of Chicago Press
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New Edition
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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By Karen Sullivan


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10432-4


Bernard of Clairvaux: The Chimera of His Age

If our story begins with Bernard, the Cistercian abbot of Clairvaux (1090–1153), it is because he brings together in his person contemplation and action in a manner that would provide a model for the friars inquisitors who followed him. As a contemplative, Bernard withdrew into a monastery and devoted himself to his personal salvation. The son of a Burgundian nobleman, he chose to join the recently founded Cistercians at Cîteaux rather than the Benedictines at Cluny, and in doing so expressed a preference for an order based in late antique eremitism, with its focus upon prayer, solitary meditation, and manual labor, over one enmeshed in high medieval feudalism, supported by tithes and tenants and preoccupied by its ministration to wealthy lay patrons. Toiling in the fields and woods of the Cistercian wilderness, he claimed to have learned the meaning of Scripture from the beeches and oaks around him, and his many mystical writings suggest that he experienced the union of God with the human soul. As a contemplative influenced by active virtues, however, Bernard felt compelled to seek not only his own improvement but the improvement of others as well. By the time he was twenty-five, he was abbot of the monastery at Clairvaux, which he used as a base for the expansion of the order. Though, at the time of his profession, the Cistercians' very survival was in question, by the end of his life he had helped to make them the dominant order in Latin Christendom, with 352 monasteries spreading across this realm, almost half of which were affiliated with his own house. He praised the monastic life so eloquently that mothers were said to hide their sons from him and wives to cling to their husbands as he came near. Not only his order but the Church as a whole experienced the force of Bernard's personality. When two men were claiming the papal throne, it was Bernard who intervened in their dispute and ensured that Innocent II and not Anacletus II would be recognized as the true pontiff. When the Latin Kingdom of the East began to falter under Muslim attack, it was Bernard who preached the Second Crusade and inspired his contemporaries to undertake this disastrous campaign. A fellow Cistercian became Pope Eugenius III, but it was Bernard, from a shack at Clairvaux so humble it was said to resemble a leper's hut, who was said to rule Christendom during his reign. Wherever Bernard went, he was lauded by some as a living saint on account of the many miracles he was said to have performed, even as he was denounced by others as a meddler and a humbug. John of Salisbury observes these mixed reactions to the abbot, remarking, "He was 'a man mighty in deed and word,' with God, as some believe, and with men, as we all know." It was Bernard's seemingly paradoxical combination of contemplative and active virtues that made him the imposing figure he became in many areas, including in the struggle over orthodoxy.

In the 1130s and 1140s, in an apparent development of the active side of his persona, Bernard established himself as the most prominent scourge of heretics of his generation. The masters of the cathedral schools, who were replacing the teachers of the monastery schools as the major educators of their time, aroused Bernard's anxiety on account of their excessively rationalistic approach to theology. Around Lent of 1139, Bernard was alerted to the errors in Peter Abelard's writings, and he met with him shortly thereafter to bid him to recant. When the two men failed to resolve their differences at this conference, Bernard began to make his concerns about Abelard public, to which the latter responded by challenging him to a debate. At the Council of Sens, in June of 1140, Bernard began to list his perceived errors to the assembled ecclesiastics, but instead of responding to him Abelard left for Rome to appeal his case. In order to counteract Abelard's effort to exculpate himself, Bernard quickly sent a treatise against him to Innocent II, as well as a dozen letters on the same subject to the pope and members of the curia, and he succeeded in having him condemned for heresy. He pursued Gilbert of La Porrée, another master of the cathedral schools, at the Council of Reims in 1148 in a similar fashion. Not only these wandering scholars, but the wandering preachers of the towns and villages, who had proliferated in the wake of the Gregorian Reform, caused Bernard worry on account of their excessively censorious approach to the clergy. The most notorious of these preachers, a onetime monk by the name of Henry of Lausanne, spread his doctrines in Le Mans, Poitiers, and Bordeaux before he was seized and brought before the Council of Pisa in 1135. At this council, Henry renounced his errors and agreed to join the monks at Clairvaux, presumably as a result of Bernard's persuasion, yet, instead of retiring peacefully to this monastery, he escaped to Toulouse and its environs, where he began to proselytize again. Alarmed, Bernard wrote letters to Alphonsus Jordan, the count of Toulouse and Saint-Gilles, and later to the people of this town, warning them about this heresiarch. Finally, the clusters of ascetical heretics, nowadays often grouped together as "Cathars," who were being sighted at this time in different locales, disturbed Bernard, given their potential to offer an alternative creed to Catholicism. In the mid-1140s, he composed his sixty-fifth and sixty-sixth Sermones super Cantica canticorum against these sectaries, whom he identifies variously as "Toulousans," "Manichaeans," and "weavers." Between May and August of 1145, he traveled throughout the Midi, preaching against the errors of both Henry and the "Toulousans" in Bordeaux, Cahors, Toulouse, Périgueux, and Albi, among other towns. Though Bernard did no more than write and speak against heretics, his campaign against these masters, preachers, and ascetics would provide a precedent for later Cistercian and Dominican campaigns against heterodox populations.

Despite the importance of Bernard's activity against heretics, the importance of his writings against these sectaries has tended to be dismissed by scholars. It has been observed that Bernard did not devote much of his corpus to this population. With hardly five references to heretics in each of the eight volumes of Bernard's collected works, Jean Leclercq notes, this topic was not an important one for him. Moreover, those texts that Bernard did compose against heretics have often been perceived to be more rhetorical than substantive. G. R. Evans, for example, describes Bernard seeking to produce "a strong, clear impression" upon his audience, rather than to represent heretics' doctrines in accurate detail. Dominique Iogna-Prat depicts Bernard as addressing heretics solely in "invectives, imputations founded on rumor, [and] judgments taken out of context": he writes, "For him, heresy ... should not be discussed; it is an abomination which must be brought to light and denounced." Beverly Mayne Kienzle portrays him as using a rhetoric of "demonization ..., pollution ..., threat to the social order ... , and apocalypticism" in his letters and sermons about these figures. In contrast to contemporaries like Peter the Venerable and Alan of Lille, Bernard has been seen, not as making historically grounded observations about heretics and their beliefs, but rather as imposing typologically based preconceptions upon them. Bernard's writings against heretics may admittedly not tell us a great deal about heretics, but, I would like to suggest, they do tells us a great deal about Bernard and especially about the way in which he reconciles his active pursuit of heretics and his contemplative, monastic existence.

As active as Bernard may have been against heretics, he consistently grounds his action in his contemplation, and it is the combination of action and contemplation that he himself sees as making him so zealous. It is because he is a contemplative, Bernard makes clear, that he is able to discern the diabolical otherness potentially present in the Catholic self and actually present in the heretical other. On one level, he suggests, heretics become heretics because they are confused people who mistake evil for good, given that evil does, in fact, often seem to be a good. In their confusion, they are essentially similar to Bernard's monks, who also long for sanctity yet also occasionally mistake where it lies. On another level, Bernard also suggests, heretics become heretics because they are wicked people who choose evil over good and who, by donning a fair-seeming guise, make this evil seem to be a good. With their inherent inclination toward wickedness, they are essentially different from the monks he usually addresses. Whether compared or contrasted to the Catholic self, the heretical other is, for Bernard, an essentially irrational, diabolically inspired force and, as such, can be redeemed not through rational arguments but only through divine grace. A Catholic cleric who hopes to turn a heretic away from his heresy should therefore attempt to do so, not by demonstrating to him the falsity of his beliefs, but by praying to God to illuminate him in the darkness in which he lives. While the pursuit of heretics was normally the task of active bishops and not that of contemplative monks, contemplative practice inspires Bernard to undertake this active role, he suggests, because this practice awakens him to an iniquity in these heretics that others do not fully appreciate.


On one, charitable level of his writings, Bernard represents heretics as particular, temporal individuals who succumb to sin unconsciously and unintentionally, because they mistake evil for good, as any of us might do. In the sermons he addressed to the monks of Clairvaux (and, in their written versions, to monks at other Cistercian monasteries and to religious and secular clergy everywhere), he deplores the fact that Catholic clerics undertake theological study, pastoral ministry, or ascetical practices in the belief that these actions are good in and of themselves, without realizing that, if they fail to undertake these actions in a good way, they are not acting meritoriously. In the letters about Abelard and Henry and in the sermons about the "Toulousans," he deplores the fact that these heretics commit a similar error. So related are the temptations to which Catholic clerics and heretics fall prey that Bernard interprets the foxes in the Song of Songs, first, as "certain most subtle vices cloaked in the likeness of virtues," to which Catholic clerics are vulnerable, and, then, directly afterwards, as heresies or as the heretics themselves. Whether orthodox or heterodox, all are capable of going astray, Bernard argues, because all are capable of confusing their reason with God's revelation, their will with God's providence, and their vice with God's virtue, and the fact that this sin is the result more of confusion than of choice renders it no less wicked.

As Bernard sees it, it is because Catholic clerics are apt to rely excessively upon their own reason in theological investigations that Abelard has trusted too much in his intellectual powers. Bernard is writing, not in the context of a cathedral school, where masters were increasingly taking advantage of classical philosophy in their theological studies, but in the context of a monastery, where monks would not resort to Aristotle and other ancient thinkers until the 1230s. Still, he knows that many monks, including William of Saint-Thierry, Geoffrey of Auxerre, and William of Champeaux, with whom he was in close contact, had been students or even masters at such schools and may still be attracted to this new learning. In his sermons to his fellow monks, Bernard warns that they may lack self-knowledge. He asserts, "If you do not know yourself, you will not have in yourself fear of God, nor humility." The student who does not know himself does not know his inadequacy before God and as a result does not approach God with the lowliness of heart necessary for true knowledge of him. In contrast to this student, the bride of the Song of Songs, who represents for Bernard the ideal human soul, demonstrates the appropriate self-knowledge and as a result the appropriate humility when she asks of the Bridegroom, "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth." Bernard glosses this passage, writing, "The bride, seeking him whom her soul loves, quite rightly does not trust in her carnal senses nor acquiesce to the empty ratiocinations of human curiosity." Because she knows herself, she knows that she will obtain what she desires not through her own, human capacities but only through divine grace, and she thus cherishes all the more the God who enables her to transcend her limitations. In his letters against Abelard, Bernard asserts that this master has succumbed to the lack of self-knowledge that threatens all clerics. Recalling Abelard's volume on ethics, Scito te ipsum, he advises, "It would be better for him if he knew himself, in accordance with the title of his book, and did not exceed his own measure." Given Abelard's claims to knowledge, he declares ironically, "Nothing does he not know of all the things in heaven or on earth, except himself." Because Abelard fails to know himself and especially the limitations upon that self, he fails to know what his reason cannot reveal to him. Citing Saint Paul, Bernard writes of Abelard, "Nothing does he see through a mirror darkly, but all things he views face to face." Abelard thinks that he can apprehend the truth directly and immediately, as if he were in heaven, and not just indirectly and mediately, as Paul suggests is our fate on earth. Whether a former student of the cathedral schools now enrolled as a Cistercian monk or Abelard himself, all clerics must beware of the pride in their reason which might close them off to God's revelation and doom them to ignorance and error.

Similarly, as Bernard understands it, it is because Catholic clerics are apt to rely excessively upon their own will in their pastoral ministrations that Henry of Lausanne has trusted too much in his voluntary inclinations. As an abbot, Bernard regularly had to deal with monks who decided to flee their monasteries for the open road. In his sermons to his fellow monks, he describes one such hypothetical case. The monk returns to his household, telling himself that by doing so he can persuade others to leave it, Bernard comments, "He goes, and he perishes, this wretch, not so much an exile returning to his fatherland as a dog returning to its vomit. He loses himself, unhappy man, and he acquires no one [for God]." Aspiring to raise the laity up to his level, this monk ends up lowering himself to the level of the laity by losing the virtue specific to his religious calling. The monk takes up the calling of preaching, telling himself that he is "bedewed with supernal grace" and that he should share this grace with others. Bernard remarks that Saint Paul had condemned such self-appointed preachers, for "'How shall they preach, unless they be sent?'" Of that monk who pursues what he sees as the higher good by quitting his monastery or preaching, rather than by doing what his abbot has apportioned him, Bernard writes, "See, now you have ... your own will for a master, not me." In his letter to Alphonsus Jordan, Bernard indicates that Henry has succumbed to the same temptations to which he had imagined other monks succumbing. He writes, "The man is an apostate who, having abandoned the religious habit (for he was once a monk), has returned to the filth of the flesh and the world, like a dog to its vomit." Having forsaken his monastery, he has broken the rule of stability by which a monk is bound and has become, as Bernard terms him, "a gyrovague and fugitive on the earth." In addition, Bernard reports, "When he began to beg, he set a price on the Gospel (for he is a learned man), and, scattering the Word of God for money, he evangelized so that he might eat." Having preached with no authorization from the local bishop and, worse, with an expectation of financial support for his sermons, Henry has broken the rule of obedience by which a monk is also bound and in doing so has defied Paul's warning, "How shall they preach, unless they be sent?" With his itinerant lifestyle and his public addresses, Bernard makes clear, he has followed the will he had vowed to relinquish when he became a monk. Whether a monk, now seated before Bernard's pulpit, or Henry, now roaming about the Midi, all clerics must beware of the self-will which, by closing them off to their religious superiors' commands, may lead them astray and may lead others astray with them.

Excerpted from THE INNER LIVES OF MEDIEVAL INQUISITORS by Karen Sullivan. Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Karen Sullivan is the Irma Brandeis Professor of Romance Culture and Literature at Bard College. She is the author of The Interrogation of Joan of Arc and Truth and the Heretic:Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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