The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 547-549
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Inquisition and Power. Catharism and the Confessing Subject in Medieval Languedoc. By John H. Arnold (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. ix, 311.)
John Arnold has chosen as his epigraph this passage from T. J. Jackson Lears:
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... but we cannot pretend... that the statements constitute the clear and unmediated voice of the people... that the inquisitors have vanished from the scene without leaving a trace.
Arnold takes issue with those scholars who have uncritically accepted the evidence of inquisition witnesses, ignoring the circumstances in which their depositions were made. He seeks to evaluate the inquisition records from Languedoc in a more balanced way by using the methodology of Michel Foucault. Foucault was concerned to examine the connection between power and knowledge and argued that power was exercised by elite groups, such as doctors, through the use of linguistic and symbolic conventions which claimed to be cohesive and authoritative, which he described as discourses.
Arnold takes the reader fully into his confidence, and Part I of his book (pp. 1-110) is spent chiefly in examining the sources and explaining the problems which they present when interpreted in Foucault's terms. He rightly argues that the southern French records may be considered as a unit, since although the inquisitors did not form part of an organization, they all exercised identical powers as papal judges delegate, they all sought to enforce the same body of law, and they all used, broadly speaking, the same methods, set out in handbooks which some of them had written. Moreover, since clear evidence about the use of torture "is very infrequently found within the Languedocian records" (p. 31), it can be assumed that most examinations were conducted in the same way.
Arnold argues that: "The inquisitors during... the thirteenth century, formulated a discourse about heresy and transgression and laid claim to a privileged authority for that language" (p. 90). Consequently, witnesses who gave evidence within this framework of questioning would reinforce the picture of Catharism which the inquisitors already held and on which their questions were based, whereas the witnesses' own understanding of that faith might have been rather different. This approach seems simplistic. Although heresy was often described in terms of a disease by the medieval Church, the inquisitors were not in the position of doctors, whose technical medical vocabulary was not contested. As is clear from their own writings, the Cathars had their own language of power and taught their followers to challenge the Catholic understanding of traditional Christian theological concepts such as creation and incarnation. Encounters between well-instructed Cathar believers and inquisitors often turned into verbal duels because each side had their own language of power. This enabled suspects to give evasive and equivocal answers to the inquisitors, a point well illustrated in the manual of Bernard Gui. [End Page 547]
In Part II of his book Arnold applies his interpretative theory to the records. He argues that the true opinions of the deponents may be found in what he terms "the excess of words," the replies given by deponents which go beyond what the inquisitors asked, and which therefore enable the witness to break free from the inquisitorial discourse. Using this method, he offers evidence of what Catharism meant to some believers, and the extent to which this differed from the inquisitors' view of their involvement in that faith, which was based on what they knew about the official teaching of the Cathar hierarchy. For example, the consolamentum, which both the inquisitors and the Cathar perfect regarded as the Cathar sacrament of salvation, was viewed by some believers, Arnold argues, as a rite of passage whose significance was as much social as religious. Similarly the melioramentum, the act of reverence performed by believers to the Cathar perfect, and taken very seriously by the inquisitors as a sign of commitment...