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A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition by Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane (review)

From: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft
Volume 8, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 199-202 | 10.1353/mrw.2013.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The subject of medieval heresy and inquisition has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts among scholars during the last decade or so. Scholarly treatment has moved well beyond the oftentimes-confessional approach to heresy and inquisition taken by their earliest investigators. More recent researchers have returned again and again to grapple with the documentary sources and attempt to understand their complexities. After such an expansion of the body of literature related to medieval heresy and inquisition, it is only fitting that among the most recent contributions is Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane’s superb survey of the subject, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition.As a study that will engage both researchers and students with its intelligent and engaging synthesis of recent scholarship, Deane’s work represents a much-needed and welcome addition to the English-language literature on the subject. And because Deane tries to situate accusations of magic and witchcraft sensitively within the broader context of developments in late medieval heresy, there is much in her work to interest readers of this journal.

In the book’s introduction, Deane enumerates some of the challenges of writing such a work. These challenges include defining heresy and questioning the sources. They also include linguistic challenges and the difficulty of navigating the variety of scholarly perspectives on heresy and inquisition. Deane addresses these four challenges in subsequent chapters in ways that make these concerns integral to her discussion. As an example of her technique, at the beginning of the first chapter, “Good Christians, Heresy, and the Apostolic Model,” Deane presents the report of Eberwin, prior of an abbey near Cologne, to none other than Bernard of Clairvaux. In his report, the prior discussed a group of locals whose religious beliefs had become a matter of concern in the wider community (p. 25). Here, Deane provides the reader with a lesson on perspective: how should a researcher of heresy and inquisition approach such a document, and how might she best understand the beliefs and practices Eberwin attributed to the so-called heretics? Should Eberwin be taken at his word? Are the qualities he ascribed to the supposed heretics ones that necessarily divide them from other Christians, or, in fact, do they reveal some of the things they have in common? Here and throughout the book, Deane models the careful, analytic reading required for interpreting such texts, while alerting the reader to the multiple perspectives in play.

Certainly, for some readers, the challenges of studying medieval heresy and inquisition will be tied to the challenge of studying the Middle Ages as a period very different from our own. Deane highlights some of these differences in a brief introduction to the history of Western Europe between 500 and 1500 CE (pp. 8–17). Periodically throughout the work, Deane highlights these differences by beginning with a contemporary, twenty-first-century perspective, then gently demonstrating how medieval people might have approached or understood the same scenario in very different ways. Each chapter is situated within its particular context—or contexts. For example, such attention to contextualization and change over time allows Deane to distinguish changes in the understanding of magic and witchcraft from the High through the Late Middle Ages. Rejecting (as have many scholars before her) a distinction between so-called “elite” and “popular” magic, Deane favors Richard Kieckhefer’s understanding of a common tradition that lay beneath most medieval magical practices. A learned tradition of magic did develop in medieval Europe between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, and this new tradition, along with the position of Jews within medieval Christian society and the later association of magic with Satan, influenced later medieval understandings of witchcraft and magic. Such attention to context allows Deane to provide a nuanced assessment of each topic she treats in the book.

In addition to her clear and engaging prose, a number of other features render Deane’s book accessible to a wide range of readers. Maps provide a sense of geographical space, while contemporary illuminations and illustrations present another dimension for understanding the concepts Deane covers in the text of the book. Likewise, although many readers prefer footnotes (I am one of them), the endnotes in this text provide information critical...



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