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Reviewed by:
  • The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors
  • Caroline Walker Bynum (bio)
Karen Sullivan, The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 296 pp.

Violence, persecution, cruelty, torture . . . these seem to be the popular topics among medieval historians at the moment, and Karen Sullivan’s book fits right in. In clear and effective prose, she studies seven individuals whom she denominates “inquisitors.” Her approach is to organize her very detailed analysis of these men, both as described by their contemporaries and as seen in their own writings, [End Page 131] under a set of binary oppositions such as judicial (a legal approach that allows accusation and defense) versus penitential (a framework in which the individual is always guilty of sin), or zeal (determination to save the community from threat) versus charity (concern for the soul of the heretic). In an interesting and original interpretation, she associates the zeal of figures such as Conrad of Marburg or Thomas Aquinas with a view of heretics as having a fixed identity, whereas more charitable spiritual leaders such as Wazo of Liège or Peter Martyr understand the misguided self as unstable and therefore educable, even convertible and redeemable. The inclusion of a chapter on the Franciscan Bernard Délicieux (d. 1319/20), who attacked Dominican inquisitors as iniquitous, provides a complicating counterweight to the overall picture. The chapter on Nicholas Eymeric, although it deals less with his “inner life” and more with theological and legal analyses of the significance and effects of torture, is careful and instructive if, understandably, very painful to read. In a well-written conclusion, Sullivan is careful to leave the modern implications of her study implicit, but they are there.

Nonetheless there seems to be something off about an enterprise that compares, across almost three hundred years, individuals such as Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), who, Sullivan admits, was a preacher whose works contain relatively few references to heretics, with inquisitors such as Nicholas Eymerich (d. 1399), author of a manual defending the torture and deception of heretics. Large institutional changes come in between. Sullivan spends a great deal of space in her introduction defending herself against anticipated criticisms but does not seem to understand quite what they might be. She worries about those who will think that the texts she studies do not reveal “real” inquisitors, but today’s historians do not doubt that texts present constructed selves. She also tends to repeat (for example, on pages 20, 103, 113) that hers is a study of “individual cases” as opposed to “a certain kind of historical scholarship” that emphasizes “general change over time.” But surely these are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive alternatives. Indeed I would argue that Sullivan has failed in some ways to rescue individuals from being eclipsed by general trends exactly because she does not treat these individuals as having multivalent social roles, forming complex allegiances, composing in various genres, and using a variety of rhetorical strategies. Hence they start to seem like cardboard repetitions of a few binary categories. For example, the virulent rhetoric Bernard of Clairvaux employed against Abe-lard (a very academic heretic) was typical of the arch and quite vicious insults found in twelfth- century controversies over the superiority of orders and schools; the rhetoric of an inquisitor’s manual is not only about different events that have very different consequences, it is a different rhetoric. Moreover, concluding that Bernard Gui and Bernard Délicieux share the same template for understanding guilt or innocence seems skewed when we realize that we have Gui’s own words [End Page 132] but know Délicieux through the trial process against him and through Gui’s account of his views. Genre, expectations about voice, and the origin of texts in specific legal proceedings matter more than Sullivan quite admits. Failure to consider sufficiently the differences in social roles, genre and rhetoric, politics, legal procedures, and the nature of organized religious life between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, or even within a given period, means that Sullivan’s readings of individuals, which are often perceptive, come to seem static and repetitive rather than as full- bodied and challenging as...


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pp. 131-133
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