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  • The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors by Karen Sullivan
  • Lola Sharon Davidson
Sullivan, Karen , The Inner Lives of Medieval Inquisitors, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011, cloth; pp. 312; R.R.P. US$45.00; ISBN 9780226781679.

In this fascinating book, Karen Sullivan, whose previous books include The Interrogation of Joan of Arc and Truth and the Heretic: Crises of Knowledge in Medieval French Literature, explores the motivations of selected medieval inquisitors as revealed by their words and actions. She reminds us that, however impersonally institutions may wish to present themselves, they are composed of individuals who possess subjectivity and hence the capacity for moral choice. In focusing on the individual inquisitor rather than on the historical development and circumstances of the Inquisition's operation, Sullivan sees herself as countering the impersonal emphasis of recent historians. As a professor of literature rather than of history, Sullivan is concerned with texts and their epistemic structures. She aspires to represent, in her own words, a New Humanism.

Wazo was an eleventh-century bishop of Liège who believed that every effort should be made to convert heretics to the Church. Aquinas was a thirteenth-century Dominican who believed that every effort should be made [End Page 310] to protect the Church from heretics. If we understand love as an emotion that can be manifested both as charity and as zeal, we can see Wazo motivated by a charitable concern for the salvation of the heretic and Aquinas by a zealous concern for the salvation of the faithful. This contrast, between charity and zeal, structures Sullivan's book.

Sullivan begins with Bernard of Clairvaux's zealous pursuit of Paris masters and Cathar heretics. Bernard's famous rhetoric abounds in images of vicious predatory beasts (heretics, Abelard) attacking innocent, defenceless women (the Church). Bernard's flat refusal to listen to any arguments for the defence provided a model for subsequent inquisitors. Bernard was not technically an inquisitor. Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Dominicans, was. Yet Dominic emerges as profoundly desiring the conversion of heretics. It was this, after all, which led him to found the convent at Prouille and to establish his order of humble preaching brothers to lead the erring back to the Church.

Conrad of Marburg would have a hard time inspiring sympathy in anyone's book. It is difficult not to applaud the overdue murder of this sadistic, homicidal maniac. Conrad regarded heretics as followers of the Devil and thought it far better to burn a hundred faithful Catholics than to allow a single heretic to escape. From a penitential perspective, everyone is guilty and guilt can only be expiated through suffering. In torturing and burning the innocent, Conrad was opening for them the path of martyrdom and hence salvation, an argument that was to provide an enduring justification for the Inquisition.

With Peter of Verona, the focus is on the rhetoric of his martyrdom as it was constructed immediately following his death at the hands of an assassin hired by heretics. Himself from a heretical family, Peter was dedicated to converting his former co-religionists, but it was his passive acceptance of death that made him an exemplar of an innocent Church murderously assaulted by its enemies.

In Bernard Gui, we come closest to the impersonal figure of the ideal inquisitor. A tireless administrator, Gui served for seventeen years as inquisitor of a notoriously heretical region and wrote one of the most important inquisitorial manuals. Often perceived as relatively lenient, given the large number of people he failed to burn, he is nevertheless placed by Sullivan in the zealous camp for his indifference to the heretics' welfare and his preoccupation with the performative, hence educational, nature of the inquisitorial process.

Bernard Délicieux was a Franciscan who incited his countrymen to rise up against the (Dominican) inquisitors who were (unjustly?) accusing them [End Page 311] of heresy, defaming their good name, seizing their goods, and torturing and burning their bodies. Unsurprisingly, he died in a papal prison. Bernard emerges as a dedicated revolutionary, ultimately indifferent to the question of heresy.

Sullivan finishes with Nicholas Eymerich, composer of an inquisitorial manual later expanded by Francis Peña. It...


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pp. 310-312
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